Why False Compromises Won’t Resolve The Education Debate

Why False Compromises Won’t Resolve The Education Debate

Jeff Bryant 4 comments

Legend has, political disputes are supposed to be resolvable only when parties “meet in the middle” and shake hands on points of agreement that are possible.

But in the much-contested issue of “education reform,” only one of the disputing parties in the debate tends to be implored to seek compromise.

The latest example of this came from conservative commentator Juan Williams. Writing for The Hill, Williams claimed differing opinions of how to improve the nation’s schools are “stuck in partisan paralysis.” He beseeched “two of the nation’s most politically powerful black men,” President Obama and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) to make a “deal” on “hotly debated education reforms” and embrace the cause of charter schools.

Such a “grand bargain,” Williams assured, would “deliver on the promise of equal opportunity and solve this generation’s top civil rights problem.”

Similarly, in the same week, liberal columnist Jonathan Chait wrote for New York Magazine that the fate of the nation’s schools was caught up in a “weird ideological divide” between people who promote charter schools as a solution for the nation’s education problems and those who have doubts about that.

Chait blamed that “divide” on education historian Diane Ravitch who, according to Chait, “portrays charter schools as a corporate plot.” What’s necessary, Chait maintained, is the “Ravitch and union view of the world” to give up “a nostalgic embrace of the old-fashioned organization of public school” and accept “attempts to apply empirical metrics” that apparently characterize charter schools.

First, set aside how each of these popular columnists jumps to sweeping conclusions without citing any evidence.

(Williams claimed schools are “failing to do their part” to address under achievement of black and Latino students. Yet, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that these students have made great strides in improving performance. Chait claimed neighborhood schools in Washington DC and New York City “are open to children who live close by and restricted to everybody else” – which is not true – and “charter schools are more aggressive about creating accountability standards” – when actually, charter proponents often do all they can to help charters evade accountability measures.)

What’s most troubling about both of these columns – and the loads of others that repeat these themes – is that neither author seems to be aware that maybe what “traditional public schools” face is not so much a gentleman’s dispute as it is an existential threat.

Signs abound that public schools increasingly find themselves pressed to the ropes by opposing forces fed by an extremist ideology bent on privatizing the system.

What doesn’t help at all is the seemingly compliant leadership currently in power in many places and the throngs of Very Serious People on the sidelines who scold public school supporters for not making nice with their determined and uncompromising opponents.

A Battle Plan Long In Making

For quite some time, there has been a well-orchestrated, well funded, and extremely influential movement to literally get rid of public schools.

Writing for Rethinking Schools, Barbara Miner warned, over a decade ago, “Eliminating public education may seem unAmerican. But a growing number of movement conservatives have signed a proclamation from the Alliance for the Separation of School and State that favors ‘ending government involvement in education.'”

Miner quoted powerful conservatives such as Grover Norquist who “view [school] vouchers as a key ingredient in their effort to ‘downsize’ government services.” In an interview in a libertarian website, Norquist compared taxpayer funds for public institutions like schools to “a big cake” that needed to be “thrown in the trash so that the cockroaches don’t have something to come for.”

Flash forward to just last month, we now see school vouchers being promoted on Capitol Hill by a Senator often viewed as being a mainstream education advocate.

With the rise of the Tea Party faction in the Republican Party, we’ve witnessed the growing influence of those who advocate ending public school. In 2011, a faction of the Tea Party that operates in Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania openly declared its intention to get rid of public schools. In a recent article in TruthOut, Teri Adams, the head of the Independence Hall Tea Party and a leading advocate of passage of school voucher bills, stated flat-out, “We think public schools should go away,” and, “Our ultimate goal is to shut down public schools and have private schools only.”

In the most recent presidential election, there was a legitimate candidate, Rick Santorum, in the Republican party who advocated ending public education.

The role charter schools play in this debate is that they inhabit an extremely slippery space where, although they receive public funds, they more often act like private institutions that take away desperately needed funding from traditional public schools.

In that respect, the cause of charter school expansion is increasingly viewed as in league with mounting efforts to abandon traditional public education.

For a close up view of that assault, look what’s happening in  the state of North Carolina.

Anatomy Of An Attack On Public Schools

When Tea Party factions rose to a level of super majority in both chambers of the North Carolina state legislature, it brought into power an ideology with a declared animosity to public schools.

A key component of that agenda was to lift the cap on charter schools and reduce the restrictions on their governance, so that many charters now resemble private schools that receive public money.

The result has been a steady, multiyear eroding of the state’s public education system. Nearly a year ago, Chris Fitzsimon of NC Policy Watch wrote, “North Carolina is now virtually last in the county in how much we invest in educating our kids and how much we pay the teachers who we demand work harder and harder to improve student achievement.”

Teacher pay “is simply a scandal,” he declared. “A starting teacher must work 15 years before earning a $40,000 salary.” And the state’ per-pupil expenditure for public education has now “fallen to 48th in the country.”

Some more recent numbers Fitzsimon offered: Last year’s state budget cut $286.4 million in funding for classroom teachers by increasing student to teacher ratios. This was accompanied by a 20 percent reduction in the number of teacher assistants. The state now provides $15 in state funding per student for textbooks although state funding per student for textbooks was $68 in 2007-2008.

The state now sends $653 less per student on K-12 education than it budgeted in 2007-2008. And for Pre-K, the number of available slots has fallen from 34,876 to 27,500.

With average teacher compensation now ranking 46th nationally, “North Carolina’s teacher pipeline is leaking at both ends,” reported the Raleigh News and Observer. “Public school teachers are leaving in bigger numbers, while fewer people are pursuing education degrees at the state’s universities.”

A recent letter to the editor by a classroom teacher explained, “Right now there is no reason why I should want to be a teacher, considering the sad state of public education in North Carolina.

Legislation has been put in place to eliminate teacher tenure and instead give the top 25 percent of teachers in each district an extra $500 a year for four years. The North Carolina legislature is completely demoralizing public education with this ridiculous notion; good teachers cannot be quantified solely by test scores.”

A recent announcement by state Governor Pat McCrory to propose a new teacher salary plan was derided by watchdogs at NC Policy Watch as “shallow,” confining raises to “starting teachers and those who have spent only a few years in the classroom.”

In a recent editorial for the Raleigh News and Observer, education policy experts Edward Fiske and Helen Ladd noted that teacher salaries are so bad, “teachers in our state routinely take second jobs. Some even qualify for Medicaid and food assistance … Perhaps most humiliating, teachers must now compete against one another for yearly $500 pay raises, undermining the collaborative climate that marks successful schools.

Topping it off, a small tax-credit subsidy passed in 2011, for parents of special-needs kids to transfer their children from public to private schools has now morphed into a multi-million dollar give-away of tax payer money to vouchers that can be used for parents to send their children to private schools, even those that are religiously based.

As Fiske and Ladd concluded, “If one were to devise a strategy for destroying public education in North Carolina, it might look like” what the state is actually doing – “starving schools of funds, undermining teachers and badmouthing their profession,” and “putting public funds in the hands of unaccountable private interests.”

These actions “look a lot like a systematic effort to destroy a public education system that took more than a century to build and that, once destroyed, could take decades to restore.”

Rather than compromising with forces determined to undo the state’s system of public schools, tens of thousands of the state’s citizens took to the streets in Raleigh recently in a Moral March to oppose these and other actions of the state legislature.

Attacks Proliferate

Existential threats to public education aren’t limited to right wing rabble rousing in Southern states. Actions by what’s commonly viewed as “mainstream government” have been especially hostile to public schools as well.

Government funding for public schools has been cut so dramatically that now most states are funding schools less than before the recession.

What this looks like in one of the nation’s largest school district, Los Angeles, came to the attention of many recently when a Facebook campaign led by a local teacher provided a cavalcade of photographs showing the deplorable conditions of that city’s public schools. “The images,” reported the Los Angeles Times, include missing ceiling tiles, broken sinks and water fountains, ant invasions, dead roaches and rat droppings.”

Another understandable outcome from lack of funding is that schools become so dysfunctional they’re abandoned by their constituents or declared worthy of being abandoned. Historic school closures that have taken place in Chicago and Philadelphia – which prompted NBC’s Chris Hayes to question if this what “a strategy to … kill public education” – are signs of a growing belief that these public institutions are expendable.

In October, Reuters reported that the credit rating agency Moody’s Investors Services warned that public schools “face financial stress due to the movement of students to charters … Another major credit agency, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Service warned the rise of charter schools could pose credit risks to districts, too.”

While schools have been enduring these hardships, they’ve also been beset by a raft of new accountability mandates that continue to sap their funding and occupy more and more of teachers’ time and energy. Just one of those mandates – to implement new Common Core State Standards – will cost schools an estimated $10 billion up front and many hundreds of millions more over the next several years.

In the meantime, the student population schools serve grows more and more challenging. As last month’s release of annual report by The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) called The State of America’s Children found, childhood poverty has reached record levels – one in five children in the country is poor. The number of homeless children has increased 73 percent since 2007. One in nine children lacks access to adequate food.

Another report, this one from the Southern Education Foundation, found “a majority of students in public schools throughout the American South and West are low-income for the first time in at least four decades,” reported The Washington Post. The Post reporter quoted Michael A. Rebell, the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University, who observed that “the rapid spike in poverty” helped explain, “why the United States is lagging in comparison with other countries in international tests.”

All these factors – the deliberate assault on public schools and the declining resources, despite growing challenges – never seem to be considered in arguments by a pundit class that continues to rebuke public school supporters for being strident and uncompromising.

Not many of us have had actual experiences with having our very lives threatened – which is as it should be. But it’s not hard to imagine that when that does happen, your first instinct is not to reach out and shake your assailant’s hand.

Until critics of public education supporters recognize and understand that, their calls for compromise will ring hollow in the increasingly desperate hallways of our nation’s endangered public schools.

2/4/2014 – Show Us The Money For Pre-K

Jeff Bryant No Comments

THIS WEEK: Sandy Hook Legacy, So Far … Civil Right Hero Calls Out ‘Reform’ … Our Most Educationally Neglected Youths … Common Ground Over Common Core … Obama Vs. Art History

TOP STORY

Hey Congress, Show Us The Money For Pre-K

By Jeff Bryant

“On Thursday, Senators on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP) will meet to discuss an important step toward intervening with something that really would help – early education programs for the neediest kids … The urgency is paramount, and the bipartisan momentum is there, but what’s not quite clear is whether Senators are ready to show a determined willingness to find the money.”
Read more …

NEWS AND VIEWS

School Shootings Continue Despite Increased Security After Sandy Hook Killings

The Huffington Post

“Despite increased security put in place after the massacre at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, there’s been no real reduction in the number of U.S. school shootings … Many schools now have elaborate school safety plans and more metal detectors, surveillance cameras and fences … Attention also has focused on hiring school law enforcement officers … [American Federation of Teachers President Randi] Weingarten said more emphasis needs to be placed on improving school cultures … Many of these kinds of programs were scaled back during budget cuts.”
Read more …

Civil Rights Hero Launches ‘American Child’s Education Bill Of Rights’

The Washington Post

Valerie Strauss writes, “Calling modern school reform ‘catastrophically misguided and ineffective,’ civil rights icon James Meredith is launching what he calls the American Child’s Education Bill of Rights … Meredith, who now drives his grandchildren to public school in Jackson, Miss., every day said: ‘We are losing millions of our children to inferior schools and catastrophically misguided and ineffective so-called education reforms’ … The Education Bill of Rights identifies 12 basic education rights for every American child, all based on his career as a social activist … Meredith urges Americans to join a national debate on the American Child’s Education Bill of Rights, and to add their own ideas, on his Facebook page: www.facebook.com/jamesmeredithusa.”
Read more …

Punishing Young Offenders Twice

Education Week

“Our nation’s most educationally neglected youths continue to be … young people who are incarcerated or under the purview of the justice system … There are approximately 2,700 juvenile-justice facilities in the United States, with more than 150,000 incarcerated young people age 18 and younger … Policymakers and educators can make a difference. Policymakers can work hard to ensure that each state mandates that all children are entitled to a high-quality education, including those who are being held in the juvenile-justice system … When we say that education matters and no child should be left behind, we must apply it to all children, even those who broke the law.”
Read more …

Political Rivals Find Common Ground Over Common Core

NPR

“There’s growing backlash to Common Core, and conservatives and liberals increasingly are voicing similar concerns: that the standards take a one-size-fits-all approach, create a de facto national curriculum, put on standardized tests and undermine teacher autonomy … A small but growing number of liberal reformists have joined conservatives, agreeing on some of the key criticisms … The mutual criticism of Common Core extends to potential uses and abuses of under the new standards. Both sides also say Common Core represents an end-run around federal prohibition against a national curriculum. And both argue that the new standards were not really state-driven … Worries about Common Core’s content and accompanying tests also cross ideological lines … Tea Party conservatives, calling it “Obamacore,” are planning a big march on Washington … But the growing number of liberal critics of Common Core aren’t likely to join hands with them and march.”
Listen …

Obama Vs. Art History

Inside Higher Ed

“President Obama found common ground with Republican politicians Thursday – in arguing that some liberal arts degrees offer poor preparation for a job … There are all sorts of ironies about the president selecting art history as a discipline to question … Graduates of arts programs, while not all employed in the arts, are generally employed and have high levels of job satisfaction, using their arts knowledge in a range of ways … Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said … ‘It was depressing to hear President Obama describe college mainly as vocational and/or technical training in the State of the Union address, and it’s even worse to have him casually dismiss one of the liberal arts – or even the whole idea of baccalaureate study – because you can earn good enough money in a skilled trade.'”
Read more …

Hey Congress, Show Us The Money For Pre-K

Jeff Bryant one comments

If our nation’s leaders made policy decisions on actual evidence, this matter would have been addressed a long time ago.

This “matter” is the increasingly desperate state of the nation’s youngest children and the callousness in the way they’re being treated in our austerity-loving, market competitive culture.

There’s also evidence there is something we could actually do about it right now – if only there were the political will – and yes, the heart – to take the necessary actions.

On Thursday, Senators on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP) will meet to discuss an important step toward intervening with something that really would help – early education programs for the neediest kids. Among the measures being considered, presumably, is the Strong Start Children Senate bill that is based in part on proposals from President Obama.

The urgency is paramount, and the bipartisan momentum is there, but what’s not quite clear is whether Senators are ready to show a determined willingness to find the money.

Just How Bad

The evidence of how badly our nation’s youngest and most vulnerable are hurting is beyond dispute. Last month’s release of an annual report by The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) called The State of America’s Children laid it all out.

While the U.S. ranks first in Gross Domestic Product and leads the world in its number of billionaires, it is the second worst country when it comes to child poverty rates. Childhood poverty has reached record levels – one in five children in the country is poor. The number of homeless children has increased 73 percent since 2007. One in nine children lacks access to adequate food.

The economic consequences of this litany of sorrow are enormous: $500 billion in extra education, health care, criminal justice and lost productivity costs. But that figure alone does not come close to accounting for the long-term consequences of under-serving so many who we expect to eventually take our places.

And yes, money, and how we have chosen to allocate it in our society, is part of the problem. On average, also according to the CDF report, states spend 2.5 times as much per prisoner than per student in public schools. The amount spent per minute on corporate tax breaks would fund the salaries of 16 childcare workers. The cost of one F-35 fighter jet would pay for one year of Head Start for more than 17,500 low-income children.”

What To Do

Just as there is evidence of how badly our youngest citizens are hurting, there’s evidence that most Americans are ready and eager to do something to help by expanding access to education programs for three and four year olds.

A recent article in The New York Times by Richard Pérez-Peña and Motoko Rich explained how bipartisan leadership in states has been slowly building.

The Times reporters explained that outside Washington, DC, early childhood education has “become a bipartisan cause, uniting business groups and labor unions.

“Few government programs have broader appeal than preschool. A telephone poll conducted in July for the First Five Years Fund, a nonprofit group that advocates early education programs, found that 60 percent of registered Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats supported a proposal to expand public preschool by raising the federal tobacco tax.”

Early childhood advocates Laura Bornfreund and Conor Williams of the New America Foundation explained in The Atlantic, “Awareness of early education issues is as high as it’s ever been.” The noted widespread political support not only from President Obama but also from, “business leaders, law enforcement, retired military leaders, charitable foundations … economists [and] lawmakers in states red, blue.”

“But have we actually expanded preschool to more kids?” they ask. “Not really. Have we made progress at closing achievement gaps between young students from different socioeconomic backgrounds? No. Have we sustained funding commitments after the one-time stimulus boost in 2009? Far from it.”

So what’s the hang up?

The Expectations Hang Up

One hang up appears to be over the expected benefits of these programs.

Recently, columnists Nicholas Kristof, also in the pages of The New York Times, wrote, “Republican critics focus on (and misunderstand) a major, well-designed project called the Head Start Impact Study. It found that Head Start produces educational gains that fade away. By third grade, when the research ended, there was little detectable difference between those assigned to Head Start and those in control groups.

The “misunderstanding” Kristof referred to are the social-emotional benefits of a national program such as Head Start could produce. “There are often long-term improvements” from programs like Head Start, Kristof explained, “on things that matter even more, such as arrest rates and high school graduation rates.”

Kristof concluded, “One of the most consequential national debates this year will be about early education. The evidence that it builds opportunity is overwhelming.”

However, as Kristof explained, large scale pre-k programs like Head Start have clearly shown to benefit the social-emotional development of poor kids, but to benefit academic development? That’s not so clear.

In the same issue of the Times, professors Daniel T. Willingham and David W. Grissmer pointed out that, sure, academic benefits to large-scale pre-k programs tend to be elusive. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t possible when the program quality is significantly boosted. And we already have some evidence of how to ensure that as well.

Willingham and Grissmer wrote, “The preschools that do work teach less well-prepared kids precursor skills, the kind that many wealthy kids learn at home, through activities that don’t look especially academic … Teaching these precursor skills in a preschool setting, rather than at home, is not easy. Teachers have just a few hours per day and many children to serve.”

What we can take away from these two perspectives is that there is definitive evidence that expanded pre-k programs can benefit poor kids both socially-emotionally and academically – as long as we’re willing to pay for it.

The closest we’ve gotten to getting all we want from pre-k programs, according to the experts at the National Institute of Early Education Research, is “the Abbott districts program in New Jersey, a high-quality full-day Pre-K program for 3- to 4-year-olds in the state’s highest poverty districts.”

These Abbot districts in New Jeersey have also raised the cost of per-child expenditures far above what the wealthiest school districts in that state pay to educate their kids.

The Federal Government Hang Up

Indeed, if program quality is so critical for Pre-K, all the more reason to ensure there’s adequate funding for it – and to address the challenge at a national scale.

Yet objections still come from the right.

Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, for instance, is one of the Republicans most receptive to arguments for expanded pre-k, but he rejected the president’s plan as a top-down mandate from Washington. “Early childhood education is important and we should try to make it available to the largest number of children possible,” he said to reporters at The New York Times. “But most of that should be done by local communities and state governments.”

This makes no sense. If Pre-K programs are going to accomplish all that conservatives want them to accomplish – in terms of social-emotional and academic benefits – they’re going to cost more. If they’re going to cost more, the best way to keep the costs down is through a national scope that could potentially impart some economies of scale.

It’s All About The Money

Gail Collins, in the same issue of the Times in which the Kristof column appeared, brought up what has ultimately become the crux of the matter.

She quoted Senator Patty Murray (D, WA), who said “Everybody seems to agree we need some sort of national effort to provide preschool education to our kids. What we don’t have is any discussion about how to pay for it.”

So there your have it: The evidence doesn’t seem to matter. What matters most is how our political leaders are going to answer the question: Are we ready to pay more to educate poor children – maybe even more than what we pay to educate our wealthiest kids?

The American people have answered, “Yes.”

And, to paraphrase Collins, it’s time our leaders “show us the money.”

1/28/2014 – What’s Wrong With School Choice

Jeff Bryant No Comments

THIS WEEK: Subprime Learning … Childhood Poverty At Record Levels … Public Schools Teaching Creationism … Will SOTU Address Opportunity Gap? … Liberal Arts Beats Other Degrees

TOP STORY

What Could Be Wrong With ‘School Choice’?

By Jeff Bryant

“This week brought us ‘National School Choice Week’ with its recurring theme that ‘parents should be empowered to choose the best educational environments for their children’ … Republicans and free market enthusiasts of all kinds are going to continue to press for anything under the umbrella of ‘school choice.’ But civil rights advocates – whether Democratic or not – need to ask, if school choice is about ’empowering parents,’ who is doing the ’empowering’ and what they are doing it for?”
Read more …

NEWS AND VIEWS

Subprime Learning

New America Foundation

A new report shows, “In the wake of a financial crash triggered by subprime lending, too many children in America have been experiencing subprime learning … Millions of children still lack access to quality programs, the K–3 grades have received little attention, and achievement gaps in reading and math have widened between family income levels … Congress helped President Obama make good on his $10-billion pledge, but most of it came from the fiscal stimulus bill of 2009. After that one-time infusion of extra spending, the federal government has barely managed to maintain its baseline investment year after year.”
Read more …

Children’s Defense Fund Releases New Report Showing Children Of Color Are Majority Of Infants And Toddlers

Examiner

“The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) released its annual The State of America’s Children report … the data shows childhood poverty has reached record levels in America. One in five children in the country is poor, living in a household at, or below, the Federal Poverty Level … While the U.S. ranks first in Gross Domestic Product and leads the world in its number of billionaires, it is the second worst country when it comes to child poverty rates … The number of homeless children has increased 73% since 2007 … one in nine children lacked access to adequate food … Childhood poverty costs the nation $500 billion in extra education, health care, criminal justice and lost productivity costs … On average, states spend 2.5 times as much per prisoner than per student in public schools. The amount spent per minute on corporate tax breaks would fund the salaries of 16 childcare workers. The cost of one F-35 fighter jet would pay for one year of Head Start for more than 17,500 low-income children.”
Read more …

Map: Publicly Funded Schools That Teach Creationism

Slate

“A large, publicly funded charter school system in Texas is teaching creationism … Recent laws in Louisiana and Tennessee permit public school teachers to teach ‘alternatives’ to evolution … In Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Arizona, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, taxpayer money is funding creationist private schools through state tuition voucher or scholarship programs … Creationism in schools isn’t restricted to schoolhouses in remote villages where the separation of church and state is considered less sacred. If you live in any of these states, there’s a good chance your tax money is helping to convince some hapless students that evolution … is some sort of highly contested scientific hypothesis.”
Read more …

Poverty And The Education Opportunity Gap: Will Obama Step Up In SOTU?

The Washington Post

Kevin Welner, co-director of the National Education Policy Center writes at the blogsite of Valerie Strauss, “Tuesday’s State of the Union address will apparently focus on issues of wealth inequality in the United States … President Obama, I fear, may continue to push for more test-based accountability policies … The Republican response, I fear, will hold out the related false hope of vouchers … These nonsensical policies come with an astronomical economic cost and cost to our democracy … The way to reduce wealth inequality is to do just that: reduce wealth inequality. Our public schools can help, but they cannot do it alone.”
Read more …

Liberal Arts Grads Win Long-Term

Inside Higher Ed

“Liberal arts majors may start off slower than others when it comes to the postgraduate career path, but they close much of the salary and unemployment gap over time … By their mid-50s, liberal arts majors with an advanced or undergraduate degree are on average making more money [than] those who studied in professional and pre-professional fields, and are employed at similar rates … One area where humanities and social sciences majors have everyone beat: meeting employers’ desires and expectations. Employers consistently say they want to hire people who have a broad knowledge base and can work together to solve problems, debate, communicate and think critically, the report notes – all skills that liberal arts programs aggressively, and perhaps uniquely, strive to teach.”
Read more …

What Could Be Wrong With ‘School Choice’?

Jeff Bryant 14 comments

Everyone loves “choice,” right?

In a country where in a single year there are more than 100 new choices for what to use to brush your teeth, it stands to reason that maximizing “choice” might be a goal for all kinds of enterprises.

With that in mind, this week brought us “National School Choice Week” with its recurring theme that “parents should be empowered to choose the best educational environments for their children.”

In their reporting of a School Choice Week kickoff event in Houston, libertarians at Reason noted that Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) headed up the speakers. “The liberal Jackson Lee and the conservative Cruz may not have much in common,” Reason noted, but both seemed intent on pressing the case for school choice.

A blogger for the Houston Chronicle also highlighted the coming together of political right and left, crowing, “Who said Republicans and Democrats can’t come together?”

For sure, Republicans and free market enthusiasts of all kinds are going to continue to press for anything under the umbrella of “school choice.” But civil rights advocates – whether Democratic or not – need to ask, if school choice is about “empowering parents,” who is doing the “empowering” and what they are doing it for?

Same Old Wine

For years, free-market enthusiasts have sold school choice as a remedy for poverty, low education attainment, and racial segregation.

As economist  Greg Anrig of The Century Foundation explained some time ago at The Washington Monthly, beginning with the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan, “a torrent of money” flowed into “conservative think tanks and advocacy groups” to formulate and promote “school choice” policies in all their forms, from vouchers to redirect public school funding to private schools, to charter schools that would compete with local public schools for enrollment and tax dollars.

Flash forward to this week, and we see the same old wine in a brand new bottle. One of the most enduring conservative “belief” tanks, the American Enterprise Institute, (AEI) kicked off School Choice Week with a showcase of Republican school policy wonkery featuring Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Tim Scott (R-SC) and their new federal legislation “to encourage innovative state efforts to expand school choice.”

Alexander’s presence, in particular, according to an article in The Washington Post, is proof, “Republicans are positioning ‘school choice’ – sending public dollars to charter schools, vouchers, virtual schools and other alternatives to traditional public schools – as a way to address income inequality in this election year and connect with low-income, minority voters.”

So the free market school choice advocates are back with a vengeance, and according to Politico (subscription required), “This year is shaping up as a busy one for school choice legislation in the states,” with “at least 17 states” considering bills to help parents pay for private school tuition with public taxpayer money.

Should those who want genuine education reform jump aboard?

Choice Doesn’t Overcome Poverty

Because of the well-known correlation of education attainment to future income, politicians love to pose education as a “way out of poverty.”

Recently, Eric Cantor, the powerful Republican House Majority Leader (VA), exemplified this convention all too well, declaring in a speech at Brookings Institute – yet another DC belief tank advocating school choice – “School choice is the surest way to break this vicious cycle of poverty and we must act fast before it is too late for too many,” according to The Hill.

Mind you this is the same Eric Cantor who was steadfast in his opposition to extending unemployment insurance benefits for millions of Americans – something that would actually have been a way to “act fast” to alleviate poverty.

Advocates for school choice – who are especially well schooled in political messaging – know if they position school choice as a poverty remedy, they win the communications battle.

How much poverty has been relieved by school choice?

America’s oldest school choice program is the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program which began in 1990. The folks at AEI have stated, “Milwaukee is one of the most ‘choice-rich’ environments in America”

Yet in 2011, based on the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, “Milwaukee remained one of America’s 10 most impoverished big cities, with a poverty rate of 29.4 percent,” according to a local paper, more than double the Wisconsin statewide rate of 13 percent.

Certainly, if a 24-year “choice-rich” education program to lower poverty hasn’t achieved any success by now – and in fact, poverty has gotten worse – how can it be a way to “act fast” on poverty?

Further, school choice programs aren’t necessarily aimed at the poor. As Politico’s Stephanie Simon recently reported, “In Milwaukee, a family of four with an annual income as high as $71,000 can get a voucher. In Louisiana, a family of four earning nearly $59,000 a year is eligible. The federal poverty guideline for a family of four is $23,550.”

Rather than believe the politicians’ prescription of school choice for curing poverty, what’s far more believable is their advocacy for school choice gives them an excuse for not doing anything to actually alleviate poverty – such as raising minimum wages or taxing rich people to pay for public works programs. It also makes it easier to blame someone else – namely, educators.

Choice Doesn’t Work For Education

School choice advocates also maintain they’re on a mission to improve the quality of education overall.

In the same Politico story cited above, Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) recently said the week to raise awareness about school choice was about raising education quality.

“School choice,” he said, “puts pressure on our whole education system to improve.”

Don’t tell that to the parents in Milwaukee. Education historian Diane Ravitch recently reviewed the results from that school district’s long experience with choice  and found its program had not produced any academic advantages, at least that could be measured by test scores.

To be fair to Milwaukee, Ravitch found the same to be the case for Washington, DC’s choice program, which produced “no conclusive evidence” it had affected student achievement.

If choice was the answer,” she concluded, “Milwaukee should be at the top of the nation’s urban districts. But it is near the bottom. Why? Because choice is not the answer.”

Greg Anrig, in the article cited above, found a study from Cleveland that came to the very same conclusion for its choice program: “no significant differences in overall achievement, reading, or math scores.”

Turns out, back to Stephanie Simon, school choice isn’t always about students “trapped in failing public schools … Fully two-thirds of students in Wisconsin’s Parental Choice Program were already enrolled in private schools before they received the tuition subsidy – and another 5 percent were home schooled.”

Actually, nothing about school choice, regardless of the form, guarantees parents get the kind of school quality they desire. Studies have shown that in a typical school choice program, the private school services that parents mostly desire – small class sizes, well-rounded curriculum, individualized services – will still be out of reach for most parents.

Instead, the choice that most parents will be stuck with is whether they stay in their neighborhood school – as it is rapidly being defunded to the private sector and gradually being depopulated of the children of the most well-to-do parents – or choose a private or charter that pays teachers much less and provides fewer services for their children and provides no benefits of prestigious private schools.

Is Choice Accountable For Anything?

Because school choice often doesn’t yield the benefits it’s purported to yield, some advocates now say better results were never the intention.

For instance, choice enthusiast Jay P. Greene, who heads a Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, recently wrote on his blog that test results like those used to evaluate ordinary public schools shouldn’t matter for “choice schools.”

“Testing requirements,” you see, “hurt choice because test results fail to capture most of the benefits produced by choice schools.”

Similarly, Jason Bedrick from the libertarian Cato Institute stated, “school choice programs work without … government regulation.”

According to this camp, there’s now a standard of “choice accountability” that is higher than any other standard of school accountability. Apparently, in a choice system, no parent would ever be “stuck in a failing school.” Because they have “chosen” a failing school, you see, it is no longer “failing.”

But all you “failing schools” not in a choice system? Tough!

Anyone at all familiar with how “choice” came into being as the rally cry of the day could see this coming from a mile away.

Posted at the blog site for the National Education Policy Center, education professor and former classroom teacher Paul Thomas warned some time ago of the “shifting talking points among school choice advocates.”

Thomas wrote, “In the 1980s and 1990s, before a substantial body of research had emerged, vouchers were heralded as the panacea for a failing public school system. Once the shine wore off those lofty claims – since research shows little to no academic gains driven by any choice initiatives – school choice advocates began to change claims and approaches, attempting to stay at least one step ahead of the evidence throughout the process.”

Thomas traced the evolution of choice rhetoric coming from the choice movement – from “vouchers,” to charters, to “tax credits,” to “choice” – ultimately landing on the current talking point of the day: “Why would anyone want to deny choice to people in poverty, the same choice that middle- and upper-class people have?”

With all this slight of rhetorical hand coming from the choice movement, it’s no wonder that some think advocates for choice have something else in mind.

Writing at the liberal blog site Daily Kos, Laura Clawson recently observed, “While Republican politicians don’t see it as a civil right for poor kids to eat or have health care or a place to live, when it comes to charter school expansion or vouchers to attend private schools, suddenly it’s all about civil rights.”

Her conclusion was, “Republicans say ‘school choice’ but they mean privatization.”

So what do Democrats mean?

No Choice Until There’s A Guarantee

Quite likely what’s confusing left-leaning people about school choice is the persuasive rhetoric coming from leaders in the choice movement such as Jeb Bush.

In the run up to School Choice Week, Bush declared choice to be “one of our most cherished principles.”

Unfortunately for Bush, the nation’s foundational documents don’t say a whole lot about “choice.” What they do say a lot about is equality and justice. And what Americans do have, in nearly every state constitution across the land, is a clause that our government has an obligation to provide an education to all young Americans.

All the parental choice in the world, after all, is useless without the guarantee to the availability of good schools everywhere for all students.

Until politicians and education advocates start showing they will fight for that, proclamations about “school choice” ring hollow.

1/22/2014 – Let Teachers Lead Common Core

Jeff Bryant No Comments

THIS WEEK: School Funding Fights … End Of A Civil Rights Era … Online Schools Take Funds … Schools Teaching Creationism … Free Public College For All

TOP STORY

Why Common Core Advocates Should Let Teachers Lead It

By Jeff Bryant

“Perhaps the most tumultuous issue for the year ahead is the fate of the Common Core State Standards … As support for the Common Core waivers among the ranks of politicians, pundits, and scholars, that support seems to be gaining some ground in the most surprising of places: among public school educators who the new standards were supposed to corral and coerce.”
Read more …

NEWS AND VIEWS

School Funding Fights Roil State Politics

Politico

“Most states spend more tax dollars on K-12 schools than on any other line item except health care for the poor. So what happens when the courts say it’s not enough? That’s a very real prospect with the potential to roil political races and upend budgets this election year … At issue in all these cases: provisions in every state constitution that mandate a public education system … The debate has only intensified in recent years as Republicans and Democrats alike push education reforms that they contend will improve student performance without adding cost … School funding is already an issue in the Texas gubernatorial race … School funding litigation is also moving through the courts in New York, Florida and North Carolina. But perhaps the most volatile case is in Kansas.”
Read more …

Arkansas Desegregation Decision Marks End Of An Era

The Grio

“Ever since the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Little Rock, Arkansas has been a crucial battleground in the fight for desegregation in this country. That’s why it’s big news that District Court judge D. Price Marshall accepted a settlement agreement … The terms of the settlement mean that the state of Arkansas will be able to stop payments meant to aid desegregation … The fact that there is a huge achievement gap between white and black students is evidence of the continuing need for funding that evens out the playing field for all students, but funding opponents successfully argued that the learning environment for students has sufficiently improved, making desegregation funding unnecessary … The focus now turns to the students of Little Rock and how they will respond to these important funding changes coming just a few years down the road and whether the removal of funding to integrate Little Rock’s schools will send the city back into the unequal reality of a generation ago.”
Read more …

Online Schools Prove Tough Rivals In Quest For Students, Funds

Education Week

“Across the country, the rise of virtual education is influencing how school districts use their money and other resources and what programs they develop. They’re responding both to cyber charter schools that can provide students with an online-only education and to state-sponsored virtual schools that offer students either full-time online learning or the ability to choose from online courses to supplement their schools’ traditional offerings … In some places, the competition from outside cyber forces is steering districts to develop their own programs; in other places, the establishment of a respected state-sponsored virtual school has the opposite effect … dollars [for] marketing [these online programs] to parents, students, and the community in a bid to catch up with the virtual schools [is] money that won’t go to keeping class sizes low, or to hiring more teachers or buying new curricula.”
Read more …

Texas Public Schools Are Teaching Creationism

Slate

“When public-school students enrolled in Texas’ largest charter program open their biology workbooks, they will read that the fossil record is ‘sketchy.’ That evolution is “dogma” and an “unproved theory” with no experimental basis. They will be told that leading scientists dispute the mechanisms of evolution and the age of the Earth … The more than 17,000 students in the Responsive Education Solutions charter system will learn in their history classes that some residents of the Philippines were ‘pagans in various levels of civilization.’ They’ll read in a history textbook that feminism forced women to turn to the government as a ‘surrogate husband’ … Infiltrating and subverting the charter-school movement has allowed Responsive Ed to carry out its religious agenda – and it is succeeding … Responsive Ed is an internal threat to the charter movement. Rather than educating students, it’s interested in indoctrinating them with one sect of religion. If weak oversight allows Responsive Ed to survive, it makes the entire charter system look bad.”
Read more …

How The Government Could Make Public College Free For All Students

Think Progress

“Tuition at public colleges came to $62.6 billion in 2012, according to the latest government data. That’s less than what the government already spends to subsidize the cost of college … That means that with the money it already spends to make college affordable, the government could instead subsidize public college tuition, thereby making it free for all students. This would not just mean anyone could attend a higher education institution without worrying about cost, but it could incentivize private ones to reduce their costs in order to compete with the free option … President Obama has proposed a “pay for performance” system to help rein in costs, which would create a ratings system that measured college’s performance and tie aid to how they perform, eventually incentivizing them to improve on metrics like graduation rates and the debt their graduates carry. But the evidence from similar state-based efforts is mixed on how big of an impact it can have.”
Read more …

ACTION

Sign EON’s Petition To Make Public Colleges Tuition-Free

Tell President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and House Speaker John Boehner to create a plan to make public college tuition-free. Rather than continuing to pour billions more into financial aid programs that often fall short of tuition costs and leave students deep in debt, lead an effort to fund tuition-free public college. The money is there but the leadership isn’t.
Read more …

Why Common Core Advocates Should Let Teachers Lead It

Jeff Bryant 7 comments

Now that ed-heads have had a chance to make their “what to expect in 2014” prognostications, it’s evident that one of the most tumultuous issues – perhaps the most tumultuous – for the year ahead is the fate of the Common Core State Standards.

The Common Core – academic standards in math and English language arts the U.S. Department of Education coerced most states to adopt and use for measuring public education performance goals – has been marketed to the American people as “the first step in providing our young people with a high-quality education,” according to the initiative’s website.

Most states (45) eagerly took that “first step,” but it’s the second, third, and fourth steps that are proving problematic.

Common Core Is A “Flashpoint”

Writing for the education trade publication Education Week, Andrew Ujifusa declared the Common Core to be a “flashpoint” in the year ahead. In an election year, the new standards, and their associated tests, confront “a tricky political climate.”

In 2013, a “total of 270 unique bills in all states dealt with academic-content standards in some way,” compared to just 117 in 2012. In great part, the results of those bills tied all sorts of education policies – from curriculum and instruction, to teacher evaluations and school ratings, to student assessments and the sharing of their personal records – to the Common Core.

The consequences of these sweeping changes to state education policies, spurred by adoption of the new standards, are gradually coming due, and team Common Core is looking shaky.

Opposition Coming From Right And Left

Last week influential conservative columnist George Will wrote in the editorial pages of The Washington Post, “The Obama administration has purchased states’ obedience by partially conditioning waivers from onerous federal regulations (from No Child Left Behind) and receipt of federal largess ($4.35 billion in Race to the Top money from the 2009 stimulus) on the states’ embrace of the Common Core. Although 45 states and the District of Columbia have struck this bargain, most with little debate, some are reconsidering and more will do so as opposition mounts.”

Opposition is, indeed, mounting.

State leaders in Indiana – a state that has been touted by Common Core proponents as an “Education Reform Idol” – seems poised to drop the standards, according to Education Week’s Michele McNeil. Lawmakers in Kentucky – the first state to adopt the Common Core – filed a bill to repeal the standards. Recently, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley came out against the standards her state adopted saying, “We don’t ever want to educate South Carolina children like they educate California children.”

When state lawmakers aren’t calling for outright repeal of the standards, they are expressing serious misgivings with all the trappings the Common Core entails, including new teacher evaluations and the Common Core tests developed by two assessment consortia facilitated by the federal government.

According to the education blog for the New America Foundation, “Several states have already pulled out, or scaled back, their involvement” with the two consortia that developed those tests. “Expect more to follow this year,” concluded NAF’s expert.

New York, one of the first states to roll out those new standards-aligned tests, has been the scene of such vocal and widespread dissent related to those tests, that Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced plans for “corrective action” on the Common Core rollout.

What happened?

Everything You Need To Know

To answer that question, education historian Diane Ravitch recently delivered a seminal speech to the Modern Language Association to explain, “Everything you need to know about Common Core.”

Valerie Strauss recently posted the transcript for that speech on her blog at The Washington Post, and the entire text is well worth reading.

To begin with, Ravitch linked Common Core enthusiasm to what is essentially an old idea: George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, that mandated testing of every child throughout the country and using those test results as rationale for all sorts of decisions.

“No other nation tests every student every year as we do,” explained Ravitch. “Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of Education wants every state and every district to do it. Because of these federal programs, our schools have become obsessed with standardized testing … This is the policy context in which the Common Core standards were developed.”

This “test obsession” Ravitch decried stems from well meaning intentions of those who see the Common Core as a way to resolve longstanding inequity in the nation’s education system.

“The advocates of the standards … believed that common standards would automatically guarantee equity. Some spoke of the Common Core as a civil rights issue.”

This has been a colossal mistake, Ravitch contended. “To expect tougher standards and a renewed emphasis on standardized testing to reduce poverty and inequality is to expect what never was and never will be.”

Ravitch pointed to a great many other factors that make the Common Core so controversial to their detractors on both the right and the left of the political spectrum, including their costs, their inappropriateness to the developmental levels of little children, and their entanglement with corporations that aim to make a lot of money by creating tests and materials aligned to the standards.

But most devastatingly, Ravitch warned that the false promise of NCLB – which mandated 100 percent of American school children to be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014 – have morphed into the false promise of the Common Core:

Advocates of the standards insist that low-scoring students will become high-scoring students if the tests are rigorous, but what if they are wrong? What if the failure rate remains staggeringly high as it is now? What if it improves marginally as students become accustomed to the material, and the failure rate drops from 70% to 50%? What will we do with the 50% who can’t jump over the bar? Teachers across the country will be fired if the scores of their pupils do not go up. This is nuts. We have a national policy that is a theory based on an assumption grounded in hope.

Hope For The Common Core?

As support for the Common Core waivers among the ranks of politicians, pundits, and scholars, that support seems to be gaining some ground in the most surprising of places: among public school educators who the new standards were supposed to corral and coerce.

Although there are surveys showing wide approval of the Common Core among educators, those data have to be taken with a grain of salt. After all, how can educators “approve” something before they’ve had time necessary to see how it works in their classrooms and with their students?

Nevertheless, the anecdotal data showing support for the Common Core among educators continue to mount. It’s commonplace, for instance, to come across educators who firmly believe that the Common Core “is better than what we have now.” Numerous teachers have presented their own personal uses of the standards to craft better lessons for their students – even those for those students who are the most challenged by the standards.

Writing at her blogsite for Education Week, former Michigan Teacher of the Year Nancy Flanagan recently wrote, “In my work in professional development and teacher leadership, I meet teachers all the time who say they like the CC and appreciate having a K-12 framework. Most of them are young, and find the structure, if not each individual standard, useful … When teachers say they like the Common Core, I listen.”

Such teacher-led support for the Common Core is so pervasive it enabled the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher union, to recently unveil a $7 million free platform with more than 3,000 lessons aligned to the standards.

For sure, there are also plenty of anecdotes of highly scripted lessons based on the Common Core that treat teachers as “deliverers” of canned curriculum rather than as educators capable of tailoring learning to individual student needs.

But experienced teachers can discern the difference between the two – that is, if we give them the freedom to do so.

Writing at his blogsite, again, at Education Week, Upstate New York elementary principal Peter DeWitt argued a point that doubtlessly rings true with many educators: “I want to believe that the Common Core is like a textbook. They offer a base of what educators should focus on but they are not the only thing that educators should teach. They may offer a blueprint but you can build the way you want.”

What is “the problem” DeWitt concluded is when standards advocates want to lock in rigid expectations for children that cannot be standardized. “I understand that supporters of the Common Core will say that if all teachers in all schools around every state are teaching the same standards they won’t have to worry about children entering not meeting those expectations. But let’s face it, that argument is just plain silly. We know that not every student will meet those exit requirements and we know that not all students come in to the next grade (from the same school or another one) meeting those entrance requirements.” (emphasis original)

Is it beyond the capacity of Common Core advocates to unhitch their suspicions of teachers and trust them to do what’s right for children?

Back to Ravitch, “It is good to have standards,” she concluded in her speech. “But they must not be rigid, inflexible, and prescriptive. … There is something about the Common Core standards and testing, about their demand for uniformity and standardization, that reeks of early twentieth century factory-line thinking. There is something about them that feels obsolete. Today, most sectors of our economy have standards that are open-sourced and flexible, that rely upon the wisdom of practitioners, that are constantly updated and improved.”

So yes, advocates for Common core should be advocates to give teachers that flexibility with the Common Core, and see what they do. Any other approach to Common Core just seems like NCLB all over again.

1/14/2014 – An End To Sanction-Driven Education?

Jeff Bryant No Comments

THIS WEEK: What Could Close The Achievement Gap … Will States Give Up On Education … Politicians Face Tough Choices On Common Core … Vouchers Aren’t Popular … Colleges Fail Student Athletes

TOP STORY

The Beginning Of An End To Sanction-Driven Education?

By Jeff Bryant

“Last week, the Obama administration took an important step for the well being of the nation’s youth – especially those who are of racial minorities – by issuing new guidelines that many hope will shut down what has come to be known as ‘the school-to-prison pipeline.’ This action – welcome, for sure – constitutes a beginning to what should be a major shift in education policies across the board … in addition to discipline reform, the next policy shift needs to be for assessment reform.”
Read more …

NEWS AND VIEWS

This Is What Could Close The Achievement Gap Among Young Kids, Study Says

The Huffington Post

“A few years of high-quality early childhood education could close the academic achievement gap between low-income and affluent students, a new study suggests … Researchers found that after providing low-income children with quality preschool early in life, the kids had the same IQs as their wealthier peers by age 3 … Although students analyzed in the study were not offered preschool past the age of 3, by age 5 and 8, they still had IQs that were more similar to their wealthier peers than is typical … The study concludes that if all low-income children were offered free, high-quality preschool, it ‘could make a large, persistent positive impacts on low-income children’s cognitive skill and academic achievement and reduce, if not eliminate, the early skills gap between America’s children from low and higher-income families.'”
Read more …

What’s The Matter With Kansas’ Schools?

The New York Times

“Kansas has become the epicenter of a new battle over the states’ obligation to adequately fund public education … Gov. Sam Brownback and the Republican-led Legislature have made draconian cuts in school spending, leading to a lawsuit … The outcome of that decision could resonate nationwide. Forty-five states have had lawsuits challenging the failure of governors and legislators to provide essential resources for a constitutional education. Litigation is pending against 11 states … If the Kansas Supreme Court orders restoration of the funding, legislators are threatening to amend the state’s Constitution by removing the requirement for ‘suitable’ school funding and to strip Kansas courts of jurisdiction to hear school finance cases altogether. And if the amendment fails, they have vowed to defy any court order for increased funding or, at the very least, take the money from higher education … As Kansas goes, so may go the nation.”
Read more …

State Lawmakers Face Tough Choices on Common Core

Education Week

“For many states, this year will be a key juncture for decisions about the standards—and related exams—before their full weight is felt in classrooms … But the large slate of elections this year … Of the 270 standards-related bills last year, 107 dealt with assessments … Lawmakers … could also be feeling pressure about how teacher evaluations will be affected by the common core: This school year alone, 17 states are asking schools to fully implement new teacher evaluations … The common core’s short-term impact on school ratings and student scores also could cause many lawmakers to try to hedge, at least for now, on some policies intended to protect the standards’ purported long-term benefits.'”
Read more …

Poll: Americans Prefer Smaller Classes, More Technology, Before Vouchers

Education Week

A poll by the pro-voucher Friedman Foundation found, “Americans favor smaller class sizes and technology over education reforms such as vouchers and merit pay for teachers … The fact that school choice (in the form of vouchers) was ranked fourth most preferable in the list of school reforms suggests strong support for public education in its current form.”
Read more …

Some College Athletes Play Like Adults, Read Like 5th-Graders

CNN

“A CNN investigation found public universities across the country where many students in the basketball and football programs could read only up to an eighth-grade level … Most schools have between 7% and 18% of revenue sport athletes who are reading at an elementary school level. Some had even higher percentages of below-threshold athletes … Some of the universities from which CNN sought data didn’t even have remedial classes for student-athletes to attend … The Drake Group, which pushes for academic integrity in collegiate sports, organized a lobbying trip to Washington to push for an amendment to the College Education Act of 1965. Director Allen Sack said he wants to see a College Athlete Protection Act — legislation that would keep athletes on the bench as freshmen if they are academically more than one standard deviation lower than the average student admitted to the university.'”
Read more …

The Beginning Of An End To Sanction-Driven Education?

Jeff Bryant 3 comments

Last week, the Obama administration took an important step for the well being of the nation’s youth – especially those who are of racial minorities – by issuing new guidelines that many hope will shut down what has come to be known as “the school-to-prison pipeline.”

This action – welcome, for sure – constitutes a beginning to what should be a major shift in education policies across the board.

First, about the guidelines …

“Leaders of the U.S. departments of Education and Justice,” Education Week reported, “issued new guidance on how school leaders can ensure that discipline policies are drafted and applied in a manner that does not discriminate against racial or ethnic groups.”

What the new guidelines do, the reporters explained, is make it a violation of the Civil Rights Act for schools to “draft policies that unfairly target specific student groups in word or in application.”

The new guidance addresses “what’s known as the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ the term critics use for policies that they say result in unnecessary and inappropriate referrals from schools to the criminal justice system. Advocates for school discipline reform have argued that such policies disproportionately impact minority racial and ethnic groups.”

Leaders should also seek alternatives to “exclusionary” penalties like suspension and expulsion that “rob students of valuable classroom time, often for nonviolent offenses.”

At The Huffington Post, the Senior Legislative Counsel on civil rights issues for the ACLU, Deborah J. Vagins, wrote that the Obama administration’s actions constituted an acknowledgement that “race discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.”

Vagins noted, “African American students comprise 15 percent of students in the collected data, but are 35 percent of the students who receive one suspension and nearly half of the students 44 percent who are suspended more than once. Over 50 percent of students in school related arrests or who are referred to law enforcement are black or Latino. Students with disabilities make up 14 percent of students in the collection, but are 76 percent of students who are physically restrained by adults in their schools.

“This guidance is sorely needed,” concluded Vagins.

To hail the Obama administration’s action, a leading civil rights and public school advocacy organization, the National Opportunity To Learn Campaign, offered advocates an online thank-you note to send to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder, who jointly issued the guidelines. [Disclosure: OTL is a partner of the Education Opportunity Network.]

OTL stated, “This guidance, the very first of its kind at the federal level, provides thirteen concrete action steps schools should take: from keeping police out of minor infractions, to integrating social and emotional learning into the curriculum, to creating an overall positive climate throughout the school.”

But to put the celebration into context, OTL’s inclusion of this sentence should not be overlooked: “These groundbreaking federal guidelines are the kind of support and leadership from Washington D.C. we all want to see more of.” (emphasis added)

Education Policy And Over Reliance On Punitive Measures

Amplifying OTL’s point that the new disciplinary guidelines needed to be followed by more examples of a new “kind” of “leadership,” prominent voices in the nation’s education debate put the events of the day into a larger context.

Coincident to the release of the new guidelines was a panel Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline by the Albert Shanker Institute.

Two participants in the panel discussion, Yale Law School Professor James Forman, Jr. and U.S. Rep Keith Ellison provided yet more examples of how harsh disciplinary policies in the nation’s schools have gotten totally out of whack.

Forman described an incident in which a student was jailed with other violent criminals for “assault with a deadly weapon, chocolate milk” – a bizarre case where the student had been incarcerated for throwing a milk carton at a fellow student in the school cafeteria. He explained how students who get caught up in disciplinary hysteria get pushed into a system that ultimately estranges them from their schools and makes it harder, after infractions have been resolved, to reconnect to their schools.

Ellison related a story from his days as an attorney in which a student was sent to criminal court over a minor incident at school, involving “a damn pager,” which led to lifelong embroilment in the criminal justice system.

Ellison maintained, “The War on Drugs has bled into the school discipline policy,” in that discriminatory school suspension and expulsion practices reflect the racial imbalances evident in prosecutions and sentencing of drug use among African Americans.

Forman declared the problem with current school discipline practices “beyond a racial issue,” pointing out that in communities where students are “almost all white,” excessive suspensions and expulsions are a problem as well. “We’re over relying on punitive measures,” Forman concluded.

Reinforcing Forman’s call for a re-examination of policy by “punitive measures, fellow panelist, Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, warned that America’s public schools have increasingly become “an alienating environment.” Not just zero tolerance policies but also policies that promote budget austerity and an instructional program of “test-test-test” have narrowed the curriculum, reduced school counseling, regimented teaching, and sapped the joy out of learning.

According to Weingarten, when confronted with problems – whether behaviorally related or academic – our approach has been to apply punishments for crossing bureaucratically drawn lines that are often based on superficial data and arbitrary judgments.

In her remarks, Weingarten pointed to documents related to work issued by Fair Test, The National Center on Fair and Open Testing on “How Testing Feeds the School-to-Prison Pipeline.”

Fair Test found, “Zero tolerance discipline and high-stakes testing policies have similar philosophical underpinnings and similar destructive results … Together, they have helped turn schools into hostile environments for many students. The end result is a ‘school-to-prison pipeline.'”

A previous report Fair Test Issued with civil rights and justice advocates – including The Advancement Project, the Education Law Center, and the NAACP – traced blame for the school-to-prison pipeline to the nation’s No Child Left Behind policy:

Congress designed NCLB to hold schools accountable for student performance, correctly paying specific attention to differentials in outcomes by race, socioeconomic status, disability, and English language proficiency. However, the law focused its accountability framework almost exclusively on students’ standardized test performance [and] placed punitive sanctions on struggling schools without providing enough tools.

Along with new zero-tolerance discipline measures, the report maintained, a “get tough” policy related to academics has fed the school-to-prison pipeline by narrowing curriculum to tested subjects only and stripping schools down to only those obligations that directly relate to increasing test scores.

This kind of education policy, Weingarten maintained, amounts to a “sanction our way to success” formula that has become detrimental to the nation’s students and unworkable for educators in the field.

“We’re not going to sanction our way to success in school,” she concluded.

Fair Test and other public education advocates maintain that in addition to discipline reform, the next policy shift needs to be for assessment reform.

Experienced education observers have predicted that the oncoming election season in 2014 will likely entail heated debates and political battles over high-stakes assessments, their role in the roll out of new standards, and the use of the test scores in teacher evaluations and new school grading systems.

The Obama administration would do Democratic candidates a big favor by following up new, more positive discipline guidelines with assessment reforms that echo this new direction away from punitive education policies.

1/7/2014 – Pivotal Year For Education

Jeff Bryant No Comments

THIS WEEK: Beating The Odds Has Its Costs … A Two-Tiered Education System … New Grading Practices Trigger Fears … Walmarts Of Higher Education … Make Public College Tuition-Free

TOP STORY

A Pivotal Year For Education, What Now?

By Jeff Bryant

“2013 was a “pivotal year” for the nation’s education policy… Just like what’s happening in the economic arena, where a populist rage against inequality and systemic unfairness is causing even President Obama to take notice, anger over inequity and unfairness of policies labeled as education ‘reform’ has stirred the masses into action and sent a clear warning sign to policy leaders in 2014, an election year … So rather than declaring allegiance to yet another technocratic ‘solution’ sold as “reform,” policy leaders should take the current disruption in the education debate as an opportunity to listen.”
Read more …

NEWS AND VIEWS

Can Upward Mobility Cost You Your Health?

The New York Times

“Those who do climb the ladder, against the odds, often pay a little-known price: Success at school and in the workplace can exact a toll on the body that may have long-term repercussions for health … If disadvantaged children were succeeding academically and emotionally, they might also be protected from health problems that were more common in lower-income youth. As it turned out, the exact opposite was true … Behaving diligently all of the time leaves people feeling exhausted and sapped of willpower. Worn out from having their noses to the grindstone all the time, they may let their health fall by the wayside, neglecting sleep and exercise, and like many of us, overindulging in comfort foods.”
Read more …

A Two-Tiered System: As The Socioeconomic Achievement Gap Widens, What Can Be Done To Fix Public Education?

The Southerner

“The strong correlation between family wealth and student achievement has been documented since at least 1966 … The reasons behind this correlation are less clear … What almost everyone can agree on, however, is that a more equitable system is necessary in order for the country to stay internationally competitive and to fulfill the promise of the American dream. Fifty years removed from the iconic March on Washington, a growing number of people is becoming convinced that the march toward educational equity could be the civil rights issue of this generation.”
Read more …

Think Homework Can Help Your Kid’s Grade? Think Again

Education Week

“A national movement that – sometimes amid a formidable backlash – is rebuilding how a child’s performance in a class or course is calculated … It’s switch that seeks to move away from rewarding students merely for completing work, and instead bases grades on mastery of a subject. Swept away are points for finished homework assignments, or good behavior and class participation. Instead, grades are more heavily based on exam results and the quality of work … The changes – which run counter to how school has functioned for generations – have triggered fears from parents … Kevin Beckner, [a] coordinator of student assessment, says it’s not about educators chasing a fad. ‘We have a culture of points, percents and letters … Just doing what you were told, doing your homework, got you points, helped your grade. Those things are life skills that are really important, but we don’t want to report them in exactly the same way as learning.'”
Read more …

We Are Creating Walmarts Of Higher Education

The Atlantic

“Under pressure to turn out more students, more quickly and for less money, and to tie graduates’ skills to workforce needs, higher-education institutions and policy makers have been busy reducing the number of required credits, giving credit for life experience, and cutting some courses, while putting others online. Now critics are raising the alarm that speeding up college and making it cheaper risks dumbing it down … There has been little research into the effectiveness of massive open online courses, or MOOCs … To allocate funding for public universities based on measures such as graduation rates, rather than simply enrollment … will compel faculty to pass more students, including some who may not deserve to be passed … The focus on increasing the quantity of graduates may be diverting attention from innovations that could improve the quality of their education.”
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Here’s Exactly How Much The Government Would Have To Spend To Make Public College Tuition-Free

The Atlantic

“A mere $62.6 billion dollars … that’s how much tuition public colleges collected from undergraduates in 2012 across the entire United States … The federal government spent a whole $69 billion in 2013 on its hodgepodge of financial aid programs, such as Pell Grants for low-income students, tax breaks, work study funding. And that doesn’t even include loans. … Washington could make public college tuition free with the money it sets aside its scattershot attempts to make college affordable today.'”
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