Category Archives: politics

The Republican Tax Bill is Anti-Public Education

A great deal of ink has been spilled on how the Republican tax bill working through Congress would impact higher education for the worse.  The highest profile item is the plan in the House bill to tax graduate student tuition waivers as income, effectively making the young people who are helping the nation move forward with critical research pay taxes on “incomes” that are tens of thousands of dollars higher than they actually get paid.  However, higher education takes multiple hits in the House bill such as taxing endowment earnings that go towards school advancement, reducing incentives for charitable giving, and eliminating student loan interest deductions that benefited 12 million borrowers in 2014.  For a bill that the G.O.P. is trying to market as a “boon” to the middle class, the House bill does not just tax graduate student tuition waivers, but also it takes aim at tuition benefits for higher education employees and their childrenThe New York Times portrayed a 64 year old night custodian at Boston College who managed to send all five of his children to college using such a benefit and who would never have been able to do so under the House bill.  Assurances from House leaders that their bill would grant most Americans so much tax relief that they would not need those benefits ring hollow as analyses show that various provisions in the bills could result in $1.6 trillion dollars of tax INCREASES on middle class earners over the next decade.

So while the House and Senate bills are not friendly to higher education (the Senate bill somewhat less so), there has been little talk about the potential impact on K-12 education if the Senate bill passes, is reconciled with the House bill, and sent to the Oval Office for splashy signing ceremony.  There are several provisions in both pieces of legislation that would take serious aim at K-12 education at the state and local funding levels.  Reporters and editorials have stressed that eliminating the deductions for state and local taxes (SALT) including property taxes, as in the Senate bill, will heavily impact Democratic leaning states with higher tax burdens, but the Governmental Finance Officers Association (GFOA) reports that eliminating SALT deductions from the tax code will have a broadly negative impact on tax payers in all states.  According to the GFOA findings:

  • 30% of tax units use the SALT deduction.
  • 60% of deductions for earners under $50,000 a year come from property taxes and the loss of the deduction would negatively impact home ownership and price stability.
  • 30% of earners between $50,000 and $75,000 a year use the SALT deduction. 53% of earners between $75,000 and $100,000 a year use it.
  • Income earners at all levels would see their taxes go up if the SALT deduction is eliminated.

More importantly from a public school perspective: the loss of the SALT deduction would apply significant pressure on states and municipalities to reduce taxes in order to offset the increases in federal taxes paid by their constituents.  Using the 8th Congressional District in Texas north of Houston as a model, the GFOA estimates that the district would see an increase in federal taxes of $306 million dollars.  Offsetting that with state and local tax decreases could impact $125 million in school funding.  Simply put: education funding is an enormous local and state expenditure, and it would have to be cut in order to provide any relief to tax payers who lost SALT.

There is something incredibly perverse about putting pressure on states and municipalities to cut taxes in order to make up for a federal tax bill that overwhelmingly favors the rich and corporations. It is even more perverse to label that as “middle class tax relief” when the outcome will be potentially disastrous for local schools.  The vast majority of K-12 school funding in this country still comes from state and local revenues which would no longer be deductible from federal tax burdens.

It is true that upper income communities benefit significantly from SALT, but it is also true that states with even vaguely progressive school funding systems depend upon those communities being able to foot their own school bills so that state aid can get to needier communities.  It was that principle that made New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s proposal to “flatten” state aid so that all schools got exactly the same amount of aid per pupil so outrageous and – eventually – a non-starter with legislators.  The elimination of the SALT deduction would create enormous pressure for additional tax relief from wealthier communities and shrink the revenue available for their own schools via property taxes and for less wealthy communities via state aid packages.

The pain for school budgets would not end with the loss of SALT.  The Congressional Budget Office recently scored the tax plan and estimates that it will expand on budget deficits by $1.4 trillion dollars over the next decade.  In the short term, current “pay as you go” requirements might cause immediate cuts to Medicare, but as deficits pile up over the next decade, Congress would have to slash as much as $150 billion a year.  Federal education spending could look very appealing to future Congresses trying to offset lost revenue unless the trickle down theory suddenly works for the first time everAnalysts have already identified $2 billion in student loan administration that might go as well as $62 billion in “all other programs.”  While the federal contribution to the $634 billion spent in the U.S. on public K-12 schools is only about 8%, that will be a tempting target for future deficit hawks and legislators boxed in by spending rules.

Federal spending K-12, while limited, has a long reach:  $14.9 billion in local Title I grants, $11.9 billion in special education grants, $9.1 billion in Head Start for pre-K children.  Most of this money is targeted to help states meet the needs of the most vulnerable children in the country – whose communities cannot raise enough revenue through property values.  Under this tax bill, states could easily be strangled on both sides of their education budgets with calls to lower state tax rates in response to the loss of SALT deductions and with fewer federal dollars coming in to help the needy.

The tax bill could further hurt education spending by reducing property values, restricting local and state revenue even further.  In addition to eliminating (or capping) SALT, the bill reduces the mortgage interest deduction from $1 million to $500,000.  Although this more heavily impacts very expensive housing markets, combined with the loss of the SALT deduction, the tax bill would make home ownership significantly more expensive in numerous housing markets, creating a disincentive for buyers across a large range of prices, and potentially depressing housing prices.  Although experts differ about the full impact of these factors on the market, the National Association of Realtors warns that home prices could fall as much as 10%.  That translates into more lost local revenue in an environment where state school funding still has not recovered fully from the impacts of the Great Recession – when we learned that municipalities were not well positioned to make up for lost state funds.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ analysis found that since the end of the recession, local revenue growth has only averaged 1.5% above inflation, not remotely enough to make up for lost state funds and increasing student populations.  If local revenues take another hit through the new tax bill, even that incredibly modest growth is at risk.

The Republican tax bill is a looming threat to K-12 education spending on numerous fronts:

  • Blowing a hole in the Federal budget will force Congress to look for savings in future budgets’ discretionary spending, putting money sent to help our neediest students at risk.
  • Capping or eliminating the SALT deduction will put intense pressure on state and local governments to cut their own taxes in the face of constituents with higher federal tax bills.
  • If those taxes are cut, municipalities won’t be able to generate more money for school budgets, and states won’t be able to generate more money for state aid funding – even as federal sources shrink.
  • Disincentives for home ownership in the form of increased costs will put downward pressure on home prices which will further impact local school budgets.

Put together, the threat to public education is evident.  This bill threatens federal aid for needy students by exploding the budget deficit, puts pressure on municipalities via decreased home values and loss of property tax deductions, and puts pressure on states via loss of income tax deductions.  School budgets HAVE to rise just to keep up with growing student populations and other fixed costs even if there is no concerted effort at school improvement.  Flat or decreased funding for any significant length of time threatens numerous factors that impact school quality such as class sizes, the length of the school year, and capital improvements.  We saw this play out across the country during the Great Recession and, more recently, with Kansas which plunged deep into a supply side experiment under Governor Brownback – and which precipitated a long term public education crisis.

If the Republicans in Congress pass this tax bill, there’s a good chance that we will all be Kansans next year.

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Filed under Drumpf, Funding, politics, schools

Deep in the Heart of Whiteness

In 1993, I took my Bachelors Degree, my Masters Degree, and my teaching coursework, stepped on to an airplane and left for Honolulu, Hawai’i to begin a one year teaching internship.  I was confident that I knew the subject I was going to teach, English, and I was confident that my teaching coursework had taught me what I needed to adapt that content into a curriculum suited for learners anywhere.  I was also possessed of a young, white, suburban liberal’s confidence that I valued diversity and in the ability of that disposition to make up for the lack of either theoretical or practical knowledge that I had about the community I was moving to.

As it turned out, I did know a great deal about English.

My other assumptions were woefully inadequate, and I soon realized that if I was going to be anything more than a tourist who also collected a paycheck, I had an enormous amount to learn about the political, economic, racial, and linguistic history of my new home. Hawai’i’s history since contact with Europe and America includes colonization, disease, displacement of native peoples, a plantation labor economy, and concentration of land and wealth into American-born hands. Eventually,  a cabal of American-backed businessmen, not content with what they had already accumulated at the expense of Native Hawaiians and imported plantation labor, overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 with assistance from the U.S. military and worked towards annexation by the United States, succeeding in 1898.  In 1896, the government set up by the coup leaders officially banned the use of Hawaiian language in all schools, both public and private, a law which would remain on the books until the 1980s and which nearly succeeded in wiping out the Hawaiian language outside of tourist kitsch.  I knew none of this when I stepped foot on O’ahu.

Teaching English is always a political act, but the starkness of that become far more clear as I accumulated experience in Honolulu and got to know my students better.  A few years later, I was handed a textbook that was supposed to be on the subject of “American Literature” for a class of eleventh graders.  The text was nearly 600 pages long, and it contained perhaps 30 pages written by African Americans, no more than that by Americans of Hispanic heritage, literally nothing by Asian Americans, and a 3 page speech attributed to Chief Seattle for which there is no definitive text and a lot of mythology that served other people’s interests.  Thumbing through the book and thinking about my students – who largely traced their ancestry to continental Asia, the Philippines, Hawai’i, and other Pacific nations – was enormously depressing.  Here was a text of “American” literature that would have been inadequate in countless American communities and which effectively erased the majority of my students from the nation’s literary tradition.  Luckily, the Bishop Museum Press had just published Mary Kawena Pukui’s bilingual collection of Hawaiian folktales, and breaking my department’s copying budget, I set about using it as the basis for a semester long project on family folk stories incorporating oral, written, and visual presentations.

This doesn’t mean that I did not fail frequently, especially in my first year teaching.  I did.  I recall with shame showing visible impatience with a student in my first year who tried to explain that his family was Buddhist, and he simply did not know a lot of the religious references in the Hawthorne story we had read.  I had difficulty sustaining students’ conversations about our reading until I recognized that the classroom speaking pattern I was used to at home and in school was culturally specific and until I tried to embrace the richness of students’ language in all of the forms that entered my classroom as classroom talk.   It took me too many years to really question the ethnocentrism of the English curriculum, far too often taking the easier path of sticking with the literature that spoke to me.

As I grew to appreciate the complexities of this community, I grew to love it as well.  Hawai’i had far more to teach me that I had to teach it, and while it was not always comfortable, it was surely valuable.  And that growing value was why, in my second year teaching, I was absolutely flummoxed by an admission a fellow “mainland transplant” made to me.  It was at a party at a friend’s home.  This friend was also white but had lived in Hawai’i all of her life, and one of her guests was a young woman who had moved to O’ahu with her husband for his job a few years earlier from the east coast.  We spoke briefly before she, perhaps assessing me as similarly-situated and sympathetic, made an admission:

“You know, living here really makes me understand what black people must have felt like in Alabama in the 1950s.”

I don’t recall my exact reaction, but I must not have registered anything obvious as she continued for some minutes about how much she disliked Hawai’i in general and Honolulu in particular.  I do not recall getting into an argument with her, and I do not recall any further discussions.  I do remember being bothered by her hostility and absolutely floored by her comparison to herself, as a white person in Honolulu, to a black person in the Jim Crow era.  Numerous explanations seemed possible:

  • Perhaps she had a staggeringly shallow understanding of the history of White Supremacy, the kind of terrorism inflicted upon people of color in the Jim Crow South, and just how much of that persisted past the legal victories of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Perhaps she was plainly unused to being in the racial minority.  Hawai’i, as is often overlooked by the national press, was a “majority minority” state the moment it was admitted into the Union.  To be suddenly thrust in a position where her status no longer appeared guaranteed may have been supremely uncomfortable.
  • Perhaps she had experienced genuine racial animosity and had considered it the equivalent of systemic racism.  Hawai’i’s history has born complex and often painful racial relationships, and I knew more than one white person who bristled at being called “haole” especially in the sense that the words denotes a judgement of one’s character.

Of course, it is entirely possible she simply didn’t like Hawai’i.  I have lived in places I found less than wonderful in my life.  But her comparison of herself to a person of color in the Jim Crow South screamed at a deeper level of resentment, uneasiness, and angst in need of explanation.  Even today, over two decades later, I have trouble understanding it.  At the time I seriously could not grasp it all because except for reasonably average homesickness and an inability in my first year of detecting the change of the seasons, I really could not understand what she was trying to explain and did not feel that sense of racial discomfort and anxiety she expressed.

This doesn’t denote anything particularly special about my enlightenment regarding race in my mid-twenties.  I suffered not a single professional consequence as a white male with an Ivy League degree while teaching.  It is possible that some of my chosen social activities, like the Sierra Club, were over-populated with people like myself, so I effectively “shielded” myself from situations where racial tension was more evident.  I grew up in a majority Jewish town, but spent college in an environment with a very small Jewish population, so I had already experienced moving to a place with a different culture.  Perhaps the nature of my job meant more contact with young people who had grown up in Hawai’i, giving me the opportunity to know and appreciate them.

Whatever the reason, I genuinely cannot recall a single incident in Hawai’i where I personally felt my identity as a white person disadvantaged me.  It is entirely possible, although I’d be hard pressed to recall, that an individual here or there was personally hostile, but nothing left any lasting impression and certainly nothing was consequential.  Ultimately, I can only understand the young woman’s response as a viscerally negative response to being suddenly thrust into a visible minority status, where the majority of people looked very different than herself and possessed cultural histories and practices with which she was unfamiliar.  Being taken from a position of comfort and presumed normalcy to a space where your standard assumptions might no longer work is not an experience many people in America’s racial majority are prepared for by any of their upbringing.  I assume (and it is an assumption) that the woman who clearly thought I would understand her assessment of her situation was struggling with that to such a degree that she was erupting with her own resentment.

I’ve been thinking about this encounter off and on since the election in 2008 and almost nonstop since 2016.

The election of Barack Obama to the Presidency sent a shock wave through many white Americans that manifested in opposition to him far beyond what can be explained by mere partisan politics.  As late as Fall 2015, 29% of Americans still believed that the first black President was secretly a Muslim, furthering an ongoing campaign to “other” Mr. Obama and to refuse to accept his legitimacy as President of the United States.  This has been an outgrowth of a general sense of shock among much of the nation’s white population that their assumed normalcy and social/political status was under threat due to Mr. Obama’s Presidency and demographic projections of a dwindling white population in coming decades.  Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and Samuel Sommers of Tufts University noted this in a 2011 study where whites expressed that racism is a “zero sum game” and that they see themselves “losing” in America today.  In that study, both black and white Americans believed that racial animosity towards blacks had fallen from the 1950s to the 2000s, but whites startlingly saw racial animosity against themselves as having simultaneously risen to the point where there was more discrimination against them than against blacks.  The authors concluded that their white respondents were seeing that progress for black Americans had occurred and that it had done so at their expense.

This phenomenon exploded into support among Republican primary voters for Donald Trump who initiated his campaign on racism, nativism, and isolationist populism.  Pew Research found that warmth towards Donald Trump in the primary campaign was closely associated with seeing immigration and a shrinking white demographic as negatives.  A minority of Republican voters (39%) believed that the fact that America will become “majority minority” was negative, but an overwhelming 63% of these constituents had a favorable view of Donald Trump.  Economic anxiety may have gotten a lot of media attention in the last election cycle, but when a lot of white people went into the voting booth, racial animosity and fear of living in a diverse future motivated their votes.

The only way to explain this fear and animosity is with the inability to see a future for themselves in an increasingly diverse national community which is inexorably coming.  In 1980 (the first year the census recorded a “Spanish Origin” population), whites numbered roughly 189 million in a national population of over 226.5 million,  roughly 83% of the population counted in the Census.  In 2014, non-Hispanic White Americans were 62.2% of the population, projected to be only 43.6% of the population in 2060.

In other words:  in coming decades, more and more white Americans will find themselves more and more a demonstrably minority population, and much like the young woman I met in Hawai’i in the mid-1990s, they are uncomfortable with that and often down right fearful.  Much like their predecessors in the 1800s and early 1900s who saw waves of Irish Catholic immigration, Southern European immigration, Eastern European and Jewish immigration, and Asian immigration as inherent threats to a cultural and political order dominated by Anglo-Saxon Protestants, white Americans fearful for their place in the social, cultural, and political order are lashing out.  The march by avowed White Supremacists in Charlottesville this summer that sparked a national furor was merely the most ugly manifestation of this — and not even the most problematic.  It takes little courage to denounce people marching in Nazi regalia.  It takes a bit more to ask friends and neighbors to think about what really motivated their vote last year.

And yet not asking that is not a viable option.  A shocking percentage of white Americans believe that they are discriminated against racially and that their dwindling demographic majority is an actual threat rather than a natural outcome of a changing society.  This is a process that will continue for decades, and white Americans need a very different framing of the ongoing changes if they are going to adapt to it without the upheaval we have seen recently, and the echoes it has of past, violent, responses to immigration and civil rights movements.

Nell Irvin Painter, professor emerita of history at Princeton University and author of A History of Whiteness, suggests just how difficult this might be.  As a construct, “whiteness” has a long and complex history beyond simply noting a cluster of a few, vaguely-shared physical attributes, and Dr. Irvin Painter documents how the concept has changed over time:

In the mid-to late-19th century, the existence of several white races was widely assumed: notably, the superior Saxons and the inferior Celts.  Each race – and they were called races – had its characteristic racial temperament.  “Temperament” has been and still is a crucial facet of racial classification since its 18th-century Linnaean origins.  Color has always been only one part of it (as the case of Ms. Dolezal shows).

In the 19th century, the Saxon race was said to be intelligent, energetic, sober, Protestant and beautiful.  Celts, in contrast, were said to be stupid, impulsive, drunken, Catholic and ugly.

Dr. Irvin Painter also documents that by the 1940s, anthropologists, dominated by white men as academia was, determined that white, Asian, and black were the only “true” races and that each existed as unitary without any racial subgroups.  This new classification system had the side effect of removing white people from any burden of racial identity in America:

The useful part of white identity’s vagueness is that whites don’t have to shoulder the burden of race in America, which, at the least, is utterly exhausting.  A neutral racial identity is blandly uninteresting.  In the 1970s, long after they had been accepted as “white,” Italians, Greeks, Jews and others proclaimed themselves “ethnic” Americans in order to forge a positive identity, at a time of “black is beautiful.” But this ethnic self-discovery did not alter the fact that whiteness continued to be defined, as before, primarily by what it isn’t: blackness.

This leaves white Americans in modern America with a disturbing binary in their identity.  Toggling between “bland nothingness” on the one hand and “racist hatred” on the other, white Americans have little that is compelling to hold on to, but this has at least one positive effect.  Like the young woman who asked me to affirm the injustice of her situation, “nothingness” meant that she was entirely “normal,” that her sense of how the world worked and how culture functioned was unproblematic, and she could navigate life without her identity causing any special discomfort. This is perhaps the “heart of whiteness,” the ability to live and interact with others wrapped in the privilege of assumed normalcy.  Finding herself in Hawai’i flipped that construct in a way she could not process without lashing out, and the rest of the white community in America is entering a future where the assumption of normalcy is methodically being deconstructed by the sheer weight of demographics.

The past decade says that deconstruction will be turbulent under current understandings of whiteness and identity, risking severe backlash from wide segments of the white population.  Dr. Irvin Painter argues that breaking down the binary toggle of whiteness is essential and that the abolition of white privilege and social justice could be incorporated as a component of identity.   It is a worthwhile vision.  The alternative is decades of fear, resentment, and efforts to retrench white privilege across our political and cultural system.

 

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Filed under Activism, Drumpf, politics, racism, Social Justice

SUNY to Teaching Profession: Meh.

It comes as no surprise that in New York the SUNY Charter School committee voted to approve its controversial regulations that will allow SUNY authorized charter schools to certify their own teachers.  Faced with criticism that ranged from teacher educators to the state teachers’ union to the Commissioner of Education to the state Board of Regents, SUNY altered the rules slightly, increasing course hours but cutting time spent in classrooms.  According to the Times reporting, even Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a self-appointed watchdog on teacher education that  rates teacher preparation programs without ever bothering to visit them,  spoke dubiously on the regulations as passed:

“It’s, ‘Here, we’ll make our candidates go out and take, what is this, a three-credit course that everybody will roll their eyes and say, “This isn’t very helpful,” but higher ed will get the dollars, so you get higher ed off your back,’” Ms. Walsh said. At the same time, she said, “I don’t understand how you justify reducing the practice time to 40 hours, which is not even two weeks of school.”

Teacher certificates earned at a SUNY authorized charter school will still only be good for teaching at another SUNY authorized charter school, so it is an open question about whether or not this will be a large pipeline for charter schools who are still held to state requirements that a large percentage of their teachers hold valid teaching credentials and are seeking to bypass that by doing it in house.  What is clear is that charter chains like Success Academy, which boast very high scores on state tests and very little tolerance for even mildly divergent behavior, are pleased since they will no longer have to bother with new teachers who have actually learned to teach and have existing teaching experience and knowledge of pedagogy.  The immediate upshot of the SUNY vote is that such schools no longer have to bother pretending that teaching is more than performance of a script informed by an enthusiastic reading of Teach Like a Champion.

I wrote about these proposed regulations, as did many education bloggers, when they were released for public comment.  Unsurprisingly, I found them appalling.  In order to circumvent their difficulty in recruiting and retaining qualified teachers, the charter school sector proposed that their schools, which disproportionately operate in urban environments with largely minority student populations, be allowed to provide the barest minimal training, justifying it because they get high test scores, and call it “teacher certification.”  Compared to the actual programs of teacher preparation – including extensive coursework and work in classrooms as well as a rigorous external performance evaluation – the now passed regulations amount to the slimmest preparation, 16 credit hours of instruction and less than a week worth of time in an actual classroom.  Presumably, it is okay for black and brown children to be taught by teachers far less prepared than their peers in richer and less diverse schools.  Add in the incredibly incestuous relationship between charter schools, their donors, the Governor of New York, and the appointees on the SUNY Board, and the ethical quagmire here is obvious…even by Albany standards.

Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University reminded his social media followers that some charters actually have a financial interest in this arrangement:

The “Company Store” metaphor harkens back to pre-labor union days when workers could be paid in company scrip that was only good for use in the store run by the company itself.  In the charter school case, many of the schools that will operate SUNY approve “certification” programs will gain back teachers’ salaries in models already proven by Relay “Graduate School” of Education:

Former teachers from the affiliated charter schools report being obligated as a condition of employment to obtain credentials (MA degrees and related certifications) from Relay GSE. That is: employees at the charter schools are having a portion of their salary taxed to pay tuition to a “graduate school” run by founders of their own charter schools, operated within their own charter school facility (lease agreement unknown), where courses are often taught by their own teaching peers having only slightly more advanced education and experience.[xi] We elaborate on this example in Appendix A.

Another way for affiliated charter schools to channel money to Relay is to set aside a portion of their budget to subsidize graduate education—but only at Relay GSE. That is, some EMOs (including Uncommon) have a practice of paying for graduate degrees obtained from Relay, but not from any other institution (unless the teacher can prove that Relay does not offer a degree in the same field). Teachers agreeing to pursue their degrees from Relay with school support must complete those degrees or, as noted earlier, are required to reimburse their EMO for any/all tuition reimbursement they received.

While this model is not as well tested in New York State, the SUNY Charter School Committee just opened the entire system of SUNY authorized charter schools to give it a try.

Education blogger and Rutgers graduate student Jersey Jazzman, however, pointed out a very important potential consequence of the scheme that may not turn out so well for charters who decide to bypass traditionally prepared teachers.  New Yorkl charter schools with high turnovers of teachers get to “free ride” on the salary scales at district schools because their teachers, mostly in possession of traditional teaching credentials know they can move on to positions where their salary scales and benefits are guaranteed by union contracts:

But teachers who start their careers in charters will only stay a few years because they know they can move on to better paying and less stressful careers in public district schools. In this way, the charters “free ride”, as Martin Carnoy puts it, on the public school districts, who by paying experienced teachers more create incentives for charter teachers to enter the profession. The charters never have to pony up for these incentives, making them free riders.

But the SUNY credentials are only good at other SUNY authorized charter schools, meaning a new teacher who get “certified” this way has no option to teach anywhere else.  So either the SUNY schools will have to find a continuous stream of new teachers who do not mind that their experience is not applicable teaching anywhere else and who will begin and end their careers in charter schools, OR they will have to cough up benefits and salary and working conditions that will keep their teachers.  There is not an inexhaustible supply of young college grads looking to teach with no prospects of a career in the work — otherwise Teach For America would not find itself struggling to fill its corps in recent years.

The SUNY Charter School Committee has clearly seen all of this and offered a big “meh” as the height of their concern.  But if quality education is the actual goal of charter education, they will not get there by ignoring the evidence that experienced teachers are more skilled than inexperienced ones and by replacing adequate funding with choice and calling it a day, especially in a state that is still billions of dollars a year below it’s target for education funding from a decade ago.

 

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Filed under Betty Rosa, charter schools, Corruption, Eva Moskowitz, Funding, MaryEllen Elia, NCTQ, New York Board of Regents, politics, School Choice, schools, teacher professsionalism

Who’s Afraid of Professional Teachers?

New York’s charter school sector, apparently.

Politico reports that the charter sector has potentially won a much desired prize: permission to “certify” their own teachers.  The SUNY Charter Institute, which grants charters and oversees some of the state’s most influential charter networks, released proposed regulations that would make it far easier for charter schools to meet requirements that they have certified teachers on their faculty by allowing them to bypass traditionally prepared teachers and create their own programs leading to certification.  Under the proposed regulations, individuals with a bachelor’s degree will be able to be certified with only 30 hours of coursework:

30 hours

And 100 hours of classroom practice under the supervision of an “experienced teacher”:

100 hours

100hoursb

It is important to lay this out clearly.  The New York charter sector has long worried that requirements that they have a minimum number of certified teachers on staff were becoming difficult to meet.  So now, in a flurry of deal making to get mayoral control extended, they are potentially going to be able to bypass the requirement altogether.  SUNY will allow charter schools to hire teachers without certification and then to “certify” them with coursework amounting to only 30 hours of instruction.  For comparison’s sake, a SINGLE 3 credit college course traditionally includes 30 hours of instruction.  On top of that, candidates for “certification” will need 100 hours of field experience under the supervision of an “experienced” teacher.  The proposed regulation defines “experienced” as a certified teacher.  It also defines “experienced” as a teacher who has completed a charter school program approved by the SUNY Institute, an UNCERTIFIED teacher with three year of “satisfactory” experience, or a teacher who completes Teach For America or a similar program.  This is what will  pass for teacher certification in New York’s “high performing” charter schools: 1 college course and 100 classroom hours under the supervision of an “experienced” teacher who might be no more than a just finished Teach For America corps member.  Better still, “instructors” in the program might hold a master’s degree in education or a “related field,” might be certified teacher with a bachelor’s degree from an accredited program and at least 3 years experience, but might just be an uncertified teacher with 3 years experience and a “track record of success based on student outcomes (read: annual test scores),” or might be a school administrator – who in many charter schools are under 30.  Candidates in the charter programs will also take required workshops on mandatory reporting of child abuse, on violence prevention, and on harassment, bullying, and discrimination.

sheldon-throwspapers

As a matter of comparison, it is worth looking at the New York State Education Department’s certification requirements for new teachers.  In order to get an initial certificate through a traditional teacher preparation program as an elementary school teacher for grades 1-6, a prospective teacher at any of the institutions on this list must complete an NYSED registered program that has been determined to contain the “studies required” to become a teacher, must be recommended to NYSED by that program, must pass the state certification exam, must pass the state content specialty exam for elementary teachers, must pass the externally evaluated performance assessment called edTPA, must take workshops on the Dignity for All Students Act, and pass a criminal background check based on their fingerprints.

And what does that preparation in an NYSED registered program look like?  City University New York – Hunter College has a program for childhood education in urban settings, and candidates in it must complete 34 credits in theory and methods across either 6 or 4 semesters.   Before reaching student teaching, candidates are placed in the field in three different semesters for a total of 225 hours in experiences that are closely aligned with their coursework and meant to guide them into greater and greater responsibility.  Student teaching is a five day a week experience for a full school day across the entire final semester in conjunction with a seminar course dedicated to the experience.

This is an example of what it takes to earn an initial certification in the state of New York.  And under current rules, charter schools can have no more than 15 uncertified teachers on faculty or have more than 30% of their faculty uncertified, whichever number is lower.  Consider that — Success Academy and other “high performing” networks authorized by SUNY would be able to bypass all of that preparation and experience represented by traditionally prepared teachers in favor of using their own teachers with extremely limited experience to “certify” new hires who have no experience whatsoever.  This is not a pathway for teachers who are professionals empowered with knowledge and experience to make the best decisions for their students, but it is a highly efficient pathway to train people with no experience and relevant knowledge into a system based upon tight behavioral controls and scripted lessons that leads to predictable results:

Further, this system almost certainly appeals to charter school chains who rely upon a rapidly turning over cohort of new teachers, some of whom stay if they adapt quickly to the in-house system, but most of whom eventually leave teaching altogether.  Shortening teacher preparation into 30 instructional hours and 100 classroom hours certainly makes it easier for these schools to recycle teachers at a rapid clip while not having to worry about regulations requiring them to retain teachers whose preparation experiences make them far more likely to want to stay in the profession – and whose accumulated coursework and classroom experiences may give them ideas of their own about how teaching and learning happen that might contradict the in-house model.  If teaching students to become “little test taking machines” does not require deep knowledge, meaningful experiences, and professional discernment, then it really does not matter if preparation to teach requires less time than obtaining a cosmetology license.

Condemnations of the proposed regulatory changes were quick.  The State Board of Regents issued a quick statement of concern, noting that  “The Board of Regents and State Education Department are focused on ensuring that strong and effective teachers with the proper training, experience and credentials are educating New York’s children in every public school – including charter schools. SUNY’s teacher certification proposal is cause for concern in maintaining this expectation.”  United University Professions, the union representing, ironically, faculty at all SUNY campuses was more forceful stating:

SUNY claims its proposed charter school teacher certification regulations “link certification to programs that have demonstrated student success and do not require teachers to complete a set of steps, tests and tasks not designed for teachers embedded in a high-quality school.” SUNY would also establish “certain parameters and requirements for charter schools that wish to operate alternative teacher preparation programs.”

“SUNY appears to be saying that schools that hire teachers who complete college teacher preparation programs and meet the state’s teacher certification standards are not high quality schools. That’s ridiculous and it undermines all the work that’s been done in our state to strengthen teacher preparation and improve the teacher certification exams and process,” said Jamie Dangler, UUP’s vice president for academics and a member of the state’s edTPA Task Force.

The New York Post gushed about the proposed regulations, claiming that it will allow experienced professionals such as engineers and lawyers to become teachers, but once you look at the pathway and the “need” it is filling, one has to seriously wonder how many experienced engineers are itching to switch careers this way?  What SUNY is really doing here is setting up charter schools, which primarily operate within urban school systems, to a lot of African American and Hispanic parents not to worry if their children’s teachers are highly educated, tested, professionals – training them to focus on test preparation above everything else just isn’t that difficult anyway.

Ironically, the regulations may very well help charter schools in the short term while creating massive problems for themselves later on.  Jersey Jazzman explains this situation very well. The draft regulations strongly imply that the certification is not transferable beyond other charter schools authorized by SUNY.  That means that teachers certified this way will not have a way to take their early career experience to public schools in New York – or anywhere else for that matter – and be considered a certified teacher.  As Jazzman points out, this is a way for charter schools to rig the labor market because they are having greater difficulty convincing certified teachers to join them, so that helps them have enough “certified” teachers without attracting ones from traditional programs.  But this will eventually put them into a bind by closing off their ability to “free ride” the public system by taking up the least expensive years of a teaching career while district schools pay experienced teachers more – even if they come over from charters.  That’s not possible with this regulation since charter school “certified” teachers will have no pathway into public school classrooms, so either charters will have to cough up better benefits and working conditions…or they will end up right back where they started with staffing shortages.

At the end of the day, the people who will suffer the most will be the families and children in New York’s SUNY authorized charter schools.  They currently know that a substantial portion of their schools’ faculty have earned certification through programs, that while not perfect by any means, emphasize knowledge, experience, and practice.  Now these schools, who largely serve urban students, will be increasingly staffed by faculty with even less experience and knowledge and who are chosen more for their capacity to be molded into the kind of people who have no qualms about turning 8 year olds into “little test taking machines.”

If the SUNY Board of Trustees is really saying that this is acceptable for anyone’s children, they should take a good long look in a mirror before voting this Fall…and then maybe send their own kids to a classroom like that.

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Filed under Betty Rosa, charter schools, classrooms, Eva Moskowitz, New York Board of Regents, politics, racism, standards, Success Academy, teacher professsionalism

Mayoral Control And Mayoral Responsibility

New York legislators in Albany wrapped up yet another game of “Will we give Bill De Blasio an extension of mayoral control of New York City’s schools or won’t we?” recently.  In the end, law makers held off until the very last minute, passing a two year extension for the mayor that did not include the provisions favoring charter schools Senate Republicans were insisting on but against which Assembly Democrats drew a line.  The two year extension is a victory for De Blasio who has found out that Albany has trouble entrusting control to mayors not named “Mike,” and the lack of pro-charter school provisions shows that the daylight between De Blasio and Albany does not have to grind cooperation between the City and State to a complete halt.

The drama was also largely staged.  Although interested parties issued dire warnings of what would befall city schools without mayoral control, the bluff played by Senate Republicans was just that, a bluff.  Reverting back to pre-mayoral control school governance with only the months of July and August to figure it out was meant to scare Democrats into giving in on charter schools, but the threat rang hollow.  Governor Cuomo, who has never been shy about humiliating Mayor De Blasio, wanted mayoral control extended.  Even though they kept their mouths shut and did not win hoped for concessions, I would not bet against charter school proponents wishing for mayoral control as well.  After all, Mayor De Blasio will not be mayor forever, and if the next mayor is more like Michael Bloomberg, the charter school sector will once again deal with only one person in control of city schools who is indulgent of their wishes.  Certainly simpler than the complex politics of a city school board representing multiple constituencies and independent governance in 32 different community districts.  And even though the charter school cap remains where it is, backroom deals are allowing 22 charter licenses for schools that had their charters revoked or went unused to be recycled and reissued.

And it is not as if the so-called anti-charter stance of the De Blasio administration is so unwavering that the sector gets nothing from Tweed these days:

So if that is the theater involved in the issue, there remains a central, not often asked, question:  What about mayoral control makes it essential for running the nation’s largest school system?  Prior to the 2002 legislation that placed Michael Bloomberg in near complete control of the city schools, New York City schools were run by the central Board of Education whose members were appointed by the mayor and by the five borough presidents and by elected school boards in each of the city’s 32 community districts – which had much greater power before a 1996 law demoted their role.  Mayoral control legislation placed enormous authority into the mayor’s office who appoints the School Chancellor and the majority of members on the Panel for Educational Policy.  The 32 local school boards were replaced by “Community Education Councils” consisting of parents elected by Parent Associations of elementary and middle schools in the community districts and given even less  authority on school matters within those districts than the 1996 law.

Point of information:  I am a member of the Community Education Council in District 3, having just completed my first two year term and having been elected to a second term.  What I am writing here, however, represents only my views as both a New York City school parent and as a scholar of education – I do not presume to speak for the Council.

Proponents for continuing mayoral control certainly believe the current arrangement is crucial for school success in the Big Apple.  Mayor DeBlasio had dire warnings for law makers that not extending his school control would unleash “chaos.”  Speaking through a spokesperson, he said, ““mayoral control is the only proven governance system. Ending it would roll out the red carpet for corruption and chaos in our school system.”  Governor Cuomo was similarly dire about the need for extending control, but was more critical of his fellow Democrats in the Assembly for holding a tight line on issues like lifting the charter school cap: “For the legislature to leave with one million children returning to what we know was a failed management system is a dereliction of duty.”

I am certainly not prepared to say that the former governance structure for city schools was a marked improvement on what we have today – however, it is also a massive oversimplification to say that the previous governance system could not produce results as studies of Community District 2 by Harvard’s Richard Elmore demonstrate.  Further, while advocates of mayoral control have loved to tout various accomplishments, they are less inclined to entertain nuanced discussion and examination of those accomplishments.  Bloomberg Chancellor Joel Klein loved to boast about how the leadership team assembled in New York made great progress on raising achievement and closing the test-measured gap between white and minority students.  The problem with that claim is that it never stood up to careful analysis, as demonstrated by Teachers College Professor Aaron Pallas in analyses here and here.  While Bloomberg and Klein could boast about modest gains in NYC scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, those gains were not substantially better than in other cities that did not follow the Bloomberg/Klein reform program and their claim about narrowing the achievement gap was simply false:

Looking across ELA and math scores on state exams for New York City students in grades three through eight in 2003, the achievement gap separating black and Latino students from white and Asian students was .74 of a standard deviation. In 2011, the achievement gap was .73 of a standard deviation. This represents a 1 percent reduction in the magnitude of the achievement gap. The careful reader will note that the mayor has thus overstated the cut in the achievement gap by a factor of 50.

What about for NAEP? In 2003, the achievement gap, averaged across reading and math scores in the fourth and eighth grades, was .76 of a standard deviation. In 2011, the gap was .78 of a standard deviation. Far from being cut in half, the achievement gap on the NAEP assessment actually increased by 3 percent between 2003 and 2011.

Mayor Bloomberg said, “We have closed the gap between black and Latino kids and white and Asian kids. We have cut it in half.” But the gap has scarcely budged; it’s shrunk by 1 percent on the New York State tests, and increased by 3 percent on NAEP.

These issues are frustrating, but frankly to be expected as it is the rare politician who is willing to admit that he has spent a decade with unchallenged control of a school system, sought test measured validation of his approach, and came up with belly button lint instead.  However, it also draws attention to another aspect of mayoral control that hasn’t been discussed in the latest Albany spectacle.  Namely, who holds the mayor responsible and over what does the mayor take responsibility in this governance structure?  The Community District School boards were stripped of most of their authority prior to mayoral control, but they retained input on issues like hiring superintendents which, at least nominally, kept that closer to school district parents.  Today, that all flows through the Mayor’s office who appoints the extremely powerful Chancellor and has a majority of seats on the PEP.  The mayor may be subject to election, but it goes without saying that the path to that election does not necessitate a mayor who is attentive to what is going on in every school in every district across the city.  In fact, in his last election in 2009, Michael Bloomberg lost the Bronx to challenger William Thompson by 24.2 percentage points.  I dare say that he lost in most if not all of the 6 Community School Districts in the Bronx, yet he continued to control school governance there.  The people closest to the schools in those districts only have limited say in holding the mayor responsible for what goes on there, and their post-election voices are greatly limited.

This matters even more because the mayor’s office does not always hold itself responsible for the very schools it controls.  Consider charter school policy.  While it is true that the city does not control charter schools (except for the very small number authorized by NYCDOE), it is also true that the amount of daylight between Mayor Bloomberg and charter friendly politicians in Albany was nonexistent.  The Bloomberg years openly welcomed charter school expansion, aided in finding them spaces within city school buildings, and actively encouraged parents to seek educational options outside the control of DOE, setting up an environment where DOE run schools would have to compete not only among themselves but in competition with privately run organizations that were able to fund slick, professional marketing campaigns.  Success Academy alone in 2010 paid over $400,000 to a single marketing firm, Mission Control, Inc., to promote itself in a direct mail campaign to parents, and it continued this campaign in subsequent years, spending on pre-paid postage for application forms mailed directly to homes. Using such professional services, the charter network is able to portray itself as highly desirable and prestigious to prospective families.  And what, exactly, did Mayor Bloomberg, who welcomed the Success Network at every opportunity, do to position the schools directly under his control to compete in THAT environment?

chirp

This problem has continued into the De Blasio administration which, while showing much more willingness to support district schools with programs, has not yet grasped that Superintendents and building Principals are largely left alone to “market” their schools with no specific expertise and only funds that can be raised from parents.

The irony here is both evident and cruel:  mayoral control as exercised by Michael Bloomberg helped put schools serving the most vulnerable children in the city into a situation where they were simultaneously responsible for improving academic outcomes while following accommodation rules that charters are exempted from AND for marketing themselves in an environment where private organizations spend lavishly on direct marketing campaigns and the DOE schools are left to rely on $500 and whatever creativity they have on staff.  With parents bombarded from all directions by everyone except their zoned schools, it is no surprise that DOE schools in certain parts on New York have seen sharp declines in enrollment – which appears to be a feature rather than a bug of the system as set up by Albany law makers and abetted by Tweed under Bloomberg.  In Community District 3 in Manhattan, schools north of 110th Street have seen a decline from 2206 K-5 students in 2006 to 1469 K-5 students in 2015, an enrollment loss of 33% in less than a decade.

D3 Enrollment

However, if Michael Bloomberg accepted no responsibility to help the schools he enthusiastically put into competition actually compete, then his successor, Bill De Blasio has shown no real comprehension of the problem either.  Schools in areas with high charter saturation still rely upon shoestring budgets and ad hoc efforts by community members and school personnel instead of a enjoying a coordinated and funded strategy from the office that has direct control over them.  It is fundamentally unfair to expect that school principals, who have to possess a vast array of skills related to instructional leadership, management leadership, staff development, evaluation, school law, budgeting, and parent relationships, add on marketing and graphic design skill sets that are subject to their own degree programs.  Meanwhile, Tweed approaches maintaining enrollment at schools as if it was still the early 1990s.

Mayor De Blasio fought hard to keep mayoral control.  It is past time for the Mayor’s office to look at the impact of that control on the schools it runs and take mayoral responsibility for the sustainability of fully public schools in New York City.

 

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, charter schools, Corruption, Eva Moskowitz, Funding, politics, schools, Success Academy

The Church of Choice

There are many reasons why various advocates representing different constituencies support school choice policies.  Some of them argue from a civil rights perspective, noting that parents with financial means are able to seek out school options for their children and propose that opening urban schools to parental choice gives those options to families in poverty.  Others come at the question from a more laissez faire economic approach, believing that government control in any sector is less desirable than competition among various entities creating innovation.  Still others are, undoubtedly, hucksters and profiteers who have seen the relatively new school choice sector as an easily exploited honey pot that is still too loosely regulated to catch fraud in the form of double dealing and self enrichment.  There are compelling and data based reasons to question the first two arguments – and the third presents an obvious problem that even many choice advocates do not support – but there should be no doubt that deeply held and sincere beliefs animate many school choice advocates.

And then there is whatever the hell Betsy DeVos believes.

There is no doubt that Betsy DeVos believes in school choice, and her record is one of funneling large sums of her personal fortune to influence politicians to embrace competition among schools as educational policy.    Further, DeVos’ record in Michigan demonstrates that she is unusually reluctant to subject school choice options to meaningful oversight.  Now that she is in Washington, her general attitude towards choice as a goal in and of itself is evident on a national scale.

Secretary DeVos raised eyebrows at her confirmation hearing when she skirted the question of “equal accountability” for all schools as poised by Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia:

Her unwillingness to commit to “equal accountability” was surprising to people who agree that public funds come with public obligations and that those should be governed by principles of equality and equity.  DeVos betrays no such commitment, preferring to let entities receiving public funds make their own decisions even if that means they are not held to the same levels of accountability.  This was thrown into even more stark relief more recently when she indirectly signaled fourteen times that her Department of Education would not protect LGBTQ students and students with disabilities from discrimination under all circumstances.  Asked about how her department would respond to voucher schools that refused to accommodate LGBTQ students and students with disabilities, she replied over and over again that “Any institution receiving federal funding is required to follow federal law.”  The problem with that response, no matter how many times it was repeated, is that federal law is either silent (on LGBTQ students) or not fully consistent (on students with disabilities).  Much like “accountability” versus “equal accountability” subtle differences matter, and Betsy DeVos’ inclination is defer to making more choices operable rather than to defer to making sure those choices are equitable and required to serve all students.

Secretary DeVos’ faith in choice is so firm that she has an alarming tendency to insert it into her remarks in various locations regardless of the appropriateness.  In February remarks after meeting leaders of a group of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs), Secretary DeVos could not help herself from framing them as “pioneers” of “schools choice.”  While it is true that HBCUs arose because African Americans were systematically barred from educational opportunity, the “choice” they represented at their founding was the ONLY choice available to their students and to most of their faculty.  Rather than properly noting the full force of America’s Apartheid Era and how it conspired to keep African Americans from full citizenship, DeVos said, that HBCUs are “living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality.”  That’s not praising HBCUs for their brave roll in trying to alleviate injustice;  that’s hijacking their history.

While many choice advocates clearly believe in the power of competition in a marketplace, Betsy DeVos seems to assign that marketplace capabilities few akin to magic without recognizing any limitations.  In remarks to a technology and innovation conference in May, Secretary DeVos lauded innovation in mobile technology and lamented why such forces have not been unleashed on education:

Think of it like your cell phone. AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile may all have great networks, but if you can’t get cell phone service in your living room, then your particular provider is failing you, and you should have the option to find a network that does work. Let’s be clear. This shouldn’t apply only to K-12 education — we need to innovate, reform, and iterate across the entire education spectrum. Higher education must constantly look for ways to update their models to best serve students as well.

DeVos, not unlike many other free market purists not contained to education reform, refuses to acknowledge some massive distinctions between innovation in mobile service and innovation in providing a public service like school.  First, mobile service is a massively regulated sector of the economy and operates under a myriad of rules to protect consumers.  In fact, most of the competition lauded by choice advocates of proof of the market’s power takes place within a regulatory framework, but DeVos’ advocacy record says she does not strongly believe in fettering a school marketplace with such rules.  In DeVos’ “free” market ideal, schools locally make choices about who to accommodate and where to locate regardless of what the most vulnerable consumers need.  Second, the ability to make a choice from a wide range of choices is integral to the competition she extols, and one of the reasons why we have anti-trust laws.  The electromagnetic spectrum is certainly able to hold a number of choices in mobile service.  Most of our nation’s public school districts would incur staggering travel costs for students to implement “choice” or would have to run a complex and inefficient system of schools too small to offer comprehensive programs.  Finally, and this cannot be emphasized enough, the marketplace is not and never was designed to offer everyone equally good choices.  One of the most powerful features of a free marketplace is the ability of customers to shop not merely among an array of choices that meet their needs, but also among an array of choices that fit their budget.  A person can buy a luxury automobile, and economy car, or even a used car that only works 70% of the time but serves his needs (most of the time).  The problem with applying that to public education is that nobody NEEDS the school equivalent of a 1986 Yugo.  They need what everyone else needs – equal access to a free, sound, public education.  I will happily admit that we currently are failing to provide that, but the answer to that challenge is not to be found in carving up our genuinely inadequate resources and spreading them without oversight into a maze of providers who are not equally accountable with the schools they compete with.  This is not a recipe for providing all parents with a rich array of choices that are all of high quality, and the results in districts like Detroit, where DeVos’ favored policies have ruled for some time, speak loudly to that.

Even though DeVos is so ideological about market forces, she is far less ideological about making certain that traditional public schools can compete in that market.  How else can anyone explain her support of the education budget proposal that is set to slash over $10 billion from needed after school programs, teacher training, and grants and loans for students because in her estimation the budget “returns” control to states and gives parents, you guessed it, choice?  In that same hearing, DeVos avoided a question about a religious school in Indiana that gets voucher funds but will not admit children of same sex couples, saying only “The bottom line is we believe that parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling and education decisions…Too many children today are trapped in schools that don’t work for them. We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.”  It should be noted that this is a budget that even is getting side-eyed by school choice friendly venues.  Campbell Brown’s reform advocacy site noted that the “winners” in the Trump education budget are school choice and….Secretary DeVos’ security detail, while losers include college students, special populations, technical education, and the Office for Civil Rights.

Secretary DeVos believes in school choice in, quite literally, the worst way.  She ascribes competition and the free market with powers it does not have when it comes to creating change in a core democratic institution.  She is hostile to oversight and equal accountability for the variety of privately run/publicly funded organizations she wants to see proliferate.  She is indifferent to whether or not those organizations welcome all students who seek them out.  She has no qualms about traditional public schools, along with the families that choose them, being entirely disadvantaged in her marketplace disruption.  She is willing to frame literally anything, even schools created in response to Apartheid, as an example of “choice”.  Not even the evidence of how badly awry her efforts in Michigan have gone can shake her.  School choice advocates may arrive at their support by many means, but Betsy DeVos has elevated it to near religious status.  She cannot be reasoned out of her positions largely because she never reasoned herself into them.

 

 

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Filed under Betsy DeVos, charter schools, Funding, politics, School Choice

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

Teachers in the Trump Era: Your Students are Still Watching

the-abels

I’d like to introduce you to the Abels.  They are one of the four families with immigrant parents who are responsible for my family’s history in the United States of America.  Golda and Samuel sought a better life than they could have had in Eastern Europe early in the 20th century.  Their children in this picture are Bernard, my maternal grandfather Robert, and their two daughters, Lilian and Ruth.  Their third daughter, Shirley, would be born later.  Like many Ashkenazi immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leaving Eastern Europe was an escape from centuries of discrimination and violent riots aimed at their communities, but not an escape from hardship and prejudice.  America looked at the latest wave of immigration with similar suspicions that had met the Irish – my great grandparents talked in a strange manner, they ate unusual foods, they dressed differently, they worshiped “incorrectly,”  their loyalty to their new home was considered suspect.

Despite these impediments, they managed to thrive and build a life.  Their son Robert became a builder and an architect of industrial buildings.  Their grandchildren have served in the nation’s military, become teachers, and professionals, and today their great great grandchildren are growing up as the fourth generation of American citizens to follow them and their efforts to seek a better life.  Like all immigrant families, their story shares similarities to the stories of millions of others and, simultaneously, is uniquely their own.  America is somewhat in love with the archetype of the immigrant family coming to America, assimilating, and finding economic advancement from one generation to the next, and, to be sure, many families slot into that experience.  But no family is entirely the same and, more importantly, there are thousands of nuances to the American experience from generation to generation.

Consider:  This “Nation of Immigrants” is not made up entirely of the descendants of people who emigrated voluntarily like my family.  Some families were always here, descendants of  the first people to live on this continents and who were forced off their lands and killed in wars against them.  Other families were brought here in chains during the slave trade and faced centuries of unrelenting cruelty and discrimination.  Still other families lived on one side of a border one day and found themselves on the other side the next such as Mexican citizens living in Texas in the early 19th century.  And while many millions have emigrated voluntarily over the centuries, their reasons for doing so have been as various as the people themselves.  Many have come here as refugees to escape warfare and oppression. Others have come because of promises made by American administrations to those who helped in wars abroad. Others were seeking opportunities not possible in their homelands.  Others seeking education.  And not all of them found what they were looking for, finding instead a country that projects a message of welcome from New York harbor but too frequently offers suspicion and discrimination and violence.  While I firmly believe that the story of America can be seen in the gradual increase of the franchise over the centuries, it is also true that we have often resisted that story and told vast swaths of people they were not welcome.

Teachers and schools must consider these nuances very seriously and understand our history.  While it is mainstream today for many educators and school systems to extol the virtue of diversity and to offer welcome to students of greatly varied background, our reality and our past are quite different.  Sixty-three years after Brown vs. Board of Education, integration remains aspirational across the country rather than a reality, and efforts to integrate our schools into truly diverse communities still meet active resistance.  Further, our schools have often been instruments of enforced assimilation rather than communities of acceptance for immigrants and minorities.  The Bureaus of Indian Affairs operated a school system precisely with the goal of separating native children from their heritage and completing the “work” that the Indian Wars did not finish.  The often heard term “melting pot” to describe the immigrant experience has roots in deliberate efforts to enroll immigrants’ children into public schools in order to hasten their abandonment of the cultures they brought from their home countries.  Both African Americans and women have been systematically denied and discouraged from equal educational opportunities based upon systemic prejudices.

Into this complicated web of family history, personal identity, and institutional priorities comes the Trump administration’s “temporary” ban on immigration from 7 majority Muslim nations and upon refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war.  The administration claims that these bans are necessary for the security of the nation against the threat of terrorism.  A great deal of ink has been spilled about how the order is poorly drafted without proper vetting and input from impacted agencies, about how it has unleashed chaos on travel and immigration across the world, about the ever shifting “standards” of the order that have caught up legal residents with green cards and Iraqis who risked their lives to aid American forces, about the questionable basis of the barred nations’ inclusion in the order over other nations whose citizens actually participated in terrorist attacks on the U.S., about allegations that this is a defacto ban on Muslim immigration, about the potential legal and Constitutional challenges to the order, and about whether or not the administration is overtly defying court orders issued since the executive order was signed on Friday — which just happened to be international Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Teachers, given the weight of history, have a particular challenge in this situation.  According to Pew Social Trends, roughly two thirds of American Muslim adults were born in another country, a large proportion of them are from Arab countries, and a full 8% are from Iran, also included in the ban.  This means that that a large proportion of the Muslim children in our schools have parents who were not born citizens.  Initial estimates said as many as 500,000 green card holders, legal permanent residents of the United States, were subject to being barred from entry if they traveled abroad, and while the administration now says the order does not apply to them, the situation is extremely fluid and people justifiably are unsure of their status.  We’ve seen elderly green card holders detained.  We’ve seen interpreters for American armed forces in Iraq stranded as their entry was barred.  We’ve seen an Iranian born professor at Yale University unable to reunite with his wife and child who were visiting relatives in Tehran:

Universities across the country are offering advice to their international students potentially impacted by the ban and are announcing they will refuse to share students’ immigration information with the federal government.

If you are a public school teacher, it is possible that the ban does not directly impact any students in your classroom, but the indirect impacts should be self-evident.  As educators, we are tasked with a responsibility to truly live up to the promises made to immigrant families – equal treatment, opportunity, and acceptance.  While our nation has been imperfect at fulfilling those promises as a whole, and while we have tried to shoehorn all immigrant families into simplistic narratives, individually, we can resist those injustices and make our own classrooms and schools places that strive for better.  Our nation has feared and scapegoated immigrants throughout history and yet the vast majority of us would miss the contributions to America made by our varied immigrant communities over the centuries.  Can you, as a matter of classroom community and curriculum, celebrate the contributions and cultures of past immigrant communities who were subjected to discrimination and marginalization when they arrived while looking away while even worse discrimination and marginalization is visited upon today’s immigrants?  Can you teach your students that past generations were plainly wrong to suspect immigrant communities while ignoring or – worse – supporting suspicion today?  If you profess that you would not have met my – or your own – immigrant ancestors with hostility, can you be quiet as this generation’s immigrants are subjected to worse?

If you teach in a community with immigrant families, your students are watching you to see if you truly value them.  If you teach in a community with very few immigrant families, your students are still watching you – to learn how to respond to injustice that does not directly impact them. This is a test.  Don’t fail it.

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