Tag: Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Why Student Protest Should Not Be Punished

Your editor hasn’t spent much time on today’s National Student Walkout mostly because there has been plenty of coverage and commentary from other corners. Yet I find myself writing briefly…

Your editor hasn’t spent much time on today’s National Student Walkout mostly because there has been plenty of coverage and commentary from other corners. Yet I find myself writing briefly about the protests by high school students on behalf of gun control laws spurred by last month’s massacre of 17 students and teachers at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., because the event inadvertently intersects with an issue school reformers continue to deal with badly: The debate over stemming the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline.

Ever since the walkout was announced, there has been an array of responses from traditional districts and other school operators. Some, notably the Mooresville district in Indiana, have actively encouraged the protests and, as in the case of New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio (who oversees the Big Apple’s traditional district) are participating in it. Others are merely offering spaces on campuses where protests can be held without leaving school grounds (and thus, keeping the students safe without infringing on their First Amendment rights).

Yet there are other districts who have decided that the response to nonviolent student protest is political and educational reprisal. This includes the Bentonville district, which serves the city that is home to retail giant Wal-Mart, which threatened to mete out three-day suspensions for engaging in the protests, and the Needville Independent School District in Texas (whose threat was met with protests from the American Civil Liberties Union and others, who noted that it also violated the district’s discipline guidelines). Another district, Bexley City, is planning to put all students protestors from its high school on detention for their action.

So you shouldn’t be surprised that conservative and centrist Democrat school reformers — who have generally been all too supportive of the overuse of harsh school discipline — were also supportive of the actions being taken by Bentonville and other districts. Robert Pondiscio, the vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (and, like his boss, Mike Petrilli, a longstanding opponent of school discipline reform), was particularly bellicose in his defense of suspending protestors, declaring that children should be punished for their own good. Why? Because the only way they can gain a “teachable moment” about protests and civil disobedience (especially those of civil rights leaders of the last century) is to suffer some form of punishment. The kids can’t just be allowed to actually exercise free speech.

There are a lot of problems with Pondiscio’s overall argument. The first? That schools aren’t allowed to explicitly or even covertly punish children for engaging in protests and other forms of free speech. This was first established by the U.S. Supreme Court 50 years ago in Tinker v. De Moines Independent Community School District and even before then in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (which first recognized the First Amendment rights of students by declaring that they couldn’t be forced by districts to recite the Pledge of Allegiance against their religious and social consciences).

Districts can discipline students for incidental violations of school policies that result during the protests (as well as for disrupting classroom instruction and walking off campus). But they cannot directly punish youth for their protest rallies and cannot level punishments beyond what is already prescribed in discipline codes. Which is why most districts are wisely treading cautiously on this front.

This leads to the second problem: Pondiscio and others are essentially arguing that school leaders should harshly punish students for minor infractions, even when the actions don’t actually harm other children. This is particularly clear with the National Student Walkout and other political protests organized by youth. Considering the vast number of students who are participating in the walkouts — as well as the numbers of their peers who support them — school leaders cannot honestly argue that these actions are somehow damaging children.

Just as importantly, given that the protests will not lead to a tangible loss of time for instruction and learning, meting out suspensions and detentions is overkill. If anything, school leaders who suspend protesting students are actually doing more damage to children by meting out detentions and suspensions that keep them out of school (and thus, from learning) for hours and days at a time.

Students such as those at Bowie High School in Prince George’s County, Md., are learning plenty without suffering reprisals from school leaders engaging in arbitrary action. (Photo courtesy of Bowie Living.)

In advocating for arbitrary and capricious punishment based on the whims of school leaders, Pondiscio and others are exacerbating one of the problems that have led to school discipline reform efforts in the first place. Three decades of research that shows that teachers and school leaders often punish children, especially those Black and Brown, with little in the way of reason or nuance. This includes University of Pittsburgh Professor John Wallace’s 2008 study showing that young black men in 10th grade are 30 percent more-likely to be referred dean’s offices — and 330 percent more-likely to be suspended — for the same offenses than white peers, and a 2015 study by Adam Wright of University of California, Santa Barbara determining that beliefs among White teachers that Black children are unruly and poorly-behaved explain why they are more-likely to be referred for discipline and suspended than their White peers.

In the context of National Student Walkout — and as exemplified in protests led by minority youth in St. Louis and other locales — you can imagine principals and deans of discipline punishing Black students more-harshly than their White peers for exercising their First Amendment rights.

In arguing that National Student Walkout participants should be disciplined, Pondiscio and others are arguing is that children should not actually learn civic engagement, and ultimately, not take up their rightful roles as future leaders of American society. As men and women dedicated to helping our children be successful in school and in life, this line of thinking should be especially offensive. Certainly our children should read original texts to learn about the origins of the issues that still plague this nation. But classroom learning isn’t enough.

They must be participants in the political processes that can be used to either bend the arc of history towards progress or suppress the liberties of Black, Latino, and immigrant communities. Which is what the students participating in National School Walkout are doing. While your editor may not necessarily agree with all of their policy solutions (and note that much of their proposals ignore the consequences of the War on Drugs in perpetuating gun-related homicides), I also believe that our youth, our future adults and leaders, have a right and moral obligation to be engaged in the real world. This applies even to those youth whose activism may be objectionable to me as well as to their fellow students.

Finally, Pondiscio and his allies are basing their argument in part on a romanticized notion of “civil disobedience”, especially the protests conducted by the Civil Rights activists of the last century. Contrary to their notions, the reality is that the collegians who fueled the Freedom Rides and the Birmingham youth in the Children’s Campaign were arrested, jailed, beaten and hosed down with water canons on the technical grounds of violating laws and injunctions against protests. In reality, these activists were punished by Jim Crow state and local governments who opposed the fight against state-sanctioned bigotry and denial of equal opportunity through the use of police departments and courts (as well as through their support of the Klu Klux Klan organizations).

If the Bull Connors of the time weren’t using laws to engage in suppression of freedom and equality, the civil rights protests wouldn’t be called civil disobedience; they would have just been the rightful (and peaceful) protests against government actions protected by the Bill of Rights. As with other peaceful protests throughout American history by activists who weren’t actively opposed by governments, the protests of those activists would have been just as meaningful even without the threats to their lives. Put simply, Pondiscio and company are being ahistorical and intellectually dishonest to boot.

Instead of encouraging school leaders and teachers to overuse harsh school discipline against actions that harm no one — and perpetuating the woeful state of affairs in far too many districts — we should push them to limit suspensions and other discipline to the few acts of misbehavior (including weapons possession and assault) that truly harm the lives of other people. And we should stand by our youth as they take their rightful places in the world as well as learn how to be citizens and leaders in their communities and the nation as a whole.

Featured photo courtesy of the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation.

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Max Eden’s Shoddy Anti-School Discipline Reform Punditry

Your editor usually doesn’t write immediate follow-ups on commentaries. But yesterday’s Dropout Nation takedown of use of faulty data by Manhattan Institute pundit Max Eden and other opponents of reforming school…

Your editor usually doesn’t write immediate follow-ups on commentaries. But yesterday’s Dropout Nation takedown of use of faulty data by Manhattan Institute pundit Max Eden and other opponents of reforming school discipline generated plenty of discussion both in social media and in e-mails. Thanks to those discussions, the flaws in the studies used by Eden and his counterparts, most-notably Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal, have been exposed.

As you would expect — and has become his wont — Eden dodged the report and questions raised by other reformers and education policy scholars. Save for arguing that Oakland Unified School District, whose ban on suspensions for disruptive behavior and other minor infractions was mentioned in his piece, supposedly fell behind academically because of that effort, Eden offered little defense of either his US News & World Report op-ed or his overall arguments.

But while Eden said little, what he did say revealed even more sloppiness in his arguments and thinking. Which given that he and other foes of school discipline reform are helping the Trump Administration and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos justify their plans to ditch the federal government’s obligation to protect the civil rights of poor and minority children, is worrisome.

In the case of Oakland, Eden declared that research from Stanford University’s Sean Reardon showing that the district’s improvement in student achievement of 4.3 years over a five-year period trailed behind the overall state average made his “case” for his conclusion. The problem? For one, Reardon’s research, which focused solely on how districts improve academic progress for children from third grade to the end of middle school (as well as how poverty affects achievement), never looked at the impact of school discipline policy (or even overuse of suspensions) on achievement. Put simply, there’s no way that Eden can use Reardon’s data to reach or support his conclusions.

It gets worse. As it turns out, Eden probably didn’t mean to mention Reardon’s study, but Boston University grad student Dominic Zarecki’s study of Los Angeles Unified School District’s implementation of a ban on suspensions for minor infractions, the white paper at the heart of Eden’s US News op-ed. The study does mention that it did an analysis of Oakland Unified academic achievement after implementation of its school discipline reform effort to compare results with that of L.A. Unified. Zarecki does note that it found that Oakland Unified trailed the rest of the state in improving student achievement by the 2015-2016 school year, arguing that it proves his study’s declaration that suspension bans damage achievement.

But Zarecki also admits that “we cannot conduct a full difference-in-difference analysis for Oakland because we lack data to measure the change in academic growth”. Zarecki also concedes that Oakland would likely have “had a relatively low growth rate even without the suspension ban”, which, given its decades-long struggles on the education front, goes without saying. As Brian Stanley, executive director of the Oakland Education Fund, noted yesterday, the district “has had fairly low academic growth for a long time.” [Stanley, by the way, offers a rather insightful and data-driven account of Oakland’s school discipline reform efforts that opponents and supporters of school discipline reform should check out.]

This oversight could be considered if Zarecki provided his analysis of Oakland Unified (which is likely based on two years of school-level data instead of at least four years student-level data) in an appendix to the main study. He did not, which means there is no real way for to understand how Zarecki reached this particular conclusion.

It isn’t shocking that Dominic Zarecki’s shoddy research is being championed by Max Eden and other foes of school discipline reform. That’s just what they do.

Of course, this is one of the many flaws Dropout Nation and others have identified. Another is that Zarecki’s study focuses not on increases and decreases in actual achievement and out-of-school suspensions for minor infractions, but on differences in differences, essentially looking at growth over the short time frames being measured. The problem with so-called difference-to-difference research design is that it can inflate what would otherwise be minor increases and decreases in standard deviations during the time periods measured. Especially when measuring two-year periods instead of four years and beyond (which would tell more about the success or failure of any implementation or program).

Put simply, Zarecki’s study, already flawed because of its focus on school level data, lack of granularity and other issues, likely yielded inflated results. Zarecki himself admits this when he notes that the two additional analyses he used to check his work didn’t yield similar conclusions.

Given that Zarecki’s study is really more of a class paper that hasn’t been peer reviewed and probably hasn’t been looked over by his doctoral advisor, you can somewhat excuse those flaws. [The fact that his career has been in education research, including time as research director for the California Charter Schools Association, makes this excuse rather weak.] But Eden, a longtime education policy wonk who spent time working for Rick Hess at the American Enterprise Institute before landing at Manhattan Institute (and who still co-writes pieces with Hess on occasion), can’t justify why he ran with this shoddy work. If your editor can sniff out the weaknesses in Zarecki’s study, then Eden can do so, too.

The fact that Eden ran with Zarecki’s study and conclusions despite all of its flaws isn’t shocking. As mentioned earlier in his wrong citation of Reardon’s study, Eden is sloppy, both in his research and his thinking. This becomes even more clear when you look at his claim to fame, a report released last yeara by Manhattan Institute on school climate throughout the city and the school discipline reform efforts undertaken by the New York City Department of Education under Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his successor, Bill de Blasio.

In that report, Eden concludes that the school discipline reform efforts by Bloomberg, de Blasio and their respective chancellors have led to traditional district schools in the Big Apple becoming less safe for teachers and children. How? By comparing responses of teachers and children in the traditional district to peers in charters on the city’s annual school climate survey. As any researcher can immediately note, such surveys have little usefulness as objective evidence, because they are based on subjective opinions that can change based on who is working in classrooms, because survey designs can be flawed with leading questions yielding results favorable to the pollster, and because survey designs can change drastically from year to year. Eden himself admits this in the study when he notes that he could only measure results on five questions from the city’s school climate survey because the wording had been consistent over time.

What makes Eden’s results even less-reliable is the fact that he didn’t just simply measure the raw results from the surveys over the five-year period (2011-2012 to 2015-2016) being measured, which is the most-reliable way of analyzing what is already unreliable data. Instead, Eden cobbled together a “distribution-of-differences” analysis in which any change of 15 percentage points on each of the questions represented “a substantial shift” in attitudes on school safety, especially for each school in the district. How did he arrive at 15 percentage points instead of, say, 20 or 10 or even five? Eden doesn’t explain. This gamesmanship, along with the lack of explanation, makes Eden’s analysis even less reliable than it already is.

If Eden was being intellectually honest and simply compared the raw numbers themselves, he would have reached different conclusions. Between 2011-2012 and 2015-2016, the percentage of teachers citywide (including charter schools) agreeing or strongly agreeing that “my school maintains order and discipline” remained unchanged at 80 percent. Exclude charters results from the survey, and the percentage of teachers just within the New York City district agreeing or strongly agreeing that “my school maintains order and disciplined” increased from 77 percent to 78 percent over that period, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of the city’s survey data from that period. This happened even as the number of out-of-school suspensions meted out by principals  in district schools declined.

Even when using subjective data, Eden’s arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny, a point made by Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA during testimony at a December hearing held by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights at which Eden also testified. It doesn’t even stand up to the brief on overuse of suspensions in Big Apple schools released today by Center for American Progress, which uses objective data to look at the number of days children lose when they are kept out of school

Again, this isn’t a surprise. In a report on school safety released last October, Eden reached the conclusion that New York City’s charter schools were “safer” than traditional district counterparts not by comparing raw data from the Big Apple’s school climate survey or even using more-objective data such as incident reports over a period of several years. Instead, he cobbled together an index that gave scores to each of the questions on the survey, then crafted a secondary index in which charters that scored five or more percentage points higher on that first index over a traditional district school, would be rated higher. This approach to analysis is amateur hour at its worst.

The thing is that Eden’s shoddy work product could easily be ignored if not for the fact that he, along with Fordham’s Petrilli, is a leader in the effort to convince the Trump Administration and DeVos to reverse the Obama Administration-era Dear Colleague guidance pushing districts to end overuse of suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline against poor and minority children. The four-year-old guidance, a keystone of federal efforts to spur school discipline reform, has long been the bete noir of so-called conservative reformers everywhere.

Because Eden, along with Petrilli and even Riley’s Wall Street Journal, likely has the ear of DeVos’ appointees (including Kenneth Marcus, the former George W. Bush appointee who will likely end up overseeing the agency’s Office for Civil Rights), the shoddiness of his data and that of his allies matters even more now than ever. Bad policy backed by slipshod data equals damage to children, especially those from Black, Latino, and American Indian and Alaska Native households most-likely to be suspended, expelled and sent to juvenile justice systems (the school-to-prison pipeline) as a result of districts and other school operators overusing the most-punitive of school discipline.

Which is why shoddy polemicism by the likes of Eden and other opponents of school discipline reform deserve to be exposed and denigrated. School reformers know better than to use bad studies to champion worse policies.

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Max Eden (and other School Discipline Reform Foes) Use Bad Data

There are some amazing things about the internecine battle within the school reform movement over efforts to end overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline,…

There are some amazing things about the internecine battle within the school reform movement over efforts to end overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline, and the effort by so-called conservative reformers to overturn the U.S. Department of Education’s Obama-era guidance to districts on school discipline reform. One is the unwillingness of opponents of school discipline reform, especially Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute, to actually engage the three decades of high-quality research that shows that far too many children, especially Black and American Indian kids, are suspended often. The other? That those very opponents attempt to use low-quality research that doesn’t actually prove their defense of such practices, often to ignore the volumes of evidence standing against them.

These two matters become especially clear this morning in an op-ed by Eden in US News & World Report that declares that reducing the overuse of suspensions — especially restrictions on using suspensions for minor infractions such as disruptive behavior that can be addressed through other means — is somehow causing “substantial academic damage” to children in classrooms. Primarily citing a study by Boston University graduate student Dominic Zarecki on Los Angeles Unified School District’s move five years ago to stop suspending children for acting out in class, Eden argues that “suspension bans hurt kids”, hinders the efforts of teachers to manage their classrooms and leads to lower student achievement.

Yet contrary to Eden’s assertions, the study itself doesn’t offer much in the way of hard conclusions. One reason? Because the study doesn’t use student-level academic data. As conceded by Zarecki (who, for some odd reason, goes unnamed by Eden in his op-ed), the study is based on school-level data which doesn’t follow an actual cohort of L.A. Unified students over a period of time. The other problem: That it doesn’t track impact over a period longer than two years. This is a problem especially given that the long-term effects of a reform or an effort can take years (including adjustments in implementation such as improved teacher training) to manifest. Since the study itself doesn’t actually look at student performance over time, or even accounts for matters such as student migration, it “lacks the data granularity” needed to look at how reducing suspensions impacts individual students or even particular groups, much less actually offer any conclusions worth considering. Even Zarecki concedes that based on additional analysis, L.A Unified’s ban “may have had no causal effect” on achievement.

Certainly a study using longitudinal student-level would be hard to do in part because of the efforts by California Gov. Jerry Brown to kibosh more-robust school data systems. But it wouldn’t be impossible. After all, the Los Angeles Times did exactly that in 2010 with its value-added analysis of teacher performance within the district, gaining access to the data after a Freedom of Information request to the school system. Researchers tend to have an easier time obtaining data, especially since they are willing to safeguard privacy and, in many cases, even withhold the name of the district itself (though there are often enough details to figure out which school operator was the subject). Zarecki, who also works for California-based charter school operator Fortune Schools, can easily get in touch with L.A. Unified’s data department if he chose to do so. There is no justifiable reason why the data couldn’t have been obtained for this study.

Put simply, this study is of low-quality. Especially when compared to the research on school discipline that has been conducted over the past decade alone. This includes the 2012 study conducted by a team led by Johns Hopkins University scholar Robert Balfanz that used eight years of student-level longitudinal data to determine that overuse of out-of-school suspensions in ninth grade were positively correlated with likelihood of dropping out of high school, as well as Balfanz’s renowned 2007 study on developing early warning systems with Lisa Herzog of the Philadelphia Education Fund (which also used eight years of student data, this time, from the City of Brotherly Love’s traditional district) to reach the same conclusions.

This lack of high-quality, along with the short time span being measured, is a problem shared by other studies promoted by other opponents of reforming school discipline. Take the study released last month by Petrilli’s Thomas B. Fordham Institute on Philadelphia’s school discipline reform efforts. Eden also cites the study in his piece. The study’s main conclusions — including the assertion that reducing suspensions for non-violent offenses have little effect on achievement — are also based on two years of school level data that doesn’t actually measure how the reforms impact student achievement. [It also doesn’t take into consideration how well individual schools implemented the reforms, a matter that is discussed by the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education in a similar study also released last month.] That the study uses school-level data instead of student-level data also means that the conclusions have little value.

Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, along with other opponents of school discipline reform, has a tendency to misuse and overstate data.

In fact, the only useful study the Petrilli-Eden crowd have at their disposal is one conducted last year by a University of Arkansas team led by Gary Ritter. The study, which is based on six years of student-level data, concludes that out-of-school suspensions on their own don’t have a negative impact on student achievement and may lead to “slight” improvement in standardized test performance. But even the Ritter study is little use to them. One reason: Because the study itself doesn’t look at the impact of any particular school discipline reform (the study merely looks at possible impact of suspensions on achievement), it isn’t useful in any argument against those efforts. Another is the fact that the study doesn’t actually measure impact of suspensions based on the number of days kids are kept out of school; in the case of Arkansas, a suspension of more than 10 days is considered an expulsion, which means that thousands of children and their student achievement data have likely been excluded from the study, a limitation conceded by Ritter and his team. [Others have expressed their own concerns about the study.]

Meanwhile Ritter and his team honestly concede that decades of research show that overuse of suspensions damages children when you look at graduation rates and other data. In fact, they concede that school leaders and policymakers can have justifiable reasons for reforming school discipline. Ritter himself publicly stated that his study doesn’t argue for halting school discipline reforms and shouldn’t be used as justification for ending the Obama Administration’s guidance, the bete noir of the anti-school discipline reform crowd.

Despite these caveats, opponents of school discipline reform have insisted on using the study to bolster their case. Eden, in particular, mentioned the Ritter study as a supporting example last month in his testimony to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during one of its hearings. But this isn’t shocking. Eden also mentioned a 2014 study by Russell Skiba of Indiana University, the leading scholar on school discipline reform, to support his argument that racial bias wasn’t a factor in why Black, Latino, and American Indian children were suspended at far higher levels than White peers. Eden did this even though Skiba’s study actually focused on student misbehavior and concluded that minority children weren’t worse-behaved than White counterparts, and therefore, didn’t explain why those kids were suspended at higher rates than White children in the first place.

But again, Eden’s seemingly deliberate sloppiness in handling data and evidence, along with that of his allies, is not shocking at all. Eden was called out by Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA during the Commission on Civil Rights’ hearing for making arguments not borne out by his own data. Meanwhile Fordham and Petrilli, who work alongside Eden on opposing school discipline reform efforts, has been called out several times by Dropout Nation and other researchers for other incidents of reaching conclusions unsupported by data. This includes misusing data from NWEA to claim in a 2011 op-ed that focusing on achievement gaps harmed high-achieving students (as well as a study published months earlier that attempted to do the same).

What does become clear is that Eden, Petrilli and company do all they can to dance around what decades of data has proven beyond dispute: That far too many kids are suspended and expelled from school. That those practices do little to improve student achievement, enhance school cultures, or make kids safer. That children from minority households are more likely to be suspended, expelled, arrested and even sent to juvenile justice systems than White peers, even when they are referred to dean’s offices for the same infractions. That also suspensions are far more-likely to be meted out over minor matters such as disruptive behavior and attendance than for violent behavior and drug activity. That soft and hard bigotries among White teachers toward poor and minority children are underlying reasons why those kids end up being suspended more-often than White counterparts. And that teachers and school leaders often use suspensions and expulsions to  to let themselves off the hook for the failure to address the illiteracy that is usually at the heart of child misbehavior.

Given all the facts, it becomes clear that Eden, Petrilli and their allies have little interest in dealing honestly with data and evidence on the damage of overusing harsh school discipline. Which makes them untrustworthy when it comes to the mission of the school reform movement to help all children succeed in school and in life.

Featured photo courtesy of the New York Times.

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When Accountability Isn’t

There is little evidence that states will do a better job of holding districts and other school operators accountable under the Every Student Succeeds Act than they did under the…

There is little evidence that states will do a better job of holding districts and other school operators accountable under the Every Student Succeeds Act than they did under the Adequate Yearly Progress provision of the No Child Left Behind Act. If anything, based on what we are learning so far, states are more-likely than ever to let districts perpetuate harm to poor and minority children. And despite what some reformers want to say, there is way to sugar-coat this reality.

No one can blame you for thinking otherwise if you only pay attention to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s analysis of state rating systems proposed in ESSA implementation plans released this week. From where it sits, seven states (Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Washington) will implement rating systems that clearly label how well districts and schools are performing, requires a “focus on all students” by looking at test score growth data instead of proficiency levels, and, through growth measures, fairly assess how districts and schools are improving achievement regardless of the children they serve.

Two-thirds of the states reviewed all clearly label district and school performance to Fordham’s satisfaction, and 37 states focus on student growth instead of just on improvements in student proficiency, ensuring to the think tank’s satisfaction that the “high-achieving students” it cares most about are being served. Declares Fordham: “states, by and large, seized the ESSA opportunity to make their school accountability systems clearer and fairer.”

Your editor isn’t exactly shocked about Fordham’s happy talk. After all, the conservative think tank long opposed Adequately Yearly Progress because it focused states on improving achievement for the 64 percent of children (many of them poor and minority) who are poorly-served by American public education. This despite ample evidence that focusing on achievement gaps helps all children — including high performers — succeed academically. So it isn’t a shock that Fordham favors accountability systems that focus less on how well school operators are helping the most-vulnerable. Put simply, Fordham continues to embrace neo-eugenicist thinking long proven fallacious (as well as immoral) that fails to acknowledge that American public education’s legacy practices are not worth preserving.

The flawed thinking is more than enough to render Fordham’s analysis suspect. But there are other problems with the analysis that render it all but useless.

For poor and minority children, strong accountability tied to consequences and clear, high-quality data, matters a lot.

There’s the fact that the rating systems may not actually be as “clear” in identifying school and district performance as Fordham wants to think. This is because the think tank didn’t fully look at how the underlying formulas for measuring achievement will actually play out.

Consider Maryland, the home state of Dropout Nation (as well as that of Fordham President Michael Petrilli, his predecessor, Chester Finn, Jr., who now sits on the state board of education there, and former colleague Andy Smarick, who is president of that body). Fordham rates the Old Line State’s proposed rating system “strong” for being simple and clear with a five-star system that “model immediately conveys to all observers how well a given school is performing”.

But as Daria Hall of the Education Trust noted at a conference last month, a district or school in the state can still receive a five-star rating under the state’s ESSA plan despite doing poorly in improving achievement for Black or Latino children under its care. One reason: Because neither proficiency nor test score growth count towards more than 25 percent of a district’s rating, effectively hiding how districts are actually improving student achievement. Another lies in the fact that while the state will measure all subgroups, it doesn’t explain how it will account for each within the ratings.

Then there’s Maryland’s Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency and growth targets, which essentially allow districts to not work toward 100 percent proficiency for all children. The state only expects districts to improve Black student achievement from 23.9 percent in 2015-2016 to 61.9 percent by 2029-2030 (versus 52.9 percent to 76.5 percent over that period for White peers). This means that districts are allowed to subject Black and other minority children to the soft bigotry of low expectations. Add in the fact that the Maryland’s ratings don’t account for how districts and schools are preparing kids for success in traditional colleges, technical schools and apprenticeships that make up American higher education, and the rating system is not nearly as clear as Fordham declares.

This lack of clarity isn’t just a Maryland problem. As Bellwether Education Partners notes in its review of state ESSA plans, the addition of multiple measures of district and school performance (including chronic absenteeism indexes that aren’t broken down by subgroup) means that the rating systems will likely be a muddle that ends up hiding how well or poorly school operators are serving children. This muddle is likely the reason why only Tennessee and Louisiana were able to provide data showing how their ratings would identify failure mills, as well as improvements in student achievement for poor and minority children, in real time.

Another problem: Many states are using super-subgroups (now called supergroups under ESSA), a legacy of the Obama Administration’s shoddy No Child waiver gambit, that essentially lumps all poor and minority children into one category. Because super-subgroups lump children of different backgrounds into one category, the measure hides a district’s failure to help the worst-served children succeed and thus, allows it to not address its failures. Put simply, a state rating system can be simple and clear and yet still not tell the truth about how districts and schools are serving every child in their classrooms.

Accountability is more than just a school rating system. Consequences must be tied together with data and standards for children, families, and taxpayers to be served properly. [Image courtesy of the Education Trust.]

One state using super-subgroups is Florida, whose school rating system uses super-subgroups instead of thoroughly accounting for Black, Latino and other poor and minority children. Essentially, without accounting for either proficiency or growth for each group, the ratings will not fully inform anyone about how well districts are serving children.

The deliberate decision to ignore how districts and schools serve the most-vulnerable (along with the Sunshine State’s request to not use test data from its exams for English Language Learners in accountability) has led Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, along with a group that includes EdTrust, NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, and UnidosUS, to ask U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to reject the entire proposal. By the way: Fordham ranked Florida’s school rating system as “strong” in two out of three categories it analyzed.

But the biggest problem with Fordham’s analysis is that continues to embrace a flawed theory of action: That mere transparency suffices as a tool for accountability and, ultimately, holding school operators (and ultimately, states) responsible for fulfilling their obligation to help children succeed.

This approach, which Fordham first embraced during the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards, is based on the idea that only high-quality data on district, school, and even teacher performance is needed for policymakers and others within states to hold bad actors accountable. Essentially, there will be no need for the federal government to force states to fulfill their responsibilities to children, as it did through No Child’s AYP provision.

But as seen with the failed effort to implement Common Core-aligned tests produced by the PARC and Smarter Balanced coalitions, transparency-as-accountability only works if the mechanics are in place. School rating systems aren’t useful if the underlying data doesn’t actually reflect what is actually happening in schools. This will clearly be problems in Maryland and Florida, and will be just as problematic in other states. California, for example, was dinged by Bellwether in its recent round of reviews for failing to longitudinally measure student achievement, a better way to account for changes in school populations over time. [This, in turn, is a result of Gov. Jerry Brown’s moves over his tenure to sabotage the state’s school data system.]

School rating systems and other forms of transparency are also insufficient in spurring accountability if there aren’t consequences for continuous failures to meet the grade. Accountability as Sandy Kress, the mastermind behind No Child, points out, is a three-pronged approach that includes consequences as well as high-quality standards on which school ratings (and the measuring of improvements in student achievement) are to be based. Few states have explained in their ESSA plans how they would force districts and other school operators to overhaul their schools or shut them down altogether and let children go to high-quality charter and district options.

The high cost of the rollback of accountability will be felt by the next generation of children — and even harm the beneficiaries of No Child’s now-abolished Adequately Yearly Progress regime who are now in our high schools.

Few states are going beyond the federal requirement to identify the lowest-performing five percent of schools. Louisiana, for example, plans to go above and beyond by identifying (and forcing the overhaul) of the 17 percent of schools that are failure mills, while New Mexico requires districts to use an array of approaches to turn around low-performing schools. California, on the other hand, hasn’t even submitted a plan on how it will identify failure mills much less hold them accountable. [It supposedly plans to do so by January.]

It gets even worse when it comes to how states will ensure that districts provide poor and minority children with high-quality teachers. As the National Council on Teacher Quality details in a series of reports released Tuesday, just seven states offer timelines on how it will improve the quality of teaching for Black, Latino, English Language Learners and other vulnerable children, as well as the rates by which it will improve teacher quality for them. Given that teacher quality isn’t even a measure in any of the proposed school rating systems, states have missed an important opportunity to bring transparency and consequences to their public school systems.

Given that so few states are being concrete about how it will help kids stuck in failure mills succeed, the school ratings will be little more than some stars and letters on computer screens.

Two decades of research have proven that accountability works best when there are real, hard consequences for districts and schools failing to improve student achievement. No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress provision, which worked alongside accountability systems states either already developed or had put in place after the provision was enacted, spurred improvements in student achievement that have led to 172,078 fewer fourth-graders being illiterate in 2015 than in 2002, the year No Child became law.

Yet what ESSA has wrought so far are school rating systems that are likely to do little on behalf of children who deserve better. The benefits of clear data tied with real consequences have now been lost. If accountability is only toothless transparency, then it is neither sufficient nor necessary to help all of our children succeed in school and in life. There is no good news to be had. None at all.

Featured illustration courtesy of St. Louis Public Radio.

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Diane Ravitch Has No Shame

It’s been long ago proven that Diane Ravitch no longer deserves to be taken seriously. Over the past few years, the once-respectable education historian has discredited herself with factual inaccuracies and…

It’s been long ago proven that Diane Ravitch no longer deserves to be taken seriously. Over the past few years, the once-respectable education historian has discredited herself with factual inaccuracies and and logical misfires in her sophistry. At the same time, she has disgraced her own legacy with incidents such as the attempt two years ago to politicize the massacre of 23 teachers and children at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., as well as wrongly tarring former energy trader and school reform philanthropist John Arnold as a participant in the frauds committed by executives at the now-defunct Enron. [To Arnold, she did apologize — a month later.]

So it isn’t shocking that Ravitch engaged in what can best be called cynical race-baiting (and, at worse, craven bigotry) with a piece she wrote on her eponymous blog bemoaning school reform advocate 50CAN’s hiring of new generation civil rights activist Derrell Bradford as head of its New York branch. After declaring in the original version of the piece that 50CAN was just “another of those fake “reform” groups”, Ravitch wrote that she wished Bradford would have gone into lines of work that some people would say is more-befitting a black man. Wrote Ravitch: “my fondest hope is that you find a different field, say, sports or finance or broadcasting, where your talents are needed.”

Apparently realizing that such a line may not go over too well with other people in this day and age, especially among some of the less-hardcore traditionalists and the progressives that make up part of her fan club, Ravitch revised the piece. But not before Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who has defended Ravitch in spite of her past misbehavior, called her out on the carpet for engaging in race-baiting. Ravitch has attempted to defend her statement by declaring that “I do not consider “sports” racist.” Her allies also attempted to white-wash her remarks. But Petrilli didn’t buy that statement. Wrote Petrilli: “You told a black man he should consider a job in sports. It’s OK to apologize.” [American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said she would do so if it was her who wrote it.] Bradford considered Ravitch’s words “unfortunate”. He’s a better person than Ravitch is.

Your editor would be disappointed in Ravitch — and yet, at the same time, forgiving — if this was the first time she engaged in such nastiness. To err is human and we will all make mistakes. But Ravitch has continuously engaged in intellectual charlatanism and rhetorical chicanery. So I’m not shocked at all that she did this. In fact, from her, I expect nothing less.

[Update: As you would expect, more of Ravitch’s fans, most-notably the teacher-writer whose piece led to Ravitch’s original commentary, are playing down and dismissing her remarks. Not exactly shocking. The most-hardcore of traditionalists are willing to embrace demagoguery, even racialism they declare that they claim to oppose, in order to sustain their ideology. Which, in turn, makes you wonder what they think about people of color, especially those with whom they disagree. And since many of Ravitch’s defenders also teach black and Latino children, makes you fear for the futures of our kids.]

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Education Absolutes Worth Thinking Over

The single-biggest problem in discussions about reforming American public education is that nearly all players think their belief is gospel. Both defenders of traditional public education’s status quo, and school…

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The single-biggest problem in discussions about reforming American public education is that nearly all players think their belief is gospel. Both defenders of traditional public education’s status quo, and school reformers hold certain ideas that they think lead to the one and only solution (or the most-important solution of all). The reality is that it will take a wide array of solutions — including ending the culture of mediocrity and disdain for data that permeates throughout our schools and districts today.

Dropout Nation has spent pages and podcasts taking down some of those viewpoints — including the notion that poverty is the underlying cause of achievement gaps and the nation’s dropout crisis, and that some kids are incapable of handling college prep curricula. At the same time, we have also made clear that school choice is just one imperfect (and sometimes incomplete) answer to solving our dropout crisis. Below are some more beliefs that are sorely mistaken: need to be embraced with other aspects of reform:

It’s All About Standards: Embraced by the standards and accountability types in the school reform movement (including supporters of the new Common Core State Standards), it’s based on a belief that more-rigorous curriculum standards will help in holding schools and districts accountable for results, in developing tests that actually measure what students are learning and in structuring better curricula and instructional practices. This certainly makes sense. After all, without standards for learning, schools, districts and states would simply continue with the decades of educational malpractice that has led to the current woes within public education.

The problem? Start with the reality that standards won’t mean much is school curricula isn’t aligned with them. Essentially, one can create rigorous standards and explain clearly what every child should learn — and it will be useless without assuring that the curricula follows according to them. This is a critical issue because so many of the curriculum developers are either skeptical of the underlying rationale for the standards or (wrongly)  any kind of curriculum standards whatsoever.

The second problem lies with how to ensure that that the standards are actually being enforced at the school level; essentially one will have to hope that everyone involved behaves honorably (unlikely) or that a state or federal agency will hold feet to the fire (which, based on past history, still means more gamesmanship). States have struggled with this challenge for decades. Thanks to the embrace of Common Core, this will now be a national struggle as well. While folks such as Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute dance around the issue by arguing that a national non-profit board can handle the job, past experience (including that of the U.S. Department of Education with some provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act) suggests otherwise.

Ultimately, you must still improve teacher quality (along with developing more-rigorous and aligned curricula) in order to make all this work.  This means ed schools must be overhauled in order to better recruit and train teachers. It also means expanding the pool of alternative teacher training programs, and expanding Teach For America and other existing programs.

It’s All About Curriculum: The flip-side is the line of argument advanced by Robert Pondisco and his employers at Core Knowledge, among others. It is based on a couple of rather seductive notions with the usual rings of truth. The first: That teachers are only as good as the curriculum they use in instruction. The second: That standards are meaningless without strong content that provides students both with skills and background knowledge

But as with so many beliefs, rings of truth  doesn’t mean absolute truth. Forget for a moment that none of the groups actually agree on which curricula is best for improving student achievement in any subject (much less all subjects): The  curriculum-is-the-solution crowd forget that curricula doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is shaped by a series of underlying standards, goals and beliefs; it is taught by teachers who must have the subject-matter competency, entrepreneurial drive and care for the lives of children needed to be good instructors; and the underlying rigor (including teacher and curriculum evaluation) must be reinforced by  strong, thoughtful principals and superintendents. If the curricula is divorced from standards, then it will be ineffective and will cause systemic problems up and down the line (including frustrating efforts to evaluate teachers and the most-important matter of all — ensuring every child learns). If the curricula is taught by lousy teachers, the kids won’t learn. And if school leadership doesn’t do its job of fostering a culture of genius, high-quality curriculum will become low-quality in an instant.

As standards is only one part of the formula for school reform, so is curriculum. Standards and curricula both need to be of high-quality in order to be worth their respective salts. And you need systemic reforms in place in order to assure that the curricula does its job.

It’s All About  Economic Desegregation: The usual line trotted out by the Jerry Orfield-Richard Kahlenberg crowd is one based on the Civil Rights Movement concept of integration and busing. Minorities and the poor, according to this view, can’t receive the same quality of education as their white middle-class peers unless they attend school with these peers. Based on this logic, it’s better to just ship poor kids to the schools attended by middle class kids instead of improving the quality of schools in poor neighborhoods.

Kahlenberg in particular has spent the past two decades trotting out studies and school districts that supposedly prove this line of thinking. A couple of decades ago, it was Wake County, N.C. (even though its achievement gaps were never truly closed and the desegregation effort involved only a smattering of all students). These days, it is the D.C. suburb of Montgomery County, Md., the subject of a recent report by Heather Schwartz, a Rand Corp., researcher brought in by  Kahlenberg’s employer, the Century Foundation. This, despite the fact that Montgomery County (in which only 65 percent of black males graduate from high school, according to the Schott Foundation  for Public Education) isn’t exactly the model Kahlenberg and Schwartz claim it to be.

What I’m saying, to be kind, is that Kahlenberg and Orfield are touting a strategy (originally developed by an earlier generation of civil rights activists out of political necessity) that hasn’t worked in improving student achievement. If anything, integration has done more to keep poor and minority kids from getting high-quality education in their own neighborhoods. Magnet schools, for example, haven’t

The biggest problem with integration is that it tacitly argues that there is no way to improve the quality of education our poorest kids receive in their own neighborhoods; in essence, no one should bother reforming education so poor kids can have high-quality schools in the communities in which they live. This view ignores the success charter schools operators such as the Knowledge Is Power Program and Catholic diocesan schools in improving student achievement right in those very neighborhoods. There are other words for it, but we’ll keep them out of this family publication.

Integration is no substitute for complete, systemic and much-needed overhaul of American public education.

It Comes Down to Working Things Out at the School Level: A good number of folks, including Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, articulates this perspective (which is what used to be called site-based or school-based decision-making). From where they sit,  school bureaucracies, policymaking bodies and legislative edicts merely set up a framework for school activity — and not even a good one at that. Ultimately, the people best-suited to deciding school activities — from curriculum to hiring, evaluating and compensating teachers — are school principals,  who are closest to the ground. This perspective makes sense on its face: No matter how robust the school data system or well-informed the superintendent or state legislator, these players aren’t anywhere near the classroom and cannot observe every bit of activity that happens daily in schools.

But the school-based decision-making viewpoint ignores the complex structure that is American public education, one in which hiring and firing decisions are made not by principals and not even by superintendents, but largely controlled by collective bargaining agreements, state laws and federal and state regulations. Moving all teacher hiring-and-firing decisions down to principals (a move taken in New York City) definitely helps

If we moved to a private sector-driven education system, fully decentralized all districts or even adapted the Hollywood Model — my formula for reforming governance and delivery of education — then the site-based approach would work. Until then, we must reform every aspect of American public education in a systematic way.

You have to make all teachers better: This belief, held by many teachers union officials and teachers such as 2009 California Teacher of the Year Alex Kajitani and David B. Cohen, assumes that every teacher is capable of high-quality instruction. From where they sit, teachers need help developing their classroom instruction. Performance management should not use objective student performance data (especially test data) for hiring and firing teachers; instead, evaluations (along with so-called peer review) should be used to help laggards get better.

Nothing wrong with trying to believe that. But in the real world, some folks just aren’t fit for certain jobs. This doesn’t mean that they are terrible people and it doesn’t mean they can’t be successful in other lines of work. What it does mean that they won’t do a good-to-great job — be they lack the skills, talent, temperament or desire — in a particular field. No matter how much additional training or assistance they receive, they won’t do any better. Teachers are no exception. An instructor is no more successful in improving student achievement after 25 years of teaching than an instructor working for four years, according to a report by Dan Goldhaber and Michael Hansen of the Center for Reinventing Public Education. This means that a teacher that is poor-performing after four years in the classroom is unlikely to get any better 21 years down the line (and vice versa for her high-quality colleague). Given everything that we know at this moment about the impact of high-quality and low-quality teaching, we can’t afford to continue exposing kids to instruction by teachers who don’t make the grade.

Teachers union bosses and teachers have to face this reality: Many of of their colleagues lack either the subject competency, empathy for children, or entrepreneurial zeal needed to be high-quality teachers. Quite a few lack all three characteristics. They are all too willing to mire themselves, their students and their colleagues in mediocrity in order to collect their paychecks. These teachers cannot be made better. The best solution is to improve how we recruit and train teachers, and develop performance management systems that separate good-to-great teachers from those who aren’t.

Editor’s Note: Originally, I had mentioned that Core Knowledge was opposed to standards. Robert Pondisco took time to note that Core Knowledge did support Common Core. For accuracy’s sake, I have made the proper correction. Apologies to all for the error.

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