There were plenty of responses to last week’s pieces tearing apart Rick Hess’ and Michael Petrilli’s op-ed accusing fellow school reformers of race-baiting for raising concerns about efforts by congressional Republican powers John Kline and Lamar Alexander to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions. Certainly many of them were supportive of your editor’s argument — as well as that of other reformers — that the two erstwhile reformers failed to make their case against their colleagues in the movement.
But a few were annoyed with the essays. Why? Because I had essentially claimed that the arguments Hess or Petrilli have offered on No Child reauthorizaions and other issues displayed their myopia on race and lack of concern for the futures of children from poor and minority backgrounds. From where they sit, your editor failed to show mutual respect and goodwill to them and their arguments. And this view extends to my treatment of the proposals offered up by Kline and Alexander (the latter of whom is holding hearings today on No Child reauthorization).
Certainly your editor understands why they make this argument. After all, folks within Beltway policy and educational research circles tend to embrace what I call the Goodwill Presupposition of Debate. That is, the assumption in any discussion, especially those related to battles over the reform of American public education, that everyone involved are men and women of goodwill, whose ideas and policy positions reflect their desire for to provide children, along with the families and communities in which they live, the best they deserve. Based on that theory, we should be less-strident in our criticism of those with whom we disagree, and in fact, give their ideas the benefit of doubt.
All of this is well and good if you want to believe it. But there are myriad problems with the Goodwill Presupposition as a guiding principle in rhetoric and debate, especially when it comes to matters that affect the futures of children.
The first is that the Goodwill Presupposition assumes that all ideas and policies as morally equal. This isn’t true. As with intellectual consideration of issues, some ideas and practices can be proven as morally inferior to others based on the historical record, on data and evidence, and on the moral codes, Judeo-Christian-Muslim as well as humanist and atheist, that are at the heart of our world.
Outside of education policy discussions, for example, we would not assume that state-sanctioned segregation — from America’s Jim Crow, to South Africa’s Apartheid, to the separatism practiced in Israel against native Arabs — is morally equal to equality for all people under law. This is because history, along with the Golden Rule, has shown us that no law that treats some people as inferior to others has any moral standing to the idea that all men are granted inalienable rights by God and mankind.
The second problem with the Goodwill Presupposition is that it assumes that the consequences of ideas, policies, and practices are morally equal and valid. If ideas can be found invalid intellectually based on empirical evidence, why can’t they be found morally unsound?
As we have learned over the past century, practices such as ability-tracking have been proven to do little to improve the quality of education for children, especially for those from poor and minority backgrounds Just as importantly, decades of evidence has shown that the consequences of ability-tracking have been dire for the futures kids already denied opportunities for high-quality teaching and curricula. There is no more reason to treat ability-tracking as an morally- and intellectually-equal practice to expanding school choice.
Thirdly, by assuming that everyone involved in debates and political battles all share the same good intentions, the Goodwill Supposition demands that we ignore evidence that shows otherwise. Certainly you can’t know the heart and mind of an opponent. But to assume that all are people of goodwill, even amid evidence otherwise, is to give some people greater credence than they deserve — especially if the morality and moral consequences of that for which they advocate are inferior and in fact, damaging to their fellow men and women.
For example, I don’t know American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten’s heart and mind. But I can argue that her defense of near-lifetime employment and teacher dismissal policies that keep criminally abusive teachers in classrooms to harm children is morally as well as intellectually indefensible. As both a moral being and an intellectually-reasonable person, there is more than enough evidence for me to be skeptical of Weingarten and her advocacy.
Finally, the Goodwill Supposition is a form of moral relativism that neither Jesus nor Socrates would find tolerable. If some ideas and their consequences are immoral and their consequences violate all codes of morality, then you cannot regard them as equals to those which are morally valid both in theory and result.
If we give all ideas, policies, and practices equal moral footing regardless of evidence and precept, we are essentially saying that lies are equal to honesty, fabrication is akin to objective facts, and that propaganda is no different than evidence. What is the point of scholarly inquiry or discussion if everything has validity?
But the consequences of this thinking extend beyond debate: What is the point of doing the right thing when doing wrong is just as good? Why should you advocate for bending the arc of history toward progress when regressive ideas and practices have equal validity? Particularly for reformers, unquestioned practice of the Goodwill Presupposition can harm the movement’s moral mission.
Put simply, neither the plans to eviscerate No Child offered by Kline and Alexander, nor the defenses of them by Hess and Petrilli, deserve to be given equal moral or intellectual weight to either the current law or the arguments defending it. This is because the policy proposals of the former are morally, as well as empirically, inferior to the latter. This isn’t to say that any of these men are terrible people. It is to say this: The call by Kline and Alexander (along with Hess and Petrilli) to end subgroup accountability measures that expose how poorly states, school operators, and those who work within them are educating our most-vulnerable children, who are the least of us Christ called us to look after is a violation of our moral obligation as Americans and as human beings.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be principled and respectful in our debates and disagreements with our opponents. Such decorum is not only necessary, but demanded of us as children of God and members of the family of man. It also doesn’t mean that we can’t get along; after all, as Jesus would command, we can hate the argument and still love the people who make it, especially since we are all fallible. It doesn’t even mean that every debate involves moral considerations; this is certainly true when it comes to discussions over what policies will be most-effective in expanding choice or improving teacher quality. Any belief otherwise is an embrace of thoughtless and counterproductive dogmatism.
But it does mean in those debates that do involve moral issues, giving all arguments equal weight is absolutely senseless. Especially because public policy is a clear communication of our moral expectations as citizens. Just as importantly, expecting people to not call things as they are based on both evidence and morality is simply unacceptable.
Your editor doesn’t have much to say about President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address — outside of praising him for calling for criminal justice reform after the outcry over the state-sanctioned murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. Oh, and that zinger about having no more campaigns to run because he won them both.
For one thing, your editor has already explained why his proposal to subsidize community college attendance for any student with a 2.5 grade-point-average — the most-important proposal his administration is pushing this year on the education policy front — will not help children from poor and minority households (as well as not pass congressional muster). There’s also the fact that the Obama Administration’s other proposals — including the consolidation of several tax credits geared toward promoting higher education attendance along with rolling back the tax benefits for 529 college saving plans and Coverdell education accounts — will also be opposed by congressional Republicans and even some Democrats) mindful of the affluent constituencies that benefit from them.
The fact that Obama knows that his education agenda won’t get passed means that he will likely focus more on preserving his legacy as School Reformer-in-Chief. So you can expect the administration to effectively kibosh efforts by House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline and Senate counterpart Lamar Alexander to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act and the president’s waiver gambit. You can also expect the president to use his executive authority — along with spending in the current omnibus spending law — to craft new rounds of Race to the Top and the School Improvement Grant competitions. Obama did this two years ago when he took $100 million in U.S. Department of Labor funds to develop another edition of Race to the Top targeted towards high school reform. And as I noted a few months ago, congressional Republicans have little leverage to stop him.
But there is plenty of action happening outside of Capitol Hill and the White House in the nation’s statehouses — and numerous opportunities to advance systemic reform. This will depend on how governors lead on this front. Which is why reformers must embrace strong gubernatorial leadership — and call out weak leadership from chief executives too willing to retreat or take small-ball measures on behalf of our children.
In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal kicked off his second term last week by announcing a proposal to take over and restructure failure mills. As part of the plan, the Peach State would launch a school overhaul authority similar to the successful Recovery School District in Louisiana that would take over dropout factories that have failed for three years or longer, and in some cases, transform them into charters. Expect plenty of sparring over the plan from districts such as Atlanta and DeKalb County, which operate 23 of Georgia’s 78 worst-performing schools. As Deal noted last week in his State of the State Address, high-quality education is key to breaking the cycle of poverty.
Deal is used to battling for reform — and winning. Two years ago, after the state supreme court ruled that the state’s charter school commission couldn’t authorize any schools, Deal successfully beat back traditional districts by convincing voters to approve a constitutional amendment giving the state’s charter school commission authority to oversee new schools. Within the last year, Deal has also battled against efforts by movement conservatives within the state to halt implementation of Common Core reading and math standards. To beat back opponents of the standards such as Supt. Richard Woods, Deal’s allies on the state board have stood by Common Core (albeit with some tweaks) while the state legislature are proposing to make the chief school officer job a position the governor’s successor will appoint after the end of Wood’s tenure.
Up north in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is stepping up his efforts to advance reform with plans to finally eliminate restrictions on the number of charter schools allowed to operate as well as push for the launch of a voucher-like tax credit initiative. The charter school expansion will likely pass with little opposition from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is still licking his wounds from earlier battles with Cuomo over charters and control of state government, as well as needs the governor’s support to keep mayoral control over the Big Apple’s traditional district.
The tougher effort will be his plan to revamp the Empire State’s teacher evaluation regime, which has been criticized for using too little objective state test score growth data and letting too many laggard teachers off the hook for poor performance. This means a battle with the American Federation of Teachers’ state affiliate, NYSUT, which finds itself in an even weaker position, politically and otherwise, thanks to its failure last year to back Cuomo’s re-election bid along with its campaign with de Blasio to give Democrats full control of the state legislature. This isn’t the first time Cuomo has beat back the AFT unit on evaluations; two years ago, Cuomo overcame teachers’ union opposition to ensure that state test growth data would account for 20 percent of evaluations.
Deal and Cuomo aren’t the only reform-minded governors aggressively pushing systemic reform. From New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (who continues to take on traditionalists on expanding school choice, overhauling failing districts such as Camden, and teacher evaluations), to Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, many governors have figured out that standing against the ancien regimes who have long controlled public education is critical to economic and social development as well as reducing long-term fiscal burdens.
But Deal and Cuomo have stood out for their steadfast commitment to the job. Even as onetime reform-oriented counterparts in statehouses such as Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal and Tennessee’s Bill Haslam have either fully or partly retreated on critical aspects of transforming public education, Deal and Cuomo have continued their efforts even amid criticism from allies within their own respective parties, often risking their political fortunes. Unlike governors in 15 states, Deal and Cuomo don’t even appoint or approve appointments of chief state school officers. Yet they have emerged from those battles with victories that are helping more kids gain brighter futures.
What both Deal and Cuomo have in common is a willingness to use their considerable reserves of political support to advance reform. They used their bully pulpits effectively, framing the need for transforming education in the context of the economic and fiscal challenges facing their respective states. They are both unwilling to be accommodating just to win compromise. And from their offices, they successfully worked with coalitions of reformers, business and civic organizations, and grassroots activists on the ground.
As your editor noted two years ago, such traits, typical of strong and effective leaders regardless of the issues they undertake on other issues, are especially important in reforming American public education. This is because traditionalists often strike for false collaboration that does little more than help them preserve the failed policies and practices from which they benefit at the expense of the futures of children. More importantly, strong leadership is as much about advancing a positive vision for the future that positions states and communities for changes in an increasingly knowledge-based economy as it about dealing with the challenges of the present.
Meanwhile strong reform-minded governors don’t play small ball — and don’t retreat on advancing systemic reform. This is because they realize that any step back on one aspect of reform will encourage traditionalists and others to fight even harder on others. Children don’t benefit when reform-minded governors and their allies give ground.
This is a lesson that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is starting to learn the hard way.
Two years ago, the freshman governor essentially rolled back a key aspect of predecessor Mitch Daniels’ school reform efforts when he agreed to halt implementation of Common Core reading and math standards. Last month, as he began pulling together a new set of reforms on school funding and putting the state board of education fully under his control by removing traditionalist-oriented Supt. Glenda Ritz as its chair, Pence took another step backward by shutting down the Center for Education and Career Innovation, an agency he formed back in 2013 to help reformers on the state board overcome Ritz’s efforts to roll back moves made under Tony Bennett’s tenure as chief state school officer.
Opponents have not repaid Pence in kind. Earlier this week, Common Core opponents managed to convince State Sen. Mike Delph to introduce Senate Bill 501, which would require Indiana to revert districts and other school operators to the last set of academic standards the state crafted on its own nine years ago. Why? Because they are annoyed that the state board of education crafted reading and math standards that were similar yet slightly inferior to Common Core, and thus, are the standards in all but name. The Delph plan would go further by banning Ritz and the state board from seeking renewal of its No Child waiver –and, in their minds, keep the Obama Administration from supposedly meddling in state education policy.
Certainly your editor, no fan of the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit, doesn’t exactly mind this step since the Hoosier State would revert to No Child’s accountability provisions. But for the former congressman-turned-governor, the Delph plan may prove to be distraction from his other efforts on reform, weaken other reform efforts before the legislature, and embolden traditionalists to push for rolling back initiatives on other fronts. Given that Pence will likely run for a second term next year, along with his likely ambitions for the presidency, his weak stand on systemic reform isn’t doing him any favors, much less helping Hoosier children.
What Pence should do is what he should have done in the first place: Embrace the bold approach to advancing reform exemplified by counterparts Deal and Cuomo, as well as by Daniels. Incoming governors such as Greg Abbott in Texas and Gina Raimondo in Rhode Island should do the same.
But strong reform-minded governors can’t do it alone. They need support from reformers who prominently back them and at the same time, hold them accountable for achieving results. This means reformers must work hard in the political arena, backing gubernatorial candidates regardless of party affiliation who are strong on transforming public education. It also means building coalitions of support — from chambers of commerce to churches and community groups, to the single parents, grandparents, and immigrant families more than ready to support their efforts. And once those candidates take office, reformers must continually encourage them to stay the course by supporting their efforts as well as criticizing them when they run astray.
There isn’t much that reformers can do on Capitol Hill to advance reform. But they can support strong reform-minded governors on the ground. And that time is now.
I want to talk with you mainly about our struggle in the United States and, before taking my seat, talk about some of the larger struggles in the whole world and some of the more difficult struggles in places like South Africa. But there is a desperate, poignant question on the lips of people all over our country and all over the world. I get it almost everywhere I go and almost every press conference. It is a question of whether we are making any real progress in the struggle to make racial justice a reality in the United States of America. And whenever I seek to answer that question, on the one hand, I seek to avoid an undue pessimism; on the other hand, I seek to avoid a superficial optimism. And I try to incorporate or develop what I consider a realistic position, by admitting on the one hand that we have made many significant strides over the last few years in the struggle for racial justice, but by admitting that before the problem is solved we still have numerous things to do and many challenges to meet…
…when we look at the question of economic justice, there’s much to do, but we can at least say that some strides have been made. The average Negro wage earner who is employed today in the United States earns 10 times more than the average Negro wage earner of 12 years ago. And the national income of the Negro is now at a little better than $28 billion a year, which is all—more than all of the exports of the United States and more than the national budget of Canada. This reveals that we have made some strides in this area…
But then I must go on and give you the other side, if I am to be honest about the picture. That is a fact that 42 percent of the Negro families of the United States still earn less than $2,000 a year, while just 16 percent of the white families earn less than $2,000 a year; 21 percent of the Negro families of America earn less than $1,000 a year, while just 5 percent of the white families earn less than $1,000 a year. And then we face the fact that 88 percent of the Negro families of America earn less than $5,000 a year, while just 58 percent of the white families earn less than $5,000 a year. So we can see that there is still a great gulf between the haves, so to speak, and the have-nots. And if America is to continue to grow and progress and develop and move on toward its greatness, this problem must be solved.
Now, this economic problem is getting more serious because of many forces alive in our world and in our nation. For many years, Negroes were denied adequate educational opportunities. For many years, Negroes were even denied apprenticeship training. And so, the forces of labor and industry so often discriminated against Negroes. And this meant that the Negro ended up being limited, by and large, to unskilled and semi-skilled labor. Now, because of the forces of automation and cybernation, these are the jobs that are now passing away. And so, the Negro wakes up in a city like Detroit, Michigan, and discovers that he is 28 percent of the population and about 72 percent of the unemployed…
Then the other thing when we think of this economic problem, we must think of the fact that there is nothing more dangerous than to build a society with a segment in that society which feels that it has no stake in the society, and nothing more dangerous than to build a society with a number of people who see life as little more than a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign. They end up with despair because they have no jobs, because they can’t educate their children, because they can’t live in a nice home, because they can’t have adequate health facilities…
I mentioned that racial segregation is about dead in the United States, but it’s still with us. We are about past the day of legal segregation. We have about ended de jure segregation, where the laws of the nation or of a particular state can uphold it, because of the civil rights bill and the Supreme Court’s decision and other things. We have passed the day when the Negro can’t eat at a lunch counter, with the exception of a few isolated situations, or where the Negro can’t check in a motel or hotel. We are fastly passing that day. But there is another form of segregation coming up. It is coming up through housing discrimination, joblessness and the de facto segregation in the public schools. And so the ghettoized conditions that exist make for many problems, and it makes for a hardcore, de facto segregation that we must grapple with on a day-to-day basis…
But certainly, we all know that if democracy is to live in any nation, segregation must die. And as I’ve tried to say all over America, we’ve got to get rid of segregation not merely because it will help our image—it certainly will help our image in the world… racial discrimination must be uprooted from American society and from every society, because it is morally wrong…
Now I would like to mention one or two ideas that circulate in our society—and they probably circulate in your society and all over the world—that keep us from developing the kind of action programs necessary to get rid of discrimination and segregation. One is what I refer to as the myth of time. There are those individuals who argue that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice… The only answer that I can give to that myth is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I must honestly say to you that I’m convinced that the forces of ill will have often used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And we may have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around saying, “Wait on time.”
And somewhere along the way it is necessary to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so we must help time, and we must realize that the time is always ripe to do right. This is so vital, and this is so necessary.
Now, the other myth that gets around a great deal in our nation and, I’m sure, in other nations of the world is the idea that you can’t solve the problems in the realm of human relations through legislation; you can’t solve the housing problem and the job problem and all of these other problems through legislation; you’ve got to change the heart… It may be true that you can’t legislate integration, but you can legislate desegregation. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law can’t change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me. And I think that’s pretty important also.
- Martin Luther King, explaining to an audience in London in 1964 what it will take to address the legacies of racialism — including the condemnation of black children to low-quality education — that result from America’s Original Sin. Fifty years later, on the commemoration of his birthday, the issues he points out remain as troublesome as ever — and so do the need for strident activism for advancing the systemic reform of American public education and criminal justice systems that are key to addressing them. Which is why we must fight back against all efforts, even among our supposed allies, to roll back the reforms that are key to helping all of our children.
On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle explains why measuring student achievement through standardized testing is critical to helping all children, especially those from poor and minority households, succeed in school and life.
You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle Radio or download directly to your mobile or desktop device. Also, subscribe to the podcast series, and embed this podcast on your site. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, Stitcher, and PodBean.
Your editor has spent way too much time already tearing apart Rick Hess’ and Michael Petrilli’s this week’s piece accusing fellow school reformers of race-baiting for raising concerns about efforts by congressional Republican powers John Kline and Lamar Alexander to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions. But there is another point to be made about the intellectual unseriousness of the two erstwhile conservative school reformers’ argument that No Child in particular — and the aggressive federal role in advancing systemic reform — is damaging to public education. And that lies with Hess’ and Petrilli’s silence about what to do about the compliance-oriented provisions of No Child — a legacy of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act — that should be eviscerated from the books.
One of those provisions is the mouthful of words called Supplement not supplant. Written into the original ESEA in 1966, the rule is geared toward keeping states and districts from using federal Title 1 dollars to subsidize the instruction and curricular activities they were already funding out of their own coffers. Because the purpose of Title 1 is to provide additional support for children from poor and minority backgrounds, any use of the subsidies for general school operations (including for kids from the middle class) is a violation of federal law.
While supplement not supplant made sense from a compliance perspective, the rule can end up complicating the work of reform-minded state and district school leaders (especially those who are implementing programs approved by the Obama Administration under Race to the Top). More than a decade ago in New York City, concerns from Empire State officials about violating supplement not supplant led then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and now-former Chancellor Joel Klein to drop plans to implement a weighted student funding formula. The law’s complexity ends also leads to such perverse actions by district such as using Title 1 dollars to finance field trips instead of improving student achievement. Just as importantly, given the shoddy nature of most school district accounting systems and the murky nature of school finance, and there is little way that any district doesn’t end up in violation of federal law.
Districts, policy wonks, and others have long talked about the need to get rid of supplement not supplant. It isn’t the only non-accountability aspect of No Child that needs to be tossed asunder. Your editor has long criticized the law’s Highly Qualified Effective Teacher provision for being a rather wishy-washy element that merely allowed states and districts to simply allow laggard teachers to keep their jobs by magically certifying them as high quality. Since the provision didn’t require the use of student test data in measuring teacher quality (focusing instead on certification and other qualifications that have no positive correlation to student achievement), it should be removed from the law.
As I wrote yesterday, the federal role in education policy, especially in advancing systemic reform, has been positive on balance. But it doesn’t mean it is unquestionably so. The compliance aspects of federal law, which has never worked as a form of accountability (and was never designed for that purpose) is one aspect of the federal role that can be eliminated. In fact, doing so would make the federal government even more-effective than it has been in supporting efforts on the ground to transform public education.
Yet as I noted more than a year ago, there has been little effort on the part of districts, wonks, or policymakers to get rid of the legacy compliance rules embedded within No Child and other federal education laws. The plan for reauthorizing the law put out this week by Alexander, the overlord of the Senate’s education committee, would only modify supplement not supplant. [It does propose to eliminate HQET.] Other plans offered up by congressional Republicans and their Democrat counterparts haven’t even broached the subject.
While Hess has occasionally mentioned supplement not supplant as an issue, neither he nor Petrilli said much about it in their piece. They did spend plenty of time attacking the aspects of No Child (and the federal role in education policy) that actually focus on helping all kids succeed.
Why? Because for all the complaints about supplement not supplant and HQET, these are compliance matters for which districts and states have long ago developed processes to address. In fact, states and districts have successfully convinced Congress to grant exemptions to HQET, especially when it comes to hiring Teach For America recruits to work in classrooms. The fact that few districts and states are ever dinged for non-compliance — and even less media coverage of those incidents when the Department of Education gets around to catching them — makes them non-factors at all.
What is far more concerning to these folks is the embarrassment that comes from No Child’s accountability provisions, especially those forcing them to show Adequate Yearly Progress for improving the achievement of poor and minority children (as well as those in special education ghettos). The very revelations of how poorly districts and states were doing in improving the achievement of children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — since the implementation of No Child 12 years ago have embarrassed states and districts publicly and badly. So have the research and news stories that have revealed how states and districts inflated graduation rates and concealed the true numbers of children dropping out into poverty and prison.
More importantly, the accountability provisions have proven to be useful to reformers, as well as reform-minded policymakers, researchers, and families in advancing the systemic overhaul of American public education. As I pointed out yesterday, the accountability provisions have spurred the expansion of school choice (including public charter schools, vouchers, and tax credit programs) that have helped kids from poor and minority households escape failure mills. The law has also forced states to pay more attention to the plight of kids condemned to special ed ghettos.
Particularly for suburban districts such as those in Minnesota represented by Kline and Alexander who oppose expansion of choice and benefit from putting kids they don’t want to teach into special ed, the light shined on their failures as result of No Child have been anything but welcomed. So for these districts and their respective states, especially those in the Beltway where Hess and Petrilli live, there is greater motivation to eviscerate the accountability provisions (and go back to ignoring poor and minority kids) than to get rid of the compliance rules that actually get in the way of systemic reform.
Given these realities, it makes you wonder if Hess and Petrilli merely want to eviscerate No Child because of any true concerns about the federal role.
You shouldn’t be surprised that American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess and Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute took aim at centrist and progressive Democratic reformers such as Stand For Children’s Jonah Edelman (along with others in the movement) today on the pages of National Review for their opposition to the efforts of House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline and Senate counterpart Lamar Alexander to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act and its sensible accountability provisions. Nor should you be shocked that Hess and Petrilli use a “shopworn parlor trick”(as they would call it) that anyone who opposes the effort are engaging in race-baiting by arguing that rolling back the federal role in advancing systemic reform — including requiring states and districts to account for how they are improving achievement for children from poor and minority backgrounds — will hurt our most-vulnerable.
After all, both men have long ago for various reasons (including pressure from a new generation of movement conservative activists unconcerned with education issues as well as donors to their respective outfits) to serve as two-man Amen corner for Kline, Alexander and fellow congressional Republicans looking to scale back the much-needed federal role in advancing systemic reform. Petrilli, in particular, revealed his allegiances three years ago in a virtual Valentine praising Alexander’s plan for reauthorizing No Child even as Dropout Nation and others detailed how it would do little more than go back to the bald old days of the old Elementary and Secondary Education Act,when states spend federal money as freely as they so choose without any accountability. [The very fact that Hess and Petrilli stand against the federal government holding states to account for the subsidies they receive, an important principle of modern movement conservatism since the days of Reagan, shows that they are as much fair-weather ideological adherents as they are erstwhile reformers.]
Nor should you should be surprised that their critique actually neglected to make any case whatsoever for their argument that No Child and other federal efforts on matters such as ending the overuse of harsh school discipline have caused “very real harm”. This isn’t shocking because this is an argument they have made numerous times in various ways (and even, on occasion, either misusing data as well as drawing conclusions that don’t fit the evidence they use) that have been proven false by their colleagues (including yours truly).
Hess and Petrilli can’t argue that No Child hasn’t spurred an array of reforms that have helped more children, especially those black and brown, receive high-quality teaching and curricula. This includes a seven percentage point decline in the number of fourth-graders reading Below Basic between 2002 and 2013 (according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress) — and especially a 10 percentage point decline in the number of functionally-illiterate black fourth-graders. With a four percentage point increase in the number of fourth-graders reading at Proficient and Advanced levels (along with those kids continuing scale score increases similar to those by struggling peers), they also can’t argue that No Child’s focus on stemming achieving gaps have short high-achieving children.
When you consider the three-fold increase in the percentage of high school seniors graduating after taking at least one Advanced Placement exam between 2003 and 2013, as well as the expansion of public charter schools and other forms of choice, there is no way to argue that the aggressive federal role in advancing systemic reform hasn’t been on balance a net positive for children.
Hess and Petrilli also can’t prove their argument that No Child and other federal policies have led to schools being hamstrung by “stifling, rule-driven culture”. The nation’s high-quality public charter schools, including those operated by KIPP, Green Dot, MATCH, and Uncommon Schools, prove lie to that contention, as do the successful efforts of reformers such as former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein and Boston’s Tom Payzant in overhauling traditional districts. They can’t even prove the corollary argument that they could proffer (and has been offered up by Petrilli) that curricula has been narrowed (and classes outside of reading, math, and science have been crowded out) because of the expansion of standardized testing by states and districts prompted only in part by No Child’s accountability provisions.
If anything, what Hess and Petrilli loathe to admit is that No Child and other federal policymaking over the last decade has essentially reaffirmed the role of states as the overseers of public education. No Child, for example, allows states to figure out their own ways to provide high-quality education, especially to poor and minority children as well as those in the nation’s special ed ghettos; if anything, as I noted two years ago, the very flexibility in the law is the key reason why its success was limited. The Obama Administration’s Race to the Top initiative merely required states to compete for additional federal funding by implementing reforms such as overhauling teacher evaluations; that some were already making such moves even before the first round of the competitive grant effort began further exposes the fallacy of the Hess-Petrilli position.
Meanwhile Hess’ and Petrilli’s can’t even effectively argue against the contention of Edelman and other reformers that a strong federal role in education policymaking is key to holding states responsible for providing all children with high-quality education. This is because history and data have long ago proven that without strong federal action, state governments will rarely do the right thing by poor and minority children. Especially when it comes to black children and communities, who along with those from American Indian and Alaska Native backgrounds, have been historically condemned to the lowest expectations by American public education. As Ilya Somin of the libertarian Cato Institute pointed out last year, the underlying reality is that without federal intervention, states would have continued policies such as slavery and state-sanctioned segregation within American public education.
What Hess and Petrilli fail to acknowledge that the federal government actually serves an important role in spreading reform efforts initiated by governors and legislators in the few states that initially undertake them. It was the Reagan Administration, through its release of A Nation at Risk in 1983, that coaxed other states to undertake the initial efforts at addressing teacher quality and curricula first undertaken by southern state governors and chambers of commerce. Without the passage of Improving America’s Schools Act in 1994 and No Child eight years later, the steps taken by Florida and Texas to launch accountability regimes would have never been implemented by other states.
Meanwhile Hess and Petrilli fail to admit this important reality: That the federal government is constitutionally charged with protecting the civil rights of everyone, especially children from poor and minority backgrounds who are often subjected to educational abuse and neglect by traditional districts and states. This includes addressing Zip Code Education policies such as zoned schooling, restrictions on the expansion of charter schools, and limits on accessing college-preparatory courses that prevent children and families from accessing high-quality education. It also includes stepping in to address how far too many districts and charters are meting out-of-school suspensions to black children at higher levels than white peers — and often for minor behavioral offenses for which white peers would only receive lower level penalties.
Addressing how black and poor children are often shortchanged educationally by districts (often with the blessing of states) is the main reason why the original Elementary and Secondary Act (along with other civil rights legislation) was passed 59 years ago. It is also why No Child, the latest version of ESEA, was passed 36 years later. For Hess and Petrilli to deny the federal government’s important role on the most-important long-term civil rights issue of this time is to demonstrate stunning depths of historical illiteracy, intellectually unseriousness, and moral ignorance.
But no one should be surprised that Hess and Petrilli, men who claim themselves to be school reformers, penned this jeremiad. After all, both men have shown long ago that they have little concern with building brighter futures for the poor and minority children who have been damaged the most by the nation’s education crisis (and its roots in the racialism that is the nation’s Original Sin).
These days, Hess takes the position that school reformers are overly concerned with addressing the needs of poor and minority children. He began arguing this four years ago when he declared that his fellow school reformers were gripped by an “achievement gap mania” because they dared to actually focus policy efforts on helping poor and minority kids receive high-quality education. Despite evidence supports this focus, along with that showing that stemming achievement gaps helps white kids from both poor households (especially in rural communities), Hess hasn’t changed his stance. In fact, he has doubled down on this thinking. Last year, he argued on the pages of NR that efforts to expand school choice does little more than allow poor and minority families to evade personal responsibility for properly raising their children. And as seen late last year in discussions over the role of school reformers in addressing matters such as the aftermath of Ferguson and the Eric Garner verdict, Hess’ lack of concern for poor and minority kids extends beyond discussions about systemic reform.
Meanwhile Petrilli has often been deliberately ignorant about the adverse consequences of policies he defends– including traditional school discipline, ability-tracking, and even the idea that only some kids merit college-preparatory learning — on the futures of poor and minority kids. This has often been driven by stubborn adherence to theories unsupported by data. For example, Petrilli’s argument against the Obama Administration’s effort to reduce use of harsh school discipline is driven by a belief that out-of-school suspensions are meted out more-often to minority children than white peers because of “pathologies” such as single motherhood and poverty. This in spite of three decades of evidence from researchers, including University of Pittsburgh’s John Wallace, that black children are more-likely than white peers to be given harsher penalties for even the most minor offenses.
Such sophistry would be less-disconcerting if it came from the likes of once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch (whose myopia on race has been on display since chastised black parents in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community in The Great School Wars: A history of New York City schools, for their efforts to hold schools and (mostly-white) teachers accountable for student achievement. But Hess and Petrilli are supposed to be reformers, who fully understand that helping poor and minority children succeed (along with their white and middle class peers) is at the heart of the movement’s mission. For them to accuse their peers of race-baiting because they have raised honest concerns about rolling back No Child and the federal role makes you wonder if they believe themselves to be reformers at all.
Perhaps Hess and Petrilli should deal seriously with the concerns raised by their fellow reformers instead of engaging in old-school sophistry.