How the Bad Old Third Grade Guarantee May Be Reborn to Hurt Children in the Post-COVID Era

On Friday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss republished an article about learning loss, an article that raises some very serious concerns about what will happen next fall when we can presume that most children will be back in school.

The article is by a former teacher, now an editor at a website called Edutopia.  Steven Merrill writes: “It’s perfectly sensible to worry about academic setbacks during the pandemic… But our obsessive need to measure academic progress and loss to the decimal point—an enterprise that feels at once comfortably scientific and hopelessly subjective—is also woefully out of time with the moment… If there’s a pressing need for measurement, it’s in the reckoning of the social, emotional, and psychological toll of the last 12 months.  Over 500,000 Americans have died.  Some kids will see their friends or favorite teachers in person for the first time in over a year…  Focusing on the social and emotional needs of the child first—on their sense of safety, self-worth, and academic confidence—is not controversial, and saddling students with deficit-based labels has predicable outcomes… (I)f we make school both welcoming and highly engaging… we stand a better chance of honoring the needs of all children and open up the possibility of connecting kids to topics they feel passionate about as we return to school next year.”

We know that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona is requiring states to administer the usual, federally mandated standardized tests for this school year. Cardona says he doesn’t intend for the tests to be used for school accountability, but instead to see which schools and school districts need the most help—a strange justification because the tests were designed for and have always been used for holding schools and teachers and even students accountable. And the punitive policies these tests trigger in schools across the country are well established. What if state legislatures and state departments of education merely use the test scores in this bizarre post-COVID school year to trigger the same old punishments we’ve been watching for years now?

For example, consider the Third Grade Guarantee, which originally came from Jeb Bush’s right-wing, Foundation for Excellence in Education, or as it is now called ExcelinEdCarly Sitrin, for Politico’s Recovery Lab recalls the history: “Republican school choice policymakers in the early 2000s… zeroed in on the third grade, passing the stricter third grade reading laws in place today.  Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was a huge proponent, as was Betsy DeVos… If a child is not reading at a third-grade level, they should be held back until they can. Some states pepper in funding incentives and additional literacy coaches to help kids upgrade their reading skills. Others leave these support measures out or include more anemic versions.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) creates model far-right legislation—bills that can be simply adapted and introduced in state legislatures across the country.  Back in 2012, the Third Grade Guarantee was included in an ALEC model law.  According to Chapter 7, Section 2 (C) of the ALEC model law, “Beginning with the 20XX-20XY school year, if the student’s reading deficiency, as identified in paragraph (a), is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring at Level 2 or higher on the state annual accountability assessment in reading for grade 3, the student must be retained.”

There is, however a downside to retaining students, even in the elementary school years. Children who are held back a grade are stigmatized as failures and more likely than other children to drop out of school before high school graduation. In 2004, writing for the Civil Rights Project, Lisa Abrams and Walt Haney summarized: “Half a decade of research indicates that retaining or holding back students in grade bears little to no academic benefit and contributes to future academic failure by significantly increasing the likelihood that retained students will drop out of high school.” (Gary Orfield, ed., Dropouts in America, pp. 181-182)

And David Berliner and Gene Glass report the research of Kaoru Yamamoto on the emotional impact on children of being held back: “Retention simply does not solve the quite real problems that have been identified by teachers looking for a solution to a child’s immaturity or learning problems…Only two events were more distressing to them: the death of a parent and going blind.” (50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, p. 96)

Sitrin profiles the dilemma in this COVID-19 school year of students in Tennessee, where policy makers have decided that, depending on standardized test scores, students whose third-grade reading scores are lagging will be held back in third grade, on top of missing out on all of the last year of schooling with their peers.

Sitrin profiles the family of David Scruggs Jr., who has helped his second grader in Nashville with online schooling all year: “For a year, the Scruggs worked to keep their kids from falling behind as the pandemic forced children to stay home… Now, the Scruggs and thousands of families like them in Tennessee and more than a dozen other states face a reckoning with how well they succeeded in their new role as substitute teachers. In the coming months, under a new, stricter state policy, if their son doesn’t do well enough on a standardized reading test next year, he could be forced to repeat a grade… Tennessee’s new law, enacted during a rushed statehouse voting session in January, dictates that if a third-grade student cannot read at grade level as measured by standardized tests, they will be held back until they can. The retention bill was one of several education measures fast-tracked with the support of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee in an attempt to respond to COVID-related learning loss… (I)n 18 states, including Tennessee, this decision will be made not by parents and their children,, but by state officials.”

Stephen Merrill worries that states’ test-and-punish policies will merely further stigmatize the most vulnerable students who will be “sorted in a way that will only exacerbate the equity issues… Can we—should we, in the aftermath of the clarifying events of the last year—find the will to challenge the testing regime, return some agency to both our teachers and our students, bring the science of learning into our classrooms, and honor all children with challenging, engaging work that ushers in a new, better, fairer era in education?”

Buying into the Social Contract is Different from Buying Education with a Public Tuition Voucher in a Privatized School Marketplace

For a quarter of a century, Ohio has pursued the accountability-based “education reform” strategy that was formalized in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

Ohio holds schools accountable for raising students’ scores on high-stakes standardized tests by imposing sanctions on schools and school districts unable quickly to raise scores. Ohio identifies so-called “failing” public schools, ranks them on school district report cards, and locates privatized charter schools and voucher qualification within the boundaries of low-scoring districts.  Additionally, the state takes over so-called failing school districts and imposes Academic Distress Commissions as overseers. Ohio’s students are held back in third grade if their reading scores are too low, and high school seniors must pass exit exams to graduate.

After more than two decades of this sort of school policy, student achievement hasn’t increased and test score gaps have not closed.  Ohio is a state with eight big cities—Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Toledo, Youngstown, Akron, and Canton; lots of smaller cities and towns; Appalachian rural areas and Indiana-like rural areas; and myriad income-stratified suburbs. Just as they do across the United States, aggregate standardized test scores correlate most closely with family and neighborhood income, not with the characteristics of the public schools. In the fall of 2019, the Plain Dealer’s data wonk, Rich Exner, created a series of bar graphs to demonstrate the almost perfect correlation of school districts’ letter grades on the state school district report card with family income.

But while Ohio has punished so-called “failing” schools, it hasn’t done much to help the public schools in Ohio’s poorest communities. In profound testimony before the Ohio State Board of Education in early April, Policy Matters Ohio’s Wendy Patton described several decades of fiscal realities for Ohio’s 610 school districts, conditions that have accompanied the decades of punitive accountability: “(T)he state provided slightly more than half of the funding for Ohio schools, on average, in 1987, but since then local dollars have paid for the greater part of funding… Gov. Ted Strickland narrowed the gap over his 4 year term…. But Gov. John Kasich promptly reversed that effort with a $1.8 billion cut to school funding imposed over the two-year budget of 2012-13.  School funding has lagged ever since. By 2020, the state share of school funding had fallen to its lowest point since 1985.”

Patton continues, noting that state funding has been not only inadequate but also unstable: “Lawmakers have allowed state funding for Ohio’s public schools to rise and fall over time, adjusted for inflation. They also changed the formula for granting state aid four times over the past dozen years.  Uncertainty in state aid made planning and staffing hard for districts…  Poverty affects children’s ability to learn, and concentrated poverty makes it worse.  In the first years following the Supreme Court finding (DeRolph case), educators persuaded the legislature to provide extra funding for students experiencing poverty.  But over time the number of economically disadvantaged students in Ohio rose, but funding did not keep pace.”

While Ohio’s legislature has doggedly enacted punitive school accountability and at the same time allowed school funding to collapse, however, in recent years a philosophical divide in the legislature has emerged and widened on the subject of public school funding.  Despite that both of Ohio’s legislative chambers are now dominated by Republican supermajorities, the Ohio House, led by Bob Cupp, passed a major Fair School Funding Plan last December, a plan that meets the 24-year—until now unfulfilled—mandate of the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in DeRolph v. Ohio.  The Ohio House passed the Fair School Funding Plan by an overwhelming margin of 87-9 and sent it to the Senate, where Senate Finance Committee Chair Matt Dolan and incoming Senate President Matt Huffman killed the plan at the end of the legislative session by refusing to bring it to the floor for a vote.

In early February in the Ohio House, sponsors immediately reintroduced the Fair School Funding Plan at the beginning of the new legislative session. Then the Ohio House folded the plan into the proposed FY 2022-23 biennial budget, which the House passed on Wednesday and sent forward as HB 110 to the Ohio Senate. Although the need for a new school funding plan has been exhaustively demonstrated, there is widespread worry that the fate of the Fair School Funding plan rests with Senator Matt Huffman, whose website defines him this way: “President Huffman is devoted to quality school choices for all families, lowering taxes and reducing regulations on Ohio’s small business.”

The Toledo Blade‘s Jim Provance describes Huffman’s careful but unenthusiastic response to the school funding plan in the new budget: “Senate President Matt Huffman (R.. Lima) raised concerns about the general level of spending in the House-passed plan: ‘Financially, the government is in good shape at the state level… That doesn’t mean necessarily all the citizens are. I think it’s easier to make decisions that can be catastrophic in the long term when, at the moment, there’s a lot of money available.'”

The Cincinnati Enquirer‘s Jessie Balmert reports the same kind of lukewarm, cautious response from Huffman: “The fate of that new school funding formula, which would be phased in over six years, is murky.  Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, has said he doesn’t like the price tag, and the GOP-controlled Senate is working on its own way to pay for schools.”

The thing is that Matt Huffman has not been the least bit shy about expanding his own priority for school privatization. Last November he alone revised one of Ohio’s punitive educational accountability schemes—EdChoice Vouchers—by putting the burden for paying for the vouchers on the state’s poorest school districts. In late November of last year, Huffman rammed through, without any open hearings, changes in the EdChoice Voucher program, which has for several years been funded through school district deductions. (The state counts voucher students as though they are enrolled in a school district and then removes $6,000 for each high school student and $4,650 for each K-8 student right out of the school district’s local budget for the student to pay private school tuition. The district receives the state’s per-pupil basic aid for each of the students, but in many cases the voucher extracts more money than the school district receives for that student from the state.)  In November, to solidify support for the program from legislators representing Ohio’s wealthy suburbs, Huffman revised the program so that only students in federally designated Title I schools can now qualify for EdChoice vouchers, thereby placing the financial burden of this program only on the school districts serving Ohio’s poorest children.

Now that the Fair School Funding Plan has been sent to the Ohio Senate as part of the House budget, the worry, of course, is that Huffman’s chamber will delete the plan—developed over several years to balance the need for adequate and equitably distributed state school funding—or redesign it to save money. The plan is calculated around the actual costs of personnel like teachers, counselors, and school nurses and other basics like technology, transportation, and facilities.  In a House Finance Committee hearing on December 2, 2020, Ohio school funding expert Howard Fleeter presented testimony explaining that due to a long collapse in school funding, Ohio’s school funding formula has ceased to work: “The FY10-11 school year was the last year in which Ohio had a school funding formula… which was based on objective methodologies for determining the cost of providing an adequate education to Ohio’s 1.6 million public school students.  In FY12 and FY13, Ohio employed the ‘Bridge’ formula which was not really a formula at all, instead basing funding on FY11 levels. From FY14 through FY19, Ohio did have a school funding formula; however, this formula suffered from several significant deficiencies. First the base cost was not based on any adequacy methodology, instead just utilizing per pupil amounts selected by the legislature. This approach is the very embodiment of ‘residual budgeting’ which was explicitly ruled unconstitutional in the March 1997 DeRolph ruling.”  Although the term “residual budgeting” sounds technical, what Fleeter means is that from FY 14 to FY 19, without considering actual school expenses, the Legislature simply set per-pupil state funding based on now much “residual” money the Legislature had left in the budget after funding all the other expenses of state government.

What would cause Ohio’s state senators to fail to address such a serious injustice for our state’s children?

What we are watching here in Ohio is a conflict in basic values between House and Senate and even between two Republicans from Lima, Ohio: Bob Cupp, the Speaker of the House, and Matt Huffman, the Senate President. Senator Huffman understands schooling from the point of view of consumerist individualism: He supports policies that encourage families to choose their children’s education privately as though they are buying a car or a selecting a smart phone. But the money to pay tuition would come from Ohio tax revenues. Representative Cupp, who has spent a long legislative career informing himself about school finance, understands our public schools, protected by the specific language of the Ohio Constitution, as the center of the social contract. Public education is an institution that epitomizes our mutual responsibility to each other as fellow citizens in a democratic experiment.

The wide support for the Fair School Funding plan expressed by the members of the Ohio House of Representatives demonstrates the values defined by the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Big Data on Learning Loss Is Not the Point: Teachers Know How to Use Formative Assessments to Guide Their Work with Each Child

Recently on the news, I heard an education researcher discussing the importance of using standardized tests to measure something called “learning loss” across racial, ethnic, and regional groups of children during the pandemic.

Like so many others, this so-called expert made the for case for reinstating—this spring during the pandemic—the standardized testing prescribed by the federal government in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Ignoring the impossibility of collecting valid and reliable data and the impracticality of even of trying to administer the tests when some students are learning online and others attending in-person classrooms, this person pretended Miguel Cardona, the new education secretary, can merely require the tests and they will happen.  She implied that the mandated tests in two subjects, basic language arts and math, will inform teaching once students come back to school even though we know that teachers do not receive scores for months and the data they receive will not contain information about the particular questions students get right or wrong. And she didn’t mention that even if a teacher did know exactly how a student marked any particular multiple choice answer, it would tell the teacher nothing about that student’s thinking.

Then this specialist who wanted to measure “learning loss” reinforced the notion that the collection of national data would enable the federal government and the states to invest in the schools where children are farthest behind. Advocates for standardized testing this spring often justify the need for testing during the pandemic as a way to drive investment in schools, as though investing in schools where children are farther behind has ever been the result of our regime of standardized testing. Anybody who has been paying attention over the past two decades since NCLB mandated annual standardized testing knows that aggregate test scores have not once—federally or at the state level—driven added funding to the schools where students’ scores are low.

The whole regime has been correctly called “test-and-punish” because NCLB prescribed sanctions for so-called failing schools and the states have adopted the same responses: add charter school choice in so called “failing” school districts; make students in so-called “failing” schools eligible for vouchers for private school tuition; close so-called “failing” schools and relocate the students; take over the so-called “failing” school districts in Detroit or Newark or Philadelphia or Chester Upland or Lorain or Youngstown or East Cleveland and put a state-appointed overseer in charge.

Title I is an important national program providing federal compensatory funding for school districts serving concentrations of poor children, but if he can bring Congress along, President Biden has already promised to triple funding for this federal program which has long been underfunded despite two decades of standardized testing which have clearly identified Title I schools as places desperately in need of greater investment.  During the presidential campaign last year, Biden identified the need for more money in the same school districts where families have been devastated by COVID-19: “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.”

Seventy-four education advocacy groups and over 10,000 individuals wrote a letter to the incoming education secretary to demand that he grant states waivers to cancel the NCLB/ESSA mandated testing.  One sentence in that letter stood out for me: “To believe that it is impossible for teachers to identify and address learning gaps without a standardized test is to have a breathtaking lack of faith in our nation’s teachers.”

I worry that many people do lack faith in schoolteachers, because I believe that most people lack any understanding of what teachers do.

In a profound article, the executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, Patricia Wright explains the work of teachers in words that will perhaps help the public grasp why Miguel Cardona should readily grant states waivers to skip standardized testing this spring.

Wright begins: “There has been a lot of talk lately about ‘learning loss.’ How will students catch up? What will educators do when schools are finally able to return to full in-person instruction?… Students do not need to feel like they are now susceptible to failure or that their future is in jeopardy because they may not have fully grasped certain skills and knowledge. Educators know that students need to see themselves, not just making up what they may have lost, but moving forward and accelerating their learning. Educators know how to do this work. They do it every day. Schools across the state are already collecting student data, examining and revising their curriculum and making plans to continually use assessment information throughout the next school year to inform their instruction. This will allow them to provide the necessary interventions and supports to ensure students can continue to accelerate their learning. This is the professional practice of education, something we do very well in New Jersey.”

Wrignt continues: “Schools will need to depend on formative assessment, which is assessment for learning.  It is currently used by educators to identify where students are in relation to the academic standards that are required in their current grade level… Formatively assessing students throughout the year will allow educators to bridge the learning gaps as students continue to move forward, focused simultaneously on remediation and acceleration.”

For a better understanding of formative testing, we can turn to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing’s Monty Neill, who defines the kind of formative testing teachers use all the time: “(T)eachers must gather information. Teachers must keep track of student learning, check up on what students have learned, and find out what’s going on with them. Keeping track means observing and documenting what students do. Checking up involves various kinds of testing and quizzing. Finding out is the heart of classroom assessment: What does the child mean? What did the child get from the experience? Why did the child do what he or she did? To find out, teachers must ask questions for which they do not already know the answers. To gather all this information, teachers can rely on a range of assessment activities. These include structured and spur-of-the-moment observations that are recorded and filed; formal and informal interviews; collections of work samples; use of extended projects, performances, and exhibitions; performance exams; and various forms of short-answer testing.”

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.

Skepticism Grows About High-Stakes, Test Based School Accountability and Privatization

Nick Hanauer’s confession that neoliberal, “corporate accountability” school reform doesn’t work is not entirely surprising to me.  After all, No Child Left Behind was left behind several years ago.

And Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on our 25 year experiment with high stakes, test-based accountability, says: “It’s no exaggeration to say that the costs of test-based accountability have been huge. Instruction has been corrupted on a broad scale. Large amounts of instructional time are now siphoned off into test-prep activities that at best waste time and at worst defraud students and their parents… The primary benefit we received in return for all of this was substantial gains in elementary school math that don’t persist until graduation.”(The Testing Charade, p 191)

Nick Hanauer is a smart venture capitalist who has been paying attention, so it isn’t so surprising he has noticed that we still have enormous gaps in school achievement between the children raised in pockets of extreme privilege and the children raised in the nation’s very poorest and most segregated communities. Because he is an influential guy, however, I am delighted that Hanauer published his confession in The Atlantic:

“Long ago, I was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system… This belief system, which I have come to think of as ‘educationism,’ is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world…  But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way.  We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall.  School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy.  As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class… Taken with this story line, I embraced education as both a philanthropic cause and a civic mission… All told, I have devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to the simple idea that if we improved our schools… American children, especially those in low-income and working-class communities, would start learning again… But after decades of organizing and giving, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I was wrong.”

Hanauer—along with Bill Gates, the Waltons, and other philanthropists—has continued to invest heavily in the growth of charter schools.  The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss interviewed Hanauer last week about his recent confession: “In 2009 or thereabouts, I had an awakening. A friend sent me the IRS tax tables that showed the changes in income distribution that had occurred over the decades I had been working on education. The story those numbers showed was devastating.  When I graduated from high school in 1977, the top 1% of earners got less than 8% of national income. In 2007, 30 years later, that number had increased to 22.86%.  Worse, the bottom 50% of Americans’ share of national income had fallen from approximately 18% to 12%.  I was horrified by these trends, and frankly, shocked.  I had put so much work and so much faith in the Educationist theory of change, and all my work had amounted to nothing…. Nevertheless, I was under pressure to keep grinding on the same stuff in the same way, only harder.  You get a lot of strokes in the community for working on public education, and I did.  I was ‘the education guy.’  But it just didn’t feel right.”

Strauss describes how the priorities of hedge fund leaders, venture capitalists, and giant philanthropies dovetailed with the education priorities of the Obama administration, “which launched a $4.3 billion education initiative called Race to the Top.  It dangled federal funds in front of resource-starved states if they embraced the administration’s education priorities.  Those included charter school expansion, the Common Core, and revamping of teacher evaluation systems that used student standardized test scores as a measure of effectiveness….”

Barack Obama jumped on the education “reform”  bandwagon early, back in June of 2005, when, as the junior Senator from Illinois, he spoke at the launch of Democrats for Education Reform. In his, 2011, history of education “reform,” Class Warfare, Stephen Brill describes the players in the effort to lure Democrats into embracing corporate accountability for schools.  DFER was launched by a bunch of New York hedge fund managers when Obama was in New York City raising money to run for a second Senate term: “While in town he helped Boykin Curry, John Petry, and Whitney Tilson launch a group they had created called Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Obama had agreed to be a guest at a party they had put together for people who shared their interest in school reform and wanted to get involved. Curry, Petry, and Tilson had chipped in a little of their own money plus some from a few friends, to start DFER.  The fourth member of their board was Charles Ledley, another value investor friend… Curry, Petry, and Tilson were immediately smitten with Obama, who seemed to talk about education reform as if it was no big deal for a Democrat to be doing so.  He recalled visiting a successful Chicago school where one teacher had complained to him about what she referred to as the ‘these kids’ syndrome that prevailed at traditional inner-city public schools, which, she explained, ‘was the willingness of society to accept that ‘these kids’ can’t learn or succeed.’… Obama… spent part of his talk extolling charter schools and what they demonstrated about how all children could learn if they had good teachers in good schools.” (Class Warfare, pp. 131-132)

Obama was, of course, merely articulating what had become the conventional wisdom among wealthy hedge funders, philanthropists, and even Democratic politicians. The term, “conventional wisdom,” was defined by economist, John Kenneth Galbraith as, “the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability.” The “corporate school reform” conventional wisdom—about the failure of traditional public schools as the cause of a wide achievement gap between white children and children of color and between wealthy children and poor children—had been cast into law in the No Child Left Behind Act, passed with bipartisan support and signed by President George W. Bush in January of 2002.  The law was designed to pressure staff in low scoring schools to raise expectations for their students or their schools would be sanctioned with a cascade of ever more punitive consequences.  No Child Left Behind’s strategy was neither to increase public investment in the schools in the poorest communities nor to ameliorate child poverty.

Last week, after Hanauer published his admission that he no longer supports school reform based on high stakes, test-and-punish accountability and the reliance on privatization as a turnaround strategy, former President Barack Obama responded.  Valerie Strauss quotes the response to Hanauer tweeted by President Obama: “This is worth a read: a thought-provoking reminder that education reform isn’t a cure-all.  As a supporter of education reform, I agree that fixing educational inequality requires doing more to address broader, systemic sources of economic inequality.”  In his response to Hanauer, Obama doesn’t fully reject the school turnaround strategies embedded in his administration’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant programs, but he admits that he has himself done some rethinking.

It is significant that Nick Hanauer, one of America’s financial and philanthropic glitterati, is openly questioning corporate, accountability-based school reform ideas, and it is also a good thing that former President Obama, who promoted such policies, is listening.  But it should concern us all that the ideas and biases of the wealthy have such inflated influence on public policy these days. How did it happen that those who have shaped the conventional wisdom about education blamed the professionals in the schools instead of listening to school teachers?  And how did policymakers miss an enormous body of academic research that has shown for half a century that poverty and inequality are a primary cause of gaps in school achievement?

In November of 2016, in a brief from a leading center of academic research, the National Education Policy Center, William Mathis and Tina Trujillo warn about Lessons from NCLB: “The No Child Left Behind Act was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) with great fanfare and enthusiasm. Granting more power to states and curbing what was seen as federal overreach was well received.  Nevertheless, the new system remains a predominantly test-based accountability system that requires interventions in the lowest scoring five percent of schools.  The new law… shows little promise of remedying the systemic under resourcing of needy students.  Giving the reform politics of high-stakes assessment and privatization the benefit of the most positive research interpretation, the benefits accrued are insufficient to justify their use as comprehensive reform strategies. Less generous interpretations of the research provide clear warnings of harm. The research evidence over the past 30 years further tells us that unless we address the economic bifurcation in the nation, and the opportunity gaps in the schools, we will not be successful in closing the achievement gap.”

School reform, according to the theories of venture capitalists, hedge fund managers, and giant philanthropies, is emblematic of the sort of policy—driven by elites— that Anand Giridharadas warns us about in his, 2018, book, Winners Take All: “What is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests. We must decide whether, in the name of ascendant values such as efficiency and scale, we are willing to allow democratic purpose to be usurped by private actors who often genuinely aspire to improve things, but first things first, seek to protect themselves… We must ask ourselves why we have so easily lost faith in the engines of progress that got us where we are today—in the democratic efforts to outlaw slavery, end child labor, limit the workday, keep drugs safe, protect collective bargaining, create public schools, battle the Great Depression, electrify rural America, weave a nation together by road, pursue a Great Society free of poverty, extend civil and political rights to women and African Americans and other minorities, and give our fellow citizens health, security, and dignity in old age.” (Winners Take All, pp. 10-11)

Columnist Susie Kaeser Imagines Educational Nightmare

This column by Cleveland Heights, Ohio public education activist Susie Kaeser flips our point of view about what has come to be called “corporate school reform.”

Imagine —

“When it comes to academic success, all children are immune to such factors as their parents’ situation, access to food and health care, vision or hearing issues, early childhood education or enrichment experiences, stress, expectations for academic achievement, the number of times they move in a year, trauma affecting people they care about, the learning conditions in their schools, language barriers or their ability to concentrate.”

“Every child—regardless of economic status, educational setting or personal challenges—is expected to learn the same amount, at the same rate….”

“Regulators have developed quick and inexpensive tools that can measure the depth and breadth of academic success.  A machine can grade the measurement tool, and a mathematical formula disconnected from real life experience determines the score that indicates whether a child is good to go.”

Kaeser explores the implications of such thinking that many of us just accept these days as the conventional wisdom underlying public school policy at the federal and state levels.

What if we step outside the assumptions that have become our steady diet for nearly a quarter of a century and take a look at what is really happening to our children?

Check out Kaeser’s column, This Fantasy is a Nightmare!

Jeff Bryant and Amy Stuart Wells Show How Test-and-Punish Contributes to School Segregation

In an important and insightful piece yesterday for the Education Opportunity Network, How ‘Education Reform’ Perpetuates Racial Disparity, Jeff Bryant examines a new report (released late last week by the U.S. Department of Education) about racial disparities in public schools.

Bryant writes:  “America was shocked, shocked, by new data from the U.S. Department of Education last week showing that a child’s education destiny in the nation’s public schools is strongly determined by race.  As the report in the New York Times put it, the new data revealed that, ‘racial minorities are more likely than white students to be suspended from school….’  But racial disparities in the nation’s schools aren’t just about the discipline.  As both the Times report mentioned… and Education Week reported, when students of color aren’t getting disproportionally kicked out of school, they are getting an inferior education.”

Bryant would like to see the Department of Education focus not so much on the presence of educational inequality as on its causes.  He is also looking for some leadership to show us how these problems can be addressed:  “Shocking data for sure… But surely one would think this data would prompt explanation.  Not so much.  In reporting the data, the Department itself found no fault and placed no blame.  As a report in The Huffington Post stated, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could only say, ‘this data collection shines a clear, unbiased light on places’ but not on any policies, people, or other causational factors.”

For more challenging and useful analysis, Bryant points us to a new report published by the National Education Policy Center, Seeing Past the Colorblind” Myth of Education Policy, a report authored by Teachers College professor Amy Stuart Wells who is an expert on the history of efforts to desegregate public schools.  Wells blames the current “corporate school reform” movement itself for exacerbating injustice for children of color who live in urban areas of concentrated poverty—the very children who are claimed by school “deformers” to be the beneficiaries of these policies.  According to Bryant, Wells identifies decades-old civil rights policies such as school desegregation and affirmative action as correlated with higher achievement by children of color, but condemns today’s brand of so-called school “reform” for intensifying disparities by race in school achievement.

Bryant points to Wells’ conclusion: a system of  “reform” that rewards schools and districts consistently able to post high test scores will by its very nature stigmatize schools and school districts where the children are living in poverty.  After all, five decades of research demonstrate that test scores correlate more closely with family income than any other variable.  Test-score-based systems like ours in America today create a competition among school districts—stigmatizing racially and economically diverse districts and creating incentives for parents with means to seek out the homogeneous, wealthier, high-scoring school districts in the outer suburbs.  Today’s  brand of “school reform” promotes segregation by race and economics.

Here is how Wells herself describes the problem in Seeing Past the Colorblind” Myth of Education Policy:

“When the entire educational system is not only separate and unequal along racial/ethnic lines, but also measured, evaluated and then ‘valued’ almost exclusively according to test scores, the correlation between race and schools deemed to be ‘bad’ based only on these narrow measures is high, exacerbating the race-based inequalities that already exist…. First, neighborhood and school district boundaries are divided by race.  Second, the policy drift away from desegregation and toward market-based school choice policies has led to more racially segregated schools.  And finally, the narrow, test-driven accountability system has fostered negative perceptions of racially diverse schools in comparison with privileged and homogeneous schools.”

I urge you to read and think about Bryant’s accessible article.  If you are able to spend more time, delve into Well’s longer report.  Also check out this blog’s post last Monday, Obama & Duncan Merely Pretend to Address School Inequity.  The post explores problems with the same data report Bryant criticizes from the U.S. Department of Education, some of the causal factors Duncan’s report ignores, and what some experts have proposed as ways to address these disparities.