NY Times’ Motoko Rich Fails to Examine the Deeper Issues in No Child Left Behind Waivers

At the beginning of her NY Times article yesterday,  Washington State, Political Stand Puts Schools in a Bind, Motoko Rich, the NY Times‘ education reporter, describes a Washington state public school that perfectly epitomizes Arne Duncan’s test-and-punish school turnaround narrative: replace the principal and half the staff, lengthen the school day and year, and use a $3 million federal grant to retrain teachers.  The school clearly won a School Improvement Grant to be turned around, and it seems to have miraculously improved its math scores, though we are not told, really, exactly how the transformation occurred and how the children’s experience at school changed.

Rich tells the story of Lakeridge Elementary School to make her point about Washington state’s foolish choice to lose its No Child Left Behind Waiver by refusing to comply with one of the conditions set by Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s Department of Education, that to qualify for a waiver, a state must use scores from a statewide standardized test as part of its plan to evaluate teachers.  She quotes Michael Petrilli, of the far-right Fordham Foundation, “We’re punishing schools and educators and arguably kids, because state policy makers don’t want to do what the Education Department demands.”

Rich explains that the No Child Left Behind Law is now known to be deeply flawed.  She describes the public schools in Washington state that have lost their waiver as now forced to be “held to an outdated benchmark that is all but impossible to achieve,” and she describes the consequences.  Washington’s schools that were unable to prove all their children proficient by 2014 are to be labeled failures.  Because the law embodied a utopian aspiration that all American children were to be proficient by 2014, virtually all of the state’s schools and all schools across America are—according to No Child Left Behind—now “failing” schools.  And under the old rules of No Child Left Behind—rules that have been eliminated for states winning waivers—Washington must set aside Title I funding for children who wish to transfer out of their “failing” school and for privatized tutoring for parents who want their children in failing schools tutored.  Rich writes that the loss of the waiver and the naming of all schools as “failures” has demoralized teachers, confused parents, and perplexed educators and lawmakers.

What Rich does not do in her article is examine the U.S. Department’s conditions for states to qualify for waivers.  Rich does not explore questions about the use of state standardized test scores for evaluating teachers, despite the presence of a healthy debate about these subjects in both research literature, including a warning just last spring from the American Statistical Association, and the press.  The policy of using students’ scores to rate teachers has been widely questioned because standardized test scores were not designed to evaluate teachers.  Neither have students’ standardized test scores shown themselves to be reliable or stable from year to year as a representation of the performance of particular teachers.  Rich’s article does not acknowledge that such widespread concern may have motivated some legislators in Washington state to vote against the use of standardized test scores for evaluation of teachers.  She merely treats the loss of the waiver as a catastrophe that should have been avoided.

Although Motoko Rich is the NY Times education reporter, she is not an educator.  Her biography on the newspaper’s website says: “Motoko Rich writes about national K-12 education for the New York Times.  Prior to that, she covered the national economy, writing about work force training, unemployment, housing and retirement.  She also covered the book publishing industry for four years… Before joining The Times, Motoko worked as a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal for six years, in Atlanta and New York.  She started her career as a reporter at The Financial Times in London.”  One wonders if Rich might have covered the story of the Department of Education’s denial of Washington state’s waiver differently if she had a background in education.

In the context of Rich’s article in yesterday’s NY Times, it is worth remembering the letter sent out to all parents in Vermont just two months ago, on August 6, 2014.  In this letter, Rebecca Holcombe, the state’s Secretary of Education writes:

“Under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), as of 2014, if only one child in your school does not score as ‘proficient’ on state tests, then your school must be ‘identified’ as ‘low performing’ under federal law.  This year, every school whose students took the NECAP tests last year is now considered a ‘low performing’ school by the US Department of Education… The Vermont Agency of Education does not agree with this federal policy, nor do we agree that all of our schools are low performing.” (emphasis Holcombe’s)

Holcombe describes positive accomplishments in the public schools across the state of Vermont, but then reminds parents why she is sending this strange letter telling them their school is a failure: “Nevertheless, if we fail to announce that each Vermont school is ‘low performing,” we jeopardize federal funding for elementary and secondary education… This policy does not serve the interest of Vermont schools, nor does it advance our economic or social well-being.  Further, it takes our focus away from other measures that give us more meaningful and useful data on school effectiveness.”

Holcombe explains why Vermont has chosen never to apply for a waiver: “Most other states have received a waiver to get out from under the broken NCLB policy.  They did this by agreeing to evaluate their teachers and principals based on the standardized test scores of their students… We chose not to agree to a waiver for a lot of reasons, including that the research we have read on evaluating teachers based on test scores suggests these methods are unreliable in classes with 15 or fewer students, and this represents about 40-50% of our classes.  It would be unfair to our students to automatically fire their educators based on technically inadequate tools.  Also, there is evidence suggesting that over-relying on test-based evaluation might fail to credit educators for doing things we actually want them to do, such as teach a rich curriculum across all important subject areas, and not just math and English language arts.”

Finally, Holcombe tells parents how she thinks they themselves ought to investigate the quality of their children’s schools.  She suggests parents talk with their children about school, and she suggests questions to guide these conversations, questions guaranteed to engage the parents in what’s happening with their children each day at school:

  • “What evidence does your school provide of your child’s growing proficiency?
  • Is your child developing the skills and understanding she needs to thrive in school and
    the community?
  • Are graduates of your school system prepared to succeed in college and/or careers?
  • Is your child happy to go to school and engaged in learning?
  • Can your child explain what he is learning and why? Can your child give examples of
    skills he has mastered?
  • Is your child developing good work habits? Does she understand that practice leads to
    better performance?
  • Does your child feel his work in school is related to his college and career goals?
  • Does your child have one adult at the school whom she trusts and who is committed to
    her success?
  • If you have concerns, have you reached out to your child’s teacher to share your
    perspective?”

While I am not particularly fond of the cliche about people who can’t think outside the box, I think in today’s article about Washington state’s loss of its No Child Left Behind Waiver, Motoko Rich fails to think outside the box by uncritically accepting all the assumptions behind Arne Duncan’s No Child Left Behind Waivers and the entire test-and-punish accountability narrative about school reform that has been the foundation of federal education policy under Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama.

Rebecca Holcombe, Vermont’s Secretary of Education is far more creative in the letter she sent to all of Vermont’s parents at the beginning of the school year.  Her sending this letter is a bureaucratic requirement of the flawed and very damaging No Child Left Behind Law, but she seized the requirement as an opportunity to educate parents about the serious consequences of rating teachers by students’ scores and the ludicrous “failing” label being attached to Vermont’s schools.   And her letter categorically affirms her confidence in Vermont’s teachers and her expectations for Vermont’s parents to engage actively in their children’s education.

I would prefer to see education coverage in the NY Times explore far more deeply the implications of federal policy, including the federal testing law No Child Left Behind, the competitive grant programs of President Obama’s Department of Education like  Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants, and the No Child Left Behind Waivers.  Vermont’s Secretary of Education is clearly less concerned about her state’s lack of a waiver than Motoko Rich is about the loss of Washington state’s waiver.

Valerie Strauss Examines Value of School Improvement Grant Program

The School Improvement Grant (SIG) program is one of the grant competitions by which the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan is awarding Title I money to schools.  This particular program is for schools that score in the bottom 5 percent nationwide, the schools deemed failing.  The majority of these schools are located in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities, places where poverty is highly concentrated.

There have been a number of criticisms of the SIG program. First, it is a grant program that provides money for a limited period.  It is easy for a school district to use the money for consultants or for programs to train teachers, but it is difficult to use it for reducing class size by hiring more teachers, or hiring counselors or music and art enrichment teachers because the money will eventually run out.  School districts without adequate state and local funding would have to eliminate any ongoing programs at the end of the federal grant period.

Second, it is a competitive program with winners and losers.  The Title I formula program, by contrast, is a program that awards funds to all schools that serve a large number or high concentration of children living in poverty.  The Title I formula program was launched in 1965 as a civil rights program by which the federal government compensates (to a very modest degree) for inadequate and unequal spending across the states.  In programs like SIG, while some applicants win, districts in other states lose and students there have no access to federal assistance.

Today in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss examines troubling results in the formal evaluation of the School Improvement Grant program.  Those conducting formal evaluations of the program have speculated for some years now that SIG is not accomplishing its goals and that the money might be better invested.  The results of the latest evaluation are being re-examined.  In upcoming months we should pay attention to the conclusions of those who are revising the most recent formal evaluation of SIG.

What Is Teaching All About and Why Does Experience Matter?

From our national testing law, No Child Left Behind, through programs like School Improvement Grants coming from Arne Duncan’s Department of Education, federal policy is designed these days to blame and scapegoat school teachers.  The assumption under today’s policies is that if we rate and rank teachers by students’ scores, they will work harder and smarter and do more with less to make up for the fact that across many states we are spending less on public education than we did five or six years ago.  And we are spending not nearly enough in the communities where children are segregated in poverty.

Our national obsession with blaming teachers is likely also wound up with the fact that we have all watched a lot of teachers work.  As we sat in their classrooms, it all looked pretty easy.  When one listens to Emanuel Ax play the piano, it is also easy to imagine being a concert pianist  because he makes it look pretty easy.  This morning in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss features a commentary from one of today’s best writers about teaching, Mike Rose, a professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and author of some of my favorite books on education, Lives on the BoundaryPossible Lives (stories of great teachers), Why School?, and Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.

Rose shows us why being a teacher is not so easy.  This morning he assigns himself the task of defining teaching.  Is it a profession “like law or medicine, requiring a substantial amount of education before an individual can become a practitioner” or a craft that is learned principally on the job?  Rose concludes that it is both: “Teaching done well is complex intellectual work, and this is so in the primary grades as well as Advanced Placement physics. Teaching begins with knowledge: of subject matter, of instructional materials and technologies, of cognitive and social development.  But it’s not just that teachers know things.  Teaching is using knowledge to foster the growth of others.”  “Thus teaching is a deeply social and emotional activity.  You have to know your students and be able to read them quickly….”  “So teaching Hamlet or The Bluest Eye, the internal combustion engine, photosynthesis, or the League of Nations involves knowing these topics and bringing them into play in one of the more complex cognitive and social spaces in our culture.”  I urge you to read Rose’s engaging, thoughtful article and then think about some of the teachers you know who do this difficult work every day.

Then I suggest you follow up by reading a short commentary by Helen Ladd, Edgar T. Thompson Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Economics in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.  Appreciating the complex work Rose describes, Ladd worries about the diminishing number of experienced teachers in classrooms across the United States: “In the late 1980s, most of the nation’s teachers had considerable experience—only 17 percent had taught for five or fewer years.  By 2008, however, about 28 percent had less than five years of experience.  The proportions of novices in the classroom are particularly high in schools in underprivileged areas.  Some observers applaud the rapid ‘greening’ of the teaching force because they think that experienced teachers are not needed.  But this view is short-sighted…” “Wonderful as it it is for bright, college graduates to bring new energy and skills to the classroom,” writes Ladd, “schools pay a high price for too much teacher turnover.”

Education Faculty at Eastern Michigan University Stands Up to Governor Snyder

In her Washington Post column today, Valerie Strauss reports on a protest by faculty in the College of Education at Eastern Michigan University, which is a partner with Governor Rick Snyder’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA).  The EAA is the body through which the state takes over schools whose standardized tests are in the bottom five percent across the state.  These are the same schools that qualify to be turned around under the federal School Improvement Grants program, whose prescribed turnarounds include school closure and privatization.

According to Strauss, “Eastern Michigan University is the only university in the state that signed on to partner with the Education Achievement Authority.” Faculty in the College of Eduacation are protesting, arguing “that they had no input in the way the Education Achievement Authority is run and that they oppose the way EEA is being operated.”

In a letter reprinted by Strauss, the education faculty  request that the university’s participation in the Education Achievement Authority “be severed immediately.”  “We find the undermining of democratic processes represented in the creation of a district outside the purview of public decision-making and oversight to be in direct conflict with this unviersity’s mission and our legacy as a champion of public education.”

Eastern Michigan University faculty are protesting “that the EAA’s governance is secretive; that student and teacher turnover is excessive; that the EAA relies on young and inexperienced teachers, including many from Teach for America; that many teachers taught outside the areas for which they had certification.”

School districts where the College of Education typically places student teachers have begun protesting the university’s participation in the EAA partnership by refusing to place student teachers from EMU in their classrooms.  In their letter, the faculty members state: “From the start, EMU faculty were not invited to give our input into such an arrangement or asked for our expertise as the EAA was established.”

Governor Rick Snyder’s school reform programs include not only the EAA partnership but also the appointment of emergency fiscal managers for municipalities like Detroit and for school districts.  The emergency managers are making executive decisions without public oversight to abrogate contracts with teachers’ unions and to turn entire districts over to large national charter management organizations.

Governor Rick Snyder’s brand of school reform emphasizes efficiency over democratic oversight.  Michigan is the epicenter of such top-down reforms.

Moody’s Investor Service Confirms Worry that Privatization is Destroying Urban School Districts

In an earlier post, Creating Public School Districts of Last Resort, I described my own concern that public school policies being driven by the federal Race to the Top grants, School Improvement Grants, and No Child Left Behind Waivers—policies that include incentives to close public schools and expand charters—are creating urban public school districts-of-last-resort.  Charter schools that must keep up their overall test scores or be castigated for failure have little incentive to accept  the children who bring special challenges—disabilities—the need to learn English—extreme poverty or homelessness.  As privatization increases, the public schools that must accept everyone increasingly serve the children who are least desirable from the point of view of the charters and most expensive to educate.

Diane Ravitch agrees, according to her new book, Reign of Error.  She describes school districts in poor urban areas being pushed by the federal government to close traditional public schools in the poorest neighborhoods where test scores are low and expand charter schools to serve the children from schools that have been closed:

“The federal regulations are like quicksand: the more schools struggle, the deeper they sink into the morass of test-based accountability.  As worried families abandon these schools, they increasingly enroll disproportionate numbers of the most disadvantaged students, either children with special needs or new immigrants….  Low grades on the state report card may send a once-beloved school into a death spiral.  What was once a source of stability in the community becomes a school populated by those who are least able to find a school that will accept them.  Once the quality of the neighborhood school begins to fall, parents will be willing to consider charter schools, online schools….  In time, the neighborhood school becomes the school of last resort not the community school.  When the neighborhood school is finally closed, there is no longer any choice.  Then parents will be forced to travel long distances and hope that their children will be accepted into a school; the school chooses, not the students.” (319-320)

Earlier this week, Moody’s Investor Service released a special report that confirms such worries; according to Moody’s, current policies are driving urban school districts into a fatal decline.  Moody’s warns, according to Reuters, “one in 20 U.S. students attends a charter school…. But in 11 major cities, the percentage is much larger, ‘making charter schools a predominantly urban phenomenon.'”  Moody’s reports that in New Orleans, 80 percent of students attend a charter school, with 40 percent in Washington, D.C., and  over 20 percent in Albany, Cleveland, San Antonio, and St. Louis.

Two separate factors, Moody’s warns, combine to threaten the financial stability of these and other urban school districts: first the foreclosure crisis which has significantly reduced property tax revenues and diminished the number of children living in devastated urban neighborhoods and hence driven down the attendance numbers that determine state aid, and second the rush of children to charter schools, also diminishing per-pupil basic aid from the state to the school district.

According to a Washington Post commentary on the Moody’s study:  “…some urban districts face a downward spiral driven by population declines.  It begins with people leaving the city or districts.  Then revenue declines, leading to program and service cuts.  The cuts lead parents to seek out alternatives, and charters capture more students.  As enrollment shifts to charters, public districts lose more revenue, and that can lead to more cuts.  Rinse, repeat….”

While the Moody’s report itself is available only to subscribers,  an announcement of the report by Moody’s summarizes the warning: “Charter schools can pull students and revenues away from districts faster than the districts can reduce their costs…”   Here is the interpretation of  Washington Post reporter, Niraj Chokshi:  “Charter schools don’t suck up enrollment from just one school. They pull from schools across a district, meaning each takes a slight hit while none loses enough students to justify substantial restructuring. There is no critical mass of empty classrooms or schools.”

Arne Duncan: Do Not Sacrifice Title I through Inconsistent Enforcement of Rules

Title I is the federal civil rights program created in 1965 as the centerpiece of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to help equalize opportunity by sending federal money to schools serving a large number or high concentration of very poor children.  President Lyndon Johnson believed that childhood poverty is deeply connected to school achievement; Title I was a part of Johnson’s War on Poverty.  While the Title I formula has never been fully funded by Congress, Title I has historically been a primary federal tool for  equalizing educational opportunity as a civil right for every child.

Today, however, the Obama Administration’s Department of Education (DOE) persists in redesigning Title I.  In 2009, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan began transforming Title I from a formula program into competitions like Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants.  A much discussed problem with the DOE’s competitive grants is that competitions with winners always create losers, which means that federal support for expanded access to education is increasingly becoming a right for poor children only in winning states and school districts.  It has also become apparent that too much money is going to grant writers and consultants and too little reaching the classroom.

Now we learn that receipt of Title I funding is also being conditioned on states’ complying with the DOE’s requirements for states to earn waivers from the impossible requirements and sanctions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  On Saturday, in Why Arne Duncan Is Threatening to Withhold Funds for Poor Kids, Valerie Strauss devoted her Washington Post column to a problem arising from tying Title I grants to conditions set through the regulations of the DOE instead of through a uniform formula approved by Congress and applied nationally.

According to Strauss: “Education Secretary Arne Duncan is threatening to withhold some of the approximately $1.5 billion that California receives annually from the federal Title I program… if state officials don’t agree to implement a standardized-testing regime that he likes…  California passed a law (AB 484) to abandon the standardized tests that have been given to students for years because the state adopted the Common Core standards and is revamping its curriculum.  The old tests don’t reflect the new curriculum, so it would seem to make infinite sense that kids should no longer have to take them.  While new tests aligned with the Common Core are being designed, state officials want to replace the old tests with a limited version of the exams that are coming in 2015—but only in those districts that have the technology to administer the exams, which are to be done on computers…  But here’s the problem: The No Child Left Behind law which Congress was supposed to have rewritten in 2007, remains in force and mandates annual exams.  To implement this plan, California would need a waiver from the U.S. Education Department….”

California’s original application for a NCLB waiver was rejected because California would not agree to use students’ standardized-test scores to evaluate teachers, one of the conditions to which Arne Duncan says states must agree to qualify for a waiver.  And, according to Strauss, at this point Secretary Duncan “takes a dim view of AB 484 because not all students would take a test this year, as the law requires, and because the state would not release the results of this practice run…”

This is, of course, a technical disagreement about enforcement of rules.  It is also a predictable consequence of a situation in which a federal department is administering a policy that affects each state’s Title I money on the fly through waivers for which each state must apply and negotiate, waivers that require state compliance with administrative rules emanating from the DOE in a way that is neither uniform nor consistent.

Strauss concludes that Duncan is selectively enforcing NCLB.  In addition, “He is trying to come down hard on California as a way of warning other states not to try to defy the Education Department.” “It’s no wonder some people are accusing Duncan of using strong-arm tactics to force states to do what he wants in education.”

This is all so complicated that it is easy not to pay attention.  But the controversy matters:  a civil rights formula program created to assist school districts that serve impoverished communities is being undermined as the programs are made competitive and as waivers are inconsistently approved and implemented.  The Title I formula is a  fairer, more supportive, and less confusing way of helping the school districts and schools that serve our poorest children.

Our most urgent educational priority as a society must be to invest in improving the public schools in our poorest communities rather than punishing them, punishing their teachers, closing these schools, or privatizing them.  This is, of course, precisely what the Title I formula was intended to do.

Flipping Schools, The Story of Ohio Charter Schools

Doug Livingston, the education reporter for the Akron Beacon-Journal, describes an old, old practice permitted by Ohio charter school law:  Failing Charter Schools Often Close, Reopen with Little Change.

“Analysis of Ohio Department of Education records for years prior to 2013 show(s) seven charter schools operated by for-profit management companies were closed for academic performance and were reopened under that same company, with only one exception,”  writes Livingston.

Members of the public are rarely aware of the shady practices of Ohio’s big charter managers, because the privately held companies control information and the Ohio legislature, beholden to large contributors who manage charter schools, has made it impossible for the Ohio Department of Education or anyone else to regulate such scams.

Livingston reports: “The process of flipping a failing school is an easy one. The original idea behind charter schools was that a group of citizens interested in experimenting with new education concepts would create a nonprofit organization, form a school board and work with the Ohio Department of Education to launch a school.  In practice, however, many for-profit management companies do all the work.  And when they see a forced shutdown on the horizon, they create a new nonprofit, establish a new school board—or keep the same one—and in essence control the entire process.”  Notice that the management company is creating the school board when it ought to be the community, non-profit school board deciding whether to run the school or bring in a management company.

Livingston quotes John Charlton, an official with the Ohio Department of Education: “We have no authority to make a judgment about the worthiness of a [prospective] school.”  “If we suspect that there may be recycling of a school closed for poor academic performance—same management company, same building—we ask the sponsor to verify that a different program is going into the building; that the majority of staff at the building are different; that there’s a different governing authority.  We ask for this verification, and we have gotten assurances that it is not the same old, same old, but we have no explicit legal authority to prevent this from happening.”

One of the turnaround strategies being prescribed nationwide by the U.S. Department of Education when a public school persistently struggles to raise standardized test scores is that the school may be turned over to a Charter Management Organization or an Education Management Organization.  However, regulation of such privatization is left to the discretion of state legislatures.  While the U.S. Department of Education conditions qualification for federal grants under programs like Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and No Child Left Behind waivers on states’ adopting its prescribed turnaround models, the federal government has no legal authority to regulate the charter schools it is encouraging states and school districts to create.  The regulation itself is controlled by the politics of the states qualifying for the federal grants.

Nor do the federal grants that “incentivize” privatization pay the full cost.  In Ohio, as in other states, when charters and e-schools are created, state funds follow the child away from the public school district.  In some states local tax money is diverted as well.

In their applications for these competitive federal funding streams, states promise to create quality alternatives.  In Ohio, at least, legislative politics have ensured that the state has no way to prevent mismanagement of the funds  charter schools suck out of public school coffers.  Neither can Ohio ensure that children will be provided a quality academic experience.