Valerie Strauss Wonders: Will Donald Trump Destroy U.S. Public Education?

Nobody knows, of course, exactly what Donald Trump’s administration will mean for public schools, but for a balanced and insightful analysis, I urge you to read Valerie Strauss’s fine column from the Washington Post, Will Donald Trump Destroy U.S. Public Education?  She begins:

“There’s a reason that people who care about public education in the United States are mightily worried about President-elect Donald Trump.  There are, actually, a number of reasons—all of which lead to this question: Will Trump’s administration destroy U.S. public education?  The short answer is that he can’t all by himself destroy America’s most important civic institution, at least not without help from Congress as well as state and local legislators and governors.”

Strauss believes that Congressional action last December demonstrated a firm rejection of federal overreach by Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education: “(T)here is no appetite in the country for intense federal involvement in local education, which occurred during the Obama administration at such an unprecedented level that Congress rewrote the No Child Left Behind law—eight years late—so that a great deal of education policymaking power could be sent back to the states.”

What about Trump’s idea of a $20 billion block grant to help states privatize education?  That is a real worry, says Strauss.

Strauss explains that today’s alarm among supporters of public education has been fed by what people have been watching now for fifteen years as policies of the federal government have in many ways begun to undermine the very concept of public schools: “That many people are worried that Trump could deliver a fatal blow to public schools speaks not only to his views and those of the people around him, but also to the past 15 years of school reform and the consequences of the policies promoted by… Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and Obama’s Race to the Top initiative and waivers to NCLB. Corporate school reform has led to standardized test-based ‘accountability’ as well as school ‘choice’ programs—pushed in part by billionaires who have made school reform a pet project….”

According to Strauss, “Not all choice supporters agree on every topic—Obama and many Democrats oppose vouchers but support charters, while Republicans are big supporters of voucher and voucherlike programs—but the trajectory of increased privatization in recent years is undeniable under both Republican and Democratic administrations.  The growth of charter schools has drained many traditional public school systems where charters are located, and the charter sectors in a number of states—especially the for-profit charters—are severely troubled because of lack of sufficient oversight.”

What about opinion across the country? Strauss provides examples from last week’s election showing that voters’ views about market-based school choice are not in line with the educational philosophy of the person these same voters chose as our new president: “The irony of all this is that just as Trump is selecting an education secretary from a pool of pro-privatization candidates, voters in a number of states just expressed deep misgivings about unrestricted growth of school choice.”

Strauss cannot provide a firm answer to her question: Will Donald Trump destroy U.S. public education?  But her solid analysis of where we stand right now is lucid and very helpful.

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Arne Duncan, Social Entrepreneur, Led U.S. Dept. of Education on Long Detour

Even though Arne Duncan has left Washington and John King now heads up the U.S. Department of Education, I have continued to puzzle about exactly what went haywire on a deep level during the seven years of Duncan’s tenure. When I learned last week that Duncan has taken a new job—opening a Chicago office for the Emerson Collective, Laurene Powell Jobs’ philanthropy—and that Duncan will, according to Emma Brown of the Washington Post, be supporting “entrepreneurs who can provide jobs in neglected neighborhoods and… (creating and expanding) training programs that equip young people with skills they need to get those jobs,” I began to think about Duncan in the context of social entrepreneurship.

I know the idea of social entrepreneurship is trendy right now, but because I was unable precisely to define it for myself, I went to the library and checked out David Bornstein’s book, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas.  After all, a blurb on the cover from a NY Times review says it is “A bible in the field.”  Social entrepreneurship is best known in a global sense—the Grameen Bank and all those NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are registered with the United Nations.  Bornstein writes, “Historically, these organizations have been defined in the negative—as nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations.  Today they are understood to comprise a new ‘sector,’ variously dubbed the ‘independent sector,’ ‘nonprofit sector,’ ‘third sector,’ or, the term favored in this book, the ‘citizen sector.’ (pp 4-5)

Bornstein explains that social entrepreneurs bring characteristics of business and competition into the way “the ‘noncommercial’ or ‘social’ business of society is structured. Around the world, this work has been dominated by centralized decision making and top-down, usually governmental, institutions. It has been managed a little like a planned economy.”  But, continues Bornstein, governments are often not ideal: “As in business, advancing new ideas and creating new models to attack problems require an entrepreneur’s single-minded vision and fierce determination, and lots of energy and time.  It is the kind of work that flourishes to the extent that society successfully harnesses and nurtures the wide-ranging talents of millions of citizens… One of the essential differences between a planned and a market economy is the role of competition.  In the past, citizen sector organizations have been insulated from the forces of head-to-head competition.  However, as the sector continues to attract talent, competition is likely to intensify—particularly as social entrepreneurs seek to ‘capture’ the benefits of their innovations and as funders, journalists, and citizens come to demand better performance.”(p. 276)

Finally, Bornstein adds, “Historically, religious organizations and wealthy patrons were responsible for the delivery of social goods.  However, the rapid economic growth of the past two centuries allowed governments to tax private wealth to finance public goods—canals, schools, mental institutions, rural electrification, and the like.  With the rise of the welfare state in the twentieth century, the fulfillment of social needs came to be seen not only as the government’s responsibility, but one of its primary operational functions.  Government, however, remained insulated from the pressures and incentives that forced businesses to continually improve their products.” (p. 274)

We can see that, as Bornstein defines it, social entrepreneurship imports the values of business into what he calls the social sector.  He castigates government as top-down and abjures centralized decision making and the engine of a planned economy.  A society of social entrepreneurs will harness the wide-ranging talents and fierce determination of millions of citizens, create new models, inspire new ideas, vision and innovation, and hone it all through competition.

Because, as Bornstein reminds us, historically, religious organizations took care of many social needs (including education, the area with which Arne Duncan was most involved as U.S. Secretary of Education), let’s consider a respected religious leader’s understanding of the roles of charity and government for providing such services—the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin of New York’s Riverside Church: “Given human goodness, voluntary contributions are possible, but given human sinfulness, legislation is indispensable. Charity, yes always; but never as a substitute for justice.” (Credo, p. 56)

While Bornstein emphasizes the very American value of the power of the individual, government is the ultimate institutional expression of the collective in a democratic society and the essential institution for protecting the rights of citizens.  As the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan presided over a federal department historically designed to distribute Title I funds for supplying at least a measure of equity in our nation’s poorest schools, to regulate and fund services for children with special needs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to provide support for the nation’s school teachers through Title II, to oversee the protection of students’ civil rights, and a host of other functions.  Yet Duncan’s primary contribution was spawning a massive experiment in social entrepreneurship.  One example was the rapid expansion of charter schools launched by social entrepreneurs.  A serious problem with charters as a solution to America’s primary education challenges is the enormous mismatch in scale. Public schools in the United States serve 50 million children and adolescents, but, according to the National Charter School Resource Center, “As of the start of the 2015-16 school year, there are 6,723 charter schools in the United States.”

And what about diverting millions of dollars to Teach for America, a relatively small experiment in social entrepreneurship? Teach for America is supplying  8,800 active teachers in schools across 35 states this year, compared to 3.5 million teachers serving the nation’s public schools. According to a recent post by Diane Ravitch, “The U.S. Department of Education… (gave) Teach for America hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants since 2008.  Government funding comprised 38% of TFA’s budget in 2015, totaling $69.7 million that year alone….”   What if that money had been spent on a new federal program to provide incentives to attract the most experienced teachers to work in the public schools of cities like Gary and Flint?  What if the money had been spent instead on reducing class size by hiring additional public school teachers in Newark and Oakland?  In his book on social entrepreneurship, Bornstein describes the goal of harnessing and nurturing the wide-ranging talents of millions of citizens.  How better to do this in the United States than by supporting the efforts of our nation’s 3.5 million credentialed public school teachers?

What about government’s regulatory function?  Only government has the capacity to protect the investment of taxpayers.  And surely the federal government is responsible for ensuring that public schools and the specific programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education serve the needs and protect the rights of the nation’s children.  Here are just two examples of the regulatory failure that was a hallmark of Duncan’s Department of Education.

  • In June of 2015,  the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools cited a 2012 audit by the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG)  that “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.  The OIG’s 2012 audit discovered that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, and the State Education Agencies, which disburse the majority of the federal funds, are ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight.”  The Alliance’s report explains that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement did not maintain records of the charter schools funded through grants to states and lacked internal controls and adequate training in fiscal and program monitoring.
  • In the fall of 2015, the federal Charter Schools Program awarded a grant of $71 million to Ohio to expand charter schools. The grant was put on hold only after Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and newspapers across the state demanded that the U.S. Department of Education insist that Ohio do a better job of regulating its charter schools before the U.S. Department of Education spends millions of dollars expanding what has been a mismanaged and unregulated program.

What about the Department’s failure to invest in expanding the essential, but chronically underfunded, public school programs that are the very reason for the existence of the U.S. Department of Education—Duncan’s failure to run government itself with vision? Under Arne Duncan, funds were diverted from the Title I formula to the competitive Race to the Top, School Improvement Grant, and Innovation Grant programs.  While Title I awards funds by formula for educational enrichment in schools that serve a large number and high concentration of very poor children, Duncan’s competitive grant programs diverted money to states with winning grant proposals, reducing funds available to schools serving poor children in states that lost the competition. And too often, because one-time grants cannot be used to hire long-term teachers, the funds were spent on consultants.

It is surely a very good thing for Arne Duncan to take a job as a social entrepreneur with Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective. Emma Brown reports that he “hopes that creating new pathways to jobs will help stem the violence that has wracked Chicago, especially its impoverished neighborhoods on the West and South sides.”  He is reported to have told the Washington Post, “The thesis is, if we can help young men and women get real skills that will lead to real jobs and pay them to gain those skills, then you give them a reason to not sell drugs and not get caught in the violence.”  I wish him well in this endeavor as he returns to Chicago.

The problem is that during his stint as U.S. Secretary of Education, Duncan thought about policy as though he were a social entrepreneur instead of using the power at his disposal to ensure that government could fulfill its most basic obligations. There is a role in our society for social entrepreneurs.  There is also a desperate need for well functioning government.  In Fire in the Ashes, a retrospective book about his years’ writing about children and schools, Jonathan Kozol affirms the need for charity at the same time he distinguishes the purpose of charity from the role of government: “Charity has never been a substitute, not in any amplitude, for systematic justice and systematic equity in public education… The public schools themselves in neighborhoods of widespread destitution ought to have the rich resources, small classes, and well-prepared and well-rewarded teachers that would enable us to give every child the feast of learning…. Charity and chance… are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.” (p. 304)

Congress Is Likely to Reauthorize Education Law. How Will We Undo Arne Duncan’s Damage?

Seven years ago today—on November 30, 2008—I picked up my Sunday Cleveland Plain Dealer to see a story above the fold on the front page, a story whose headline screamed: Good Teachers Are Key to Student Achievement, but Bad Ones Are Hard to Fire.  The story itself purported to be a news analysis, part of a series, “a Plain Dealer project reporting on the state of teaching.”  But then there was the photo, of a truck parked in front of the National Education Association’s building in Washington, D.C.  It was one of those trucks that pulls nothing but a sign, and this one—with a picture of a wormy apple—said: “Vote for the Worst Unionized Teachers Who Can’t Be Fired.”  Whatever the content of the article, the message that Sunday morning came from the sign the truck was pulling along—“worst unionized teachers who can’t be fired.”

Then a few days later came David Brooks’ NY Times column about newly elected President Barack Obama’s pending decision about a Secretary of Education.  The new president had appointed Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor of education to head his education transition team, but there was enormous pressure from New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg for Obama to choose Joel Klein, who was at that time serving as Bloomberg’s appointed chancellor of the NYC public schools.

On December 5, 2008, Brooks, a school “reformer” through and through, framed what had already become a polarized battle—“reformers” vs. teachers’ unions: “On the one hand, there are the reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who support merit pay for good teachers, charter schools and tough accountability standards.  On the other hand, there are the teachers’ unions and the members of the Ed School establishment, who emphasize greater funding, smaller class sizes and superficial reforms.  During the presidential race, Barack Obama straddled the two camps.  One campaign adviser, John Schnur, represented the reform view in the internal discussions.  Another, Linda Darling-Hammond, was more likely to represent the establishment view… Each camp was secretly convinced that at the end of the day, Obama would come down on their side… Obama never had to pick a side.  That is, until now.  There is only one education secretary, and if you hang around these circles, the air is thick with speculation…   (O)ne morning a few weeks ago, I got a flurry of phone calls from reform leaders nervous that Obama was about to side against them…  (T)he union lobbying efforts are relentless and in the past week prospects for a reforming education secretary are thought to have dimmed… The candidates before Obama apparently include: Joel Klein, the highly successful New York chancellor who has, nonetheless, been blackballed by the unions; Arne Duncan, the reforming Chicago head who is less controversial; Darling-Hammond herself; and some former governor to be named later, with Darling-Hammond as the deputy secretary.  In some sense the final option would be the biggest setback for reform.  Education is one of those areas where implementation and the details are more important than grand pronouncements.  If the deputies and assistants in the secretary’s office are not true reformers, nothing will get done.  The stakes are huge.  For the first time in decades, there is real momentum for reform.”

The wave of articles that surfaced that week was noticeable, and in my office in the United Church of Christ’s justice ministries, I felt compelled to trade turns with someone else in the rota of staff who wrote the little Witness for Justice columns each week.  On December 15 that year, I described my fear: “(A)s I write, there is an attack on public school teachers by advocates who seek a Secretary who would base pay on test scores, deny tenure, intensify the test-and-punish mechanisms of No Child Left Behind, and rely far more on charter schools.  These critics deride public school improvement as mere ‘weak, status-quo’ reform.”

Fast-forward seven years, and here we are at the end of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s tenure. Duncan’s policies have been so widely disliked in their implementation that there seems to be bipartisan Congressional consensus, unheard of these days, to undo the damage everybody has come to believe happened due to Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama and Duncan’s Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants and No Child Left Behind waivers.  Duncan has resigned as of the end of 2015, and will be replaced by John King, an acting secretary as a placeholder for the last year of President Obama’s term.

And if Congress acts this week finally (after several previous tries) to reauthorize the federal education law called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we may find ourselves without the version we’ve been living with now for 14 years—No Child Left Behind.

While some of the “punishments” promoted by Duncan for so-called failing schools were originally outlined in 2002 in the original test-and-punish No Child Left Behind Act, Duncan and his Department were the ones who worked out how the “turnaround” plans that fired teachers and principals and closed or charterized schools would be imposed on our nation’s poorest schools.  While the problems in the economy were evident by December of 2008, nobody could have imagined the competitive grant programs that Duncan’s Department of Education created as part of the 2009 federal stimulus package.  These were the programs by which states applied for federal grants and eventually waivers from No Child Left Behind’s “Adequate Yearly Progress” system that had begun to attach the label of “failing” to far too many public schools in every state.  Duncan’s Department developed hoops states had to jump through even to apply for these federal grants—remove any state statutory caps on the number of charter schools that can be launched in any one year—intensify Value Added, econometric evaluations of school teachers based on their students’ test scores—embrace college-and-career-ready standards for all students.  Because the Department of Education cannot by federal law prescribe curricula, the Department merely incentivized states to adopt “more rigorous” standards, which in practical terms meant joining one of the two Common Core Curriculum consortia—PARCC or Smarter Balanced.

David Brooks’ words from December 2008 were prophetic: “Education is one of those areas where implementation and the details are more important than grand pronouncements.  If the deputies and assistants in the secretary’s office are not true reformers, nothing will get done.”  As Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan was never one for grand pronouncements, but his Department’s actions have utterly transformed education policy across the fifty states.  State legislatures changed state laws to try for Race to the Top grants and to secure their waivers.  States removed caps on the launch of new charters, and then vastly expanded the number of charters with help from billions of dollars in federal Charter School Program grants. But nobody in the federal government imposed any oversight and only in the most careful states has there been regulation to protect children and taxpayers from unscrupulous profiteers.  Schools have been closed as a “turnaround” policy in many cities as children have been forced to relocate via public transportation in many cases, with some crossing dangerous gang boundaries. The American Statistical Association and now the American Educational Research Association have condemned the use of Value Added Measure algorithms for evaluating teachers because the formulas are unstable and fail to measure many of the qualities of a good teacher.

There is wide agreement that the bipartisan Congressional consensus that seems to have been reached on a plan to reauthorize No Child Left Behind is primarily a repudiation of Arne Duncan’s tenure and policies.

In a profound article, School Reform Fails the Test: How Can Our Schools Get Better When We’ve Made Our Teachers the Problem and Not the Solution?, Mike Rose the writer and UCLA professor of education wonders: “What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students?  Imagine, then, what could happen if the astronomical amount of money and human resources that went into the past decade’s vast machinery of high states testing… had gone into a high-quality, widely distributed program of professional development.  I don’t mean the quick-hit, half-day events that teachers endure, but serious, extended engagement of the kind offered by the National Science Foundation and the National Writing Project…. Imagine as well that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success.  All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have a direct link to local health and service agencies… Extra tutoring would be provided… Schools would be funded to stay open late, providing academic and recreational activities for their students.”

Assuming that in the next week or so both houses of Congress affirm the agreement, passed the week before Thanksgiving by a Senate/House conference committee, to reauthorize the federal education law, the question will be where do we go from here?  Mike Rose’s vision describes where many of us would like education policy to go.  But Arne Duncan has ensured that Congress cannot just undo the explosive growth of charters or quickly take back the unworkable schemes for evaluating teachers that state legislatures have passed to qualify for federal No Child Left Behind waivers (even though the waivers themselves will be rendered unnecessary once No Child Left Behind is gone), or help states improve their curricula and avoid the ugly politics around the Common Core for which they have already signed up and invested millions of dollars. These policies have now been enacted into the laws of the fifty states. Amending or eliminating these policies will have to be accomplished one state legislature at a time and will require concerted state-by-state advocacy.

Cliches come to mind. The cats are out of the bag. Pandora’s box has been opened. It’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

More on Arne Duncan’s Legacy

In her new book about Newark, New Jersey and the school reform paid for by Facebook CEO-philanthropist Mark Zuckerberg, Dale Russakoff captures the language of what we can call “corporatized” school reform.  Newark school reform was paid for by Zuckerberg’s $100 million grant, but the style couldn’t have happened without the movement promoted by Arne Duncan through I3 “innovation” money, School Improvement Grants and Race to the Top grants—a movement that has filled the public schools with consultants, many of them from the business schools and Eli Broad’s academy for superintendents, not from schools of education.  (This blog also posted an earlier piece on Arne Duncan’s legacy.)

Here is how Russakoff describes Cami Anderson’s “corporate reform,” leadership training sessions for school principals: “‘Every good and high performing coach and CEO has a game plan—a lean, focused, clear plan,’ she said… As part of this process, she said, principals should articulate something she called a BHAG (‘Bee-hag’). When no one appeared familiar with the term, Anderson explained that it stood for a Big Hairy Audacious Goal.  This, she said, was a clear and seemingly impossible objective around which everyone in a school could organize to achieve previously unthinkable progress. She credited the term to best-selling business author Jim Collins,whose many analyses of successful companies were treated as scripture across the school reform movement.  Several staff members said they felt that the district had been overtaken by a cadre of technocrats, most of them white and commuting from New York, whose vocabulary was rich in education reform buzz-words.  Besides ‘transformational’—never incremental—change, they also made it a priority to ‘move the needle,’ which meant to achieve measurable progress, usually in test scores.  To do this, they had to ‘pull the right levers,’ like allowing principals to choose their teachers.  They would ‘drill deep’ or ‘take a deep dive’ into complex issues.  They divided strategies into ‘buckets,’ such as the accountability bucket, the teacher-evaluation bucket.  They took liberties with parts of speech, changing nouns into verbs—as in, ‘Bucket those two ideas together’… Data had to be ‘robust.’  They worried about ‘optics,’ or how things would look to the public… Anderson shared the reform movement’s faith in business-style management and accountability.  The goal, she said, was to mobilize the bureaucracy around high performance rather than mere compliance with rules.” (The Prize, pp. 124-125)

The problem, of course, when it comes to the federal Department of Education is that one of the “levers” federal officials can push is compliance with rules, but Duncan’s department didn’t emphasize that, especially in the Office of Innovation and Improvement. Thanks to the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, we know that the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General blasted the Department for failure to oversee more than $3 billion in federal grants intended to start charter schools and expand the charter school sector.  And we discovered last week that the Department of Education, in its most recent batch of charter grants, just awarded $71 million to Ohio, the largest grant to any state, to expand charter schools, even though Ohio’s legislature was locked at the time in a well publicized struggle to pass what most people in the state—Republican and Democrat—have deemed minimal and long-needed charter regulation.

Sherman Dorn and Amanda Potterton have described Arne Duncan’s legacy as shaped by the “growing influence of a network of private actors on public education.”  “These reformers have largely consisted of private actors, including leaders of education nonprofits, charter school founders, and other nontraditional school leaders whose essential resources for reform come from the private wealth of major foundations….”

Reminding us of the power of Jim Shelton, brought straight to the Department of Education from the Gates Foundation to run the Department’s Office of Innovation, and Joanne Weiss, the COO at the NewSchools Venture Fund who became Arne Duncan’s chief of staff, Dorn and Potterton direct us to Sarah Reckhow’s book, Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics, for a definition of the “Boardroom Progressives” who were welcomed to Arne Duncan’s policy table:  “The policy agenda of the Boardroom Progressives has largely been drawn from the two dominant streams of policy ideas in education reform since the 1990s: accountability and markets… Boardroom Progressives are impatient with public bureaucracies and have focused their efforts on creating a broad network of private and nonprofit alternatives for developing and running schools… The Boardroom Progressive movement involves a diverse set of actors—charter school leaders, urban superintendents, and nonprofit founders. Yet private wealth has been an essential resource for supporting many of these leaders and their initiatives…. including charter schools, advocacy organizations, education consulting and research organizations, and countless nonprofits.” (pp.2-3)

Dorn and Potterton define Duncan’s pivotal policy as Race to the Top: “Members of Duncan’s reform network were partly the genesis and potentially the beneficiary of a grant program, Race to the Top, that required applicants to expand opportunities for charter school creation, eliminate firewalls between student test scores and teacher evaluation, and commit to so-called ‘college and career-ready standards.’… Once Duncan’s department announced the Race to the Top program, the (Department of Education staff’s) network connections were critical to promoting it… (T)he network was critical to directly or indirectly building state capacity in the Race to the Top years… The Gates Foundation provided US$250.000 worth of application consulting services to states that agreed with the foundation’s eight-point set of criteria.”  Duncan “acted as a ‘gatekeeper’ by bringing a private network to the fore in education, and further opening public education to privatized influences.”

Aaron Pallas, the Teachers College education sociologist, comments on the significance of Race to the Top as the centerpiece of Arne Duncan’s legacy:  “Arne Duncan’s signature initiative was Race to the Top arguably the most effective piece of federal education policy in the nation’s history in its success at changing the behavior of the 50 states that were its target. Effective policy is not necessarily good policy, however, because good policy depends on a well-developed and plausible theory of action.  The competitive priorities in Race to the Top—improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on student performance, the adoption of common… curricular standards, turning around failing schools, and creating a climate for the expansion of high-quality charter schools—were based on a wish and a prayer, not a body of evidence demonstrating that these strategies could fundamentally alter the equity and excellence equations in American education.”

Pallas concludes: “Viewing the education policy landscape from 30,000 feet—a Secretary’s-eye view—may suggest that the implementation of Race to the Top and related reforms has gone smoothly.  The problem is compounded when the administration seems not to hear opposing views…. The view is quite different closer to the ground.  From five feet, the uneven and thoughtless implementation of statewide teacher evaluation systems and Common Core standards in many states has—however unintentionally—undermined the legitimacy of our public school system.”

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, credits Duncan’s policies with widespread scapegoating of teachers and demonizing colleges of education:  “Teachers have been at ground zero of Secretary Duncan’s education reform movement, and the teaching profession has suffered extraordinary criticism, curtailment and even contempt from Duncan and some of his acolytes in school reform.  Now there is evidence of teacher shortages all across the nation.  Is it any wonder?… At the same time, the administration has proposed an extraordinary array of complicated rules for teacher education programs that would have the effect of further limiting enrollment in schools of education while imposing significant new costs for data tracking.  Ironically, for an administration that claims to care about teacher quality, the reform movement has also encouraged abandoning formal graduate education for teacher licensure in favor of short-term job training by storefront providers. Go figure.”

Diane Ravitch pulls together several of these strands of criticism in her reflection on Arne Duncan’s legacy: “This era has not been good for students; nearly a quarter live in poverty, and fully 51% live in low-income families. This era has not been good for teachers, who feel disrespected and demeaned by governors, legislatures, and the U.S. Department of Education.  This era has not been good for parents, who see their local public schools lose resources to charter schools and see their children subjected to endless, intensive testing.  It will take years to recover from the damage that Arne Duncan’s policies have inflicted on public education.”

Here is an alternative way to think and talk about education, from a professor in one of those graduate schools of education—Mike Rose at UCLA.  His language is so old-fashioned, so real, and so very refreshing: “What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students?”

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

Back in 2009, I happened to be at a meeting at the U.S. Department of Education, where Arne Duncan’s newly appointed staff were outlining the direction the Obama administration would pursue in education.  Jim Shelton caught my attention that day.  Shelton spoke what sounded to me like a foreign language, and he proposed to take the department someplace it had never been.  He was the Department’s new head of the Office of Innovation and Improvement, and he led the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) as well as Promise Neighborhoods, the program that said it would replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone.  He led work on evaluating teachers and building school choice and learning technology.  And he rose during his tenure, that ended with his retirement at the end of 2014, to become deputy secretary, second in command to Arne Duncan.

I started thinking about Jim Shelton last week because I saw a new piece written by Shelton himself and published by EdSurge, a letter in which Shelton announces his plans for the next phase of his career: “I will be joining the leadership team at 2U, Inc. as its first Chief Impact Officer.  For those not in the ed tech space, 2U is a rapidly growing provider of technology and technology-enabled services that enables leading nonprofit colleges and universities to deliver their high-quality degree programs online.  Some of its partner programs include UNC’s MBA, USC’s master’s of social work, and Georgetown’s master’s of nursing programs.”  Training social workers and nurses online?  Shelton continues: “At the outset, some would have claimed 2U’s business model unlikely to succeed at all let alone produce one of the few ‘unicorns’ in the education arena.  However… the better leaders recognize that moving into this space requires not only significant technological capability but also agility, ongoing resources and experienced change management capacity… 2U is building the culture and core capabilities of a next generation learning company with emphasis on results, data, transparency, student and faculty experience and value to student and employer.  The underlying systems and processes are robust and have the potential to provide a sustained advantage.”

Shelton is one of the people who brought the language and ideas of business and technocracy to Arne Duncan’s Department of Education along with the methodology of philanthropy as a replacement for the style and substance of government.

According to a Department of Education biography, Shelton majored in computer science at Morehouse and subsequently earned two master’s degrees from Stanford in business administration and education.  He developed computer systems, then joined McKinsey & Company in 1993 before moving to the education conglomerate founded by Mike and Lowell Milken, Knowledge Universe, Inc.  In 1999, he founded LearnNow, later acquired by Edison Schools and then worked for Joel Klein to develop and launch his school strategy in New York City that closed public schools and opened charter schools and based it all on test score data.  He became a partner for the NewSchools Venture Fund and then in 2003 joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the program director for its education division.  To be hired at the U.S. Department of Education, Shelton had to be waivered from a federal law that bans people from moving into governmental positions in which they will work directly with their former employer.  In Shelton’s case, the danger was not that he would shower his former employer with federal government largesse, but instead that he would import the priorities and practices of his former employer directly into government. At the time, in a blog called Schools Matter, Kenneth Libby worried about that: “Considering the Gates Foundation does not have a profit motive and is fantastically wealthy, it is unlikely a former Gates Foundation employee would use their new position to funnel money to their former employer.  They could, however, show favoritism towards projects supported (either currently or in the future) by the Gates Foundation, a kind of meld that does not necessarily serve the best interest of the public. This is particularly relevant because the Office of Innovation and Improvement directs competitive grants instead of simply formula-driven funding streams.”

And education policy copying the foundation model is exactly what Duncan’s Department of Education began creating—with guidance not only from Jim Shelton but also from Margot Rogers, Duncan’s chief of staff, who also received a waiver to come directly from the Gates Foundation.  Joanne Weiss who later replaced Rogers came directly from the NewSchools Venture Fund.  The style and substance of the policies that came with these new “thought leaders” at the Department of Education became the huge grant competitions—Race to the Top and i3, competitions for money that had once been part of the Title I formula that awarded funds to school districts according to the number of children in poverty and additionally their concentration in particular districts due to segregation by race and class.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch describes the symbiosis that developed between Arne Duncan’s Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “Now that the ideas promoted by the venture philanthropies were securely lodged at the highest levels of the Obama administration, policymakers and journalists listened carefully to Bill Gates.  In a 2009 interview with Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, Gates signaled a new direction for his foundation.  Hiatt wrote, ‘You might call it the Obama-Duncan-Gates-Rhee philosophy of education reform.’  It was also the Bloomberg-Klein-Broad philosophy of education reform.  Gates said that his foundation intended to help successful charter organizations such as KIPP replicate as quickly as possible and to invest in improving teacher effectiveness.  Gates asserted that there was no connection between teacher quality and such things as experience, certification, advanced degrees, or even deep knowledge of one’s subject matter  (at least below tenth grade).” (p 219)

Innovation at the U.S. Department of Education under Jim Shelton also came to promote the methodology of philanthropy by which the government would grant funds competitively to states, school districts and nonprofit organizations to help them address educational problems.  In 2009, in a piece called The Innovation Administration, Dana Goldstein explained that Obama’s federal stimulus package designed to address the economic collapse in 2008 was a model of social innovation: “At its core, social innovation refers to the belief that for-profit institutions should be the model for nonprofit ones, and that nonprofits, in turn, can be more effective protectors of social welfare than government.”  Goldstein had reservations at the time: “But it’s entirely possible that social innovation is little more than a federal foray into a B-school fad that may be, during an economic crisis, insufficient to addressing the scale of the social problems facing the American public.”

The programs that made up the federal stimulus package were competitive: Race to the Top created losing states as well as winning states by redirecting funds that had been previously distributed across all fifty state school systems to the select states that provided the best applications.  The i3 program was a competition for nonprofit organizations that promised to partner with schools to promote what were thought to be promising innovations; as a competition, it also created losers as well as winners.  And from the very beginning, these programs involved the foundations.

Joanne Barkan describes what happened with the launch of Race to the Top: “The ‘stimulus package’ included $4.3 billion for education, but for the first time, states didn’t simply receive grants; they had to compete for RTTT money with a comprehensive, statewide proposal for education reform.  It is no exaggeration to say that the criteria for selecting the winners came straight from the foundation’s playbook…. To start, any state that didn’t allow student test scores to determine (at least in part) teacher and principal evaluations was not eligible to compete.  After clarifying this, the 103-page application form laid out a list of detailed criteria and then additional priorities for each criterion… But they still faced the immense tasks of designing a proposal that touched on all aspects of K-12 education and then writing an application, which the DOE requested (but did not require) be limited to 350 pages.  What state has resources to gamble on such a venture?  Enter the Gates Foundation.  It reviewed the prospects for reform in every state, picked fifteen favorites, and, in July 2009, offered each up to $250,000 to hire consultants to write the application.  Gates even prepared a list of recommended consulting firms.  Understandably, the other states cried foul; so did the National Conference of State Legislatures: Gates was giving some states an unfair advantage; it was, in effect, picking winners and losers for a government program.  After some weeks of reflection, Gates offered the application money to any state that met the foundation’s eight criteria… Who says the foundations (and Gates, in particular) don’t set government policy?”

Jim Shelton’s i3 innovation grant competition modeled the kind of program that patched together government and philanthropic dollars to support not-for-profit organizations working with schools to implement particular reforms.  In her 2013 book, Follow the Money, Sarah Reckhow explains how the i3 application process worked: “The i3 program required a 20 percent private grant match for any federal funds awarded.  To facilitate matching, the Department of Education coordinated directly with philanthropies for funding the i3 program.  Initially, 12 foundations—including Gates, Carnegie, Ford, Wallace, and Walton—committed $500 million to ‘aligned investments’ with the i3 program.  These foundations created an online Foundation Registry for the i3 program, which grew to 40 participating foundations.  All of the applicants selected by the Department of Education for i3 grants were able to secure private matching funds.” (p. 152)

Then in 2011, after the original i3 grants had been awarded,  Arne Duncan and Jim Shelton were the featured speakers at an event held by the Aspen Institute for the losers in the original i3 competition. Alyson Klein in Education Week described the i3 program and the way the Department of Education was scurrying to help the losers: “The competition, intended to help districts and nonprofit groups scale up promising practices, attracted 1,698 applications.  Just 49 winners were awarded grants…. That left a lot of prominent runners-up, including some well-known education nonprofit organizations, such as NewLeaders for New Schools, a New York City-based group that trains principals….”  So Aspen convened the losers at a conference with potential funders.  “For its part, the U.S. Department of Education isn’t playing a direct matchmaking role between the almost-winners and philanthropies, said Suzanne Immerman, the department’s director of philanthropic engagement.  But it has encouraged philanthropies and other funders to take a second look at all of the proposals that didn’t ultimately receive federal dollars through i3. It has posted applications for the i3 program online, as well as those for the Promise Neighborhoods initiative…. The department also worked with philanthropies to create an online i3 registry, which is meant to connect funders and applicants… Aspen invited 212 nonprofits, school districts and other i3 applicants who nearly made the cut….”

And what about the rush to try what’s new without any evidence that what we are trying will work?  A persistent and unanswered charge about the whole “education reform” movement is that it has been experimental.  Despite all the talk about the need for a research base, most of the reforms imposed by the Bush Department of Education under Margaret Spellings and deepened and enhanced by Duncan’s Department of Education lack a substantial basis in research.  In a piece published in 2009 by Brookings, Innovation, Motherhood, and Apple Pie, Grover “Russ” Whitehurst worried that the emphasis on innovation at the expense of tested ideas in programs like Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and i3 would undermine education: “Effective innovations enhance a desired outcome, whereas ineffective innovations do not… Most education innovations exist around the midpoint of the effective-ineffective dimension due to lack of evidence, i.e., they have not been evaluated or have not been evaluated with an approach that provides credible evidence.  They may work.  They may not.  We do not know.  Unless effectiveness is thought of as a central dimension of innovation, the current innovation zeitgeist will subject the nation to yet another era of fad and fancy in education rather than continuous improvement.”

Jim Shelton’s journey at the the U.S. Department of Education is over, but after a trip, it is a good thing to think about the experience.  And it is important to remember how to get home.   A well-funded system of public schools remains the best institution to meet the many complicated and diverse needs of the mass of our children and to protect their rights through accountable public institutions. The federal government’s role in this system has historically been to intervene with money and oversight when states have not met their obligation to serve all children. We haven’t heard much about any of that on our recent trip.

John Oliver Examines NCLB, Race to the Top, and Testing in Comedy Monologue

Surely it must be significant that John Oliver, the HBO comedian, did an 18 minute segment last week on what’s gone haywire in American public education.  Oliver traces the history of test-and-punish since the federal testing law No Child Left Behind Act was enacted in January of 2002.  I urge you to watch this segment of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

You will see a clip of President George W. Bush defining (Definition probably wasn’t his strong point.) school accountability and a video of candidate Barack Obama, in a speech to the National Education Association, disdaining an education philosophy centered around children coloring in bubbles on standardized tests.  Oliver puzzles about the inconsistency—a candidate Obama who said he hated testing and a President Obama whose administration has vastly expanded the amount of testing through programs like Race to the Top that led to the Common Core and stretched the uses of testing not only for rating and punishing schools but also for evaluating teachers with algorithms based on their students’ scores.

As if that isn’t enough, Oliver looks into the corporate testing industry—its reach and power in the lives of children and teachers, it’s secrecy, and the public’s inability to do anything about it even when test questions are poorly written.  We hear from the people who work as test graders—people who responded to ads on Craig’s List, people who are themselves held accountable for coming up with a bell curve in scores among the essays they read—not too many high scores.

The situation in our schools has been at the same time absurd and deeply troubling for almost fifteen years now, but none of this seems to have seeped inside the Beltway, where Congress is considering legislation that leaves annual testing in place, continues to blame teachers, and fails to address serious problems in the struggling schools of our nation’s impoverished communities.

Is nobody paying attention to what is happening with our children?  I have wondered if, as a culture, we have adopted an education philosophy of “out of sight, out of mind”—if we have accepted a focus on test scores as a proxy for caring about our society’s children.  I am delighted to see John Oliver raising this issue as though it is something people watching television ought to be thinking and talking about.

Our children and our more than 3 million school teachers across America ought to matter to us.  Watch this video.  Talk about it.  Get some other people to watch it and talk about it.

Jeff Bryant Interviews New NEA President Who Is Not Afraid to Speak Truth to Power

In its new president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the National Education Association (NEA) has a gifted spokesperson for school teachers and for public education.  Eskelsen Garcia knows the issues, connects the dots, and frames a pro-teacher, pro-public education agenda that puts into words the kind of commitment to children and public schools that I have observed over many years to be the priority of the NEA.  In an extensive interview with Jeff Bryant, Eskelsen Garcia discusses her priorities.

When Bryant asks Eskelsen Garcia about the resolution passed at NEA’s recent convention, a resolution to demand Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s removal, she replies: “I will own this; I share in their anger.  The Department of Education has become an evidence-free zone when it comes to high stakes decisions being made on the basis of cut scores on standardized tests.  We can go back and forth about interpretations of the department’s policies, like, for instance, the situation in Florida where teachers are being evaluated on the basis of test scores of students they don’t even teach… But he (Arne Duncan) needs to understand that Florida did that because they were encouraged in their applications for grant money and regulation waivers to do so.  When his department requires that state departments of education have to make sure all their teachers are being judged by students’ standardized test scores, then the state departments just start making stuff up.  And it’s stupid.  It’s absurd.  It’s non-defensible.  And his department didn’t reject applications based on their absurd requirements for testing.  It made the requirement that all teachers be evaluated on the basis of tests a threshold that every application had to cross over.  That’s indefensible…  The testing is corrupting what it means to teach… They still don’t get that when you do a whole lot of things on the periphery, but you’re still judging success by a cut score on a standardized test and judging ‘effective’ teachers on a standardized test, then you will corrupt anything good that you try to accomplish.”

Eskelsen Garcia clearly connects the dots between today’s federal demands and state legislative policies that are undermining public schools.  Bryant asks Eskelsen Garcia about a conversation she had with Arne Duncan after the recent NEA convention. She reports that Duncan suggested NEA is not giving the Department of Education enough credit for its efforts to promote preschool and to make college more affordable.  Then she describes, “how I put it to Duncan.  We now have bad state policies that insist, for instance, a child can’t go to fourth grade because he didn’t hit a cut score on a standardized reading test, and the state legislature did this in order to get Race to the Top money.  You can say you didn’t require the state to do that.  But when you required states to base their education programs mostly on test scores, and let states respond with ‘OK, we’ll just do this,’ you encouraged bad policy.  You became the catalyst for something really idiotic.”

At the conclusion of the interview, Eskelsen Garcia speaks about the necessity that NEA, the nation’s largest union, defend the future of public education itself.  “We also know the stakes have changed.  We always had to fight legislators in order to fund us.  Now we have legislators who want to dismantle us brick by brick.  The existence of public schools was always something you could take for granted… Now we know we’re fighting for our existence.”

These days it too often seems to much of the public as though policy just sort of happens—because it really wasn’t the federal government that passed it—but instead it was a response from a state legislature whose members did it to please Arne Duncan and his staff—all  for the purpose of making federal money flow to the state.  It is difficult for the public to parse all this out, particularly because the press can’t seem to sort it out either.  With his friendly handshakes, aw-shucks manner, and federal policies that control laws and programs enacted by state legislatures (due to federal requirements), Arne Duncan is accustomed to deflecting criticism.

Now NEA has a president willing to get the details straight and place responsibility squarely where it rests: in the policies of the department and the implementation of programs like Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, Innovation Grants, and No Child Left Behind waivers negotiated between states and staff at the U.S. Department of Education.  And she is willing to tell us we had better pay attention.

Good for Lily Eskelsen Garcia for telling the truth and assigning responsibility for what has to change.  I urge you to read Bryant’s interview with NEA’s new president.