The school reform movement was shocked last week when likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton declared to talk show host (and school reformer) Roland Martin that public charter schools fail to work with “the most challenging students”, and made other points about the schools that have no substance in fact. After all, the former First Lady’s husband, Bill Clinton, has been one of the foremost supporters of charters and other reforms during his tenure in the White House; this includes ushering in the federal Charter School Program, which provides $157 million a year to launch high-quality charters.
Reformers became even more enraged on Sunday after American Federation of Teachers released a transcript in which the former U.S. Secretary of State made even more clear that she was no supporter of transforming American public education. Besides doubling-down on her comments opposing the expansion of charters and school choice, Clinton expressed skepticism about using student test score growth data in teacher evaluations (even though evidence shows that it works), declared a general disdain for using standardized testing in tracking how schools and adults are serving children (despite two decades of evidence proving otherwise), and essentially declared the poor and minority kids shouldn’t be provided comprehensive college-preparatory education (in spite of the demonstrated need for them to gain such knowledge). All in all, Hillary declared that she was not going to be a school reformer-in-chief as President Barack Obama and other recent predecessors (including her husband) have been since Ronald Reagan issued A Nation At Risk four decades ago.
But reformers shouldn’t have been surprised by Clinton’s about-face on charters and systemic reform. This is because AFT, along with the National Education Association, have built strong alliances with key members of Clinton’s inner circle. They now have an inside edge over centrist Democrat reformers who have been dominant within Democratic Party politics since Barack Obama beat Clinton for the nomination seven years ago.
Even as reformers were working closely with the Obama Administration on systemic reform efforts, AFT has been working hard to get an in with Clinton Family Inc. Over the past three years, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union poured $650,000 into the Clinton Global Initiative, the non-explicitly political wing of the Clinton family’s political efforts, and $500,000 into the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. AFT President Randi Weingarten has become such an important player in the Clinton family universe that Clinton Global allowed her to use one of its events last September to announce the union’s latest Trojan Horse for unionizing the early childhood education sector.
But the ties between AFT and Hillary extend far beyond subsidizing the Clinton family’s numerous adventures. As Dropout Nation reported earlier this year, AFT has also co-opted many within the Clinton inner circle. Weingarten’s former top assistant Hartina Flournoy (who sits on the Democratic National Committee) now serves as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. Thanks to her longtime friendship with Hillary, Flournoy now serves as Weingarten’s key go-between. Even with some of Hillary’s key campaign staffers having ties to the charter school movement, it has become clear that Flournoy is the one actually calling shots on education policy. Which ultimately means that Randi is calling the shots.
Another key player on behalf of AFT is Donna Brazile, the longtime Democratic Party powerhouse and Friend of Hillary, who now chairs AFT’s front group, Democrats for Public Education. As readers know, AFT subsidized Democrats for Public Education to the tune of $99,000 (not including $12,500 that the union has lent to the group). The organization’s ties to other key Democratic leaders (including former Congressional Black Caucus Chair Marcia Fudge) means that AFT can exert even more influence than ever on Hillary’s campaign. The CNN commentator is also a vassal for AFT, with her eponymous firm collecting $100,000 from the union in 2014-2015 alone, according to the union’s filing with the U.S. Department of Labor.
Meanwhile AFT, along with NEA, are using their ties to progressive groups within the Democratic National Committee to attempt to reshape the party’s stances on key education policy issues. This includes playing more-prominent roles within Democracy Alliance, the secretive progressive group whose players include many of the outfits within the Clinton Family universe. While AFT is a new player within Democracy Alliance giving $85,000 to the group and its Texas Future Project in 2014-2015, NEA has long been one of its key players; the union’s executive director, John Stocks, chairs its board. Thanks to Stocks’ presence, the union have given $1.2 million to Democracy Alliance and its main affiliates between 2009-2010 and 2013-2014, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of filings with the U.S. Department of Labor.
Some reformers are trying to downplay the significance of AFT’s and NEA’s influence on Hillary’s campaign. Others are hoping that Clinton is just paying lip service to NEA and AFT, as past Democratic presidential candidates have done, and will reverse course once entering office. But this may be wishful thinking. Given the five decades-long ties between Clinton and AFT’s key vassals, all of whom are in her inner circle, Hillary is unlikely to simply talk out of both sides of her mouth. There’s also the fact that dismay among progressive Democrats over the Obama Administration’s efforts on other fronts, along with administration’s botched No Child waiver gambit, has given traditionalists the opening they need to win over both Hillary and congressional Republicans increasingly uninterested in any kind of systemic reform.
Add in the increasingly polarized nature of politics at the federal level, the general disdain Hillary has long had for Obama, and the failure of the current administration to build a strong political base for Democrats at the state level, and Hillary, being the political animal she is, likely sees embracing reform as more nuisance than helpful in building her political legacy. Clinton also probably appreciates the Weingarten’s willingness to use AFT’s machinery to give her cover — including a press conference yesterday in which Weingarten defended Clinton’s statements on charters — even at the expense of angering the union’s own rank-and-file.
The reality has become increasingly clear that Clinton will not advance systemic reform if she wins entry into the Oval Office. Which is why reformers must become savvier on the political front.
As you very well know, Dropout Nation has had plenty to write about the saga of Success Academy Founder Eva Moskowitz’s battle with John Merrow over his report on the charter school operator’s overuse of harsh traditional school discipline. But as you would expect, more has been happening since. And instead of responding to the questions raised about Success Academy’s approach with critical self-examination, Moskowitz has tried to spin a new narrative that ignores the reality of the damage done through traditional discipline to the futures of children.
Two weeks ago, after Moskowitz went on her crisis management campaign against Merrow’s report — an effort that included violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act by releasing the school discipline record of the child of Faida Geidi — the effort fell apart when the New York Times reported that a Success school in the Fort Greene section of New York City’s Brooklyn had kept a list of 16 kids who it deemed had “got to go”. Those students, by the way, were suspended multiple times by the school over the year. Nine of those children ultimately left the school.
Those revelations, along with testimony from former Success Academy staffers that leaders in its other schools engaged in similar push-out efforts, forced Moskowitz into damage control (and stopped her from aggressively warding off reporters and critics, be they traditionalist or reformer). By Halloween Eve, she claimed that the Got to Go list was an “anomaly” and that the school leader who put together the list, Candido Brown, was disciplined for being so indiscreet as to keep the push-out effort on paper. [Brown remains principal of the Fort Greene school, at least for now.] The fact that Success Academy had been previously accused of engaging in push-outs on the pages of the Old Gray Lady didn’t seem to make it into the conversation.
The Times‘ revelation, along with the news earlier that week about the assault of a 16-year-old student at South Carolina’s Spring Valley High School by a school cop, also gave traditionalists, including the American Federation of Teachers, the opportunity to put themselves on the moral high ground and call out overuse of harsh school discipline. AFT President Randi Weingarten took to the pages of the Daily News to issue her own mea culpa for supporting (and being silent about overuse of) such practices. The union then recruited its vassals, including Alliance for Quality Education, the New York State branch of the National Alliance for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Black Institute, to issue a letter demanding that Success Academy’s authorizer, State University of New York, open up an investigation into its activities. Meanwhile once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch ran several pieces from her cadre of fellow-travelers on her eponymous site taking aim at both Moskowitz and the Spring Valley High incident.
Certainly AFT and other traditionalists have other self-interested reasons beyond children to be concerned about Success Academy’s oversuspensions. All that said, legitimate questions have been raised as a result of the Moskowitz-Merrow fracas about Success Academy’s practices, especially in light of incidents of violence by cops in schools resulting from those very practices (and the goal of pursuing school safety and order at any cost). But instead of considering legitimate criticism, especially from fellow reformers raising the tocsin about these practices, Moskowitz, with help from her allies, are now campaigning to turn attention away from the questions about Success Academy’s discipline practices (as well as from the issues of law raised by the release of Geidi’s son’s school discipline records). The narrative: That critics are working, either explicitly or by implication, to kibosh the expansion of Parent Power and school choice.
The narrative, as advanced by Moskowitz and reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is superficially seductive. Criticizing Success Academy’s discipline practices somehow harms poor and minority children because it is essentially advocating for denying “strivers” and their families the choice of safe and orderly schools in which they can learn. Particularly, from where Petrilli sits, Success Academy and other schools that overuse suspensions should be allowed to push out children (or “disrupters”) teachers and school leaders in those institutions deem unworthy of high-quality education. Reformers who critique Moskowitz’s practices (or criticize her for releasing Geidi’s son’s discipline record) are therefore no different and, in some ways, worse, than traditionalists who raise the issues as a way to oppose any expansion of choice.
This spin seems to justify Moskowitz’s practices — until you look at the facts. Decades of evidence shows that the traditional harsh discipline practices Moskowitz’s uses in Success — and that traditional districts and other charters implement throughout the rest of American public education — damage children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds. And as Sarah Yatsko of the Center for Reinventing Public Education points out today in her piece in RealClearEducation, defending Moskowitz’s practices (along with ignoring the overuse of harsh discipline by traditional districts) is a “disservice” to the very children for which we all proclaim concern.
As Dropout Nation has noted again and again, evidence gathered by researchers such as Russell Skiba of Indiana University, University of South Florida’s Linda Raffaele Mendez, John Wallace of the University of Pittsburgh, and the American Psychological Association consistently demonstrate these realities that overuse of suspensions and other traditional discipline (especially those occurring as a result of zero tolerance policies) doesn’t improve school cultures, make schools safer for children, or improve student achievement. This isn’t shocking. As data from states such as Maryland and Indiana, along with research by Raffaele Mendez and Howard Knoff, have shown, most suspensions kids are meted out for the arbitrary category of disruptive behavior (which is based on what teachers and school leaders, through disciplinary codes and their own mind, think are bad behavior), along with tardiness to class, and truancy. Suspensions are rarely meted out as a result of addressing academic issues or improving school safety.
Meanwhile there is the fact suspensions are an ineffective way of dealing with the illiteracy and other learning issues that are often at the heart of most student misbehavior. Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles, along with Chuang Wang and Bob Algozzine of University of North Carolina at Charlotte, demonstrated this in their research on the connections between literacy and behavior. As Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz has also demonstrated (including in his 2007 study with colleague Douglas MacIver and Lisa Herzog of the Philadelphia Education Fund) sixth-graders who have been suspended at least once have just a one-in-five chance of graduating six years later. By suspending children multiple times, adults in schools are using a form of easy button, ridding their classrooms of children they deem unworthy of nurturing and education instead of doing the hard work of helping them succeed.
Success’s own discipline practices bear out their failures in improving behavior and school cultures. One Success Academy school (with 203 children enrolled) meted out 44 suspensions to just 11 kindergartners and first-graders; essentially each child was suspended at least four times during the school year. At another Success Academy school, with 132 children enrolled, 101 suspensions were meted out to 32 students; this includes one kid who was suspended 12 times during the school year. On average, that Success Academy school suspended each of those children three times during the school year. That Success Academy had to suspend each child multiple times over a school year evidences that its approach to discipline isn’t changing the behavior of children for the better. But again, this isn’t surprising. As with so many traditional districts and a good number of charters, Success Academy’s school discipline code is so arbitrary that a child could be suspended for any reason.
For all of Moskowitz’s posturing, the reality remains that Success Academy’s overuse of suspensions isn’t effective. By continuing to embrace traditional school discipline, by ignoring evidence about the ineffectiveness of her approaches, and in dismissing approaches such as restorative justice and Behavior Instruction in the Total School developed by Wang and Algozzine, Moskowitz is also failing to take up better approaches that can improve school cultures and address the underlying academic causes of school misbehavior. Other traditional districts and charter operators in cities such as New Orleans are effectively reducing overuse of suspensions and improving student achievement as well as school cultures. There’s no reason why Moskowitz couldn’t do so, either. Put simply, Moskowitz is failing to embrace the mantle of innovation that she proclaims to embrace as a school reformer and education leader. She, along with those school leaders in traditional districts overusing suspensions, is perpetuating educational abuse.
By overusing suspensions, Moskowitz is also giving credence to the racialist beliefs of many that poor and minority children are undeserving of high-quality education. After all, as your editor continually notes (and as Yatsko points out), black children (along with those from American Indian, Alaska Native, and Latino backgrounds) are the ones who are subjected the most to harsh traditional school discipline. Daniel Losen and his team at the Civil Rights Project at UCLA showed earlier this year that the out-of-school suspension rate of 23.2 percent for black middle- and high schoolers in 2013-2014 (based on data released by the U.S. Department of Education) is three times the 6.4 percent out-of-school suspension rate for white peers. Wallace demonstrated in a 2008 study on referrals to dean’s offices that young black men in 10th grade are 30 percent more-likely to be sent to dean’s offices for punishment than their white male peers — and 330 percent more-likely to be suspended afterwards than white counterparts. But again, not shocking. Skiba and the American Psychological Association have demonstrated that young black men are also viewed by teachers and school leaders as being older, less-innocent, and greater troublemakers than white counterparts. Black children are also denigrated by the soft bigotry of low expectations for them. A school leader can’t argue that she wants brighter futures for black children while engaging in practices that run counter to that mission.
In defending Success Academy’s practices under the guise of school choice, Moskowitz essentially perpetuates ends-justify-the means thinking, one in which it is okay to damage the futures of some children (who they deem undeserving) in order to help others. As both the Bible and moral philosophers have pointed out since the beginning of time, you can never use the right results to justify wrongful actions. At the same time, by implicitly embracing this thinking, Moskowitz (along with her allies) are also justifying the racialist thinking of earlier generations that have led to the educational traditionalism (from the comprehensive high school model, to restrictions on school choice, to denying minority children access to college-preparatory classes) that the school reform movement has rightfully opposed. For black parents and others from poor and minority backgrounds, it is hard to view reformers as their allies and defenders of the high ground for their children when they are defending practices that traditionalists are loudly opposing.
Success Academy’s overuse of harsh school discipline deserves to be criticized. Moskowitz should be willing to address legitimate criticism with self-reflection and a commitment to using alternatives that can help children improve behavior without keeping them from receiving the high-quality education they need as well as deserve. Her allies should also do the same.
These days haven’t exactly been good for Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis or the American Federation of Teachers local over which she presides. While the fire-band herself is in better health than she was this time last year, the union has dealt with a string of defeats that include an unsuccessful effort to oust Rahm Emanuel as the Second City’s mayor that cost CTU and its national parent $1.4 million (not including dues payments supposedly slated for so-called representational activities). As a result of this failure, along with the likelihood that the mayor will reduce the city’s payroll in order to deal with both a massive teachers’ pension shortfall and the battle between Gov. Bruce Rauner and state legislators over the 2015-2016 budget, CTU is warning its members to save up 25 percent of their paychecks for a teachers’ strike the union is likely timing for early next year.
But as a Dropout Nation analysis of CTU’s filing with the Internal Revenue Service shows, a strike isn’t going to hurt Lewis’ pockets very much at all.
Lewis collected $145,918 from the AFT unit in 2014. This is a 6.6 percent increase over the previous year. But as you already know, this isn’t the only check Lewis collects. She also collected $67,186 from the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the AFT’s Prairie State affiliate, as one of its vice presidents. That’s a 4.2 percent increase over her pay from the unit in 2013. Lewis also collected $207 from AFT national in 2014-2015, more than the big fat zero she got in the previous year. [According to the national union’s 2014-2015 filing, it paid Lewis $7,664.] Lewis didn’t earn any money from Chicago’s district payroll.
Altogether, Lewis made $213,311 last year. Not one thing wrong with it. But given Lewis’ penchant for class warfare rhetoric and accusing reformers of being plutocrats, it is amazing that her income puts her in the top five percent of income earners in the United States (defined as making more than $175,817, according to the Internal Revenue Service), and not exactly the paragon of progressive virtue she has long made herself out to be. In fact, Lewis’ compensation is five times higher than Chicago’s median family income of $47,270, as well as more than the $216,210 earned by Emanuel last year.
Ben Spielberg is one of my favorite sparring partners on education policy. A former Teach for America alum and onetime staffer for National Education Association’s San Jose Teachers Association, Ben reliably defends the “reform skeptic” position on education reform in a way that is smart and sincere. Most-recently, Ben wrote a column that attempts to rebut what he calls my “completely false” Dropout Nation commentary on school funding. How does he reach this conclusion? By losing track of the subject being addressed. To move the conversation forward, this column returns to the actual question at hand: Should America send more money to schools now, as they are structured today, or should we implement reforms before allocating additional resources?
The evidence is from other nations, and from recent history, is clear: money is not the primary problem facing America’s schools. A growing body of evidence from within the U.S. confirms this point. Since all three of these benchmarks (international, historical, and intra-American) are independent proof points, reform skeptics would need to discredit all three to make their case. Simply put, Ben demonstrates that he cannot persuasively discredit any of them.
How much does the United States spend on education? The starting point, which Ben buries behind a number of tangents, is that America spends more than any society in history. All credible sources tell roughly the same story. Ben did not like the source I used in my first column, so let’s use the National Center for Education Statistics. It reports a $621 billion total national investment in public elementary and secondary schools for 2011-2012.
We spend more than other countries spend, yet get weaker results. The international story has been repeatedly verified: Compared to other nations, the United States spends more on each student, and the students get less. Ben is right that we should try to compare apples to apples, but the best efforts to do so repeat this conclusion. An older, thorough study by McKinsey & Company in 2007, noted that Singapore achieves top performance while spending less per pupil than 27 of 30 OECD countries. More recently, NCES says we spend $12,401 per pupil, about 35 percent more than the per-pupil average for the industrialized world. In case after case, and in study after study, the best school systems do more with less than America and its public education systems.
Ben’s responds that education spending should be measured as a share of Gross Domestic Product, rather than as an absolute number. In this, Ben forgets what we are discussing: whether schools in America have enough money to succeed. His preferred metric – education spending divided by GDP – has uses, but is not relevant to whether schools have enough resources.
To see why, consider that America’s GDP at the start of 1992 was about $9 trillion in today’s dollars. Under Bill Clinton, GDP growth averaged 3.8 percent, while under George W. Bush it fell to 1.6 percent. Imagine a “Clinton scenario” where we had 3.8 percent growth from 1992 until today, and a “GWB scenario” where we had 1.6 percent growth from 1992 until today. The difference in GDP would be $22 trillion vs. $13 trillion. Under these two scenarios, if actual dollars in schools were exactly the same, “education spending as a percent of GDP” would be appear 70 percent higher under George W. Bush. Thus, by Ben’s metric, the fastest way to get school spending right is to tank the economy. [This does, perhaps, explain Ben’s support for Bernie Sanders.]
We spend a lot more than we used to, without commensurate results: America’s schools today spend about 2.5 times per pupil what they spent in 1970, notwithstanding a small per-pupil dip since 2008. Ben acknowledges “the fact that K-12 spending has risen in inflation-adjusted dollar value terms over the past 45 years,” but then waves that away by saying that “real spending on practically everything has increased in dollar terms since the 1970.” That statement is jarringly untrue.
Over that time period, per-unit prices have plummeted in many areas, including appliances, telecommunications, electronics, computers, televisions, and audio-visual devices. Some sectors have taken advantage: for instance, U.S. military spending has increased only 10 percent since 1970, while dramatically improving its comparative and absolute effectiveness. True, declining costs in some sectors have been offset by price increases in other areas, but this overall mix is called “inflation.” By using “inflation-adjusted” dollars, we account for the interplay of cost increases and cost declines. If we ignored inflation, the increase in dollars would be 14 times rather than merely 2.5 times.
Results for America’s schools have improved only slightly since 1970s, despite spending more than doubling. At face value, this suggests that funding is not the primary constraint facing America’s schools.
What does the evidence say about comparisons within the USA? The comparisons within the United States are a bit more complicated, but again relief comes by simply remembering what we are debating: should we spend more money in the existing system, or should we only add resources after choice and data reforms? With that as context, we can review the available evidence.
The conclusions of Stanford’s Hanushek and NBER’s Jackson, Johnson, and Persico: Ben cites a 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research paper by a team led by Kirabo Jackson which assessed the effects of court-mandated school funding increases on student results in the 1970s and 1980s. In the spirit of helping Ben and other reform skeptics stay focused on relevance, let’s just take everything that Jackson et al. state at face value:
1. Their result establishes a caveat to established prior research that money does not usually drive better student outcomes. As they wrote, prior national studies “found little association” between spending and results, citing reports dating back to the Coleman Report of 1966 and includes studies by Stanford’s Eric Hanushek, Julian R. Betts of University of California, San Diego, and Jeffrey T. Grogger of University of Chicago.
2. The Jackson study shows results from a narrow fact set, in which short-term spending increases were disproportionately used to benefit student instruction. They explicitly note that this is not typical for K-12 spending increases: “how the money is spent matters a lot,” and “our evidence suggests that exogenous spending increases went toward more productive inputs than endogenous spending increases.” This comment supports the hypothesis of education reformers: that additional resources for public schools will be quickly captured by the K-12 bureaucracy rather than being spent on behalf of students. Again from Jackson and his team: “money per se will not improve student outcomes” because, for instance, “using the funds to pay for lavish faculty retreats will likely not have a positive effect on student outcomes.” This directly mirrors the anecdote that headlines my original piece, in which the Fairfax County Public Schools’ lobbying campaign for additional funds omitted the fact that school leaders had just voted themselves a 60 percent pay increase.
3. The Jackson fact base also reveals diminishing returns to funding increases. In other words, an extra dollar in 1970, when schools spent $4,500 in today’s dollars, might have a lot more impact than an extra dollar today, when schools spend more than twice as much. This was pointed out by Hanushek in his response to their study that “by implication, spending today might be expected to have a much smaller impact than they estimate.” Jackson team’s conceded that: “Indeed we find that this is the case in our study. Areas with the lowest initial spending levels were also those for which increased spending had the most pronounced positive effect.”
Let’s review to make sure we don’t lose track of the argument. Even if we only use the words from the authors of Ben’s best evidence, we can conclude three things: First, that the Jackson study is an exception to substantial scholarship in the other direction. Secondly, that their study is limited to a specific type of spending that is atypical in K-12 budgets. And finally, that their study is based on data from a much lower initial starting point, and their own results suggest that adding money today might have a substantially diminished result.
The conclusions of Professor Bruce Baker: Even more than Jackson and his team., Ben relies heavily on articles published by Bruce Baker of Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education. This reliance is common among reform skeptics, as Baker reaches the most anti-reform conclusions to be found within mainstream academia. Particularly cited by Ben is Baker’s 2012 editorial published by the Albert Shanker Institute in which he writes that “by the early 2000s, the cloud of uncertainty conjured by Hanushek in 1986 had largely lifted in the aftermath of the various, more rigorous studies that followed.” Baker justifies this claim largely by citing Northwestern University’s Larry Hedges, who re-reviewed Hanushek’s studies “quality control measures.” Reading Baker’s paper by itself, it is understandable why Ben finds a clear academic consensus that money matters.
The problem is that Baker omits so much that his conclusion borders on outright mendacity. For instance, Baker chooses not to mention that Hanushek wrote several peer-reviewed rebuttals to Hedges’ work. One of Hanushek’s responses could have been written with Ben in mind: “Hedges, Laine, and Greenwald commit the larger error of asking the wrong question. This problem tends to get lost in their statistical manipulations and their zeal to overturn prevailing conclusions about the effectiveness of pure resource policies in promoting student achievement.”
A later paper from Hanushek goes into great detail about how Hedges and company “misinterpret the implications of their analysis [and,] through a series of analytical choices, systematically bias their results toward the conclusions they are seeking.” While Hanushek’s rebuttal is devastating, the more important point is that Baker simply pretends it does not exist – he paints a story of academic consensus that is entirely false.
In assessing Baker, it is worth noting that serious education researchers tend to not even mention Baker. Jackson and his team, for instance, write an entire paper that “money matters”, and don’t once mention Baker’s 2012 editorial. Rather, they refer to studies from 1995 and 1996 (which Baker ignores) that school spending doesn’t lead to better results.
The reason Baker gets so little play in serious education academia is because he writes editorials, not studies. His analyses are designed to achieve his intended results, and he does this by making subjective and one-sided decisions about what to include and what to ignore. [This is a point Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle hit upon four years ago.] This is expected for expert witnesses at trials, but it is disturbing for someone who pretends to be an academic, and is not transparent that he gets paid for reports by parties with a direct financial stake in his outcomes.
This problem was underscored in a 2011 tape-recorded conversation in which Baker said he would play with data, manipulate the questions he asked, and “pull things in and out” of his models “to tell the most compelling story” in exchange for a substantial research grant. This telephone conversation, including Baker’s own partially exculpatory comments, appears in full at about the 3-minute mark of this video clip. [Baker offers a rather lengthy explanation and defense of what happened.]
None of this automatically invalidates Baker’s conclusions, but most of his research suffers the same kinds of glaring deficiencies I just mentioned regarding his 2012 Shanker Institute paper. Some day, someone may decide to write a point-by-point review of Baker’s editorials, but for now the main point is to take his sweeping anti-reform conclusions with a heaping of salt.
The evidence about charters: The next category of arguments from Ben relates to charter schools. I argue that charter schools deliver better results for urban students in poverty, without spending more money. If true, this establishes yet another independent proof point that school spending is not the primary barrier to educational opportunities for our poorest children. So, is it true?
Well, it seems clear that charters spend less than traditional district schools, or at least do not spend any more (on average). In my first post, I started with an NCES report from 2011 showing that charters spend $1800 less per pupil. Ben cites Baker to rebut that study, but in this case Baker’s data manipulations only amount to hand waving that spending in the charter sector varies widely (some charters spend more, some district schools spend less), and that data is hard to obtain (because outside spending such as school fundraisers are not consistently tracked). These narrow points may be true, but it is hard to see how they overcome an aggregate gap of nearly two thousand dollars per pupil.
Ben then notes that some successful charter experiments involve new resources, but this is again not an aggregate number, and Ben ignores the many cases where substantial new resources into districts delivered no results. Ben cites work by Roland Fryer that traditional district schools can replicate some charter practices with more spending, but Fryer’s work focuses mostly on practices such as instructional time, data-driven instruction, and cultures of high expectations that have been repeatedly thwarted by unions during negotiations.
In other words, Ben throws a lot at the wall, but nothing sticks to rebut the basic point: Charter don’t spend more than traditional districts and their schools.
Ben then takes issue with the growing consensus that charters work, by stating that students in urban charter schools “perform just about as well” as students at district schools. He rests this claim on the fact that, on average, black students in poverty perform eight hundredths of a standard deviations better in math and six-hundredths of a standard deviation better in reading when they are in charter schools, while the numbers for Hispanic students in poverty are, respectively, seven-hundredths and thirty-five hundredths of a standard deviation.
I address the significance of these numbers in a long exchange with another reform skeptic, Mark Weber, on Weber’s site. Suffice to say, these average differences matter a lot given that (a) they occur every year, and (b) they are national averages that include jurisdictions that have terrible charter authorizers and terrible charter schools. Additionally, the evidence is very strong that the proliferation of charter schools tends to improve the performance of traditional district schools, perhaps because of healthy competition and the spillover of innovation.
If Ben is sincere in his claim that it matters how money is spent, he should stop nit picking the pro-charter evidence that becomes stronger every few months, and demand that school systems embrace charters before getting new resources.
Other random stuff Ben throws out there: Finally, I should address some other broad fallacies that Ben uses as distractions from the central question of whether schools have adequate resources.
Ben cites yet another editorial by Baker that argues that school funding is not currently equitable. In addition to the fact that Baker’s report is just as flawed as Baker’s other work, the entire argument is actually irrelevant. The question is whether we should add more money to schools prior to demanding choice and accountability. Choice is far more unequally distributed than financial resources; almost every school district in the country gets baseline financial resources, but the vast majority of parents in residentially segregated areas have effectively zero school choice.
Ben also concludes by saying that our country can afford more. In a sense, this is true. If we cut wasteful agricultural subsidies, or had a more efficient tax system, or returned to the Clinton-era policies that delivered 3.8 percent growth per year, we could afford a lot of things. We could afford to establish a colony on Mars; or dramatically expand public transit; or increase research into nuclear fusion; or eliminate taxes on people earning less than $100,000 per year. The one thing we cannot afford to do, and that no society or family can afford, is to throw away resources in areas that don’t matter.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are approximately 3,000 mathematicians employed in the United States,. The number of those who are Black or African American, in government parlance, are too few to estimate. There are 28,000 actuaries, who are basically mathematicians who apply their training to insurance matters. The number of those who are Black or African American are too few to estimate. There are 29,000 computer and information research scientists. The number of those who are Black or African American are too few to estimate.
Which brings us to the latest data release from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which shows that there has been no improvement, indeed, a slight decline, nationally, in eighth grade mathematics proficiency. Forty-four percent of White students scored at the proficient or above level in 2013, while 42 percent did so in 2015. Fourteen percent of Black students scored at the proficient or above level in 2013, while 12 percent did so in 2015. The racial gap, therefore, was 30 percent points in both years. In short, no change.
Both Black and White students had better chances of scoring at the proficient or above level in fourth grade than in grade eight: Nineteen percent and 51 percent respectively. However, despite some narrowing between 2013 and 2015, for the most part attributable to a decline in White scores. The racial gap in fourth grade was 32 percent points.
It is futile to attempt to find a reason for the low levels of Black mathematical proficiency and the large racial gaps in the national data, although the usual suspects immediately blame the Common Core or students not taking the NAEP seriously (assuming that they did take the exercise seriously in 2013, but changed their minds in 2015). Racism works in this country not by means of vague institutional forces and traditions, but through a series of decisions made by identifiable individuals. Therefore, it is at least potentially more useful to look at the data by school district.
White male students in the Boston, Charlotte and Chicago schools were more likely than not to score at or above the proficient level in 2015. White male students in the Hillsborough, Florida, Miami-Dade, New York City and San Diego systems came in at the 40-50 percent range. White female students tended to have equal or higher scores in each instance, with a remarkable three-quarters at the proficient level in 2015 in Boston and Chicago. Percentages of White male students reaching proficiency in eighth-grade math improved in Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Jefferson County (Kentucky), and Miami (these Chicago students showing incredible improvement from 45 percent to 68 percent between 2013 and 2015), as did White female students in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago (again 23 percent points), Cleveland, Jefferson County, Miami, Philadelphia and San Diego.
None of the districts reported on by NAEP showed 20 percent or higher rates of proficiency for male Black students in 2015, Boston having declined from 21 percent in 2013 to 18 percent, Charlotte from 18 percent to 14 percent. Chicago “improved” from nine percent proficient to 13 percent. Black male students in Atlanta, Baltimore, DC, Jefferson County, Miami, and Philadelphia did not break 10 percent, while Cleveland and Detroit were at half that level. Milwaukee, which had been only able to educate five percent of its Black male and four percent of its Black female students to grade level in eighth-grade mathematics in 2013 did not report data for 2015. Only Detroit and New York City showed improvement from 2013 for male Black students (one percent point each), and Atlanta and Los Angeles for female Black students. Declines ranged up to six percentage points (Dallas Black female students).
The gap in the percentages of male students proficient in eighth grade math between White and Black students in 2015 ranged from 18 percent points (Cleveland and Philadelphia) to 72 percent points in Atlanta and 55 percent points in Charlotte and Chicago. For female students the range was between 16 percent points in Cleveland to 66 percent in Chicago and 65 percent points in Atlanta. For male students the gap narrowed between 2013 and 2015 in Hillsborough (2 percent points), New York City (seven percentage points) and Philadelphia (four percent points). Elsewhere it widened, by 19 percent points in Chicago and 15 percent in Atlanta, less elsewhere. For female students the gap narrowed in Los Angeles (13 percent) and New York City (12 percent points), less in other districts, and widened by 24 percent points in Chicago and 11 percent points in Boston.
Time to name names, or, at least, districts.
Schools in Atlanta, Charlotte and Chicago can bring most of their White students to proficiency or above in eighth grade mathematics, but do not do so for most of their Black students. [The Chicago data, especially the change between 2013 and 2015, looks rather odd, doesn’t it?] Charlotte is a good case study. It is fairly well-balanced by race and ethnicity, unlike, say, Atlanta. It should be able to close its enormous racial gap in educational achievement. Why hasn’t it?
Then there is good old Milwaukee, the subject of earlier Dropout Nation reports, for which there is no 2015 data. If you don’t have anything good to say, I guess. The districts with the narrowest gaps, such as Cleveland and Philadelphia, seem to achieve this by bringing very few White students to proficiency, as well as hardly any Black students. Those districts, along with Detroit, Miami-Dade and Milwaukee, are good candidates for declarations of educational emergencies.
If Black eighth-grade students are not at grade level in mathematics, there is little chance that they will be employable, as adults, in occupations requiring knowledge of mathematics. A century ago this hardly mattered. Today it is increasingly vital.
Recent research has focused on the positive effects of high quality pre-school, pre-school beginning as early as possible, with the emphasis on “high quality.” Such investments even the playing field for children from families without highly educated parents, without significant financial resources. Other research has shown that compensatory investments in teacher training, facilities, and similar well-known variables have strongly positive effects. Expanding opportunities for black and other minority children are also helpful.
Decision-makers, such as school superintendents, boards of education, state legislators, decide from term to term whether to make those investments. Deciding not to do so is a decision to increase investments in prisons, not to put too fine as point on it. The individuals who make those decisions should be held accountable for doing so.