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?


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.

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.



U.S.Education: Up To Us

Betsy DeVos was blocked by protestors from entering a DC public school. That action could be a symbol of saying NO to a Secretary of Education entering a public school for the first time in her life.  That action could be a symbol of saying NO to a Secretary of Education who does not understand what it means to learn and what it means to teach. That action could be a symbol of saying NO to a Secretary of Education who does not know how to maximize learning and support good teaching.

But physical blocking is not the answer. It doesn’t take us far enough.

We need actions that say NO to whatever Betsy DeVos tells us to do that undermines what we know is in the best interests of students.  We can start right now by:

  As parents, teachers, and school administrators, show up at local school board meetings and legislative hearings on local and state budgets and say NO to public tax money being given to privately managed charter schools which have no accountability to the public about how they spend the taxpayer money taken away from 85% of the nation’s children who are in traditional public schools.

  As parents, opt your children out of standardized tests because they do not assess learning and take valuable learning time away from students as they prepare for those tests, which are roads to nowhere. 

  As school administrators, conduct professional development for teachers about what it means to teach and what it means to learn. Familiarize teachers with the skills that students need to develop as learners and thinkers in order to succeed in the world of work and live productive and fulfilling lives.  

  As school administrators, tell teachers about the research which proves, without a doubt, that standardized tests are unreliable and invalid measures of student learning. 

  As school administrators, tell teachers to ignore the demands of the standardized tests and commission them to work together to create meaningful curriculum, firmly grounded in an understanding of how children and adolescents learn. Throw out the Common Core because it is not based on any understanding of how children and adolescents learn. 

  As teachers, continue to grow in love of your profession and love of your students and ignore what the U.S. Department of Education says and does.

  As citizens, address poverty and racism in your community and state – and see public education as the solution it has always been.

And that’s just for starters. We have the whole enterprise of U.S. education to run.  There’s no one else. Only us. Let’s get busy. 





The Times For Which We Were Made

This morning, the morning of the vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, I heard Steve Schmidt, an experienced Republican strategist, say that 48 Republican Senators know that Betsy DeVos is incompetent but do not want to spend their political capital by opposing her with a “No” vote. They would wait, he said, for a more important issue. How sad that at least one of those Senators who knows that she is unfit could not say to himself or herself: This is the place where I put my stake in the ground. This is where I begin to oppose what is ethically and legally and politically wrong with Donald Trump and his administration. Here I stand. And it is only the beginning for me.

But not one of those 48 Republican Senator had the character to vote for what he or she knew was best for the children of this country. We will not forget what they did. We will vote them out.

In the meantime, what shall we do?

The good news is that no one doubts that Betsy DeVos is incompetent so there is room for those of us with real competence about education to speak out, to advocate, to resist, and to educate the country about how children learn, about what good teaching is, about what good curriculum is, about how to best assess students, and about how public education is necessary to keep our democracy.

We must admit that Betsy DeVos is not the first person on the national scene who knew nothing or very little about teaching and learning. Bill Gates paid for the Common Core Standards and knows nothing about teaching and learning. David Coleman wrote the Common Core Standards and knows nothing about teaching and learning. Arne Duncan, who had been a director of an elementary school mentoring program and the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools but had no experience with the teaching and learning of K-12 students, knew little. He privileged charter schools and high stakes standardized testing. John King, who taught only one year in a traditional public school, also knew little about teaching and learning. He continued the anti-public school policies of Arnie Duncan and favored publicly funded, privately managed charter schools.  So we have been going down the wrong road since 2001 due to the enactment of No Child Left Behind with its focus on standardized testing and its refusal to look at the root issues that produce differences in student achievement.

Betsy DeVos is just the end result of an almost 16 year journey. I choose to believe that most of the forerunners of Betsy De Vos were well intentioned but unknowing and misguided. Betsy DeVos, however, is a caricature of a public school educator. Her intention has long been to end public education as an institution of this democracy. She has given her time and her money for that goal, and she now has the power to accomplish it.

We must step in.

I suggest that every educator in Connecticut and every parent in Connecticut pick one of the following issues to give time and energy:

  1. Oppose charter schools which are funded by public taxes but which have no transparency about what they do with taxpayer money and no accountability for the education that they provide with that taxpayer money and no record of being more successful than traditional public schools. Address the General Assembly and local boards of education. Demand transparency and accountability.
  1. Write in print and for online publications and speak to the media about what the data clearly shows are the inadequacies of standardized testing to assess student achievement, teaching expertise, or quality of schools.
  1. Write in print and online publications and speak to the media about the tawdriness of the Common Core Standards and how focusing school curriculum on the Common Core Standards denies students the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century.
  1. Be a watchdog regarding the Connecticut State Budget to make sure that there are adequate funds allocated to education and that the distribution of those funds is equitable. Testify to the General Assembly. Contact your elected representatives.
  1. Oversee full and accurate reporting about graduation rates, K-12 student performance, and college retention rates for graduates of all  Connecticut schools funded with taxpayer money.

How will you do this? Where will you get the resources?

We have the force of our passion and our solidarity with one another, and we have two excellent resources:

  • Here in Connecticut, a new group, Connecticut United for Strong Public Schools, is comprised of educators in K-12 schools as well as in colleges and universities, lawyers, and concerned citizens who are knowledgeable about Connecticut legislation, Connecticut schools, and the research about teaching and learning. Members of that group will provide you with information and help you to strategize.

A friend of mine at the Women’s March in Washington DC carried a sign that said:


Indeed. Let’s get busy.

Vote No

This is what the editorial board of Betsy DeVos’s home state newspaper, The Detroit Free Press, wrote about her being voted on as Secretary of Education on Tuesday, February 7th:

Make no mistake: A vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education is a vote to end public education in this country as we know it.

This isn’t conspiracy theory, or ideologically driven slander. Look at DeVos’ own words and actions, over her long career advocating against traditional public schools; her funding of an ideologically driven pro-charter lobby; her willingness to spend whatever it takes to ensure her policy preferences become law.

DeVos is unqualified in every respect to serve as head of this critical department, and the U.S. Senate must vote Tuesday to reject her nomination.

So, by the end of the day on February 7th, we will know if the institution so vital to the functioning of a democracy, public education, is in dangerous hands. We will also know if what David Brooks warned us about is coming true. We will know if the Republican Senators have sold their souls.

Calling It As It Is

It is refreshing to see more balanced reporting about education in The New York Times. For years, the paper has portrayed an infatuation with charter schools and has incorporated the rhetoric of misnamed education “reformers” in its reporting. Several recent articles in The New York Times demonstrate a more open approach and a recognition that those “reformers” are actually privatizers and profiteers. An example is this piece by the highly esteemed writer, Gail Collins. In it, she is critical of those privatizers and profiteers as she writes about how unqualified Betsy DeVos is to head the U.S. Department of Education.