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?”

Does Education Secretary Cardona Recognize the Two Huge Problems with High-Stakes Testing?

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona insists that federally mandated standardized testing will go on as usual in this COVID-19 dominated year. While his decision feels particularly impractical, intrusive, complicated and disruptive in the midst of COVID-19, the decision is of much deeper concern for two reasons.

This blog will take the holiday weekend off. Look for a new post on Wednesday, April 7.

One would like to think that Dr. Cardona is familiar with the huge debate that has consumed education experts and also many parents who have been opting out for years now.  But when Dr. Cardona explained why testing must go on as usual, he didn’t even bother to offer a rationale that addresses any of the reasons experts have insisted he should cancel the tests once again this year. Instead he said we need the tests so that the Department of Education can ensure that federal investment goes to the school districts that need it most. That is such a lovely thought, and if tests were designed and used to gauge needed investment in the poorest communities, it would be wonderful. 

But standardized tests, as mandated by No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, were not designed to drive a system of test-and-invest. They are instead the very foundation of a maze of policies at the federal level—and now federally mandated across the states—to identify so-called “failing schools” and to punish them.

The first kind of damage caused by high-stakes testing is pedagogical. Standardized testing and its preparation have deeply affected what happens in the classroom itself. Dr. Cardona’s decision to insist on tests in this schoolyear will undermine what students need most when school resumes in some sort of post pandemic normal.

At his Rethinking Learning blog, Rich tenEyck explains: “For more than 20 years now, we have been told that a major component of the ‘standards movement’ was the creation and use of large-scale assessments required by federal funding programs. These were sold as a critical source of information about how much our kids are learning… These annual tests are far more reliable predictors of family wealth than as tools for helping teachers better respond to student needs. Educators have known this and have frequently tried to alert us to the misunderstanding and the misuse of these tests. What has happened as a result?  These teachers and school leaders have been vilified… But what if the tests required by various pieces of federal legislation never really tested learning at all? What if they tested the recall of many isolated and disconnected facts?… What if the tests provide almost no insight into the real learning needs of kids?”

Educator and blogger Steve Nelson diagnoses the special problem with standardized tests this spring when some students are online, others in hybrid settings, some disconnected: “In keeping with the illogical, inhumane, and ineffectual practices of the recent past, the testing industry will look for all the deficits it can find, so as to identify the mythical ‘learning losses,’ so that the least privileged can be remediated using materials produced by the testing industry, thereby further depriving them of the experiences they need most… Renowned cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner and many others have determined that social context is the most important variable in real learning. Relationships among and between teachers and students determine the quality of school experience. Now more than ever kids need to be back in the good company of their friends and their teachers.”

And Alfie Kohn reminds us: “John Dewey described how a curriculum that’s based on students’ questions and connects with their experiences has ‘an inherent attracting power.’” Kohn continues: “The whole standards-and-testing edifice of our education system consists of expectations and outcomes that have been devised by distant authorities, imposed on students (and teachers!), and enforced by exams to ensure ‘accountability.’ These standards are often breathtakingly granular in their specificity because the whole approach is rooted in an outdated behaviorist model of learning.”

Standards and test-based accountability have moved us far away from the progressive philosophy of education advocated by Kohn, Nelson, and tenEyck. But there is also a second problem is that is structural and systemic: Standardized testing has damaged the very foundation of our entire system of public education. Ohio’s Bill Phillis captured the extent of the problem in his daily comment on Tuesday: “The No Child Left Behind Act has put the nation at risk… After four decades of reform by politicians, teachers are demoralized. Poor school districts are still poor with test scores lower than rich districts. Billions have been largely wasted on charters and vouchers. The voucher and charter advocates have developed powerful lobbies and billionaire partners. The future of the time-honored common school system is in jeopardy.”

Today states are required by the Every Student Succeeds Act to identify the bottom performing schools according to their standardized test scores and to submit to the U.S. Department of Education a plan to turnaround these schools. This system attaches high stakes to the standardized test scores as a tool to blame and punish educators and make them work harder. The punishments it imposes are severe.

  • Many states create and publish school and school district report cards which rate and rank schools and school districts.  
  • Some states take over so-called failing schools and school districts and impose state appointed overseers and academic distress commissions to manage low scoring schools and school districts.
  • Other states, or sometimes the administrators of school districts, shut down low scoring schools and, ironically, call the shutdowns a turnaround strategy.
  • States use test scores to hold children back in third grade if their reading scores are too low.
  • Many states deny students who have passed all of their high school classes a diploma when they don’t score proficient on the state’s graduation test.
  • Even though statisticians have shown that students’ test scores are not valid as a tool for evaluating teachers, and even though the federal government has ceased demanding that states use test scores for teachers’ evaluations, a number of states continue this policy.
  • School districts with F grades are the places where many states permit the location of charter schools or where students qualify for private school tuition vouchers—sometimes with dollars taken right out of the school district’s budget.
  • Because test scores tend to correlate closely with a community’s aggregate family income, the federal high-stakes standardized testing regime brands the schools in the poorest communities as “failing schools.”
  • The branding of poor school districts causes educational redlining and middle class flight.

A lot of people are watching Education Secretary Miguel Cardona carefully to gauge whether he grasps the depth of the problems with high stakes testing, first, pedagogically within our nation’s classrooms, and second, through the test-based system itself that punishes instead of assisting the schools that need the most help.

Diane Ravitch summarizes why people are so concerned that Secretary Cardona has not acknowledged the damage of the high-states testing regime: “These tests have high stakes for students (who might fail to be promoted), teachers (who might be fired if their students’ test scores don’t rise), and schools (which might be closed if test scores don’t go up)… The challenge for Miguel Cardona, Biden’s Secretary of Education, will be to abandon two decades of high-stakes testing and accountability and to remove any federal incentives to create privately managed charter schools.”

Linda Darling-Hammond Disappoints in Cleveland City Club Address

Linda Darling-Hammond is a national figure in the field of education policy.  She is the President and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute at Stanford University, where she is an emeritus professor of education, and she headed up President Obama’s transition team for education. She is the author of several books including The Flat World and Education, in which she declares: “One wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity, and put the millions of dollars spent continually arguing and litigating into building a high quality education system for all children.” (p. 164)

Last Friday, Darling-Hammond delivered the weekly address at the Cleveland City Club.  I was disappointed.

Darling-Hammond declared that “we have left No Child Left Behind (NCLB) behind” and implied that its 2015 replacement, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, has erased the punitive philosophy of its NCLB predecessor.  Darling-Hammond then devoted most of her prepared remarks to Ohio’s adoption of one of her own research priorities—social-emotional learning—into the state’s new five-year strategic plan for education.  Darling-Hammond chaired the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, which on January 15, 2019 published its final report, From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope.

Of course one cannot blame an academic for focusing a major policy address on her own particular research interest. But I was disappointed nonetheless, because Darling-Hammond’s remarks so completely neglected what I and many others believe are alarming realities today in Ohio public school policy. More broadly she also failed to acknowledge catastrophic school funding shortages brought to national attention by striking school teachers for almost a year now from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Arizona and in the past two weeks in Los Angeles, funding shortages caused by tax cuts and tax freezes and exacerbated when scarce tax dollars are redirected to privatized charter schools and voucher programs. Only after she had finished her prepared remarks and in answer to a question about Ohio’s punitive state school district takeovers, did she briefly comment on the enormous and controversial policies many in the audience hoped she would address.

Despite that Darling-Hammond told us she believes the kind of punitive high-stakes school accountability prescribed by No Child Left Behind is fading, state-imposed sanctions based on aggregate standardized test scores remain the drivers of Ohio public school policy. Here are some of our greatest challenges:

  • Under a Jeb Bush-style Third Grade Guarantee, Ohio still retains third graders for another year of third grade when their reading test scores are too low. This is despite years of academic research demonstrating that retaining children in a grade for an additional year smashes their self esteem and exacerbates the chance they will later drop out of school without graduating.  This policy runs counter to anything resembling social-emotional learning.
  • Even though the federal government has ended the Arne Duncan requirement that states use students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, in Ohio, students’ standardized test scores continue to be used for the formal evaluations of their teachers.  The state has reduced the percentage of weight students’ test scores play in teachers’ formal evaluations, but students’ test scores continue to play a role.
  • Aggregate student test scores remain the basis of the state’s branding and ranking of our public schools and school districts with letter grades—A-F,  with attendant punishments for the schools and school districts that get Fs.
  • When a public school is branded with an F, the students in that so-called “failing” school qualify for an Ed Choice Voucher to be used for private school tuition. And the way Ohio schools are funded ensures that in most cases, local levy money in addition to state basic aid follows that child.
  • Ohio permits charter school sponsors to site privately managed charter schools in so-called “failing” school districts. The number of these privatized schools is expected to rise next year when a safe-harbor period (that followed the introduction of a new Common Core test) ends.  Earlier this month, the Plain Dealer reported: “Next school year, that list of ineffective schools (where students will qualify for Ed Choice Vouchers) balloons to more than 475… The growth of charter-eligible districts grew even more, from 38 statewide to 217 for next school year. Once restricted to only urban and the most-struggling districts in Ohio, charter schools can now open in more than a third of the districts in the state.”
  •  If a school district is rated “F” for three consecutive years, a law pushed through in the middle of the night by former Governor John Kasich and his allies subjects the district to state takeover. The school board is replaced with an appointed Academic Distress Commission which replaces the superintendent with an appointed CEO.  East Cleveland this year will join Youngstown and Lorain, now three years into their state takeovers—without academic improvement in either case.
  • All this punitive policy sits on top of what many Ohioans and their representatives in both political parties agree has become an increasingly inequitable school funding distribution formula. Last August, after he completed a new study of the state’s funding formula, Columbus school finance expert, Howard Fleeter described Ohio’s current method of funding schools to the Columbus Dispatch: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

Forty-two minutes into the video of last Friday’s City Club address by Darling-Hammond, when a member of the Ohio State Board of Education, Meryl Johnson asked the speaker to comment on Ohio’s state takeovers of so called “failing” school districts, Darling-Hammond briefly addressed the tragedy of the kind of punitive systems that now dominate Ohio’s public school policy: “We have been criminalizing poverty in a lot of different ways, and that is one of them… There’s about a .9 correlation between the level of poverty and test scores.  So, if the only thing you measure is the absolute test score, then you’re always going to have the high poverty communities at the bottom and then they can be taken over.” But rather than address Ohio’s situation directly, Darling-Hammond continued by describing value-added ratings of schools which she implied could instead be used to measure what the particular school contributes to learning, and then she described the educational practices in other countries she has studied.

In the context of the new report of the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, which she chaired, Darling-Hammond’s focus last Friday was social-emotional learning. The Commission’s new report emphasizes the need to broaden “the definition of student success to prioritize he whole child.”  The report recommends that our society: “Develop and use measures to track progress across school and out-of-schools settings, with a focus on continuous improvement rather than on rewards and sanctions.”

I wish Darling-Hammond had more pointedly applied the Commission’s findings to Ohio, where, while people applaud the goal, there have been serious questions about whether Ohio’s addition of social-emotional learning in the state’s new five-year strategic plan is workable in our underfunded and terribly punitive, high stakes testing environment. Some of the factors that affect a school’s capacity to support the social and emotional needs of students are small classes that ensure students are known and respected, enough counselors and school psychologists, the presence of the arts and enrichments, and the presence of play in the school lives of very young children. Ohio’s meager school funding and emphasis on high-stakes testing threaten all of these.

In these times we need to be especially attentive to the social and emotional needs of America’s students as the federal Department of Education steps away from policies designed to protect students’ safety and emotional well being. Remember that at the end of December, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded urgently important Obama-era civil rights guidance designed to reduce out of school suspension and expulsion, reduce racial disparities in suspension and expulsion, and increase in-school programs promoting restorative discipline.  Ohio’s new strategic plan to prioritize social-emotional learning in public schools is an important first nudge—pushing our state away from No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish. But there remains a long, long list of urgently needed policy changes. I wish Linda Darling-Hammond had been more supportive of our struggle in her address last Friday.

Privatizer, Corporate Matchmaker: Jeb Bush’s Impact on Public Schooling

On Monday, Jeb Bush declared himself a candidate for President. It’s a good time to review Jeb’s record on public education, and there is a significant record, as Bush made public school reform a centerpiece of his two terms as governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007.  His work on education continued after he completed his second term. In 2008,  he founded and chaired the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which has engaged actively to promote particular education policies across the states.

In a column on Monday, the day that Jeb Bush declared himself a candidate for President, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss summarized Jeb’s record: “Words matter, so it’s important to know that Bush doesn’t call public school districts public school districts.  Instead, he says the United States has ‘over 13,000 government-run monopolies run by unions.’  He doesn’t mention that some districts don’t have any unions, that unions can’t win a contract agreement by politicians, that a number of governors have sharply curtailed the power of unions.”  “Bush advocates using public money for students to use to pay for private school tuition.  The focus of his 1998 campaign for Florida governor was the ‘Opportunity Scholarship Program,’ a voucher program that allowed state funds to be used to pay tuition at church-run schools.  It was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2006… Bush did successfully push through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows students to attend private school with the help of publicly funded tax credits.” “Meanwhile, the ‘About Us’ page of his Foundation for Excellence in Education, which he founded after leaving the Florida governorship to take his school reform agenda national, uses the word ‘public’ twice—but never with the word ‘school’ or ‘education’ after it (but rather ‘public awareness’ and ‘public outreach’).”  “Bush has said that ‘we can’t just outsource public education to bureaucracies and public education unions and hope for the best,’ but he likes outsourcing public education to for-profit education companies who open public charter schools but run them like a business.  (Is it a coincidence that Florida has the second-highest number of for-profit charter schools?)”

Late in January, this blog summarized Alec MacGillis’s in-depth profile in the New Yorker magazine of Jeb Bush’s education interests, promoted when he was governor of Florida and later through the Foundation for Excellence in Education. MacGillis is particularly critical of the lack of regulation that accompanied the explosive growth of charter schools in Florida during Bush’s tenure as governor: “(I)n 2002, Bush signed a law allowing charter operators who were denied approval by local school boards to appeal to the state.  In 2003, he signed a law to eliminate the state’s cap on the number of charters, which had been set at twenty-eight in the largest counties.” “By 2006, Jeb’s last year in office, there were more than three hundred charter schools (for-profit and nonprofit) in Florida, with more than a hundred thousand students, most of them in big metropolitan areas such as Miami and Tampa. But the state made only sporadic efforts to track their performance.  The 1996 law called for annual statewide reports on the schools, but none were produced until November of 2006.  Test scores in lower grades were found to be slightly higher than at traditional public schools, and slightly lower in the higher grades. The reading test-score gap between black students and white students in elementary grades decreased at about the same rate as in traditional schools, but in the charter high schools the gap widened.”

At the end of 2014, in preparation to run for President, Jeb Bush resigned from the Foundation for Excellence in Education that he founded and chaired. Long-time staff member Patricia Levesque now leads the foundation.  Bush led the Foundation for years, however, and MacGillis explores its impact as what ed tech companies like Rupert Murdoch and Joel Klein’s Amplify and Pearson, the testing and publishing giant, have come to count on as “an ideal platform to promote a range of ideas and products to state officials.”  Patricia Levesque, the Foundation’s director, has used her influence to connect state commissioners of education who are part of the Foundation’s Chiefs for Change with leaders of corporations promoting on-line education, curricula and software and to make the Chiefs for Change into sales people for these products in other states.

MacGillis reminds us about Bush’s business connections to Voyager, a company involved in the ill-fated Reading First—the phonics-based reading curriculum adopted by the U.S. Department of Education under No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Reading First was one of the earliest mandates of NCLB that was eliminated because Reading First did not seem to be teaching children across the country to read.  In 2011, Bush got financially involved—reaping an annual salary of $60,000—with another for-profit educational venture, Academic Partnerships, a company whose aim was to “persuade public colleges to attract more students by outsourcing to the firm their master’s-degree programs in fields such as  business and education.”  MacGillis writes extensively about Bush’s interest in making money and promoting business partners—the story of an aggressive business tycoon—but nothing about teachers or children or what education ought to be about or what needed to happen to improve the public schools of Florida.

In a second excellent profile published early in January in the Washington Post, Lindsey Layton reported on a number of Bush’s endeavors to promote privatization of public education through the Foundation for Excellence in Education: “The foundation has forged an unusual role of mixing politics and policy—drafting legislation and paying travel expenses for state officials, lobbying lawmakers, and connecting public officials with industry executives seeking government contracts…. But the foundation, from which Bush resigned as chairman last week as part of his preparations for a possible White House bid, has been criticized as a backdoor vehicle for major corporations to urge state officials to adopt policies that would enrich the companies.  The foundation has, for instance, pushed states to embrace digital learning in public schools, a costly transition that often requires new software and hardware.  Many of those digital products are made by donors to Bush’s foundation, including Microsoft, Intel, News Corp, Pearson PLC, and K12 Inc..  The foundation has helped its corporate donors gain access to state education officials through a committee called Chiefs for Change, composed of as many as 10 officials from mostly Republican-led states who convene at the foundation’s annual meeting.  The meetings include private two-hour gatherings with the officials and company executives.  Patricia Levesque, the Bush foundation’s chief executive, said the group does not endorse donors’ products or get involved in sales, saying that ‘we promote policies’ but are ‘neutral on the providers.'”

Layton adds that while the Foundation for Excellence in Education engages in advocacy, it is a dark-money, supposedly “educational” not-for-profit that, under current election laws, is not required to name its donors: “As a nonprofit, Bush’s foundation is not required to disclose its donors.  It reported $10 million in income in 2012, according to tax documents.  The group’s Web site lists most donors, with their contributions included in ranges.  The site was updated Friday to list every donor that contributed last year.  Among the top donors in 2014, giving $500,000 to $1 million, was News Corp., which owns a company called Amplify that markets tablets, software and data analysis to school districts.  NewsCorp chief executive Rupert Murdoch delivered a keynote speech at the Bush foundation’s annual meeting in 2011, when Amplify rolled out its tablet, saying it was time to ‘tear down an education system designed for the 19th century and replace it with one suited for the 21st.'”  Other 2014 donors listed by Layton include Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the Educational Testing Service, and  McGraw-Hill Education. (In April, Bloomberg reported major problems at Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify, despite the investment of $1 billion in its tablet division.)

To summarize, here are the components of Jeb Bush’s record in education (according to MacGillis and Layton):

  • Introduced Opportunity Scholarship Program vouchers as centerpiece of campaign for Florida governor in 1998. Program later found unconstitutional under the Florida constitution.
  • Passed Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, as a way to introduce vouchers legally under Florida’s constitution.
  • Actively promoted expansion of charter schools while he was governor and encouraged non-profits that ran charter schools to hire for-profit management companies.
  • In Florida, introduced A-F letter grade ratings for schools and school districts.  Chiefs for Change promoted the adoption of A-F letter grade-rating systems in other states.
  • Launched Third-Grade Reading Guarantee in Florida and, through the Foundation for Excellence in Education, promoted this program nationally.  It denies grade promotion to fourth grade for any third-grader who cannot pass the state’s reading test. The program is controversial because research demonstrates that retention-in-grade at any time in a student’s academic life increases the risk of dropping out when the student becomes an adolescent.
  • In 2008 formed the Foundation for Excellence in Education that established Chiefs for Change, a coalition of far-right state superintendents of education.
  • Foundation for Excellence in Education served as matchmaking service to pair corporations with state officials likely to purchase their service as well as their products, and used members of Chiefs for Change to promote the interests of corporations.
  • With the Foundation for Excellence in Education, actively promoted digital learning and virtual schools.
  • Launched a for-profit chain of after school tutoring programs—Voyager Expanded Learning—which was involved with a phonics-based reading program later adapted and folded into the No Child Left Behind Act as Reading First—the reading curriculum later dropped from the federal law when it was found not to help children read.
  • Actively promoted the development of the Common Core Standards.

I urge you to read Valerie Strauss’s column earlier this week along with MacGillis’s profile of Jeb Bush, and Lindsey Layton’s report on the Foundation for Excellence in Education.  If you have already read these articles, I urge you to re-read them now that Jeb has declared his candidacy for President.

Jeb Bush Candidacy Will Promote Corporate Agenda for Education

Jeb Bush is exploring a Presidential campaign.  There has been lots of speculation in the past couple of days about what that will mean for policy in public education.

Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s reporter on federal public education policy, writes, “Whether you agree with Bush’s positions on things like school choice and the Common Core State Standards or not, his entrance into the race would exponentially raise the profile of K-12 education, which is often an afterthought in national campaigns.”

Libby Nelson, for VOX, explains, “Education is a second-tier issue at the federal level. This one really is a liability for Bush but not because he supports Common Core.  It’s because his national leadership on education issues as a whole might not be all that important… When the Pew Research Center asked voters about the most important issues in the 2014 election, education didn’t even show up on the list.  And the back-burner nature of education issues is particularly true for Republican voters.”

For Politico Pro, Stephanie Simon interviews Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute about Jeb Bush: “For years, he’s been advising governors to adopt his education reform agenda… but that’s really a governor’s vision.  Part of what cost his brother over time with conservatives was that he failed to distinguish between what might be a good idea in a state or local context and what might be appropriate for Washington to pursue as federal policy.”  Simon continues, “In other words, at a time when Republicans in Congress and in state legislatures are loudly decrying federal overreach on education an ex-governor who made his reputation as an education activist might not be an ideal candidate.”

Education policy was at the center of his record as Florida’s governor and has continued as a primary focus of his work.  Assuming these education writers are correct that a Jeb Bush candidacy will bring attention to education, one must consider exactly what kind of education policy Jeb Bush will bring attention to.

As governor of Florida from 1999 until 2007, Jeb Bush championed marketplace school choice including vouchers and charters. He awarded public schools A-F grades based on their standardized test scores. He instituted the Third Grade Guarantee, a plan by which any eight-year-old not reading at grade level as measured by a standardized test was not promoted to fourth grade. How did all this actually work out?   In a 2012 report for Reuters,  Stephanie Simon describes serious reservations about these programs: “But a close examination raises questions about the depth and durability of the gains in Florida.  After the dramatic jump of the Bush years, Florida test scores edged up in 2009 and then dropped, with low income students falling further behind.  State data shows huge numbers of high school graduates still needing remedial help in math and reading… High school graduation rates rose during Bush’s tenure but remain substantially lower than in other large and diverse states, including California, New York, and Ohio…. Florida’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, widely considered the most reliable metric, dropped on all four key tests last year….  On all four tests, low-income students fell further behind their wealthier peers…  As for Florida’s charter schools, a recent report found their students consistently outscore kids in traditional schools on state tests.  The charters, however serve fewer poor and special-needs students and fewer students still learning English.”

Jeb Bush founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) which promotes test-and-punish school accountability and market choice in education.  Lisa Graves, writing for PR Watch, traces a number of connections between the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the American Legislative Exchange Council, the national organization that pairs corporate lobbyists and state legislators who are ALEC members to draft model laws that can be introduced in any state legislature and that, in the area of education, promote market competition and choice.  Graves explains: “Aptly named FEE, Bush’s group is backed by many of the same for-profit school corporations that have funded ALEC and vote as equals with its legislators on templates to change laws governing America’s public schools.  FEE is also bankrolled by many of the same hard-right foundations bent on privatizing public schools that have funded ALEC.  And they have pushed many of the same changes to the law, which benefit their corporate benefactors and satisfy the free market fundamentalism of the billionaires whose tax-deductible charities underwrite the agenda of these two groups.  FEE and ALEC also have had some of the same ‘experts’ as members or staff, part of the revolving door between right-wing groups.”  Corporations that Graves describes as supporters of both ALEC and FEE include K12, Inc., Pearson Connections Academy, Charter Schools USA, and Apex Learning.  Foundations funding both organizations include The Walton Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation.  With the kind of corporate funding Graves describes for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, it should not be surprising that Jeb Bush has been a strong supporter of the use of technology in education and of blended learning, which replaces teachers for part of the day with computers.

Jeb Bush is also responsible for Chiefs for Change, a network of far-right state commissioners of education that has promoted the Third Grade Guarantee and A-F grades for schools and school districts.  Chiefs for Change, designed to create a consistent movement across the states for the priorities of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, has included state education superintendents in Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Tennessee.  As many of the original members have left or been pushed out of their statewide positions, Chiefs for Change has recently lost some of its luster.

One thing that Jeb Bush has never endorsed is stronger support for public schools. In a keynote last month at the national summit of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, he was described by Caitlin Emma for Politico, “encouraging the crowd to keep fighting the ‘government-run, unionized and politicized monopolies who trap good teachers, administrators and struggling students in a system nobody can escape.'”