Tag Archives: Economy

More than Half of America’s School Children Qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch

I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here?” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. (Yes) There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. (Yes) And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. (Yes) But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. (All right) It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” (Yes) You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” (Yes) You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?” (All right) These are words that must be said. (All right)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. August 16, 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here?”

On January 16th, The Washington Post ran a story by Lyndsey Layton about a new report finding that slightly more than half of all American public school students now come from officially low income families. The headline stating those children come from “poor” families was slightly misleading as qualifying for reduced lunch does not require that a family be at the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) which is $23,850 for a family of four. Families qualify for free meals at school at 130% of the FPL ($31,005 for a family of 4), and they qualify for reduced lunch at 185% of the FPL ($44,123 for a family of 4).  However, the reality is that almost half of our public school students live in poverty, near poverty, and low income conditions.  This has dramatic implications for them and for the schools in which they study.

Poverty acts as a third rail in American policy discussions, and it often feels that recognizing the reality for people who live in poverty or near poverty is immediately treated as an attack on American ideals of a meritocratic society.  Reality, however, remains reality, and the deep impacts of poverty upon young people are known.  The 1997 Princeton Study is nearly 20 years old and clearly demonstrated the health, cognitive, educational, and behavioral differences that can be attributed to growing up in poverty.  More recently, the  30 year long Baltimore study reported how intensely stubborn poverty is and how unlikely it is for a child born into poverty to move into the middle class or higher.  Recent research also notes that in addition to long known advantages of higher income families such as educational resources, a poor child who does “everything right” is still barely MORE likely to be economically successful that a rich child who drops out of school – and both are equally likely to be in the lowest quintile of income earners:

Poor-Grads-Rich-Dropouts

As equally troubling as these findings is the difficulty in any prospect of fixing them by current opportunities.  While going to college remains a viable way to maintain economic position for most attendees, it is not because wages for such graduates have been rising to meet inflation or a job market demand for such workers.  Wages for current college graduates is not much higher than it was in the mid-1980s, but the wage premium for a college degree has grown because of the collapse of wages for workers without a college education:

SDT-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-03

In addition, the lower middle class, historically an important rung on the economic ladder, is not merely struggling; iis largely stay afloat only because of federal transfer programs that take the edge off of their stagnant and falling wages — even as they tend to pay the largest marginal tax rates of all income groups.  The conclusion here is one that has only recently pushed into margins of the mainstream:  it is extremely difficult for individuals and families to move up the economic ladder when several rungs have been sawn off…and individuals and families who slip from the lower middle rung to the bottom have few opportunities to regain security.

All of which makes our current educational “reforms” staggeringly galling, immoral even.  Reformers have been touting for years now changes to our educational commons that involve turning as many neighborhood public schools in charter schools as possible, measuring all success and failures in school by standardized test scores, and attacking the workplace protections of teachers as the only way to “guarantee” that every child has an excellent teacher.  In doing so they literally ignore all the ways in which poverty’s deprivations impact school, and they place upon public school all of the responsibility to boost students’ economic fortunes.  Unexamined?  Tax and trade policies that make it possible for just 4 hedge fund managers to earn more income in a single year than every single Kindergarten teacher in America combined.  Corporations whose business models do not include paying full time employees enough money to avoid going on public assistance.  Wages for most workers that have barely moved in real purchasing power since the mid-1960s. That concentration of income means that 10% of income earners now make more than half of all income in America.  Education “reformers” demand that “fixing” that should rest entirely upon America’s education system — even as their allies in state capitols around the country have played budget games to keep from raising taxes on the wealthy.  In New York State, that amounts to billions of dollars of year that Albany pledged but never delivered to local public schools.

Only in America would education “reform” be millionaires (Campbell Brown, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein) working for billionaires (Whitney Tilson, Rupert Murdoch, Eli Broad, the Walton family, Bill Gates) to convince poor and lower middle class communities that the problems in education and economic opportunity for their children rest entirely upon the barely middle class teachers in their local schools.

Professor Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University notes that those same “reformers” have taken up the mantle of civil rights in their demands that school be responsible for providing all the opportunity for children in poverty — usually as cover for schemes that privatize more and more of our educational commons.  Dr. Williams takes issue with their adoption of Dr. King for their cause:

For King, the Beloved Community was a global vision of human cooperation and understanding where all peoples could share in the abundant resources of the planet. He believed that universal standards of human decency could be used to challenge the existence of poverty, famine, and economic displacement in all of its forms. A celebration of achievement and an appreciation of fraternity would blot out racism, discrimination, and distinctions of any kind that sought to divide rather than elevate people—no matter what race, religion, or test score. The Beloved Community promoted international cooperation over competition. The goal of education should be not to measure our progress against the world but to harness our combined intelligence to triumph over the great social, scientific, humanistic, and environmental issues of our time.

While it seeks to claim the mantle of the movement and Dr. King’s legacy, corporate education reform is rooted in fear, fired by competition and driven by division. It seeks to undermine community rather than build it and, for this reason, it is the ultimate betrayal of the goals and values of the movement.

This observation is especially important today on the date set aside for reflection on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and on the work that is left unfinished from his movement.  One of the most glaring unfinished task today is the poverty and near poverty that afflicts over half of our students in public education.  Accompanying that is the coordinated campaign of deflection and misdirection by our current generation of education “reformers” who want to pitch community members against each and against public education while the policy makers and the oligarchs who influence them most heavily continue to ignore the wishes of bi-partisan majorities in the electorate.

It is well past time that we revoked their appropriation of Dr. King’s mantle.  It belongs with those who want our nation to finally confront poverty, not with those who blame public school for the decisions of the powerful.

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Filed under Activism, Corruption, politics, Social Justice

What I Am Thankful For: 140 Years of School Success

David Tyack and Larry Cuban, two of America’s most accomplished scholars in education, published the book “Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform” (1995) examining various efforts to reform American education and  explaining why schools tend to persist regardless of changes envisioned by reformers.  The book, arguably one of the best treatises on the subject in the past two decades, opens by noting how it is possible to portray American education as either evidence of progress or of regress depending almost entirely upon the motivations of the examiner:

Beliefs in progress or regress always convey a political message. Opinions about advance or decline in education reflect general confidence in American institutions.  Faith in the nation and its institutions was far higher in the aftermath of success in World War II than in the skeptical era of the Vietnam War and Watergate.  Expectations about education change, as do media representations of what is happening in schools. And the broader goals that education serves – the visions of possibility that animate the society – also shift in different periods, making it necessary to ask how people have judged progress, from what viewpoints, over what spans of time. (p. 14)

Tyack and Cuban take great care to demonstrate that much of our concept of progress or regress in education depends greatly upon how we frame questions and what questions we ask (or fail to ask).  For example, the great wave of educational expansion in the Progressive Era was influenced by the reformers’ beliefs that education could mold society for the better and that their progress was clearly reflected in statistics that showed greater and greater numbers of Americans obtaining more and more education.  At the same time, however, these same Progressives built a system with systemic inequalities enshrined in legally enforced segregation in some states and de facto segregation in others, with deep differences in school funding depending upon location, with limited college and career opportunities for women, and with few efforts to meet the educational needs of children with disabilities. The federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs set up a system of boarding schools for native children that were expressly racist and traumatizing.  The point here should be clear: whether or not schools are progressing is a consideration awash in choices of focus, not merely in data.

Today, Americans are in the third decade of an intense effort to convince them that the nation’s schools are failing.  Steeped in the rhetoric of existential threats in the Cold War, the Reagan administration released “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative of Education Reform” in 1983, which declared, in no uncertain terms, the belief that the education was not merely failing, but that it had already, definitively, failed:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament. (p. 1)

President Reagan’s commission made such dire pronouncements at an opportune moment.  Having had confidence in the government shaken by both the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal and having had confidence in our economic future beaten by declines in heavy industry, oil crises, stagflation, and back to back recessions, Americans had already lost confidence in education generally.  As Tyack and Cuban (1995) note, in 1973 Gallup polling reported that 61% of Americans thought their children would get a better education than they had gotten, but by 1979 that number had fallen to 41%.  But the authors also note that in 1985, while Americans did not have a high opinion of the national school system, only 27% of the them rating it as an A or a B, parents  with children in school rated those schools highly, 71% of them giving a grade of A or B to the school attended by their oldest child.  That discrepancy has remained notably stable over the decades.  In the 2014 version of the same poll, 17% of Americans rated the national school system as earning an A or a B while 67% of parents gave that grade to the school attended by their oldest child.

While that second number has been trending lower recently, it is note worthy even after three decades of constant criticism of our schools that a super-majority of parents remain favorably disposed to the schools they know the best. In the past decade and a half, that criticism has become omnipresent with a bipartisan selection of politicians demanding more and more of our schools and with private foundations and billionaire financiers pushing reforms to increase test based accountability in public education and to use what they see as evidence of failure to demand market-based changes to how we deliver our educational commons.  Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates burst into a public role demanding education reform in 2005 by declaring our entire system of education “obsolete”.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan now famously opined that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans” because it provided the impetus to dramatically change the schools in the city, and the result is that the New Orleans school district is the first in the nation to be comprised entirely of charter schools.  Secretary Duncan’s words, insulting to the many who lost loved ones, homes, and livelihoods in the hurricane, make it clear that he believes hugely disruptive change is an imperative in education today.

But what if that is, from a variety of perspectives, unnecessary?  What if the story of American education is one of steady and cumulative progress and success?  What if the needs of our schools and the students in them are better seen from the perspective of systemic support rather than from systemic turmoil and disruption?  What if our leaders, both in politics and in business, are choosing to see American education in terms that can only be addressed by unleashing “creative destruction” without regard to the quantifiable goods that will be unpredictably harmed or dismantled by that force?

In 1993, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Research and Improvement, released an omnibus report entitled “120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait“.  The report, presented in charts and graphs, demonstrates a steady progression in the reach of education from relatively small enterprise encompassing mostly a white and male population in the mid-1800s to a national enterprise available to and used by the majority of our population.  In many respects, it tracks the growth of American enfranchisement because as different populations in the country have been granted access to the right to vote and to protection from discrimination, their engagement with our educational commons has expanded as well.  So at the risk of taking a stance that Tyack and Cuban would acknowledge as political, I would like to present some of these findings as reasons to be thankful that previous generations of Americans invested meaningfully in an educational infrastructure as crucial to our economic health as our transportation, power, health, and water systems and as important to the vitality of our culture and psyches as our libraries, national parks, civic cultural institutions.

The growth of access to education and the depth of completion of education in the history of our common schools movement is evident.  In 1850, 56.2% of white children aged 5 to 19 years of age were enrolled in some form of schooling while only 1.8% of black children and children of other races were similarly enrolled.  By 1910, those numbers had climbed to 61.3% of white children and 44.8% of black children and children of other races, and by 1970, the numbers were 90.8% and 89.4% respectively, climbing to 93.1% and 93.2% in 1991.  In 1940, the percentage of males who completed 4 years of high school was 12.2% and 5.5% had 4 years or more of college for a median of 8.6 years of schooling completed, and the percentage of women who completed 4 years of high school was 16.4% and 3.8% had 4 years or more of college for a median of 8.7 years of schooling completed.  By 1991, 24.3% of males over the age of 25 had 4 years or more of college for a median of 12.8 years of schooling, and 18.8% of women over the age of 25 had 4 years or more of college for a median of 12.7 years of schooling.  Black men and men of other races only had a median of 5.4 years of formal schooling by age 25 in 1940, but that number rose to 12.6 years in 1991 with 17.8% of black men and men of other races having 4 or more years of college.  Black women and women of other races had a median of 12.5 years of completed school by 1991, and 15.8% of them had 4 or more years of college.

Over this time frame, illiteracy in the general and specific populations decreased.  In 1870, 20% of the population over the age of 14 was considered illiterate as defined by not being able to read or write in any language.  That percentage was a staggering 79.9% in the black population, but by 1910 the total illiteracy rate had decreased to 7.7%, and the rate in the black population had dropped to 30.5%.    Black illiteracy rates remained above 10% through 1952, but by 1979, they had fallen to 1.6%, and illiteracy in the total population was down to 0.6%.

Our nation’s schools were rarely accommodating places for students with disabilities with little to no recognition of specific learning disabilities until the 1970s.  In 1931, only 0.6% of children enrolled in schools were recognized as being disabled and in programs, and those were mostly speech, visual, and auditory disabilities with another large group of children recognized with cognitive impairments.  In the mid-1960s, this had grown to 4.3% of public school enrollments, but still without recognition of specific learning disabilities.  Due to litigation and legislation, this changed in the 1970s, and by 1989, 11.4% of the student population was served by special education programs with 2,050,000 children receiving accommodations for learning disabilities.

Student achievement as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has made slow but steady gains in the decades since the federal government began the program.  In 1970-71, the average 17 year-old scored 285 in reading, 304 in mathematics (1972-73 data available), and 296 in science.  These scores rose slightly by 1990 to 290 in reading and 305 in mathematics, and fell slightly to 290 in science.  Black and Hispanic students made more notable gains in the NAEP during this time.  In 1970, black 17 year-olds scored 239 in reading, 270 in mathematics (1972-73 data available), and 250 in science (1972-73 data available).  By 1989, these scores rose to 267, 289, and 253 respectively.  For Hispanic students, reading scores of 252 in 1974 rose to 275 in 1989, math scores of 277 in 1972 rose to 255 in 1989, and science scores of 262 in 1976 remained stable in 1989.  Gains in the NAEP for higher level proficiencies also occurred across racial groups.  For example, level 300 in mathematics in the NAEP at high school is defined as being able to perform elementary algebra and geometry.  In 1977, 57.6% of white students scored in this range as did 16.8% of black students.  By 1989, those percentages had risen to 63.2% and 32.8% respectively.

Pursuit of higher education has also grown dramatically in the United States.  In 1869, 1.3% of the population aged 18-24 was enrolled in higher education of any form.  This number did not rise to 10% until 1945, but in the post World War II period it grew steadily, reaching 23.6% of the population in 1961, 41% of the population in 1981, and 53.7% of the population in 1991 with public institution enrollment of over 10.7 million split between 4 and 2 year schools.  In 1910, only 20 persons out of 1000 aged 23 had a bachelor’s degree, and by 1990, that number rose to 282 out of 1000 persons aged 23 years.  In 1990, the nation conferred 454,679 associate degrees, 1,049,657 bachelor’s degrees, and 323,844 master’s degrees.  It is noteworthy that female degree recipients outnumbered men in all of these categories when they lagged behind men in both bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees as recently as 1980.

American educational progress did not end in the data for the 1993 report.  Educational attainment numbers rose between 1990 and 2013 across the board, with high school diploma acquisition rising to 94% of whites, 90% of blacks, and 76% of Hispanics.  The percentage of 25 to 29 year-olds with a bachelor’s degree rose to 34% of the total population, with white degree earners rising from 26% to 40%, black degree earners rising from 13% to 20%, and Hispanic degree earners rising from 8% to 16%, although the gap between groups in degree attainment did rise despite the nominal gains.  Women built on their previous gains, widening to a 7% difference in bachelor’s degree attainment from the 1990 data, and by 2013, 9% of women had a completed master’s degree compared to 6% of men.

Achievement results have also grown, although sometimes slowly, in this period.  According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 4th grade assessments grew between 1994 and 2010 with very slight gains in the upper percentiles of children taking the assessments, but with more dramatic gains in the lower quartile of test takers.  Children in the 25th percentile saw their average scores rise from 180 to 192, and students in the 10th percentile grew from 147 to 169.  The 2010 report notes that only a quarter of students tested rated as “proficient”, but that for 4th an 8th graders, the gains in proficiency from the 1994 data year was significant.  Further, gains in the NAEP assessments for black and Hispanic test takers in 2010 represented a narrowing of the achievement gap compared to the 1994 data.

It is important to remember that Tyack and Cuban argue that portrayals of education in progress or regress is frequently a political choice, and I have to confess that there are real and legitimate questions to ask of our schools.  Although schools have admirably followed the continuous, if slow, expansion of the American franchise with the expansion of educational opportunity, many of our schools, much like the communities in which they reside, languish with dilapidated facilities, outdated resources, inexperienced or overworked teachers, high class sizes, students who struggle, and community constituencies that are overlooked or actively disenfranchised by our political system.  And for the 31 years that we have been subjected to constant narratives of failing schools, our society has disinvested in infrastructure, seen its unionized workforce collapse, and largely accepted vastly growing income inequality as a fact of modern economics.  These trends only contribute to the deeply entrenched poverty in many of our urban and rural centers, and they highlight the now well known difficulties of getting ahead when one is born into poverty.  Worse, another growing trend in America, our rising residential segregation by income, means that those who are economically secure rarely even see the decayed streets, crumbling schools, and closed small businesses that more and more of our citizens live with routinely.

It is little wonder that schools struggle in communities with such problems.  Schools are social institutions, and when an entire community’s institutional infrastructure struggles to meet basic needs, it is tragic but hardly surprising when schools similarly struggle.  Education “reform” today, unfortunately, looks at those very schools and does not merely demand that they do better; it demands that they essentially take on the responsibility of transforming their entire communities with practically nothing demanded from society as a whole.  The great progress that we have made with our educational commons since the late 1800s did not happen by simply demanding more and layering more and more responsibility.  It came because we, as a society, invested heavily in the creation of a common school system, and then we took vigorous actions to open up access to more and more members of our society.

If we want to push through this lingering, neglected, frontier of educational opportunity in our country, we will need to become serious about everything that is necessary to rebuild our communities that suffer from inter-generational poverty by pouring in resources, and we will need to seriously demand an economy where full time work is properly rewarded, making education an obtainable means to a genuinely obtainable end.  Improved and revitalized school systems in these locales can be an critical part of revitalization — but they cannot bring that about on their own.

Our continued educational progress will not hinge on increased demands so much as it will hinge on increased support.

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Filed under Data, Funding, politics, schools, Social Justice

Predicting the Future in Education: How Often Are We Dead Wrong?

In September of 1981, I was beginning seventh grade in the suburbs of Boston.  Our junior high school, catching on to the growing home computing revolution, had purchased approximately 20 Tandy Corporation model 3 TRS-80s which we referred to as “TRaSh 80s”.  Our class was enrolled in a half year long computing course that aimed to teach us to program using the BASIC computer programming language developed by Dartmouth Professors John Kemeny and John Kurtz in the 1960s.  The course was intended to familiarize us with the concepts of computer programming in an economy that saw more and more computer presence in everyday life via the home computers developed in the late 1970s.  However, our teacher introduced the “need” for us to learn programming in a singular manner.  In the 1970s and 1980s, many popular media sources played on fear of Japan’s perceived economic power as an industrial and technological powerhouse and corresponding perceptions of American decline to place our nation in an almost existential competition with our ally for economic security.

So our computer teacher told us that we needed to program because “in the future, everyone will need to know how to program computers,” and he layered it with a patriotic appeal that if we did not learn to program that Japan would “take over everything.”  I won’t claim a sophisticated understanding of the global economy and politics at the age of twelve, but I immediately questioned his assessment.  As I looked at my computer screen with a five line program on it, I spoke up and announced that I did not believe him.  With my classmates looking on, I said that in the future, there would be people who knew how to program computers and people who knew how to use computers just like how most tools that we used were designed and constructed by other people.  My teacher, to his credit, did not allow himself to be baited into that argument, and we continued the class as per his plan.  I did my assignments.  I learned IF-THEN statements and FOR-NEXT loops, and built tidy little programs that made my name scroll diagonally across the screen of our TRS-80s.  Then I went home, and I buried myself in “The Hobbit”.

I have not used a computer programming language another day after the class ended, although I have probably used a computer most days since beginning college in 1987.  Some of my classmates, fascinated by the ability to make a machine do what they told it to do, pursued computer science degrees and have, indeed, spent their working lives programming.  I, like most computer users between the late 1970s and today, have been content to use programs and applications designed by others.

Despite my lack of interest in patriotic programming, computers and commercially available internet access have exploded since I was in junior high school.  In 1984, only 8% of households had a home computer; today, that number is now 83.8%, spread across a mix of desktop and handheld devices, and 74.4% of households have internet access.  These numbers vary significantly by age, income level, education level, and race, but even 56% of households with less than a high school education own computers today.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 343,700 people worked as computer programmers in 2012, and a total of 3,980,000 work in “computer and mathematical occupations,” including researchers, web developers, systems analysts, programmers, support specialists, actuaries, and statisticians.  In the 1980s, computer and data processing grew by 181.9% in employment numbers, and while growth continues, computer and mathematical occupations represent roughly 2.7% of the labor force.

And even though the majority of American workers did not learn to program computers, Japan failed to “take over” as predicted by my computer teacher.  America, in possession of a computer workforce of trained specialists, saw Gross Domestic Product grow to 16.8 trillion dollars in 2013.  In 2013, 48.7% of all patents granted were issued to developers of U.S. origin.  US share of global “triadic patents” that indicate higher value inventions has remained constant since the turn of the century at between 27-30% of global patents.  In 1992, American citizens and permanent residents earned 28,013 doctorate degrees in all fields, and that number grew to 32,927 in 2012.

All of this, even though I was less than enthusiastic about learning BASIC in 1982.

Interestingly enough, today we are seeing a new push for wider access to computer programming through the “coding for all” movement.  I certainly will not prognosticate whether or not this is truer today than in 1981, but it is not hard to imagine it being reasonably true.  63.6% of households have some form of hand held computer, and their integration into our daily lives, even our hourly lives, is far greater than the home computing pioneers probably could have imagined outside of science fiction.  Computers masquerading as cell phones are integral to an astonishing number of people, and the number of mobile app developers worldwide may be as high as 2.3 million individuals.  It is hard to turn around today without a story about a person in high school seeing a need and developing an “app for that” whether it is for reasons personal or deadly serious.

So as I said, it is possible that “coding for all” is not simply an attempt to democratize the field of app development and raise overall awareness of the devices that we have deeply integrated into our lives and that we rely upon for more and more of our daily tasks.  It is possible that this will be an important indicator for how our economy will grow over the next decades, but it is also entirely possible that, like the predictions offered to me in 1981, that it will not.  App development may very easily be a part time hobby for many and a serious professional endeavor for a few, and while long term trends could easily impact how people buy and utilize programs in much the same way that the way they consume media and entertainment have been impacted in the digital age, that does not mean that most or even a significant plurality of us are going to be coding on a regular basis.  Nor does it mean that the fate of our economic future hangs on the percentage of our population that code daily.

And this ought to be a cautionary note for today’s education reformers who insist, absent much evidence beyond the rankings of American students of international examinations, that if we do not follow their path of education reform, we will fall into national economic ruin.  Today, the catchphrase for proponents of the Common Core State Standards is that our children must be “college and career ready,” such readiness to be defined as scoring “proficient” on a Common Core aligned examination designed and delivered by publishing and testing magnate Pearson.  They betray no doubt at all that this is a need, and they are entirely certain that “college and career readiness” in 2014 is captured by the CCSS and appropriately measured by the CCSS aligned examinations.  They further insist that the network of state standards that existed before CCSS were not sufficiently aimed at “college and career readiness” and thus were heading our nation’s students towards educational and economic doom.

A bit more humility really is in order.

A detailed examination of whether or not the CCSS are aimed at “college and career readiness” is not necessary here (although I would like an explanation from CCSS enthusiasts why being able to write an entry level college English course essay to David Coleman’s satisfaction is the sine qua non of college readiness).  What is necessary is questioning the ability of any group of individuals to make such sweeping pronouncements about what the nearly 60 million American children of school age need in order to be successful in life.  Predictions of the future of society often turn out to be dead wrong or hinge upon matters that are inherently unpredictable.  Futurists of the 1960s looked at technological development and predicted a world by the year 2000 virtually disease free and full of people who enjoyed a lifestyle typified by an excess of leisure.  The advent of home computing eventually led to today’s handheld mobile devices, but few in the late 1970s could have accurately predicted the ways in which computers have become integrated in our daily routines.  Observers of the economic landscape in the late 1970s and early 1980s saw a future where America’s position as an economic power was deeply threatened by a rising Japan, and while our economic landscape today looks vastly different than in the decades before 1980, we are certainly not subsumed under Japan or any other of the purported “Asian Tiger” economies.  Simply put: predicting the future and what it will need is hard.  So hard that the most prescient people are sometimes science fiction writers.

When it comes to school, this is complicated because, despite the heavy emphasis on economic needs, we purpose universal, compulsory education to goals that are not tied to economic ends.  A healthy democracy dedicated to goals of pluralism is embedded deeply in our educational system, and schools have been on the vanguard of our expanding enfranchisement since World War II; however, those are aims not readily placed on a standardized test.  The humanistic development of individual intellectual, social, and emotional potential is deeply embedded in the beliefs of many of our nation’s teachers, but again, it is not a purpose of school that is readily testable.  Regardless, if we are asking whether or not schools today are “meeting our needs” as a society, we ought to consider them alongside whether our children are “college and career ready” — and in the early grades, perhaps we ought to consider them far more than today’s reformers allow.

So do we know the future of education and what changes are truly necessary for our children over the next several decades?

If we are being honest, no, we don’t.  And we shouldn’t take very seriously those who think they do know.

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Filed under Common Core, schools, Stories

Andrew Cuomo Makes it Official: He’s at War With Teachers

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently sent some mixed signals on his education platform.  In late September, he declared that the teacher evaluation system in the Empire State needs “refinement” because even using standardized test scores to create value-added measures, too many teachers are found to be effective or highly effective. This month, however, the Cuomo campaign, perhaps responding to criticisms of his embrace of the Common Core State Standards, issued an ad that suggested a softer approach to education.  Featuring Governor Cuomo in a white sweater helping his similarly attired daughter with her homework at a table decorated with white pumpkins and a glass bowl of smooth pebbles, the ad promised “real teacher evaluations” and not using Common Core test scores for “five years.”  That promise, however, simply reflects an existing item in the state budget that delays including test scores in graduating students’ transcripts; it does not promise to not use the test scores to evaluate teachers in any way.  The governor’s softer, rather beige, image is an illusion.

There was no illusion this week, however.

Speaking with the New York Daily News editorial board, Mr. Cuomo emphasized his priorities on education for a second term in Albany:

“I believe these kinds of changes are probably the single best thing that I can do as governor that’s going to matter long-term,” he said, “to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies — and that’s what this is, it’s a public monopoly.”

He said the key is to put “real performance measures with some competition, which is why I like charter schools.”

Cuomo said he will push a plan that includes more incentives — and sanctions — that “make it a more rigorous evaluation system.”

The governor took a direct, insulting, swipe at the 600,000 members of the NYSUT, by saying, “The teachers don’t want to do the evaluations and they don’t want to do rigorous evaluations — I get it.  I feel exactly opposite.”

It is rare to have one person summarize, so succinctly, nearly everything that is wrong with the current education reform environment.  “Break…a public monopoly…competition, which I why I like charter schools…the teachers don’t want to do the evaluations.”  In those short turns of phrase, Andrew Cuomo demonstrates how he utterly fails to understand teachers, the corrupted “competition” environment he promotes, and the entire purpose of having a compulsory, common school system.  I personally cannot think of any statements he could have made that disqualify him more from having any power over how we educate our young people.

The governor, who expects to win Tuesday’s election by a wide margin, faced immediately backlash over his comments, but he has opted to double down and repeat the rhetoric of calling our state’s public schools a monopoly.  He has even gotten harsh criticism from the Working Families Party, whose endorsement he wrestled for this summer when the progressive party looked to ready to endorse Fordham Law School Professor Zephyr Teachout. W.F.P.’s state director, Bill Lipton commented:

“His proposed policies on public education will weaken, not strengthen our public education system, and they would represent a step away from the principle of high quality public education for all students. High stakes testing and competition are not the answer. Investment in the future is the answer, and that means progressive taxation and adequate resources for our schools.”

In return, Governor Cuomo’s campaign spokesman, Peter Kauffmann said, “This is all political blather.”  If anyone in the leadership of W.F.P. still has faith in Mr. Cuomo’s promises to them, I will be astonished.

I am going to address Mr. Cuomo’s statements in reverse order:

1) “The teachers don’t want to do the evaluations and they don’t want to do rigorous evaluations”

Mr. Cuomo bases this upon teacher opposition to the “rigorous” evaluations that include the use of students’ standardized test scores to determine if teachers are highly effective, effective, or not effective.  Not meeting the “effective” range on the evaluations can cost teachers tenure or it can initiate efforts to remove them from the classroom if they already have tenure.  Governor Cuomo is on record as believing that the current system is too lenient on teachers because under the new Common Core aligned examinations, student proficiency in the state has dropped dramatically while, in his view, too many teachers remain rated as effective and highly effective.  Presumably, the Governor wants to change the evaluation system so that administrator input is less important and so that the “rigorous” method of rating teachers by students’ test scores has more of an impact on their effectiveness ratings.  This is a fatally flawed approach, and it is fated to unleash appalling results for several important reasons.

First, as I have written previously, he has egregiously, and probably deliberately, misrepresented what the student proficiency ratings from the Common Core exams mean.  While students reaching proficient and highly proficient on the exams only reached 36% of test takers last year, the cut scores were deliberately set to reflect the percentage of students in the state whose combined SAT scores reflect reasonable first year college performance.  Unsurprisingly, the numbers of students who scored at proficient and above almost exactly mirrored the percentage of students with those SAT scores.  This cannot be construed as students and their teachers under-performing expectations, and, not for nothing, the percentage of New Yorkers over the age of 25 with a bachelor’s degree is 32.8%.

So let’s be perfectly clear: the Governor is saying that teachers in communities where large percentages of students do not attend college are automatically “not effective” teachers.

Second, the entire CONCEPT of tying teacher performance to standardized test scores rests on controversial premises and is not widely accepted by the research community.  The American Statistical Association warns that teacher input can only account for between 1-14% of student variability on standardized test performance, and they also do not believe that any current examination is able to effectively evaluate teacher input on student learning.  Further, advocates of value added models tend to make “heroic assumptions” in order to claim causation in their models, and they tend to ignore the complications for their models that arise when you recognize that students in schools are not assigned to teachers randomly.

I know many teachers who wish to improve their teaching and who would welcome a process that gives them good data on how to go about doing that.  I know no teachers who want to be subjected to evaluations that rely on flawed assumptions of what can be learned via standardized exams.

Finally, value added models tend to be incredibly opaque to the people who are evaluated by them.  For example, this is the Value Added Model that New York City used in the 2010-2011 school year:

NYC VAM

This is also the VAM that found teacher Stacey Issacson to be only in the SEVENTH percentile of teachers despite the fact that in her first year of teaching 65 of 66 students in her class scored “proficient” or above on the state examinations, and more than two dozen of her students in her first years of teaching went on to attend New York City’s selective high schools.  Perhaps worse than having a formula spit back such a negative rating was the inability of anyone to actually explain to her what landed her in such a position, and Ms. Issacson, with two Ivy League degrees to her name and the unconditional praise of her principal, could not understand how the model found her so deficient either.  Perhaps I can help.  In this image I have circled the real number that actually exists prior to value added modeling:

NYC VAMreal

And in this image, I circle everything else:

NYC VAMfake

Consider everything that might impact a student’s test performance that has nothing to do with the teacher.  Perhaps he finally got an IEP and is receiving paraprofessional support that improves his scores.  Perhaps there is a family situation that distracts him from school work for a period of time during the year.  Perhaps he is simply having a burst of cognitive growth because children do not grow in straight lines and is ready for this material at this time, or, subsequently, perhaps he had a developmental burst two years ago and is experiencing a perfectly normal regression to the norm.  Value added model advocates pretend that they can account for all of that statistical noise in single student for a single school year, and then they want to fire teachers on those assumptions.  This is what happens when macroeconomists get bored and try to use their methods on individual students’ test scores.

Governor Cuomo assumes that because teachers do not want to be subjected to statistically invalid, career ending, evaluations that they do not want to be evaluated.

2) “competition, which I why I like charter schools”

Charter schools were never supposed to be “competition” for the public school system.  As originally conceived, they would be schools given temporary charters and be relieved of certain regulations so that they could experiment with ways to teach populations of students who were historically difficult to teach in more traditionally organized schools.  In this vision, originally advocated by AFT President  Albert Shanker, charter schools would feed the lessons they learned back to the traditional school system in a mutually beneficial way.  Governor Cuomo’s idea is as far from that vision as it is possible to be and still be using the same language.

The Governor apparently thinks that charter schools are there to put pressure on fully public schools, and that the “competition” for students will act like a free marketplace to force improvement on the system.  This is a gospel that has deep roots, going as far back as Milton Friedman in 1955, and gaining intellectual heft for the voucher movement in the 1990s with Chubb and Moe’s 1990 volume, “Politics, Markets and America’s Schools.”  While vouchers have rarely been a popular idea, advocates for competition in public education have transformed charter schools into a parallel system that competes with fully public schools.  This has flaws on several levels.  First, it is an odd kind of marketplace when one provider is relieved of labor rules and various state and federal education regulations and the other is still held fully accountable for them.  Charter schools’ freedom from regulations was meant to allow for innovations that would help traditional schools learn, but instead it has become a “competition” where one competitor is participating in a sack race and the other in a 100 yard dash.  A sack race, by the way, is an entirely fine thing to participate in, but no race is legitimate when everyone isn’t required to follow the same rules.

Second, the presence of the charter sector as currently operated and regulated actively makes district schools worse off.  As Dr. Baker of Rutgers demonstrates, charter schools generally compete for demographic advantages over fully public schools.  They draw from a pool of applicants who are both attuned to the process and willing and/or able to participate in it.  Once students are admitted, many prominent charters, especially ones that get high praise from Governor Cuomo, engage in “substantial cream skimming” that results in their student populations being less poor, having fewer students on IEPs, and needing less instruction in English as a Second Language.  While charter operators deny engaging in these practices, well documented cases are available in the media.  Dr. Baker’s research confirms that when charter schools are able to do this, the district schools in the same community are left with student populations that more heavily concentrate the very populations of children that the charter schools are unwilling to accommodate.  Charter advocates then claim that they are getting “better” results with the “same” kids and protest loudly that they deserve a greater share of the finite resources available for schools, even when the costs of their transportation and building expenses are paid by the districts.

This isn’t just a sack racer versus a sprinter, then — the sprinter has slipped a couple of cinder blocks into his opponents’ sacks.  Teachers don’t mind that other schools may do things differently than they do in their own schools; they mind very much being berated for the results of system-wide neglect of their community schools, and they mind being negatively compared to schools that make their own rules and refuse to serve all children.

3) “Break…a public monopoly”

That we are poised to have a two term governor who describes New York’s public education system as “monopoly” is such a breath taking circumstance, that I am saddened beyond belief.  The common schools movement in this country was conceived of as an exercise in promoting the public good not merely in advancing individuals.  We wanted universal, compulsory, free education to serve the individual by promoting academic and economic merit as well by promoting the habits of mind and character that enrich a person’s experience in life.  We also wanted schools to promote the good of society by preparing individuals for the world of work beyond school and by preparing individuals to be thoughtful participants in our democracy who value civic virtues in addition to their own good.  For nearly two centuries, Americans have thought of public schools as the center of community civic life, something to be valued because it provides bedrock principles of democratic equality, and as our concept of democratic participation has expanded, so has our concept of plurality in schools.  From literacy for former slaves to women’s suffrage to incorporation of immigrants to tearing down White Supremacism and promoting civil rights, to inclusion of those with disabilities, to gender equality, to equal protection for LGBT citizens — our schools have helped us to reconceive our ideas of pluralism in every decade.

Schools have also stood as important symbols of our commitment to common aspects of our society that all have access to regardless of race, gender, or economic advantage.  There was a time in our nation’s history when we were dedicated not merely to building economic infrastructure, but also to building community, cultural, and natural infrastructure.  There are libraries, parks, museums, and publicly supported arts across our country that are testament to the belief that the world of knowledge, natural beauty, and the arts cannot be the sole province of the wealthy.  Public schools are part of that commitment, but to call them a “monopoly” reveals a mindset disregarding that heritage and which rejects it as a commitment to the future.  Does Governor Cuomo drive the New York Throughway and see a “public monopoly”?  Does he enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City whose entry fee is a suggested donation and see a “public monopoly”?  Does he want to “break up” the Franklin D. Roosevelt  and Watkins Glen State Parks?

What Governor Cuomo appears to believe is that education exists solely for the social mobility of individuals with no regard for the public purposes of education.  David Labaree of Stanford University posited in this 1997 essay, that the historic balance of purposes in education was already out of balance with current trends favoring education for individual social mobility far outweighing the public purposes of social efficiency and democratic equality.  Labaree was rightly concerned that if people only see education as the accumulation of credentials that can be turned in for economic advantage then not only will the civic purposes of education be swept aside, but also that the effort to accumulate the most valuable credentials for the least effort will diminish actual learning.  Governor Cuomo’s depiction of schools as a “public monopoly” only makes sense if he is mostly concerned with how education “consumers” accumulate valued goods from school, but discounts the essential services schools provide to our democracy.  It is an impoverished view that relegates school to just another mechanism to sort people in and out of economic advantage.

Governor Andrew Cuomo may not only be at war with teachers.  He may be at war with the very concept of public education.  If he does indeed win a second term on Tuesday, he must be opposed at every step of his distorted and dangerous ideas about our public schools.

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Filed under charter schools, politics, schools, Social Justice, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

So, Governor Cuomo, about those proficiency levels….

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo caused a stir among education observers recently by commenting on the need for future changes to the New York state teacher evaluation system.  The Governor is quoted in The Buffalo News:

Cuomo said he sees value in the teacher rankings, but said critics who question how 94 percent of the state’s teachers can be “highly effective” or “effective” have a valid point.

“I’m excited that we started,” Cuomo said of the teacher evaluation system put into effect during the 2012-13 school year. “And I think once we start to study it and learn it and refine it – because there’s no doubt it needs refinement, not everybody can get an ‘A,’ it can’t be – I think it’s going to be a very valuable tool.”

But he conceded the system might need more scrutiny.

Critics of the teacher evaluations have pointed out the wide gap between the 94 percent of teachers who were rated “effective” or “highly effective” and the number of students failing to do well on state tests and in other measures of student success.

State law required school districts to negotiate with teacher and principal unions to create evaluation systems within certain state requirements, including using student performance on state tests as one measure of how well a teacher is performing.

“The way we’ve done it the first few years is they’re negotiated locally. There is no statewide negotiation,” Cuomo said during a meeting with editors and reporters at The Buffalo News. “Each district negotiates it’s own criteria within certain mandates. So the suggestion was the way they negotiated it may be too loose because everyone’s doing well, and I think that’s a valid question.”

While some education bloggers speculate that this means Governor Cuomo will join an aggressive campaign to push out more experienced teachers in his second term, I am more interested in the mentality that the Governor is demonstrating here.  It is one that assumes that if 30% of New York students are being rated as “proficient” and “highly proficient” on the new, Common Core aligned, tests, then it is impossible that 94% of New York teachers are rated as “effective” and “highly effective” even though the new evaluation system makes generous use of value added measures of teacher performance utilizing test scores.  It is a mentality that is shared by Campbell Brown and others seeking to eliminate teachers’ due process rights via ending teacher tenure.  In fact, this is almost precisely what Ms. Brown said when she appeared on Stephen Colbert’s show earlier this year.  Mercedes Schneider, a teacher, author, and blogger from Louisiana provided this transcript:

CB: So, if you look at, if you look at the, um, outcomes, student outcomes in New York, okay? So, 91 percent of teachers are around the state of New York are rated either “effective” or “highly effective,” and yet [SC: Sounds good.] 31 percent, [SC: Yep.] 31 percent of our kids are reading, writing, and doing math at grade level. How does that compute? I mean, how can you argue the status quo is okay with numbers like that??

This same viewpoint was central to Eva Moskowitz’s recent advertising blitz to expand charter schools in New York City for the alleged benefit of an estimated 143,000 students she claims are trapped in “failing schools.”  The key information supporting that claim?  A “report” from the charter school advocacy group “Families for Excellent Schools” that claims at a quarter of New York City schools only 10% of students “pass” the state exams.  The Daily News reported this as students failing to read and do math at “grade level” like Ms. Brown did, and others repeatedly say that the students do not “pass” their exams.

The examinations, however, say no such thing.

It is important to recall that the examinations are aligned with the Common Core State Standards which invoke the language of “College and Career Readiness.”  In fact, New York’s Common Core testing consortium is PARCC, which stands for “Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.”  New York has been administering exams aligned with the new standards for two years now, and students are assessed as “highly proficient,” “proficient,” “partially proficient” and “not proficient” on a 1-4 point scale.  The result of the examinations has not been exceptional according to many observers, including the Governor.  In the 2012-13 school year, the first year of the new examinations, student proficiency levels dropped from 55% overall for English Language Arts to 31% and remained there in the 2013-2014 school year.  In mathematics, a proficiency level of 65% in 2011-2012 dropped to 31% in 2012-2013 and rose slightly last year to 36%.  The numbers are even lower for students who belong to ethnic minorities or who are from economically disadvantaged families.  African American students plunged from a 37% proficiency level in English to 16% in the first year of examinations, and Hispanic students fell from 40% to 18% with students from poor families tracking closely to these numbers.

However, these percentages are absent context if we do not understand how “proficient” is determined, and that determination was plainly designed to get percentages like this.  Carol Burris, an award-winning principal from South Side High School, makes it very clear that Commissioner John King set the cut scores at different levels of proficiency based on data designed to reflect SAT scores that are loosely correlated with “successful” completion of freshman level college English and mathematics courses.  Although the use of the SAT is dubious and the definitions of “success” in college level courses arbitrary, it was no surprise that the proficiency levels of the new exams closely tracked the target SAT levels.  As Principal Burris notes:

After coming up with three scores — 540 in math, 560 in reading and 530 in writing– the College Board determined the percentage of New York students who achieved those SAT scores. Those percentages were used to “inform” the cut score setting committee.  As the committee went through questions, according to member Dr. Baldassarre-Hopkins, the SED helpers said,  “If you put your bookmark on page X for level 3 [passing], it would be aligned with these data [referring to the college readiness data],” thus nudging the cut score where they wanted it to be.

When the cut scores were set, the overall proficiency rate was 31 percent–close to the commissioner’s prediction.  The proportion of test takers who score 1630 on the SAT is 32 percent.  Coincidence?  Bet your sleeveless pineapple it’s not. Heck, the way I see it, the kids did not even need to show up for the test.

It is possible, I suppose, to argue that since the Common Core State Standards and the accompanying examinations ARE supposed to be tied to “college and career readiness” that there is nothing conceptually wrong with the examinations themselves producing much lower proficiency levels than previous exams.  Certainly, it is worth a vigorous discussion in public about what the exams are supposed to reflect and whether or not we want the criteria to be aimed at the population of New York students likely to go on to post-secondary education.  Just to make this more interesting:  the percentage of New York state residents over the age of 25 in possession of a bachelor’s degree?  32.8%.   So Commissioner King’s cut scores discovered roughly the population of the state likely to continue into higher education.

One thing should be very clear from this:  Levels 3 and 4 in the Common Core aligned examinations do NOT, have not, and will not align with “grade level” performance at ANY level of the New York school system (unless you want to argue that most NY residents without a BA graduated high school BELOW grade level), and if you have been talking as if they do, you need to stop.  Yesterday.

It is also possible to argue that our nation requires more college educated citizens in order to properly serve the needs of a 21st century economy.  Certainly, Professor Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University believes so, and he believes that the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ estimate that only 27% of the jobs in the economy will require a BA by 2022 is “frighteningly low.”  Professor Carnevale and his colleagues at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce believe that by 2020, the economy will require 35% of the workforce will require a BA or higher.  This argument is predicated, in part, on the existence of a “college wage premium” that has grown in recent decades because employers are paying graduates with college degrees a higher wage than their non-college educated peers.  While the college wage premium is real and has grown since the late 1970s, the conclusions from Georgetown are not universally accepted.  To begin with, over 98% of job gains between 2007 and 2011 were made by those with advanced degrees beyond a bachelor’s.  Additionally, large numbers of today’s graduates with a bachelor’s are being hired into jobs that traditionally do not require a full four years of college, and while Georgetown’s study found that demand for college educated workers outstripped supply, the college wage premium they cite as evidence has been stuck for ten yearsBased on data from Pew Social trends, it is evident that much of the benefit of going to college is made up of the collapsing wages for non-college graduates rather than intense market competition for those with college degrees into jobs that require them:

SDT-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-03

Suffice to say, this is still an issue that is subject to appropriately vigorous debate, and it is unlikely we can look at the current number of college educated New Yorkers and say with certainty that it is sufficient or insufficient.

Another argument aims at a much harder nut to crack: the persistent imbalance in college attendance and completion by students who are ethnic minorities and who grow up in poverty.  Even with the newly designed examinations, white and Asian students far outperformed other cohorts of students, demonstrating something else that we know: while the number of minority students in higher education has been rising from the mid-1970’s until today, white students still make up 61% of American college students.  Hispanic students currently represent 14% of college students, and African American students make up 15%.  While these numbers roughly approximate these groups’ percentages in the general population of Generation Y, they do not reflect how decreased opportunities for higher education concentrate in urban, predominantly minority, communities. While that is a conversation and debate we ought to be having, past experience with Governor Cuomo suggests that he would steer the conversation towards more charter schools, even though the charter school segment as a whole did no better than the rest of the education system on the new exams.  The Governor certainly is not eager to discuss how his budgets have forced schools to work with dwindling resources, and he has continued to use what were originally designed as emergency budget measures to keep the state’s ledgers balanced without tax increases — on the backs of poor and rural schools.  So while it would be worthwhile to discuss how to extend genuine educational opportunity to more and more students, especially those in districts afflicted with urban and rural poverty, there is really no indication at all that Governor Cuomo is interested in a full-throated debate on the topic.

Instead, he wants to revisit the state’s teacher evaluation system because he believes that with state examination results like we have seen in recent years, many more teachers must be incompetent than the current system detects.

In the classic film “Casablanca,” Captain Louis Renault is ordered by his German overseer to close Rick’s American Cafe on any grounds he can find.  Captain Renault, played by the incomparable Claude Rains, closes the cafe on the grounds that he is “shocked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on in here” — immediately before he is handed his winnings for the evening.  Governor Cuomo wants us to believe that we must get even tougher on teachers in New York because of state exam results that a) reflect what we already know about the likely college bound population of New York students and b) that are the direct result of his commissioner pegging proficiency levels to college performance.

I am not sure what his “winnings” are in this act of hypocrisy, but he doesn’t rise to Claude Rains’ level of charm in performance.

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Filed under Common Core, politics, Social Justice

The Moral Perversity of Today’s Education “Reform”

The narrative of school failure that fuels today’s reform policies in education stretches back to the 1983 Reagan administration report, “A Nation at Risk.”  That document asserted that our national education system was so woefully inadequate to the task of educating for the future, that if it had been imposed upon us it “might be considered an act of war.”  The dire warnings have hardly abated, and in 2014, we are frequently told that our children and economy are in danger unless we fully embrace the vision of today’s reformers.  Moreover, today’s menu of reform, common standards, mass high stakes testing, value added evaluation of teachers, elimination of or severe curtailing of teachers’ workplace protections, promotion of charter schools and school choice, are frequently promoted by politicians and policy makers as civil rights issues.  Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig notes:

Student achievement data in the U.S. show long-standing and persistent gaps in minority versus majority performance (Vasquez Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008). Public concern about pervasive inequalities in traditional public schools, combined with growing political, parental, and corporate support, has created the expectation that school choice is the solution for poor and minority youth (Vasquez Heilig, Williams, McNeil, & Lee, 2011). As a result, many reformers have framed school choice as a “civil rights” issue. Scott (2013a) argued that philanthropists, policy advocates, and leading pundits have followed Secretary Arne Duncan’s conjuring of Rosa Parks and the broader Civil Rights Movement as synonymous with market-based school choice.

It is notable that the school choice movement counts on prominent African American and Latina/o leaders to support vouchers, charters, parent trigger, and other forms of choice….In our recent Twitter exchange, (former California State Senator Gloria) Romero framed her bill as a civil rights remedy for low-performing schools. Clearly, African American and Latina/o leaders have formed advocacy coalitions to press for school choice as an alternative to the status quo as our nation has consistently and purposefully underserved students of color (Scott, 2011).

In the 21st century, we are exhorted to education reformers’ policy agenda by language invoking the struggles undertaken by some of our most heroic figures, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Representative John Lewis, and told that the best way to close the historic education achievement gap between suburban white children and their urban African American and Latino peers is to embrace highly disruptive change.  We are further told that all of our children are still “at risk” because even in the well-off communities of our upper middle class, students are not learning what they need in a global economy.  Without education reform, our impoverished students will remain locked in poverty, and our comfortable students will slide into stagnation.

For the sake of this discussion, let me do something I never do.  Let me assume, momentarily, that the education reformers are correct.  Assume that common standards and aligned mass assessments will create a seamless system of curricula that challenge students meaningfully, and that those standards encompass a strong vision of student accomplishment.  Assume that adoption of the standards and assessments narrow the differences between states and districts so that expectations remain high for all students.  Assume the assessments are well-crafted and valid measures that stand as good proxies for student learning.  Assume value added measures of teacher evaluation are statistically valid and supported by a robust body of research.  Assume that eliminating the job protections of tenure would mean that vast numbers of students would have greater contact with skilled teachers and that there would be no negative consequences to the rest of the teacher workforce.  Assume that the proliferation of charter schools in urban school districts would give vastly more students options to attend a high performing school and that pressures from school choice schemes would increase the quality of zoned schools.  Assume that urban charter schools fully serve all students who arrive at their doors.  Assume that the advocates of “no excuses” charter schools are correct and that they genuinely demonstrate that closing the achievement gap can be accomplished entirely within school through teachers armed with extremely high expectations.

Assume every last bit of that is true.

Then what?

This is a more critical question than many realize because even if the performance gaps in American education closed overnight, we would still need an economy that can accommodate many more and more equitably distributed high performing graduates than we currently have.  Advocates of current reforms certainly seem to be banking on this.  Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine recently wrote that Eva Moskowitz of the Success Academy charter school network should be considered a “hero of American social justice,” and he declared that her schools have “been a staggering triumph of upward mobility.”  That’s quite a claim to make for a chain of schools whose oldest students have just begun high school, and, in fact, it rests almost entirely about the network’s accomplishments in state administered standard examinations.

However, the attractiveness of the claim is fairly obvious.  If we admit that economic injustice and that institutional racism have a detrimental impact upon students in poverty and students of color, then we have to admit that many of the gains made over the decades by students from upper middle class and upper class backgrounds are at least partially attributable to unearned privileges as well as to individual merit.  Further, we would have to engage in a policy discussion that attempts to alleviate the deprivations of poverty and institutional racism rather than to extol individuals to claw their way past such obstacles largely on their own.  The “no excuses” brand of charter schools claims that they have figured out how to lift all of their students to the same level of education and opportunity as students in the suburbs, and their policy allies are hardly shy about singing their virtues, as represented in standardized test scores:

Former New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein does not want to talk about the complicating factors surrounding Success Academy results, nor does he spend time considering how far such results could be replicated. Success Academy fits into a narrative that believes schools and teachers are fully responsible for providing all of the lift out of poverty.

But, as I said, assume that it is possible and that Jonathan Chait’s premature declaration of social mobility comes true.  What awaits these students?  If current trends in economics do not begin to change soon, the answer to that question is not especially hopeful.  While there is still an discernible “college wage premium” for those who earn four year degrees, since the 1980s, a significant portion of that is more attributable to cratering wages among people without degrees than to significant wage growth among those with degrees:

Wage growth and decline by level of education

Wage growth and decline by level of education

While a Millennial with a college degree earns a wage that is $730 more than a late boomer with the same degree, the wage trends for those with either a two year degree and no degree have dropped precipitously since the early 80s compared with decades of modest but steady growth before.  A college degree may be necessary for a middle class career today, but more and more, it looks as if the degree is more a means to keep from falling into chronic income insecurity rather than as a genuine means of economic advancement.

If the middle class is increasingly a tenuous position in the American economy, it is even worse for the lower middle class, an economic stratum that has traditionally helped families transition from working class to more economically secure circumstances.  According the The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, nearly half of American families live at 250 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) or below, and 30 percent live between 100 percent and 250 percent of the FPL.  Unlike families below the poverty level, such lower middle class households are equally likely to be headed by a married couple or a single parent, and nearly half have a head of household who has attended at least some college.  The report on their economic struggles notes that, despite living above the poverty line, large percentages of these families rely upon a number of tax and transfer benefits such as SNAP and the Earned Income Tax Credit to remain above the FPL.  Indeed, without many of these programs, the number of families that would slip from an unsecured lower middle class to simple poverty is significant.  As a transition point from poverty to a more secure middle class, the lower middle class is faltering badly.

And where is the evidence that the economy is desperate for more workers with bachelors degrees?  It certainly is not in the wages earned by recent college graduates.  According to the Economic Policy Institute, wage growth adjusted for inflation has been nonexistent since 2000, and the downward trend has continued even as the economy has recovered from the Great Recession:

Wages for Recent College Graduates

Wages for Recent College Graduates

If college graduates were in short supply, basic labor economics dictates that businesses competing for them would have to offer higher wages, but even in the vaunted STEM fields, wages, while higher overall than in non-STEM fields, have not grown significantly for most of the 21st century.

Reality suggests that even if all education reform assumptions were true, graduates of a “properly reformed” school system would still graduate into an economy that is not equipped to lift them from poverty and that is barely equipped to maintain those in the middle class where they currently reside.  The recently published study by Karl Alexander of The Johns Hopkins University, The Long Shadow, illustrates just how complex and potentially unsuccessful the rise from poverty can be.  Out of 800 children studied from first grade to their late twenties, only 33 moved from the low income to the high income bracket.  While a good education is certainly a PART of a pathway out of poverty, it is by no means the ONLY way out, and with more and more workers in the economy struggling to keep pace, it is perverse to suggest that we bestow upon schools the sole responsibility for lifting children from poverty.

And yet that is exactly what is implicit and even explicit in reformers’ policy objectives and rhetoric.  When Jonathan Chait calls Success Academy a “triumph of upward mobility” he is expressly saying that equalizing standardized test scores through Moskowitz’s “no excuses” methodology will effectively raise the children in her schools to economic security.  But even if everything he says about her accomplishments is true, we cannot blithely assume that this academic accomplishment translates into mobility when the economy shows no indications of providing the kind of reward for work that would translate academic standing into economic standing.  Eva Moskowitz’s scholars still face a world where this trend shows no signs of abating:

Share of Total Income

And, of course, we know that we cannot grant the reformers that their agenda will work because much of it simply will not or is built upon faulty and deceptive claims.  Common standards are being implemented in 45 states simultaneously with virtually no field examination of whether or not they improved instruction at the classroom, school or district levels.  Evaluating teachers based on Value Added Models is problematic at best, statistically invalid at worse. There is scant to no evidence that the elimination of teacher tenure is going to significantly improve the teaching in urban schools, and, in fact, the states with the weakest teacher job protections tend to be states that perform very poorly on national assessments. Success Academy, despite claiming to teach similar high need populations as NYC district schools, has a very high attrition rate, and they do not replace students who leave.  This is a trait shared with many other “no excuses” charter schools who eventually have student populations with many fewer disabled students, English language learners and students on free and reduced lunch than their district counterparts.  They combine the selective attrition of the most difficult to teach students with an extreme emphasis on discipline for even minor infractions of the rules and, at Success Academy and elsewhere, a curriculum aimed at test preparation.  While there is little evidence yet that such test performance training will result in long term economic success, there is evidence that charter school expansion can make segregation actually worse.

And this is where reform advocacy devolves from being merely wrong-headed and into territory that is dangerously close to immoral.  America has one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world.  It is well established that poverty and its deprivations have serious, often lifelong, impact on people in health, education and economic outcomes.  While improving educational opportunity for children in poverty is a necessary component of expanding opportunity, left to its own, education reform, ANY education reform, cannot make significant dents into the roadblocks that stand before our nation’s poor.  We do not have an economy where the lower middle class can survive on the wages offered for their work.  We do not have an economy where 90% of the wage earners possess more than 49 percent of the total income in the country, and we do not have an economy where the often expressed need for college educated workers has led to growth in income earned by college graduates.

Worse, we have accepted no society wide responsibility to address child poverty in any meaningful way that would lift more children into the economic circumstances more highly correlated with school success than any other factor.  In fact, as a society, we have responded to current economic circumstances with demands to cut discretionary programs in ways that can directly harm children, deepening the already woeful health, education and economic outcomes for children in poverty.  Matt Bruenig of Demos, estimates that with an investment of 1% of GDP in a straight transfer program, child poverty could be cut by 50 percent, almost instantly.  He further points out that our 24 percent of GDP taxation level is among the lowest in the developed world, and it is hard to argue that there is no room for an extra percentage point of GDP.

But there is no political will to discuss this or other direct approaches to lifting people out of poverty in our government.  More accurately, there is no willingness for the major political donors who effectively leverage significant portions of policy in America to do anything that changes either the economy or their taxation levels.  There is, however, significant interest in bypassing those discussions and placing all of the responsibility to both transforming our economy and for lifting disadvantaged children from poverty upon teachers and school.

It fits the meritocracy narrative, and it may tug at our cultural bias towards individualism in the face of daunting odds.

But it is immoral.

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Asking Markets to Do What They Do Poorly — School Reform

Early in my graduate school experience, I took a class with Phil Cusick, author of “The Egalitarian Ideal and the American High School” and “The School System: Its Nature and Logic”  .  The class was a seminar on how school systems functions both philosophically and organizationally.  While the course had a number of profound insights, one of Dr. Cusick’s observations has remained at the forefront of my thinking ever since.  “In America,” he said, “we don’t redistribute that much income, so we give everyone a free school instead.”  What he meant was that, politics of taxation and the welfare state aside, America does comparatively little that sets a strict bottom on the deprivations that poverty can afflict upon individuals and communities.  This much is true as any examination of poverty and social expenditures in first world countries can attest:

social safety gap

The purpose of school, therefore, is to provide a forum where any person, regardless of personal circumstance, can fairly demonstrate both potential and accomplishment.  Schools, philosophically, are meant to drive opportunity that we do not provide via leveling the distribution of resources.

That is a weighty mission, and it resonates with certain themes that are popular among American society such as the absence of a titular aristocracy and the belief that merit is properly recognized and rewarded.  Getting Americans to agree on how to deliver the circumstances most likely to deliver meritocracy is another matter entirely.

When it comes to school reform, the movement with greatest momentum currently is dedicated to school choice and the uses of market based forces to improve the opportunities for students enrolled in public education.  School systems across the country, where possible, have changed the ways in which students enroll in schools to deemphasize reliance upon zoned schools within geographic boundaries and to have public schools seek out students across those zoned districts.  Various instantiations of voucher programs encourage parents to seek out even nonpublic schools that will be subsidized with public money.  Straying far from their original conception as temporary laboratories for experimentation on behalf of the most difficult to teach students, charter schools operate in direct competition with district zoned schools and many have become brands unto themselves, aggressively expanding operations.

These ideas originated some decades previously with free market economists like Milton Friedman who in 1955 openly advocated for public education to more closely resemble markets for goods and services that have driven consumer innovation in the past two centuries.  Intellectually, they gained support from the work of John E. Chubb of the Brookings Institution and Terry Moe of Stanford University in their 1990 book entitled “Politics, Markets and America’s Schools” where they concluded that the most important predictor of a school’s success was the locus of control between traditional school boards and privately controlled schools.  Their prescription included the creation of school choice districts where schools would have to compete with each other to attract and retain students.

Despite the omissions from Chubb and Moe’s work, such ideas found powerful patrons among conservative politicians who enthusiastically advocated for school choice and voucher programs as the solution to the school failure narrative that took root with the release of “A Nation At Risk” during the Reagan Administration.  While originating with conservatives, school choice became a growing theme among Democrats in both the Clinton and Obama administrations and for Democratic governors across the country.  Although less likely to support vouchers that take public school budgets and transfer them to entirely private entities, the growth of charter schools and support among Democratic politicians represents a strong toehold for choice as an engine of reform on both sides of the political aisle.  Choice, in various forms, is recognized as the powerful driver of improvement and innovation across the mainstream political spectrum.

But is that a good thing?

The question is far less clear than advocates would have us believe.  Markets are, undeniably, a powerful tool for innovation, but whether or not that does or can apply to public education is quite a different matter.  It is important to consider the ways in which markets work.  As a matter of record,  I am not an economist, but what follows is not controversial ground.  Most markets for goods and services function by supplying the market with a range of innovative products, yes, but also a range of similar products that are available at different levels of quality and expense.  Many people, wealthy, middle class and working class, can afford to purchase personal transportation because the market that provides vehicles such as the Rolls Royce Phantom also provides the Ford Focus and used Honda Civics.  The individual in need of an automobile can usually, within a relatively short distance from him or herself, find an option that takes into account both the need for the good AND the ability of the buyer to go above the most basic fulfillment of the need.  Markets are exceptionally efficient at doing this, so while every person participating in the market may not be able to afford the best it has to offer, most people can find something.

But what about where everyone needs the same thing?

In education that may seem counterintuitive because it is taken as a given that all children can learn, but that not all children learn the same way.  However, taken another way, it is true that all children need the same thing:  they need the resources and the opportunities to accomplish the curriculum to the best of their current abilities in the ways by which they most effectively learn.  In other words, students do not need equal opportunities so much as they need equitable opportunities.  Consider the following illustration:

Can everyone enjoy this?

The Difference Between Equality and Equity

In the picture on the left, all three people have an absolutely equal playing field, but only two of them can achieve the goal of watching the baseball game.  With some minor tinkering, however, the third member of the group can achieve that goal because his specific needs have been accommodated without taking away anyone else’s opportunity to enjoy the game.  In an educational context, this is the why equal is not always the appropriate circumstance when a student is fully capable of accomplishing a task but needs individualized attention.

This sounds like an argument then for the market based and competitive goals of educational choice and policies that break down district zoning in assigning a student to a school, and I can understand that.  After all, if individualized attention is a key to promoting equity, it would make intuitive sense for more choices to provide more setting where that is possible.  However, I am drawn again the observation that market innovation is powerful when it is providing different levels of quality for the consumer.  Innovation and competition has made many kinds of good available to all consumers, but nobody can honestly argue that all such good are of similar quality and durability.  The same observation applies to services provided as well where consumers able to pay more enjoy levels of amenities not provided to those who do not.

But we demand very different from our compulsory education.  There is no “used Honda Civic” or “economy class seating” when it comes to teaching a child how to read, and providing equitable opportunities means that education “consumers” sometimes need to utilize MORE resources regardless of their ability to pay.  In order for a market system of schooling to really provide for equitable opportunities, several conditions seem extremely important.  First, the number of choices available would have to be sufficient to the task of every family having a genuine ability to enroll in a school or schools that meet their needs.  Even in major metropolitan areas, this is unlikely as a selection of schools cannot simply be packed onto a display wall like a selection of shoes, and after a certain point, families would incur unacceptable costs simply to transport their children to the array of schools they need.  Second, families would have to be equally engaged and knowledgeable about what children need and how to evaluate the claims of different schools about their accomplishments.  That also seems doubtful because when one makes a mistaken choice in typical markets for goods and services, there are options for returning or foregoing use of the item which does not exist when it comes to schools.  Certainly, the high turnover rates among many of the more prominent charter school operators suggests that even in a limited market, families seek out schools that are either “poor fits” for their children or that are unwilling to adjust themselves to meet the needs of the children they have.  Without zoned schools, such children would be at risk of having to “return” their educational opportunity every year.  Third, school choices cannot become more stratified than they already are due to income segregation in our communities.  In a marketplace, it is fully acceptable to provide consumers in different income strata different quality goods, but this cannot be permitted in education without the system perversely betraying promised opportunities.  Finally, a market of educational choices has to demonstrate that it truly provides better outcomes for the vast majority of students, both quantitatively and qualitatively, than a system of zoned schools.  To date, such metrics have been extremely elusive in research on both vouchers and charter schools to the point that one can reasonably question just how much more expansion of such ventures is really warranted.

Jan Resseger, a former education advocate for the United Church of Christ, recently noted that one of the primary advocates of the “portfolio” strategy of school choice, a mix of zoned schools and choice options promoted by the Center on Reinventing Pubic Education at the University of Washington, had recently admitted that troubling outcomes in many districts that have tried the strategy.  While Ms. Lake did not suggest the cycle of disruption was actually failing to improve education for the most vulnerable, the CRPE report levels heavy criticism at the way such reforms have been implemented without strict oversight to ensure all students have excellent school choices.  What is missing is an admission that market based forces are not necessarily the way to improve our national commons which includes compulsory education.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that local control of zoned schools has resulted in excellent schools for all children.  But it is much more disingenuous to subsequently ignore the impacts of our deep levels of income segregation and modest state and federal spending to alleviate the conditions of poverty in communities.  Faced with depleted local revenues and populations struggling to maintain subsistence levels of income, many of our school districts operate under conditions that make their work vastly more difficult even as we lay upon them the nearly sole responsibility for lifting those same communities out of poverty.  As David Berliner notes:

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

So what does this mean?  My own suggestions center around reemphasizing public education as a common good for society, and bringing our emphasis back to improving zoned schools.  This would require renewed interest in fully funding schools regardless of their needs and improving curricula and teaching locally, a major campaign to improve the infrastructure of zoned schools that still enroll a vast majority of our children, and efforts to invigorate school and community ties by deeper connections to civic organizations and the placement of community services within schools themselves to broaden the number of people who see the school as essential to their neighborhoods.  However, as Berliner notes, the accountability for alleviating poverty has to be two directional, and we as a society need to admit that we cannot place the entire burden of children climbing out of inter-generational poverty within communities whose economic prospects are dismal at best entirely upon the backs of teachers and schools.  As long as we continue to pass that buck and believe that the same economic forces that allow us a wide and varied choice of breakfast cereals are equipped to provide excellent schools for everyone we will continue to be disappointed.

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A Quick Charge to the Millennials

A quick few thoughts:  I teach education students in their first year, and about three years ago, I had a student, somewhat randomly, ask me what I thought about Occupy Wall Street.  I thought for a moment and then improvised a version of a short talk that I have made sure to tell my students ever since:

I graduated from college in 1991.  My class entered the workforce in a recession, and I periodically read little admonitions from Gen. X to “kids today” that amount to “Hey kid, everyone had it hard getting started in life.  We had to deal with a recession AND the suicide of Kurt Cobain. Get over yourself.”

Increasingly, such pronouncements make me see through a red mist of outrage.

Look, getting started in life is never easy, and yes, every generation can point to struggles that they had to endure, but compared to today’s 20 year-olds?  My generation had it easy — and today, college classmates of mine are major figures in media and politics.  It isn’t at all fair to look at the Millennials and call them whiners while my generation is in the process of becoming the leaders of society.

What is going on with these kids, today?  Well, the cost of college has gone through the roof even as the amount of support available to pay for it without taking out loans has dropped.  In order to pay for college, more and more students graduate burdened with ruinous debt, but the job prospects for college graduates have diminished and not solely because of the recession. Meanwhile, what modest gains in median household income were made since 1990 were gone by 2011. As a result, more Millennials live at home and are delaying what previous generations would have considered signs of independent adulthood.

So this is a reality for Millennials in college — they are starting further behind than any generation since their great grandparents were born, and they will have to work hard, very, very hard to make any progress at all.  This is not fair, but it is also the hand they have to play, and to their credit, most of them who I meet accept that the passage to adulthood will be a longer and harder slog, but they also know they have to do it.

But what is not fair is the criticism being hurled at them for daring to make note of these realities.  They did what they were told to do from a young age.  They worked at their schooling.  They played sports.  They joined activities.  They volunteered in their communities.  They took endless tests.  They took jobs to pay for school.  They sought out and competed for scholarships and unpaid internships.  And they did it all because the adults in their lives, the parents, the teachers, the principals, the guidance counselors advised them like it was 1985 — only on steroids.  Distinguish yourself.  Compete to get into college.  Graduate.  And the world will bestow the rewards of hard work upon you.

It’s dawning on them that a lot of the grown ups in their lives don’t get it.  They don’t get that scheduling kids from dawn to dusk with organized activities doesn’t teach them how to manage their free time.  They don’t get that mastering the art of doing three hours of homework on Monday that is due on Tuesday doesn’t teach them how to plan and complete a long term project.  They don’t get that increased numbers of people BAs and changes in international trade make available work less lucrative.  They don’t get that the college as the ultimate means to get ahead is undergoing a sea change. Grown ups need to start raising kids to succeed in the 2014, not 1984, 1974, 1964, 1954 or whatever decade our memories of youth got frozen in.

And to those Millennials?  You have another task other than recognizing and tackling the difficulties of being a young adult today: You have to become leaders and faster than my generation did.  I don’t think Generation X had any real “crisis” to galvanize our experience.  Millennials have had 9/11, 13 years of war and the Great Recession to define having grown up.  But the powers that be won’t pay attention to them unless they demand it by voting and by becoming active in work, community and politics.  It is fashionable to assume that voting and politics don’t matter, but just because people have a lot of money does not mean they always win.  If money always wins, then Linda McMahon would be a U.S. Senator.  If money always wins, then the Bill Gates funded Common Core and accompanying testing would not be running into trouble with the public. People can push back.

So I want those Millennials to get teaching jobs.  Become school principals and superintendents.  Join community organizations.  Run for public office.  And I want them to do it younger than other generations.  They have to — they won’t have money to influence politics for decades, but they have numbers.  There are 56 million people ages 12-24 in the country.  Another 42 million between the ages of 25-34. If they don’t use those numbers to gain attention to their needs, they will get ignored, and this is a generation that cannot afford that.

So – lead.  I don’t care in what capacity or towards which politics.  Lead.

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