Coronavirus School Closures Will Force Us to Examine Failure of Standards-Based School Accountability

How will students make up the work they are missing now that schools are closed during the coronavirus pandemic?  I am dismayed by some of what I’m reading about people’s strategies for catching kids up once schools open. There are people who actually believe that standards-based, accountability-driven education ought to be happening even while schools are closed and that it ought to be intensified once the schools reopen.

This kind of thinking is silly right now because, as Education Week reports, “Every single state has won permission to skip the statewide standardized tests that are required by federal law…. As of March 31, the U.S. Department of Education had granted waivers to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Bureau of Indian Education.”

Standards-based accountability has defined and organized public schools across America for two decades under the policies of the No Child Left Behind Act, although political support for standards and assessments had been growing for a decade before that.  In a devastating critique of standards-based education published in 2000, Will Standards Save Public Education?, progressive educator, Deborah Meier identifies six assumptions that form the foundation of standards-based school reform:

Goals:  It is possible and desirable to agree on a single definition of what constitutes a well-educated eighteen-year-old and demand that every school be held to the same definition…

Authority:  The task of defining ‘well-educated’ is best left to experts—educators, political officials, leaders from industry and the major academic disciplines—operating within a system of checks and balances…

Assessment:  With a single definition in place, it will be possible to measure and compare individuals and schools across communities—local, state, national, international.  To this end, curricular norms for specific ages and grades should be translated into objective tests that provide a system of uniform scores…. Such scores should permit public comparisons between and among students, schools, districts, and states at any point in time…

Enforcement:  Sanctions, too need to be standardized, that is, removed from local self-interested parties, including parents, teachers, and local boards.  Only a more centralized and distant system can resist the pressures from people closest to the child—the people who have become accustomed to low standards…

Equity:  Expert-designed standards, imposed through tests are the best way to achieve educational equity…

Effective Learning:  Clear-cut expectations, accompanied by automatic rewards and punishments, will produce greater effort, and effort—whether induced by the desire for rewards, fear of punishment, or shame—is the key to learning.” (Will Standards Save Public Education, pp. 7-9.  Emphasis in the original.)

This theory imagines education as a series of ladders in a number of separate disciplines. Students must climb through school by mastering in order each of a series of essential pieces in each discipline’s curriculum.  And if they miss essential rungs of the ladder, the assumption is that they have to stop going up; for a while they must go back until they can prove they have mastered what they missed the first time.

No Child Left Behind and the whole theory of standards-based accountability didn’t work even though a lot of its assumptions continue to dominate federal requirements for state policy.  Lots of students got trapped on the lower rungs of the ladder and never could move up.  Not in any school district did all students master the standards and enable their schools to meet the law’s expectation that aggregate test scores would rise until, by 2014, all American students would be proficient.  In fact, scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have flat lined in recent years.  The National Assessment of Education Progress is an audit test without high stakes, a test that has been administered for decades to a random group of students from public schools across the country.

But despite the widespread failure of standards-based school accountability, today as schools are closed due to the pandemic, advocates of standards-based accountability have begun to express concern about whether schools are able to provide online all of the material to keep children up with the standards.  School teachers who know and care about their students, on the other hand, seem to be deeply focused on ensuring their students’ well-being and on providing some enrichment as the children are out of school.  While teachers and other school personnel are concerned especially for the welfare of students who have been lost and  disconnected, I am beginning to read about standards-based advocates who worry about how schools will ever be able to get everybody back up to standard.

In Monday’s NY Times, Dana Goldstein, Adam Popescu and Nikole Hannah-Jones accurately portray what is being exposed as a gap in access to technology and online participation between school districts serving concentrations of poor children and exclusive schools serving wealthier and better connected students: “Even before the outbreak chronic absenteeism was a problem in many schools especially those with a lot of low-income students.  Many obstacles can prevent children who live in poverty from making it to class: a parent’s broken-down car or a teenager’s need to babysit siblings, for example.  But online learning presents new obstacles, particularly with uneven levels of technology… Cratering attendance in some districts contrasts with reports from several selective or affluent schools where close to 100 percent of students are participating in online learning.  The dramatic split promises to further deepen the typical academic achievement gaps between poor, middle-class and wealthy students.”

While these reporters correctly describe the problem, unfortunately the expert whose opinion they consult about potential solutions is Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. Since the No Child Left Behind era, Casserly and his organization have supported standards-based accountability.  The NY Times reporters quote Casserly’s recommendations for post-pandemic education: “The scale of the challenge, and the work that will need to be done to catch children up academically and socially, is ‘huge,’ said Michael Casserly…. He called the prospect of ‘unfinished learning’ from this time ‘a serious issue that could have implications for years.’… ‘Many skills build on on another,’ Mr. Casserly said. ‘If a child misses out on some key idea, then all of a sudden, additional ideas as they’re introduced just become Greek.  Will we need some kind of beginning of the year diagnostics to try and figure out just where they kids are, how much they have lost?'”

The reporters conclude: “The trend is leading to widespread concern among educators, with talk of a potential need for summer sessions, an early start in the fall, or perhaps having some or even all students repeat a grade once Americans are able to return to classrooms.”

Conceptualizing public education as students climbing ladders of curricular standards without missing a rung is only one way to think about education.  And while such a theory has been drilled into all of us as a sort of “standards-based accountability conventional wisdom,” it isn’t really how most of us learn. If we want to understand something new, and there is some background we need, most of us look to experts or do some research to fill in the holes.  School curriculum is better conceptualized as a spiral instead of a ladder.  Children learn some processes and then as they move on to more advanced material, teachers are taught to spiral back—to review and even provide new and previously missed background. Sometimes people apply what they have learned in one discipline to help them understand or enhance what they have learned in another discipline. Remedial classes worry educators because too frequently they trap students in the most basic material—material skillful teachers can introduce and reinforce as children learn more complex material.  After schools reopen, acceleration will be preferable to remediation.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss features a column by Katherine Schultz, the dean and a professor of education at the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  In this column, Schultz deplores the school administrators pressed by their bosses to visit (virtually) and critique teachers of online classes—in these weeks when school is closed—according to the teachers’ adherence-to prescribed curricular standards: “Most administrators want to support teachers and families in any way they can. However, as time passes, they are feeling pressures from state departments of education, school committees, superintendents and even families to hold on to the same standards as before, to ensure that students don’t lose too much learning during this indefinite period of social distancing, and to make sure that teachers are covering the same content as before… The bottom line is that administrators are collecting these data not to support teachers, but because of contemporary American education’s unceasing focus on accountability.”

Schultz suggests a very different strategy: “While the coronavirus is absolutely a crisis, it is also an opportunity to do things differently.  What if principals consulted teachers about how to take stock of their teaching.  Rather than scheduling virtual walkthroughs or counting how many assignments students complete, what if principals set up individual conferences with teachers to ascertain their needs and support them in addressing the trauma of this moment for their students and themselves?  What if a teacher-led committee worked with administrators to design teaching and learning goals?”

Why Do Public School Supporters Struggle to Create and Sustain a Strong Unified Message?

Bob Braun, the retired education reporter for the Newark Star Ledger and an avid blogger in Newark, NJ, has articulated a big worry.  Commenting on a recent conference of public education supporters and advocates in New Jersey, he writes:

“A few days after the United States Senate confirmed the appointment of an avowed enemy of public education—Betsy DeVos—to be the nation’s education secretary, advocates of public education held a conference in New Brunswick to search for some reason for hope… What was not inspirational, however, was the response of the New Jersey advocates—good, right-thinking people all, with whom I have little argument. Except one—why can’t they be as aggressive in promoting a system of free, inclusive, integrated, fully-funded independent public schools as Trump is in destroying it?”

Braun continues: “Don’t forget these were the activists, the advocates, the good guys, at the conference. But they argued against tinkering with the school aid formula, wrung their hands about seeking an end to charter schools completely, held out little hope about seriously integrating the public schools of the state…. (P)ublic education in New Jersey—and throughout the nation—is in serious trouble. It is underfunded. It is racially segregated. It is in danger of being swept away by charters. Its employees are demoralized. It has been targeted for destruction by a national administration unlike any other in the history of the republic. In short, without aggressive action to restore the promise of public education, it will continue to lose support among those who will turn to nuts like Trump and DeVos to find answers in alternatives like vouchers, private schooling, and home-schooling.”

Taking a more positive approach in a recent NY Times commentary, Nikole Hannah-Jones expresses the very same concern. “Even when they (public schools) fail, the guiding values of public institutions, of the public good, are equality and justice. The guiding value of the free market is profit. The for-profit charters DeVos helped expand have not provided an appreciably better education for Detroit’s children, yet they’ve continued to expand because they are profitable—or as Tom Watkins, Michigan’s former education superintendent, said, ‘In a number of cases, people are making a boatload of money, and the kids aren’t getting educated.’ ”

Hannah-Jones continues: “Democracy works only if those who have the money or the power to opt out of public things choose instead to opt in for the common good. It’s called a social contract, and we’ve seen what happens in cities where the social contract is broken: white residents vote against tax hikes to fund schools where they don’t send their children, parks go untended and libraries shutter because affluent people feel no obligation to help pay for things they don’t need… If there is hope for a renewal of our belief in public institutions and a common good, it may reside in the public schools. Nine of 10 children attend one, a rate of participation that few, if any, other public bodies can claim, and schools, as segregated as many are, remain one of the few institutions where Americans of different classes and races mix. The vast multiracial, socioeconomically diverse defense of public schools that DeVos set off may show that we have not yet given up on the ideals of the public—and on ourselves.”

Both writers hope supporters of public education will be able to sustain the surprising and fascinating outcry that emerged around the DeVos confirmation process in the Senate.  For the first time in years we heard Senators and their constituents alike speaking about the value of the public schools for their children and their communities.  What will it take to keep that message alive?

I believe there are several reasons public school supporters struggle to sustain a strong voice in support of public education. First there is all the money being spent to undermine public education. As long as the law permits unlimited political contributions from individuals, PACs, Super PACs, Dark Money Groups, and corporate-driven lobbying organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, it will be difficult for the folks who use the public schools—the parents of 90 percent of our children and their allies—to be heard above the din. Public education policy for decades now has been driven by the One Percent, even though public schools serve the children of the 99 Percent. That is why Bob Braun begs public school advocates to discipline themselves to one well-framed narrative that can be relentlessly driven home.

Second there is the problem created by the privatizers’ clever messaging. The ideologues who have framed the privatizers’ message know how to touch the heart by evoking the beloved story of the  American Dream—the story that success is individual, accomplished through personal determination, grit, and patience in a tough and competitive world. This narrative teaches that the starting blocks of the race are arranged to ensure we start at the same place. Of course we may acknowledge that some groups of people and some individuals have it harder than others.  So… we adjust our thinking—celebrating the outliers who have surmounted the obstacles and succeeded anyway. We create a voucher or a charter school for the childhood strivers who seem to have earned it. Some of us are even willing to articulate this strategy honestly: “If we can’t find a way to help all children, at least we should help the ones who most deserve  to escape.” But when Betsy DeVos, Mike Pence and others in the Trump administration suggest we can improve our provision of education by allowing a relative few children to escape into the lifeboat of vouchers or  charter schools, they are presenting a plan that would further isolate the children who are expensive to educate—homeless children, immigrant children learning English, autistic and blind children—in the public schools required by law to serve them.

The problem here is ethical; it is not really a matter of public policy. Do we believe in individualism and competition above all, or are we committed to a philosophy of social responsibility that values the worth and seeks to protect the rights of each person. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has framed these contrasting beliefs in a simple formulation: “There are those who 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.”

A third problem is in the realm of public policy, but it is an issue nobody is willing to name. Extreme poverty and inequality are undermining children’s opportunities. Public school supporters will sometimes acknowledge the issue of poverty, but the varied strategies by which they dance around this huge problem undermine their capacity to frame a strong central narrative of support for public education. Opponents of public schools, of course, determinedly prescribe privatization as the cure, without a shred of evidence that privatizing schools helps poor children.

Years’ of research confirm conclusively that, in the aggregate, test scores reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods far more than they reflect the quality of schools and teachers. Concentrated family poverty—in a nation that is increasingly unequal and residentially segregated by income—has been shown in every way to be the problem. Poverty. Rising inequality. Rigidifying income segregation of families overlaid on racial segregation.

On top of our failure to name and address family poverty, our school accountability system demands quick school turnarounds. The federal testing and accountability agenda—created by No Child Left Behind back in 2002 and still with us in a slightly milder form in the Every Student Succeeds Act—makes it even harder for our society to acknowledge the role of poverty in school achievement.  The federal government judges our schools by the huge data sets generated by annual standardized testing of all children, and federal law punishes (and insists that states punish) the schools and the school teachers and children in the very poorest schools where test scores don’t quickly rise. Instead of investing in and supporting the schools in our poorest communities, we close the the schools or replace their principals or their teachers. Or we privatize the schools when charter and voucher supporters like Trump or Pence or DeVos tell us that will solve the problem.

For public education supporters, one big challenge is political: to create the will for society to address honestly the well documented educational implications of extreme poverty. A second challenge is a matter of public ethics: to replace the far-right’s American Dream narrative (based on competition and escapes for the most able children) with a compelling narrative of social responsibility for lifting up every child.

A system of public schools, while never perfect, is the best way to meet the needs of all of our children and, through democratic governance, to protect their rights.