Education Opportunity Network

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4/16/2014 – Education Reform’s Biggest Bust

THIS WEEK: Reform Harms Civic Engagement … Public School Advantage … Digital Divide In Schools … Teens Can’t Find Work … More College Students Battle Hunger


Are Teacher Evaluations Education ‘Reform’s’ Biggest Bust?

By Jeff Bryant

“Just this week, a key underpinning to the whole teacher evaluation program pushed by the Obama administration was cast into doubt … These new schemes are doing great harm to teachers and, consequentially, the students in their charge … Meantime, the only response from those in charge has been to ‘stay the course.’”
Read more …


Education: States’ Standardized Tests Have A Negative Impact On Parents’ Civic Engagement

Science Daily

“New research has found that parents of public school students in states with more extensive and stringent student assessment systems express lower trust in government and more negative views of their children’s schools … Highly developed assessment policies alienate parents from government and discourage parental involvement in education … Parents in states with more developed assessment systems were less likely to become engaged in some parental involvement behaviors, especially contacting teachers and participating in school fundraisers … These policies tend to depress civic engagement among parents because they provide few opportunities for parental input and can introduce undesirable changes into schools.”
Read more …

The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools

Stanford Social Innovation Review

“Evidence … points to a new, emerging view of the academic performance and impact of public schools in contrast to the outcomes of their more autonomous counterparts in the charter and private sectors … The data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices, while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such reforms, leading to curricular stagnation … Despite what many reformers, policy makers, media elites, and even parents may believe, these public schools are, on average, actually providing a more effective educational service relative to schools in the independent sector.”
Read more …

Vast Digital Divide Exists In K-12 Schools, E-Rate Analysis Shows

Education Week

“Applications for federal E-rate money show broad gaps between wealthy and poor school systems’ access to high-quality technologies, and varying abilities among districts to purchase connectivity at affordable rates … The country’s schools – particularly its most impoverished ones – have a long way to go … Schools with higher levels of technology buy at cheaper prices … Many districts, even those who in theory could obtain connectivity, often can’t afford it … Many technology advocates, meanwhile, have called for raising the [federal E-rate] program’s yearly budget from the current $2.4 billion to as much as $5 billion.”
Read more …

What Happens When American Teenagers Can’t Find Work

National Journal

“The employment rates for teenagers, ages 16 to 19, plummeted from 45 percent in 2000 to just 26 percent in 2011 … the lowest rate of teen employment in the post-World War II era. The teens hardest hit by the tough labor market also happen to be the least fortunate ones: those with less education, from poorer households, or from minority backgrounds … Study after study shows that early work experience helps teens and young adults build confidence and pick up crucial soft skills, like how to arrive at work on-time and not irritate one’s boss … Prescriptions: Incorporating more apprenticeships and internships into educational settings; giving teenagers access to skills training that a particular region will need in the future; and more robust career counseling to make teens think ahead.”
Read more …

More College Students Battle Hunger As Education And Living Costs Rise

The Washington Post

“A problem known as ‘food insecurity’ – a lack of nutritional food … is increasingly on the radar of administrators, who report seeing more hungry students, especially at schools that enroll a high percentage of youths who are from low-income families or are the first generation to attend college … As campuses look for solutions, the number of university food pantries has shot up, from four in 2008 to 121 today … Although there are no comprehensive nationwide surveys of student hunger, experts said, there is evidence that it is rising and may be much higher than the national average for all age groups.”
Read more …

Are Teacher Evaluations Education ‘Reform’s’ Biggest Bust?

Would you like your job performance judged by a five-year-old?

That’s a relevant question for public school teachers in Hawaii, where the state’s new teacher evaluation system attributes ten percent of their job performance rating on what children as young as 5 years old think.

Although ten percent may not seem like a whole lot, in a metric based evaluation system where harsh judgments of “effective” versus “needs improvement” can swing either way based on a point or two, ten percent can be one hundred percent of the reason for a bad grade.

But the child’s portion is not the sole problem Hawaiian teachers are having with their new evaluation system, which will ultimately affect their pay and can subject them to penalties as severe as termination.

As the article cited above reported, a recent survey conducted jointly by the state Department of Education and the teachers’ union found that “as many as four in five” teachers responding to the survey have problems with the new evaluations, ranging from “confusion … to skepticism about its fairness”.

Hawaii isn’t the only state having problems with new teacher evaluation systems that are being rolled out across the nation at the encouragement – others would contend, coercion – of the federal government.

According to Education Week, at least a dozen states have asked the U.S. Department of Education to allow them delays in rolling out new teacher evaluations systems. Two of those states, Maryland and North Carolina, received Race to the Top grants that committed them to erecting new teacher evaluation systems. The rest of the states pledged to implement new evaluation systems in order to receive waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind law.

In states that have had more success at implementing new teacher evaluations, the results have been decidedly underwhelming.

As Education Week reported last year, “In Michigan, 98 percent of teachers were rated effective or better under new teacher-evaluation systems recently put in place. In Florida, 97 percent of teachers were deemed effective or better. Principals in Tennessee judged 98 percent of teachers to be ‘at expectations’ or better last school year, while evaluators in Georgia gave good reviews to 94 percent of teachers taking part in a pilot evaluation program.”

Indiana‘s new evaluation program found, “88 percent of teachers and administrators were rated as either effective or highly effective under the system; only about 2 percent need improvement, and less than a half a percent were deemed ineffective.”

In many of these states where supposedly under-performing teachers have been spotted, there are numerous anecdotes that the labeling has been either highly questionable or blatantly mistaken. Teachers in Florida, for instance, have their performance rated using the test scores of students they’ve never even taught. Really!

More recently, in Washington state, the stakes over new teacher evaluations ratcheted up further when legislators refused to commit the state to new evaluations, which could result in the state losing control of over roughly $38 million in federal funds for schools serving low-income students.

And just this week, a key underpinning to the whole teacher evaluation program pushed by the Obama administration was cast into doubt. As Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuck again reported, the American Statistical Association, “the world’s largest community of statisticians,” examined the practice of basing teachers’ performance evaluations on students’ standardized test scores – a key criterion for getting Race to the Top money or an NCLB waiver – and warned against this approach.

All this controversy over teacher evaluations could be just a grand debate among academicians and policy wonks if it weren’t for the fact that these new schemes are doing great harm to teachers and, consequentially, the students in their charge.

Further, results from these questionable measures are being used to construct all sorts of new mandates, building an even more imposing policy edifice on a foundation of sand. While in the meantime, the only response from those in charge has been to “stay the course.”

How We Got Here

The idea of basing the fate of teachers, even whole schools, on how students perform on standardized tests started as a theory cooked up by what University of Texas education professor Julian Vasquez Helig has called “a motley alliance” between civil rights proponents and politically influential foundations and organizations who advocate for more private sector control of public education.

Civil rights proponents have long maintained, correctly, that schools that serve the most disadvantaged children have tended to have the least qualified teachers, as measured by preparation, experience, and other factors. So in the interest of “equity,” these advocates insist that in order for states to receive grant money from big ED, or have certain federal laws waived, they must impose teacher evaluation systems that use standardized test scores to evaluate teacher “effectiveness” and then distribute the “most effective” teachers more widely to under-served schools.

The goal of privatization proponents, on the other hand, is to reduce the role of the state in public education and shift the education system towards a profit-making enterprise. Labeling teachers effective/ineffective serves their purposes because when they can define the act of teaching as an “output” – a rating based on student test scores – they can use as leverage to pry teachers’ unions away from their influence and argue for giving pay raises and merit rewards to smaller pools of only the most “effective” teachers.

Any attempt to ease the impractical and often erroneous mandate to evaluate teachers based on student test scores is met with strong opposition from these two seemingly incompatible parties.

With the backing of what appears to be a “bipartisan” constituency, lawmakers and policy wonks line up to support  these evaluation systems, even though the technical aspects are largely unresolved.

Reducing Teaching To A Math Problem

Reflecting on the new ASA study referenced above, education journalist Valerie Strauss wrote on her blog at The Washington Post, that current teacher evaluation methods of evaluating teachers “purport to be able to take student standardized test scores and measure the ‘value’ a teacher adds to student learning through complicated formulas,” but “these formulas can’t actually do this with sufficient reliability and validity.”

As Rutgers professor Bruce Baker has stated on his School Finance 101 blog, “different choices of statistical model or method for estimating teacher ‘effect’ on test score growth … even subtle changes … can significantly change individual teacher’s ratings and significantly reshuffle teachers across rating categories.”

Does that sound like a valid and reliable evaluation to you?

Yet in the meantime, politicians and policy makers are advocating for these evaluatons – measures that they by-and-large do not understand, as Kevin Welner of the National Education Policy Center recently observed. Writing on the blog site of education historian Diane Ravitch, Welner explained, “The math is just too complex … vectors capturing the effect of lagged scores, mathematical descriptions of Bayesian estimates, and within-student covariance matrices … has the obvious effect of placing policy makers at the mercy of whichever experts they choose to listen to.

Welner concluded, “We should, at the very least, recognize and acknowledge the reality that these policies are being adopted by policy makers who pretty much have no clue what it is that they’re putting in place.”

Consequently, the results on the ground rarely resemble the neat and clean explanations given to lawmakers by the “experts.” In Connecticut, for instance, the new teacher evaluation system has resulted in something “conceptually appealing,” according to David Title, superintendent of schools in that state, but “very difficult to do technically … There are so many different variables that impact student achievement … What you’re not able to do, in my view, is prove cause and effect.”

The Impact On Teachers

With so little understanding of the technical difficulties with teacher evaluations, it’s even more important to consider, as Welner argued, “the non-technical evidence” of teacher evaluations.

Indeed many of the non-technical results of new teacher evaluations should make their use questionable to anyone with an ounce of common sense.

In Hawaii, teachers are understandably concerned that “children as young as 5 years old who evaluate them will put ‘thought and effort” into their answers.’” The data input for the system “obliges teachers to prioritize testing over more constructive forms of teaching,” according to one veteran teacher. And more time that teachers spent on instruction has been diverted to filling out paper work.

In Connecticut, school principals have to complete 17 reports throughout the year for every single teacher in their school, and teachers have to spend hours completing evaluation goals, student learning targets, and observation records – all of which take time from educating students.

In Rochester, N.Y., teachers are suing the state because the new evaluations don’t take into account any student factors such as poverty levels and number of absences.

New Jersey teacher-blogger Jersey Jazzman recently observed that the proposed evaluation system for his state “relies on Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs), based on standardized tests, to evaluate teachers. Yet the very man who is the “inventor” of SGPs has said that they cannot be used to determine a teacher’s effect on student learning!” (emphasis original)

As Diane Ravitch observed in one of her numerous blogposts about faulty teacher evaluations, “My government spent billions to find teachers to fire, and all we got was confusion.”

The Benefits Of All This?

Meanwhile, no one advocating for test-based teacher evaluations can be satisfied.

Those who advocate for teacher evaluations that result in distribution of more high-quality teachers to schools serving low-income minority students don’t have much to celebrate. Tennessee, for instance, has had a teacher evaluation system based on student test scores in place longer than most other states. When that state outpaced the rest of the nation in gains on the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress, some credited it to the state’s teacher evaluation system, among other “reforms.”

However astute blogger Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, who devotes her site to the issue of teacher evaluations looked at Tennessee’s accomplishment more closely and found the state has an expanding achievement gap. “The state’s lowest socioeconomic students continue to perform poorly on the test.” Tennessee didn’t make gains significantly different than many other states. And “other states with similar accountability instruments and policies (e.g., Colorado, Louisiana) did not make similar gains, while states without such instruments and policies (e.g., Kentucky, Iowa, Washington) did make similar gains.”

Teachers in Tennessee, in fact, have filed two lawsuits against the state for its unfair evaluation scheme.

For those who want to see a greater role for the private sector in public education, the results are frustrating too. Writing at the conservative journal National Affairs, Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute recently blamed this colossal policy failure on “getting public employees to actually do what policymakers think they’ve told them to do.”

Insisting, “the right response to these disappointing trends is certainly not to abandon the reform agenda,” Hess declared, in absence of his preference “for schools and districts do not go out of business,” a need for “a complete reform movement” that is “willing and able to rethink old norms.”

Certainly, one of those “old norms” is that the quality of teachers matters a great deal to our students. But it makes no sense to believe we’ll get better quality teachers by treating them this badly.

Even a five-year-old could see that.

4/10/2014 – America’s Biggest Failures

THIS WEEK: Poverty Saps Instructional Time … Why Let Kids Make Rules … Chicago Charter Schools Are No Better … Do E-Books Harm Reading Comprehension … For-Profit College Capture Washington, DC


Testing Season Reveals America’s Biggest Failures

By Jeff Bryant

“It’s testing season in America, and regardless of how the students do, it’s clear who is already flunking the exams … So far, major media outlets and an entrenched education regime that’s prevailed in policy making for over 30 years are proving they’re not up to the task.”
Read more …


Poverty-Related Challenges Sap Instructional Time In High Schools

Education Week

“Poverty-related challenges steal time from high school class periods, leading students at low-income schools to receive an average of half an hour less instruction per day than their higher-income peers … Disruptions such as welcoming new students to the classrooms, and locking down the school during emergencies and drills eat away at more instructional time at high poverty schools than in lower-poverty schools … Teachers at high-poverty schools were significantly more likely to report that they experienced chronic loss of instructional time because their classrooms were noisy or needed to be cleaned and because they did not have enough qualified substitute teachers, computers, or access to the school library … Teachers in high-poverty schools also reported spending more time on important but non-instructional tasks such as connecting students to health-care providers, talking to them about future plans, and discussing problems in their lives.”
Read more …

The New School Detention, Where Kids Make Rules And A Prison Pipeline Ends

The Guardian

Dana Goldstein writes, “New kid courts, in which students are empowered to set school rules and mete out the punishments for breaking them, are sometimes called ‘restorative justice’. The concept, borrowed from the world of legal mediation, shows real evidence of working in schools … Those strategies reflect middle-class child-rearing norms … by allowing kids to explain their side of the story and then negotiate a fair set of consequences … Last year the National Institute of Health announced the first randomized study of these strategies, which will help policy-makers figure out if they live up to advocates’ hype. In the meantime, the Obama administration has asked states and schools to make suspensions and expulsions a last resort.”
Read more …

Charter Schools Show Little Difference In School Performance

Chicago Sun-Times

“Since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011, Chicago has ordered the closings of dozens of neighborhood public schools while approving a new wave of publicly financed, privately operated charter schools, in a much-touted effort to improve education … But even as many parents have embraced the new schools, there’s little evidence in standardized test results that charters are performing better than traditional schools … In fact, in 2013, CPS schools had a higher percentage of elementary students who exceeded the standards for state tests for reading and math than the schools that are privately run with Chicago taxpayer funds … As with neighborhood schools, there is a wide range in the test scores of charter schools, even within some of Chicago’s largest charter chains … Unlike charter schools, which can draw students from a broad geographic area, neighborhood schools must adhere to CPS’ attendance boundaries.”
Read more …

Early Concerns About E-Books’ Effect On Reading Comprehension, Researchers Say

Education Week

Two new research studies found, “Digital devices and online reading materials are flooding U.S. schools, but there are some early reasons to worry whether they are helping children better learn to read. … The first study found that a small sample of students comprehended traditional books at ‘a much higher level’ than they comprehended the same material when read on an iPad … The second study found that while students in 18 classrooms were ‘highly motivated by their interactions’ with interactive e-books created using Apple’s iBooks Author software, they ‘often skipped over text, where the meat of the information was’ … The early data raise some concerns and should prompt educators, policymakers, and publishers to reconsider assumptions that the skills students use to read print materials automatically transfer to the reading of digital materials.”
Read more …

The Perfect Lobby: How One Industry Captured Washington, DC

The Nation

“Many of America’s for-profit colleges have proven themselves a bad deal for the students lured by their enticing promises – as well as for US taxpayers … So why does Washington keep the money flowing? … Supporters of stronger standards to protect students from industry predation … have far fewer financial resources for the battle … The [for-profit college] industry has already displayed a willingness to spend tens of millions to manipulate the machinery of modern influence-peddling – and with a remarkable degree of success. Because most of this lobbying money is financed by taxpayers, this is a story of how Washington itself created a monster … Eventually, the predatory for-profit colleges may be forced to curb their egregious behavior as more of it comes to light. Enrollments and share prices have plummeted in recent years as the public has gotten wise. But their aggressive advertising and recruiting continues, and thousands more students will sign up this week for programs that will wreck their futures.”
Read more …

Test Season Reveals America’s Biggest Failures

It’s testing season in America, and regardless of how the students do, it’s clear who is already flunking the exams.

Last week in New York, new standardized tests began rolling out across the state, and tens of thousands of families said “no dice.”

According to local news sources, over 33,000 students skipped the tests – a figure “that will probably rise.”

At one Brooklyn school, so many parents opted their students out of the tests the teachers were told they were no longer needed to proctor the exams. At another Brooklyn school, 80 percent of the students opted out. Elsewhere in Long Island, 41 school districts in Nassau and Suffolk reported thousands of students refusing to take the test, and an additional district reported hundreds more.

Reflecting how the testing rebellion may affect upcoming elections, the Republican opponent to New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, Rob Astorino, announced his intention to opt his children out of state tests.

What is happening in New York is indicative of a groundswell of popular dissent – what Peter Rothberg, a journalist for The Nation and a New York City parent, called a “nationwide movement” – against the over-use and abuse of standardized testing in public schools.

One would think all this consternation begs some response from people whose job it is to react when the populace is enraged. But so far, major media outlets and an entrenched education regime that’s prevailed in policy making for over 30 years are proving they’re not up to the task.

A Storm Surge Out Of Texas Sweeps The Nation

Growing resistance to testing in New York follows a similar popular rebellion in Texas, where a grassroots movement led by parents abruptly undid over 30 years of test supremacy in the state’s education system, according to a new series in The Dallas Morning News.

“No state has been more important than Texas in the growth of standardized testing,” the News reporter noted. “And not just here. Gov. George W. Bush took the model and his education advisers to Washington when he became president. The Texas system provided the scaffolding for No Child Left Behind – and the seed of the new Common Core program that calls for even more testing. In Texas and across the nation, the push for more testing seemed unstoppable. Until it was stopped.”

Despite their success in thwarting the testing juggernaut, more Texas parents are still opting out, the News reported in another article. These parents claim, “An unhealthy focus on test scores has warped what happens in the classroom, so that too much time is spent on testing strategy and on drills that are designed to maximize test scores at the expense of other valuable skills.”

In Massachusetts, school districts that had been warned by the state not to allow parents to withhold their children from new state tests have been caving to demands and give parents permission to opt their children out.

In Connecticut, resistance to the state tests is growing so rapidly that “the state Department of Education released guidelines telling school districts just how to deal with parents who want to opt out.”

In Pittsburgh, hundreds of Pennsylvania parents who had opted their children out of state tests caught the attention of a local news outlet that interviewed one of the mothers leading the fight.

In Colorado, “a growing cacophony of assessment protests” has prompted public school officials to release new guidelines for opting out of tests because of so many “teachersparentsschool leaders and school boards have increasingly raised questions over the merit and amount of testing.” Dozens of activists in the nationwide test resistance movement gathered at an event in Denver to listen to speakers, conduct panels, and share strategies on resisting the tests. A report on the meeting noted that while only 1 percent of parents in Colorado opt their children out of tests, “the movement appears to be gaining traction.”

On the west coast, anticipating the rising test rebellion in Washington, the state’s largest teachers’ union just “passed a motion to support parents and students who opt out of statewide standardized tests.”

At The Lost Angeles Times, one of the paper’s top editorial writers Karen Klein declared, “My family is opting out” of new tests in California. ” I’m not one for whining about standardized tests,” Klein wrote. “I had gone along with the mind-numbing academic program for far too long.”

Education historian Diane Ravitch called Klein’s column an important “defection” because of LAT’s previous editorial support of high-stakes testing and other features of the current education establishment. This turnaround “suggests,” Ravitch concluded, “that the patina of certitude attached to the standardized testing regime may in time crumble as more parents realize how flawed, how subjective, and how limited these tests really are.”

Media Either Mute Or Misrepresent

Outside of local news and blogs, the nation’s test rebellion has garnered little notice from major broadcast outlets, and when it has, the reporting has misrepresented the movement.

In reporting about the tests in New York, a reporter for The New York Times managed to find a few students who claimed the tests were easier – a claim not supported by any other accounts, anywhere, and refuted by the reporter’s own quote from a state official who said the tests were designed to be “more challenging.”

The reporter, Al Baker, minimalized opposition to the tests as “a growing, albeit relatively small, number of parents.” Rather than interviewing any of those parents, he chose to include a quote from a parent who said “she was eager to see” how her son did. Hey, too bad the only “results” she’ll see are a relatively meaningless score and percentile rank many months down the road rather than any item-by-item account that could revel something about her son’s abilities.

In its coverage, NPR chose to run an op ed equating parents who were opting out of tests to parents who refused to allow their children to be vaccinated for infectious diseases. For sure, withholding your children from vaccinations runs the risk of spreading whooping cough or measles. But the writer, Alan Greenblatt, never explained what the “risks” are to withholding students from tests. If he took the time to listen to the people opting out, he might learn that what’s posing the most “risk” to children and education is the tests themselves.

As The Nation’s Michelle Chen explained, there are very specific reasons for wanting to ditch the tests. “There’s something to hate for everyone in these standardized tests,” she wrote. “Students become miserable and bored with constant test-prep; parents and caregivers grow frustrated with curricula that seem to be failing their children … and teachers have raged against the imposition of formulaic, stress-inducing reading and math drills.”

In New York City, three teachers supporting parents opting their children out of tests wrote a letter to NYC school chief Carmen Farina explaining their decision. In the letter, posted at the Answer Sheet blogsite (not part of the paper’s printed editions) at The Washington Post, the teachers called their support “clear acts of conscience” to protest tests that lead to “ranking and sorting of children … encourage students to comply with bubble test thinking,” and “push aside months of instruction to compete in a city-wide ritual of meaningless and academically bankrupt test preparation.”

But the media outlet that scored an A for most tone-deaf coverage was the Beacon of the Beltway, The Washington Post. Choosing to completely ignore the rising chorus of teachers, parents, and students opting out, the Post instead chose to feature an op-ed by Michelle Rhee, the founder and chief executive of StudentsFirst, a lobbying group and prodigious donor to political campaigns.

Rhee stated that refusing the tests “makes no sense” because “all parents want to know how their children are progressing and how good the teachers are in the classroom.”

Too bad these tests don’t really do that. Responding to Rhee from her blogsite at The Washington Post (again, not part of the paper’s printed editions) Valerie Strauss wrote, “Parents who want to know how their children are doing can know — from grades and non-standardized tests their children take in class. The scores of the most important end-of-year standardized tests don’t actually come back to the districts until the summer, making it impossible for teachers to use the results to help tailor instruction to a particular child — if in fact the tests actually gave important information to the teacher. Which by and large they don’t because so many of the tests are badly drawn. Even Rhee admits this in her op-ed.”

The Education Establishment Pushes Back

While the media generally ignore or misrepresent what the testing resistance is all about, an education establishment long used to enforcing top-down mandates is resorting to misinformation and intimidation.

In New York, some school administrators discouraged parents from opting their children out, told them their children would be penalized, or made children not taking the test “sit and stare” rather than reading and drawing quietly.

In Connecticut, state leaders and school district officials have become so alarmed at the growing number of parents opting their children out of tests that they have resorted to misinformation and punishments, according to local blogger Jonathan Pelto, that include denying any “accommodations” for students opting out and withholding use of laptops or other electronic devices, something normally allowed.

Similarly in Chicago, when parents declared their intentions to opt their children out of tests, and teachers refused to administer tests, school officials responded by pulling school children as young as eight out of class and interrogating them about their parents and teachers who had opted them out.

The campaign of misinformation and intimidation goes all the way up the line to the halls of the Department of Education in Washington, DC.

Although the objects of scorn for these parents and educators are state required tests, their anger is not addressed at their state capitals alone. Parents understand that the tests are products of years of top-down mandates imposed from Washington, DC. Most states have competed for federal dollars from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. And practically all states have been granted waivers to the federal No Child Left Behind law. These federal grants and waivers required states to institute vast testing regimes for the purpose of evaluating teachers and rating school performance. So states are intent on enforcing the tests so as not to lose their federal grants or the waivers that protect them from federal sanctions.

One of the states in danger of losing its federal waiver is Washington, where state lawmakers have yet to believe there is a valid reason to tie test scores to teacher evaluations. Few states are willing to run this risk – only Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon so far – so most other states are intent on imposing the tests.

Also, the new tests are alleged to align to new Common Core Standards, which have now become so hugely controversial that two states – Indiana and Oklahoma – have reneged on their pledges to impose them, and many other states are scrambling to rebrand the Standards as something other than a federal mandate.

This week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did all he could in front of a U.S. House committee to back away from the federal government’s link to the Common Core and its aligned tests, stating, “I’m just a big proponent of high standards. Whether they’re common or not is secondary.”

But crack reporter Michele McNeil at Education Week was quick to point out, “The administration’s original $4 billion Race to the Top program awarded 40 points to states for developing and adopting common standards. All 12 of those winners have adopted the standards, and have not backed off. What’s more, a separate, $360 million Race to the Top contest to fund common tests was based on the premise that states needed help developing such assessments based on the common standards. But technically, aligning to the common core wasn’t required (you just probably weren’t going to win without it).”

Proponents of the Common Core now may want to decouple the standards from the tests that parents and teachers are increasingly rebelling against. But that’s becoming increasingly difficult to do. And misinforming – misleading, actually – people about how the two are so entangled is not going to be effective.

How About A Little Honesty?

What’s called for is an honest debate about the tests – how good or bad they are, what are the real limits to their usefulness, and whose ends are being served here (certainly, it doesn’t seem to be the students).

So far, only parents and teachers engaged in opting out seem to be having that debate while an entrenched education establishment does all it can to stifle opposition, and an apathetic media either misses the story or looks the other way.

One of those teachers Elizabeth Phillips, from PS 321 in Brooklyn, New York, wrote in an op-ed at The New York Times, “We were not protesting testing; we were not protesting the Common Core standards. We were protesting the fact that we had just witnessed children being asked to answer questions that had little bearing on their reading ability and yet had huge stakes for students, teachers, principals and schools … We were protesting the fact that it is our word against the state’s, since we cannot reveal the content of the passages or the questions that were asked.”

Phillips called for some transparency in a debate where the people in authority want to hold all the cards and the media act as indifferent bystanders. She suggested, “The commissioner of education and the members of the Board of Regents actually take the tests,” then explain why “these tests gave schools and parents valuable information about a child’s reading or writing ability.”

That might be a pretty good start, but why stop there? One wonders how Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan would do.

4/2/2014 – A ‘Fair Shot’ Agenda For Education

THIS WEEK: The Public School Brand … Common Core Lost Opportunity … Charter Schools And Inequity … Obama’s Boldest Civil Rights Reform … Who Is ‘College Material’?


Time For A ‘Fair Shot’ Agenda For Education

By Jeff Bryant

“There’s an issue rife with populist discontent that Democrats have left out of the Fair Shot agenda: K-12 education … If Democrats want to put forth and fight for a compelling agenda for education they need to draw a sharp contrast with Republicans who espouse the current doctrine of testing, failing, closing, and privatizing … Democrats should have something better than “hope” to ensure they’re not the ones who deserve to get tossed.”
Read more …


The Biggest Public School Problem Might Be the Brand


“Most people believe that charter and private schools are preferable alternatives to traditional public schools … Yet private schools are often outperformed by their public counterparts … Charter school performance also fails to match public perceptions … What accounts for the split between popular perception and actual results … is marketing … Exclusivity also plays a part … The media has a role, as well … Knowing this, we might conduct fewer conversations about an ostensible crisis in public education … and, instead, concentrate on the importance of cultivating positive reputations among the vast majority of public schools that are doing just fine.”
Read more …

The Lost Opportunity Of The Common Core State Standards

Phi Delta Kappan

Education research expert Kevin Welner writes, “The Common Core standards themselves are fine … But the unfortunate reality is that whatever its potential benefits, the actual Common Core package will almost certainly exacerbate the policy failures of the past decade … Test-based accountability policies still advocated by politicians disregard the opportunity side of the equation … Many well-intentioned and smart people are working to advance the Common Core and make it successful. But unless and until our politicians reverse course and focus on closing opportunity gaps, the Common Core will be part of the problem.”
Read more …

What Applying To Charter Schools Showed Me About Inequality

The Atlantic

A parent in the Washington D.C. public schools system writes, “School choice is much less about choice than it looks … When the good being transferred and traded is something that should be a baseline public good for all students, the market solution starts to run into trouble … A system of lotteries can still tilt in favor of families with sufficient resources and free time to get around town and apply to as many as possible … Lotteries also reward families who can afford to live close to high-performing charter schools … Attempts to adjust the lottery unquestionably threaten the ethical neutrality of the school choice model … It opens the door to charges of inequity … In the absence of a school system that provides access to an excellent education for all students … we shouldn’t confuse a Band-Aid for a solution.”
Read more …

Relaxing Zero Tolerance In Schools Could Be Obama’s Boldest Civil Rights Reform

The Conversation

Education professor Paul Thomas writes, “The recent government initiative on discipline in schools could salvage the hope that education reform can turn in the direction of better equity for all students … The Obama administration is calling for an end to harsh discipline policies, such as zero tolerance, that ‘disproportionately affect minorities’ … Just as many of the current education reform commitments – such as those related to high-stakes testing, grade retention, charter schools, and Teach for America – are failing to address, and often intensifying, educational inequity, the discipline policies in US schools represent patterns that must be corrected. Although the Obama administration appears unwilling to change course on academic reform policies, a call for addressing discipline inequities could serve as a turning point that fulfills the claim that education reform in the 21st century is the civil rights issue of our time.”
Read more …

College Material Or Not: Who Should Decide?

The Washington Post

Welner joins award-winning principal Carol Burris to write, “We can all agree: college is not for everybody. But should school officials and top-down policy makers decide based, for example, on Common Core college readiness test scores, or should the decision be left to parents and students after schools have given them meaningful, enriching, equitable opportunities to learn? … History tells us that schools should not be in the business of foreclosing children’s options … When schools sort in this way, it is the disadvantaged children who are directed toward lower-tier tracks … To say in a supposedly neutral way that not all students will go to college is disingenuous without first acknowledging something else: that what’s really being said is that we should accept that college is for the already advantaged … High schools have an obligation to do their best to prepare students for college and career; preparation for both has more overlap than often assumed.”
Read more …

Time For A ‘Fair Shot’ Agenda For Education

“Democrats Scramble to Stave Off Midterm Disaster” was the headline in The New York Times article this week reporting on “the problem” the party has with turning out its base in the upcoming midterm election.

As the reporter explained, “Young voters have abandoned the midterm electorate at more than twice the rate of seniors. Hispanics, who favored Mr. Obama by a margin of 44 percentage points, have voted at just two-thirds the rate of whites. Unmarried women, the source of the Democratic advantage with women, vote less often than their married counterparts.”

Said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster quoted in the article, “This could be a disaster.”

President Obama has warned Democrats they’d better worry about upcoming elections, saying, according to a report in The Hill, “poor turnout could lead the party’s candidates to get ‘walloped.’”

Rushing to the rescue recently was a national plan from Senate Democrats called “A Fair Shot for Everyone,” that “focuses on ensuring that every American who works hard has a fair shot to succeed.”

In rolling out their agenda, Democratic Senate leaders loaded their messaging with pledges of support for “the middle class” and “one set of rules that will help create middle-class security, fairness, and opportunity.”

Republicans were quick to pan the Fair Shot platform, which as my colleague Robert Borosage pointed out this week, is a pretty good indication the Democrats are onto something.

“Poll after poll,” Borosage wrote, “show that majorities hold clear populist postures.” Borosage pointed readers to a web site, The Populist Majority, with polling data that show “majorities hold clear populist postures” based on widespread belief that “rules in this country unfairly favor the rich.”

Echoing Borosage, fellow CAF analyst Dave Johnson wrote, “This is a ‘populist’ agenda and polls show that these are items that the public broadly supports.”

For sure, policy proposals that accompany the Democrats’ call for economic fairness – a minimum wage hike, equal pay for women, defending Medicare, job creation – are high-profile and could turn out an electorate eager to vote for candidates that hold positions in stark contrast to Republicans intent on cozying up to the rich.

But there’s an issue rife with populist discontent that Democrats have left out of the Fair Shot agenda: K-12 education.

You Want Populist? Here’s Yer Populist!

It stands to reason that if you want to see what would turn people out to vote, you might want to look at what turns people out for street protests.

This week, in the streets of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, “nearly 25,000 teachers, parents and students from all corners of the state converged at the state Capitol on Monday to urge legislators to invest in Oklahoma’s public education system,” according to local news stories.

What brought crowds out, according to the reporter, was anger that “funding for Oklahoma yearly public education funding levels are 22.8 percent below 2008 prerecession levels even as schools educate nearly 40,000 more students.”

Similarly, last month in another state capital, Albany, New York, hundreds of protestors descended on the state legislature to voice their discontent with state lawmakers and Governor Andrew Cuomo. “Among the big issues,” according to local reports, “school aid, pre-K funding, and how to pay for a property tax freeze the governor badly wants.”

According to one of the organizers of the event, The Alliance for Quality Education, an $840 million figure for education spending in the new state budget was “well short of the $1.3 billion that the New York State Board of Regents advised would stop schools from having to make cuts.”

According to AQE, “For the last five years, school districts across the state have been making efficiencies and cutting back on resources, including the elimination of 35,000 teachers and other educators statewide. Despite a steady increase in costs, many school districts are operating on less aid than in 2009 due to years of insufficient state funding.”

A day before the New York rally, hundreds of protestors shut down the central business district of Newark, New Jersey to voice their opposition to an austerity plan being imposed on their community by a state appointed school chief. According to local blogger and journalist Bob Braun, the edicts would “close neighborhood public schools, expand charter school enrollment, and lay off experienced city teachers despite seniority.”

High school students in Newark have formed a Student Union and are organizing a school walk out for April 3.

These demonstrations reverberated with the same messages that propelled recent successful teacher actions in Portland, Oregon and St. Paul, Minnesota, where teachers threatened to strike over issues of class size and deteriorating student learning conditions brought about by budget cuts and excessive standardized testing.

When teachers based their grievances on issues of depravation and unfairness, they drew widespread approval from students and parents and got most of what they wanted.

Testing The People’s Patience

The issue of excessive testing is an especially live wire right now as millions of students enter test-taking season across the country. The hours of instructional time taken up by the tests and the anxiety the tests have imposed on students have generated a popular and widespread opt out movement that is growing in Texas, New York, and beyond.

When standardized tests rolled out this week in New York, 70 percent of parents a three Brooklyn schools opted out of the tests, and across Long Island 6,000 students did the same.

So far, numerous state leaders – most recently New York’s state legislators and Governor Cuomo – have responded to the protests by delaying the consequences that test scores have on teacher evaluations and school ratings. But it’s hard to believe these stopgap actions will resolve the anger.

What Democrats Must Understand

Certainly the current education policies in vogue – austerity school budgets, coupled with high stakes testing, punitive standards, and competitive charter schools – are what’s favored by the rich.

Wealthy foundations, big corporations, and private organizations headed by boards stocked with hedge fund millionaires have poured billions of dollars into the roll out of these mandates. But when PR campaigns for these policies claim popular support for their ideas, there’s really no there, there.

The latest example of this was from Florida, where advocates for a statewide school voucher program to redirect tax money meant for public schools into private ones contended that a “huge waiting list” of families who wanted to participate was proof for the need of the new program. It turns out, as The Washington Post reported, “there is no waiting list.”

If Democratic leaders want to see “one set of rules” govern economic policy, certainly they can see that the wealthy, who send their children to private schools, don’t play by the same “set of rules” that mandate testing, standards, and competition for public schools.

So if Democrats want to “put forth and fight for a compelling agenda” (Borsage’s words) for education they need to draw a sharp contrast with Republicans who espouse the current doctrine of testing, failing, closing, and privatizing.

A Fair Shot For Education

If Democrats can envision what a “fair shot” at economic success looks like for every American worker, what’s keeping them from seeing what a fair shot would look like for education?

Progressives behind a populist agenda for education have called for a much more fair and equitable agenda for public schools based on ensuring more students at all levels have opportunities to learn as much as they can.

Those opportunities are buttressed by the following policy demands:

  • Guaranteed access to high quality early education for all, including full-day kindergarten and universal access to pre-K services.
  • Fair and sufficient school funding freed from over-reliance on locally targeted property taxes, so those who face the toughest hurdles receive the greatest resources.
  • Personalized plans and services that provide students with the academic, social, and health supports they need.
  • Recruitment, training, and retention of well-prepared, well-resourced, and highly qualified teachers and school leaders.
  • High-quality diagnostic assessments that go beyond test-driven mandates and help teachers strengthen the classroom experience for each student.
  • Replacing ineffective and discriminatory discipline practices, including inappropriate out-of-school suspensions, with policies and supports that keep all students in quality educational settings.
  • Parent and community engagement, including democratically elected school boards, in determining the policies of schools and the delivery of education services to students.

This Won’t Be Easy

No doubt, taking sides with populist discontent over education policies has its political costs.

In the face-off over charter schools between Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the mayor chose to side with neighborhood activists and public school parents to prohibit some charters from grabbing precious classroom space from deserving public school children who were occupying that space.

This incurred the wrath of wealthy charter school benefactors who summarily rolled out a $5 million ad campaign to attack de Blasio and falsely claim their students are more deserving that students already located at the schools they want to occupy – rent free, by the way.

As Ravitch summarized in her recent article in The New York Review of Books, de Blasio ultimately “capitulated” to the onslaught of the charter school money that “could drive down his poll numbers,” despite the fact that “charter schools are more racially segregated than public schools and have performed no better than the public schools on the most recent state tests.”

Democrats must be prepared with the understanding that the media’s approach to reporting about public schools is to ignore the facet. As Ravitch explains in the de Blasio example, “None of the talking heads checked the facts” to discover that the charter chain being co-located in the “under-performing” city public school has numerous shortcomings of its own.

What Ravitch points to in her conclusion though, is the likelihood of a public awakening to the reality that education policies pressed on communities are essentially a “stealth effort to transfer public funds to support a small number of privately managed schools, amply endowed by billionaires and foundations… devoted to competing with, not helping, the general school population.”

Get Ready For A Public Awakening

This public awakening is in fact already apparent to Democratic candidates in Pennsylvania, where according to state news outlets, the four candidates vying in the gubernatorial primary to take on Republican incumbent and pro-charter school governor Tom Corbett have “promised to take a hard line against charter and cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania, from pulling the plug on ones that struggle to educate to refusing public dollars for ones operated by private companies.”

The public awakening is also apparent to members of the U.S. House who recently introduced a bill to cut the number of standardized tests the federal can impose on states.

The public awakening is apparent to Arizona Congressional Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ-3), a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and leader in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who recently endorsed an effort led by The Network for Public Education (NPE) to call for members of Congress to hold public hearings on the overuse and abuse of standardized testing.

For years, education populism has been tamped down with rhetorical bromide about how we should do “just what works” and “what’s best for kids.” We’ve been persuaded that education is a realm of intricate technocratic complexity that only spreadsheet analysis and looking at “the data” will resolve. Public education policy has been framed as an engineering problem rather than a human struggle with flesh-and-blood consequences and realities.

But as an alphabet soup of policy “solutions” – NCLB, RttT, CCSS, PARCC – continues to get thrown at the problem, people are understanding more and more that there is little to no progress in sight, and in fact, the situation is getting worse.

“Voters are in a sensibly surly mood,” Borosage concluded, “The Democrats only hope is when they go to throw the bums out, they choose different bums to toss.”

As it becomes clearer to the American electorate who the “education bums” are, Democrats should have something better than “hope” to ensure they’re not the ones who deserve to get tossed.

3/26/2014 – When ‘Reform’ Perpetuates Racial Inequity

THIS WEEK: Demographics Affect Teacher Retention … Education Inequality Is Racial … Taxpayers Fund Creationism … Charter Pay Stays Secret … Community Colleges In Crisis


How ‘Education Reform’ Perpetuates Racial Disparity

By Jeff Bryant

“America was shocked, shocked, by new data from the U.S. Department of Education last week showing that a child’s education destiny in the nation’s public schools is strongly determined by race … As the information made the rounds from one media outlet to another, exclamations of concern ensued. Most telling though was that few people bothered to ask how such overt racial disparity came about and why – and what to do to change the trajectory.”
Read more …


Report: As Teacher Demographics Change, Districts Must Prioritize Retention

Education Week

“Between 1988 and 2008, annual teacher attrition increased 41%. Nearly one third of teachers exit the field within the first three years … In urban school systems… more than two thirds of teachers in those schools leave within 5 years. The attrition rate in high poverty schools is 50 percent greater than it is in other schools. Teachers of color leave at much higher rates than white teachers … Teacher attrition costs school districts more than $7 billion to recruit and induct new teachers … Because lower-income urban schools have a particularly hard time with teacher retention, their students on average receive weaker instruction … A national survey of teachers found that over half planned to leave the profession; new teachers who entered the profession through non-traditional routes, including Teach For America, were even more likely to express this outlook.”
Read more …

School Data Finds Pattern of Inequality Along Racial Lines

The New York Times

“Racial minorities are more likely than white students to be suspended from school, to have less access to rigorous math and science classes, and to be taught by lower-paid teachers with less experience … Black students are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students. A quarter of high schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students do not offer any Algebra II courses, while a third of those schools do not have any chemistry classes. Black students are more than four times as likely as white students – and Latino students are twice as likely – to attend schools where one out of every five teachers does not meet all state teaching requirements … Even as early as preschool, black students face harsher discipline than other students.’”
Read more …

Special Report: Taxpayers Fund Creationism In The Classroom


“Taxpayers in 14 states will bankroll nearly $1 billion this year in tuition for private schools, including hundreds of religious schools that teach Earth is less than 10,000 years old, Adam and Eve strolled the garden with dinosaurs, and much of modern biology, geology and cosmology is a web of lies. Now a major push to expand these voucher programs is under way from Alaska to New York, a development that seems certain to sharply increase the investment … About 250,000 students take advantage of vouchers and tax-credit scholarships … up about 30% from 2010. Some states have built growth into their laws … Voucher proponents often describe the programs as a chance for students to escape failing public schools and obtain a better education. Yet the review of school websites and curricula found that some voucher schools openly declare that academics come second to their chief mission: training students to obey and glorify the Lord.”
Read more …

Can NC Charter School Pay Stay Secret?

The Charlotte Observer

“North Carolina charter schools don’t have to disclose employee salaries like other public schools do, even though they receive hundreds of millions of dollars in public money, state education officials said … The state is spending $304.5 million for 127 charter schools that serve about 58,700 students, with counties required to kick in millions more. Twenty-six more charter schools will open in August … People active in education and government … had always assumed that charter schools had to disclose the same salary information that school districts do … But leaders of the state’s two charter school associations … said charter schools’ spending gets adequate oversight through required audits and monitoring by the state Office of Charter Schools.”
Read more …

Community Of Equals?

Democracy Journal

New Century’s Richard Kahlneberg writes, “Community colleges, where a whopping 11 million students are enrolled, or 44% of all undergraduates in the country… do a great job of providing access but a dismal job of helping students complete degrees … When you ask new community college students what they aspire to, 81% say they would eventually like to get a four-year degree. But the reality is that after six years, only 12% of entering community college students graduate with a four-year degree … Increasing segregation and inadequate funding correlate with disappointing outcomes in community colleges … So how can community colleges recapture the dream of promoting social mobility and American competitiveness? Three strategies look promising: scaling up best practices; reforming the way we fund colleges; and reducing racial and economic segregation of students.”
Read more …

How ‘Education Reform’ Perpetuates Racial Disparity

America was shocked, shocked, by new data from the U.S. Department of Education last week showing that a child’s education destiny in the nation’s public schools is strongly determined by race.

As a report in The New York Times put it, the new data revealed that “racial minorities are more likely than white students to be suspended from school, to have less access to rigorous math and science classes, and to be taught by lower-paid teachers with less experience.”

Of course, people who have been paying attention didn’t need a data dump from the DoE to awaken them to the reality that schools in the U.S. continue to discriminate against children of color.

Nevertheless, as the information made the rounds from one media outlet to another, exclamations of concern ensued. Most telling though was that few people bothered to ask how such overt racial disparity came about and why – and what to do to change the trajectory.

The ‘Concern Cop-Out’

Probably, the statistic that raised the most eyebrows was how much school suspensions strongly reflected racial discriminations. As the Associated Press reported, “Black children represent about 18 percent of children enrolled in preschool programs in schools, but almost half of the students suspended more than once … The data shows that black students of all ages are suspended and expelled at a rate that’s three times higher than that of white children.”

But racial disparities in the nation’s schools aren’t just about discipline. As both the Time report mentioned above and Education Week reported, when students of color aren’t getting disproportionally kicked out of school, they are getting an inferior education.

As the Times reported, “The study found that while more than 70 percent of white students attend schools that offer a full range of math and science courses — including algebra, biology, calculus, chemistry, geometry and physics — just over half of all black students have access to those courses. Just over two-thirds of Latinos attend schools with the full range of math and science courses, and less than half of American Indian and Native Alaskan students are able to enroll in as many high-level math and science courses as their white peers.”

And as EdWeek reporter Stephen Sawuchuck noted, “Students of color are more likely to be taught by underqualified teachers, novice teachers, or teachers with lower salaries than their peers.” This is particularly concerning because, Sawchuck reminded, “Novice teachers, particularly those in their first year, are less effective on average than experienced teachers.”

Shocking data for sure. But data alone will not explain anything. As the AP report on racial disparity in school suspensions noted, “The data doesn’t explain why the disparities exist or why the students were suspended.” But surely one would think this data would prompt explanation. Not so much.

In reporting the data, the Department itself found no fault and placed no blame. As a report in The Huffington Post stated, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could only say, “this data collection shines a clear, unbiased light on places” (emphasis added) but not on any policies, people, or other causational factors. And the usual lamentations about how “the United States has a great distance to go” ensued.

Echoing Duncan’s concern, Daria Hall, K-12 policy director at the Education Trust, an advocacy group, also effused how “the report shines a new light” but a light that apparently revealed no perpetrators.

Writing at Crooks and Liars, Melinda Anderson made the more pertinent observation: “It is stupefying to me that so many people who seem to genuinely care about children in public schools and work tirelessly to improve their educational outcomes manage to skirt responsibility for helping to eliminate racial disparities in education.”

Busting The No-Blame Zone

Amidst all the media consternation over the DoE’s new data, what wasn’t reported on was a new study published mere hours before the Department’s revelations that explained what has been perpetuating the problems.

Published by the National Education Policy Center, the report, Seeing Past the “Colorblind” Myth of Education Policy: Why Policymakers Should Address Racial/Ethnic Inequality and Support Culturally Diverse Schools, placed a great deal of blame for racial disparity in education on “education reforms that ignore racial differences and disparities,” according the press release.

The report, NEPC noted, contrasts “race-conscious education policies” such as affirmative action and school desegregation to “reforms, which have been dominant over the past 30 years,” and finds that although those Civil Rights era policies “coincided with the largest reductions in the black-white achievement gap in the nation’s history,” the more recent spate of “reform” policies “have exacerbated racial inequalities in student access to high-quality schooling” and “handicapped a whole generation of American children growing up in an increasingly racially diverse society and global economy.”

How Market-Based Policies Promote Racial Disparities

More specifically, report author Amy Stuart Wells of Teachers College, Columbia University points a finger to “market-based” education policies and “accountability” as agents in spreading education disparities that fall along racial lines.

Market-based principles such as competition and choice exaggerate racial disparities because, as Wells sees it, the nation’s historic legacy of racial segregation and inequality has created an inertia too powerful to break out of with “color blind” policies. Noting that despite the growing number of people who “embrace racial, ethnic and cultural diversity,” Wells points out that far too many are stuck making daily choices in a context in which neighborhoods, schools and opportunities are demarcated by blatant color lines.”

Even as housing pattern trends change occur – for instance, as white migration to urban neighborhoods and black migration to the suburbs have resulted in “trading racial places” – the results still result “a high degree of racial resegregation.”

Wells contends it is “no accident that, over the last 20 years, the expansion of colorblind school choice policies has correlated with increased racial segregation in public education,” because “research evidence leaves little doubt that the proliferation of nominally ‘colorblind,’ market-oriented school choice policies has contributed to growing racial isolation at the macro level.”

Vouchers, another favorite market-based policy promoted in recent decades, have contributed to racial disparities, Wells maintains research has borne out that “disproportionately white low-income families will use vouchers to flee racially diverse public schools, and … white private and more affluent private schools will elect to not admit lower-income students of color with vouchers.”

Rather than fixing racial disparities, Wells finds, market-based approaches to governing schools have reinforced the tendency for school children to be confined to “color lines” deeply ingrained in society that portend material consequences, including what your property values are and the likelihood your child is admitted to a top university.”

How Narrow-Minded Accountability Erodes Diversity

Another problem with the reform agenda, Wells finds, is the entrenched perspective of demanding schools meet certain accountability measures defined by results on student standardized tests. Such narrow expectations, Wells insists, promote racial disparities in two ways.

First, because test scores strongly correlate to the race and class of students, comparisons of school performance based on scores alone invariably leads to more negative perceptions of racially diverse schools. “When the entire educational system is not only separate and unequal along racial/ethnic lines, but also measured, evaluated and then ‘valued’ almost exclusively according to test scores … divers schools are more often deemed to be “bad” which is, Wells explains, “exacerbating the race-based inequalities that already exist.” Thus, white and Asian families are more-so apt to regard racial diversity as “’giving up something’ because their schools will not be seen as ‘excellent,’” and low-income black and Hispanic students become more apt to “fixate on raising test scores via a curriculum focused almost exclusively on the material tested, leaving little room to build upon the knowledge and understandings that students bring to school.”

Second, narrow-minded representations of student achievement reflected by test scores alone limit the abilities of educators to “tap into the educational benefits of the cultural diversity” in schools. Again, because these measures correlate so strongly to race and income, when policy makers use them to judge schools, teachers, and students, educators in turn become less empowered to “envision racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity as an asset.”

There Are More Effective Solutions

Of course, reform policies aren’t the only active agents adding to racial disparities. As Wells admits, “Certainly, other developments have contributed to rising levels of segregation, especially the end of court-ordered school desegregation plans, the changing demographics of the K-12 population, and ongoing housing segregation.”

Other significant problems for sure are the prevalence of “zero tolerance” discipline policies and “no excuse” academic practices that have done much to increase racial disparities in school suspensions and to promote high student attrition rates in schools serving low-income and racial minority students.

But decades of education policies based on market-based governance and narrow-minded accountability have reinforced the belief that attempts to close achievement gaps and improve learning outcomes for all students should be “color-blind” and simply ignore disparity. And what’s needed instead are policies explicitly designed to break down these racial/ethnic barriers.

Wells, in her report, recommends policies that create and sustain more racially and ethnically diverse schools. For instance, policy makers at all levels could enforce strict guidelines and incentives to promote communities with a mix of incomes, ethnicities, and cultures. New collaborations across school district boundaries could expand special education, vocational education, and magnet school offerings that attract students with shared needs and interests from across district boundaries. And more states should amend existing school choice laws to promote diversity instead of segregation.

Also, Wells recommends more support for curriculum, teaching, and assessment that taps into the educational benefits of diversity. For instance, political and government officials should advocate and propose legal and political challenges based on the educational benefits of diversity. New policies such as Common Core standards should be unmoored from the strict accountability system based on test scores alone. And policymakers should ?consider broader, real-world accountability measures that more accurately reflect the range of experiences of students within racially and culturally diverse society and better prepare the next generation for life and work in culturally complex and global society.”

Moving From Passive To Active

Much more important than getting the policies right, however, would be changing the way we talk about racial disparity in public schools.

In that same way the media have reported that greater economic inequity in the nation has been “something that happened to us,” reporters and pundits looking aghast at evidence of racial disparity in the nation’s schools address the issue as if it is a societal condition without any active agents that are promoting it.

Not only does such passive voice communication convey superficial understanding of how widespread racial discrimination get perpetuated; it conditions people into believing those problems can’t be fixed.

Hitting much closer to the mark was Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, who noted, in The Huffington Post article cited above, that despite a recent Education Department Equity and Excellence Commission report calling for measures to remedy discrimination, little has been done.

That report called for “far more widespread and equitable opportunities for students throughout the nation” but made little headway in the media and among Beltway policy wonks.

“It is shameful that not a single recommendation has been implemented,” Weingarten said. “We don’t need more data to tell us we need action.”

Clearly it’s time for those who are most alarmed by the data about racial disparity in education to pivot from school accountability to policy-maker accountability.


3/19/2014 – Extremists In The Education Debate

THIS WEEK: Georgia Pre-K Program Results … Schools Discriminate Against Students Of Color … Charter School ‘Backfill’ … New Bill Would Curb Testing … Crack Down On For-Profit Universities


New Extremists In The Education Debate

By Jeff Bryant

“The new extremists in the education debate … represent a mindset unwilling to fight things out on a democratic playing field, no matter how unlevel. Instead, they aim to eliminate the playing field altogether … What extremists in the education debate are calling for now is to remove all trust and respect from ordinary people and deposit that faith into a competitive market system operated by people who more often than not don’t even live in the same community the children and parents do.”
Read more …


Those in Georgia’s Universal Pre-K Tested Better Than Unenrolled Peers, Study Says

Education Week

“Children in Georgia’s state-funded, universal pre-K program produced higher scores in language, literacy, and math than children who were not enrolled, and those not in the program scored at or below the national norm, a new study reported. The findings could lend credence to those who are pushing for similar programs at the state and national levels … Participation in the program ‘significantly improved children’s school readiness skills across most domains of learning’ by half a standard deviation, the report concluded … Georgia’s universal pre-K program is free for 4-year-olds no matter what the family’s income level.”
Read more …

Yes, Schools Do Discriminate Against Students Of Color

The Huffington Post

“African-American students and students with disabilities are suspended at ‘hugely disproportionate rates compared to white students,’ said a report … Latino students, girls of color, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students also were disproportionately suspended – a punishment the report said increases dropout risks and helps push troubled students out of classrooms and into the justice system … Research shows that removing so-called ‘bad kids’ from the classroom doesn’t help non-disruptive kids learn, according to the collaborative … Some restorative justice programs and prevention programs that call for more student-teacher engagement can help lower suspension rates and minimize disruptions. The researchers also found that school police often make arrests for ‘what might otherwise be considered adolescent misbehaviors.’”
Read more …

The Quieter Charter School Divide: What You Need To Know About ‘Backfill’

Chalkbeat New York

“What happens to space vacated by students who leave charter schools? Some schools, seeking to fulfill a larger mission and bolster their finances, fill those spots by calling students off of their waiting lists. Other schools focus on teaching the students who remain, avoiding a potential drop in test scores and the social and academic disruption of adding new students. The debate over which policy is best has long divided the charter sector, as critics have charged that schools that do not backfill are not serving their share of high-needs students … Research has shown that students who leave charter schools tend to be lower-performing academically, so not replacing them can boost scores overall – a move that benefits charter schools that are eager to prove their value … Charter schools … authorizers have been loath to require charters to adopt one backfill policy or another … so schools frequently include vague language in their charters..”
Read more …

Bill Aims To Curb High-Stakes Testing Mandates

THE Journal

“A bipartisan bill that aims to cut the number of standardized tests the federal can impose on states … introduced last week by Reps. Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) … would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to change the number of federally mandated standardized tests state would be required to administer under the current law, eliminating annual testing and replacing it with grade-span testing … According to Rep. Gibson: ‘In the decade since No Child Left Behind was signed into law the focus in education has shifted from teaching to testing. But data shows the current testing regime established in No Child Left Behind has not led to higher standards. Teachers are spending more time preparing students to take tests and less time educating, while students are spending more time taking tests and less time learning.’”
Read more …

States Crack Down On For-Profit Universities

The Hechinger Report

“Attorneys general across the country are investigating for-profit colleges accused of leaving students with overwhelming loan debt and without marketable job skills. At least 32 states are working together to investigate the schools … In cooperation with several of these states, the new federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau … has sued ITT Education Services for predatory lending practices … Corinthian Colleges … has also noted in regulatory filings that the CFPB was considering legal action against it … Critics say the industry’s lobbying arm … is a main reason Congress and the White House have not been able to crack down on dubious practices..”
Read more …

New Extremists In The Education Debate

For people who like to think of themselves as being “exceptional,” Americans can sometimes abandon the very principles their exceptionality is founded on.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current debate of education policy.

A feature that has long made America’s public school system exceptional for sure is its governance through democratically elected local school boards. The way this has been working, according to the National School Boards Association, is that your local school board “represents the public’s voice in public education, providing citizen governance for what the public schools need and what the community wants.”

Any power a school board has is generated through the exercise of democracy. When you don’t agree with decisions made by your board members, “it is your right as a voter to select new board members who will see to it that your students and your schools succeed.”

How American is that?

But now, many of the loudest voices in the nation’s education debate tell us that is completely and utterly wrong.

These new extremists are Republicans and Democrats. They are extremely well financed and connected. They adorn their arguments with the language of “opportunity” and “sustained excellence.” But what they really represent is a mindset unwilling to fight things out on a democratic playing field, no matter how unlevel. Instead, they aim to eliminate the playing field altogether.

Since When Is Democracy ‘Socialism?’

Among the new extremists in the education policy debate are those who would have us believe that the schools Americans have democratically decided to build and govern are actually downright un-American.

Recently, folks at the TPM news outlet flagged an example of this from Ohio Republican State Representative Andrew Brenner, who wrote on his personal website that “Public education in America is socialism.”

In Brenner’s bizarre historical account, public education “has been a socialist system since the founding of our country.” Apparently, this system, consisting primarily “one room school houses,” was adequate a mere “100 years ago,” but “does not work well today.” (Despite producing the vast majority of Nobel Prize winners, more patents than the rest of the world combined, and the most powerful economy the planet has ever seen, mind you.)

The solution according to Brenner is “a more privatized system” in which “the schools that fail will go out of business” in a “free-market system.” (So Brenner’s next campaign pledge will be, “I promise to create more schools that will fail?”)

Brenner’s outburst – with its preposterous recasting of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams as forerunners to Karl Marx – would be easily laughed off if it weren’t for the fact that it typifies the Republican Party’s entire education agenda.

Republican leaders at all levels – from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, to Governors Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie, to state lawmakers in North Carolina and Indiana – are pushing to give parents vouchers or “scholarships” and tell them to take their chances in an “open market.” This “opportunity” to take a chance in a loosely regulated crapshoot is somehow preferable to the “socialism” of democratic governance.

But in places where parents have had these voucher systems, what has the “open market” provided?

In Washington DC, according to The Washington Post, the district’s voucher program has lead to “hundreds of students” using voucher dollars to “attend schools that are unaccredited or are in unconventional settings … The government has no say over curriculum, quality or management. And parents trying to select a school have little independent information.” And the city’s “achievement gap” the voucher was intended to correct has “in fact widened.”

Outside of DC, “vouchers don’t do much for students,” Stephanie Simon recently reported at Politico:

In Milwaukee, just 13 percent of voucher students scored proficient in math and 11 percent made the bar in reading this spring. That’s worse on both counts than students in the city’s public schools. In Cleveland, voucher students in most grades performed worse than their peers in public schools in math, though they did better in reading.

In New Orleans, voucher students who struggle academically haven’t advanced to grade-level work any faster over the past two years than students in the public schools, many of which are rated D or F, state data show.

And across Louisiana, many of the most popular private schools for voucher students posted miserable scores in math, reading, science and social studies.

Self-Perpetuating Plutocracy

Unfortunately, Republicans aren’t alone in their disdain for democracy and public control of education.

Also proclaiming an end to democratic rule of schools are an equally powerful and well financed faction who pushes for privately run charter schools unencumbered by public disagreements.

One of their chief spokesmen, Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings, spoke recently at a meeting of the California Charter Schools Association and stated that schools “are prisoners” of democratic governance. He declared that the “chaos” of freely elected school boards where board membership changes based on the will of voters “leads to schools not having sustained excellence.”

What’s needed instead, Hastings insisted, is a network of charter schools with the “self-perpetuating governance” of non-profit and for-profit boards, where board members pick their successors and the whole system is spared the interruption of messy elections.

“Self-perpetuating governance among organizations that compete with each other,” he maintained, is already accomplishing wonderful things in cities like New Orleans, where “nearly all the schools are charters ” and are getting “amazing results.”

Hastings conceded, “If we go to the general public and say here’s why we should get rid of school boards, of course, no one is going to go for that … school boards have been iconic part of America for over 200 years.” But because charter schools have progressed like a “rocket ship compared to basic ideas like democracy,” Hastings foresaw a system dominated by charters as virtually inevitable in 20-30 years.

Like Rep. Brenner above, Hastings added a bizarre reading of history to his theory, in his case, connecting the triumph of his cause back through the Civil Rights Movement and the American Revolution, to the establishment of “government by the consent of the governed” and rejection of the divine right of kings. What a triumph that must be for him!

Mostly, however, it’s a triumph built on fantasy. The “amazing results” of private charter governance in NOLA Recovery School District are, according to education blogger Gary Rubenstein, a result of distorting the data and constantly changing achievement criteria to make the system’s numbers look good.

In the meantime, as Louisiana teacher Mercedes Schneider has noted on her blog, NOLA “parents have no legislatively-protected say regarding the quality of education provided by New Orleans charters. Louisiana parents do not exercise any democratically recognized authority over the charters in their districts … Parents enforce no formalized power over either charter presence or practices in their districts.”

In a school district like New York City, which Hastings also extolled, where years of imposed mayoral control has eliminated the meaningful input of school boards, improvements in student test scores have been “mediocre at best” according to data crunching done by a New Jersey music teacher and blogger Jersey Jazzman.

In other schools that have been relieved of the democratic governance of school boards, public disempowerment has been the principal legacy of such as system. In Newark, New Jersey, as my colleague Richard Eskow recently wrote, state takeover with elimination of local control has led to “cutting school funding and turning schools over to charter organizations while a hand-picked superintendent runs roughshod over local school officials, community leaders, and the city’s children.”

No wonder, as education historian Diane Ravitch noted in her post about the Hastings speech, “No high-performing nation in the world has handed its schools over to private management.”

Whose Schools? Our Schools!

In episode ten of the excellent video series “A Year at Mission Hill, “ Deborah Meier, the renowned educator whose principles and ideas guide the Mission Hill school, explained the centrality of democracy to the current confusion over education policy.

“I think what we’re facing in America today and around the world,” Meier said, “is not a crisis in education but a crisis in faith and respect for democracy, which rests on having respect for the judgment of ordinary people.”

The ordinary people, of course, in our nation’s public schools are the teachers, school leaders, and local officials who oversee the school every day and who are entrusted by the parents and the rest of the community to educate all our children.

What extremists in the education debate are calling for now is to remove all trust and respect from these ordinary people and deposit that faith into a competitive market system operated by people who more often than not don’t even live in the same community the children and parents do.

As a San Francisco school board member recently wrote, also in response to the Hastings speech,”School boards are not an anachronistic carry-over from the years of the one-room schoolhouse … School boards exist because public schools belong to and are directly accountable to the communities they serve. That is what makes them public … Bureaucrats or benevolent billionaires alone will never suffice.”

The idea of democratic governance of schools as a principal means for ensuring the quality of schools has never worked perfectly for sure.

It’s true that too few people bother to vote in school board elections. The electoral system is often prone to manipulation from powerful individuals and self-interested groups. Elected boards are often overly contentious to the point of dysfunction. And the country’s history is replete with examples of local boards that perpetuated widespread mistreatment of minorities to the point where outside intervention was necessary.

But where else has democratic governance achieved perfection? There are democratic solutions to these problems: Do more to increase voter education and turnout, limit the influence of money and factional interests, and ensure checks and balances from outside authorities that are also democratically elected.

If we want to give ordinary people more of a voice in determining the education destinies of their children and their communities, the solution is more democracy, not less.