Let’s Make History

Efforts to improve K-12 education over the past 30 years have been a bipartisan mess. Here’s a description, written by Diane Ravitch, of how we got into that mess:

               Don’t Like Betsy DeVos? Blame the Democrats. The Democrats Paved the Way.

BY DIANE RAVITCH

Of all the corrupt, unqualified, and extremist characters Donald Trump has tapped to lead his administration, none has generated the tsunami of liberal outrage whipped up by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. And with all due respect to Jeff Sessions, there’s good reason for the backlash: The billionaire Amway heiress from Michigan, who long ago made “school choice” her passion project, is the first education secretary in history to be hostile to the very idea of public education.

Prodded by grassroots activists and what’s left of teachers’ unions, Democrats went all out to defeat DeVos. George Miller, the former congressman from California, slammed her plan to create a $20 billion “school choice” program that would underwrite private and religious schools, calling it “a perfect storm of ignorance, money, and power.” Senator Al Franken grilled DeVos at her confirmation hearing, drawing out her jaw-dropping ignorance of federal programs. Senator Michael Bennet called her nomination an “insult to schoolchildren and their families, to teachers and principals and communities fighting to improve their public schools all across the country.” And when DeVos was confirmed by a vote of 51 to 50, over unanimous Democratic opposition, Senator Cory Booker went on Facebook, “frustrated and saddened,” to sound a sorrowful note: “Somewhere in America, right now, there is a child who is wondering if this country stands up for them.”

Listening to their cries of outrage, one might imagine that Democrats were America’s undisputed champions of public education. But the resistance to DeVos obscured an inconvenient truth: Democrats have been promoting a conservative “school reform” agenda for the past three decades. Some did it because they fell for the myths of “accountability” and “choice” as magic bullets for better schools. Some did it because “choice” has centrist appeal. Others sold out public schools for campaign contributions from the charter industry and its Wall Street patrons. Whatever the motivations, the upshot is clear: The Democratic Party has lost its way on public education. In a very real sense, Democrats paved the way for DeVos and her plans to privatize the school system.

Thirty years ago, there was a sharp difference between Republicans and Democrats on education. Republicans wanted choice, testing, and accountability. Democrats wanted equitable funding for needy districts, and highly trained teachers. But in 1989, with Democrats reeling from three straight presidential losses, the lines began to blur. That year, when President George H.W. Bush convened an education summit of the nation’s governors, it was a little-known Arkansas Democrat named Bill Clinton who drafted a bipartisan set of national goals for the year 2000 (“first in the world” in mathematics, for starters). The ambitious benchmarks would be realized by creating, for the first time, national achievement standards and tests. Clinton ran on the issue, defeated Bush, and passed Goals 2000, which provided grants to states that implemented their own achievement metrics.

The Democrats had dipped a toe in “school reform.” Before long, they were completely immersed. After George W. Bush made the “Texas miracle” of improved schools a launching pad for the presidency, many Democrats swallowed his bogus claim that testing students every year had produced amazing results. In 2001, Ted Kennedy, the Senate’s liberal lion, teamed with Bush to pass No Child Left Behind. For the first time, the government was mandating not only “accountability” (code for punishing teachers and schools who fall short), but also “choice” (code for handing low-performing public schools over to charter operators).

When Barack Obama took office in 2009, educators hoped he would return the party to its public school roots. By then, even Bill Clinton was calling No Child Left Behind a “train wreck.” Instead, Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan doubled down on testing, accountability, and choice. Their Race to the Top program was, in essence, No Child Left Behind II: It invited states to compete for $5 billion in funds by holding teachers accountable for test scores, adopting national standards, opening more charter schools, and closing low-scoring public schools.

The Obama years saw an epidemic of new charters, testing, school closings, and teacher firings. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 50 public schools in one day. Democratic charter advocates—whose ranks include the outraged Booker and Bennet—have increasingly imported “school choice” into the party’s rhetoric. Booker likes to equate “choice” with “freedom”—even though the entire idea of “choice” was created by white Southerners who were scrambling to defend segregated schools after Brown v. Board of Education.

It’s fitting that Trump and DeVos rely on the same language to tout their vision of reform. They’re essentially taking Obama’s formula one step further: expanding “choice” to include vouchers, so parents can use public funding to pay for private and religious schools. Democrats are up in arms about the privatization scheme, as they should be: It’s a disaster for public schools. But if they’re serious about being the party that treats public education as a cornerstone of democracy, they need to do more than grandstand about the consequences they helped bring about. They need to follow the money—their own campaign money, that is.

As Democrats learned years ago, support for mandatory testing and charter schools opens fat wallets on Wall Street. Money guys love deregulation, testing and Big Data, and union-busting. In 2005, Obama served as the featured speaker at the inaugural gathering of Democrats for Education Reform, which bundles contributions to Democrats who back charter schools: Among its favorites have been those sharp DeVos critics George Miller, Michael Bennet, and Cory Booker. Conservative funders like the Walton Foundation also give generously to charter schools and liberal think tanks such as the Center for American Progress.

The money had its intended effect. When Andrew Cuomo decided to run for governor of New York, he learned that the way to raise cash was to go through the hedge funders at Democrats for Education Reform. They backed him lavishly, and Cuomo repaid them by becoming a hero of the charter movement. Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy, often celebrated for his unvarnished liberalism, is another champion of the charter industry; some of its biggest funders live in his state. California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill to ban for-profit charters in the state, and has resisted efforts to make charters more accountable. As mayor of Oakland, he opened two charter schools.

There are plenty of reasons that Democrats should steer clear of the charter industry. Charter corporations have been repeatedly charged with fraud, nepotism, self-dealing, and conflicts of interest. Many charters make money on complex real-estate deals. Worst of all are the “cybercharters”: mega-corporations that offer virtual schools, with high attrition, low test scores, and abysmal graduation rates. The biggest cybercharter chain is K12 Inc., started by former junk-bond king Michael Milken and listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

But it’s more than a matter of sleeping with the enemy. School choice doesn’t work, and “evidence-based” Democrats ought to acknowledge it. Charter schools are a failed experiment. Study after study has shown that they do not get better test scores than public schools unless they screen out English-language learners and students with profound disabilities. It’s well-established that school choice increases segregation, rather than giving low-income students better opportunities. And kids using vouchers actually lose ground in private schools. Support for charters is paving the way for a dual school system—one that is allowed to choose the students it wants, and another that is required to accept all who enroll.

This is what Democrats should be yelling about. And if there’s ever a moment for them to reclaim their mantle as the party of public education, it’s now. The misguided push for “reform” is currently being led not by Obama and Duncan, but by Trump and DeVos, giving Democrats an opening to shift gears on education—though they’ll lose some of that hedge-fund money. But if 2016 taught Democrats anything, it’s how unwise it was to allow the demolition of organized labor—including teachers’ unions, once a great source of money and grassroots energy. The party needs strong teachers’ unions and it needs their enthusiasm.

The agenda isn’t complicated. Fight privatization of all kinds. Insist on an evidence-based debate about charter schools and vouchers. Abandon the obsession with testing. Fight for equitable funding, with public money flowing to the neediest schools. Acknowledge the importance of well-educated, professional teachers in every classroom. Follow the example of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who vetoed a bill to expand charters in March. Or Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who insists that charters employ certified teachers, allow them to unionize, and fall under the control of local school districts. Democrats should take their cue from Bullock when he declares, “I continue to firmly believe that our public education system is the great equalizer.”

There is already an education agenda that is good for children, good for educators, good for the nation, and good for the Democratic Party. It’s called good public schools for everyone. All Democrats have to do is to rediscover it.                                                             ………………………………………………………..

So what does that mean for us in Connecticut? 

There are two immediate actions we need to take: 

1. We have to recognize that our political establishment has failed us. Our Democratic governor sold out for the money provided to him by the charter school industry. The Connecticut State Department of Education has endorsed student and school accountability measured by the lowest level of intellectual endeavors: standardized tests. The Connecticut State Board of Education has permitted profiteers in the form of the totally inadequate Relay Graduate School of Education to train and certify prospective teachers for our neediest schools. Recognizing the vacuum of political leadership concerning K-12 education, we must search for and insist upon new political leadership – both from currently serving Democratic politicians and newcomers to politics. 

 2. We must use the innovative leadership that we already have in our Connecticut schools. Three experiences I had just this week showed that leadership. First, I listened to students in a Hartford high school address an adult and student audience about their projects, such as starting and running a successful business, designing a mural to encompass major elements of African Americans history in this country, making music the center of their lives by creating and performing in a band, and making a documentary about a previously unrecognized medical researcher in order to give fellow students a sense of their own possibilities to achieve and change the world. Secondly, I listened to high school students in New Haven describe their social justice projects to political and business leaders. The students had each identified a societal problem, such as the Syrian refugee crisis or the lack of equitable funding of public schools in this country, researched it thoroughly, analyzed causes and possible solutions, and proposed a way to remedy the problem. Thirdly, I was inspired by a suburban middle school principal who described the school’s assessment practices. Teachers do not grade students on a one-time snapshot of their performance but rather work with the students to keep them engaged in rethinking, revising, trying again and again until the students do achieve the goals that the faculty has identified for them.

We have the educational leadership we need for the schools in Connecticut. We just need to tap into it. Our politicians must honor the expertise of the educators who put together these three programs as well as other talented educators across the state. Then, we will move forward. 

Let’s do it. Let’s make history. 

Teacher Evaluation: Let’s Get It Right

An editorial in The Hartford Courant (April, 23, 2017) entitled “ Back to Squishy Teacher Evals” argued for using the scores of students’ standardized tests to evaluate teachers. It seems so neat and tidy. Teachers produce a product (a test score). We take a look at the product. We then judge if the teacher is competent or not, based on that product. If only it were that simple. But it’s not.

Factors, other than who the teacher is, affect a student’s standardized test score, such as:

  • Elements of the school – class size, curriculum, instructional time, availability of specialists and tutors, resources for learning (books, computers, science labs, etc.)
  • Home and community supports and challenges
  • Individual student needs and abilities, health, and attendance
  • Peer culture
  • Prior teachers and schooling as well as other current teachers

The truth is that many factors create that product of a student test score, and those very factors make using test scores to evaluate teachers impossible. Teachers who are rated as competent could easily be rated the next year as incompetent, depending on the students he or she is teaching.

In fact, a study examining data from five school districts found that many teachers who scored at the bottom one year moved to the top of the rankings the next year, and many  who scored at the top similarly moved to other parts of the distribution the following year. The rankings of the teachers did not remain stable over time because each school year brought them a new batch of students with differing combinations of factors.

When I was a high school English teacher, I taught two sections of the same American literature course for college-bound students, and even with the same teacher, the same school, the same curriculum, the same books, the same ability level of the students, there never once was an essay that I assigned in which students in one section of the course received exactly the same grade distribution as students in the other section. The students’ performance was a result of more than what they received from me.

In addition to student test scores not being solely the product of a single teacher, the test itself is not a good way to measure student performance. The editorial stated that SBAC, the standardized test Connecticut uses, has been “painstakingly designed to provide objective and uniform data about whether the students are learning their lessons”. But what lessons would those be?

The lessons of an English language arts teacher that promote literacy are lessons for students in using writing as a tool for learning, lessons in learning to write to express narrative or argumentative thinking or to explore a question, lessons in expanding and refining their thinking by revising their writing, lessons in learning to collaborate- to listen and speak to one another in order to deepen and broaden their individual thinking, lessons in learning how to question in increasingly deep and complex ways, lessons in creating meaning as they read, and lessons in exploring multiple interpretations of what they read. And none of that is on a standardized test.

If the English language arts teacher teaches lessons that match the test, that teacher is teaching test prep – not literacy.

The information gained from the standardized tests is useless, except for checking how well students perform on the lowest level of intellectual engagement, but even if the tests did provide good data, how would we evaluate all teachers on the scores of them?

Standardized tests are required in only two subjects: math and English language arts. There, however, are teachers of history, biology, chemistry, physics, art, music, physical education, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Chinese, technology, vocational arts, early childhood, special education, bilingual education as well as teachers who are specialists and guidance counselors and teachers who do not teach in the grades being tested. Do we evaluate all those teachers by the school’s English and math scores or do we develop a standardized test in each discipline and mandate that students spend their whole springtime taking standardized tests?

All of this is not to say that the current teacher evaluation system is effective in developing beginning teachers, making good teachers better ones, and holding everyone, both teachers and administrators, accountable. It isn’t. I have evaluated teachers for 22 years and can attest to that.

But there is a three-step program that would work. It is not as expensive as standardized tests and has a track record for creating effective teachers, and, best of all, serves the students. First would be to establish standards for teachers, based on the best practice for each specific academic discipline and stage of child and adolescent development. So there would be standards for teaching early childhood, standards for teaching English language arts, standards for teaching math, science, music etc. Second would be the requirement that all teachers must be involved in professional development in those standards pertinent to their teaching. And thirdly, administrators must participate in the professional development in the areas for which they supervise teachers. Best practice for early childhood educators, best practice for English language arts teachers, best practice for teachers of all disciplines then becomes what is required of all teachers and becomes the means of accountability.

What would be gained?

The students would become meaningfully engaged in their learning. The teachers would be empowered to do what gives them satisfaction: teaching well. And administrators would have the means for moving their school or department forward.

When teachers and administrators are engaged in conversations about best practices and best pedagogy, teacher evaluation is not squishy. It is tight. It is meaningful. It creates life in the classroom and the school.

Best of all, it gives students what they came to school for: an education.

Public Schools: Who Is Failing Whom?

If the same words are repeated over and over again, they begin to be taken as true. “Failing public schools” are such words. I see them written and hear them spoken by legislators, journalists, and commentators who probably have not been in a public school in the decades since they attended one or never because they were educated in private schools.

Looking at who is taking Advanced Placement courses and how those students are faring is one of many ways to bring the term “failing public schools” into question. The number of high school students taking Advanced Placement exams increased in 2016, and more of the test takers were from low-income families, according to the College Board’s annual report on the Advanced Placement program. More than 1.1 million high school students took at least one Advanced Placement course during high school, 25,000 more than in 2015. That means that of the 3.1 million students who graduated from high school in 2016, more than 20% of them earned a score of 3 or better on an AP exam. Scoring a 3 allowed them to gain college credit at most colleges and universities.

The increase in the number of test-takers from low-income families continues a trend. In 2003, just over 94,000 students from low-income families took an AP exam; whereas, in 2016, 554,500 students from low-income families took at least one AP exam. Those who believe public schools are failing probably think that increasing the number of test-takers, especially low-income students from urban schools, would lower the overall performance on the AP tests. Not so. The average scores on all AP exams have held steady. In fact, the average score was actually higher in 2016 than in 2003 when far fewer students took AP exams. As Nat Malkus of the American Enterprise Institute said recently, “The fact that 1 in 5 public school graduates passed an AP exam in 2016 pushes back against the ‘public schools are failing’ narrative.”

So, the public schools in urban areas, where the increased population of test-takers is coming from, are doing good work in challenging students to learn. The students have performed well on AP exams and gained college credits for their efforts.

But what are those in power doing to foster that positive growth?

Nothing.

Those in power are working hard to end that trend.

Low-income students are in danger of not being able to take AP exams and gain college credits because they cannot afford the cost of taking AP exams now in 2017 and in the future.  A federal grant program that subsidized AP exams for low income students has ended. It was replaced in the Every Student Succeeds Act by a block grant program in which the funds given to states do not have to be used to subsidize the cost of taking AP exams in the future, and the grants are not available at all for this 2016-2017 school year.

This creates a problem for cities like Worcester, Massachusetts. Under the leadership of Maureen Binienda, the Superintendent of Schools, high school students have  been encouraged to challenge themselves by taking AP courses. She said that emphasizing rigorous academic course offerings has changed the culture of the city’s high schools. Last year, low-income Worcester students, utilizing the federal subsidy, took 1, 919 AP exams. The fee for taking an AP exam is $93.00; with the subsidy, students paid $15.00 per exam. This year, with no federal subsidy, low-income students will be required to pay the College Board reduced fee of $53. That College Board discounted price is still too expensive for many families in Worcester. Ms. Binienda appealed to the state legislature for funds, but the legislators could not help and suggested she try local businesses.

Appealing to private citizens and businesses is exactly what the state of Washington did. Washington state officials became concerned that low-income students, due to the removal of federal subsidies, will not be able to take AP exams so they set up an emergency fund to raise $800,000. That fund would allow low-income students to keep paying $15 per test. Microsoft, Boeing, the Shultz Family Foundations, other corporations, individuals, and nonprofits contributed to the emergency fund. The state legislature appropriated $75, 000. The result was that more than the $800,000 was raised, and low income students will take their 2017 AP exams for free.

In Connecticut, the state is picking up the costs for this one year only to provide subsidies for all of the low-income students taking AP exams but with no promise of future funding by the state.

So there we have it. One state is fully funding the subsidies. In another state, private citizens and corporations are providing the subsidies. And in a third state, low-income students currently have no funding to take AP exams and earn college credits.

That is the wave of the future. Each state for itself.  Each state will decide for itself who gets access to college credits through AP courses. Each state will decide for itself what students receive services for special needs. Each state will decide for itself about providing vouchers for segregated schools.

We have a Secretary of Education who said at her confirmation hearing that she does not support equal accountability for all schools. We have a President who said that a model school, one that is worthy of taxpayer support through vouchers, is one in which the students pledge allegiance to the Bible. We have a bill proposed in Congress (HR610) which will give block grants to the states to use as each state wishes rather than for specified and uniform standards for special education, integration, or equal access to challenging courses and qualifying exams for college credit. In fact, the grants, according to HR610, do not have to be used for public education at all and will provide taxpayer money for vouchers to totally unaccountable private schools. Shame on us.

It is not the schools that are failing our children. It is the adults with political power who are failing our schools.

Vouchers And Charter Schools Say NO To Children With Special Needs

We all know that the future looks bleak for the pubic school children of Connecticut. We have a U.S.Secretary of Education and a Connecticut Governor who do not respect what public schools do for children. Betsy DeVos supports the Wild West of vouchers in which anything goes in terms of meeting student needs, and Dan Malloy advances a budget that privileges charter schools that make a profit out of not meeting student needs.

Please read “The Education Reform as the Prevention of Special Education Services” by Jason Courtmanche. Jason relates what he and his wife, both educators, had to do in our present system to secure special education services for their children and explains how, in the future with vouchers and privately-managed yet publicly-funded charter schools, children with special needs will not have a chance.

Protect Transgender Students

What have we come to as a country when we no longer protect our children? What have we come to as a country when we are afraid of our own children?

The removal yesterday of Obama era protections for transgender children in our schools shames us as a country. The fact that our government sees those children as people to fear embarrasses us as a country.

Please read “DeVos Concedes to Sessions and Fails her First Civil Rights Test”.  It was written by Jason Courtmanche, who is Director of the Connecticut Writing Project at the University of Connecticut and conducts professional development for teachers across the state of Connecticut. Jason cites research that tells us that 30% of transgender youth have attempted suicide, 42% have self-injured, 63% have been bullied, and the suicide and self-injuring rates are four times the rates for straight or gender-conforming youth. Also, more than 50 percent of transgender youth avoid school on a regular basis, drop-out of school at staggering rates, and 75% of them report feeling unsafe in school.

Yet our government has decided to increase the risk to these children. Why?  Because Jeff  Sessions and Donald Trump have the power to do so. We, the voters, gave them that power. Shame on us.

The new federal ruling, because it preferences states’ rights, leaves in place Connecticut’s 2011 law that outlawed transgender discrimination, but we in Connecticut must not be complacent. Other states do not offer that protection. We must speak for those students. We must also show our Connecticut students that we are people of integrity and oppose injustice wherever we see it. We, as adults, must be the voice for all children. We, as educators, must stand up for students throughout our nation.

If you are a teacher or a school administrator, please post “DeVos Concedes to Sessions and Fails her First Civil Rights Test” in your faculty room. If you are a parent of a school age child, please bring a copy of “DeVos Concedes to Sessions and Fails her First Civil Rights Test” to your next parent meeting at your child’s school and share it with other parents and teachers. If you are the parent or grandparent of a transgender child, hug that child with a fierce tenderness in the name of all of us who oppose the shameful and fear-mongering ruling of the Trump administration.

 

 

Stop HR 610

The new administration’s attack on public education has begun, and we need to take action to stop it.

In late January, HR 610 was introduced by Steve King of Iowa, with representatives from Maryland, Texas, and Arizona signing on.

HR 610, the School Choice Act, will eliminate the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which was passed as a part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty”.  Federal funds that are now given to schools will be given to parents who choose to enroll their children in private schools or to homeschool their children. Doing that will give upper middle class parents who can afford private schools for their kids help in paying the steep tuition of private schools and will leave public schools minus adequate funds to provide for the education of the children remaining in them.

HR 610 will give taxpayer money to parents to send their children to religious schools. That is a main intent of the bill. Children will be given vouchers to attend religious schools like the one that Donald Trump praised when he visited it. You can watch this video of the children at that school pledging allegiance to The Bible.

HR 610 will also roll back nutritional standards for free lunches for poor children.

With HR 610, the opportunity gap between the haves and the have-nots will widen in our nation. Education as the great equalizer will cease to exist.

Please contact your Member of Congress and object to HR 610.

It is clear that bills like HR 610 will be supported by both the U.S. Department of Education and the White House. The Trump administration favors alternatives to democratically controlled public schools. The Trump administration has an unmistakable bias against public schools.

Yet the fate of the nation rests on making sure that we have quality public schools for all children.

Defeat HR 610.

Righting the Ship

This blog is about getting education right in this country after getting it wrong for the past 15 years. But first things first. It all starts at the top. Let’s get that right first. E.J. Dionne make clear what the first step is. Sadly.