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Washington Post’s Narrative of School Reform Movement is Flawed, But It’s Conclusion is Accurate: Reform Failed

March 19, 2020 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s Washington Post featured an extended article by Kevin Carey on public education titled “The Demise of the Great Education Saviors“. It’s subtitle explains who the saviors were support to be:

Charter schools and testing were supposed to right historic wrongs.                                                                 Now they’ve run out of political steam. What happened?

Having lived through all of the history in the article and served as a public school administrator during the period of history Mr. Carey described, I found his narrative flawed. He oversold the virtues of testing asserting that Robert Kennedy saw testing as a means of achieving equitable outcomes in the face of districts who were fighting against school segregation, downplaying the GOP’s privatization agenda, dissociating the Common Core from Bill Gates misguided philanthropy, and insinuating that the virtues of competition could still save the day. Despite these flaws, his story ends with a clear and accurate conclusion: the reform movement failed.

And I also think Mr. Carey did a decent job of answering his question about “what happened?” in two key sections of the story he weaves. The first section offered an anecdote about Shannon Carey, an Oakland CA teacher who worked in a segregated and struggling elementary school beginning in 1992. After describing how Ms. Carey’s elementary school eliminated after school enrichment programs in favor of an extended school day and doubled the amount of math instruction, he offers this insight:

“For the record,” Carey says, “my teacher friends and I knew it was terrible from the start. These carrots and sticks with adults who were working in underfunded schools with 32 students per classroom? Really? You’re going to punish us for our migrant students who learned English two years ago, their test scores? It was very clear that it was setting us up to restructure. For privatization.”

…Teachers like Shannon Carey and her friends and millions like them sensed mistrust in how NCLB spoke to them. They felt infantilized and disrespected. Because the law did so little to fix the financial and social inequality baked into the education system and the larger society, they felt set up to fail. So they rejected it, in ways large and small.

Mr. Carey countered Ms. Carey’s contention that NCLB’s intent was to restructure and privatize by offering statistics on how few schools were actually closed— a misleading data point since the restructuring more frequently took the form of offering students the “choice” to attend a charter school. It is noteworthy that Mr. Carey offered no rejoinder to the sense teachers had that they “felt infantilized and disrespected”. Nor did he offer a rejoinder to their sense that they were “set up to fail” because “the law failed to fix the financial and social inequality baked into the education system and the larger society“. I suppose being of a quantitive mind Mr. Carey diminished these “feelings”… but in the case of the feelings they had of being set up, the facts are that neither NCLB or RTTT did anything to redress the “financial and social inequality baked into the education system and the larger society” and because of this oversight (or, less charitably, negligence) on the part of lawmakers, teachers in schools like the one where Ms. Carey taught WERE in fact punished for the low test scores their migrant students achieved… and likewise NYC teachers in schools serving a large population of homeless children whose absentee rates were high were punished… and teachers in underfunded schools in property poor districts were punished… In the meantime, teachers in affluent districts like the one I led from 2004-2011 paid no attention to minimum competency tests whatsoever because there was never any danger that they would be placed on a “watch list” for an extended time period. The result? While districts proximate to mine were struggling to maintain reasonable pupil-teacher ratios we were debating whether to offer swimming and rowing as interscholastic sports.

The second telling section of Mr. Carey’s article came at the end, where he described the status of the Education Trust, the school reform think tank he worked for from 2002-2005… and whose credo he still seems to believe— with some notable caveats, which I highlighted in bold red italics!

The Education Trust is now run by Obama’s second education secretary, John B. King Jr., a former schoolteacher, charter-school leader and New York state commissioner of education. “I’m more optimistic than many about the future of school reform,” he told me. For all the political controversy around the Common Core, he notes, 41 states and the District of Columbia remain on board.

King believes that accountability can succeed if it works alongside other critical changes, including more-equitable funding, higher-quality curriculums and better training for teachers. He points to a recent bipartisan deal in Massachusetts to boost school funding alongside accountability for student learning. States including Texas and California have taken advantage of the decade-long economic expansion to send large sums to high-poverty schools. Others may follow suit. King’s is a more pragmatic and incremental approach to improving education, one that recognizes, and pays, the price of democracy that confronted Robert Kennedy in 1965.

Of course with the Dow declining precipitously and unemployment forecast to rise to 20% it appears the “decade-long economic expansion” is over… and with it the other critical changes Mr. Kind calls for are likely to disappear as well… Here’s hoping the reform movement disappears with it…

The Reading Wars AGAIN??? When Will We Look at the Metrics Instead of the Results?

February 17, 2020 Comments off

Here we go again… according to a recent NYTimes article by Dana Goldstein the reading wars are beginning anew! As a retired school Superintendent I’ve seen this movie before and know how it ends… lotos of pointless debates about The One Best Way to teach reading despite the reality that all children learn differently AND at different rates.

Alas, too many policy makers overlook the real issue, which is the metric we use. We define “failure” based on standardized tests, tests based on the assumption that students within an age cohort all learn at the same rate. Tests explicitly designed to sort those students based on their rate of learning on a predetermined set of reading “skills” that can be readily measured by a multiple choice test.

This just in: students develop at different rates physically and intellectually. Schools began grouping students by age in the name of efficiency in the 1920s and began testing them in these cohorts in earnest after World War II. In the name of “efficiency” we also instruct students in the same content in large groups— the chanting of “Tuh! Ah! Puh!” as descried in Ms. Goldstein’s article is a classic example.

In the 1920s we did not have the capability to provide tailored instruction to students when they were ready to learn it. Technology gives us the tools to do this now…. why are we arguing over test scores based on the assumption that all children learn the same way at the same rate?

Diane Ravitch Accurately Eviscerated Test-Based “Reformers”

February 1, 2020 Comments off

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Nearly 20 years after NCLB, RTT, and now Betsy DeVos there’s been no progress made in the improvement of public schools as measured by test results… and this is the case even though the schools directed all their time and energy and instruction toward the tests! This comes as no surprise since the correlation between poverty and test scores has been well established for over 50 years and the low spending on those schools has persisted.

Will anything change in the future? Doubtful given our obsession with spreadsheets and low taxes.

Diane Ravitch Savages “Reformers” and “Disruptors” in her New Book

January 18, 2020 Comments off

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Forbes writer and public education resistance fighter Peter Greene’s paean to Diane Ravitch provides a good overview of her clear-headed thinking and the muddled thinking of what she calls this disruption movement. And what is that movement?

The disruption movement has given us charter schools, high stakes testing, and the de-professionalization of teaching. It has used the real problems of inequity and underserved communities to justify false solutions.

In his review of her forthcoming book Mr. Greene contrasts the “reformers” embrace of Taylor’s standardization with Deming’s Total Quality Management and laments the victory of Taylor in this war of ideas. Like Diane Ravitch, Peter Greene seems to think the tide is turning. I hope they are right….

Bernie Sanders’ Blunt and Accurate Assessment of Public Education Gets My Vote

January 8, 2020 Comments off

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This USA Today op ed article by Bernie Sanders nails the real problem with public schools and, in my opinion, separates him from others who are running for President.

If It’s Booker vs. Trump? I May Seriously Consider “None of the Above”

March 11, 2019 Comments off

A number of friends I know who do not follow the privatization movement closely see Cory Booker as a viable alternative to Donald Trump. An eloquent African-American who embodies racial justice and has ascended the political ladder from Mayor of Newark to U.S. Senator, Mr. Booker is the heir apparent to the Clinton-Gore-Obama legacy of centrism in the Democratic Party— a level headed moderate. But, as Jacobin writer Eric Blanc reports in his bluntly titled article “Cory Booker Hates Public Schools” Mr. Booker is really the embodiment of neoliberalism, a candidate who fully embraced every element of the so-called “school reform movement”, and— therefore— is a candidate who would attract both Wall Street and Silicon Valley backing.

I am among many voters who begrudgingly cast a vote for Hillary Clinton knowing that such a vote effectively endorsed the Obama-Duncan legacy but fearing (rightly as it turned out) that Donald Trump’s direction for public education would be even worse. If Mr. Booker is the nominee for the Democrats, who can public educators– or for that matter any public employees– turn to?

Over the past two decades I’ve witnessed NCLB, RTTT, and now ESSA, take instructional decisions out of the hands of teachers and put them in the hands of those who design standardized tests. At the same time, governance decisions about public education moved from local school boards to the State Houses who favor test-and-punish methods and free market solutions to public schools. Ultimately vouchers will enable all but the neediest parents to abandon public education in favor of sectarian and/or high-priced private schools… and while those schools will be free from the constraints of teaching-to-the-test the public schools will continue to be “measured” by standardized tests linked to age-based grade-level cohorts.

Given the devolution of public schools under GOP and neoliberal leaders, I may well cast a vote for none-of-the-above if I am faced with Booker vs. Trump. I await some kind of word from the other Democratic candidates on their positions on public education… but do so in dread for I fear that the “reform” movement has captured the imagination of voters.

NY Times Education Reporter Sees Change Blowing in the Wind as Teachers Reclaim High Ground

February 4, 2019 Comments off

Dana Goldstein, a veteran education reporter for the NYTimes wrote an op ed piece recently reviewing the changes she has witnessed in the coverage on public schools over the past thirteen years. The biggest change is that the union and teacher bashing that she witnessed at the outset of her career in 2006 has ebbed and in its place is a new respect for both unions and teachers. She writes:

I was at the Democratic National Convention in 2008, when one of the hottest tickets was to a panel discussion in which rising stars in the party, including Cory Booker, then the mayor of Newark, spoke harshly of teachers’ unions and their opposition to charter schools, which are publicly funded, privately run and generally not unionized. Union leaders argue that charters draw public dollars and students away from traditional schools…

Back then, it was hip for young Democrats to be like Barack Obama, supportive of school choice and somewhat critical of teachers’ unions. But now, the winds have changed pretty drastically.The revival of democratic socialism within the party has left many elected officials — even Mr. Booker — much more hesitant, it seems, to critique organized labor. Across the country, red-clad teachers on strike, sometimes dancing and singing, have won the affection of grass-roots progressives over the past year, leading to a new political dynamic around education, just as the Democratic primary field for 2020 emerges…

At this point, I was in complete agreement with Ms. Goldstein’s analysis. But then at the conclusion of that paragraph, she used an oversimplified, deeply flawed, and tired dichotomy to analyze what is happening:

…The emphasis now is on what education experts call “inputs” — classroom funding, teacher pay, and students’ access to social workers and guidance counselors — and less on “outputs,” like test scores or graduation rates.

While she recovered somewhat in the next paragraph by acknowledging that “…both inputs and outputs are important” and that “…the battle is ideological, over what role choice should play in our education system”, she missed the overarching ideological battle: whether public education is a commodity that can be changed through market forces or a public good that must be changed through democratic processes. She also did not make note of the reality that there is no “output” measure that can capture what public schools provide. Neither test scores or graduation rates can indicate whether a student is experiencing daily success in the classroom, is motivated to continue learning after his or her formal education, and is gaining the social and emotional skills needed to support a democracy. Those “outputs” elude fast, cheap, and easy measurement yet they are far more important than the content students are learning. She also overlooks the fact that the inputs needed in today’s public schools are far different than those needed even 13 years ago. Schools are increasingly expected to provide mental health, counseling, and nutritious meals for all students… and the span of students they are expected to educate and care for is expanding as well.

Ms. Goldstein concludes her article with a quote from the late Fred Hechinger, who reported for decades on public schools for the NYTimes:

“I began to realize that a country’s approach to education in general, and especially to its children, could tell more about its social, political and economic background than a whole battery of interviews with politicians.”

What does it say that we are spending no more on schools now than we were when Ms. Goldstein started? What does it say that our so-called “thought leaders” believe public education should be marketed like cars and household appliances? What does it say that despite what we call our federal legislation that we are leaving more and more children behind, we are offering wages that race to the bottom, and we are not providing the funds needed to make certain that every child succeeds?