Two Wise Articles about High School Graduation Requirements

This week brought two fine commentaries on today’s punitive high school graduation requirements. Stan Karp, an educator, demonstrates widespread flawed assumptions about the need for high school exit exams. And, in a stunning commentary, the Rev. Jesse Jackson exposes the serious flaw in Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to demand that students present proof of a life plan in order to secure a high school diploma.

I hope Stan Karp, an educator and editor at Rethinking Schools Magazine, whose column is published by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, is correct when he says it seems to be going out of style to use exit tests artificially to raise the bar for high school graduation: “In the last few years, 10 states have repealed or delayed high school exit exams. California, Georgia, South Carolina, and Arizona even decided to issue diplomas retroactively to thousands of students denied them due to scores on discontinued tests. Although 13 states still use exit testing for diplomas and policies are in flux in several others, the number is down from a high of 27 states during the testing craze promoted by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Karp’s article exposes the flaws in the myth that high school graduation tests ensure that students hold what has been called “a high-quality diploma.”

Karp lives in New Jersey, which still uses a standardized testing bar for high school graduation. I live in Ohio, where a new graduation plan, scheduled to begin with the class of  2018, requires students to accrue a total score of 18 points from a batch of required end-of-course exams. Projections indicate about a third of Ohio’s high school seniors will not have accumulated enough points to graduate and will be denied a diploma in June of 2018.

Karp opposes high school exit exams, what he calls, “the trapdoors of the education world. These are the tests that tie scores to high school diplomas and push students who miss the mark out of school into the streets, the unemployment lines, and the prisons.” He summarizes the research demonstrating that high school exit exams don’t, as their fans promise, ensure that students are “college and career-ready.” From a report by the New America Foundation, Karp explains: “(R)igorous exit testing was associated with lower graduation rates, had no positive effect on labor market outcomes, and, most alarmingly, produced a 12.5 percent increase in incarceration rates.”

What was the promise and where did it go wrong? “Exit testing relies on several related, flawed premises. One is that standardized testing can serve as a kind of ‘quality control’ for high school graduates, guaranteeing that graduates are ‘college or career ready.’  Another is that they have ‘predictive’ value for future success in academic or workplace situations, and serve a useful gate-keeping function for institutions that ration access to opportunity.  But there is little evidence for these contentions.  The tests don’t reliably measure what they pretend to measure—intelligence, academic ability, college readiness—and they don’t measure at all qualities that high schools should nurture in all young people, like responsibility, resilience, critical insight, and empathy. Although the passing or ‘cut’ scores on standardized exit tests can be manipulated to produce varied outcomes, their main impact is to narrow access to opportunity for some, not to produce better preparation for all… Like the SAT and ACT before them, scores on the new Common Core tests closely mirror existing patterns of inequality and privilege.  Expanding their use would reinforce those patterns rather than disrupt them.”

In a Chicago Sun-Times column this week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson also worries about the way high school graduation requirements contribute to inequality.  Jackson examines the assumptions underneath Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new high school graduation proposal to require that, to earn their diplomas, high school seniors in Chicago’s public schools must present documentation of college or military enrollment or evidence of a job. (This blog covered Mayor Emanuel’s plan here.)  Jackson exposes Emanuel’s plan as another example of thinking that individuals should pull themselves up by their bootstraps through personal determination. At the same time Jackson lays bare a serious flaw: the problem isn’t so much each high school graduate’s lack of effort to make plan as it is society’s failure to ensure that students’ plans could possibly be realized.

Here are the realities Rev. Jackson describes in Chicago, his hometown: “Chicago has the worst black unemployment of any of the five biggest cities in the country. Across the U.S., a staggering 51.3 percent of young black high school graduates are unemployed or underemployed (that is, forced to work part time involuntarily or giving up on finding a job). A majority of young black high school graduates are looking for full-time work and can’t find it. The mayor’s plan does nothing to address this grim reality. Instead, it erects a paperwork hoop for kids to jump through that is likely to have very little to do with their plans for their lives. Why not go a step further down the reform road? Establish the requirement and then guarantee every graduate a job, with the city acting as an employer of last resort.”

Jackson compares Rahm’s graduation requirement to the 1996 welfare reform, whose technical name betrays what was intended—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—that blamed the victims for their poverty. Jackson believes the law  failed because it didn’t follow through with a viable way to expand work opportunity: “Emanuel’s plan is a faint echo of his mentor Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms. In 1996, when Clinton’s welfare reform bill was passed, the rhetoric was all about impoverished single mothers going from welfare to work. The plan was to abolish the welfare guarantee and require that poor mothers go to work after a limited period of time. Great, everyone is for work over welfare. But in order to hold a job, impoverished single mothers need some way to care for their children, job training, a way to get to their job—and a job to get to. None of that was provided in the welfare reform bill that eventually passed.”

Jackson concludes: “Emanuel operates from the theory that poor graduates lack a plan for life after high school.  What they lack, however, is a real job or a real training program that would lead to a job. These kids grow up in impoverished neighborhoods and on mean streets. Often they come from broken homes, without adequate nutrition, with unstable housing. They attend schools with massive needs and inadequate resources. If they make it, they graduate into an economy that has little place for them.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s demand that students present a life plan and the states’ imposition of high stakes graduation exit exams do nothing to address the deeper problem of poverty and inequality that almost nobody ever mentions. Rev. Jackson’s commentary in a Chicago newspaper seems stunningly out of place in today’s plutocratic America where poverty has effectively been hidden. Rev. Jackson’s commentary is short; it is a must-read.

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Some Worrisome Pitfalls in the New Federal Education Law

Here, from Stan Karp at Rethinking Schools, is a savvy and crisply written assessment of federal policy in education—what the replacement of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) with the Every Students Succeed Act (ESSA) will mean.

In maybe the clearest and most succinct explanation I’ve read, Karp summarizes what No Child Left Behind did to our nation’s schools between its passage in 2001 and its long awaited reauthorization in December, 2015: “NCLB marked a dramatic change in federal education policy—away from its historic role as a promoter of access and equity through support for things like school integration, extra funding for high-poverty schools, and services for students with special needs—to a much less equitable set of mandates around standards and testing, closing or ‘reconstituting’ schools, and replacing school staff.  NCLB required states to adopt curriculum standards and test students annually to gauge progress toward reaching them. Under threat of losing federal funds, all 50 states adopted or revised their standards and began testing every student, every year, in every grade from 3 to 8 and again in high school. By any measure, NLCB was a failure in raising academic performance and narrowing gaps in opportunity and outcomes… NCLB succeeded in creating a narrative of failure that shaped a decade of attempts to ‘fix’ schools while blaming those who work in them. The disaggregated scores put the spotlight on gaps between student groups, but the law used these gaps to label schools as failures without providing the resources or supports needed to eliminate them.”

Karp explains how Arne Duncan doubled down to make things even worse with the waivers from NCLB’s worst punishments. The waivers were granted to states that met Duncan’s conditions by passing punitive state laws: “If they agreed to tighten the screws on the most struggling schools serving the highest needs students, they could ease up on the rest, provided they also agreed to use test scores to evaluate all their teachers, expand the reach of charter schools and adopt ‘college and career ready’ curriculum standards and tests.”  Forty states passed laws to implement these punitive policies and they got the NCLB waivers, but the results hurt public schools: “More than 4,000 public schools were closed across the country.  Teachers and their unions were under siege.  More than 300,000 teachers lost their jobs.”  And test scores did not rise.

Karp does not expect the new Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in December to be much better: “ESSA is more like a change in drivers than a U-turn.  The major elements of test and punish reform remain in place, but they are largely turned over to the states.”  The new law provides modest openings for positive change, but it merely permits state legislatures to revise the laws they passed to meet Arne Duncan’s conditions. While change is now possible, there are only a few places where the public is currently organized to insist on a major turnaround.

And writing for the Campaign for America’s Future, Jeff Bryant highlights what he believes are the new law’s greatest weaknesses from the point of view of traditional public school districts, with a primary weakness being continued strong support for charter schools that is embedded right in the law itself: “Under ESSA, charter schools will continue to receive a hefty allotment of federal tax dollars in perpetuity… (T)he Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program has received over $3 billion from the feds to help launch new charter schools around the country. That outlay got an $80 million increase over last year and is slated for $333 million more in 2016.  ESSA also makes the charter school grant money part of the federal law rather than subject to annual authorization, which stabilizes the cash flow until the law is changed.” Bryant quotes Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools,  who says ESSA provides “more flexibility and independence for charters.”

Bryant Interviews public school policy experts who remain hopeful that advocates can push the Department of Education and Congress to interpret ESSA’s requirements in a way that addresses serious funding inequity and discrimination that remain in our public system.  But Bryant worries that the new ESSA will neither provide mechanisms to hold charter schools accountable for strong academics nor prevent conflicts of interest and financial malfeasance. Charter schools are by definition far less regulated than their traditional public counterparts: “(T)he ominous specter of charter school industry expansions provided for by the new law can’t be ignored. Somehow, the creators of ESSA seem to believe this will all be sorted out at the state and local level.”

Like Bryant, Stan Karp worries: “For more than a decade states, under federal pressure, have been expanding the reach of test-driven reform, closing schools, and promoting charters and privatization. Rolling back these trends will not be easy. The new law does not reverse the decline in federal education funding or require states to end the inequities at the heart of most state school finance systems. There is little money for progressive reforms, like integration or community schools, and more for regressive ones like unchecked charter expansion….”

Stunning Article Tracks Spread of Corporate Education Reform in Newark and NJ Suburb

Update: This post has been corrected.  The original confused Andy Smarick and Jonathan Schnur, both corporate school reformers, both creative disruptors, and both with connections to school reform in New Jersey.

If you want to develop a better understanding of so-called “corporate” school reform, Stan Karp’s article in the spring Rethinking Schools magazine is mandatory reading. Karp examines the catastrophic transformation of the schools in Newark, New Jersey and a subsequent attempt by corporate reformers to take over the schools in his hometown, suburban Montclair.  In A Tale of Two Districts, Karp traces the history of Newark’s destabililization under Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie, but neither was there a way Montclair could insulate itself.  He suggests: “If public education is going to survive, its supporters will need to make common cause across the divides of race and class, city and suburb.”

Karp summarizes the history of corporate reform in New Jersey in crisp, packed paragraphs, beginning with the appointment of Christopher Cerf as Governor Chris Christie’s education commissioner. “Cerf was the former head of Edison Inc., once the nation’s largest private education management firm.  A registered Democrat who served in the Clinton administration, Cerf was a pioneer in opening up the $700 billion/year K-12 education market to commercial penetration.  He was deputy chancellor under New York City’s Joel Klein and a senior advisor to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; all three are charter members of the corporate ed reform club.  In public, Cerf regularly dismissed talk about ‘corporate ed reform’ as conspiratorial nonsense.  In private, however, he described school reform politics as ‘a knife fight in a dark room’ and embraced a brand of what corporate reformers proudly call ‘disruptive innovation’ that made him a perfect choice to be Christie’s education commissioner.  One of Cerf’s first tasks was to recruit a new state-appointed superintendent for NPS (Newark Public Schools).  He chose Cami Anderson, a former Teach for America (TFA) executive who had also worked at New Leaders for New Schools, a kind of TFA for principals….”

How has all this affected racial and economic segregation in New Jersey’s already highly segregated Essex County? Karp explores the implications of what has been the explosive growth of charter schools in Newark: “On top of the intense racial segregation that characterizes all Newark schools, the charters serve fewer of the English learners, special education students, and poorest students, who remain in district schools in ever-higher concentrations.  Of the 14,000 students in schools serving the highest-need populations, 93 percent are in district schools and just 7 percent are in charters.  Some of Newark’s highest profile charters are ‘no excuses’ schools with authoritarian cultures and appalling attrition rates.  Newark’s KIPP schools lose nearly 60 percent of African American boys between 5th and 12th grades, and Uncommon Schools lose about 75 percent…  As Andy Smarick, a former deputy commissioner in Christie’s DOE, now with the corporate think tank Bellwether, wrote: ‘The solution isn’t an improved traditional district; it’s an entirely different delivery system for public education systems of charter schools.'”

This blog has extensively tracked early protests in Newark against Cami Anderson and her One Newark plan, the election last year of Ras Baraka, a public school educator, as Newark’s new mayor, and continuing massive protests that have continued all year by Newark’s residents—especially the parents and students—who do not want to lose their neighborhood schools.  Karp fills in the details and implications of this history and summarizes: “If this sounds a lot like New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia, and other cities, it’s because it is…. especially efforts to disenfranchise communities of color and promote privatization.”

But, continues Karp, “If cities like Newark are the entry point for corporate reform, wealthier suburban districts are the next prize.” Montlair, Karp’s hometown, is a somewhat unusual suburb, which has struggled and succeeded to some degree at least to serve all students well in a racially integrated public school system at a time when there is little policy support for diversity.  Montclair is an upper middle income community that sends 90 percent of its public high school graduates to college. And it is also the home, according to Karp, of many who are active in the corporate reform movement including Chris Cerf himself and Jonathan Alter, a journalist, supporter of KIPP schools, and promoter of the film Waiting for Superman. “The town is also home to officials of Uncommon Schools, the Achievement First Network, Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies and KIPP.”

And New  Jersey was once also home to Jonathan Schnur, who worked in the New Jersey Department of Education and was later the architect of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program.  Schnur had mentored Penny MacCormack in a superintendents’ training program, and, when Montclair needed a new superintendent, he endorsed her candidacy.  She was subsequently hired as Montclair’s new school superintendent, with an agenda, she said, to increase the use of students’ standardized test scores for evaluating teachers: “I will be using the data to hold educators accountable and make sure we get results.” The fact that Montclair has long had a school board appointed by the mayor made MacCormack’s hiring easier.  “In Montclair, there was no formal state takeover and no contested school board elections.  Instead, the long reach of corporate education reform had used influence peddling, backdoor connections, and a compliant appointed school board to install one of their own at the head of one of the state’s model districts.”

But Montclair also had powerful residents committed to defending the public schools.  Journalist (and professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism) LynNell Hancock wrote: “This is a Montclair I hardly recognize.  It’s not the children, the quality of the schools or the town’s democratic values that have changed.  It’s a paradigm shift in school leadership, a top-down technocratic approach that narrows its focus to ‘fixing’ schools by employing business strategies….”  The teachers union rose up and forced the board to listen to teachers testifying at board meetings.  In Montclair, unlike Newark, the protests paid off: “As we go to press, a stunning turn of events underscored again how corporate reform plays out differently across inequalities of power, race, and class.  Faced with growing opposition, MacCormack abruptly resigned to take an unspecified job with a ‘new educational services organization’ in New York City.”

Montclair’s residents have been powerful enough to pressure even an appointed school board and to insert expert voices in the press to push back the attack on their schools.  Newark’s citizens have been less successful.  Karp’s article is essential for filling in the gaps about how savvy and powerful corporate reformers are spreading disruption, privatization, and anti-teacher policies.  Near the end of his article, Karp describes budding efforts of suburbanites and Newark residents to work together to fight Christie’s corporate plans. I wish I had as much hope as Karp expresses that parents and activists across city and suburban school jurisdictions will be able and willing to frame the issues to define common cause.