Category Archives: Arne Duncan

An Opt Out Lament – and a Deeper Lesson

It is nearing the end of March, which means that my social media feeds and the blogs that I read are full of materials pertaining to the Opt Out movement.  Contrary to years of efforts by testing advocates to portray Opt Out as wholly of phenomenon of privileged parents, I know that the efforts I witness represent the work of parents facing bullying and misinformation from administrators trying to keep their test participation levels above 95%.  It is also represents the work of brave teachers risking sanction and professional consequences for speaking out against damaging policies that distort curricula and classroom choices.  Further, it represents the work of urban education activists who have seen over and over again how annual test data is abused by politicians and policymakers and is used to rank teachers on flawed measures of their performance and to close schools instead of to help and nurture them.

The reasons to support opting out are legion.  Peter Greene provides an excellent breakdown of eight compelling reasons in this postKatie Lapham clearly articulates how test refusal is a form of people power that says “no” to a variety of practices that actively harm schools and children.  Last year, Bronx Principal Jamaal Bowman made an impassioned case for why he supports parents’ rights to refuse the state exams, asking why if the city’s most elite private schools refuse to give exams like these why do we just accept them as necessary for schools full of children in poverty?  New York State Allies for Public Education published this informative response to general misinformation and obfuscation on testing policy put into the state “information toolkit” for administrators.  I urge you to read these pieces carefully and thoughtfully and to seek out others on the subject if you are not already deeply informed on the issues regarding testing.

From where I sit, there are two fundamental reasons why parents should consider opting their children out of the annual examinations.  First, they are a failed policy.  Annual, high stakes, standardized examinations were ushered in as part of the No Child Left Behind legislation under President Bush with a promise that with an ongoing set of achievement data that could be compared against annual improvement targets and consequences for not meeting those targets that schools would improve, especially schools that serve student populations who consistently struggled.  The promise was enticing enough that a bi-partisan coalition signed up, including civil rights organizations convinced that states and cities would be forced to help schools where most students were of color.

That reality never materialized.  While states were flush with data that showed exactly what could have been predicted using other data sources, the “help” that was supposed to flow to struggling schools never measured up to the task while the threat of consequences narrowed more and more student experiences into ongoing test preparation.  Writing during the 2015 debate over the Every Student Succeeds Act, Kevin Welner and William Mathis of University of Colorado at Boulder concluded that test-based accountability as practiced in the NCLB era had demonstrably failed to demonstrate real improvement in the nation’s schools:

We as a nation have devoted enormous amounts of time and money to the focused goal of increasing test scores, and we have almost nothing to show for it.  Just as importantly, there is no evidence that any test score increases represent the broader learning increases that were the true goals of the policy – goals such as critical thinking; the creation of lifelong learners; and more students graduating high school ready for college, career, and civic participation.  While testing advocates proclaim that testing drives student learning, they resist evidence-based explanations for why, after two decades of test-driven accountability, these reforms have yielded such unimpressive results.

Second, test-based accountability is monstrously unjust and racist, subjecting communities to punitive results and “solutions” that aid only a few and which disproportionately take away input into education from parents of color. While No Child Left Behind had already done significant damage to schools and learning, the Obama administration’s policies went much further.  Under the Race to the Top competition, states were incentivized to adopt common standards, to join mass testing consortia, and to use the results of test data to promote school choice and to evaluate teachers.  These are not benign policies.  Value added measures of teacher performance have been and remain highly unreliable ways to evaluate teachers, and while school choice advocates like current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her predecessors in the Obama administration like to portray school choice as empowerment for students and parents, they persistently fail to consider the nature and consequences of those choices.  Urban charter schools rarely enroll identical populations of students as their host districts, and high performing charter schools frequently use shockingly high attrition rates to enhance their overall test scores.  The idea that urban charter schools offer parents “choices” the way that suburban parents enjoy choices, as so often claimed by their proponents, is laughable – it is hardly a choice to be offered a district schools that is chronically underfunded and neglected by policy makers or a charter school that is well resourced thanks to wealthy donors but which routinely drives away its students.  And yet those are the “choices” offered to urban parents of color thanks to testing policies, choices that would cause their white, wealthy peers to oust elected leaders.

And yet, despite these reasons which I believe whole-heartedly, my family will not opt out of the tests this year.

That admission comes as a bit of a shock and leaves me with deeply conflicted feelings, perhaps even trepidation that I will lose respect among people whose advocacy and bravery I greatly respect.  However, I cannot demand that we be an opt out family this year and honor a promise we made to our children.

Last year, as testing time approached, we spoke to our oldest child about the upcoming exams and why we did not like them as a school policy. They were poorly written (they still are).  They took up far too much time just taking them and consumed way too much teaching time preparing for them (they still do).  The state and city would use the test scores to unfairly judge schools and teachers (and they still will).  Based on those reasons, we explained to our child that it was possible to refuse to take the exams and that we would be pleased to make certain the school knew not to administer the exam.  It did not take much to get a “yes” in response to this argument, and for those who think we may have pressured our child, this is a young person who, at the age of six, deduced atheism without any outside influence.  It was important to us that this be a family decision that our child participated in rather than one we insisted upon without listening. Compared to many families who opt out, we were exceedingly lucky.  The school knows what I do for a living, and we were subjected to no active campaign to get us to change our mind, even though New York state policy encourages principals to do just that.

On the other hand, our school really has no active opt out presence, and to my knowledge, our child was the ONLY student in the school to opt out and spent the better part of two different weeks helping out in a Kindergarten class.  Again, better than what happens to many students, but it also made our child stand out.

So when testing time approached again this year, we sat down for another conversation, but the result was very different.  Without being particularly upset or visibly shaken by the previous year’s experience, our child decided to NOT opt out. Part of keeping my word on our child having the right to have a say in this means that we are not an opt out family this year.  Over the weeks, I have managed to tease out my child’s reasons.  Some of it is sheer curiosity about what the other kids will be spending so much time doing.  Some of it is recalling feeling awkward in a classroom full of Kindergarten kids.  Some of it is feeling uneasy being the only student in the grade not taking the test.  Some of it is knowing that the test is part of the teachers’ evaluations and concern not taking it will be harmful – I said that the last fear was not what would happen, but the other reasons?  I don’t really have an argument there, and I strongly suspect there is no small part of this decision that is based upon not wanting to be the only kid opting out again.  I cannot find fault with that.  No matter how much I say that this is a “family decision,” at the end of the day, it is my child who has to enact it, for hours and hours at a time, and that would be a very lonely and potentially ostracizing act.

Of course, honoring my child’s participation in this decision also means recognizing that we are participating, unnecessarily in my opinion, in a policy that is both a failure and which is used to justify a racist status quo.  Just this past week, the New York City Panel on Educational Policy voted to shutter more schools that were supposed to be getting extra assistance and resources as part of a renewal program, assistance and resources that community members in the Bronx say never materialized for JHS 145 Arturo Toscanini.  Those same community members present strong arguments that their school was already slated to be taken over by a charter school before the decision on closing was finalized.  All of this is made far more possible by the abuse of testing data in decision making, testing data our family will contribute to this year.

It is hard to swallow, but perhaps it is also an opportunity for deeper and more incisive self critique.  The state tests may help to fuel failed and racist policies, but they are by no means the only examples of injustice in our school system.  I prepare college students to become teachers, but am I doing enough to teach them to confront the school to prison pipeline?  Am I doing enough to help them drop the pitfalls of “white savior complex” and really learn about their students of color?  Am I working to shine a light on how gentrification brings wealth into neighborhoods and opens trendy night spots but rarely does anything for the public schools?  What level of my own comfort within the education system that I work for and in which my children are enrolled am I willing to put at risk?

How much am I complacent in a much larger system of injustices even if I am able to identify the state tests as especially troubling?  Taking time to answer these questions is more important than ever, and my child’s decision about this year’s tests plays no small role in it.

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Filed under Activism, Arne Duncan, Betsy DeVos, charter schools, Common Core, Data, ESSA, Eva Moskowitz, Funding, Opt Out, politics, racism, schools, Success Academy, Testing, VAMs

How Betsy DeVos Could Fail

Betsy DeVos has been Secretary of Education for less than three weeks, but her tenure as the custodian of federal education law and policy promises to be as stormy as her confirmation process.  According to this summary from The Washington Post, Secretary DeVos managed to, in a few weeks, insult teachers at a middle school, bashed protesters, claimed she would be fine if her department was shut down by Congress, complained about critics wanting to “make her life a living hell,” did not participate in a scheduled Twitter chat for teachers, suggested that schools are supposed to be able to compensate for all home problems, needed U.S. marshals to protect her during a school visit, demonstrated little understanding of the Common Core State Standards, and signaled her number one priority is any form of schooling other than traditional public schools.

Additionally, insider accounts says that DeVos was opposed to the immediate roll back of Obama administration guidelines protecting transgender students, but she was bullied by Attorney General Jeff Sessions into supporting the decisionIn an interview with Axios, Secretary DeVos confirmed that she would not mind if Congress put her out of work by ending the department, and she confirmed her enthusiasm for different “models” of education:

“I expect there will be more public charter schools. I expect there will be more private schools. I expect there will be more virtual schools. I expect there will be more schools of any kind that haven’t even been invented yet.”

It was in an interview with columnist Cal Thomas that DeVos complained about protesters and where she suggested that lack of “character education” was partially to blame for lagging achievement in schools.  In her appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference this week, she joked that she was “the first person” to tell Senator Bernie Sanders that there was “no such thing as free lunch” – despite the ironic fact that federal law does actually provide free lunches for millions of public school students – and she accused the American Professoriate of more or less brainwashing our students.

It is therefore understandable if advocates for American public education are terrified.  Betsy DeVos is absolutely, almost religiously, dedicated to “disrupting” the public school system, and her record of political advocacy shows that she has little regard for the impacts of her preferred reforms and sees them as a goal unto themselves. With the force of federal education law and spending behind her, and with a Congress eager to abet her efforts, there is a great deal of disruption that she can manage.  Stories from New Orleans and Detroit as well as other cities where charters and privatization have had significant impact with little oversight should serve as cautionary tales for teachers, parents, and students alike: there will be a full frontal assault on the very assumption that compulsory education is a public good serving any public function at all.

But it is also very likely going to fail.  That isn’t to say that there will not be a lot of disruption; there will be.  And that is not to say that a lot of schools and classrooms will not become more uncertain and stressful places; that will happen.  But it is to say that the public school system in America is a lot more resilient than someone like Betsy DeVos, who called it “a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market…. a monopoly, a dead end,” can understand.  Like Arne Duncan before her, I strongly suspect that Secretary DeVos will struggle to coordinate influence across a vast and diffuse education system that has overlapping and competing stakeholders unwilling to simply take orders and march in unison towards one goal.  I see three potential stumbling blocks that will ultimately limit what DeVos is able to accomplish:

1. Her Reach Will Exceed Her Grasp

Congressional Republicans may very well give Betsy DeVos what she has always dreamed of: an opportunity to shovel huge swaths of American education over to private service providers.  Steve King of Iowa has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would essentially gut the federal role in public education.  H.R. 610, which has only been referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce so far, is written to “distribute Federal funds for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers” and to “repeal a certain rule relating to nutritional standards in schools (because OF COURSE it does)”.  Representative King and his co-sponsors propose to eliminate the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and to send all federal funds to states as block grants that can be used for eligible students to attend any private school or for families that choose to home school.  States will only receive this money if they comply with voucher program requirements and if they make it “lawful” for any parents to enroll their child in any public or private school or to home school them.  For added measure, Representative King appears intent to do away with former First Lady Michelle Obama’s signature initiative on children’s health by doing away with nutritional guidance on school lunches…I’m guessing the makers of sawdust based breakfast cereals and lunch “meats” have been hurting too much.

This would gut the federal role in assisting states and communities to provide fair and equitable education for all students, reducing Washington’s role to handing out bundles of coupons states would distribute to parents to pass through to private education operators.  In any normal political climate, I would assume that the bill was dead on arrival, but given current leadership of the House of Representatives, Steve King’s popularity with the voters that put Donald Trump in office, and the leadership in the Executive Branch, I would not bet against some version of this bill making it to the floor of the House.  Even if H.R. 610 fails to make it through, other ideas are floating in Congress, such as a suggestion from the “School Choice Caucus” that some or all of the $15 billion spent on Title I could be turned into a school choice fund.  Knowing DeVos’ zeal for school vouchers, it is easy to imagine her applying leverage from a bill like that or even applying leverage to existing federal funds to push states into opening more and more school choice schemes even without Steve King’s bill.

A recent history lesson would do Secretary DeVos some good if she were inclined to learn lessons about reaching too far too fast in federal education.  For example, Bill Gates probably thought he had it all lined up:  He had a Secretary of Education open to his technocratic approach to education reform.  He had the National Governors Association on board with adopting standards across the states.  He had the people he liked and who had convinced him to back the project writing the standards.  He would soon have the federal government using a grant competition and waivers to encourage states to adopt those standards, to sign up for shared standardized exams, and to use test score data to rate teacher effectiveness.  In short order, the federal government would offer massive grants to multi-state testing consortia to design the first cross-state accountability exams. To wrap it all up with a bow, he had 100s of millions of dollars he was willing to pump into the effort.

And we all know how that turned out.

Fans of the Common Core and the associated testing and teacher evaluations would probably like to chalk up all resistance to the same forces that reflexively assaulted anything done by President Obama, and to be sure, if you go to Twitter and searched #commiecore you will see what they mean.  But that is only explanatory to a degree.  A lot of the backlash to the reform efforts that rolled into schools was based on a massively disruptive set of interconnected policies.  Common standards informed high stakes assessments that refocused the curriculum, and teacher evaluations tied to student growth on those exams meant no classroom could avoid seeing test scores as goals in and of themselves.  Even if the standards themselves were universally recognized as high quality – and they were not – driving disruptive reforms into nearly every classroom in the country so quickly and with so little public discussion about what was happening and why was guaranteed to foment backlash.  Teachers had little to no time to learn about and understand the standards or to develop their own critiques.  Quality materials to support the new standards were in short supply.  Test based incentives increased urgency and narrowed teaching options.  Parents turned around to discover that people were trying to rejigger most of the country’s schools without bothering to talk to them about it.  And when they talked about their frustration in public, the Secretary of Education said  they were “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

This is the kind of disrespect and dismissal that has been sadly common place for parents of color for decades now.  Those communities frequently have control of their schools taken away from them by distant state governments, have suffered the consequences of No Child Left Behind which labeled their schools failures without doing anything substantive to help them, and then made them choose between charter schools that are well funded but might not accommodate their children and public schools that are underfunded and neglected.  But that level of being dictated to and told to like it or go pound sand is not typical in suburban schools whose parents both expect and demand access to local decision makers and who believe their schools were serving their needs before any of this arrived.  That is not the kind of environment you “disrupt” without creating massive backlash.

Today, Common Core is not exactly dead, but it also isn’t getting invited to any parties.  Formerly supportive governors dance away from the standards (even if they do little to change them), while one of the testing consortia struggles to retain the few remaining states.  While variations and remnants of this effort are likely to survive, the technocrats’ dream of a coordinated system of state standards, assessments, and teacher evaluations is pretty much off the table.

Secretary DeVos looks to be on a similar path, and Congress is very likely to give her a pool of money to use to her heart’s content which, if history is any judge, is to set up as many alternatives to public schools as she can without regard to their quality or impact on district schools.  If even a significant portion of Title I money is turned into a voucher program, DeVos will have leverage on every state to increase school choice policies dramatically, even in places that receive only small amounts of Title I funding.  Imagine the reaction of a community that finds out that pep band has been canceled to cover the transportation costs of children traveling to parochial schools in neighboring districts and you have some idea of how many Congressional Republicans will just stop meeting with constituents altogether.  Like Arne Duncan before her, Betsy DeVos is in a hurry, and, having pushed for unregulated privatization and vouchers for decades regardless of what people actually want, it is impossible to imagine that she will not reach for whatever she can as fast as she can – with predictable consequences.  My biggest fear is not that Secretary DeVos will be able to bend the entire school system to her privatized will but that the influential communities will beat back her efforts and call it a day, forgetting that what offended them has been the unjust norm for families of color for years.

2. See You In Court

Trump’s administration landed in court, on the losing side, almost immediately after implementing its travel ban, and there is no reason to believe that lawsuits won’t be filed almost immediately if Secretary DeVos moves on her favored policies. Two legal fronts will be ripe for action – First Amendment grounds and state constitutional grounds.

Betsy DeVos loves vouchers.  She and her family tried to get Michigan to adopt them in 2000, only to face overwhelming opposition followed by her husband’s failed bid for governor.  Her tactic following that loss was to systematically buy the political system in Michigan and settle for unleashing a chaotic flood of unregulated charter schools on the state.  The DeVos family also made efforts to blur the boundaries between church and state, and one of her ultimate goals is to use public money to advance “God’s Kingdom” by helping religious education:

But the DeVoses’ foundation giving shows the couple’s clearest preference is for Christian private schools. In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy magazine, Betsy DeVos said that while charters are “a very valid choice,” they “take a while to start up and get operating. Meanwhile, there are very good non-public schools, hanging on by a shoestring, that can begin taking students today.” From 1999 to 2014, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation gave out $2.39 million to the Grand Rapids Christian High School Association, $652,000 to the Ada Christian School, and $458,000 to Holland Christian Schools. All told, their foundation contributed $8.6 million to private religious schools—a reflection of the DeVoses’ lifelong dedication to building “God’s kingdom” through education.

It would be out of her character to resist funneling federal dollars set aside for school vouchers to religious schools.  The effort might be slow at first, getting the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, but even a small, “experimental” voucher program for religious education would be an immediate First Amendment case arguing that the federal government is forbidden from “establishing” religion.

Another, more interesting front, would be lawsuits filed in both state and federal courts arguing that DeVos led reform efforts would violate state constitutions.  While the federal role in public education is completely undefined in the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions are full of language obligating state governments’ support of public schools.  The language varies, but there are common themes such as states needing to establish “thorough and efficient” school systems, setting up systems that are “general” and “free”, securing “the people the advantages and opportunities of education,” and even ringing endorsements of public schools as promoters of democracy.

Betsy DeVos’ favorite school reforms arguably violate all of those principles, and efforts to impose them nationally could force states to violate their own constitutions.  There is nothing “thorough and efficient” about the chaotic system of unregulated charter schools that DeVos’ advocacy supports in Detroit.  DeVos mentioned expanding virtual school choice options, but there is mounting evidence that such schools perform poorly and disproportionately enroll lower income students – expanding them would hardly meet state’s constitutional obligations.  There is plenty of evidence by now on the impact of school vouchers on school quality, but that evidence does not support expanding them.  Some state voucher programs, such as Indiana’s under Mike Pence, contribute to further segregation in public schools, violating the notion of schools as instruments of democracy:

According to data from the state, today more than 60 percent of the voucher students in Indiana are white, and more than half of them have never even attended any public school, much less a failing one. Some of the fastest growth in voucher use has occurred in some of the state’s most affluent suburbs. The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a Chicago-based think tank, recently concluded that because white children’s participation in the voucher program dwarfed the next largest racial group by 44 points, the vouchers were effectively helping to resegregate public schools.

Squaring outcomes like these with the lofty language of various state constitutional obligations for public education is going to be difficult, and a DeVos led effort to make her style of unregulated, for-profit charter and virtual charter schools coupled with unregulated school vouchers funneling public cash to private and religious schools is not going to go unchallenged in court.

3. Good Help Is Hard To Find

Betsy DeVos has never had a real job in her life.  She was born into money, and married into more money.  She is exceptionally skilled at leveraging that fortune to influence politicians to do what she wants them to do, but that is not a skill set that allows you to run an agency with 4,400 direct employees and an annual budget of $68 billion.  Like every Cabinet Secretary, even those with vastly more experience than she has, Betsy DeVos is going to need help to implement much of anything.

Unfortunately for DeVos – and perhaps fortunately for our nation’s schools – she reports to a boss who loves chaos and sees confusion as his tool to dominate others.  Further, the Trump White House is demanding complete loyalty to Trump from all appointees, gumming up the works of finding qualified deputies and assistants to keep the U.S. Department of Education running.  This is no easy task considering that Republicans with actual experience running government programs lined up to vocally oppose Trump during the election, and school choice Democrats who might have been willing to work for, say, a President Kasich or Bush wouldn’t touch this administration with 10,000 foot pole.  Like Cabinet appointees in the State, Defense, and Treasury departments, Betsy DeVos is not on track to have a full staff any time soon.

This isn’t necessarily bad.  Without a staff of knowledgeable and skilled deputy and assistant secretaries able to implement new programs and revise existing regulations, the department will be on cruise control as the non-political employees keep the day to day operations working without clear directions to change anything.  In the case of a DOE tasked with making Betsy DeVos’ vision of American public education a reality, incompetence is actually our friend.

The upcoming ride will be rough, but, if everyone remains vigilant and vocal, DeVos is going to fail.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, Betsy DeVos, charter schools, Common Core, Corruption, Drumpf, politics, School Choice, Social Justice

Betsy DeVos Broke the Ed. Reform Coalition – For Now

When Betsy DeVos was confirmed as United States Secretary of Education, she required an unprecedented tie-breaker vote by Vice President Mike Pence.  This was because all 48 Senate Democrats voted against her along with 2 Republicans.  A barrage of phone calls from constituents, her demonstrable ignorance about federal education policy, her utter lack of experience with running a large organization, and unanswered questions about her financial conflicts of interest could not scuttle her nomination – but it got closer than any cabinet nominee in recent memory.  Betsy DeVos took her office with a the only bipartisan consensus being the one against her.

On the one hand, DeVos presented a very reasonable target for opposition.  She really has no relevant experience whatsoever.  She is an ideologue rather than a expert who has made her “name” in education by leveraging her inherited wealth into buying the votes of state legislators.  While many school reform advocates favor shifting tax money to privately managed entities, DeVos appears to see the privatization of public money as a goal in and of itself without regard for outcomes.  Advocacy groups funded by her actually scuttled legislation in Michigan that would have kept failing charter schools from expanding, and she has demonstrated no interest in holding the overwhelmingly for profit charter sector in her home state accountable to much of anything, leaving Michigan sending $1 billion annually into a sector rife with self dealing and absent any oversight worthy of the wordDeVos favored policies have wrought additional havoc on Detroit Public Schools, leaving children wandering a landscape with a glut of seats which are distributed so unequally that getting to a school consumes hours of commuting time and where families are encouraged to “vote with their feet” – even if it means changing schools multiple times a year.

And if that record were not enough, DeVos gave Senators plenty of reasons to oppose her during her testimony which was peppered with evasions and displays suggesting she knows painfully little about federal education policy.  She whiffed a question on one of the central policy issues of the past decade.  She bobbed and weaved to avoid talking about accountability.  She appeared to have no knowledge about federal laws regarding educating students with disabilities.  She was pathetically glib about the question of guns in schools.  And when Senators sent her written questions to answer in further detail after her hearing, she plagiarized some of  her responses.  On top of all of that, DeVos was confirmed with votes from a raft of Republican Senators who reply on her cash for their campaign coffers.

So given this basket of deplorable qualities, it is not so surprising that her nomination went right down to the wire with not one Democratic vote and two Republicans breaking ranks as well.

Then again, maybe it is a bit surprising.

Democrats, after all, have been full members of the education reform club for some time now.  As Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post notes, Democrats who opposed DeVos’ confirmation have not been shy about joining the education reform coalition in the past two decades:

That’s why it was unusual when, in 2001, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat, gave critical support to the new conservative Republican president, George W. Bush, in passing a new education law called No Child Left Behind (NCLB). A bipartisan, they said, was to make sure public schools attended to the needs of all students, but the law actually became known for creating new “accountability” measures for schools based on controversial standardized test scores.

By embracing the NCLB system of high stakes testing coupled with dramatic consequences, Democrats enabled the move to privatize more and more public school money as charter schools proliferated in the wake of schools being labeled as failing.   Today, a cadre of Democratic politicians such as former Newark Mayor and now Senator Cory Booker, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and yes, former President Barack Obama are as dedicated to some or all of the central tenants of education reform as any Republican.  And as the debate over the Every Student Succeeds Act demonstrated, most Congressional Democrats are still in favor of high stakes accountability testing that is the centerpiece of education reform – and which provides the leverage necessary for Betsy DeVos to have wrought her special kind of chaos on her home state of Michigan and leaves her poised to try the same at a national level.

How Democrats got to this point is a layers and complicated situation.  Some followed the lead of many of the nation’s most venerable civil rights organizations who argued in 2001 and continue to argue that high stakes accountability is vital to make certain that states and communities do not ignore communities of color in allocating education resources.  This coalition split somewhat from the mainstream of education reform when the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter school expansion in the election last year, citing the widespread problems of fraud and lack of accountability in the sector, but the general premise that schools with high percentages of minority students will be neglected without high stakes accountability is powerful and rooted in centuries of systemic racism.  Representative Mark Takano, who is one of the few members of Congress who actually has teaching experience, also explained that his colleagues assume that accountability systems which make sense for banks and for legal entities work in public education:

First, I don’t have a lot of time to talk with my colleagues and have this kind of conversation. Second, the attention span of the average member is so short, and it’s hard to have a conversation that goes beyond a superficial level of knowledge.

So when you come to Congress with particular expertise, you tend to stick with your expertise regardless of the topic. Take Elizabeth Warren. I really love the woman. She makes my heart beat when I watch her on banking. When she says we should have broken up the big banks, I say, you go, Elizabeth Warren. But she has been a lawyer all her life. When she takes a position on education, she brings her experience as a lawyer on the issue of accountability. And to her, accountability is some sort of punishment.

Certainly there has to be some level of accountability. But if you liken education to bean counting, that’s not going to work. Likewise, if your background is in criminal justice or civil rights, you’re likely to want to remedy education problems by putting into place a law with all these hammers to correct the ways in which minorities are systematically excluded. But that same mentality isn’t going to work in education.

Representative Takano makes a compelling case that it is very difficult for Representatives and Senators who possess little practical or academic expertise in education to discern how incentives commonly used in legal and civil rights contexts will fail to achieve the same results in education.  Further, given the way that time and influence operate at the federal government’s level, it is extremely difficult for what teachers and administrators know about the system and the nature of teaching and learning to reach Congress.

In addition to these shortcomings, it is indisputable that other Democratic members of Congress have been enthralled by the enthusiasm for “big data” in the technology sector.  The Obama Department of Education was particularly convinced that large data sets from standardized tests could sort failing schools from thriving ones and incompetent teachers from brilliant ones, and this conviction was certainly aided by the enthusiasm of technology sector donors and philanthropists like Bill Gates.  Unfortunately, the enthusiasm for use of “big data” to rank and sort schools and individual teachers far outstrips the evidence that it can work the way Bill Gates thinks it can, and we are nearly three years past the American Statistical Association issuing a statement urging policy makers to not use value added measures in individual teacher evaluations.  Regardless, the Arne Duncan and John King education departments continued to plow time and resources into promoting those measures, leading President of the NEA, Lily Eskelen-Garcia to dub the department an “evidence-free zone.”

Yet another strain among Democrats has been the perspective of firm believers in the Clinton “Third Way” style of centrism – emphasis on free trade and market based solutions while defending some aspects of the social safety net and maintaining a left of center stance on many social issues.  It certainly has been an effective political stance in the West’s most conservative Democracy, and as the traditional labor support for Democrats has waned, it also attracted campaign donors from sectors of the economy that increasingly benefited from growing income inequality.  But it also brought the inevitable expectations that Democrats taking those donations would favor policies espoused by those donors – who have been hostile to organized labor and in favor of school privatization.  Third Way Democrats like Andrew Cuomo and Rahm Emmanuel have been dreadful for public schools, public school teachers, and public school students as a result.

It is therefore surprising that Betsy DeVos, with her lengthy portfolio of favoring school privatization, could not muster a single Democratic vote except when she is regarded as an almost living example of education reform’s reductio ad absurdum.  In this light, it is not that Betsy DeVos is wrong to favor school privatization per se, but she is wrong to favor it in the wrong way.  That construction was all over the statement opposing her nomination issued by “Democrats” for Education Reform, the hedge fund created advocacy group aimed at convincing Democrats to expand school choice and privatization:

“Outside of her commitment to parental choice, the hearing provided little insight on Mrs. DeVos’ vision for educating the 50 million American children who currently attend public schools. We are strong supporters of choice married with accountability, but as vital as parental choice is, choice alone is not an answer for ensuring the education of 50 million kids.

“In sum, the hearing did little to clarify concerns that progressive reformers have about Mrs. DeVos’ policy commitment to strong accountability and a strong federal role spanning the scope of the Education Department’s work, from finance equity and teacher preparation to higher education and civil rights. We do hope that at some point Mrs. Devos will speak more expansively about her vision for all public schools and the federal role in ensuring our schools work for our kids. But based on the record before us, we cannot support her nomination.

DFER positions itself as a voice of “progressive reformers,” and the education reform movement has certainly been skillful at positioning itself as a civil rights struggle.  DeVos’ enthusiasm for any privatized school, even those engaged in outright fraud, is simply too far for their brand.  Last month, before the DeVos hearings, Peter Greene astutely noted that charter school enthusiasts were concerned about her nomination to protect their brand, to protect the left flank of the reform coalition, to block vouchers, and because DeVos’ regulation free ideal is not actually good for many charters fighting over finite pools of money.  Jersey Jazzman further noted that reform Democrats were bemoaning the nomination of DeVos, but on the premise that the center “consensus” on accountability, school choice, and charters was working really well until Trump went over the top with his pick for Secretary of Education.  This is, as he noted, bollocks because like their counterparts on the conservative side of school choice, reform Democrats ignored evidence about the charter sector as a whole and never acknowledged how those with impressive test scores achieve them.

Consider this painful exchange between Virginia Senator Tim Kaine and DeVos during her confirmation hearing:

I honestly do not know how she got ten votes in the Senate after that, but we should examine the Senator’s question and its premise as well.  On the one hand, it is an excellent question, and given DeVos’ long record of favoring any private entity getting public money over any truly public school, she was either going to evade answering it, outright lie, or give an answer even Republican partisans could not have ignored.  On the other hand, Senator Kaine’s belief in “equal accountability” for all schools that receive public funds should break apart the education reform coalition if every Democrat actually believed that and meant it.  In Senator Kaine’s defense, his record is not one of unabashed love for charter schools, but plenty of Democrats love to tout urban charters schools, especially of the “no excuses” models that boast about high test scores.  The rationale is that those schools “prove” that “poverty is no excuse” and that all things being equal, urban schools can match suburban test performance.

The trouble?  All things are almost never equal.  Urban charters, even ones with high test scores, are not held to equal accountability with public schools and such accountability will never be accepted by the sector.  Even if they are spotted being free from union work rules, charters inherently draw from a pool of families more attentive to the system than fully public schools can guarantee, and the “no excuses” charter schools championed by Arne Duncan, John King, and a raft of Democratic politicians use restrictive conduct codes and heavy use of out of school suspensions to force either quick conformity by students or quick withdrawals.  This shows up in the research all of the time, and the end result are schools claiming that they have the “same” students as their host districts but which in reality have fewer of the students with the greatest needs, leaving district schools to care for a population that is even more high need with fewer resources with which to do it.  The equal accountability that Senator Kaine favors does not exist and will not be accepted by school choice advocates, even those on his side of the aisle, unless something much more earth shaking than Betsy DeVos’ tenure in Washington happens.

So, for now, the education reform coalition has split, but mostly it has split into conservatives hoping to achieve long thwarted dreams of school vouchers and so-called “progressive” reformers asserting that Betsy DeVos “goes too far”without questioning any of the underlying premises of high stakes accountability and privatization.  Unless Democrats get themselves a genuine education on the core issues facing our school system, it is entirely likely that the education reform coalition will just bide its time and re-emerge as strong as ever.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, Betsy DeVos, charter schools, Cory Booker, Dannel Malloy, DFER, Drumpf, ESSA, Funding, John King, NCLB, politics, Social Justice, Testing, Unions, VAMs

Secretary of Privatization

For almost 16 years, across two administrations of different parties, America’s teachers have watched federal education officials embrace destructive policies.  President George W. Bush ushered in the era of test and punishment based accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act.  President Barack Obama entered office with promises of relief from unrealistic expectations and punitive incentives – only to double down on testing’s importance by favoring value-added teacher evaluations and to promote privatization through the charter school sector which has increasingly placed portions of our educational commons into hands avoiding public oversight.  With a Secretary of Education under President Obama who declared that Hurricane Katrina was the “best thing” to happen to New Orleans schools because the recovery turned the entire city over to privately managed charters, teachers could be forgiven for wondering how anything could get worse regardless of who won the election this month.

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After floating a raft of names – from former rival and now designated Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Dr. Ben Carson to New York City charter magnate Eva Moskowitz to former Washington D.C. School Chancellor and Patron Saint of Firing Teachers  Michelle Rhee to actually qualified school choice advocate and Hoover Institute Fellow Dr. Williamson Evers – Donald Trump has settled upon Michigan billionaire and school privatization zealot Betsy DeVos as his nominee for Secretary of Education.  Friends have asked me directly what I think about this pick, and I have frankly responded that if Ms. DeVos can accomplish for the nation’s schools what she has manage to do in Michigan by leveraging her fortune to buy her desired results, then we are well and truly screwed.  Ms. DeVos has never attended a public school, never sent her children to a public school, never studied education at any level, never taught a day in her life.  What she does bring to the post is an unparalleled zeal for turning as much of our public schools as possible over to unregulated hands and for sending as much public school money as possible to private and religious institutions.  With her appointment, the Trump administration’s priorities for our nation’s schools are made crystal clear: to hell with quality, to hell with equity, to hell with everything except privatization.

As early as 2011, Betsy DeVos was well recognized as an influential if stealthy advocate for school choice, especially in the form of vouchers.  Such efforts are always couched in terms that emphasize empowering parents and using competition to make all schools better, but the agenda has little to do with excellent education for all and much more to do with taking the nation’s $600 billion school budget and getting it into private hands.  Having failed in 2000 to convince Michigan voters to institute vouchers, DeVos altered strategy and backed legislators and bills that favored vouchers and privatization in various states.  Forming All Children Matter in 2003, DeVos quickly spent $7.6 million in the first year to get electoral results in favor of privatization.  If you’ve ever heard a conservative politician use the term “government schools” instead of “public schools,” you have Betsy DeVos and her husband (and Amway fortune heir) Dick to thank for it.  It turns out that slapping the label “government” on any publicly funded good is an effective way to bend public opinion against it.

The DeVos family was also deeply involved in repackaging vouchers from their original racist origin as a way to get white children out of desegregation and into an “only hope”for urban children “trapped” in “failing schools.”  The problem with that strategy is that with years of evidence in from voucher programs like Milwaukee there simply isn’t evidence that vouchers do very much for their alleged beneficiaries – although they do manage to get public money into private hands fairly well. In fact, in Milwaukee, students receiving vouchers performed worse than their counterparts in the city’s public schools.  The DeVos affinity for vouchers is not limited to secular institutions, and, they have deep and lasting ties to conservative Christian activists who see secular public education as an out and out enemy that has to be ended.  Betsy DeVos has served on the board of the Acton Institute which has featured events by Christian Dominionist Gary North who is on record writing, without irony: “So let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political, and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.

The DeVos record in her home base of Michigan should be on great concern to those who see public education as a public good that should not be turned over to profiteers.  Her efforts in Michigan and nationally aim to influence policies steering as much money as is possible away from fully public schools and into “competition” in the form of charters.  The Michigan experiment has been especially woeful for public education as the state’s charter sector is stupendously unregulated and an eye-watering 80% of charter schools are run by for-profit management corporations that don’t even try to hide that they are self dealing.  The Detroit Free Press reported in August that the state is sending $1 billion in tax payers’ money to charter schools but cannot be bothered to hold them accountable for much of anything:

Wasteful spending and double-dipping. Board members, school founders and employees steering lucrative deals to themselves or insiders. Schools allowed to operate for years despite poor academic records. No state standards for who operates charter schools or how to oversee them.

And a record number of charter schools run by for-profit companies that rake in taxpayer money and refuse to detail how they spend it, saying they’re private and not subject to disclosure laws. Michigan leads the nation in schools run by for-profits.

According to The New York Times, a 2010 law backed by a DeVos funded group pushed to expand charters, but DeVos’ group also blocked provisions that would have prevented failing charters from expanding and replicating.  Since that law passed, the number of charters in Michigan that are among the state’s lowest performing schools has doubled.  Another story in the Times illustrates the chaos this has unleashed upon students and families in Detroit in the name of “empowering” them with choice.  Decades into the charter school experiment and more than a decade into the DeVos influenced school landscape, Detroit has 30,000 more school seats than it needs and schools go into heated competition to fill those seats in time to get state money determined by headcount.  Charter school seats are concentrated near downtown while more impoverished neighborhoods with more school aged children have fewer schools – requiring those seeking choice to travel significant distances in a city of 140 square miles.  Many charter operators get around the requirements to have open lotteries by layering the application process with burdensome paperwork, unusual enrollment periods, or by advertising in sources they know the city’s most impoverished families do not read.  The result is that a great many families seeking charter seats end up at poorly run schools in Michigan’s unregulated environment and end up switching schools multiple times in the elementary years — an environment that Tonya Allen, President of the Skillman Foundation, compared to “The Hunger Games” for schools.

Perhaps so much disruption would be deemed worthwhile if Michigan had anything of merit to show for it.  Unfortunately, such merit is hard to see even after so many years of DeVos favored school choice policies.  Consider Michigan’s 8th grade results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in both mathematics and reading.  In math, Michigan’s students in 2015 showed no improvement at all over students from 2000, and while the gap between White and Black students did narrow from 45 points in 2000 to 35 points in 2015, the gap between students in poverty and student not in poverty was essentially unchanged in the same period.  Meanwhile, 8th grade reading scores were even worse – with 8th graders in 2015 also performing no better overall than in 2000, but with the gap between Black and White students remaining unchanged in that time and the gap between students in poverty and students not in poverty growing from 13 points to 23 points. The lack of quality control and oversight in Detroit is so bad that even national philanthropists eager to promote school choice and charters routinely pass over the Motor City.

Policies and politicians favored by Betsy DeVos and backed by her considerable resources have unleashed chaos in Michigan schools, leading to a charter school environment that even some charter school boosters find difficult to justify.  And the result of her efforts since the the early 2000s is a school system that isn’t actually performing any better than before she managed to leverage her fortune in favor of unregulated choice and charter school proliferation.  No wonder then that, although she has her fans among pro-privatizing politicians like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, she is also regarded as highly dangerous from others in her home state.  The President of Michigan’s state board of education said, “It’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, and hand-feeding it schoolchildren….Devos’ agenda is to break the public education system, not educate kids, and replace it with a for-profit model.”  A Democratic state senator from Deerborn Heights added, “The fact that she now is going to have a platform to do that on a national level should be of great concern to everyone in this country.”

If confirmed as Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos will almost certainly be in charge of whatever emerges from Donald Trump’s promise to allocate $20 billion to expand school choice in the form of charter schools and voucher plans.  In his announcement of the plan, Trump even used DeVos favored code language by referencing students trapped in “failing government schools,”  and he thanked Ron Packard, the CEO of the for-profit charter company that runs the failing charter school that served as the backdrop for his speech. It is almost impossible to imagine optics that better sum up Betsy DeVos’ record on education: coded language used to demean our educational commons, a for profit charter management company, and a school that is failing to improve students’ measured performance.  In fact, the only person in the story likely to be doing very well is Mr. Packard himself who used to pull in a salary of $5 million to run the K12 Inc. family of for profit virtual charter schools (with an educational record so dubious that the NCAA refuses to accept credits from the schools) and whose Pansophic Learning is now the largest for profit operator of charter schools in Ohio.  Secretary designate DeVos must love it.

Cynics – and even some optimists – might doubt just how much damage a DeVos led Department of Education could inflict.  After all, the nation spends over $600 billion annually on public education, but only 9% of that is federally funded which is why Trump’s voucher and choice proposal assumes, very optimistically, that states will kick in over $100 billion additionally over the $20 billion from the federal government.  The problem with this view is that while the federal government does not foot a lot of education money, it can unleash a hell of a lot of chaos with the money it does spend via incentives and regulation.  For example, Title 1 funds, intended for schools serving high percentages of economically disadvantaged students, reached 56,000 schools serving 21 million students in 2009-2010.  Luke Messer, a Republican Congressman from Indiana who is a friend of Mike Pence and who founded the Congressional School Choice Caucus already suggested that some or all of the money for Trump’s school choice program could come from the $15 billion the federal government spends on Title I.  Grabbing money intended to help public schools that serve the nation’s most needy children and turning it into an uncontrolled experiment in vouchers and unregulated charter schools is exactly the kind of project Betsy DeVos would relish.  And even if she only got her hands on a fraction of that sum, nobody should forget the degree of chaos Arne Duncan managed with only $4 billion in Race to the Top funds at his disposal.

In the end, Ms. DeVos may be frustrated less by available funds and a willing Congress than by her own preference for pulling strings outside the limelight.  As far back as 1997, she openly admitted that she donated money to Republican politicians in full expectation of getting a return on her investment:  “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment.”  But it is  a lot easier to buy the fealty of selected politicians and to hand them legislation to pass into law and to do so from the wings than the try to lead a national effort to convince Americans to gut their public schools.  Despite 30 years of a relentless school failure narrative, Americans tend to rate their local school systems fairly highly, and parents with at least one child in school rate them higher still.  If Betsy DeVos is going to leverage the promised money for school choice into substantial change, she will have to do something she has never really done – step into the sunlight and talk to us regular folks about why we should gamble our children on her ideas that have such a remarkably poor record.

I doubt that she has the skill set to spread her ideas to America’s suburban schools, but if Congress actually does give her a free hand with Title I, she will have the power to deal great harm to America’s poorest children.  As Secretary of Privatization, she can turn many more of our urban schools into profit centers that enrich private interests far more efficiently than they care about the children within them.  Expect more people like Ron Packard to cash in while our nation’s children and teachers suffer.

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I told you suckers what I was about, didn’t I?

 

 

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Filed under Arne Duncan, charter schools, Corruption, Drumpf, Funding, NCLB, politics, School Choice

How Far Have We Sunk? Pretty Far.

At the end of April, Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss wrote in her Answer Sheet blog that the Harley Avenue Primary School in the town of Elwood, N.Y. recently canceled its annual Kindergarten play so they could dedicate more time to making certain the children are prepared for “college and career.”  The cancelled show was to be performed in the middle of May, and a letter to parents explaining the rationale was dated April 25th of this year – so there is little chance that this is actually an elaborate April Fool’s prank.  In the text of the letter, the school told parents:

The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers. Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.

A Kindergarten play. Canceled. Because Kindergarten children need to be prepared. “For college and career.” And the play would taken too much time away from THAT.

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We can certainly start with the obvious – for five year olds, putting on a play DOES help them learn “valuable lifelong skills.”  Working together, learning dialogue and songs, taking direction, expressing themselves, pushing their boundaries, taking risks — in what possible universe are these not fantastic learning experiences for Kindergarten children?  If there is a better recent example of missing the forest for the trees, I haven’t seen it.

On a more serious note, this also rings horribly of how terribly awry childhood has been going in this age of standards and “rigor” and high stakes.  Not only are we pushing academic tasks to younger and younger ages where they are simply inappropriate, there is growing evidence that it actively harms children to do so:

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

Very young children need play.  This is hardly in dispute.  But in recent years, there has been increasing focus on test based performance by third grade that has created pressure to ensure children are “ready” by increasing academics in earlier and earlier grades.  While very young children are capable of learning skills and knowledge that will feed into academic performance later on, they need to learn it in ways that actually meet their needs.  By the time a Kindergarten class cannot spare the time to put on a show — which, incidentally, will teach the children a lot – because of pressure to focus on “college and career” readiness, then something is horribly, horribly wrong.

It is also bizarre that a community like Elwood would feel this kind of pressure.  According the United States Census,  47.9% of the community residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with statewide number of 33.7%.  Median household income in Elwood is $108,401 compared to a statewide median of $58,687, and only 2.7% of the population lives below the federal poverty line while the average is 15.6% statewide.  The median value of owner occupied homes in Elwood is $478,300 while the statewide median is $283,700.  Elwood also compares favorably to Suffolk County on Long Island as a whole.  In Suffolk County, 37.5% of the population has a B.A. or higher, the median household income is $88,323, and the median home value is $376,800.

Elwood’s public schools appear to be doing well also.  The New York State Education Department’s data portal shows exceptional performance on state standardized tests in Elwood.  Harley Avenue Elementary is a K-2 school which feeds into James H. Boyd Elementary’s 3-5 program. Although 25% of students opted out in 2015, the proficiency numbers between the 2014 and 2015 tests do not appear different in any appreciable way.  In the 2014 tests, 15% of students scored a level 4 in the ELA exams, and 38% scored at level 3 while statewide averages were 9% and 22% respectively.  In math, James H. Boyd students also out performed state average with 23% scoring level 4 and 34% at level 3 in 2014 while statewide those numbers were 14% and 22%.  While these numbers are not the highest in Suffolk County, they are well above the average.

So – we have a small town.  Better educated, wealthier, and performing better on state assessments than other communities in its county and state.  But they cannot spare time in Kindergarten to put on a play.  And while this example has raised many eyebrows, it goes without question that the high stakes environment has taken an even heavier toll on minority students in the form of narrowed curricula and ever increasing pressure to teach to the test.  Sadly, we knew this even before No Child Left Behind was passed as evidence from the so-called “Texas Miracle” showed diminished quality in education at all schools, but especially at Latino majority schools. Our ethnic minority and economically disadvantaged students were the canaries in the coalmine showing us how high stakes testing diminishes educational quality.  By the time towns like Elwood are figuring it out, we’ve pretty well killed every canary we have.

Something else stands out here as well.  Administrators in Elwood have taken significant flack from all sorts of critics for both canceling the show and then for justifying it on the grounds that those tiny Kindergarten kids need to be subjected to more rigor and more college and career readiness.  And yet, those administrators did not invent the policy environment they work within.  In today’s zero sum game of education as competition, perhaps Elwood’s administrators are looking around at the nearby schools that “outrank” them and figuring they need to up their game in order to look good enough.  The pressure to think like that is not exactly new, but recently it has increased dramatically, and three men bear far more responsibility for that than the public school administrators in Elwood:

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Bill Gates spent 100s of millions of dollar rushing the Common Core State Standards into public schools without anyone having time to prepare schools and teachers for them or even knowing if they were actually any good.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan famously said that he thought “We should be able to look every second grader in the eye and say, ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not,’ ” – signaling how obsession with standardized testing was only going to get worse in the country.  Chief architect of the Common Core, David Coleman, expressed his disdain for writing in school that detracts from analysis and his ideas of rigor, saying that “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a s— about what you feel or what you think.”  These three men, with their impatience, their obsession with standardized testing data, and their general disdain for anything that doesn’t match their priorities have inflicted great damage on American public education, wielding influence far beyond their wisdom.

So if Kindergarten children in Elwood, New York cannot have a play because they need to be “college and career ready,” we should aim our disgust at the people who invented that phrase and made 50 million school aged children chase it without a single public debate on the issue.

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ADDENDUM: When the article from The Washington Post was forwarded to me, I failed to notice that it was dated from April of 2014. Unfortunately, as an Elwood parents affirms in the comments, the annual Kindergarten play has not been reinstated.  I hope the children of Elwood get a return to sanity in the near future.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, child development, Common Core, Data, Gates Foundation, Testing

Preparing for the Post-NCLB World

Barring substantial shifts in the political landscape, both houses of Congress are expected to vote on the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which has just come out of the conference committee.  If passed in both the House and the Senate, the bill, dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act, is expected to be signed into law by President Obama before the end of the year.  This will officially usher us into the post No Child Left Behind era, and, as is typical with legislation nowadays, there is something in the final product to frustrate and worry pretty much everyone.  While ESSA represents tangible improvements over the widely hated NCLB, there are worrisome elements in it and a great deal of larger and more fundamental aspects are handed over to the states where we can probably expect prolonged fights over implementation.

Nineteenth Century lawyer-poet John Godfrey Saxe noted, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”  He probably had something like the agonizing and lengthy wrangling over rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in mind when he said it, especially this final stretch when lawmakers will vote on a 1000 page long conference bill they have not read thoroughly.  And, indeed, it seems some choice bits got chopped up and inserted into this final version, notably a chance for private financial interests to make money on public education dollars.

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Consider language for Title I, Part D for prevention and intervention programs for children and youth who are neglected, delinquent, and at risk, section 1424 allowing funds to go to “pay for success initiatives,” and similar language in Title IV, Part A.  ESSA defines a “pay for success initiative” as a “performance-based grant, contract, or cooperative agreement awarded by a public entity in which a commitment is made to pay for improved outcomes that result in social benefit and direct cost savings or cost avoidance to the public sector.”  The gist is that private entities can put up money as a loan for a public program and if they save money in the process of being more effective or more efficient than the public sector, they can keep a portion of the money saved. This is the kind of creative use of private philanthropy and financing that is supposed to incentivize deep pocketed entities to do good – and end up doing right well in the process.

Goldman Sachs experimented with the model in Utah by financing preschool for 595 additional children in a well regarded program, 110 of whom were expected to need special education services. After a year in the Goldman sponsored intervention, only 1 student entering Kindergarten was found to need those services, and the financial giant will now be paid $2500 per pupil per grade without special education services until students reach sixth grade when the amount of money will go down. That’ll come to $1.9 million dollars on top of the original money loaned and paid back.

Fred Klonsky, a retired Chicago teacher and current blogger, is highly skeptical both of the payments back to Goldman and of the claim that 109 students out of 110 were no longer in need of special education services after a year in preschool.  I have to admit that I share that skepticism and certainly think that social impact bond financing allowed in ESSA will require very vigilant monitoring to make certain outfits like Goldman Sachs are not creating perverse incentives to simply overlook a need and “save” money.  They are a largely unproven vehicle for creating social change, although some are organized to minimize risk for private capital while giving them a lucrative upside.  It isn’t hard to imagine who lobbied to get that language inserted into the Title I and Title IV changes then.

For that matter, as Mercedes Schneider notes in her first assessment of the bill, charter schools get a big, wet kiss, and there are grants that read as friendly to Teach for America’s role in “teacher preparation”.

So – sausage.

That said, there are many changes to the current education landscape contained in ESSA, many of them positive.  The Badass Teachers Association has a solid look of the good and the far less than good in the bill.  On the troubling side, ESL students are potentially labeled using very crude means, encouragement of merit pay, misplaced confidence in adaptive assessments and misgivings that “individualized instruction” will lead to more time in front of screens rather than with teachers, and, of greatest concern, continuation of NCLB’s requirement of annual testing of every child each year between grades 3 and 8 and once in high school and it caps alternate assessments for disabled students.  However, ESSA spins much more authority for accountability and assessments to the states, includes mechanisms to improve teacher workplace conditions, prohibits the federal DOE from interfering in state laws regarding parents opting children out of state assessments, and there are positive developments for homeless children, impact aid, Native American education, state innovation and local flexibility.

Most notable, however, are the repeated smack downs of the federal Department of Education and clear prohibitions on the Secretary of Education taking an active role in shaping state policies regarding standards, assessments, and accountability systems.  Consider this from Title VIII, section 8526:

No officer or employee of the Federal Government shall, through grants, contracts, or other cooperative agreements, mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s specific instructional content, academic standards and assessments, curricula, or program of instruction developed and implemented to meet the requirements of this Act (including any requirement, direction, or mandate to adopt the Common Core State Standards developed under the Common Core State Standards Initiative, any other academic standards common to a significant number of States, or any assessment, instructional content, or curriculum aligned to such standards), nor shall anything in this Act be construed to authorize such officer or employee to do so.

I believe that when historians write the story of the Test and Punish Era of public school reform, this language will be noted as the “Take A Seat, Arne” Act of 2015.

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Education Week noted a week ago that “accountability hawks” were already unhappy with the information coming out of the conference committee.  Sandy Kress, an original designer of NCLB, worried that states were going to be allowed to create accountability systems not based on student learning.  Chad Aldeman, a partner at Bellweather Education Partners, worries that states will give in to inertia and not push for improvements for their most at risk students.  Meanwhile, the National Association of Secondary Schools Principals applauded the available framework, noting the removal of Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements and “unworkable” school turnaround models.  The National Governors Association announced full approval for the conference bill, saying that it “restored the balance” between Washington, D.C. and the states.

So – is NCLB well and truly dead?

Not exactly, no.

While some of the worst provisions of NCLB have finally had a stake driven into their hearts, the states are still required to test and the create accountability systems, so the upshot is that making sure both those tests and the systems are fair and based upon what schools and children need will now have to be done state by state.  Monty Neill of FairTest notes that this will not be a simple matter: States still have to rank schools largely on test scores, there is ambiguity on how “additional indicators” for English Language Learners will be weighted compared to test scores, states have to identify the bottom 5% of schools based on test scores and intervene with measures designed by the state.  In other words: whether or not schools find themselves under a test and punish regime or in a monitoring and support system will largely depend upon how states treat their newly reclaimed authority.

There is no reason to believe that the advocates of test and punish will pack up shop now that the Secretary of Education has been severely limited.  After all, federal help was useful for the spread of the Common Core State Standards, the testing consortia, and the adoption of growth measures in teacher evaluation, but it was hardly to only entity to help.  Both the National Governors Association and the National Council of Chief State School Officers were on board with the Common Core State Standards and the shared assessments.  The Gates Foundation is certainly active in state and local education policy, using grants and other leverage to push through favored policies. Powerful private interests have financial stakes in declaring public schools failures and turning them over to private management.  They give lavishly to their allies in state government.  Think about governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York, Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin – advocates of our fully public schools have our work cut out for us.

So – roll up your sleeves wherever you live and work.  This has only just started.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, charter schools, Chris Christie, Common Core, ESSA, Gates Foundation, NCLB, Opt Out, PARCC, politics, standards, Testing, VAMs

Who Was The Last “Education President”?

On September 25th, 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush, then the Republican nominee for President, was in a debate with his Democratic Party rival, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, and declared that he wanted to be “The Education President.”

I want to be the education President, because I want to see us do better. We’re putting more money per child into education, and we are not performing as we should. […] And I would like to urge the school superintendents and the others around the country to stand up now and keep us moving forward on a path towards real excellence.

Eventually, the Republican nominee would become President George H.W. Bush, and his education agenda was a continuation of the path forged under Ronald Reagan that led to the era of test-based accountability.  Presidents and Presidential aspirants have all set their sights on making an impact on our nation’s education system, whether it was Bill Clinton calling for 90% graduation rates and “meaningful” national examination standards, or George W. Bush claiming standardized test scores were stagnant and promoting new accountability for teachers and students – including a system of rewards and punishments that would become known as No Child Left Behind, or Barack Obama promising more aid to the neediest schools, touting merit pay plans, and decrying too much focus on testing.

But who was the most recent occupant of the Oval Office who deserves the title “The Education President”?  When was the last time an American President signed into law an education bill that has had a substantial, sustained,  and positive impact upon education?

Gerald Ford.

This is not sarcasm because it was President Gerald Ford who, on November 29th, 1975, signed PL94-142, also known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, into law.  President Ford issued a signing statement expressing his concern that the law would cost too much, but over its 40 year history and re-authorization as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), the legislation has improved educational opportunities and outcomes for millions upon millions of students who had previously faced neglect and discrimination within school.  While the law continuously needs reflection and improvement, especially in the realm of federal funding which has never approached the 40% promised by Congress in 1975, the legislation remains a landmark that provides the basis for a vastly expanded mission for our nation’s schools and progress towards fulfilling opportunity for all.

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PL94-142 was not an isolated case of federal legislation signed by the President improving our nation’s schools.  President Richard Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that included Section 504, providing protection from discrimination based on disability when an employer or organization receives federal funding.  Section 504 meant that schools could not bar students with physical and mental impairments from receiving an education and required them to provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to all qualified students.   Prior to signing this legislation, President Nixon signed the Education Amendments of 1972 which included Title IX, stating, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

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President Lyndon Johnson, following the landmark Civil Rights Act, signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) into law on April 11th, 1965.  The original law provided federal funds for research, strengthening state departments of education, and, perhaps most importantly, funding to assist the schooling of low income students, and among its earliest amendments were provisions for handicapped children and bilingual education programs.  The Title I provisions, especially, noted the inequitable ways in which schools are funded using property tax revenues that immediately place communities with high percentages of low income families at a disadvantage.  Although the ESEA has since been subsumed by the standardized test based accountability regime of the 2001 amendments known as No Child Left Behind, the original legislation was intended to help with President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” by bringing resources that only the federal government could leverage to schools serving our neediest children.

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Indeed, that focus upon using federal reach and the enforcement of civil rights to expand resources available to schools while requiring them not to discriminate upon race, gender, language spoken, or disability status marked a robust period of education legislation premised upon equity and the recognition that certain populations of students were historically marginalized and required direct action of the law aimed at states and municipalities that might have otherwise ignored them.  In many regards, these efforts were astonishingly successful.  In 1971, before the passage of Title IX, women were 3.7 million of 8.9 million college students.  In 1991, they were 7.7 million of 14.1 million.  Before the passage of PL94-142, 5.9% of students in public schools were identified as disabled with no data available on the numbers with specific learning disabilities.  In 1989, 11.4% of students were identified as disabled, including more than 2 million classified with specific learning disabilities.  These efforts were substantive, aimed at increasing access and equity, and their positive benefits have continued for decades and likely more to come.

Since then?  Not so much.

President Ronald Reagan, after campaigning on abolishing the newly minted cabinet seat of Secretary of Education, set education policy away from equity and opportunity and into standards and accountability with the harsh language of school failure that has dominated our discussion  ever since the 1983 publication of A Nation At Risk:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them. This report, the result of 18 months of study, seeks to generate reform of our educational system in fundamental ways and to renew the Nation’s commitment to schools and colleges of high quality throughout the length and breadth of our land.

The Reagan Administration followed in 1988 with amendments to the ESEA requiring states to “document and define” academic achievement for disadvantaged students using standardized test score measures, and ESEA funds began being tied to academic performance of disadvantaged children.  President George H.W. Bush proposed his “America 2000” legislation calling for national standards and testing of students but which failed due to conservative opposition in the Senate.  Standards based education policies were similarly advanced, however, by President Bill Clinton whose “Goals 2000” agenda focused upon student achievement, tougher academic standards, application of those standards to all students, and monitoring reform efforts via standardized testing.

The stage, then, was well set by three previous administrations for the 2001 re-authorization of the ESEA which was touted as “No Child Left Behind” by President George W. Bush.  NCLB required all schools to demonstrate annual yearly progress for all students in all subgroups, and failure to meet AYP for five years in row could result in school closures, turning schools over to private charter operators, or giving school operation to private or state managers.

Upon passage, the law enjoyed support in both parties and numerous civil rights organizations, and the logic of that is not difficult to understand.  By 2001, wide gulfs in test measured achievement remained stubbornly persistent between well off, mostly white, suburban communities and their poor, most African American and Hispanic, urban counterparts, and the language of NCLB demanded that states and municipalities address that through accountability systems with little wiggle room.  Given the undeniable need for federal action in both civil rights and expansion of educational equity in the 1960s and 1970s, the federal accountability in NCLB was a logical, if ill-fated, marriage of federal standards and accountability efforts with vigorous enforcement from Washington.

The ill-fated portion of that assessment lies with what was obvious from the beginning: by tying lofty goals to punishing consequences dependent entirely upon the results of standardized testing, NCLB unleashed entirely predictable and increasingly damaging consequences to the depth and breadth of curriculum enjoyed by children, especially children in schools labeled as struggling:

In contrast, since the advent of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), with its high stakes for schools, the traditional pattern of time allocation across subjects in elementary schools has changed markedly. Five years into NCLB, researchers found that 62 percent of a nationally representative sample of all districts in the United States—and 75 percent of districts with at least one school identified as needing improvement—increased the amount of time spent on language arts and math in elementary schools. These increases were substantial: a 47 percent increase in language arts and a 37 percent increase in math. Correspondingly, these districts decreased time allotted to other subjects and activities, including science, social studies, art, music, physical education, and recess (McMurrer, 2007).

President Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 as a Presidential aspirant who was aware of these fact, deriding the test and punish focus of the law, the lack of resources given to schools and teachers working with struggling students, and the teaching to the test that was incentivized by the law:

“Math and science are not the opposite of art and music. Those things are compatible and we want kids to get a well-rounded education. Part of the problem we’ve had is that ‘No Child Left Behind,’ the law that was passed by Bush, said we want high standards, which is good, but they said we are going to measure those high standards only by a single high stakes standardized test that we are going to apply during the middle of the school year…a whole bunch of schools said we gotta teach to this test, and art and music isn’t tested… It’s a shame.”

In reality, the administration of President Barack Obama, while loosening some of the proficiency targets of NCLB, has plainly made the most problematic aspects of the law even worse, and quite likely earning President Obama the label as the worst President for education policy in the post-World War II era.  President Obama, acting through Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has made testing an even bigger focus of school by coercing states to adopt invalid and unproven measures of teacher performance using standardized tests.  Instead of merely working in a school that faces negative consequences based on test scores, teachers themselves face career sanctions if they do not “adequately” raise student test scores.  President Obama’s Department of Education has lavished money and favorable policies upon the charter school sector while thoroughly failing to oversee the money it has dispersed.   The administration was so interested in fulfilling the long held goal of national standards, that it helped the Gates Foundation push through rushed and unproven standards to almost all states by using the promise of federal grants and waivers from NCLB provisions.  These changes have been touted as voluntary and “state led,” but when Washington state did not pass legislation tying teacher evaluations to student growth measures, the Obama DOE brought down the hammer and revoked its waiver.

Today, 32 years after the beginning of the standards and accountability movement, 14 years into the test and punish era of school accountability, and almost 7 years into the Obama administration’s doubling down on standardized testing to measure teachers, teacher morale is at all time lows and the nation’s teacher preparation programs are struggling to find candidates.  Far from continuing the vital work of expanded opportunity and equity that spanned administrations from President Eisenhower’s use of federal troops to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas to  President Ford’s signing of PL94-142, the past five administrations have slowly tightened the grip of standardized testing on our schools until they have become a warped goal in and of themselves and have damaged the very children supposedly helped by them.  Standardized tests used to sort children have always disproportionately harmed poor children and children of color, and the frequent, high-stakes, accountability testing of NCLB has both narrowed the curriculum and slowed progress in closing the achievement gap, progress that saw its most sustained and dramatic gains in the 1970s.

So what has been missing from the education policies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama? Equity.  The educational policies that came to fruition via the original ESEA, Title IX, Section 504, and PL94-142 all were premised on the federal role of expanding resources and equity for children facing discrimination in school and society at large.  They marshaled funding and rules for schools so that they could not deny either access or equity, and they tasked the federal government with treating these as matters of civil rights.  More recent “reform” efforts are entirely about accountability without increasing the resources available to schools in order to meet those goals in a meaningful way, nor does “reform” specifically address the conditions within which schools exist, leaving them with the sole responsibility to uplift all children regardless of circumstance.  Where once federal education efforts sought to increase access to education and to increase the resources available for that education, today it demands that school increase performance in all situations without any other state actor taking responsibility for the well-being of the children in school.  David Berliner noted this in 2006:

It does take a whole village to raise a child, and we actually know a little bit about how to do that. What we seem not to know how to do in modern America is to raise the village, to promote communal values that insure that all our children will prosper. We need to face the fact that our whole society needs to be held as accountable for providing healthy children ready to learn, as our schools are for delivering quality instruction. One-way accountability, where we are always blaming the schools for the faults that we find, is neither just, nor likely to solve the problems we want to address.

We won’t have a President who deserves the title “The Education President” until we once again have a public servant in the Oval Office who sets equity of access and equity of resources as primary goals of federal education policy.  Five administrations ignoring the lessons of history and the evidence of research is enough.

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“Wait, you hated your teachers too?”

 

 

 

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Filed under Activism, Arne Duncan, charter schools, Common Core, Funding, Gates Foundation, NCLB, politics, schools, Social Justice, standards, Testing, VAMs

Dr. John King Jr.’s Experience and the Failures of Today’s Reform

When current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that he would step down at the end of this calendar year, President Obama immediately stated that current deputy secretary and former Commissioner of the New York State Education Department, Dr. John B. King, Jr. would replace him in January.  Supporters of the Secretary designee took to Twitter with #ISupportJohnKing, touting his personal biography and what they called his lifelong experience in education.  It is undeniable that Dr. King has an immensely impressive, even inspirational, biography.  Orphaned at a young age, the future Secretary of Education credits New York City school teachers with “saving” him, and he has built upon his obviously prodigious academic talents to earn degree credentials second to none.  After a short stint teaching, he co-founded the Roxbury Prep charter school in Boston before helping to lead the Uncommon Schools network of no-excuses charter schools.  He was tapped in 2009 to become the assistant commissioner of education at NYSED, and in 2011, he was elevated to the Commissioner’s office at the age of 36.  It is without question, that he is a man of enormous drive and intelligence, and, as his supporters say, he has extensive experience in the field of education.

But what if it is totally the wrong experience?

This is not an idle question because while public education advocates often note how frequently major proponents of reform have no practical experience in education before being elevated to positions of influence and authority, all experience is not equivalent, and there is plenty of evidence that Dr. King’s experience in education leaves him ill prepared for the political exigencies of educational leadership outside of the no-excuses charter sector.  In fact, the first time in his long career in education that Dr. King was truly answerable to political and parental constituencies was when he was elevated to lead the NYSED, and it was a disaster.  While informed and dogged in pursuit of the policies which landed him his office, he demonstrated no legitimate understanding that he was leader of a system of education that depended upon support from lawmakers, parents, and the body politic in general.  Policies on the Common Core State Standards and associated testing were both disruptive and demanding with little effort to help teachers and families adjust, and promises to listen to what educators were saying about policies went unfulfilled.  Public meetings where parents voiced their opinions on new state policies did not go well, forcing him to cancel scheduled meetings and change the format to decrease his contact with constituents.  Lawmakers similarly found Dr. King unresponsive to their concerns, leading to a rare display of bipartisan sentiment in Albany as legislators called for his removal.

While I know many critics of education reform in general and of John King in particular who have a wide range of opinions on why his tenure at NYSED was as stormy as his public affect was passive, the simplest explanation that I can see is that there is nothing in Dr. King’s experience that remotely prepared him for the responsiveness needed in our fully public school system.  When he took the Commissioner’s office at NYSED, that was the first time in his entire career in various sectors of education where he was accountable to the political constituencies that have voice in public education policy and practice.  Consider his role as a charter school leader.  While the charter school sector is publicly funded, it is not remotely fully publicly accountable.  Some charter operators are exceptionally aggressive in defending themselves from public oversight, but all of them are deliberately separated from the democratic processes that oversee the funding and operation of our fully public schools.  A school principal is a an educational leader and a political figure with constituencies among elected officials, taxpayers, parents of children in the school, the children themselves, and teachers.  Public school superintendents are similarly situated although at a higher level than school principals.  Charter school operators excuse themselves from much of that, periodically subjecting themselves to review by their authorizing bodies, but otherwise functioning not only outside of local, elected accountability systems, but often excusing themselves from following education law – and gaining support from the courts to do so.

Even in responsiveness to parents, charters are not particularly obligated to be especially deferential.  The “no excuses” sector of charter schools in particular tends to place heavy demands upon parents and vigorously enforces narrow behavioral norms on children as young as five years old.  Since charter schools are schools of choice, the response to any parent concerned over disciplinary or academic practices can be limited to “maybe this isn’t the school for you” or other means to counsel out families.  The Uncommon School Network that Dr. King led before joining NYSED is an exemplar in this respect with Roxbury Prep inflicting a 40% out of school suspension rate upon its students in 2013-2014 (which, sadly, is an improvement on a the previous school year’s 60% out of school suspension rate).  This pattern is typical among the entire Uncommon Schools network which have much higher suspension rates than their neighboring schools in the three state where they operate.  And since there is no political authority to which charter schools need to answer and since parents who dislike these policies do not have to be considered, it is hardly surprising that many such school demonstrate stunning cohort attrition rates, such as North Star Academy, an Uncommon affiliate in Newark, New Jersey, where only 25% of African American boys who enroll in 5th grade are likely to make it to 12th.

This level of inflicted control without giving voice to any constituency was and apparently still is unproblematic to Dr. King who points to the measured outcomes for the students who manage to adapt to and remain within the system.  Dr. Pedro Noguera of New York University, speaking at the Courageous Schools Conference in 2011, recalled a visit to Roxbury Prep where he asked Dr. King a pointed question about the type of messages his students were receiving:

I’ve visited this school, and I noticed that children are not allowed to talk in the hall, and they get punished for the most minor infraction. And when I talked with John King afterwards, I said, “I’ve never seen a school that serves affluent children where they’re not allowed to talk in the hall.” And he said, “Well, that might be true, but this is the model that works for us, we’ve found that this is the model that our kids need.”

So I asked him, “Are you preparing these kids to be leaders or followers? Because leaders get to talk in the hall. They get to talk over lunch, they get to go to the bathroom, and people can trust them. They don’t need surveillance and police officers in the bathroom.” And he looked at me like I was talking Latin, because his mindset is that these children couldn’t do that.

It is unlikely that there is a competent principal or superintendent of schools in the country who would be surprised to face questions about methods and policies, but Dr. Noguera’s recounting demonstrates the extreme limitations of John King’s experiences.  His extreme focus and concentration upon executing an agreed upon set of priorities are traits that serve executives well in the business world (although even there an ability to pause, evaluate, and change direction are necessary), but in our fully public schools that focus has to be tempered by full awareness of and a degree of deference to the overlapping and sometimes in conflict constituencies that oversee, fund, and participate in our schools.

This is trickier than most expect.  A typical school district looks like a highly integrated, top down system of management that is mostly analogous to a corporate structure.  You have an elected school board (corporate board elected by shareholders) that hires a superintendent of schools (CEO) who is then responsible for hiring various central office administrators (corporate vice presidents and other chief officers) and school administrators (upper and management) who in turn hire and manage classroom teachers (customer contact personnel).  From the outside it looks very neat and corporate with an easy flow of directives from the top of the organization all the way down to the classroom, but the reality is far more complicated than that and of necessity.  When Karl Weick analyzed the concept of “loosely coupled systems” he used educational organizations as a clear exemplar precisely because tight top down control is not truly compatible with how schools and school systems work, which actually lends a number of clear advantages to the system.  Within the loosely coupled system, different elements of the organization are connected to each other, but each retains significant individual identity and may only influence the behavior of the others indirectly.

A result of this is how different relationships and associations that exist outside of the formal organizational chart of the school system can exert a great deal of influence upon how the school system responds to needs both inside the school and within the community.  Phil Cusick explains how this operates in his 1993 work, The School System: Its Nature and Logic:

Of the different types of associations in the system, the primary is the designation of the formal organization’s participants according to role and status…..

A second type of association in the personal but purposeful relations among those with formal designation and within the formal system….Each chapter in this book reveals participants deciding how they will behave and seeking out colleagues inside the organization with whom to act out their decisions.  The formal organization is filled with these personal and purposeful associations, too numerous to be formally recognized, which operate inside and drive the organization.

The third type of association consists of those that join people inside with people outside the schools. The system is replete with freestanding, single purpose associations that include parents, students, policymakers, critics, change agents, teachers, and administrators, combining their efforts to achieve some end.  These are the most interesting, because they reveal the breadth of the system and thereby justify the assertion that the system extends far beyond the schools….

…Not only do those outside seek to influence those inside.  Those inside and those outside are part of the same system.  They adhere to the same principles of free conscience and free association, and they join efforts and act out their visions of education in the same arena.  This constant shifting into multiple and overlapping groups and groups into coalitions is what makes school board politics, as described by Cuban (1975), so entertaining. It is also why school administrators tend to be cautious and to regard their communities warily.  Their authority is always open to challenge by one or another group: either one of the system’s recognized groups or a group organized for the purpose of opposing an administrative action. (pp. 219-221)

To be certain, such associations have not always protected students’ interests, especially students in the Jim Crow era where local “interests” maintained White Supremacism, but powerful associations of advocates for children of color, for students with disabilities, for gender equality, and for LGBT students have used these same mechanisms to influence change at every level of the system.  The weakness of Dr. King and of many of today’s reform advocates in understanding and navigating these systems should be apparent, and their general surprise at the backlashes they have faced further indicates their lack of understanding of the how the system operates.  Bill Gates himself openly admitted “The cities where our foundation has put the most money is where there is a single person responsible. In New York, Chicago and Washington, DC, the mayor has the responsibility for the school system.” That may have been expedient in pushing his favored reforms from the top into schools, but it has pretty well failed to win over lawmakers, teachers, and parent constituencies who still operate within a system that provides them with the means to influence the direction of policy and have a say in outcomes.

Gates is occasionally able to admit that he was mistaken in an area he intended to reform, but he seems oddly incapable of grappling with why those efforts founder. It seems evident that he has spent precious little time trying to actually understand how public education functions at either the organization or system level.  Similarly, reform advocates who get Gates support, such as John King, often have extremely limited experience with the majority of the education system and seem absolutely flustered when it does not respond like the tightly controlled systems they prefer.

This does not mean, of course, that people with extensive experience in the education system will reject the reforms embraced by Gates and his beneficiaries.  Dr. King’s successor in New York State is Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, and she has precisely the kind of biography that would teach one how to operate a statewide school system – and she is as dedicated to common standards and mass standardized testing as anyone in the country.  That’s a talent set that seems in short supply on the reform side of the debate, and until they stop acting as if public input is something that can be bullied out of the way or papered over with slick ad and social media campaigns, they will continue to lurch about our schools, running into growing opposition to their priorities.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, charter schools, Gates Foundation, John King, MaryEllen Elia

When is a Pledge to Decrease Testing Not a Pledge to Decrease Testing?

Apparently, when President Obama makes it.

Honestly, at this point in his administration, expecting President Obama to well and truly take action to reverse the damage of the “test and punish” era of school accountability is like expecting the Bush administration to not start unnecessary wars.  That, however, did not prevent the national media from declaring that President Obama’s weekend call for reducing the burden of standardized testing in public schools a major departure from previous policies.  David Dayen of Salon gushed that the President was breaking “with twenty years of precedent,” and Mother Jones’ Julia Lurie wrote that “the announcement represents a significant change in course for the Obama administration.” Nearly every major news outlet declared the announcement a move to limit the time spent on standardized testing in school, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten hopefully declared the announcement a move towards fixing an urgent problem in education today:

People deeply informed on the issue of high stakes testing and its warping impact on our schools are far less hopeful than President Weingarten and not remotely as gushing as the national press.  Peter Greene of Curmudgucation held no punches over the weekend, flatly declaring that the Obama plan “sucks and changes nothing.”  His key points are entirely accurate and properly cut through the smoke and mirrors of the announcement to a purpose more aimed at trying to trick anti-testing advocates into complacency:

The fact that the administration noticed, again, that there’s an issue here is nice. But all they’re doing is laying down a barrage of protective PR cover. This is, once again, worse than nothing because it not only doesn’t really address the problem, but it encourages everyone to throw a victory party, put down their angry signs, and go home. Don’t go to the party, and don’t put down your signs.

Anthony Cody of Living in Dialogue noted, quite correctly, that President Obama has sounded this note before and utterly failed to follow through with anything that would diminish the punishing role of current testing policies.  The administration apparently hopes the announcement and some minor shifts will allow them to bide their time while changing very little:

First, President Obama remains unaware of the very limited educational value of standardized tests, and second, the administration remains absolutely committed to tests playing a key role in America’s classrooms. As some have pointed out, now that the PARCC and SBAC tests are here, and have plainly failed to deliver on Duncan’s 2010 promise that they would measure creativity and critical thinking so much better than any previous test, now we are looking forward to the NEXT generation of tests, which will be “competency-based.” Cue the test vendors for another multi-million dollar development project.

No matter how bad the current tests are, the new and better tests are always just around the corner. And anyone who dares to question this optimistic projection is a Luddite afraid of accountability.

Dr. Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, an expert on value added measures at Arizona State University, was not impressed with the announcement either, noting that the proposed 2% limit on time spent on testing would still mean 18 hours of annual standardized test taking time for most students.  She further observed:

In addition, all of this was also based (at least in part, see also here) on new survey results recently released by the Council of the Great City Schools, in which researchers set out to determine how much time is spent on testing. They found that across their (large) district members, the average time spent testing was “surprisingly low [?!?]” at 2.34%, which study authors calculate to be approximately 4.22 total days spent on just testing (i.e., around 21 hours if one assumes, again, an average day’s instructional time = 5 hours). Again, this does not include time spent preparing for tests, nor does it include other non-standardized tests (e.g., those that teachers develop and use to assess their students’ learning).

So, really, the feds did not decrease the amount of time spent testing really at all, they literally just rounded down, losing 34 hundredths of a whole. For more information about this survey research study, click here.

Interestingly, the 2% idea apparently comes from Secretary Duncan’s slated replacement, former New York Commissioner and current senior adviser, Dr. John King Jr. who puts such a limit in place in New York in order to placate growing concerns over the dominant role of standardized testing in the state.

Well, we all know how that turned out, right?

Perhaps most damning was the scathing response penned by Robert Pondiscio for US News and Word Report.  Mr. Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that has been highly supportive of the Common Core and associated testing, an adviser to the Democracy Prep chain of no-excuses charter schools, and while he is generally well disposed to the data from standardized testing, he has also been willing to question to impact of the stakes attached to them in the current environment.  That questioning was in overdrive in his commentary:

But one would have to be cynical or naive not to understand that the moment you use tests, which are designed to measure student performance, to trigger various corrective actions and interventions effecting teachers and schools, you are fundamentally shifting tests from providing evidence of student performance to something closer to the very purpose of schooling. This is precisely what has been occurring in our schools for the last decade or more. When parents complain, rightfully so, about over-testing, what they are almost certainly responding to is not the tests themselves, which take up a vanishingly small amount of class time, but the effects of test-and-prep culture, which has fundamentally changed the experience of schooling for our children, and not always for the better.

The Obama talk on testing seeks to curry favor with parents and teachers (and their unions) while doing nearly nothing to change the fundamental role of testing and its effect on schooling. It’s all well and good to “encourage” states, districts and schools to limit testing, but as long as test-driven accountability measures, which are driven substantially by federal law, are used not to provide feedback to parents and other stakeholders but to trigger corrective measures in schools, it won’t matter if children take two tests or 2000; the effects will be the same.

While I question the degree of positives that Mr. Pondiscio lavishes upon standardized testing data (“the life-blood that courses through the arteries” – really?), I am not, myself, against limited standardized testing being part of a comprehensive system of school monitoring and being the very beginning point of school improvement efforts.  What is most striking to me is how clearly, however, that Mr. Pondsicio has identified the problem with the perverse incentives testing has placed upon our schools in the era of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top:  The stakes placed upon the tests have transformed their purpose from being “in the background” monitors of schools, school systems, and state performance into being objects unto themselves.  The tests and “adding value” to student performance on them have become a substantial purpose of education instead of a by product of a rich and meaningful educational program.

That’s a problem, and it is good that someone prominent in education reform circles has noted it for some time now and is willing to go on record in a major publication to call President Obama and his education team to the mat for it.  Mr. Pondiscio, who says test based measures are the most reliable and objective teacher evaluation tool, appears willing to give that up because its side effects have driven teachers away from the Common Core and from any testing whatsoever.  I disagree vigorously with the idea that test based measure are either reliable or objective (and the bulk of the research evidence is on my side on this), but I actually sympathize with Mr. Pondiscio’s predicament and his apparent frustration that the administration steadfastly refuses to get it.  I have written on this before, urging reformers who really want a chance at building support for common standards and who value the use of standardized testing at all to decouple them from high stakes before popular revulsion violently swings the pendulum out of their reach for the next two decades.  Common standards, done thoughtfully and carefully (the Common Core were not) and disseminated by genuine common interest among states entering fully voluntary partnerships (the states in Common Core did not) and offered to teachers with appropriate time for development of their own knowledge and curricula with high quality materials (teachers in Common Core states never got that) is a defensible proposition.  Comprehensive system monitoring that uses standardized test data limited to the purposes for which it can work well is also entirely defensible.

It is also swirling in the drain reserved for ideas that end up flushed out of the education system, and Mr. Pondiscio appears aware that he has many of his own allies to blame for it, and, hence, his frustration.  The problem, however, is one that his allies in Washington and various state capitols also seem unwilling to acknowledge, and unless, they do acknowledge it, they have little incentive to back off of testing policies tied to high stakes.

The problem is that they are lazy.

School accountability and improvement is difficult and often uncertain work.  When used honestly, standardized test score data can tell you where to begin, but it should never be confused with evidence of what needs to happen in a school.  Are there schools with low test scores and low value added that are Dickensian nightmares that should be closed as soon as possible?  Sure.  There are 98,000 public schools in the country.  But there are also schools with low test scores and low value added that are full of devoted teachers, strong school leaders, and committed parents, but who need resources to provide genuine educational opportunities for all learners and to do so in a way that does not cheat them of a well-rounded and holistic education.  For that matter, there are schools that boast of their great test scores and high value added, but they get there by being Victorian work houses worthy of Scrooge where children are basically beaten into submission.

The point is that you do not know until you go to the school and actually investigate.

But the Arne Duncans and the John Kings do not want to do that.  They want to sit in offices in Albany and Washington, look over spreadsheets, and make sweeping judgements about which schools are winners and which schools are losers.  They cannot really give up the high stakes attached to the standardized tests because that would mean they would have to do the hard of work of accountability and renewal, the work that actually can inform smart choices based upon community input.

And we can’t have that, now, can we?

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Filed under Arne Duncan, Common Core, John King, Testing, VAMs

The Passion of St. Arne

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will step down at the end of this year, and President Obama has announced that he will be replaced by former New York Commissioner of Education Dr. John King, Jr. as the acting Secretary of Education through the remainder of the administration.  Praising his often embattled Secretary of Education, President Obama said, ““He’s done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anyone else….America will be better off for what he has done.”

We’ll leave that judgement to history.

As is often the case when prominent Washington figures prepare to ride off into the sunset (or out of town under cover of darkness depending on your point of view) it is time for “legacy punditry” to kick into overdrive and attempt to place Secretary Duncan in history.  Most of it is premature.  Quite a lot of it is insipid. And much of it just cannot resist creating a “balanced” narrative whether it is honest or not, which is where, Secretary Arne Duncan, Martyr of the Intransigent Teacher Unions comes into play.  Michael Grunwald of Politico.com wrote just such a piece last week, explaining the the choice of John King signals that President Obama has no intention of backing off any controversial reforms and strongly emphasizing union opposition to both Secretary Duncan and his chosen successor:

Duncan has been the public face of those differences; the National Education Association called for his resignation, while the American Federation of Teachers put him on an “improvement plan” like the ones school reformers have endorsed for incompetent teachers. He is leaving with U.S. graduation rates at an all-time high and dropout rates at an all-time low, but there has been a growing bipartisan backlash over some of his favored reforms, like the Common Core math and reading standards (derided as “Obamacore” by many conservatives) or the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations (derided as “test-and-punish” by unions). I recently mentioned to Duncan that it seems like the main theme uniting his reforms has been the idea that adults in the education system should be held accountable for making sure kids learn. “Just a little bit!” he responded.

That is, shall we say, a very charitable explanation of the central themes in Secretary Duncan’s reform portfolio of Common Core standards, high stakes testing, value added measures in teacher assessment, and favoritism for charter schools despite the ongoing and shocking series of scandals coming out of the sector.  Another way of explaining the Arne Duncan is approach is to ratchet up expectations without increasing supports, mistake things that are harder with things that are better, work hand in hand with one billionaire’s vision of education reform to push through or coerce over 40 states to adopt new standards largely written in secret, and ignore growing mountains of evidence that growth measures from standardized tests are not suited for individual teacher evaluation.  So while Mr. Grunwald may be right to point out union exasperation with Mr. Duncan and concern about his successor, there is a hell of a lot of context to that exasperation that is left out as he tries to balance his piece with current critics of both men.

So let me state it very clearly:  Secretary Duncan in Washington and Commissioner King in New York absolutely were not victims of the teacher unions.  They are victims of their own bull headed insistence in backing abjectly harmful policies even as the evidence mounted that they are harmful.

But that does not make a traditional Washington narrative where if there is one side, there must be an equal and equivalent other side, so the story of President Obama’s embattled Secretary of Education and his soon to be embattled next Secretary of Education is one where the reform side faces implacable resistance from unions seeking to maintain the status quo at all costs.  It is true that the National Education Association called for Arne Duncan’s resignation, and it is true that the American Federation of Teachers put him on a metaphorical improvement plan — last year.  After years of trying to work with education reform.

Both the NEA and AFT were early supporters of the Common Core State Standards and maintain high levels of support for the standards themselves to this day.  The NEA maintains this website on the CCSS, including a “ten facts” section that could have been penned by David Coleman himself, and the AFT is equally optimistic going back to a 2011 resolution urging good implementation.  Both national unions took initially positive views of potentially using student test score data as part of a “multiple measures” approach to teacher evaluation.  Part of the AFT’s 2010 statement on teacher evaluation and labor-management relations reads:

AFT teacher eval 2010

And from the NEA’s 2011 policy statement:

NEA teacher eval 2011

While both unions have repeatedly warned Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration that the push for more and more standardized testing was risking the entire education reform agenda, both unions were cooperative early on with key elements of education reform from the Obama White House: Common Core State Standards and the use of standardized testing data aligned with those standards in teacher evaluation.  It just so happens that these were key components in the White House’s Race to the Top grant competition and were conditions that had to be met to be granted waivers from the worst consequences of No Child Left Behind.  It also just so happens that another person, outside of the Cabinet, was pushing hard to get people on board to support the Common Core standards and growth models based on standardized tests:

Bill Gates

Not for nothing, both unions and their respective leaders at the time were listed as “important partners” when the Gates Foundation in 2009 announced $290 million in grants to 4 major school districts across the country to “develop and implement new approaches, strategies, and policies, including adopting better measures of teacher effectiveness that include growth in student achievement and college readiness; using those measures to boost teacher development, training, and support; tying tenure decisions more closely to teacher effectiveness measures and rewarding highly effective teachers through new career and compensation opportunities that keep them in the classroom; strengthening school leadership; and providing incentives for the most effective teachers to work in the highest-need schools and classrooms.”  The same announcement included the plan to spend $45 million on the Measures of Effective Teaching study – more or less to buy the research saying growth measures based on test data can be used in teacher evaluation and which, well, comes to that conclusion via some seriously dubious reasoning.  President of the AFT, Randi Weingarten, eventually backtracked from the support of growth measures in teacher evaluation, saying “VAM is a sham,” but this was in 2014, long after flaws with the Measures of Effective Teaching study’s conclusion began to be obvious.

So let’s be very clear: far from being antagonists to the Obama White House on education reform, the national teacher unions were key partners in critical elements of it from early on.  If Secretary Duncan’s simply G-d awful oversight of those initiatives (thoughtfully organized for careful consumption by Jersey Jazzman here) finally turned those organizations against him by 2014, it is strange to place union opposition at the center of the story.  In fact, despite the increased criticism and despite the late support for the parental Opt Out movement, teacher unions are STILL keeping their biggest leverage at bay.  Both the NEA and the AFT have already endorsed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for President despite her long standing connections with figures like John Podesta, who is running her campaign and was the founder of the Center for American Progress, a left of center think tank that is reliably in the pro-reform camp.  Further, with a few high visibility exceptions like the Chicago and Seattle strikes, neither union has been eager to take to the streets in opposition to the Duncan education agenda.  You don’t have to take my word for it, either.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics has an historic table of labor actions by any group of workers over 1000. The average public school teacher to pupil ratio in 2011 was 16 to 1 (this includes special education teachers and teachers of non-core classes), and there are 453 school districts in the country with more than 16,000 students – meaning if their teacher workforce went on strike, they’d be recorded in the BLM tables.  Considering how the education reforms most embraced by Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration have played out most contentiously in our large urban school systems, wouldn’t we be embroiled in job actions across the country if the AFT and NEA were the kind of opposition imagined by Michael Grunwald in his Politico piece?

I am sure that Secretary Duncan and his supporters both in the White House and in the education reform community would like to invoke the image of a martyr in a passion play, set upon by self interested forces seeking to maintain their privilege at the expense of the nation’s children.  But our national teacher unions do not fit that bill.  Far from opposing the reforms proposed from the Obama Department of Education, they embraced large portions of it and offered mainly precautions rather than opposition on other parts.  While elements of reform policies from this administration were involved in the Chicago Teacher Strike in 2012, there simply has not been labor unrest promoted by the AFT and NEA in the past 6 years.  Discontent among rank and file teachers has been growing in recent years, but union leadership did not really turn the corner on Arne Duncan until 2014. Value added measures are so poorly suited for teacher evaluation that the American Statistical Association urged policy makers not to use them, but AFT President Randi Weingarten’s opposition to VAMs preceded the ASA statement by only 3 months.

The reality is that Arne Duncan and John King did not merely run afoul of national and state level teacher unions – after years of doggedly pursuing policies that harm teaching – they ran afoul of parents and lawmakers as well.  Key aspects of Duncan and King’s favorite reforms are not favored by Americans and by parents even less so.  While charter schools enjoy public support, the Common Core standards, standardized testing, and using test data to evaluate teachers are widely viewed negatively.  67% of public school parents agree there is too much emphasis on standardized tests, and 80% of public school parents said student engagement was “very important” for measuring effectiveness compared to only 14% who said the same about test scores. 63% of public school parents disapprove of using standardized tests to evaluate teachers.

I’m not the only one noticing a theme here, right?  The problems that faced Arne Duncan and which John King faced in New York and will now face on a national level are problems born of loss of trust from parents, key stakeholders in education who turned around between 2009 and 2014 to find huge portions of their schools changing without even the least effort to include them in the conversation.  Secretary Duncan’s tin ear on these matters is almost legendary, but his successor may actually be worse, if that is possible. Dr. King could never communicate effectively with parents, leading to disastrous public meetings, and his refusal to discuss issues or entertain other viewpoints led lawmakers to bipartisan calls for his removal from office.  Mr. Grundwald’s piece in Politico suggests that Dr. King’s problem in New York were mainly with the union, but he fails to acknowledge that he left Albany just ahead of an angry mob of parents and legislators.

Sadly, it is the very background that Mr. Grunwald suggests should help Dr. King repair relationships with the nation’s teachers that actually prevents him from doing so.  Dr. King’s background story includes the loss of his teacher mother at a young age and his crediting teachers for turning around his life (Peter Greene rightly wonders if those same Brooklyn teachers, working under Dr. King’s policy environment, would have the room to set aside pacing guides and practice tests to nurture a child in need).  His allies in reform took to Twitter with #ISupportJohnKing to tout his life in education, but his particular life in education left him sorely unprepared for his role as NY Commissioner and even less prepared to be Secretary of Education.  Dr. King taught for three years, only one of them in a fully public school.  He then helped to found Roxbury Prep charter school in Boston before helping to found the Uncommon School network of no excuses charter schools, which relies heavily on out of school suspensions far in excess of local schools where they operate.  As a “no excuses” chain, Uncommon Schools can employ discipline methods disallowed by public schools and parents have no say if they disagree.  Dr. King was tapped from this sector to become Deputy Commissioner in New York and then ascended to the Commissioner’s office in 2011 at the age of 36.

Dr. King has almost no experience in his career where he was answerable to parents and the overlapping constituencies that are stakeholders in public education.  His style of charter school is almost entirely private in operation and parents unhappy with the way the school operates have no input via elected boards. He never served as principal of a fully public school or as a superintendent in a public school district where he was answerable to different people with sometimes opposing interests that needed to find compromise.  That lack of experience was evident in New York state as he increasingly avoided engaging parents and legislators, and there is no reason to believe he will change in the Secretary’s office.  While our new Secretary of Education will certainly be in for tough times from the national teacher unions, he will undoubtedly be in for equally or worse rough times from parents.

Inflexible unions versus the earnest reformers makes for good copy.  But it isn’t even half the story.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, charter schools, Common Core, John King, politics