Education Expert Demonstrates Why Gov. Youngkin’s Attack on Virginia’s Public Schools Is Wrong

I suspect that Glenn Youngkin, the governor of Virginia, knows very little, really, about public education.  He was an investment banker before he became a politician, and his children attend the elite, private Georgetown Prep. But Youngkin knows how to build political capital by frightening parents and the general public about so-called failures in the state’s public schools. He campaigned last year by promoting the racist idea that parents need more control over their kids’ schools to prevent the children’s being frightened or upset by the injustices that have scarred American history. And now, he has begun using test score data to try to paint the state’s public schools as failing.

The problem is that this time, as he tries to use the state’s scores on the “nation’s report card,” the National Assessment of Education Progress ( NAEP), to prove there is something drastically wrong with Virginia’s public schools, he and his so-called experts who just castigated the state’s schools in a new report seem to have misread the meaning of the test scores they denigrate. Youngkin’s claim is that too few Virginia students achieve the “proficient” cut score on the NAEP.

For the Washington Post, Hannah Natanson and Laura Vozzella report: “The Virginia Department of Education painted a grim picture of student achievement in the state in a report released Thursday, asserting that children are performing poorly on national assessments in reading and math and falling behind peers in other states.  The 34-page report on students’ academic performance, requested as part of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s first executive order, says these trends are especially pronounced among Black, Hispanic and low-income students. The report further critiques what it calls school districts’ lack of transparency regarding declining student performance—and it laments parents’ ‘eroding’ confidence in the state’s public schools.”  The Youngkin administration’s new report contends that Virginia has been expecting too little of its public school students—that, while Virginia’s state test, the Standards of Learning or SOL, shows the state’s students are doing well, Virginia’s NAEP scores show the states’ students are not really “proficient.”

But Youngkin’s report ignores years of discussion about what the “proficient” achievement level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress really means.  In her 2013 book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch who once served on the NAEP’s Governing Board, took the trouble to explain: “All definitions of education standards are subjective…  People who set standards use their own judgment to decide the passing mark on a test. None of this is science.” Ravitch explains further precisely how the NAEP Governing Board has always defined the difference between the “proficient” standard and the “basic” standard: “‘Proficient’ represents solid achievement. The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB)… defines it as ‘solid academic performance for each grade assessed. This is a very high level of academic performance. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.’… ‘Basic,’ as defined by NAGB, is ‘partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.'” Ravitch concludes that according to the NAEP standard: “a student who is ‘proficient’ earns a solid A and not less than a strong B+” while “the student who scores ‘basic’ is probably a B or C student.” (Reign of Error, p. 47)

Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on the construction of standardized tests and their uses for high stakes school accountability devotes an entire chapter of his 2017 book, The Testing Charade, to the topic, “Making Up Unrealistic Targets.”  Koretz describes exactly how Glenn Youngkin appears to be manipulating the meaning of NAEP cut scores as an argument for blaming the schools and pressuring educators to prep students to improve test scores at any cost: “In a nutshell, the core of the approach has been simply to set an arbitrary performance target (the ‘Proficient’ standard) and declare that all schools must make all students reach it in an equally arbitrary amount of time…. (A)lmost all public discussion of test scores is now cast in terms of the percentage reaching either the proficient standard, or occasionally, another cut score… This trust in performance standards, however is misplaced… (I)n fact, despite all the care that goes into creating them, these standards are anything but solid. They are arbitrary, and the ‘percent proficient’ is a very slippery number.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 119-121)

Natanson and Vozzella report that Virginia’s educators immediately pushed back against Youngkin’s new report: “The superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools, Gregory C, Hutchings Jr., said the report inspired him to navigate to the NAEP website, where he discovered that Virginia students had consistently scored above the national average. ‘So, I’m not really understanding the whole premise of this report…. (which) was around us performing so much lower than everyone else.'”

Fortunately, last Friday, right after Youngkin’s report was released, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published a column by James Harvey, the recently retired executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable.  Harvey scathingly criticizes the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) for its confusing definition of “proficient.”  Like a lot of federal policy after Reagan’s 1983, A Nation at Risk report, which blamed the public schools for widespread mediocrity and and became the basis for standards-based school reform, the NAGB set its proficiency targets to drive higher expectations. Harvey writes: “Proficient doesn’t mean proficient. Oddly, NAEP’s definition of proficiency has little or nothing to do with proficiency as most people understand the term. NAEP experts think of NAEP’s standard as ‘aspirational.’ In 2001, two experts associated with NAGB made it clear that: ‘The proficient achievement level does not refer to ‘at grade’ performance. Nor is performance at the Proficient level synonymous with ‘proficiency’ in the subject. That is, students who may be considered proficient in a subject, given the common usage of the term, might not satisfy the requirements for performance at the NAEP achievement level.”

Harvey summarizes the decades-long controversy about National Assessment of Educational Progress cut scores: “What is striking in reviewing the history of NAEP is how easily its policy board has shrugged off criticisms about the standards-setting process. The critics constitute a roll call of the statistical establishment’s heavyweights…  (T)he likes of the National Academy of Education, the Government Accounting Office, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Brookings Institution have issued scorching complaints that the benchmark-setting processes were ‘fundamentally flawed,’ ‘indefensible,’ and ‘of doubtful validity,’ while producing ‘results that are not believable.'”

Harvey continues: “How unbelievable? Fully half the 17-year-olds maligned as being just basic by NAEP obtained four-year college degrees. About one-third of Advanced Placement Calculus students, the creme de la creme of American high school students, failed to meet the NAEP proficiency benchmark. While only one-third of American fourth-graders are said to be proficient in reading by NAEP, international assessments of fourth-grade reading judged American students to rank as high as No. 2 in the world. For the most part, such pointed criticism from assessment experts has been greeted with silence from NAEP’s policy board.”

In her introduction to Harvey’s piece, Valerie Strauss explains: “Youngkin isn’t the first politician to misinterpret NAEP scores and then use that bad interpretation to bash public schools.” Please do read Strauss’s introduction and James Harvey’s fine column to better understand how high stakes standardized testing has been used politically to drive a kind of school reform that manipulates big data but has little relevance to expanding educational opportunity.

Pandemic Only Reteaches America What We Should Have Learned Already about Public School Inequality and Child Poverty

What we expect public schools to accomplish has a lot to do with how much we take the institution of universal public schooling for granted. For a long time, we haven’t really been seriously considering the collective needs of our children and their public schools. And when children and their public schools struggle, we elect people with other priorities to represent us in the state legislature and Congress.

Back in 1998 in a book called A Passion for Democracy, the late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber pointed out what a lot of people still fail to notice: “In many municipalities, schools have become the sole surviving public institutions and consequently have been burdened with responsibilities far beyond traditional schooling. Schools are now medical clinics, counseling centers, vocational training institutes, police/security outposts, drug rehabilitation clinics, (and) special education centers… Among the costs of public schools that are most burdensome are those that go for special education, discipline, and special services to children who would simply be expelled from (or never admitted into) private and parochial schools or would be turned over to the appropriate social service agencies (which themselves are no longer funded in many cities.)  It is the glory and the burden of public schools that they cater to all of our children, whether delinquent or obedient, drug damaged or clean, brilliant or handicapped, privileged or scarred. That is what makes them public schools.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, pp. 226-227) (emphasis in the original)

Last week in a powerful Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss revisits the same theme in a very different context.  She has noticed a thread that runs through two years of press coverage about public schools during the pandemic: “If you Google ‘lessons learned about schools during the pandemic,’ you will see a long list of articles that purport to tell us about all the things we learned about teaching and learning in the two years since the coronavirus crisis began in March 2020. Many of the pieces highlight similar ‘lessons’—on inequity, technology, in-school learning, funding mechanisms and other issues—that seemingly hadn’t been thought of before.”

Strauss believes we ought to have learned all of these “pandemic” lessons over the decades that preceded the onset of COVID-19. Here are some of the themes she observes in recent COVID press coverage: “We learned… that… in person school… is much better for most students…. Millions of students go to school without working HVAC systems…. Millions of students would go hungry if they didn’t get meals at school…. Millions of America’s young people go to school with significant mental health issues and that schools did not have the capacity to deal with them…. Technology in schools… has significant limits and is not the heart of great teaching…. Teachers don’t just teach subject matter but are asked to be counselors, role models, mentors, identifiers and reporters of child abuse, testing administrators, disciplinarians, child advocates, parents communicators, hall and lunch monitors…. School districts were largely not ready for a crisis of this magnitude and need to become more flexible to accommodate changes in routine and student needs.”

Strauss concludes: “(F)or anybody paying the slightest bit of attention there is nothing on the list of pandemic school ‘lessons’ that we didn’t already know before COVID-19—and for a long, long time.”

Among the biggest lessons we learned again during COVID is about inadequate school funding and inequity across districts and states. Strauss explains that federal Title I funding to support schools serving concentrations of the nation’s poorest children, is inadequate and not targeted enough to the nation’s very poorest schools.  Further, “At the state and local levels, where most of education funding emanates, we’ve read report after report over decades about the persistent differences in funding per student from district to district, state to state, suburb vs. urban, urban vs. rural. States have different ways they allocate K-12 and special funding—and the amounts vary widely; in fiscal year 2020, according to the Census Bureau, New York State spent $25,520 per student while Idaho spent $8,272 per student and Florida spent $9,937 per student.  There are vast differences within states as well; reports released periodically show wide differences across school district boundary lines. For example, a 2019 report by EdBuild found that ‘almost 9 million students in America—one in five public schoolchildren—live virtually across the street from a significantly whiter and richer school district.'”

In Schoolhouse Burning, published in 2020, constitutional scholar, Derek Black summarized the fiscal condition of school districts in the decade between the 2008 Great Recession and the onset of COVID-19: “Before the recession of 2008, the trend in public school funding remained generally positive… Then the recession hit. Nearly every state in the country made large cuts to public education. Annual cuts of more than $1,000 per student were routine.” “(I)n retrospect…. the recession offered a convenient excuse for states to redefine their commitment to public education… By 2012, state revenues rebounded to pre-recession levels, and a few years later, the economy was in the midst of its longest winning streak in history. Yet during this period of rising wealth, states refused to give back what they took from education. In 2014, for instance, more than thirty states still funded education at a lower level than they did before the recession—some funded education 20 percent to 30 percent below pre-recession levels.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 31-33)

During COVID-19 we learned again about unequal access to computers and broadband.  Strauss writes: “The digital divide? The term emerged in the mid-1990s to describe the gap between families with access to computers and those who don’t. The definition broadened to include access to the Internet, and, later, to inequity in usage and skills… In April, 2020, according to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of parents with lower incomes who had children in school that were remote due to the pandemic said their children would likely face at least one of three digital obstacles to their schooling, such as a lack of reliable internet at home, no computer at home, or needing to use a smartphone to complete schoolwork.'”

Another thing we learned about again during COVID is America’s outrageous rate of child poverty. UNICEF statistics show that in 2018, 35 OECD nations had a child poverty rate lower than the rate in the United States.  Strauss reports on one of the many ways we relearned this lesson during COVID: “That children would go hungry without free and reduced-price meals at schools is, again, hardly news. The School Lunch act of 1946—repeat, 1946, was set up to help students from low-income schools get free or reduced-price lunches. The need was obvious then, and neither the awareness of that need nor the program ever disappeared. In 1966, the School Breakfast Program began a two-year pilot and that was extended a number of times. By 1975, the program received permanent authorization… According to the Children’s Defense Fund, in 2019, more than 1 in 7 children—nearly 11 million—lived in households considered ‘food insecure,’ meaning there isn’t enough to eat and families skip meals, eat low-cost food or go hungry.”

And during COVID we again learned about American students’ need for counseling and mental health support at school. Strauss writes: “There is a lot of attention now being placed on the mental health stresses on students during the pandemic…. But let’s be clear: Children have been in crisis in this country for years.” Strauss cites a declaration of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association. The declaration says: “Rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose steadily between 2010 and 2020… and by 2018 suicide was the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24.”

Again and again, staff shortages in underfunded schools have left many students needing far more support. Strauss writes, “In U.S. public schools today, it’s estimated there is one school psychologist for every 1,381 students… According to the latest available information from the American School Counselor Association, there was one counselor for every 482 students in 2014-2015.  It’s nearly twice what the association recommends….”

Congress and the state legislatures could have taken extensive steps to reduce these challenges facing our children and their schools year after year, but such investments have been sporadic at best, and at the federal level during COVID, funding increases have been temporary. The allocation of temporary COVID relief from the federal government has not significantly alleviated the intersection of inadequate school funding and the unmet needs of children in school. Temporary COVID relief is a one-time investment, and public schools cannot hire salaried permanent staff with the dollars. Certainly COVID relief dollars were spent to alleviate the digital divide among children, but we know that lack of access to remote schooling during the pandemic still affected many children.

Long term solutions continue to be delayed.  While the Biden administration and many Congressional Democrats tried hard to pass Build Back Better—with permanent expansion of the Child Tax Credit to help the poorest American families with children, more dollars for childcare support, and other supports for the well being and health of poor children—the bill has languished in Congress with an uncertain future.

Another example is the fate of full-service wraparound Community Schools. The Children’s Aid Society began opening full-service Community Schools in New York City in 1992 and 1993 as a model for programming in schools where child poverty is concentrated. These are schools with family medical and social services located right in the school building. But in this year’s FY 2022 federal budget passed finally last month, after President Biden proposed spending $430 million for full-service Community Schools, Congress allocated only $75 million, an increase from the previous year’s investment of only $30 million, but not enough to make a dent in the meeting the need.

Valerie Strauss concludes her recent column: “So much for the ‘lessons’ we learned about our schools during the pandemic. The problems rooted in these lessons have long existed. Americans and the people they elect to make policy have known about them for decades. They have simply chosen to do other things rather than make serious attempts to fix them.”

Strauss adds one other thing that happened again during the pandemic: our tendency to blame teachers when things don’t go smoothly at school instead of looking at our own responsibility for resourcing schools adequately: “(T)here was a brief moment at the start of the pandemic that (teachers) were hailed as heroes…. But it didn’t take long for that narrative to… revert to the teacher-bashing of old as educators became villains for demanding vaccine mandates and safety precautions in schools…. (V)itriol about teachers and public schools became common again.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Will President Biden Support Public School Teachers and Abandon Awful Obama-Duncan and Trump-DeVos Education Agendas?

There is widespread anxiety about President Elect Joseph Biden’s choice of a Secretary of Education and his public school policy priorities. Yes, we are bidding farewell to Betsy DeVos, which certainly must be celebrated, but something much more consequential may be happening. Two excellent articles this week explore where education policy has been lodged for two decades and what kind of change seems possible with a new administration.

In a interview for The Progressive, Jeff Bryant poses an important question to Derek Black, the constitutional scholar and author of the new book, Schoolhouse Burning: “You write in the book’s introduction that the nation is in the middle of a battle for the long-term viability of public education. How might this battle continue under a Biden presidency?”

Black responds: “It’s going to be great to be rid of Betsy DeVos, at least psychologically, if nothing else. In some respects, she was more of a cheerleader than an executioner (of public schooling) but she cheered on the executioners, especially on the state level. It’s going to be nice that those folks don’t have a friend in Washington, so when they attack public education, they have to do it on their own political capital not hers or the president’s. The other layer to this is that it’s not as though the Obama administration was good. Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, had problematic charter school policies and policies that were part of the war on teachers. Biden hasn’t sounded like he plans on resuming Obama policies, but we will see.”

Looking back to Arne Duncan’s tenure under President Barack Obama, The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss picks up the same theme. She even tried to interrogate President Obama’s views about his own public education policies by exploring Obama’s new memoir, A Promised Land: “On one important issue that proved to be a flash point—education policy—he doesn’t have much to say.  The memoir’s index shows references to education policies on only four of 701 pages—and none are more than a few sentences. What he doesn’t address says at least as much as what he does… Is it possible Obama didn’t know the full consequences of his education policies when he was writing the book? Did he know and think the criticism has been unfair? Did he just not want to deal with it?  What we do know is that his memoir says almost nothing about his education legacy—and there’s no clue as to why.”

Like Derek Black, Strauss, who publishes regular commentaries on education policy, realizes that Biden’s presidency follows not only four pro-privatization, pro-religious education, pro-family–anti-government years of Betsy DeVos’s ranting, but also the pro-charter, anti-schoolteacher years of Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan. Beginning in 2009, the Obama administration elevated what the No Child Left Behind Act had already established in 2002 as necessary for holding schools accountable—a massive regime of standardized testing.  Strauss diagnoses why educators and parents worry about the direction of Biden’s education policy: “Biden has so far laid out an education overhaul agenda that does not resemble Trump’s or Obama’s, and he has promised to be a friend to public educators—but many are waiting to see what he actually does after they were disappointed by Obama.”

Strauss summarizes the ways President Obama damaged education policy: “Obama’s education agenda surprised many of his supporters, who had expected him to address inequity in public schools and to de-emphasize high-stakes standardized testing, which had become the key metric to hold schools accountable under the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law. But Obama did not. Instead, he allowed Education Secretary Arne Duncan to push a strident education overhaul program that made standardized testing even more important than NCLB had…. Critics called it ‘corporate reform’ because it used methods more common in business than in civic institutions, such as using big data, closing schools that underperformed, and eliminating or weakening teacher tenure and seniority rights.”

Strauss believes Obama’s policies failed because they were based not on solid research but instead on misguided ideology:  “Some of the policies had no chance of working to improve schools. For example, the effort to use student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers was slammed repeatedly by assessment experts as being neither reliable nor valid.  It led to a continued narrowing of the curriculum, which had started under No Child Left Behind, and to some cockamamie teacher evaluation plans where some educators were evaluated by students they didn’t have and subjects they didn’t teach… In 2011, for example, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina spent $2 million to field test on students a new testing regime that included 52 new standardized tests, one on every subject so that all teachers could be evaluated based, in part, on the test scores of their students. In New York City, standardized tests were only given in English Language Arts and math, and so schools were allowed to assess teachers in other subjects on students’ math scores or English Language Arts scores.  In Washington, D.C., public schools, the star schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, decided that every adult in every school building should be, in part, graded by student test scores—including the custodians and lunch workers.”

Strauss concludes: “Race to the Top did not make systemic improvements in public education in part because it failed to address some of the most important reasons for low student achievement. It did nothing to tackle the fundamental inequity of America’s education funding, which has historically penalized high-poverty districts and rewarded wealthy ones.  It also did not address out-of-school factors that affect how children perform in school—even though research shows that most of the achievement gap is driven by factors outside school.”

One of the most damaging policies accelerated during the Obama-Duncan years was the intentional growth of privately operated charter schools at public expense.  In his interview with Derek Black for The Progressive, Jeff Bryant asks Black about school choice, specifically whether poor and African American and Latino-Latina parents who feel their children have been left behind shouldn’t have the right to choose a privatized alternative. Black responds: “I do not second-guess minority low-income families who feel they need to try an alternative to public schools. Schools have failed a lot of these communities… But there’s a flip side… We will never fix (public education) by abandoning the system. There is no private system of education out there waiting to save all of our children…. The further away we get from the public system, the less equipped we are to protect our children.  Although there is the right to enroll in a private school regardless of race, children do not have protection from racial discrimination once they enter those doors. The same for students with disabilities. And in a privatized system, children have no protection from sexual orientation or identity discrimination. If somehow we think that we can solve the problem of discrimination and inequality by throwing children to the wolves, that’s the most fantastical thing I’ve ever heard of.”

Betsy DeVos has looked to her religious tradition as a guide for her education priorities along with a long libertarian distrust of government itself.  Arne Duncan looked to standardized testing and corporate accountability to enforce the establishment of national standards and as a check on teachers who were expected to work harder and smarter.

It has fallen to teachers themselves—the educational professionals who work with our children all day, every day in buildings most of us never have an opportunity to visit—to expose the absurdity of these policies. In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black explains how, “In 2018, teachers finally reached their breaking point and started talking about strikes and walkouts. Media attention then helped educate the general public on what had happened to education funding and the teaching profession over the past decade.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 244-245)  “In the spring of 2018, teachers across the nation waged a full-scale revolt, shutting down public schools and marching on state capitals in the reddest of red states. From West Virginia and Kentucky to Oklahoma and Arizona, teachers went on strike over the condition of public education. Stagnant and depressed teacher salaries were the initial focal point, but as the protests spread, it became clear that teachers were marching for far more than their salaries. They were marching for school supplies, school services, class sizes, and more. They were marching for states to reverse the massive budget cuts of the past decade and stop funneling more resources into charters and vouchers.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 23-24)

President Elect Biden has said he trusts public school educators themselves as the best guide to what is needed in America’s public schools.  He has pledged to begin using federal dollars to support the nation’s most vulnerable public schools with added Title I and IDEA dollars.  And he has pledged that high stakes standardized testing will not be the centerpiece of education policy during his tenure. We must give him a chance to do that work and hope that he can muster support in Congress for his declared educational priorities.

The Presidential Candidates and the Press: Missing What’s Important

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss noticed something in the Democratic presidential candidates’ debates so far: “Now it’s getting ridiculous: four debates among Democratic presidential candidates, and no questions—or serious discussion about K-12 education.”  She notes that Michael Bennet alone made a plea to “fix our school system,” but beyond that imprecise declaration, explains Strauss: “Some candidates made passing references to universal preschool, and moderators did raise college affordability and student debt.  But when it comes to K-12 public education, which many believe is the most important civic institution in the country, nada.”  Strauss blames the moderators, and I encourage you to read her pointed speculation about what they might have been thinking when they ignored our public schools.

The school superintendent turned member of the Vermont State Board of Education and managing director of the National Education Policy Center, Bill Mathis also asks some tough questions of the press and policy makers, this time about the widespread and relatively unquestioned assumption that standardized test scores are a good measure for the quality of public schools.  While Mathis writes that parents, educators and students all seem to agree that other things matter at school more than test scores, he criticizes: “pundits and politicians who find it far easier to blame the schools than to confront our real problem… Poverty has a far greater influence on test scores than any other factor, including the schools. Poverty causes absenteeism, impaired attention, diminished social skills, lowered motivation and ambition, and increased depression… The state tests will not cure poverty but curing poverty will improve test scores.”

Lifelong professor of education and among our society’s finest writers about education, Mike Rose has also been worrying about the lack of a substantive conversation about what is happening in our public schools.  Rose has noticed the absence of the voice of professional educators in the traditional “high-and middlebrow media”—publications that “still have strong influence with government, think tanks, philanthropies, high-profile opinion makers, and other decision-making and gatekeeping entities.”

Rose worries about who is doing the framing of the national conversation about our public schools: “When we survey other monumental spheres of human endeavor—medicine, the law, the physical or life sciences, religion—we find cultural space for the practitioners of these pursuits to not only engage in specialized research in their disciplines, but also to reflect for the rest of us on tending to the ill, or on the place of the law or religion in our lives, or on the breathtaking complexity of human physiology or quantum mechanics.  We rarely see this treatment of education.”  Rose thinks the absence of the voices the professional educators has constricted our vision, “For a generation, education has been justified primarily for its economic benefit, both for individuals and for the nation, and our major policy debates have involved curriculum standards, testing and assessment, the recruitment and credentialing of teachers, administration and funding, and the like.  This economic managerial focus has elevated a technocratic discourse of schooling and moved out of the frame discussion of the intellectual, social, civic, and moral dimensions of education.  If the dominant language we hear about education is stripped of a broad range of human concerns, then we are susceptible to speaking and thinking about school in narrow ways.”

Rose quotes education philosopher, John Dewey: “The child of three who discovers what can be done with blocks or of six who finds out what he can make by putting five cents and five cents together, is really a discoverer, even though everybody else in the world knows it.”  Rose continues: “I want to hear from people who have spent a professional lifetime in the presence of such discovery—or discoveries of similar magnitude in the lives of adolescents or adults. What can they tell us about fostering discovery, reading the blend of cognition and emotion in it, judging when and how to intervene, what to do when discovery falters? What are the beliefs and values that shape their commitment to this work and what is it about the subject they teach—what core ideas or ways of knowing or exemplars—move them to want to teach it?  How do they experience the weight of history on their work, the history of the communities in which they teach, the history of the students before them—and how do they engage that history to enhance the growth of those students?”

David Brooks, the NY Times columnist also worries about the absence of what is important in our public conversation. Believing that Donald Trump’s presidency has degraded our politics and the way we talk about important policy issues, Brooks examines our current political dialogue more broadly: “If only Donald Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over whether private health insurance should be illegal.  If only Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over who was softest on crime in the 1990s.  If only Trump were not president, we could have a nice argument about the pros and cons of NAFTA.  But Trump is president, and this election is not about those things. This election is about who we are as a people, our national character. This election is about the moral atmosphere in which we raise our children.”

Brooks continues: “Part of the problem is that the two leading Democratic idea generators are both materialistic wonks. Elizabeth Warren is a social scientist from Harvard Law School who has a plan for everything—except the central subject of this election, which is cultural and moral.  Bernie Sanders… is incapable of adjusting his economics-dominated mind set… The bigger problem is simply the culture of the Democratic Party. ”

Brooks lists five values this election ought to be about:

  • “Unity: We’re one people.”
  • “Honesty: We can’t have deliberative democracy without respect for the truth.”
  • “Pluralism: Human difference makes life richer and more interesting.  We treasure members of all races and faiths for what they bring to the mosaic.”
  • “Sympathy: We want to be around people with good hearts, who feel for those who are suffering, who are faithful friends, whose daily lives are marked by kindness.”
  • “Opportunity: We want all children to have an open field and a fair chance in the great race of life.”

I believe that Mike Rose’s concern is about finding space where educators can share broadly the way these same values can be encouraged and enhanced in their classrooms. And Bill Mathis would list these values as the central parts of a fine education that will never show up in standardized test scores.

If our politicians and the press really began to talk substantively about Brooks’ fifth value—opportunity, the educational conversation would have to get beyond Pre-K, free college tuition and college debt relief. Debate moderators would need to begin asking questions like the ones Valerie Strauss suggests: “Is it too difficult to compose questions that get at the heart of major matters confronting public schools?… How about: ‘America funds its public education system largely through property taxes, and federal efforts to close the gap between high-income and low-income neighborhoods have not bridged the gap.  Should there be a fundamental change in the way public schools are funded?’  Or: ‘If the Supreme Court rules, as it may do, that it is constitutional for states to use public funds for religious education, would you take any action as president to override that decision?  Do you believe it is constitutional for public funds to be used for religious education?’ Or: ‘Do you agree with any education move that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made?’  Or: ‘What is the most damaging step Betsy DeVos has taken, and how would you change it?’  Or: ‘Do you agree with Betsy DeVos on expanding charter schools, and if not, where is the disagreement?’  Or: ‘Can you name the three biggest problems facing K-12 education today, and how you would fix them?’ Or ‘What is the role of the federal government in education policy?'”

An inquiry that pays attention to Brooks’ five values would lead the press and our politicians to explore some of the deeper issues in our schools.  What can teachers tell us about the effect of the enormous class sizes we heard about as teachers struck last year from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Los Angeles and Oakland? What is the role of school nurses and what can teachers tell us about why their presence is so important? What sort of support for students is really needed at school in terms of social workers and counselors?  How much should we pay teachers and how do teachers’ salaries help stabilize a school’s faculty in a way that supports children and families? What can school principals tell us about how a library with a professional school librarian enriches a school or why theater programs and bands and orchestras are so important in high schools?  I haven’t seen serious consideration of the needs of children and their schools mentioned in the plan of any of the candidates.

David Brooks is right: “We need an uprising of decency.” And public education—a human endeavor as well as a matter of public policy—needs to be part of our serious political conversation—including the voices of the professionals who nurture and educate 50 million of our young people.

And, of course, there is that serious public policy question about school privatization that our Democratic presidential candidates keep trying to hedge. Most of them sort of support and at the same time sort of oppose charter schools—when they are for-profit.  And almost none of the candidates seems to realize that it is the management companies, not the nonprofit schools themselves, which are stealing away millions of our tax dollars.  This issue is, at its heart, also a matter of what I would add to Brooks’ list as the sixth important value we ought to be talking about: JUSTICE.  I hope that a presidential candidate will emerge who understands and can explain to the American people why justice cannot be other than systemic.  Any policy that takes from the many to serve a few—or that incorporates competition with winners and losers—cannot answer our society’s needs.  Public schools are the institution designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of ALL of our children.

Valerie Strauss Wonders: Will Donald Trump Destroy U.S. Public Education?

Nobody knows, of course, exactly what Donald Trump’s administration will mean for public schools, but for a balanced and insightful analysis, I urge you to read Valerie Strauss’s fine column from the Washington Post, Will Donald Trump Destroy U.S. Public Education?  She begins:

“There’s a reason that people who care about public education in the United States are mightily worried about President-elect Donald Trump.  There are, actually, a number of reasons—all of which lead to this question: Will Trump’s administration destroy U.S. public education?  The short answer is that he can’t all by himself destroy America’s most important civic institution, at least not without help from Congress as well as state and local legislators and governors.”

Strauss believes that Congressional action last December demonstrated a firm rejection of federal overreach by Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education: “(T)here is no appetite in the country for intense federal involvement in local education, which occurred during the Obama administration at such an unprecedented level that Congress rewrote the No Child Left Behind law—eight years late—so that a great deal of education policymaking power could be sent back to the states.”

What about Trump’s idea of a $20 billion block grant to help states privatize education?  That is a real worry, says Strauss.

Strauss explains that today’s alarm among supporters of public education has been fed by what people have been watching now for fifteen years as policies of the federal government have in many ways begun to undermine the very concept of public schools: “That many people are worried that Trump could deliver a fatal blow to public schools speaks not only to his views and those of the people around him, but also to the past 15 years of school reform and the consequences of the policies promoted by… Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and Obama’s Race to the Top initiative and waivers to NCLB. Corporate school reform has led to standardized test-based ‘accountability’ as well as school ‘choice’ programs—pushed in part by billionaires who have made school reform a pet project….”

According to Strauss, “Not all choice supporters agree on every topic—Obama and many Democrats oppose vouchers but support charters, while Republicans are big supporters of voucher and voucherlike programs—but the trajectory of increased privatization in recent years is undeniable under both Republican and Democratic administrations.  The growth of charter schools has drained many traditional public school systems where charters are located, and the charter sectors in a number of states—especially the for-profit charters—are severely troubled because of lack of sufficient oversight.”

What about opinion across the country? Strauss provides examples from last week’s election showing that voters’ views about market-based school choice are not in line with the educational philosophy of the person these same voters chose as our new president: “The irony of all this is that just as Trump is selecting an education secretary from a pool of pro-privatization candidates, voters in a number of states just expressed deep misgivings about unrestricted growth of school choice.”

Strauss cannot provide a firm answer to her question: Will Donald Trump destroy U.S. public education?  But her solid analysis of where we stand right now is lucid and very helpful.

Extra: Valerie Strauss’s Clear, Sensible Description of Bush and Obama Education Policies

Now that Congress has passed and President Obama signed a new reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, there have been many explanations of what has gone wrong since No Child Left Behind, the previous version, was signed into law in January of 2002.

This morning in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss summarizes much of that history in Don’t Blame George W. Bush for What President Obama Did to Public Schools.

Her piece is short and lucid.  I urge you to read it.

TeachStrong: Will New Campaign Undo Teacher Bashing and Sustain Those Called to Teach?

Did you know there’s a brand new campaign to improve teaching, a campaign, according to Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post, that says its goal is “modernizing and elevating” the teaching profession?   This is a project of the Center for American Progress, the primarily Democratic Washington think tank that has ironically pushed far-right “corporate reform” in education. Valerie Strauss wonders if TeachStrong is a Gates-funded initiative, as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation granted $850,000 to the Center for American Progress this past summer.

As it launched TeachStrong, the Center for American Progress announced: “In order to ensure that all students are taught by excellent teachers, leaders must reimagine the systems and structure of the teacher career continuum. Yet the United States has never made a serious commitment to modernizing, elevating, and professionalizing the teaching pathway.”

Daniel Katz, a Seton Hall University professor of education who trains secondary teachers and secondary special education teachers, wonders at the coalition the Center for American Progress has pulled together for this new campaign: “Lyndsey Layton mentioned in the Washington Post that the coalition includes ‘some strange bedfellows,’ and she certainly was not kidding.” On the one hand are the traditional professional organizations representing teachers, school administrators, and colleges of education: the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, and the New Teacher Center.  Then there are the groups that want to disrupt the teaching profession: Teach for America, Educators 4 Excellence, Deans for Impact, Relay (online) Graduate School of Education, Education Post, and finally the National Council on Teacher Quality—which has taken it upon itself to rate colleges of education in a questionable system that merely looks at the courses listed in each program’s catalog—no visits, no observations.  Katz comments: “(I)f the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics partnered with the Hormel corporation to design a school lunch program—you hope the more knowledgeable partner is guiding the work, but you strongly suspect that a lot of snouts and tails are going to get in there too.”

As a teacher educator, Katz worries about a “campaign (that) appears rooted in the notion that everything we are doing in school is obsolete and must drastically modernize immediately or we are all doomed.”  He believes the preparation of teaching candidates in colleges of education has been significantly strengthened in the past 30 years: “While I will never say that teacher preparation is unable to improve, it is also true that anyone who has gotten a teaching certificate since the 1980s has likely seen significant changes, often positive changes…. From increased time spent in classrooms prior to student teaching, to stronger pedagogical and content preparation, to vastly improved preparation for working with students with disabilities, teacher preparation has not been standing still, and it would behoove a number of the TeachStrong partners… to familiarize themselves with the kinds of evidence that the 656 teacher preparation programs accredited by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (since merged with TEAC and changed to the Council for the Accreditation of Education Preparation) have had to provide in order to demonstrate their strengths.”

Katz ‘s greatest worry? “While the teacher professionalization efforts of the 1980s and 1990s had some positive impacts, they…. tended to emphasize teaching as a technical and rational act with special emphasis on those aspects of teaching that can be measured or demonstrated.  While this has some merit, over emphasizing it has diminished a critical aspect of teaching: vocationalism. People who become teachers feel called in some way to the profession; they know themselves well enough to have considered why they are choosing teaching.”

Katz evokes the themes of Parker Palmer, whose The Courage to Teach, the classic book on vocationalism among teachers, calls for creating conditions that help teachers stay connected to what called them to teaching in the first place: “In our rush to reform education, we have forgotten a simple truth: reform will never be achieved by renewing appropriations, restructuring schools, writing curricula, and revising texts if we continue to demean and dishearten the human resource called the teacher on whom so much depends.  Teachers must be better compensated, freed from bureaucratic harassment, given a role in academic governance, and provided with the best possible methods and materials.  But none of that will transform education if we fail to cherish—and challenge—the human heart that is the source of good teaching… This book builds on a simple premise: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” (The Courage to Teach, pp. 3-10)

Katz shares Palmer’s concern for strengthening the integrity and agency of school teachers. He concludes: “If TeachStrong is serious about a pipeline of great potential teachers, it had better look harder than most recent reform efforts that constantly emphasize getting the best students into teacher preparation without being concerned whether or not they are driven by the best motivations.  It also means that rather than focusing on impossible goals like elevating the salaries of 3 million teachers to the salaries of doctors and lawyers, it would be much better to focus upon working conditions that grant teachers significantly more autonomy and input into how their work and workplaces are conducted.”

If it intends to support school teachers, TeachStrong has another mammoth task: confronting widespread scapegoating of educators that has been pushed by some of the same groups that have now signed on to the TeachStrong campaign.  The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) operated through threats and imposition of sanctions—all intended to frighten teachers into working harder;  NCLB targeted teachers for punishment when test scores in our nation’s poorest schools proved stubbornly resistant to change. And to get waivers from NCLB’s failed Adequate Yearly Progress system, states have been required by the federal government to rate teachers by students’ standardized test scores, even as many states were at the same time implementing the new Common Core tests with benchmark cut scores set so high that in many places two-thirds of students were unable to pass.

In a commentary on college programs to prepare teachers, Mike Rose, another teacher educator, describes the effective teachers he has known and observed: “They had command of the material they taught. They created safe and respectful classrooms. They had a deep belief in the ability of their students and held high expectations for them.  They required their students to think and think hard and worked to engage students in each others’ thinking.  The richness came in the variety of ways they realized these qualities—an important point, given the push by some for increasingly regulated curriculum and pedagogy.  Part of the variation, of course, was a result of where these teachers went to college.  But the variation also came from influential teachers they had earlier in their own schooling.  The way they taught was also influenced by their personalities and by their values and background: by family or religion or positive or negative experiences in school; by the experience of race or ethnicity, social class, gender, or sexual orientation; by political and social commitments; by the love of a subject.  An important quality in a teacher education program, traditional or alternative, is how well it is able to draw on and develop these characteristics.  You won’t see this quality mentioned in any of the high-profile reports on teacher education.”

Professor Katz suspects that TeachStrong is one part a marketing campaign and another part nine principles—framed in laudable rhetoric— for improving the teaching profession. “Given the perspectives and previous projects of many of the partners in this effort, including TFA which stated in the Washington Post article that it felt no need to change its own five week training program to meet the principles outlined above, it is right to be cautious about what will materialize here.”

Vermont Warns Parents about Arbitrary Nature of Cut Scores—Not to Worry So Much

What does it mean about our society that we are so obsessed with standardized tests?  There is lots of evidence that we’ve become obsessed.  We worry about international rankings. We have allowed our federal government and states to put in place a system of punishments for teachers and schools based on scores on mandated standardized tests. We shop for real estate based on test scores.

Maybe part of our obsession is that testing fits so perfectly with our love of competition.  The tests are like high school football scores; we like to name a champion. We also like our children to be winners, and if test scores on the SAT or ACT are not high enough, maybe our children won’t get into the right college.  But there is something else going on.  These days comparison of test scores is being manipulated by politicians for political purposes.  Most of us don’t really understand what is happening and that makes us fearful.  Maybe tests mean more than we know. Maybe the tests mean something is wrong with our school or our community or our children. Maybe tests show our nation to be a failure.

Over the past week, in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss has published columns that demystify the scores on the Common Core tests, the test scores from last spring that are only now coming back to some states and being released to parents.  Late last week, the Vermont State Board of Education and Vermont’s secretary of education Rebecca Holcombe sent a letter to parents to reassure them that the state’s Common Core tests should not be taken too seriously. (Scroll down to the end of Strauss’s column to read the letter itself.) Vermont is part of the the Smarter Balanced consortium, a group of states that have agreed to use one of the two major providers’ Common Core tests.

We can assume, from what the Vermont State Board of Education’s letter says that members of the board and Secretary Holcomb are concerned about a scoring scale that is going to make too many of Vermont’s children look like failures.  Here is part of what the State Board’s letter  says to parents:  “We call your attention to the box labeled ‘scale score and overall performance.’ These levels give too simplistic and too negative a message to students and parents.  The tests are at a very high level.  In fact, no nation has ever achieved at such a level.  Do not let the results wrongly discourage your child from pursuing his or her talents, ambitions, hopes or dreams.  These tests are based on a narrow definition of ‘college and career ready.’  In truth, there are many different careers and colleges and there are just as many different definitions of essential skills. In fact, many (if not most) successful adults fail to score well on standardized tests.  If your child’s scores show that they are not yet proficient, this does not mean that they are not doing well or will not do well in the future.”

The issue, of course, is the setting of cut scores on the test.  What score should be marked passing? What score means “proficient”?  What score determines failure?

Just last week, for the purpose of addressing just such questions about scoring scales on standardized tests, Strauss republished a post by Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania school teacher and author of the blog Curmudgucation.  Greene used last week’s transition off Daylight Savings Time to reflect on the labels we use to describe and attach meaning to our reality. Labels, including Daylight Savings Time as well as cut scores on standardized tests, are mere symbols we attach to particular phenomena to make them mean something.

The day after Daylight Savings Time ended, Greene wrote: “Here’s the thing—it will get precisely as dark as it got yesterday… The distribution of light and dark through the day, the distribution of the sun’s high points and low points—it will be pretty much the same today as it was yesterday… What changed is not the distribution of light and dark, but the labels that we put on it…  This is a fine way to explain cut scores. The distribution of student scores, the lights and darks, the highs and lows—that stays pretty much the same. What changes is how people choose to label them. We can take the highest point of the curve and we can call it ‘on level’ or ‘above expectations’ or ‘below expectations.’ And the labels we use are our reality.”  The numbers of correct and incorrect answers comprise the raw data, “But what we label it… is just a label, even an arbitrary label, that we have slapped on the raw data to give it meaning.  And we can give it any meaning we want.”

Like officials in Vermont, Ohio’s education leaders were displeased with Ohio’s scores on the Common Core test—in Ohio’s case, the test of the PARCC consortium.  Less willing to write a letter that might undermine support for our obsession with standardized testing, Ohio’s legislature simply dismissed the PARCC test and plans next year to go with one from the American Institutes of Research.  And at the same time, Ohio’s state board of education bumped up the cut scores.  Some people, who believe tests really mean something objective, have complained that Ohio has just become soft like Lake Woebegon, where all the children are above average.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), our federal testing law, was intended to make schools and teachers work harder—to improve students’ academic achievement—through the manipulation of test scores.  Test scores were required by NCLB to rise every year until all children reached a level deemed “proficient.”  Because in the real world not all children can score “proficient,” a mass of schools began to be labeled “failing,” and the U.S. Department of Education had to begin to offer waivers from this provision of the law.  Now the Common Core tests are being scored the same way. The cut score for “passing” is being set so high that in many places two-thirds of students are turning out to be failures, and, based on students’ scores, their teachers’ ratings  are collapsing.

We need to ask whether threatening children and their teachers with artificially imposed failing labels is the best way to motivate everyone to try harder. There is a growing consensus that this strategy is not improving our schools.

Sides in Polarized Education Debate Reflect Different Moral Frames

George Lakoff is the cognitive linguist who has published a series of books (Don’t Think of an Elephant and Moral Politics, for example) about how people think about issues of public policy.  People don’t form political opinions, according to Lakoff, by examining empirical evidence.  They don’t evaluate how particular policies and programs are really operating in their communities or in the nation or the world.  Instead they vote their core values as those values are incorporated into the meta-narratives—frames—by which they understand how the world works.  Lakoff writes: “The debate is not a matter of objective, means-end rationality or cost-benefit analysis or effective public policy.  It is not just a debate about the particular issue…. The debate is about the right form of morality….” (Moral Politics, p 169)  If you want to speak to someone’s heart—and therefore that person’s vote—you must evoke the moral frame by which they understand how the world works.

On Monday, in her Washington Post Answer Sheet column, Valerie Strauss published a thoughtful piece along these lines from Arthur Camins, who examines the moral assumptions and values of those who promote creative disruption in education as the key to innovation.  (This blog has considered the issues around education policy based on the theory of creative disruption here.)  Camins wholeheartedly agrees with Lakoff about the role of values and morals in decisions that affect education policy: “It appears that the battles over what counts as better for education in the United States will be decided, not by the relative strength of evidentiary arguments, but instead by who most successfully claims the moral high ground.  Public acceptance of policy prescriptions does not turn on technical determinations, but on values identification and moral judgments.”

Camins believes today’s school “reformers” value individual merit, hard work, and motivation via competition and filter their understanding of what’s possible and how to get there through this lens: “Success (defined as beating the competition), reformers appear to reason, is influenced by competitive advantage, which derives from application of fixed capacities (some have it, and some do not) that are motivated by extrinsic reward.  As a result, policies focus on hiring and firing able teachers rather than on developing them.  ‘No-excuses’ charter schools filter out those who do not fit in or have the ‘grit’ to struggle through… Individualism and a failure to consider more equitable socio-economic structures lead reformers to an inequality vision that is extraordinarily constrained…. increasing the chances of some students to escape from poverty.  Reformers accept inequality in the United States, with its vast wealth disparity and competition for limited resources and rewards as inevitable, if not motivational, in an unquestionably superior system.  Hence, evidence of limited impact of charter schools, their tendency to increase segregation and the apparent folly of firing a few presumably ineffective teachers in order to have systemic impact are not viewed as problematic.  Systemic impact was never the goal.  What they envision passing through their filter is improved chances for some motivated children who with a stronger education will have a competitive advantage over the rest of the children stuck in schools that simply cannot be improved.”

Camins writes, “Maximizing competitive advantage represents a core value, while disruptive innovation is a moral choice about means, in which moral certainty about achieving goals excuses the collateral damage of getting there.  This vision accepts inequality as inevitable, if lamentable.”

Camins believes we must examine the moral issues behind the policies if we are to have any hope of correcting the damage of today’s school “reform.”  “An alternative core value is maximizing economic, social and political equity.  These values support an effort to alter the current structures to create an equitable society.  Such values lead to different moral choices about means, including ensuring a public education system in which: all students are known, valued and respected by adults and peers; all students develop their talents and expertise to be successful in work, life and citizenship; and, policy and decision makers are answerable to the public in order to ensure the common good.”

About today’s school “reformers” Camins writes: “I have little hope of dissuading these ardent reformers.  I do hope that shedding some light on the nature of their ideological filters will influence public perception and undermine the credibility and traction of their policies.”

I urge you to read and consider Camins’ thoughtful piece.