What Is at Stake for Public Education in the Presidential Race?

Update:  No new Friday, November 6th post, as we all await the outcome of the election.  We stand on a precipice as we wait to see whether Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be elected or whether Donald Trump and Mike Pence will be re-elected. This post, from Monday, November 2nd, describes the implications of the presidential election for public education policy.

Look for a new post on Monday, November 9th.

I believe a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris victory  would provide a turning point in education policy.  We would, of course, be able to put behind us the failure of President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to protect the public schools. But further, I hope the new administration would turn our national conversation about education away from more than two decades when federal policy makers have worried about accountability, efficiency and privatization but largely forgotten about seriously trying to support and improve the nation’s over 98,000 public schools..

If Joe Biden is elected President, I believe our society can finally pivot away from an artificially constructed narrative about the need to punish so called “failing” public schools, and away from the idea that school privatization is the key to school improvement. During Betsy DeVos’s tenure, our two-decades old narrative about test-and-punish education reform has faded into a boring old story fewer and fewer people want to hear anymore, but nobody has proclaimed an alternative.

How Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos Have Damaged Public Education

In a profound book, American Amnesia, published in 2016, before Donald Trump was elected, two political scientists, Yale’s Jacob Hacker and Berkeley’s Paul Pierson describe precisely what Trump has undermined in our political system: “This book is about an uncomfortable truth: It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish. This truth is uncomfortable because Americans cherish freedom.  Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because, in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion. Government can tell people they must send their children to school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community. To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends. But there’s no getting around it: Government works because it can force people to do things.” (American Amnesia, p. 1)

Government exercises legitimate coercion to protect our rights and freedom through regulations that protect us from individuals and corporations who would undermine our rights and endanger our collective safety. But the Trump White House has set about removing government protection of the common welfare.  Besides sidelining Anthony Fauci as the President tries to pretend COVID-19 will merely disappear, the President appointed David Bernhardt, an energy company lobbyist as Secretary of the Department of Interior;  Dan Brouillett, a lobbyist for Ford Motor Company as Secretary of the Department of Energy;  Andrew Wheeler, a lobbyist for the coal mining industry as head of the Environmental Protection Agency;  Elaine Chao, who has become wealthy through her family’s interest in a major shipping company, as Secretary of Transportation;  Eugene Scalia, an attorney representing companies opposing labor unions, as the Secretary of Labor;  and Betsy DeVos, a lifelong promoter of spending public tax dollars for private religious education, as Secretary of Education.

Fortunately DeVos has not been entirely successful in her quest to promote private and religious schools and her attempt to undermine public education in America. She has tried to cut the budget of key programs in the Department of Education, but Congress has not permitted her to combine a mass of programs into one large block grant, and has protected at least minimal funding for the formula programs—Title I for schools serving concentrations of poor children and special education programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Every year she has tried to insert into her department’s budget $5 billion for a federal private school tuition tax credit program she calls Education Freedom Scholarships. This year she even got Senator Tim Scott to introduce this program as a stand alone School Choice Now Act.  But Congress has eliminated it in every annual appropriations bill and refused to act on Scott’s bill this year. This year after Congress set up COVID-19 relief dollars under the CARES Act for public schools that serve many poor children, DeVos even tried to redirect a significant amount of that money to private and religious schools, but she was blocked by a federal court.

But like many of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries and department heads, DeVos has succeeded in damaging public policy by rewriting rules and guidance to reduce government oversight of bad actors. For example she refused to investigate complaints by students with enormous federal loan debts, students who had been ripped off by for-profit colleges which attracted students with fraudulent advertising and then left the students unemployable because their certificates and degrees turned out to be worthless. In some cases the students’ for-profit colleges and trade schools had folded and left them half way through their education with mountains of federal loan debt. Refusing to investigate such cases, DeVos’s department built up a huge backlog of complaints and finally rewrote the the Borrower Defense to Repayment Rule altogether. Congress tried to overturn DeVos’s new rule, but President Trump vetoed the Congressional action.  Today thousands of defrauded students continue to carry outrageous debts.

Sometimes she has simply done nothing to regulate or oversee bad programs.  The federal Charter Schools Program has been savagely criticized by the Network for Public Education for spreading billions of federal startup dollars to charter schools that either never opened or were subsequently quickly shut down. And criticism from NPE only adds to years of biennial reports from the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General, reports documenting lack of record keeping and failed oversight.  DeVos has done nothing to oversee and clean up this program.

She has also undermined important functions of the Department of Education such as the department’s Office for Civil Rights, charged with protecting students from violations based on discrimination by race, ethnicity, income, gender and sexuality.  She has significantly reduced comprehensive investigations of historic patterns of civil right violations when complaints are filed, failed to investigate accusations that some schools are overly assigning African American students to special education, failed to protect transgender students,  failed to protect the victims of sexual assault on college campuses, and failed to investigate and protect students in school discipline cases. On a significant scale, by failing to enforce federal regulations designed to protect students, DeVos’s department has failed to exert what Hacker and Pierson call “the coercive power of government.”  

During DeVos’s Tenure, Decades of Other Bad Policies Have Just Sort of Faded Out of the Conversation

On one level, however, Betsy DeVos has done us a favor. For two decades before Donald Trump took office, public education policy had fallen into a period of bipartisan technocratic neoliberalism. Beginning with Bill Clinton’s administration and the launch of the federal Charter Schools Program, followed under President George W. Bush by the omnibus bipartisan 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, federal policy in public education was transformed from its original mission to help public schools serve students in marginalized groups who had been poorly served by their state policies.

Then as computer driven policy expanded, large data sets documented the achievement gaps between privileged, mostly white students and African Americans. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) substituted  punishment—not enhancement and support—as the way to close the Black-White Achievement Gap. Standardized testing to create the data sets by which schools across the country would be rated and ranked were mandated for every student every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  Schools were expected to raise scores for all students in every demographic group every year to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress until 2014, when all American students were to have become proficient.  Schools falling behind the schedule were sanctioned: their teachers and principals would be fired; they’d have to institute a new curriculum; or they would be turned into charter schools or managed by large Charter Management Organizations.  When President Barack Obama, a Democrat, took over, test-and-punish continued. Schools would compete for Race to the Top money and to qualify to enter the competition, they’d have to promise to adopt standards (which became the Common Core), expand the number of charter schools, turn around failing schools using all the old punishments under NCLB, and evaluate teachers by students’ test scores.

But the test-and-punish school reform juggernaut did not improve public schools according to the test scores universally adopted as the measuring stick. Just last week, Diane Ravitch reported that in the latest administration of the one national test which everybody trusts because it cannot be gamed in the competition for state-by-state accountability, the National Assessment of Education Progress, 12th graders’ scores have not risen since 2005.

In the four years since Betsy DeVos took over, we have heard less and less about school reform, and Adequate Yearly Progress and all the rest.  Actually under the 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act, which reduced the federal role but still requires states to submit an annual plan to accomplish the old NCLB goals, DeVos’s staff have been approving the plans which the states keep on submitting, but hardly anybody I know is tracking this. The narrative has just kind of died out as DeVos has ramped up her own narrative about publicly funded vouchers for private and religious education.

How Would a Biden Administration Transform the Narrative about Education in America?

If Joe Biden wins tomorrow, I am looking for leadership to drive the narrative back to where it belongs: improving access to opportunity in America’s public schools. In Biden’s education plan: there is no endorsement of standardized testing, no endorsement of holding schools accountable according to their aggregate test scores, and no support for vouchers for private and religious schools. Biden has not said he would end the federal Charter Schools Program, but he has pledged to better monitor and oversee charter schools.

Joe Biden’s Education Plan is all about our system of public education. He emphasizes the importance of expanding the opportunity to learn for every child regardless of race, ethnicity, family economics or the child’s primary language.  Biden’s plan proclaims: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high and low-income districts as well.  Biden will work to close this gap by nearly tripling Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families. This new funding will be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year olds have access to preschool, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few.”  Biden’s plan notes that the average public school teacher’s salary hasn’t increased since 1996, and he pledges to ensure that teachers receive wages competitive with salaries of other professionals. Over ten years, Biden pledges to provide federal funding to cover 40 percent of the cost of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a promise Congress made when the law was passed but a promise that has never been fulfilled. Currently Congress covers only just over 14 percent of the cost.  Biden pledges to add 300,000 new full service, wraparound Community Schools with medical and social services located in the school building, and he pledges to restore  justice for students by strengthening enforcement of regulations by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

In a recent column, Paul Krugman led with this comment on how Joe Biden, if elected, is likely to repair what Trump has done to government itself and to domestic policy: “(I)f Democrats win big, I expect to see many of Trump’s substantive policies reversed, and then some. Environmental protection and the social safety net will probably end up substantially stronger, taxes on the rich substantially higher, than they were under Barack Obama.”

If Joe Biden is elected President, I also expect him to begin repairing a quarter century of neoliberal expansion of school privatization as well as two decades of failed test-and-punish school accountability. If he is elected, I expect Biden to restore racial and economic justice in public schools as the central mission of the U.S. Department of Education.

High School Graduation—Rahm’s Plan Worse than Ohio’s Terrible Plan, But Arne Loves It

I had imagined it would be pretty hard to come up with worse high school graduation requirements than the new Ohio plan endorsed by Governor John Kasich. Watching the state move toward the implementation of our new graduation requirements a year from now is like watching a train speeding down the wrong track. It is expected that nearly a third of the students in Ohio’s Class of 2018 won’t be able to accrue the required 18 points—based on their cumulative scores on end-of-course exams—to graduate from high school next June. Remember that the cut scores on high stakes exams are not in some way scientific, but can be raised or lowered depending on how many students politicians want to pass or fail.

School superintendents from across Ohio have been holding protest rallies at the statehouse, and this week even the Ohio State Board of Education proposed a one-year emergency exemption to allow students to graduate from high school in June of 2018, as long as they have passed all their classes even though they may not have scored high enough on the tests. The State Board suggests that students could make up for low test scores with, “some career training goals or by doing things like having strong attendance or classroom grades their senior year.” For the members of the State Board to oppose Governor Kasich on this matter is pretty amazing. After all, eight of the 19 members of the Ohio State Board of Education are appointed by the governor and most of the rest of them are members of his party.

But Chicago’s mayor (who also runs the public schools) Rahm Emanuel just came up with a more punitive and less workable plan to toughen up. Here is the Chicago Tribune: “Emanuel’s proposal would add one more big item to the graduation checklist for high school seniors: proof they’ve been accepted into college or the military, or a trade or a ‘gap-year’ program. The requirement would also be satisfied if the student has a job or a job offer… Emanuel and his office said the ‘groundbreaking’ effort would make CPS the nation’s first large urban school district to require students to develop a plan for their lives after high school. He outlined the plan as CPS continues to struggle with financial problems that have led officials to warn the current school year could end three weeks early.”

DNA Info Chicago lists the ways students could meet the demands of Rahm’s new plan:

  • “College acceptance letter,
  • “Military acceptance/enlistment letter,
  • “Acceptance at a job training program, like a coding bootcamp,
  • “Acceptance into a trades apprenticeship or pre-apprenticeship program,
  • “Acceptance into a ‘gap-year’ program,
  • “Current job or job offer letter.”

While the Tribune describes Mayor Emanuel defending his plan with the traditional justification—“If you change expectations, it’s not hard for kids to adapt.”—many have questioned the wisdom of Emanuel’s thinking.  Some have even questioned the legality of his plan: “State laws and regulations aren’t clear on exactly how much authority school districts have to expand graduation requirements, said Miranda Johnson, who is the associate director of the Education Law and Policy Institute at Loyola University’s School of Law. “I think that raises questions when the requirements go beyond academic curriculum and extend into the student’s post-secondary choices… I think it also raises questions if those requirements are contingent on a third party’s action that may go beyond the scope of what the student can control.”

Emanuel’s plan hasn’t yet been voted on by the Chicago Board of Education. And some have noted, including Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, that, “A top CPS official also acknowledged… that every Chicago public high school graduate essentially already meets the new standard because graduation guarantees admittance to the City Colleges of Chicago community college system.”

We shouldn’t imagine, however, that all those students will be able to afford community college tuition. And there are also serious questions about the workability of such a requirement in a school district so broke that it may have to close three weeks early. (See here.)  School districts in dire fiscal circumstances are known to burden high school counselors with unworkable case loads of hundreds of students.

Peter Greene, a high school teacher in Pennsylvania, responded to Rahm’s new idea on his personal blog: “Steady job that’s not a trade?  Working musician? Stay-at-home mom? Person who just needs to spend a year or two working at a crappy minimum wage job while they figure out what they want to do next?  Manage the family business?  All of that and more have passed through my classroom and gone on to successful, productive, happy lives. Are you telling me we shouldn’t have given them a diploma because they didn’t do what we wanted them to after graduation.  Nor do I imagine for one Chicago Second that wealthy parents whose children are not ready for or aimed at one of these… choices while they are still high school seniors—those parents are going to say, ‘Oh, well, then.  I guess you don’t get a diploma.  Them’s the breaks.’  No—this is one more numbskulled reformy idea that wealthy parents would not tolerate for a single second… Demanding that an eighteen year old develop a life plan, right now, this minute, or else, is just rank foolishness.  To demand a commitment to that plan, right now, that involves a commitment to give up a year or spend a ton of money or both—also foolishness… But to attach such high stakes is the worst, particularly since three of the four options require someone to accept the student… Well, too bad, because now they have a double strike against them—no plan yet, and no diploma, either.”

But Rahm does have one cheerleader: our former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. It is instructive to read Arne Duncan’s Chicago Tribune op ed just as a reminder of the kind of technocratic nonsense we all lived with for nearly eight years. Arne was always using big city schools and their teachers and their students as the subjects of an experiment with one of his plans—Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, quick two-year school turnarounds like firing the teachers or closing or charterizing schools. We are still living with the collateral damage. Arne’s innovations rarely involved careful consideration of the possible negative externalities.  And he always focused on the program—certainly not the students in any kind of careful developmental or psychological way.

Arne is always motivated by competition—the endeavor to create and win the race to the top. Here is his analysis of Rahm’s new graduation plan: “For much of the last 10 years, America out-educated most other nations in the world, which drove the world’s strongest economy, built the middle class and made the American Dream possible for millions. In recent years, however, many other countries have caught up to us.”

Arne is also a technocrat—prone to focus on the mechanics of a program and the data sets that can be generated to hold it accountable—without considering how it might really affect the lives of particular children or their teachers or their counselors: “Every student needs a plan, whether that’s college, trade school, apprenticeships, the military, a job or even a  gap-year program that can open young eyes to the world and lead graduates in promising new directions. We should be tracking all of these outcomes and holding ourselves accountable for them.”

There is definitely a classist bias to Rahm’s new plan and Arne’s defense of it: “But too many… young people have no real plan for their future. They don’t have those dinner-table conversations about the future. Instead, they feel pressure to earn for themselves and their families and they can’t see a path forward… Middle-class parents expose their own children to work opportunities. They have networks of friends who can offer internships.  Their communities offer entry-level jobs to kids who are still in high school. For low-income kids however, those work experiences don’t just happen naturally.”  Arne expresses a whole lot of assumptions here about how eighteen-year-olds think and about the kind of opportunities that may not be happening so naturally in today’s economy even for middle class eighteen-year-olds.

Finally there is Arne’s love of incentives as primary motivators—the kind of psychology that has driven the past two decades of technocratic school “reform.”  Behaviorist psychology will tell you that if you are going to use incentives, you are far better offering carrots than sticks, but Arne and the school “reformers” have preferred threats and manipulation through fear. Threaten the jobs of teachers if they can’t quickly raise scores. Close or privatize schools that cannot quickly raise scores. Deny high school diplomas for students who don’t score well enough!  And set those cut scores really high; make it so tough it will motivate everybody.  Here is Arne describing Rahm’s plan: “Some people worry that raising graduation standards will cause more young people to drop out, but they’re wrong. Young people don’t drop out because school is too hard. They drop out because it is too easy and they are not engaged. They don’t understand how it’s relevant to their lives.”

So Rahm and Arne now endorse a plan to reduce dropouts with the threat of denying diplomas to students who have passed all their classes and their required tests but lack a life plan. Deny students without a plan their high school diploma, the very document required across our society as the credential for a next step in any plan a young person might eventually come up with.

Oh No! Now Arne Duncan’s Going to Rate Teacher Training Programs

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced last Friday that the Obama administration plans to develop ratings of colleges of education to make them more accountable for their graduates’ performance. Motoko Rich in the NY Times reports that the U.S. Department of education will propose rules to evaluate teacher training programs “using metrics that could include the number of graduates placed in schools, as well as pass rates on licensing exams, teacher retention rates and job performance ratings of teachers,” job performance ratings that presumably take into account the scores on standardized tests of the students in the classes of the teachers being rated.

Nobody thinks teacher training programs should be unaccountable.  In her book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch devotes several pages (pp. 274-277) to the topic of strengthening the teaching profession.  Her expectations are clear and explicit:  “To raise the quality of education in our schools, states and districts must strengthen the education profession.  Ideally, teachers should have a four-year degree with a major in the subject or subjects they plan to teach… Once they are admitted into a professional education program, they should engage in a year of study of such subjects as cognitive science, literacy, child development and adolescent psychology, the sociology of the family and the community, cultural diversity, the needs of students with disabilities, the nature of testing, and the history, politics, and economics of education. They should deepen their knowledge of the subject or subjects they plan to teach, with opportunities to plan lessons and work with mentors.  They should practice teaching under the guidance of an experienced teacher.  No one should be allowed to teach who has not spent a hear in the study and practice of the profession.  Once hired, they should work closely with a mentor teacher.”

The question is not about the ongoing need to strengthen teacher training, but about the kind of metrics-based evaluation program Arne Duncan will propose to establish through Department of Education rules, which means without Congressional oversight.

In her report for the NY Times, Motoko Rich substantiates Duncan’s assertion that we must develop a metrics-based teacher training system by reminding us of a 2013 critique of colleges of education by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).  Rich has forgotten about the need to check for Orwellian names (Think StudentsFirst—Michelle Rhee; Stand for Children—Jonah Edelman; Foundation for Excellence in Education—Jeb Bush.).  NCTQ is an organization that was established in 2000 by the very conservative Thomas Fordham Foundation, according to Diane Ravitch, for the purpose of promoting “alternative certification” programs not housed in the colleges of education.  Last June, when NCTQ released the report to which Rich refers, a flurry of critiques ensued from prominent educators.

Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University and chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing,  critiqued the report from NCTQ in detail:  “NCTQ’s methodology is a paper review of published course requirements and course syllabi against a check list that does not consider the actual quality of instruction that the programs offer, evidence of what their students learn, or whether graduates can actually teach.  Concerns about the organization’s methods led most schools of education nationally and in California to decline to participate in the data collection… NCTQ collected documents through websites and public records requests.  The ratings published in this report are, thus, based on partial and often inaccurate data, and fail to evaluate teacher education quality.”

This past winter Mike Rose, research professor at UCLA and author of the much admired book, Possible Lives, on the subject of excellent teachers, undertook to address the mass of issues around the quality of colleges of education and  to respond, in a series of three blog posts, to the NCTQ report.  Like Ravitch and Darling-Hammond, Rose believes colleges of education must always be strengthened, but he would caution us and Arne Duncan to respond with sensitivity to the task at hand: “College and university-based teacher education programs vary considerably by size, region, student body, nature and focus of curriculum, talent of instructional staff, status with home institution, balance of coursework and practice, relation with local district, and more.  Some are excellent, some are good and experimenting with ways to get better, some are weak in some respects but decent in others, some are marginal and poorly run.  The language of the current criticism of teacher ed, at least the most public language, doesn’t allow for this variability.”

Rose worries about the possibility that any new metrics for evaluating colleges of education will incorporate the standardized test scores of the public school students whose teachers’ colleges are being rated:  “The evaluation mechanism that many critics advocate—judging a program’s effectiveness by the test scores of the students taught by their graduates—seems like a fairly straightforward proposition, but, in fact, presents a host of conceptual and design problems. To be honest, I’m a little surprised that it’s being promoted with such gusto, given recent history.  Recall the multiple problems that arose with NCLB’s use of standardized tests to define achievement and determine a school’s or district’s effectiveness, and there are more recent debates about the technical complications in assessing teacher effectiveness through value-added measures.  It bespeaks of either social amnesia or technocratic enchantment that we would rush to a model driven by the standardized test score….”

Rose also addresses the bias so frequently heard in the teacher quality debate—the bias for the elite, Ivy League-trained teacher (Teach for America) and against the graduates of regional state teachers colleges, the kind of colleges that prepare the vast majority of America’s school teachers—who are neither likely to be able to afford Teachers College at Columbia University nor to travel away to Bank Street or Peabody to get an education:

“There’s an assumption in some of the reports—clearly stated in the one from NCTQ—that students interested in a teaching career are free agents, able to make the classical economists’ rational choice about benefits and losses, and act accordingly.  They are able to go to the school that will provide the greatest payoff. But… some students are not in a financial or personal position to make such a choice. The local teacher ed program is their only option. Reading these reports, one gets the sense that the authors are at a great social distance from the lives of such students.  Some of the reports also operate at a real distance from the colleges and universities they criticize. What struck me about several of the small out-of-the-way programs I visited during my travel for Possible Lives was how embedded they were in their communities, how well the faculty understood the kids in the schools, the local history, the social and economic pressures on the region. Some of the faculty themselves went to local, non-elite colleges or universities, they didn’t publish in scholarly journals, they didn’t have the bonafides of their contemporaries in snazzier institutions. But they were smart and skillful, and they provided substantial support to the novice teachers in their charge: mentoring them, meeting with them after hours, observing them teach.”

While Secretary Duncan will propose new ratings for teacher education programs, Rich reports that, “The administration’s proposals do not include any additional federal money to pay for the proposed rating systems, but about $100 million in existing funding for teacher preparation programs could be linked to their ratings.”  Why not use the $100 million to strengthen the programs themselves?

Master “The Gates Paradox” as Derived by the Gifted Adam Besse

Even if, like me, you are from the wrong generation and you missed The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you will want to read Adam Bessie’s wonderful new piece at Truthout.org.

You’ll learn about the Gates Paradox: “the power of your voice in the ‘education reform’ debate is proportional to the distance from the classroom (and your proximity to Silicon Valley) multiplied by the amount of money you earn.  Of course, each additional media outlet owned increases the influence by a factor of ten.”

According to Besse, however, “Greed… isn’t sufficient by itself to explain the zeal with which the Tech Titans pursue the reform agenda.”  We must also review Taylorism and the reformers’ faith in the Gospel of Efficiency and the Church of Progress.

Besse has penned quite a critique.  Enjoy!