Tag Archives: Poverty

Going After Tenure — Missing the Real Needs of Students

There is a character in the 1984 movie “Teachers” starring Nick Nolte and JoBeth Williams, who is unaffectionately named “Ditto,” played by Royal Dano.  Ditto is old, orderly, mind-numbingly boring and tenured.  His “teaching” consists of running off enough mimeographs each day for all of his students, sitting in the back of his classroom where he can see all of his students in rows, having his ditto sheets distributed, reading his newspaper and having students turn in the dittos when the bell rings.  So rigid is his routine that the students can do the entire process without him, a premise tested when he suffers a fatal coronary in class and none of his students notice.

The movie’s satirical take on jaded teachers strikes a humorous note by playing off of a lot of stereotypes and some common experiences.  Many people, sadly, have experienced classrooms with teachers either out of their depth or beyond their professionally useful life.  In a system of 60 million students and over 3 million practitioners, quality cannot possibly be uniformly excellent.  The situation in the movie also speaks to a number of popular if misinformed stereotypes, the most persistent of which is that once granted tenure, a teacher has no need to remain vigorous or skilled or even all that present in the classroom.

This movie must keep Michelle Rhee, Campbell Brown and Whoopi Goldberg up at night.

The argument against teacher tenure goes approximately like this:  1) children need a quality education in order to have opportunity to succeed 2) a quality education requires quality teachers 3) teachers of low quality are concentrated in schools that serve poor and minority students 4) poor and minority students do not do well on examinations because of those low quality teachers 5) doing poorly on standardized examinations is the main blocker of opportunity for poor and minority students  6) some low quality teachers have tenure 7) firing low quality teachers with tenure takes too much work 8) we need to do away with tenure so we can fire low quality teachers and replace them 9) replacing low quality teachers will raise test scores and improve opportunity 10)  if you don’t want to do that you care more about low quality teachers than you care about children.

The problem, however, is that a lot of that is hooey.

Assume, for example, that tenure is a problem, as reformers do, because it keeps low quality teachers in teaching for too long. This, however, is as much a function of administrators not doing their evaluative job as it is the due process guaranteed by tenure.  Further, if it was tenure that was the actual problem, we would expect to see negative impacts on the performance of those districts that have the largest portion of their faculty with tenure – suburban districts with the most experienced faculties compared with urban districts that have extremely high turn over rates.  This, however, is not the case.  When the PISA examination scores that give our political class such concerns are broken out by the poverty characteristics of communities, we see startling effects:

U.S. Reading Literacy Scores By Poverty Characteristics

David Berliner writes:

On each of these three international tests, U.S. public school students did terrific in the schools where poverty rates of families were under 10%, or even when poverty rates were between 10% and 25%. But we did not do well in schools where poverty rates were above 50%, and we did even worse on those tests in schools where poverty rates for families were in the 75-100% bracket.

So students who do the worst on international examinations are those who live in high poverty districts which, because of income segregation, tend to be urban and rural.  Despite the movie “Teachers”, those students do not attend schools that are full of dusty, burnt out teachers who are waiting to die at their desks.  Quite the contrary.  They are far more likely to attend schools with extremely high concentrations of novices.

Helen F. Ladd, professor of economics and public policy at Duke University, notes that today, over a quarter of the teacher workforce has less than five years of experience teaching.  This is a problem because experience actually matters in teacher effectiveness, and research supports the need for teachers who have made it through the steep learning curve of their early years in the classroom.  Teachers improve in effectiveness measures dramatically in this period, and while their gains level off, a workforce that is perpetually inexperienced is a workforce that is not optimally effective.  According to research from the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, districts that are urban, high poverty, high minority and rural are far more likely to have high numbers of first year teachers than suburban counterparts. Ten percent of the districts in their sample had a “critical value” of more than 17% novices teaching classes, which was double the overall sample average and is correlated with other effects such as teachers leaving the profession altogether.

It is crucial to pause for a moment and consider the contradiction here.  Our lowest performing schools are not plagued with teachers who are sit behind the mythic protections of tenure and do not do their jobs so much as they are burdened with a continually changing faculty who begin a steep learning period but who cannot be guaranteed to stay past five years.  Further, such schools are burdened with the attendant costs that come with high turnover rates such as recruitment and training, giving fewer resources for other forms of support.  So the attack on tenure has it backwards because the real problem for staff at our most struggling schools centers on too little retention of teachers.

Nicole S. Simon and Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers note many of the new teachers who leave working in urban and high poverty districts do so because of working conditions in such schools rather than any student demographic.  In fact, negative school climate and organizational factors are such powerful predictors of why teachers leave schools, that no student based factors remain statistically significant.  “Positive, trusting, working relationships” and “a strong sense of collective responsibility” prove to be strong predictors of schools that manage to retain teachers over schools with nearly identical student demographics.  Considering all of this, if reform advocates TRULY wanted to assist children who suffer because of bad teachers, they ought to advocate for the following:

1) Ways to support administrators doing their evaluative role seriously. As has been pointed out from numerous sources, tenure grants teachers due process in any effort to remove them from the classroom.  Administrators need to do this function, and they need to do it carefully and well, but that role is frequently an add on to an already extremely time consuming job.  Principals can be supported in this function by robust peer observation and mentoring systems, but this would require that teachers also have additional time needed to mentor and evaluate each other.

2) Improve teachers’ working conditions. High poverty schools are notoriously difficult places to work, but not for the stereotypical reasons people presume.  Teachers who seek out such careers are often highly motivated by a desire to do good, but face overcrowded classrooms, decaying facilities and inadequate resources.  Further, lack of planning and collaboration time isolates teachers and makes it more difficult to access the expertise and insights of their peers.  The saying that a teacher’s working conditions are a student’s learning conditions needs to be seriously considered.

3) Remove the Sword of Damocles. We know that high poverty correlates to low test scores, and we know that the reasons are far more complicated than reformers’ preferred explanation of blaming teachers for everything.  But the past 15 years of education reform have constantly increased the pressure on schools and teachers to raise test scores without our nation taking the least collective responsibility for alleviating our appalling child poverty rate.  We should still test, but for diagnostic and triage purposes rather than to increasingly motivate skilled teachers to flee districts where they are professionally threatened without adequate support.

4) Discuss poverty and its effects of children.  Education reformers have been consistently silent on this front except to accuse people who want to talk about it of “making excuses” for bad teachers.  That is dishonest of them.  Over 20% of our children come to school from homes that are in poverty with the negative impact on resources and development that comes from that.  Many of our urban schools have student populations that top 75% in poverty.  As David Berliner notes, we are obsessed with “one-way accountability” for schools and teachers to change this without requiring anything more of ourselves as a society.

5) Recognize that tenure protects teachers who rock the boat on behalf of their students.  The due process rights with tenure may make removing a bad teacher more complicated than simply saying “you’re fired”, but it comes with important freedoms that teachers need.  Many teachers have pointed out that tenure protects teachers from being threatened with capricious or political removal when they advocate for their students’ needs or call out bad behavior that harms students.  John Goodlad called this “good stewardship” and it is a vital characteristic that we want to encourage among teachers.

Those attacking tenure seek to take that away from all teachers.  That’s why I oppose them.



Filed under Activism, politics, schools, Unions

Campbell Brown’s Brings the Anti-Tenure “Argument” to Stephen Colbert

As a former broadcast personality, Campbell Brown has some advantages when appearing on the media to discuss her campaign to end teachers’ workplace protections.  She has experience in interview techniques.  She understands what works well on camera and what does not.  She knows how to pitch her voice and use facial and body language to convey deep sincerity and earnestness regardless of what she really believes.  These served her well on Mr. Colbert’s program last week.


Mr. Colbert is similarly skilled, but he plays a satirical representation of a right wing ideologue in order to lampoon a segment of the media and to keep his guests off balance.  I would argue that he did not level the full weight of his satirical talents upon Ms. Brown, but rather he waited until the end of the interview to present her with some serious challenges that she could not respond to adequately.  More on that later.

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post provides a pretty thorough assessment of Ms. Brown’s many prevarications and reliance on talking points over evidence courtesy of Dr. Alyssa Hadley Dunn of Michigan State University.  Dr. Dunn makes it very clear that there simply isn’t a research base to support any of Ms. Brown’s assertions, and since she had made those assertions in the media prior to her appearance on The Colbert Report, I wish that Mr. Colbert had been more ready to take on some of the more stubborn and egregious talking points.  For example, Ms. Brown repeated her claim that New York State’s teachers cannot possible be as effective as job evaluations say they are because student test scores are too low:

SC: Okay, how’s the crisis in New York? What’s the problem here?

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??

SC: Well, I went to public school in South Carolina and 31 percent sounds like a majority to me.  (transcript is courtesy of Mercedes Schneider, teacher and author)

Mr. Colbert chose to lightly mock his own education, but there is a major, I would argue deliberate, flaw in Ms. Brown’s favored talking point.  First, the 31% figure does not measure students’ grade level performance; it measures the percentage of students who scored “proficient” or above on the new Common Core aligned testing piloted by the Pearson corporation in New York.  Second, the 31% proficiency rate was gamed by the process to determine the cut scores and openly predicted by New York State Education Commissioner John King before the tests were ever deployed.  From the Times-Union in 2013:

State Education Commissioner John King said he expected some push-back. At a Times Unioneditorial board meeting on Tuesday, he said the number of students considered proficient will likely drop by 30 points. He said, while that number is intimidating, it provides a more honest assessment of what New York’s students know. He acknowledged that makes for nervous educators, but said the state can’t afford to roll back the tougher new standards students will be expected to meet because just 35 percent of New York’s high school freshmen leave ready for college or a career four years later.

How could the commissioner so accurately predict the drop in test scores for the new examinations?  According to award-winning Principal Carol Burris, it is because his office deliberately sought to peg the cut scores between proficiency levels to markers that would leave just a third of New York students making the cut.  The condensed version of Burris’ analysis:  NY DOE sought information from the College Board on what SAT scores (widely considered only a loose predictor of college success) correlated to a successful first year in college, and set measures of that “success” that are clearly aimed at that 30% target.  Once in possession of the desired SAT scores in reading, writing and mathematics for a combined 1630 points, the state’s committee went about setting cut scores for each level of performance on the new CCSS aligned tests.  From Principal Burris again:

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.

So is it honest for Ms. Brown to keep repeating that only 31% of NY students are at “grade level”? Absolutely not — first, because this is not a “grade level” measure and second, because the result was gamed from the beginning.

This also brings up another question.  If the goal of the “proficient” rating on the exams is “college and career ready” is a 31% proficiency rating actually wrong?  In 2013, 33.6% of the U.S. population aged 25-29 had a bachelors degree, which is up over 11 points from 22.5% in 1980 when the education “crisis” rhetoric began in earnest.  More of our young population is in possession of college degree today than ever before in our history, and the economic data does not suggest we are in a crisis of too few people with such degrees in the economy.  48% of recent college graduates are underemployed, and in 2010, over 5 million college graduates were employed in jobs requiring only a high school diploma.  Moreover, according to Pew Social Trends, today’s wage benefit for obtaining a college degree comes less from rising wages for college graduates than from cratering wages for those without college.

One could argue that more students need to be on path to be “college and career ready” by their third grade exams because college is increasingly necessary to keep from falling behind economically moreso than it is necessary to get ahead.  Something tells me that today’s reform advocates don’t want to emphasize that point.  We would do better to question if the distribution of students who qualify for and are successful at college are concentrated in specific communities and neighborhoods, but discussed honestly, that would require examining America’s rising Residential Income Segregation Index, another topic education reform advocates don’t like to discuss.

Mr. Colbert made a feint at this late in his interview with Ms. Brown:

SC: You can mention. I’ll edit it out, but you can mention it. [CB: Okay.] [Audience laughter.] All right, now, but, here’s, the thing is aren’t you opening a can of worms there, because [4:00] if you say the kids are entitled to e, equal education, if that’s your argument, doesn’t that mean eventually, you’re going to say, “Every child in the state of New York should have the same amount of money spent on their education”—rich community, poor community—pool it all in, split it all up among Bobby and Susie and Billy—everywhere. [Audience applause.] Because the argument is, everyone gets the same opportunity. [Audience applause.]

CB: But, but you, you’re suggesting that mon, that it’s all about the money, and I think it’s not about the money.

SC: Well, you’re suggesting it’s about equality, and money is one of the equations in equality, or have I just schooled you? [Audience laughter.]

Mr. Colbert did not let Ms. Brown duck the question of money and school funding entirely, but she quickly professed how she wants to “pay teachers more” AND treat them like “professionals” through evaluations.  Then she sidestepped to her “safe” territory by claiming it is almost impossible to fire a teacher with tenure.  As previously noted, Dr. Dunn of Michigan State makes it clear that these claims are completely problematic because first, new evaluations using student test scores focus on formulations of teachers’ impact that only accounts for 1-14% of variability between student performance and second, Ms. Brown’s information on the length of time needed to remove a tenured teacher is badly out of date and her assessment of that time is possibly off by more than a factor of four.  This all tied to her previous claims the “least effective” teachers are concentrated in schools with high levels of disadvantaged students, but her argument against tenure is not remotely related to that because measuring effectiveness via test scores automatically makes urban teachers less effective regardless of their experience and skill. Additionally, these school have far fewer tenured teachers because the turnover rate in many urban districts tops 50% in three years, resulting in a dearth of teachers with the skills that come from experience.

If tenure were truly the problem with teacher quality, then wealthy suburban districts with more stable and experienced teacher corps would not be the districts with high test scores and large percentages of college bound graduates.  In this sense, Ms. Brown’s fight against tenure resembles Republican led drives for voter ID laws that threaten to block 100s of 1000s of currently eligible voters in order to stop a “problem,’ voter impersonation, that occurs so rarely it does not statistically exist.

Mr. Colbert then pivoted to what appears to have been his most important question of the interview — what is the money involved in Ms. Brown’s lawsuit?

SC: Just trying to win, Campbell. Just trying to win, all right? Um, your organization, where does it’s money come from? That’s one of the things they asked me to ask you.

CB: I, I saw that on my Twitter feed today. The, the, who’s funding this effort?

SC: Yeah, who’s funding your, your effort, [CB: Kirkland Ellis.] your organization.

CB: The law firm…

SC: The law firm is funding it?

CB: Well, the law firm is doing this for free, so we haven’t gone out…

Ms. Brown’s point here appears to be that despite her fronting the organization that is facilitating the lawsuit, the efforts on behalf of that suit are, in essence, charitable.  This may be true as far as legal fees are concerned, but it is absurd on the face to even hint that there is no monetary value to the assistance Ms. Brown is giving the plaintiffs her organization recruited.  First, her connections and celebrity almost certainly played a role in obtaining the legal services.  Second, Ms. Brown is a media ready spokesperson who has been giving interviews and penning opinion articles on behalf of this cause, and such services would cost dearly if they came from a private consulting firm.  Further, Ms. Brown has managed to sign up the services of Incite Agency, led by former Obama administration alumni Robert Gibbs and Ben LaBolt to do publicity for the cause on a national level.  The plaintiffs in this case are enjoying pro bono legal services, Ms. Brown’s celebrity and public relations services from former White House personnel.  I think it is sufficient to say that those are no small levels of support.

Mr. Colbert pressed on about financial support and finally got Ms. Brown to admit to something which I find astonishing:

SC: So, the Partnership for Educational Justice [7:00] has not raised any money so far?

CB:Yeah, we are raising money.

SC: And who did you raise it from?

CB: I’m not gonna reveal who the donors are because the people (pointing toward window) are out…

SC: I’m going to respect that because I had a super PAC. [Audience applause.]

CB: I hear you. But, part of the reason is the people who are outside today, trying to protest, trying to silence our parents who want to have a voice in this debate…

SC: Exercising First Amendment rights…

CB: Absolutely, but they’re also going to go after people who are funding this, and I think this is a good cause and an important cause, and if someone wants to contribute to this cause without having to put their name on it so they can become a target of the people who were out there earlier today, then I respect that.


Ms. Brown is married to Dan Senor, who was the former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq following the fall of the Hussein Regime.  He sits on the board of of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirstNY, and he joined hedge fund Elliot Management before becoming a top adviser to Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  Ms. Brown is on the Board of Directors of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain of charter schools, an organization that boasts massive financial support from Wall Street.  Her ties to people who have been pouring money into education “reform” in the interest of charter schools is not difficult to establish, as blogger Mother Crusader has demonstrated.  Suffice to say that these are incredibly wealthy and politically connected people who are the most likely donors to her organization.

And Ms. Brown wants us to believe that they need to be “protected”.  That if people want to know who is funding lawsuits to challenge laws that were passed by democratically elected governments and job protections that were subject to open and adversarial negotiations between unions and administrators, they cannot know because the donors seeking to overturn such laws could not abide potential criticism of themselves in the public sphere.


Let’s be clear.  Who are “the people who are outside today” who Ms. Brown assumes will bully and intimidate her donors?  According to The Daily News:




I am sure that Eva Moskowitz’s donors are just quaking in their boots…right after they drop another $400,000 into Governor Cuomo’s pockets.

Mr. Colbert did not sneak a camera crew down to the street to make Ms. Brown look as ridiculous as she richly deserved at that moment, but the fact that he led her to make such a ludicrous statement is telling in an of itself.  Today, it is very hard to trust that major media outlets will take the time and effort to research and interview people trying to lead public debate via deception, and on issues that require a genuine understanding of complex social phenomena, that is even less likely.  I have written before how abysmally the New York Times’ editorial staff have failed in that regard, preferring to take the statements of advocates with wealth and connections at face value.

Mr. Colbert is not a journalist, yet he and his fellow comedians Jon Stewart and John Oliver have become almost guardians of truth in recent years.  It is often more likely that Mr. Colbert or Mr. Stewart or Mr. Oliver will highlight the absurd inanities, half truths and contradictions routinely offered by politicians, pundits and advocates.  In the case of Ms. Brown, Mr. Colbert got her to openly confess to a truth that is gaining greater and greater public awareness: American governance is increasingly oligarchical in nature whereby elected officials craft policy more to serve the interests of their very wealthy donors rather than the interests of the actual voters who put them in office.  Ms. Brown’s undisclosed donor list is a perfect example of this, and her refusal to disclose under the fiction that her donors could possibly be intimidated by moms and teachers with home made posters should be mocked loudly and frequently.

I am grateful to Mr. Colbert for organizing his interview to that point, but I am saddened that we rely almost exclusively on satirists to get to the heart of public affairs these days.


Filed under Activism, Funding, Media, politics, schools, Social Justice, Testing, Unions, VAMs

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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Filed under Funding, politics, schools, Social Justice

David Berliner Responds to Economists Who Discount Role of Child Poverty via Diane Ravitch

From Diane Ravitch’s blog — incredibly important response to slight of hand “research”:


David Berliner Responds to Economists Who Discount Role of Child Poverty.

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Filed under Data, politics, Shared Posts, Social Justice

Four More Things To Tell President Obama

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post wrote last week that President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had a meeting with teachers over lunch.  Her column provided space for the 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, Justin Minkel, to offer his insights into how the meeting went and what the President and Secretary heard from the teachers present.  Mr. Minkel, who is a member of both the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and the Center for Teacher Quality and who blogs for Education Week and for CTQ, wrote cogently and intelligently about four key points:

1. There’s Nothing Wrong With the Kids

2. “Responsibility and Delight Can Co-exist”

3. It’s not about good and bad teachers.  It is about good and bad teaching.

4. If we want students to innovate, collaborate, and solve real-world problems, we need to make it possible for teachers to do the same things.

These are outstanding points, and I thank Mr. Minkel and his fellow teachers for communicating them directly at such a high level.  There are, of course, many other points that the President and his Secretary of Education need to genuinely hear and know.  I would like to offer my own four points to build upon these:

1. You are looking for teacher effectiveness in all the wrong places

Teachers matter.  Nobody should ever suggest otherwise.  But No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top both represent sustained efforts to locate how teachers matter in standardized test scores, and since Race to the Top, the strongest proxy for teacher effectiveness written into state and federal policy has been annual student progress on standardized testing. This is a flawed approach for several reasons.  To begin with, the tests that are designed to demonstrate if a student has mastered a body of knowledge or a set of skills are designed for that purpose and that purpose only.  As Dr. Nunoz of Concordia University Chicago notes, testing and measurement is a precise field and it is improper and inaccurate to use an examination for a different purpose because it would not be designed the same way.  The American Statistical Association released a statement on value added measurements earlier this year that clearly stated that the association does not believe any examination currently used to measure teacher effectiveness meets the strict criteria necessary for such a test, and they noted that most studies on VAMs find that teachers’ input only accounts for between 1-14% of the variability among student results on such tests.  Looking for teacher effectiveness in the results of standardized examinations is essentially playing dice with teachers’ futures.

Even the research that claims such models are useful is suspect.  As Dr. Jesse Rothstein of U.C. Berkeley found, even the Gates Foundation funded research on “Measures of Effective Teaching” makes claims that are poorly supported by their own data. Despite the MET study’s endorsement of VAMs, Dr. Rothstein notes that “teacher evaluations based on observed state test outcomes are only slightly better than coin tosses at identifying teachers whose students perform unusually well or badly  on assessments of conceptual understanding (p. 5),” and goes on to note that teachers whose students did well on standardized exams did far less well on measurements of critical thinking.  Using standardized examinations as a measure of teacher effectiveness can reward a weak teacher who focuses on test preparation and punish a highly skilled teacher who emphasizes higher order thinking and creative problem solving.

Teachers, of course, do make a difference for students.  And there are teachers who do not teach well, and there are teachers who excel at the work.  But the impact of that teaching is simply poorly represented in paper and pencil standardized examinations.  It can be found in student produced artifacts that explore rich content in creative and insightful ways.  It can be found in a classroom that “buzzes” with the constant hum of excited work.  It can be found in the individual lives of children who are inspired to explore a field they never knew held interest before.  It can be found in the children who find a mentor and reliable adult among the body of teachers in a school and stick with their education when nobody thought they could.  It can be found the eyes of a student whose talents and passions are affirmed for the first time in his or her young life.  This is what happens in millions of classrooms across the country on a daily basis that cannot be captured on a standardized examination.

Taylor Mali, teacher and poet, captures quite a lot of that nicely in this poetry performance:

2. It’s the poverty

You’ve been told by a lot of current reformers that talking about the extraordinary difficulties of educating children born into poverty is just “making excuses” for “bad teachers”.  I cannot say not only how much this refrain hurts  teachers who have dedicated themselves to working with our most needy students, but also how much it hurts those very same students.  It places upon the teachers a burden to, on their own, lift children of poverty to a level playing field with their more advantaged peers.  It thrusts upon those children schools that keep cutting out critical thinking and aesthetic enrichment in favor of test preparation because of draconian  layoff and reorganization threats while offering the students a brutally unlevel playing field if they graduate. I can think of few practical jokes more cruel than this.

Poverty is not an “excuse”; it is a fact that broadly impacts the earliest childhood of 22% of our young people.  It is a fact that we do much less to alleviate poverty’s deprivations than our peer democracies in the West.  And because our residential income segregation is very high and has risen by over a third since 1980, it is a fact that poverty disproportionately impacts specific schools and school systems.

And it is not a fact that is fully constrained to those meeting the federal definition of poverty.  Income, housing and food insecurity impact the lower middle class, many of whom are clinging to that status solely because of federal assistance programs and the Earned Income Tax Credit.  In 2011, only North Dakota and New Hampshire had child food insecurity rates below 15%.   The Hamilton Project report also notes that food insecurity can have potentially life long consequences in both educational outcomes and economic security, but teachers are going to be held accountable for children who will suffer lower birth weights, worse lifetime health outcomes and lower economic outcomes because Congress refuses to fund expanded SNAP benefits that amount to less than half of the cost of USS Gerald Ford.

This is not meant to “excuse” those teachers and administrators who give up on children in poverty or near poverty and do not do their utmost to educate, inspire and mentor those in their care.  However, it is intellectually and morally bankrupt to ignore that our much lamented gap in PISA can be located almost entirely within our poverty level, and to blame teachers and schools for failing to single-handedly overcome a phenomenon much larger than our schools and about which the billionaires driving today’s “reforms” refuse to discuss.

3. There is no “secret sauce” for educating our most struggling children

Former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel opined that Noble Network of charter schools in Chicago had the “secret sauce” for motivating students to perform.  An element of that recipe?  Collecting $400,000 in disciplinary “fines” from its students since 2008.  Advocates of the rapidly expanding charter sector of education like to paper over such practices, but it is vitally important to expose them because while their sponsors and leaders like to hype test performance, they often achieve those results at the expense of up to half of their students.

This should be absolutely clear: with 1000s of charter schools across the country, there must be many schools and teachers who do a genuinely great job with the students in their care.  Unfortunately, they are overshadowed by the high profile charter schools that are essentially corporate entities and that tout themselves as miracle factories based upon high test scores.  They consume public dollars, refuse public accountability, have astonishing attrition rates usually at the expense of the neediest children enrolled in them, and have formed powerful lobbies to influence politicians to continue to favor charter schools over fully public schools.

This is not to say that none of these schools do a good job of educating the students that they do accommodate and that there are not students and families who are sincerely grateful to be in those schools.  But it does mean that they cannot legitimately claim to have found any “secret sauce” for educating our neediest students when they engage in extreme cream skimming, refuse to let the public examine their finances and rely upon their extremely wealthy patrons to strong arm politicians on their behalf.  To put this in perspective:  In 2012, the NEA spent $13 million in campaign contributions total across the country, and the AFT spent $5.9 million.  Success Academy Charter’s supporters spent $3.6 million in THREE WEEKS just because Mayor de Blasio slowed down the expansion of the network.

Truly working with our neediest takes far more than advertising and cherry-picked student bodies.

4. Arts and the humanities matter

Despite very shaky evidence to back up the claim, we have been treated to nonstop rhetoric about our “crisis” in graduates with STEM degrees, and policy has pushed hard to create more pipelines for people to enter such fields regardless of the actual employment picture for them.  There is, however, evidence that in the age of test based accountability, we have marginalized endeavors that are critical to both our civic life and our general well being.  Social studies instruction has shrunk from 9.5% of instructional time to 7.6%, meaning that our students spend less time today learning history and engaging in critical thinking about their civic life.  While instruction in the English Language Arts has increased because of its status as a tested subject, there are legitimate concerns that the emphasis on reading informational texts in the Common Core State Standards and associated testing, will drive more classrooms away from reading great works of literary fiction and poetry.

And then there is the long term and precipitous decline in arts education which fell below 50% for 18 year olds in their childhood education in 2008.  That means that half of the children in America born in 1990 received no arts education in their entire education K-12.  Research is very clear that participation in the arts has a wide range of academic benefits from higher test scores to higher rates of college completion among low income students.  Eliot Eisner of Stanford University notes the lessons that the arts teach such as: making judgments about relationships, seeing multiple answers to problems, accepting multiple perspectives, complex problem solving, learning that cognition is not limited by language, seeing large effects from small differences, and thinking through materials to fruition of an idea.  It is not hard at all to see the connection between these capacities and the capacities that lead not simply to STEM competencies but also to STEM understanding and innovation.  No wonder, then, that there is a small but growing movement to “move from STEM to STEAM” and place arts at the center of our drive for more STEM education.

While this is admirable, it is also not enough to envision the importance of the arts and humanities as a partner to scientific and technological advancement because they possess their own warrants.  Eisner’s “ten lessons” also include:  teaching children how to say what “cannot be said” via “poetic capacities,” experiencing things that cannot be experienced in any other way and exploring one’s capacity for feeling, symbolizing what is important in society.  The arts and humanities, therefore, enrich us in ways that cannot be measured via test based accountability but which are part of our essential humanity.  That 50% of our young people experience no arts education means that their education was fundamentally inattentive to their humanity.  As we advocate for literature, poetry, music, visual and performing arts for all children, we must remember this — the arts and humanities cannot become yet another preserve of the wealthy and we cannot allow test based accountability to squeeze what is left of them from our public schools.

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Filed under charter schools, Common Core, DFER, politics, schools, Social Justice, Testing, Unions, VAMs

“The best anti-poverty program around is….” a strong union.

In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama reviewed the legislation his administration had passed as favoring “reform” and “innovation” in our schools, and observed that “In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.”  Since that address, we have seen the “reform” and “innovation” that the President was talking about: CCSS, high stakes testing, teacher evaluations tied to those evaluations, charter school expansion.  And now former members of the President’s administration are joining corporate reformer Campbell Brown in an effort to sue away teachers’ workplace protections.

But is the underlying assumption of the President’s statement that is driving all of these efforts to replace public education as we have known it with an amalgam of public and public-in-name-only schools with teachers who lack strong union protection and who are assessed primarily via student test scores even accurate?  Does a “world class education” function as the “best” anti-poverty program or was the President engaging in dangerously simplistic rhetoric that places a burden on primary, secondary and higher education without asking what conditions need to exist in the market for labor?

There isn’t a simple answer for this, and there are plenty of competing voices.  For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that only 27% of the workforce need college degrees for our jobs, and they project only 23% of the labor force will need college or post graduate degrees in 2022.  This is disputed by Anthony Carnevale and colleagues at the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, who note that the “college wage premium” has grown 37% since 1976, indicating that employers are currently willing to pay a premium for graduates with post secondary education.

Recent data and analysis suggest that college is worth the effort and even the debt in gained economic output over the course of one’s career.  The Federal Reserve notes that those with a bachelors degree are likely to earn up to a million dollars more over their lifetime than peers with only a high school education, and even those with associates degrees earn 100s of thousands more.  Once  cost of money out of pocket for the degree and inflation are considered, that still amounts to an additional 500 thousand.  However, these numbers should be read with additional research on the lifetime cost of debt accrued in obtaining the degree which can amount to over 200 thousand dollars in net assets by retirement and which disproportionately effects minority college graduate who take out higher debt loads on average.

So is that case closed?  Everyone should aspire to college education and secure themselves in the middle class? Not so fast.

While a premium exists in wages for college graduates over their peers, that premium has gone up for reasons other than demand for college educated workers.  Pew Social Trends demonstrates that one contributing factor in the increased gap is the sharp drop in wages for non college educated citizens even while wages for those with a college degree have remained stagnant when adjusted for inflation.  In 2012 dollars, a Millennial with a college degree earns $6600 more than a “Silent Generation” graduate in 1965, but only $730 more than a “Late Boomer” did in 1986.  Meanwhile, those Millennials without a college degree earns almost $3400 less today than in 1965.  College education, then, is indeed becoming a minimum requirement, but just to keep up at current, stagnant, levels of opportunity and to not fall off the cliff into chronic economic insecurity.

And this is where the decline in union representation in the workforce needs to be discussed.  It does not appear to be enough to grow a healthy and vibrant middle class simply to say that all middle class aspirants need to attend college, especially when the gap between college and non college income can be at least partially attributed to falling wages.  According to a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research by Emin M. Dinlersoz of the Census Bureau and Jeremy Greenwood of University of Pennsylvania, the decline of organized labor can be attributed to technological innovation that either replaced or outsourced non-skilled jobs that traditionally enjoyed union representation.  While there is no doubt that globalization and technology have been highly disruptive forces to organized work forces, it is also insufficient an explanation.  To begin with, trade agreements and tax policies that lead to jobs being sent offshore are partially the result of choices made by elected officials as well as the result of innovation.  Second, the drop off in labor unionization is distinctly steep in the United States compared with other industrialized economies. If labor’s decline in the United States was solely the result of especially “creative destruction” in the economy and not at least partially the result of choices made by those who influence the economy, our labor decline would be far less steep.

Labor’s decline and the overall dismal growth of inequality in our economy have marched hand in hand since the late 1970s.  In this video, Colin Gordon of the University of Iowa maps the decline of union participation in the United States with the steady growth of the Gini coefficient:

Correlation may not be causality, but certain trend lines call our attention to possible causes, and Gordon reports research that notes up to a third of the rise in inequality in the 1980s and 1990s can be attributed to the decline of labor.  If we want to address what has been happening to America’s widely stagnating middle class and especially to the cratering lower middle class, we must look at the decline of unions.  While labor unions cannot revitalize by organizing jobs that no longer exist, there are credible arguments that even large swaths of the IT sector could benefit from unionization.

Which is why the full frontal assault on teachers’ unions since the Great Recession is both disheartening and an existential threat to the remains of the middle class.  The NEA and AFT represent more than 4 million unionized teachers, but more than that, their representation provides those teachers with an ability to negotiate openly and fairly for their wages, working conditions and job security.  Those negotiations help our children’s teachers maintain a middle class status they might not be able to achieve individually, and the due process rights they obtain from negotiations protect them in a job environment that has inherent political elements and can risk confrontation with the community.  Given the mass of new job pressures layered on to the teaching profession since No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, it is unthinkable that teachers’ collective bargaining rights and job protections should be subject to legislative and legal challenges across the country.

But that is exactly what is happening, and it isn’t merely a challenge to teachers’ due process rights — it is aimed directly at one of the largest bodies of unionized middle class professionals left in the country.  Where will our Gini coefficient be in ten more years if teaching is no longer a unionized work force?

The contradictions of what we demand of teachers and with whom we entrust them and the goals of anti-union “reform” efforts to reduce teachers’ job securities and ability to negotiate fair wages and benefits are manifest.  President Obama tasks a “world class education” with reducing poverty in the face of the multitude of social and economic factors that have entrenched poverty in our society.  Every parent who sends a child to public school entrusts the teachers of that school with the well being of that child.  That breaking the strength of teachers’ collective bargaining rights has appeared as an urgent need to make education better belies are far more malicious intent behind the well financed campaigns of Michelle Rhee and Campbell Brown. Teachers should not be the only ones who take notice — the entire middle class should as well.

From Mike Thompson of the Detroit Free Press

From Mike Thompson of the Detroit Free Press


Filed under Activism, politics, Social Justice, Unions

Eva Moskowitz’s “Success”

The founding class of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain of “no excuses” charter schools graduated from eighth grade last week.  Of the original class of 73 students who enrolled in 2006, 32 made it to last week, and, according to Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News, despite 27 of those students sitting for the entrance exams to New York City’s highly selective public high schools, no Success Academy graduate qualified for admission.  Moskowitz has widely touted her schools’ closing of the achievement gap between racial demographics on state issued standardized tests, and while the city’s elite high schools are rightly criticized for their low enrollment of black and Latino children, Gonzalez notes that the overall 12% acceptance rate for black and Latino students taking the test should have given as many as 3 acceptances from Moskowitz’s school.

This is not news that should produce any satisfaction even among Ms. Moskowitz’s most fierce critics, nor should any criticism be aimed at the young children involved.  Despite my serious reservations about the atmosphere and techniques employed by Ms. Moskowitz’s charter chain, I have no doubt that the young people who have been at Success Academy 1 since 2006 are admirable and hard working young people, and it is my sincerest hope that they have bright futures ahead of them.  Nor do I want my criticism of Moskowitz’s methods and self promotion to second guess the parents who have sought out and appreciated her schools’ focus on discipline and raising test scores.  However, Ms. Moskowitz has applied to the state for another 14 Success Academies and under the current state budget deal approved in Albany, New York City will have no say in granting these charters and will have to provide space for the schools or pay Moskowitz’s rent in another facility.  The sharp decline in the enrollment of her first graduating class and her curriculum’s inability to place graduates in the city’s most selective high schools (despite her claims of closing the achievement gap) requires the asking of some sharp questions.

And it is well beyond time that Ms. Moskowitz answer questions of the public that is required by law to pay for her schools.

Ms. Moskowitz is not controversial merely for her confrontational manner nor for her refusal to let the state examine how her chain uses the substantial sums it gets from taxpayers.  Success Academy is part of the “no excuses” camp of education reform that insists if you fire the right teachers, insist upon extreme personal rigor and focus upon the “basics” that you can close the historic achievement gap between white and Asian students and their black and Latino peers. The school of thought has powerful advocates among the likes of Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein and demonstrably has the ear of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the rest of the Obama administration.  It has a certain appeal if you do not think about it too hard.  These critics decry those who focus on anti-poverty and anti-racism efforts as “excusing” bad teaching and claim that if people just work hard enough, historic gaps in academic progress, and presumably economic progress, would close.  In doing so, however, they take up two exceptionally pernicious implied arguments.  The first is that the well-demonstrated deprivations of poverty do not matter so long as the school demands enough out of its students.  The second is that the existence of children who demonstrate the desired perseverance proves that others are just slacking and could overcome if only they just worked hard enough.  Both of these beliefs diminish genuinely complex issues to slogans and side step societal responsibility to address poverty.

Moskowitz’s schools take this to extremes.  The New York Times reported in 2011, when the Success chain had only 7 schools, how children who do not fit into its very narrow mode find themselves subjected to excessive punishments and ongoing suggestions that they should leave.  In less than a month of Kindergarten at Success Academy 3, Matthew Sprowal was subjected to so much pressure and punishment (he has ADD) that he was throwing up most mornings, and his mother received direct communication from Moskowitz herself strongly implying her son should be at another school.  This is not an isolated case.  In 2010-2011, Success 1 suspended a fifth of its students at least once.  Public schools in the same neighborhood suspend 3% of students in a typical year.  Further, evidence exists that the schools place special pressures on the parents of disabled students to seek different schools.  A parent at Upper West Success taped school officials saying they could not properly accommodate her Kindergarten student’s IEP and offering to find him a public school placement.

Charter schools like Success Academy take students from a lottery, and in theory, that lottery ensures that they are not selective like exclusive private schools, but practices like those reported by former Success Academy families demonstrate that the schools do not abide by a spirit of inclusiveness (and may actually violate state and federal law).  Moskowitz repeatedly tells the media that she is succeeding with the city’s neediest children, but her schools clearly enroll far fewer children on free and reduced lunch, fewer children with disabilities and fewer children who are second language learners than her neighboring district schools, and the pattern of those students who leave the schools in the early grades is not random.

It is true that Success Academy students get higher than average scores on state tests, but this is coming from a population of students who have already had those most likely to struggle on the tests weeded out — and it comes with the cost of extreme test preparation rolled in the curriculum.  A Success Academy teacher, writing on terms of anonymity, gave the following account to NYU’s Dr. Diane Ravitch:

“Custom Test Prep Materials: I think many schools use practice workbooks from publishers like Kaplan, etc. We have people whose job it is to put together custom test prep packets based on state guidance. Much more aligned to common core and closer to the test than the published books I’ve seen. Also, teachers are putting together additional worksheets and practice based on what we see in the classroom. Huge volume of practice materials for every possible need (and we use it all, too). Also many practice tests and quizzes that copy format of the test.

“Intensive organization-wide focus on test prep: For the last months and weeks before the test, everyone from Eva on down is completely focused on test prep. Just a few examples….

“We have to give kids 1/2/3/4 scores daily. Kids are broken up into small groups based on the data and get differentiated instruction. If they get a 1, they stay back from recess or after school for extra practice.

“Thousands of dollars spent on prizes to incentivize the kids to work hard. Some teachers have expressed concern about bribing them with basketballs and other toys instead of learning for the sake of learning. The response is “prizes aren’t optional.”

“We get daily inspirational emails from principals with a countdown, anecdotes about the importance of state tests, and ever-multiplying plans for “getting kids over the finish line” (these get old fast).

Excessive test preparation is a concern for all New York City schools, and the teacher evaluation incentives implemented as part of Race to the Top have not helped.  The New York legislature passed a law this Spring mandating that test preparation can take up no more than 2% of instructional time in public schools.  Charter schools were exempt, which is a relief for Ms. Moskowitz’s schools who would apparently lose months of their planned curricula.

In a follow up message, the same teacher forwarded a message to Success Academy teachers from a senior administrator giving his ideas on why they have been “attacked” in the media.  The message contrasts their work to the work of “failure factories”, claims to have found the “solution” to urban education, claims that people are jealous of their schools and frames Success Academy, which can raise over 7 million dollars in a one night fundraiser, as victims of teacher unions.

Missing in the self congratulatory rhetoric and the extreme test preparation?  The children pressured and forced out of the network’s schools for reasons no public school could ever employ.  There is no “solution” for urban education that involves losing over half a graduating class of students between first grade and eighth.  There is no “solution” for the challenges of educating students with learning disabilities, behavioral disabilities or who are learning English that includes pushing them off on to other schools.

Which brings me back to the first graduating class of eighth graders at Success Academy 1.  I genuinely wish them well, and I certainly admire the qualities they must possess to thrive in an environment like the one described above.  But the children Ms. Moskowitz failed to mention in her address to her first class of “scholars” are the ones she failed to get to that day.  Those are the children she refused to accommodate and whose education she washed her hands of.

And she should be made to account for every single one of them before New York grants her a single new classroom.

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Open Letter to President Obama — You Are Listening to the Wrong People

Dear Mr. President:

I am writing to you with three different roles.  First, I am the director of secondary education and secondary/special education teacher preparation at Seton Hall University where I have been on the faculty since 2002.  Second, I am a lifelong educator whose teaching experience at levels from seventh grade to graduate school courses stretches back to 1993. Finally and most importantly, sir, I am the father of two school aged children enrolled in the public schools of New York City.  All three of those roles in life have prompted me to write to you, and it is my hope that you will seriously consider what I have to say, for it is based upon my devotion to my children, my experience as a teacher and upon the data that is readily available about what is being done to schools during your administration.

With respect, Mr. President, you are listening to all the wrong people about our nation’s schools.

When you were inaugurated, many of us in education had hoped that your administration would urge Congress to roll back the detrimental aspects of the No Child Left Behind act, which had taken the previous two decades of educational failure rhetoric and placed a punishing regimen of unreasonable expectations, high stakes testing and punishment into effect that left schools and schools systems under threat of a “failure” label if they did not achieve near miraculous score gains in standardized examinations.  Instead, we got the Race to the Top program which has taken the worst elements of NCLB and made them even worse.  Your signature education initiative incentivized participating states to enroll in rushed and unproven common standards, increases the amount of high stakes testing at all levels of public education, subjects teachers to invalid measures of job performance and creates preferential treatment for charter schools that cynically manipulate data on their enrollment and achievements, sue to prevent public oversight of the public moneys they receive and whose expansion provides new investment vehicles for the very wealthy.  All of these results have rich and powerful advocates, and all of them are damaging to our nation’s public schools.

The Common Core State Standards have been described as a state led effort because of the role of the National Governors Association in their creation, but the work of a very few people is far more directly responsible for them.  David Coleman, now President of the College Board, Jason Zimba and Susan Pimentel of Student Achievement Incorporated worked with a small group of core writers that were largely representative of the testing and publishing industries to produce K-12 standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics in less than two years.  This is a staggering pace for such a complex project, and it was conducted in clear violation of highly regarded and accepted processes for the creation of standards.  Dr. Sandra Stotsky of the University of Arkansas was a member of the validation committee that was convened, in theory, to validate the quality of the standards, but she refused to signed off on them when, by her own account, repeated efforts to have the research basis for the standards produced by the writing committees went unanswered.  Once written, the standards were rapidly adopted by states due to the incentives of Race to the Top and aggressive spending of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Diane Ravitch of New York University has repeatedly pointed out that this process was staggeringly flawed, and even more flawed than the opaque writing and promotion efforts has been the race to roll out the standards in nearly all states simultaneously with no small scale field testing and no known way for data from the implementation to be fed back to any body that is tasked with revising the standards based on such data.

Mr. Bill Gates seems enormously confident, absent any defensible evidence, that this is the correct path.  He provided funding to Student Achievement Incorporated and the National Governors Association, and has been spending lavishly since 2010 to make certain all forms of organizations continue to boost the standards.  Mr. Gates spoke this year at the Teaching and Learning Conference hosted by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (an organization he has given grants to recently), and his defense of national standards was telling.  According to the Washington Post:

Standardization is especially important to allow for innovation in the classroom, said Gates, who used an analogy of electrical outlets.

“If you have 50 different plug types, appliances wouldn’t be available and would be very expensive,” he said. But once an electric outlet becomes standardized, many companies can design appliances and competition ensues, creating variety and better prices for consumers, he said.

The version posted to the Gates Foundation website offers a more explanatory framing of the metaphor, but Mr. President, I hope the flaw in his thinking is evident.  Multi-state standards are not, inherently, a bad thing, primarily if used like the National Assessment of Educational Progress as a NO STAKES diagnostic tool, and Mr. Gates is correct that a variety of INDUSTRY standards have led to consumer innovations.  However, even after we accept a standard for early literacy acquisition to be age appropriate and based on research into how children learn to read, the process by which any given child meets that standard is vastly more complex than the process of attaching an electric motor to a hand blender; worse, it does not demonstrate an understanding that children develop at very varied rates, and that an age appropriate target for one child may be entirely inappropriate for a peer in the same classroom.

Even assuming that Mr. Gates is correct and that CCSS would allow teachers to innovate, Race to the Top and Mr. Gates’ own advocacy have worked to tie the CCSS to a regimen of high stakes testing the likes of which we have never seen and which are already incentivizing teachers and school districts to vastly narrow their teaching in response.  Mr. President, policy analysts refer to perverse incentives as those elements of policy that incentivize behavior in such a way that people can obtain the incentive while engaging in practices that are damaging or undesirable.  In this case, Race to the Top is the Mother of All Perverse Incentives.  Your administration required states to adopt test-based evaluation of teachers in addition to adoption of common standards.  This has resulted in states both enrolling in the CCSS testing consortia, and adopting Value Added Models (VAM) of teacher effectiveness as part of teacher assessment and retention.  Mr. President, you recently remarked that schools should not be teaching to the test even while your administration was stripping Washington State of its NCLB waiver over its desire to not use high stakes testing to evaluate teachers, but you could do little that incentivizes teaching to the test more than this.  Michelle Rhee’s tenure as D.C. Schools Chancellor provides an instructive anecdote.  Despite her denials and cursory investigation, it is very clear that her “raise test scores or be fired” approach spawned widespread cheating. That behavior is not excusable, but it is evidence of how far some people placed in extraordinarily difficult circumstances will go when subject to such incentives, and it is simply inevitable that short of cheating, the use of VAMs in teacher evaluation will result in more teaching to the test.

And VAMs themselves are invalid, Mr. President.  The American Statistical Association is quite clear on this in its recent statement on the use of VAMs for teacher evaluation.

The measure of student achievement is typically a score on a standardized test, and VAMs are only as good as the data fed into them. Ideally, tests should fully measure student achievement with respect to the curriculum objectives and content standards adopted by the state, in both breadth and depth. In practice, no test meets this stringent standard, and it needs to be recognized that, at best, most VAMs predict only performance on the test and not necessarily long-range learning outcomes. Other student outcomes are predicted only to the extent that they are correlated with test scores. A teacher’s efforts to encourage students’ creativity or help colleagues improve their instruction, for example, are not explicitly recognized in VAMs…

It is unknown how full implementation of an accountability system incorporating test-based indicators, such as those derived from VAMs, will affect the actions and dispositions of teachers, principals and other educators. Perceptions of transparency, fairness and credibility will be crucial in determining the degree of success of the system as a whole in achieving its goals of improving the quality of teaching. Given the unpredictability of such complex interacting forces, it is difficult to anticipate how the education system as a whole will be affected and how the educator labor market will respond.

This is clear-cut, sir.  There are no current high stakes tests that meet the requirements of a well developed VAM, and there is no evidence about how VAMs will influence the schools in which they are deployed, but your signature education program is incentivizing them anyway.

To date, no study reliably shows that current VAMs can be used the way they are going to be used over the next few years, but that has not stopped the Gates Foundation from being front and center in this issue as well.  The Gates commissioned “Measures of Effective Teaching” study concluded that VAMs can be effectively used to evaluate teachers, but Jesse Rothstein of the University of California at Berkeley demonstrated clearly how flawed the study was, especially how it drew conclusions only weakly supported by its own data:

The results presented in the report do not support the conclusions drawn from them. This is especially troubling because the Gates Foundation has widely circulated a stand-alone policy brief (with the same title as the research report) that omits the full analysis, so even careful readers will be unaware of the weak evidentiary basis for its conclusions…

Hence, while the report’s conclusion that teachers who perform well on one measure “tend to” do well on the other is technically correct, the tendency is shockingly weak.  As discussed below (and in contrast to many media summaries of the MET study), this important result casts substantial doubt on the utility of student test score gains as a measure of teacher effectiveness.  Moreover, the focus on the stable components – which cannot be observed directly but whose properties are inferred by researchers based on comparisons between classes taught be the same teacher – inflates the correlations among measures.  Around 45% of teacher who appear based on the actually-observed scores to be at the 80th percentile on one measure are in fact below average on the other. Although this problem would decrease if information from multiple years (or multiple courses in the same year) were averaged, in realistic settings misclassification rates would remain much higher than the already high rates inferred for the stable components.

It is almost inconceivable how it is that our nation is rushing forward with a package of reforms that are being implemented at breakneck speed with such damaging potential and with so little evidence to suggest that they will do anyone any good, and with mounting evidence that they are objectively harmful.  But one thing is actually very certain: these “reforms” and their attendant policies are making some people a substantial profit.

Three years ago, education writer and consultant and former National Board Certified Teacher Nancy Flanagan noted that the rush for CCSS implementation meant that a publishing bonanza was on the horizon.   Certainly, their implementation with the coming testing requirements has been a bonanza for Pearson who landed the contract to write and implement the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)  testing consortium.  At a predicted cost of 24 dollars for a set of tests as the math and ELA testing comes on line, Pearson is guaranteed a huge new income stream from the more than 10 million students currently in PARCC states.  But Pearson is only the most public face of making money off of the reforms put in place by your administration.  Common standards and mass testing generate vast amount of data, and technology companies are starting up all intending to mine that data for profit.  This is ground that has been ploughed by Rupert Murdoch who, when he began acquiring education technology firms, identified a “500 billion dollar sector” waiting for “big breakthroughs”.  Bill Gates has also been involved in this sector, setting up the data cloud storage firm InBloom for 100 million dollars, and watching it close when parental concerns over data security and the plan to allow vendors to access the data could not be overcome.  But other firms such as Knewton intend to continue data mining and creating products based upon that analysis, and none of them, regardless of how intriguing their products might be, demonstrate sufficient care about the need to explain their services to parents, the need to allow parents and guardians to opt their children out of the data pool or the need to build real support among the people whose children are being transformed into revenue.

I am asking you as a father, sir: would this be acceptable to you?  I regret to inform you, Mr. President, that your own administration has abetted this by changing the regulations that implement the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act.

Publishers, testing companies and technology firms are not the only ones who are reaping new windfalls from your education policies, Mr. President.  It turns out that Wall Street investors are eager to see another aspect of Race to the Top, charter school expansion, continue as rapidly as everything else, and while many of them proclaim to be fans of the charter schools’ alleged “successes” it is also clear that many of them have also figured out how to make guaranteed money from supporting charter schools.  Hedge fund billionaires can use a combination of federal tax credits to make investing in charter school construction a vehicle that can guarantee a doubled return within 7 years.  This is entirely unlike traditional school construction funding via bond issues because such bond issues are done in the open and for a public with a vote for or against the responsible school boards.  This is done entirely in private and with no oversight and precious little public knowledge.  It is little wonder then that Wall Street interests are not only investing in charter school construction, they are also organizing PACs such as Democrats for Education Reform specifically to keep state governments granting more and more charters, something else that you enabled with the provisions of Race to the Top.

You might be able to justify this, Mr. President if you could claim that charter schools are actually the solution to American education, but to make that claim you would have to ignore evidence.  Many charters are excellent schools.  Many are terrible.  But there is no evidence that the charter school segment is consistently outperforming fully public schools.  There is, however, evidence that charter schools do not educate children with disabilities at comparable levels as fully public schools.  There is evidence that charter schools do not serve students who are English Language Learners like their fully public peer schools do.  There is evidence that one of the most prominent charter operators in New York City, Eva Moskowitz of Success Academy, is not telling the truth about the number of children in poverty that she serves, the real achievements of her schools test scores, or the rate of attrition for students with disabilities and language learning issues.

These schools are not miracle factories, Mr. President, but supporting their expansion is making people money.  Your Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, once opined that Hurricane Katrina was the “best thing” ever for New Orleans Schools because it shook up the status quo and got people “serious” about reform.  That “reform” has meant that this week, the last public school in New Orleans has closed for good, and the city school system in entirely comprised of charter schools.  Amidst growing evidence that many prominent charter operators are not equally educating students and amidst disturbing studies about rising segregation in the charter sector, I cannot help but wonder how Secretary Duncan justifies his statement today.

No wonder teacher morale is at an all time low.

Your public voice in these issues has been a disaster for you, Mr. President.  Secretary Duncan may be the most controversial person to hold that office since its creation, and he has repeatedly demonstrated that he is both insensitive to teacher and parental concerns and fully vested in a false narrative about American education.  Mr. Duncan has frequently repeated to charges from corporate reformers and privatizers that American education is stagnant and that we can infer a need for their favored reforms from international testing data.  This is part of a narrative of deepening failure which thoroughly ignores how American students have never fared well on such measures and how these scores and our economic health have little connection.  Mr. Duncan has observed that he believes our teachers are not educated enough and we should be more like South Korea, despite the fact that South Korea’s educational “success” comes with high costs:  20% of family income on average spent on private “cram” classes, focus on drill and rote learning that leads to high test scores, and wide recognition that South Korean children face too much pressure, leading to an alarming youth suicide rate.  This is hardly praise worthy, sir.

Secretary Duncan’s misunderstanding extends to why people are criticizing the CCSS and other Race to the Top reforms.  I am sure that you know how he said that Common Core opponents are often “white suburban moms” who are upset to find out their children are not “as brilliant as they thought they were”.  Mr. Duncan apologized for the remark, but his insinuation that any opposition to CCSS is unreasonable betrays that he really does not understand the issue.  Mr. President, American parents, by wide margins, believe that the schools their children attend are doing very good work, and despite three decades of an unrelenting failure narrative, that percentage, over 70%, has remained stable.  What parents are saying is that Common Core, evaluating teachers by tests and the increase in high stakes testing and heavy pressure on schools to raise test scores at all costs have come too rapidly, with too little transparency, and with extreme negatives vis-a-vis how children experience school.  Mr. Duncan does not understand that as evidenced by his remarks in April with NY Commissioner John King where he called parental protests “drama and noise.”  Mr. Duncan may call the 10s of 1000s of families who have opted out of Pearson’s testing and the list of districts refusing to field test the exams “drama and noise”.  Many, myself included, call it a movement that is ignored and dismissed at peril.  I do not know if your Secretary of Education has told you that most opposition to reform comes from Glenn Beck styled cranks and spoiled suburbanites, but if he has, you have been sorely misinformed.

Mr. President, in 1999 Congress passed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, also known as the Financial Services Modernization Act, and President Clinton signed it into law.  Although the trends in mortgage lending and investment products that led to the financial crisis had begun long before 1999, the removal of regulations that prevented commercial and investment banks and insurance firms from blending their businesses greatly accelerated the damage being done to our financial industry.

Mr. President, I am afraid that history will look upon Race to the Top as your Financial Services Modernization Act, a tool crafted to be cynically misappropriated by interests with no concern for the public good.

And what is so frustrating, Mr. President, is how entirely unnecessary this judgment of history will be.  Our schools need help, sir, but it is not help that will be found by racing to implement new standards, layering on more high stakes tests, threatening teachers’ livelihoods with invalid statistical models or by turning more and more of our urban school districts over to for profit charter school corporations.  Our schools are afflicted by the same thing that afflicts our society: rising poverty and constant cuts to assistance for the poor.  16 million children in the United States live in poverty; that is 22% of all children, 38.2% of all African American children and 35% of Hispanic children.  Our schools serve communities, and our segregation by income has increased over the past 30 years, meaning that both rich and poor increasingly live in communities with people mostly of their own income level.  The Residential Income Segregation Index (RISI) scores for Houston, Dallas, New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia are all above 50, and the RISI has gone up in every region of the country since 1980.  Nationally, it is 46, an increase of 39% since 1980.

We see this when we look at our PISA scores broken down by the income characteristics of communities.  According to USC Professor Emeritus Stephen Krashen, the portrait of America’s schools look very different when poverty characteristics are considered.  In schools where less than 10% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, our PISA scores are higher than the average for any OECD nation, but where 75% or more of students are in poverty, the PISA scores are second to last.  Given that our communities are increasingly segregated by income, Mr. President, it is inevitable that test score data compared nation to nation will be misleading.

It is at this point that Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Eva Moskowitz, Andrew Cuomo, Bill Gates, Whitney Tilson, and a host of other corporate “reformers” will line up to accuse me of making “excuses” for “bad schools”.  They will insist, absent any evidence, that “great teachers” can close the achievement gap even if we completely fail to address poverty in our communities.  But it is not “making excuses” to insist that if we want a child living in poverty to succeed in school that we cannot ignore whether or not she knows if she is going to eat tonight, or if she will have a place to sleep, or if her parents will continue to work or any of the host of other matters that afflict children in poverty in ways that negatively impact their formal education.  Mr. President, we have known the long term impacts of poverty on children for some time now just as we have known that it has been growing and deepening, and we spend far less than our peer nations on helping to alleviate the detrimental impacts of poverty.  Nothing in education policy in the past three decades has done anything to address that.

That is not “excuse making,” Mr. President, that is aiming the analysis at the actual problem, whether or not addressing the problem will make anyone a profit.

You have an advantage that few of your predecessors had, Mr. President, and it is your demonstrated interest in and ability to genuinely listen to others.  Joshua Dubois wrote about your meetings with the families at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and how for hours, you sat, embraced, asked questions and listened to them. What strikes me, sir, is how, despite an election year warming up, you never once mentioned this to the press and never once used this remarkable testament to your character for political gain.  I urge you, Mr. President, to visit teachers, parents and children in the same manner, without cameras or vetting, and just ask them what they want our schools to be.  You will not find their answers easily mapped onto your education policies.

It is not too late for you to have a transformational impact on America’s schools, Mr. President, but it will take a number of immediate actions to have a chance.  I ask you to consider the following, badly needed, steps:

  1. Scrap Race to the Top: Your signature education policy is detrimental to children, teachers, schools and communities.  Ending it will not do away with the Common Core State Standards, testing or charter schools, but it will free states and districts to look truly reflectively at these initiatives and to voluntarily engage in as little or as much of them as they deem necessary and beneficial.  It will require proponents of these policies to make their cases in full view of the public in all 50 states instead of hiding behind coercive requirements for federal funding.
  2. Restore Federal Privacy Protections: Technology entrepreneurs may have truly powerful learning tools in development, but to make them work, they need student records deemed private under federal law.  Instead of engaging teachers and parents about these tools, they got your administration to revise regulations and are now mining those records without any meaningful consent.  This is unacceptable, and it must stop.  Our children are not sent to public school to be monetized without our consent.  Parents will listen to open and honest efforts to describe how these tools can benefit their children, but they will oppose efforts to bypass them.
  3. Be Serious About Holding Charter Schools Accountable to Civil Rights Legislation: Your administration recently expressed interest in making certain that charter schools meet federal civil rights requirements.  This is a good first step.  It must be applied vigorously, especially given how poorly many high profile charter operators do in serving students with disabilities, educating English Language Learners and retaining students of color after admission.  Your administration has granted enormous favoritism to charter schools, and they must be made fully accountable.
  4. Demand a Marshall Plan for School Aid and Construction:  Nearly all states are spending less money per pupil today than in 2008. In New York State, the average school district still receives $3.1 million less in state aid than they would have without budgetary tricks like the Gap Elimination Adjustment.  All across the country, our public schools are being told to implement a complex new curriculum, meet unrealistic testing requirements and to do so while having their budgets cut to the bone.  Further, in 2008, the AFT commissioned a study that estimated a need for over $250 billion in school infrastructure spending nationwide, a need that remains unmet.  It adds insult to injury that students come from homes that suffer from the deprivations of poverty and arrive in schools that are cold in the winter, hot in the summer and wet when it rains.  Our nation must do something about this.  At the same time, you must highlight schools where children in poverty thrive, not merely where they get good test scores.
  5. Replace Secretary Duncan: Mr. Duncan is entwined so deeply in the Race to the Top approach to reform that he is incapable of moving away from it.  Your Secretary of Education demonstrates no understanding of why people oppose current reforms, little willingness to see his mistakes as more than verbal slip ups, and he consistently misuses international test data to denigrate the quality of our schools and teachers.  If you want to protect our schools from the forces of corporate reform, Secretary Duncan cannot lead.

You have an opportunity, Mr. President, to retask the federal Department of Education with protecting our national Commons, our history of 200 years of seeing public education as a public good for communities and a private good for individuals.  Your administration has abetted the use of our public schools by private and corporate interests in ways that are actually detrimental to education.  If you wish that to not be your legacy, you must act now.


Daniel S. Katz, Ph.D.

Director, Secondary and Secondary/Special Education Teacher Preparation, Seton Hall University

Career Educator

Father of Two Public School Children



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Filed under Activism, charter schools, Common Core, DFER, Gates Foundation, politics, Privacy, schools, Social Justice, Stories, teaching, Testing, VAMs

Can We Talk About Poverty And Violence NOW?

I became aware of this via a graduate school colleague.  Research from the CDC and Harvard University identifies that as much as 30% of young people in our urban areas suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as the result of living in communities afflicted by violence, a rate higher than soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.  This citation recently went viral because of report on a San Francisco CBS affiliate that mentioned the research — while deciding to coin the phrase “hood disease” to describe the phenomenon.  Response to that polarizing and sensationalist turn of phrase was swift, and it was well earned.  Hopefully, it will not obscure a chance to focus on a conversation that is desperately missing from today’s education conversation — the impact of poverty and violence on children and what it means to provide meaningful education for those children.

I am not optimistic, unfortunately.  Discussing the impacts of poverty and community violence on children would mean taking a good hard look at American society as a whole, how segregated we remain as a society (and how it is getting worse since 1980), how poorly we do as a country at helping families in poverty and how we largely ignore problems that are clustered in communities that are predominantly of color. I find it hard to believe that we are ready for a conversation today.  It would require more willingness for painful introspection and confrontation of racism that many prefer to believe does not exist.

Optimism is further undercut by the fact that the impacts of poverty on all sorts of outcomes for young people is not precisely news, although the PTSD estimates for community violence should cause more people to take notice.  “Effects of Poverty on Children” was published in 1997 and found vast differences in physical, cognitive, school achievement, and emotional and behavioral outcomes for children living in poverty, and it described the ways in which poverty influences these outcomes.  They recommended community health, parental education, in home interventions, and renewed efforts to eliminate deep, sustained poverty.  Not one of these recommendations found their way into the Bush era No Child Left Behind education reform bill nor into its Obama administration successor, Race to the Top.  Arizona State University Regents’ Professor Emeritus David Berliner delivered the Presidential Invited Speech at the 2005 meeting of the American Educational Research Association, and he titled in “Our Impoverished View of Education Reform.”  Among his conclusions:

All I am saying in this essay is that I am tired of acting like the schools, all alone, can do what is needed to help more people achieve higher levels of academic performance in our society. As Jean Anyon (1997, p. 168) put it “Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”

To clean the air on both sides of the screen door we need to begin thinking about building a two-way system of accountability for contemporary America. The obligation that we educators have accepted to be accountable to our communities must become reciprocal. Our communities must also be accountable to those of us who work in the schools, and they can do this by creating social conditions for our nation that allow us to do our jobs well. Accountability is a two way process, it requires a principal and an agent. For too long schools have thought of themselves only as agents who must meet the demands of the principal, often the local community, state, or federal government. It is time for principals (and other school leaders) to become principals. That is, school people need to see communities as agents as well as principals and hold communities to standards that insure all our children are accorded the opportunities necessary for growing well.

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.

But since that address in 2005, “one-way accountability” has not only dominated policy, it has actually spawned an entire industrial scaled investment in testing and data, entrenching it even deeper.  Even though it has very little to do with the issues that plague impoverished communities in our country and the schools that try to serve them.

Most of what you’ve read about our “failing” national schools is based on flawed data.  Even using the preferred tool of accountability advocates, standardized tests, the crisis in our public schools is one of community poverty.  This graphic comes courtesy of Christine McCarthy, a New York City public school teacher and recipient of a Distinguished Fullbright Award in Teaching:


Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at USC provides the data for this chart which should make it crystal clear that the constant doubling down on standards and testing will have no serious impact on the international testing gaps that produce such gnashing on the teeth in the media and in Washington.  A test does not alleviate the well documented impacts of poverty.  Firing a teacher whose students are performing poorly on a test does not alleviate the well documented impacts of poverty.

It is at this junction, that a Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein comes along, sometimes on a talk show, to say that there should be “no excuses” for even a school with a 75% or higher poverty rate.  Their preferred “no excuses” methods involve firing as many people as they can, closing down schools and turning more and more children over to charter school operators.  Certainly, many of those operators like to claim that they’ve found the “secret sauce” to educating within communities afflicted by high rates of poverty.  Eva Moskowitz’s “Success Academy” empire claims that it is educating the exact same students as the neighborhood schools in Harlem, but that claim is simply false, and a parent at Upper West Side Success documented on tape how administrators have tried to counsel out her son who has an IEP, something no neighborhood school could do.  Northstar Academy in Newark loves to claim at 100% graduation rate for seniors, but it fails to report its 50% attrition rate prior to senior year.

The lesson here is that there is no “special sauce” and “Superman” is a comic book hero.  We, as a society, have never figured out a way to provide large scale, genuine, educational opportunity to children growing up in communities with deep and persistent poverty.  We, as a society, are woefully uncommitted to alleviating poverty and have even come to accept the terrifying 20% rate of childhood poverty as normal and perhaps inevitable.  But absent those two commitments, no amount of firing teachers or testing students until they cry is going to “fix” American education.

And this is where I worry for the future again:  I think it is very likely that a combination of suburban parental outrage and teacher activism is going to push back hard on current reforms.  If Common Core survives, it will be substantially modified with fewer tests and less emphasis on value added models of teacher evaluation.  The fact is that pushing the punishment narrative that has been the burden of urban schools for so long to communities that generally like their schools is going to create a backlash.  But once those parents have pushed back and changed these systems, we will still be left with communities rife with damaging poverty and violence, and we will most likely go back to ignoring those facts.

And the next cycle of “reform” will ignore it too.

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