Congressional Compromise to Reauthorize Federal Education Law Rebukes Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan will leave at the end of December, turning over the leadership of the U.S. Department of Education to John King, an acting superintendent whose name will not even be submitted to Congress for confirmation as secretary.  King will likely be a caretaker through the end of the Obama administration.  The Obama Department of Education has accomplished its work.  So why is Congress taking the trouble to try to pass a reauthorization of the federal education law with a laser focus on diminishing the role of the department and its secretary?  There are many things the compromise Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) proposal will not do; refocusing on the law’s original 1965 purpose of driving equity in school opportunity, for example, isn’t being considered.

But reducing the power of the Secretary of Education is front and center.  Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post explains: “The deal would significantly reduce the U.S. Department of Education’s authority, prohibiting the secretary from influencing state academic standards and assessments, requiring teacher evaluations or using grant programs to influence state education policy.”  Think about that.  The law will prohibit the Secretary of Education from using departmental rules to press states to buy into college and career-ready standards (a requirement of Race to the Top and receiving a No Child Left Behind waiver), which means, in practical terms, prohibiting the Department from creating incentives to adopt the Common Core; from requiring states to demand that teachers be evaluated by their students’ test scores (a condition for applying for Race to the Top and receiving a No Child Left Behind Waiver); and from using grant programs to influence state policy (requiring states to meet particular federally prescribed conditions before the states can even apply for Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants).  In other words, Congress plans to ensure that the power over local school policy that Arne Duncan seized from the states will be nullified.  It is, of course, true that some conservative, states-rights-believing members of Congress have always wanted to get rid of the U.S. Department of Education because it has been involved with dismantling segregation, and other members of Congress, government employees all, advocate for cutting government itself for budgetary reasons.  But what is happening in Congress this week is much more specifically targeted toward Arne Duncan’s Department of Education.

Two reports released by the Department of Education last week help explain what has happened.  Not only have programs like the teacher evaluations mandated through the waivers been unworkable and inaccurate in their judgements on teachers (See the new statement from the American Education Research Association warning about use of Value-Added Model algorithms for evaluating teachers.) and not only have the Common Core Standards and the associated standardized tests created a firestorm of protests, but also, according to critiques of these new reports, core policies of the Obama Department of Education—Race to the Top, and School Improvement Grants—have cost a lot of money, and they haven’t significantly expanded opportunity for the students who have been left behind.

Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown of the Washington Post add up the cost over several years—$7 billion for School Improvement Grants and $4 billion for Race to the Top.  Layton and Brown sum up one of the problems with Race to the Top: “Any school accepting a grant had to agree to adopt one of four strategies: Replace the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff; close the school and enroll students in another, better-performing school; close the school and reopen it as a charter school; or transform the school through new instructional strategies and other techniques.  The vast majority chose the last option; it was the least disruptive.  The U.S. Department of Education did not track how the money was spent, other than to note which of the four strategies schools chose.”

The Department’s report on Race to the Top covers only first-year, 2010, competition winners, including 11 states and the District of Columbia. Although the report is glowing, critics have quickly pointed out what the contractor hired to evaluate the program, Synergy Enterprises, left out.  The report begins: “Race to the Top represented an unprecedented approach to competitive grant-making by giving states and districts the opportunity to build on their successes and innovate across their schools to improve outcomes and expand opportunities for millions of students… The goal of the program was ambitious: to bring together leaders from every level of school governance… to develop plans that would help prepare students for success in an information-and innovation-driven job market…. Race to the Top invited state leaders to put forward plans to improve not one or two isolated elements of their schools but to develop and implement comprehensive statewide plans to improve entire systems… Race to the Top empowered visionary leaders to put forward bold plans for change…. While the greatest change was expected to occur in states that were awarded funds, the competition encouraged broad-based, systemic, educational improvements even in states that did not win Race to the Top funding.  States across the country saw an extraordinary surge of legislative activity aimed at improving education.”  What this last statement means is that even to earn the right to submit a proposal for the competition, states had to change their laws to reflect the the Department’s conditions for application.  For example states were required to pass laws to remove caps on the launch of new charter schools in any one year.

The report on Race to the Top brags about consistent but modest increases in the high school graduation rates in Race to the Top-winning states and some improvement in college-going rates, though it is difficult to be sure such changes happened because of the state’s receipt of a Race to the Top grant.  It also alleges that Race to the Top grants changed the culture within state departments of education: “State leaders and superintendents forged an unprecedented and wide range of partnerships with principals, teachers, local officials, nonprofits and other stakeholders… State education agencies (SEAs)… moved beyond their traditional role of monitoring district compliance to driving comprehensive and systemic changes to improve teaching and learning across the state… States and districts are working with teachers and leaders to implement and refine new evaluation and support systems designed to, among other things, provide meaningful feedback to improve teaching and learning—and guide efforts to retain and reward effective teachers and principals.”

Cutting through the rhetoric, Andrew Ujifusa, writing for Education Week, is clear and concrete in his estimation of the report and what it leaves out: “(N)early all of the Race to the Top states struggled with crafting teacher evaluations that took into account student outcomes.  And many experienced serious political blowback to the (Common Core) standards, in some cases with major consequences for state leaders… The Education Department sunk $360 million into two (Common Core) testing consortia, Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.  Although PARCC and Smarter Balanced weren’t part of the Race to the Top grants discussed in the new report, they were funded through a separate Race to the Top grant, and are tightly linked to the work the states in question did with respect to standards… (I)t’s worth stressing that (teacher) evaluations were perhaps the biggest conflict many states have faced, both internally and with the Education Department. Many have argued that tying student test scores to teacher evaluations at the same time that states were shifting to new standards and assessments was misguided…  The report does acknowledge ‘significant challenges’ posed by these new evaluations systems, as well as the more general remark that some states were ‘not initially well positioned to make rapid changes.”

What about the other report the Department released last week about another competitive grant program, School Improvement Grants? School Improvement Grants were intended to improve school achievement in the lowest scoring 5 percent of the nation’s schools. The report explains that like Race to the Top, the School Improvement Grant program required school districts to “turnaround” schools by using one of the four prescribed methods:  turnaround— replace the principal and at least half of the staff;  closure—close the school and enroll students in another, better-performing school;  restart—close the school and reopen it as a charter school;  or transformation—transform the school through new instructional strategies and other techniques. Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown explain that the biggest problem with the new report on the School Improvement Grant program is that it tracks only about half of the schools that received School Improvement Grants: “Almost 1,400 schools received grants from 2010 to 2013, but the report does not include data from about half of those schools.  Federal officials blamed the gap on several factors, including the fact that some states switched to new tests during the study period, making it impossible to compare student test scores over time.  Meanwhile, the analysis does not include performance statistics from the two most recent school years.”  According to the new report, test scores in reading and math have increased modestly with the earliest schools in the program improving math scores most and those recently undergoing the prescribed reforms initially lagging in test scores.  Reading scores have increased modestly but less than math scores, and grown the most in the schools whose turnarounds were imposed several years ago.  The graduation rates in School Improvement Grant  schools have improved more rapidly than the average national rate of growth in graduation rates, but graduation rates in these schools remain very low compared to the national average.

Writing for Education Week, Alyson Klein reviews the data in the new report: “Only a little more than half of the schools that received a third round of the newly revamped SIG grants… improved, while the other half saw stagnant student achievement, or actually slid backward.  That’s not as strong a showing as the first two years of the Obama administration’s revamped SIG program, which saw gains on state math and reading tests among about two-thirds of the schools that got three-year turnaround grants…. Still, the latest results from SIG schools are consistent with those from other public schools nationally, over the same time period.  About 54 percent of SIG schools that got grants in the 2012-2013 school year saw gains in their first year of turnaround, compared to about 45 percent for all schools across the country…. And about 46 percent of SIG schools stayed in the same place, or slid backward, compared to about 56 percent nationally.”

Klein continues: “Experts are divided on whether SIG… has helped or not.  But nearly everyone who has studied the program points to big limitations in the department’s data.  States, districts, and schools need far more specific information from the feds about what worked for turnaround schools and what didn’t…. ”  She adds that the Education Department’s Institute for Education Sciences will release a more comprehensive report next year.

In the meantime, if Congress passes the compromise Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization its members have begun considering, the role of the U.S. Department of Education will be much diminished.

Explosion of Private Contracting in Education Created Climate for Chicago Scandal

Sarah Karp, until recently a distinguished reporter for Catalyst Chicago, a publication whose logo says it’s mission is “independent reporting on urban schools,” originally broke the story on the role of Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Chicago’s schools CEO, in securing a huge no-bid contract for school leadership training for her former employer in Chicago, a private contractor, SUPES Academy.

Byrd-Bennett served as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools for thee years before she was accused of having illegally secured a lucrative contract for SUPES.  On Tuesday, as reported by the Chicago Tribune, Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty “to a single felony count of wire fraud for steering multimillion-dollar, no-bid contracts to a former employer in exchange for the promise of up to $2.3 million in kickbacks.”  Byrd-Bennett never received the bulk of the kick-backs.  Money had been promised as a “signing-bonus” if she returned to SUPES after her tenure at the Chicago Public Schools ended.

Karp, the reporter who persistently investigated a story others ignored, has left Catalyst to join the investigative team at the Better Government Association, and this week she comments on what she believes is the serious issue in the Barbara Byrd-Bennett scandal: the danger posed by today’s vast expansion of private contracting in education.  Speaking of Byrd-Bennett’s fall, Karp writes: “The increasing presence of private money in public education—and the fierce competition to get at that money—made such a scenario almost inevitable.”

Has private contracting increased?  Here is how Karp describes the expansion of contracting in Chicago and across the nation:  “Public schools have long outsourced certain services, covering, for instance, transportation and meals. These days, however, numerous jobs are handled by companies, from custodians and nurses and recess monitors.  Even instruction is sometimes out-sourced, often through computers via education software.  Not to mention that currently more than a fifth of Chicago’s public schools are run entirely by private entities in the form of charter schools or contract schools. Under state law, schools can only be run by not-for-profits.  Yet under Byrd-Bennett, CPS officials devised a way to have for-profit companies run schools by technically making them contractors nestled in a CPS department. CPS isn’t alone. Private companies are all over education.”

Contracting was vastly expanded after 2009 by the U.S. Department of Education’s federal grant competitions, Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants.  Karp explains: “Under U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s ‘School Improvement Grants,’ the $3.5 billion initiative to improve the nation’s bottom 5 percent of schools, among the ways to qualify for funding: Work with outside companies or organizations.”  Another serious issue: When federal dollars are directed to schools through one-time grants, the funds are less likely to reach the classroom through such investments as reducing class size or adding counselors or social workers.  Because a grant is a one-time cash infusion, it cannot be spent for continuing operating expenses; hiring contractors to help with staff development becomes an appealing use for the money.

In Chicago the people who owned SUPES Academy—and sold what they called “leadership” training to the school district thanks to a no-bid contract—brought the following professional credentials, according to Karp: “One of the outgrowths of so much public education money available to private companies is that entrepreneurs whose expertise is more in sales or making money are getting in the business of education.  Solomon was a disgraced dean of students in a suburban high school district who had spent the last decade being a salesman.  Vranas previously started a wireless Internet company and a venture capital firm.” Gary Solomon and Tom Vranas have also been indicted as part of the investigation of SUPES in Chicago.