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. 

Closing The Real Achievement Gap

There‘s a lot of talk in Connecticut about closing the achievement gap between affluent students who are predominately white and poor students who are predominately black or brown, but there have been no effective actions taken and none are on the horizon. Instead, Connecticut gave up its own well-founded state standards and adopted the narrow and inadequate Common Core Standards, called them rigorous which they are not, and gave students standardized tests to measure their achievement of those quite limited standards. Then Connecticut waited for the test scores to see if the impoverished would catch up to the affluent. They haven’t and they won’t.

The poorer the Connecticut students, the lower their test scores. Standardized test scores, always and ever, are correlated with the family income of the test takers so it makes no sense to address the achievement gap by analyzing standardized test scores. The achievement gap that makes sense to address is the gap between those who succeed in their academic goals and those who do not, between those who graduate from college and those who do not.

That gap is a staggering one. For students who attended Connecticut public high schools and began college, the graduation rate is: 24.4% for black, 21.4% for Hispanic and 53.8% for white college students. Similarly, only 19% of Connecticut’s economically disadvantaged students who attend college earn a college degree as compared to 54.2% of their more advantaged peers.

Colleges and universities across the country have recognized this achievement gap in which the rich are sure to graduate and the poor are not. Nationally, 90% of college freshman born into families in the top income quartile graduate while only 25% of those born into the bottom half of the income distribution graduate. 

Colleges and universities are taking effective steps to solve the achievement gap among their students, but  Connecticut is not taking any effective steps to close the K-12 achievement gap. Colleges and universities are successful because they ask a question much different from the question that Connecticut is asking. The Connecticut question is: How can we reduce the gap in standardized test scores? The question that the colleges and universities are asking is: What can we do to improve student achievement?

As in so many things, asking the right question is the secret to success.

Research psychologists at Stanford University headed higher education in the right direction in answering the college and university question. They have for years been exploring the premise that students are often blocked from living up to their potential because of their fears about not measuring up to their peers and their doubts about their ability. They found that lack of achievement is often rooted in students’ feelings of not belonging to what they see as a community of achievers and considering themselves less academically able than others.

In one of the Stanford University studies, researchers provided students at an elite Northeastern college with a message about belonging. They informed them that everyone at their college feels overwhelmed and not smart enough and asked them to react in writing to that idea. This exercise had no apparent effect on the white students who took part in the experiment. But it had a transformative effect on the college careers of the African-American students in the study. The experiment tripled the percentage of black students who earned grades in the top quarter of their class and cut in half the black-white achievement gap in G.P.A.

This study was replicated at a private Midwestern university with students who were the first in their family to attend college. The result was that the achievement gap between students who were the first in their family to attend college and the students whose parents had attended college was reduced by 63%.

In another Stanford University study, 288 community-college students enrolled in developmental math were randomly assigned, at the beginning of the semester, to read one of two articles. The control group read a generic article about the brain. The treatment group read an article that laid out scientific evidence against the theory of a fixed intelligence that cannot grow and change. At semester’s end, 20% of the students in the control group had dropped out of developmental math and, therefore, out of college, compared with just 9% of the treatment group. This intervention cut the community-college math dropout rate by more than half.

At the University of Texas at Austin, a chemistry professor, David Laude, worked with the same hypothesis as the Stamford researchers. He identified 50 students who had lower SAT scores, were economically disadvantaged, and the first in their families to attend college. He taught them the exact same curriculum and gave them the exact same tests as the 400 students in his other class. The difference was that he involved the fifty students in a program which gave them both a sense of belonging to a group of achievers and strategies for developing themselves as learners. The result was that this group of disadvantaged students, who were 200 points lower on the SAT than students in Laude’s larger section, had exactly the same grade distribution as the students in the larger section. The impact went beyond that chemistry class. This group  of 50 students who, statistically, were on track to fail, returned for their sophomore year at rates above average for the university as a whole and three years later had graduation rates that were above the university average.

Laude has now been appointed senior vice provost, charged with improving the four-year graduation rate. He instituted a program, based on the same premises as his chemistry program, for 500 students who are low income, first members in their family to attend college, have lower SAT scores, and a graduation rate of 20%. These 500 students are given $5000 a year scholarships for which they are required to be in leadership positions on campus, participate in campus internships, and attend weekly lectures on developing strategies for learning. Through these activities, students gain a sense of themselves as part of the community of achievers and learn how to learn.

Also at the University of Texas at Austin, David Yeager, a psychology professor and former Stanford researcher, has been commissioned to address the dropout rate among poorer students with lower SAT’s and the first in their family to go to college. As part of freshman orientation, he asked students to read articles that address their sense of belonging in an academically challenging environment and that discuss the brain as malleable and able to grow and change its capability with effort. With this simple intervention, the University of Texas cut in half the achievement gap between advantaged freshmen and freshmen who are black, Latino, first-generation, and/or poor.

Many colleges and universities are instituting programs to address the particular learning needs of students who are poor and first in their family to attend college. Brown hosted the first Inter-Ivy First Generation Student Network Conference in 2012, drawing students from across the country. Harvard, Duke, Georgetown, Brown and Yale are involved in a multi-year study in which they interview first generation students from low income families (usually an income under $40,00 year) to ascertain their needs. These programs for first generation college students seek to give students  both a sense of belonging and strategies for learning.

What can we in Connecticut learn from higher education? How can we close the real achievement gap? How can we close the gap between our children who become well-educated and accomplished human beings and our children who become dropouts from the world of education and accomplishment?

Here is a plan to close Connecticut’s K-12 achievement gap:

First: End high stakes standardized tests. With standardized tests, test prep becomes the curriculum, and all students – black, brown, white, poor, and affluent –  are deprived of real learning. Standardized tests also deprive the poor, the black, and the brown of a fair chance. Standardized tests hurt all children.

Second: Ask educators to design performance assessments which demonstrate what students can do, how they can think, how they learn, and what they can create in each discipline.

Third: Require each school district to create a curriculum which teaches students strategies for learning in a developmental progression from K-12.

Fourth: Hold all of us – teachers, school administrators, school boards, teachers unions, the Connecticut State Department of Education, the Connecticut State Board of Education, legislators, the governor – to the same standard. That standard is: What are you doing to bring all the students for whom you are responsible into the community of achievers?

Then, and only then, will Connecticut close its achievement gap.

Added Proof: The Common Core Hurts Kids

The Common Core State Standards were marketed as serving to “close the achievement gap”. That did not happen.

The designers and promoters of the Common Core determined that standardized test scores would be the measure of achievement. By that limited measure of achievement, the achievement gap increased. As  Results Are in: Common Core Fails Tests and Kids shows, NAEP scores of students whose education was focused exclusively on the Common Core curriculum decreased while NAEP scores for students in affluent suburbs whose education is not limited to test prep for standardized tests increased.

Fairfield University Professor and Network for Public Education Board member Yohuru Williams argues these tests, which are manifestly unfair to the neediest children, feed into racial determinism in American society while closing doors of opportunity for Black and Latino children.

More important than standardized test scores, the quality of the education that students who are educated with a Common Core curriculum have is vastly inferior to the education  that other students in affluent suburbs and independent, private schools have.  The Common Core curriculum does harm to children in their early years in school because it limits their development as thinkers and learners. Similarly, The English Common Core inhibits thoughtful reading, effective writing, and critical thinking.

The true achievement gap of being productive, analytical, competent citizens and workers is increasing. That is the injustice. That is the real harm that the Common Core curriculum is doing to children of color and children of poverty. Shame on us.

 

Replacing SBAC with Real Learning

Yes, of course, the SBAC tests must go.

All of the comments about doing away with SBAC made by teachers on the video produced by the Connecticut Teachers Association, called “Connecticut Teachers Share Concerns About SBAC”, are true. (Scroll down on CEA link for video.) The tests stress children out. The tests take too much time away from real learning and replace it with test prep. The data collected is useless. The SBAC use of technology as the testing format is inequitable because children use different kinds of devices to take the tests, some of which are more user friendly than others, and the children vary greatly in their familiarity with technology. The tests deplete many children, especially those with special needs or recent English speakers, of their confidence as learners and deprive them of their motivation. Teacher after teacher testified that the tests and the inordinate time given to preparing for them prove only one thing: how good a taker of the  test the student is.

The SBAC tests have established cut scores and are designed to fail between 56-68% of students, depending on grade level and subject matter. The SBAC tests are invalid and unreliable, as even the former Executive Director of SBAC asserted when speaking at the University of Connecticut on March 31, 2014, because there is no data to prove that success on SBAC tests merits “college and career readiness”. We also do not need SBAC tests to gather information about the achievement gap. We have NAEP, a test which accurately reports on the achievement gap, does not punish individual students, and costs districts and the state of Connecticut nothing, that does that for us. We also know that the high stakes of the SBAC tests which deem students competent or not, determine the fate of schools and the careers of school administrators, provide PR for school districts, and measure the competencies of teachers, determine what is taught. The SBAC test is the curriculum.

And that brings up the most pressing reason that the SBAC tests must go: The SBAC tests measure the wrong things. The SBAC tests do not measure the learning that students need.

What learning do students in 2016 need?

They need to learn to ask questions of their own and explore their questions in depth. They need to learn to collaborate with others in order to grow as broad and deep thinkers. They need to learn creative problem solving. They need to learn how to innovate. They need to learn how to express their thinking, using effective oral and written communication in a wide variety of forms and in both personal and academic voices. They need to be motivated. They need to be engaged. They need to love to learn.

The Common Core teaches none of these skills. The SBAC tests do not measure them.

Learning and the assessing of that learning do not have to be that way.

The first speaker on the CEA video, Paul Coppola who is a social studies teacher in Madison, CT, explained how educators in his district designed indicators of academic growth and development for their students and assess their students on their achievement of learning objectives, based on those indicators. The indicators are:

  1. creativity
  2. collaboration,
  3. communication
  4. problem solving
  5. global perspectives

Similarly, I have worked for many years with teachers to design assessments that require students to:

  1. Engage in a new challenge that is a learning experience in itself.
  2. Use critical thinking to identify and analyze the key concepts of a course.
  3. Apply and integrate knowledge and learning strategies developed in that course.
  4. Think creatively to explore ideas or problems that pull the course together.
  5. Collaborate to increase individual achievement by having their original ideas broadened and deepened through dialogue with others.
  6. Demonstrate effective written communication.
  7. Reflect upon and assess their own development as learners.

These are but two examples of conversations that have begun. There are as many conversations going on in Connecticut about learning and assessment as there are dedicated educators. We are ready to dialogue about what learning is and how we will measure it.

Jennifer Alexander, CEO of ConnCAN, could not be more wrong when she said that we as a state should stay with SBAC because ” we’ve already invested millions into its implementation”. By that logic of not changing what we have invested in, we would still be fighting in Vietnam and would still have segregated school districts.

Revision is at the heart of learning. And growing. And getting things right.

Questions about SBAC have been raised. It’s time to explore those questions. It’s time to collaborate. It’s time for creative problem solving. It’s time for innovation.

It is time for real learning to take center stage in Connecticut.

Bring on the best people to lead the exploration of those questions. Bring on those who know what it is to teach and what it is to learn. Bring on the educators.