Education Reform’s Very Bad, God-Awful Week

Jeff Bryant

Because of all the big money behind current education policies, it’s difficult to see any real break in the status quo, but anyone who believes that cracking down harder on neighborhood schools and pushing for privately operated charters are the necessary “reforms” our education system needs has to admit this past week was a huge downer.

Two pillars of a “reform” plan for improving the nation’s public schools – that students’ academic achievement could be raised by subjecting their schools to a relentless regime of standardized testing and that competition from allegedly superior charter schools would force systemic adoption of better education practices – were thrown into doubt by a train wreck of consecutive events.

One would hope that the lesson self-proclaimed education “reformers” would learn from this is that they should stop with the proclamations of knowing “what works” and the self-righteous rhetoric about their devotion to a “civil rights cause.” But for the rests of us, the big takeaway is that education reform has never been as much about getting policy right as it has been about getting the politics right. So any work to improve education in the policy shop will be for naught if we don’t match or exceed that level of effort on the political front.

Charter School ‘Black Hole’

What started off the string of bad news for reformers was a new report issued by the Center for Media and Democracy that found more than $3.7 billion in federal funding has been poured into the nation’s charter school sector with virtually no accountability.

As the Detroit Free Press explains, the report revealed that current education policy, by design, provides funding for countless numbers of charter schools that never open or that stay in operation for only a brief period of time.

In Fort Wayne, Indiana, a reporter for The Journal Gazette read the CMD report and concludes, “The federal injection of money in accord with the program objective of incentivizing states where charter schools are exempt from most statutes and regulations has wasted monies on charters that failed in not unforeseeable ways.”

“Charter school budgets are a ‘black hole’ of public information,” reports The Salt Lake Tribune, noticing that the CMD report discovered “the nation’s charter schools largely are created, overseen and policed by pro-charter advocates.”

Reinforcing that conclusion, a Michigan-based blogger noticed one recipient of federal grants for a charter that never opened went on to be appointed to lead a state commission involved in state takeovers of struggling school districts that frequently result in the proliferation of charter schools.

Testing Turnaround

Then over the weekend, the Obama administration retreated from well-worn arguments justifying the widespread use of standardized testing in the nation’s schools.

“In a policy reversal,” PBS reports, “the Obama administration, which has supported student and teacher assessment, now says testing has gotten out of hand. This weekend, the White House recommended capping testing at 2 percent of class time.”

For Salon, David Dayen writes (perhaps, hyperbolic), “Rigorous testing was so fundamental to the Obama Administration’s education reform agenda that this repudiation resembles shutting down Obamacare or the EPA’s carbon pollution regulations.”

The change in rhetoric is “a mea culpa,” writes Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker, “an acknowledgement by the administration that its own policies cultivated the ‘drill and kill’ test prep that has come to characterize many classrooms in the past several years.”

The Obama administration’s announced turnaround on testing coincided with the release of a new study finding, according to a report in Education Week, “Students across the nation are taking tests that are redundant, misaligned with college- and career-ready standards, and often don’t address students’ mastery of specific content.”

NAEP Negativity

Following closely after the Obama administration’s reversal on testing, news outlets everywhere reported the desultory results of this year’s National Assessment of Education Progress.

The NAEP, also known as “the nation’s report card,” is a periodic assessment most often referred to as a benchmark for student performance in math and reading. Writing for Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet blog at The Washington Post, former school principal Carol Burris explains, “NAEP is a truth teller. There is no NAEP test prep industry, or high-stakes consequence that promotes teaching to the test. NAEP is what it was intended to be – a national report card by which we can gauge our national progress in educating our youth.”

So how bad were the results? Emma Brown for the Post reports, “Fourth-graders and eighth-graders across the United States lost ground on national mathematics tests … Reading performance also was sobering: Eighth-grade scores dropped … while fourth-grade performance was stagnant compared with 2013, the last time students took the test. And the tests again show large achievement gaps between the nation’s white and minority students as well as between poor and affluent children.”

Defenders of the education policy status quo – who had been tipped off (by who?) about the disappointing NAEP results prior to their release – were ready with an array of excuses. The disappointing results were due to the recession, the result of demographic shifts in the nation’s school children, an “implementation dip” in the adoption of new reforms (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s explanation), or a mere blip in the otherwise upwardly trending NAEP results (only if you go back to 1990, more than ten years before the reform policies of No Child Left Behind legislation were adopted).

This parade of excuses for the disappointing NAEP scores, notes Kevin Welner and William Mathis of the National Education Policy Center, is loaded with irony. It comes from “those who have been vigorously advocating for ‘no excuses’ approaches” that insist schools are failing and can only be improved through “a high-stakes regime” and the competitive pressures of charters.

More Bad News About Charter Schools

Just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse for reform fans, more bad news about charter schools bookended the whole series of reports.

First, a new study looking at academic results coming from charter schools delivering education programs online found students in those programs “make dramatically less academic progress than their counterparts in traditional schools,” according to a report by Education Week.

These schools that have been touted as being more efficient alternatives to traditional public schools are so bad that students taking online courses to learn math make so little progress, one researcher is quoted, “It was ‘literally as though the student did not go to school for the entire year.’”

Then a disturbing story broke in The New York Times about one of the nation’s most celebrated charter schools – a chain of schools often praised as a “high performing” model for other schools to follow.

The schools, called Success Academy, are located in New York City and are operated by former councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, who has battled with Mayor Bill de Blasio over expanding her schools at the expense of public schools.

What Times reporter Kate Taylor learned about Success Academy is “that its remarkable accomplishments are due, in part, to a practice of weeding out weak or difficult students. The network has always denied it. But documents obtained by The New York Times and interviews with 10 current and former Success employees at five schools suggest that some administrators in the network have singled out children they would like to see leave.”

At a Success Academy in Brooklyn, administrators maintain a “Got to Go” list of students with repeat discipline problems.

At another Success Academy, administrators “told teachers not to automatically send annual re-enrollment forms home to certain students, because the school did not want those students to come back.”

Success Academy is known to practice a very strict form of discipline that subjects students to punishments, even suspensions, for slight infractions in dress code, behavior, or attitude.

“Even the youngest pupils” writes Taylor, “are expected to sit with their backs straight, their hands clasped and their eyes on the teacher … Good behavior and effort are rewarded with candy and prizes, while infractions and shoddy work are penalized with reprimands, loss of recess time, extra assignments and, in some cases, suspensions as early as kindergarten.”

Suspensions at Success schools are frequent, Taylor notes, as high as 23 percent at one school, “with most suspending more than 10 percent,” compared to 3 percent of students at city public schools

But perhaps more consequential than the frequent suspensions are the schools’ practice of, what Taylor calls, “making [students’] parents’ lives so difficult that they withdraw.”

She reports, “Some of the parents whose children were on the ‘Got to Go’ list acknowledged that they did not agree with how the school managed behavior. But several also said that both before and after the list was created, they thought school and network employees were trying to push them out.”

Are New Policies Possible?

Surely such a series of reports reflecting poorly on the direction of current education policy will motivate policy leaders to consider a different direction.

Regarding a course change on testing, knowledgeable observers of education policy point out that change in rhetoric may not lead to real action in this case.

Seasoned education reporter Alyson Klein notes in Education Week, the announcement wasn’t as much of a “reversal” or as “stunning” as most news outlets claim. The Obama administration’s new policy prescriptions on testing, contained in an Action Plan, “aren’t musts, just suggestions,” she writes. “And they are in line with much of what the department has been saying about testing over the past year.”

“The solutions offered,” explains Strauss on her blog at the Post, “don’t much move the needle. They won’t cut into testing time and test prep all that much, if at all, and they won’t eliminate what is arguably a bigger problem: the high stakes associated with the exams.”

Nevertheless, responding to the Obama administration’s calls for less testing, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten writes, “The fixation on high-stakes testing hasn’t moved the needle on student achievement. … We need to get back to focusing on the whole child – teaching our kids how to build relationships, how to be resilient and how to think critically.”

It’s not that clear there ever was a “back to” to go to, but isn’t admitting to having a problem always the first critical step to finding a solution?

Responding to the disappointing scores from the NAEP, Welner and Mathis caution against using those results to draw causal inferences about specific policies. But they argue, “It is possible to validly assert, based in part on NAEP trends, that the promises of education’s test-driven reformers over the past couple decades have been unfulfilled. … It has distracted policymakers’ attention away from the extensive research showing that, in a very meaningful way, achievement is caused by opportunities to learn. It has diverted them from the truth that the achievement gap is caused by the opportunity gap.”

Keep Up The Pressure

Advocating for better policies is important for sure, but real change won’t come without political advocacy. As The New York Times reports, the administration’s admission stemmed from “mounting and bipartisan opposition to increased and often high-stakes testing in the nation’s public schools.”

“For years,” Valerie Strauss writes in a different post, “state and federal policymakers have known that kids are being saddled with too many mandated standardized tests. It wasn’t until teachers and parents and principals and superintendents began making strong waves that they finally started to agree.”

“We should all keep up the pressure,” advises Senior Advisor at the Public Leadership Institute Bernie Horn at the blog of the Campaign for America’s Future. He lists what to continue to press for, including the elimination of “test shaming,” an end to evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores, and forbidding charter schools from expelling, pushing, or “counseling” out students who are struggling with behavior and academic problems.

Seattle teacher Jesse Hagopian, who helped lead a successful test boycott at his school and a successful district-wide teacher strike over learning conditions in the city’s schools, defines the political reality that has been and will continue to be a pathway toward real policy change:

“It should be clear that this national uprising, this Education Spring, has forced the testocracy to retreat and is the reason that the Obama administration has come to its current understanding on testing in schools. However, the testocracy, having amassed so much power and wealth, won’t just slink quietly into the night.”

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