Post & Courier: Education reform is deja vu all over again

Education reform is deja vu all over again

[with hyperlinks below]

I have taught in South Carolina since 1983, 18 years as an English teacher and coach followed by 17 years as a teacher educator and first-year writing professor. Over that career, I have felt exasperated by education reform that has proven to be déjà vu all over again.

A few years ago, I advocated against the misguided Read to Succeed Act, policy as flawed as I predicted since it failed to identify the evidence-based problems with reading in SC and then promoted new policy that does not address those problems while creating new and even worse consequences.

Read to Succeed also foreshadowed this newest round of wholesale education reform facing the state.

Since the 1980s, politicians in SC have insisted that our public schools are failing. Their responses, however, have meant that the only consistency in our schools is we are in a constant state of education reform repackaged over and over again.

State standards, state high-stakes testing, school choice, charter schools—these policies have been reframed repeatedly, and all we have to show for that is the same complaints about failing schools and decades of research revealing it’s policies that have failed.

Instead of misguided education reform beneath misleading political rhetoric, SC should take a different path, one shifting not only policies but also ideologies.

First, SC must clearly identify what problems exist in our schools and then carefully distinguish between which of those problems are caused by out-of-school factors and which are the consequences of in-school practices and policies.

For example, SC’s struggles with literacy are driven by generational inequities such as poverty and racism magnified by decades of misguided commitments to ever-changing standards, tests, and reading programs. Literacy outcomes in our state reflect how children suffer when families have low-paying work, endure transient lives, and are denied affordable insurance and healthcare.

Literacy outcomes also represent that once children enter schools, they receive distinctly different educations: Poor students, black and brown children, English language learners, and special needs students experience tracks and conditions unlike those of white and affluent students who are far more likely to have access to low class sizes in advanced courses and experienced certified teachers.

Next, SC must recognize that policies and practices based on accountability and market forces have failed our students and our schools. Instead, we need educational policy grounded in equity. Policies and practices grounded in equity and not accountability would insure that all children have access to experienced and certified teachers, low class sizes, and challenging classes.

Further, SC must acknowledge that teaching conditions are learning conditions. Teacher pay, teacher professionalism, teacher autonomy, facilities and materials funding and quality, student/teacher ratios—all of these are conditions that indirectly and directly impact whether or not teaching and learning can thrive in our schools. Yet, SC politicians remain determined not to make these choices while remaining committed to expensive and ineffective approaches such as standards, testing, and choice options, notably charter schools.

As a broad guide, then, SC must set aside inspirational rhetoric and partisan commitments and seek instead a wealth of educational expertise on both the need for social policy addressing inequity and reforming schools in ways that serve both teachers’ ability to teach and students’ equitable access to learning.

The problem in SC schools has never been about the presence or quality of our standards, what tests students have to navigate in order to survive schooling, or parental choice.

The harsh reality of our state includes poverty, racism, and disadvantages such as the scarcity of high-quality and stable work as well as affordable healthcare and housing. The harsh reality of our schools is that teaching and learning conditions are hostile to some students having equitable access to learning.

SC political leaders refuse to address those realities because they are too enamored with partisan politics as usual in a state tragically embracing the worst aspects of conservative ideology; once again as those myopic political leaders claim bold education reform, it’s déjà vu all over again.

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Charter Schools Fail SC: A Reader

Nationally, momentum has been building toward political and public recognition that the education reform movement begun in the early 1980s has fallen well short of promises. This failure was identified throughout the accountability era by educators and scholars, of course, but political leaders and the public chose to ignore those with experience and expertise in their own field.

The problem with the reform movement included a refusal to acknowledge the primary problems in our public schools—overwhelming poverty and inequity of opportunity along social class and racial lines—and ideological commitments to the accountability paradigm (standards and high-stakes testing as well as focusing on so-called teacher quality) despite that solution in no way matching those ignored problems.

A subset of that movement has been the rise of charter schools, which served to bridge a political divide between school choice advocates on the right and public school advocates on the left. Charter schools are touted as public schools, but they also are driven by many elements (the worse kinds) of market forces.

Even with charter school popularity, they constitute a very small percentage of schooling in the U.S. (data from Education Week):

  • Traditional public schools: 91,422 (2015-16, Source)
  • Public charter schools: 6,855 (2015-16, Source)
  • Private schools: 34,576 (2015-16, Source)

And thus: “According to data from three years earlier2.8 million public school students, or 5.7 percent, are in charter schools.”

Here is what we know about charter schools, then, messages repeated by educators and scholars for many years. Charter schools do not outperform public schools because they are charter schools (just as private schools do no outperform public schools).

When charter schools claim to outperform public schools, the reasons often lie in serving different populations (notably concerning ELL and special needs students), having the ability to select or counsel out students, and other policies and practices that public schools often cannot or do not implement (longer school days and years, for example).

Charter schools, like all school choice, contribute heavily to segregation—one of the serious problems lingering in public schools today.

Recent reporting at the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) may suggest the tide is also turning against charter school advocacy trumping evidence:

This media recognition matches messages I have been sending for many years, including damning analysis that charter schools in SC mostly perform the same or worse than comparable public schools:

And my analysis of two years of data on SC charter schools has shown:

  • Using 2011 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 3/53 ABOVE Typical, 17/53 Typical, and 33/53 BELOW Typical.
  • Using 2013 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 2/52 ABOVE Typical, 20/52 Typical, 22/52 BELOW Typical.

Here, then, is a reader to further reinforce how charter schools fail SC, particularly in terms of re-segregating a system long-plagued by race and class inequity:


See Also

Challenging the market logic of school choice: A spatial analysis of charter school expansion in Chicago, Stephanie Farmer, Chris D. Poulos, and Ashley Baber

ABSTRACT

Corporate education reformers take for granted that market competition in the public schools system will improve education conditions. We conducted a spatial analysis of Chicago Public Schools, examining the spatial features of charter school expansion in relation to under-18 population decline, school utilization, and school closure locations. Our findings indicate that 69% of new charter schools were opened in areas with significantly declining under-18 population and approximately 80% of charter schools were opened within walking distance of closed school locations. Our findings show, contrary to corporate education reform logic, that a competitive charter school market created spatial and financial inefficiencies resulting in school closures and systemwide budgetary cuts primarily impacting distressed neighborhoods. We explain the overproduction of charter schools through the lens of the firm-like behavior of charter school operators driven by a self-interested growth mandate that can undermine the stability of the public schools system as a whole.

When Ideology Trumps Evidence, Expertise

How do humans know the world? That answer is very complex, of course, but each of us begins understanding the world through our senses.

At the most basic level, we can explain “knowing the world” as an on-going interaction between our genetics and the experiences we gather from that world through our senses. As we mature, particularly as our brain develops, and thus our ability to use cognition (thinking), we are more able to think through our sensory perceptions (slow down and even change our responses) than merely react.

This dynamic is incredibly important as we try to understand the distinction between correlation and cause. Humans, however, are hostages to ancient evolutionary impulses that often contributed to our survival; in other words, in the earliest years of human existence, making abrupt causal assumptions (which may have often been mere correlation) were preferable to making more deliberate decisions because of the primary need simply to survive.

Contemporary humans not currently in dire environments or under the stress of poverty, oppression, or disease (for example) have the privilege of cognitive deliberation: Many of us in relatively stable and safe lives can (and should) be more careful about drawing causal or correlational conclusions, and thus, we should be far more deliberate about “knowing the world” based on more than our personal experiences and grounded in robust evidence while also resisting the allure of knowing the world through mere ideology.

In many of my courses, I ask students to consider all that by one simple thought experiment grounded in our sense of smell, “closely linked with memory.” I ask students to recall a first visit to a friend’s home and having the realization that other people’s houses smell different.

girl holding white flower covered with flower

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Many, if not most, students begin to nod and even smile, recalling the experience. I then ask them to interrogate how they reacted to the house smelling different, and we conclude that our urge is to think of the different smell as bad or wrong.

Here, I think, is a powerful example of how human experience, cognition, and ideology conspire to derail human potential.

Recently on Twitter, I joined a discussion about charter schools, specifically contentious debates about the charter chain KIPP:

Stepping back from the topic of charter schools itself and looking broadly at the nature of the advocacy for charter schools is a microcosm of the problem I noted above. Charter schools (6855) are a very small fraction of public schools (91, 422) in the U.S., and only 5.7% of students attend charter schools (see data here).

At one level, then, the public and political debate and discourse about charter schools are both disproportionate and distorted by advocacy driven by ideology and not evidence and expertise.

That dynamic is driven by a belief that charter and private schools are outperforming public schools, which have suffered under a very long history of being characterized as failing. Yet, research has shown time and again that type of schooling has no real causal relationship with so-called school quality; in short, charter, private, and public schools all have about the same outcomes when conditions of that schooling are constant.

When charter schools boast of superior outcomes, the truth lies in many factors—such as underserving significant populations of students or the ability to choose or “counsel out” students—that make a comparison with public schools misleading at best and false at worst.

The charter school phenomenon represents the problem with ideology driving public policy at the expense of evidence and expertise.

Now, as I noted, charter schools and students attending charter schools are relatively small populations, and thus in the grand scheme of funding and public policy, my discussion here may seem as disproportionate as the debate itself.

My concern is that the charter school dynamic is just one aspect of a much more insidious problem with the U.S. persisting as a belief culture, particularly in terms of the political and public faith in equity, equal opportunity, and our having reached some sort of post-racial (and post-racist) society.

If we dig deeper in the charter school debate and the persistent antagonism toward public schools, we see a powerful racial element. U.S. public schools now serve a majority-minority population of students (white students constitute 48.9%), and what we can say about charter, private, and public schools is that all types of schooling have witnessed an increase in segregation.

Beliefs about school quality must not be disentangled from beliefs about race.

Let’s place the charter school debate in how the public perceives racial equity. Blacks and whites grossly mischaracterize both historical racial inequity and current racial inequity.

As an interview with Michael Kraus details:

For instance, one question in the study asked: “For every $100 earned by an average white family, how much do you think was earned by an average black family in 2013?” The average respondent guessed $85.59, meaning they thought black families make $14.41 less than average white families. The real answer, based on the Current Population Survey, was $57.30, a gap of $42.70. Study participants were off by almost 30 points.

The gap between estimate and reality was largest for a question about household wealth. Participants guessed that the difference between white and black households would be about $100 to $85, when in reality it’s $100 to $5. In other words, study participants were off by almost 80 points. Participants were also overly optimistic about differences in wages and health coverage.

If we allow public policy to be driven by belief, we find no political motivation for that policy addressing the realities of racial inequity:

Michael Kraus argues that these misperceptions fit conveniently with the idea of the American dream—that every individual, regardless of background, can succeed with talent and hard work. “Those beliefs can lead us astray, can lead us to not see the world for what it is. There’s a lot of work that still needs doing if our economic reality is going to match up with our narratives of opportunity.”

The irony is that believing the American Dream already exists prevents the U.S. from attaining the American Dream of racial equity.

As an educator for almost four decades now, I must share a final thought on evidence. Despite my best efforts—for example when we try to examine evolution and how the U.S. compares with international acceptance of evolution—students remain themselves resistant to setting aside their beliefs and then embracing a more accurate understanding of the world based on evidence and expertise.

From corporal punishment, to school safety, and to grade retention, when I engage students or the public, most people remain committed to their beliefs and refuse to engage with evidence while often discounting expertise.

So the really sobering reality about how we know the world is that too many of us are failing the evolutionary curve toward knowing the world based on evidence and expertise instead of imposing our ideologies onto that world.

The consequences of this are dire, especially to the most vulnerable among us.


See Related

Unlearning the Lessons of Hillbilly Elegy, Stanley Greenberg

Conservative Politics Fails Public Education Redux

To be conservative is to resist change and to advocate for keeping things as they are.

In South Carolina, with its long history of conservative politics, culture, and religion, that means keeping the complaints the same (public education is failing) and keeping the solutions the same (disregarding that these solutions neither match the problems nor have worked in any way over the last thirty-plus years).

So here we go again, reported by Anna Lee at The Greenville News:

Greenville County legislators vowing to make education reform a top priority on Tuesday publicized an education agenda from the conservative Palmetto Promise Institute.

The Help Our Pupils Excel plan would reformat the state’s education system by addressing “root problems in finance structure, accountability and equity of opportunity for our rural schools,” members of the Greenville County House Delegation said in a letter to House Speaker Jay Lucas.

Lee outlines the reform plan as the following:

  • Streamline and fix South Carolina’s education funding formula. The current formula is overly complex, according to the Palmetto Promise Institute, and “research shows that there is zero connection between how money is spent and actual student costs.”
  • Cut bureaucracy and consolidate small and shrinking school districts with less than 2,500 students. These districts “simply must be incentivized or compelled to consolidate,” the institute said.
  • Provide more education options for parents and students. The plan calls for expanding VirtualSC, the state’s online public learning program, and to create education scholarship accounts, which would give parents direct access to their child’s state student funding formula. Parents could spend the money on approved services their child needs, such as therapy or tutoring, according to the institute.
  • Support teachers. The H.O.P.E. plan calls for more pay flexibility for districts to reward and retain teachers “based on talent and effectiveness, rather than only years-in-service or degrees.”

However, if you search the origin of this plan at the Palmetto Promise Institute, here are the eight grounding proposals:

  1. Let the Education Finance Act (EFA) work.
  2. Equitably fund all forms of public education [Note: charter schools are specifically identified.].
  3. Expand & codify exceptional needs scholarships & credits [“private school choice programs”].
  4. Enact Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).
  5. Unleash more online options.
  6. Create true public school open/option enrollment.
  7. Establish an Achievement School District (ASD).
  8. Incent excellence in teaching & school leadership. (Headings taken from Fast facts PDF)

While the headline repeats the refrain of the think tank, “bold,” the truth is that this plan is warmed over conservative ideology that has failed public education again and again.

Most of the reforms are just elements of school choice, charter school advocacy, and school takeover schemes (achievement districts)—each of which has been thoroughly discredited by research (the one element that apparently must be avoided in order to be “bold”).

Below is a reader, then, discrediting this plan, yet again, as baseless conservative ideology that is poised to exploit and further fail public education in South Carolina—not offer our students and our communities the equity of opportunity all people deserve in a free society:

In short, this so-called “bold” reform plan is nothing new. It is the same old mantra of pet conservative political projects SC and the entire nation have suffered under since the early 1980s.

For example, at the heart of the school choice advocacy, charter schools are no better, and often worse, than traditional public schools. Private schools (driven entirely by choice) are also no better than public schools.

Yet, charter schools and private schools contribute significantly to segregation and inequity—both of which are key sources of problems in public schooling in SC.

Broadly, school takeovers (achievement districts, etc.) and school choice create a great deal of churn, but have failed badly the promises made by conservative politicians.

Regretfully, this bogus plan has proven my recent prediction accurate; especially in SC, conservative politicians are doggedly bound to pointing fingers at the same problems, ones they themselves have allowed to fester and even made worse by repackaging and offering again and again failed conservative ideology as solutions in the form of a Trojan Horse named, this time, “bold.”

New Orleans RSD Mirage, Not Miracle: A Reader

The political/bureaucratic education reform machine that began with the bogus A Nation at Risk report under Ronald Reagan has been aided and abetted for almost 40 years now by the feckless mainstream media (MSM).

That education reform agenda has been a recurring pattern of overstated and unmerited polices grounded in ideology, but education reformers are powerful advocates, bolstering their reforms with more public relations than expertise; the MSM repeatedly falls for the hucksterism hook, line, and sinker.

In the ugly and harmful lineage of education reform “miracles”—Texas, Chicago, Washington DC, Tennessee, etc.—comes the new darling of education reform mirages, New Orleans:

Not surprising, but always disappointing, is that education-related media remain deeply misleading, and thus, complicit in an education reform movement more dedicated to dismantling than reforming universal public education in the name of equity and democracy.

Since I have been refuting these “miracle” claims for many years, I offer here a reader to discredit the two claims above, and the lingering political, public, and media fascination with charter schools and take-over approaches to education reform:

 

Education’s Fatal Flaw: “[T]he considerable gap”

In my upper-level writing and research course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, students have been practicing critical discourse analysis of how media cover selected issues in education in order to compare that coverage to the research base on that topic.

They have recently submitted initial drafts of the major scholarly essay and are now drafting a public commentary drawn from the same analysis. One student in last evening’s seminar approached me with a question.

She was very concerned that her topic seemed to show a distinct disconnect between education policy and the research base, wondering if that was unique to her topic, and why that failure existed.

Her question came during the workshop time after we had read and discussed a recent public commentary of mine on school safety and the threat of gun violence as a model for their commentaries. I noted that her observation was accurate, and that it was not simply her topic, but common across all of public education—as I noted in my commentary that challenges popular school safety measures not supported by research

Coincidentally, I came across the next morning a Twitter thread about the broader failure in education to embrace progressivism:

While progressivism in education (often linked directly to John Dewey) has been routinely blamed for causing educational failure, as Alfie Kohn has addressed, the reality is that education has failed progressivism:

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

Kohn’s analysis is a mere decade old, and if anything, his observations have intensified as the U.S. continues to double-down on traditional and technocratic practices such as standards and high-stakes testing.

However, if we look back to 1942, Lou LaBrant exposed the exact same dynamic grounded in a public outcry over low literacy among men enlisted in the military:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits the blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive” schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

Just 5 years later, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

“[T]he considerable gap” between policy/ practice and research has, then, defined public education throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Again, as I confront about fortifying schools against gun violence and the research base on those so-called safety measures, practices such as grade retention and even corporal punishment [1] remain policy all across the U.S. despite decades of evidence overwhelmingly rejecting their use. Grade retention, for example, has been formally refuted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet states continue to adopt grade retention based on high-stakes tests for third graders.

As LaBrant challenged decades ago, literacy today is failing students because policy remains anchored to discredited practices and ideologies such as the “word gap,” reading programs, leveled texts, isolated phonics and grammar instruction, and test-prep.

Possibly one of the most troubling examples of this phenomenon is the relentless and bi-partisan obsession with charter schools, especially the abusive practices found in so-called “no excuses” charters. As this review details,

A report, Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap, finds that, though charter schools on average perform no better than traditional public schools, urban “no-excuses” charter schools—which often use intensive discipline to enforce order—demonstrate promising results. It recommends that these schools and their practices be widely replicated within and outside of the charter school sector. We find three major flaws with this conclusion.

This endorsement of “no excuses” charter schools, again, simply ignores the broader research base that cautions against charter schools broadly and “no excuses” practices more specifically.

So, as I answered my student’s insightful question, I noted a few important ways to understand “the considerable gap” between policy/practice and research.

First, educators—unlike doctors and lawyers, for example—have never controlled the field of education. Public education has always been hostage to partisan politics and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Let me caution here that I am not making a narrow Libertarian swipe at “government” schooling—since we are government—but acknowledging that just as education has failed progressive and critical theory and practice, public institutions have mostly failed the promise of democratic government because of partisan politics and bureaucracy.

Next, and related, the evidence vacuum that exists in the dynamic between political leaders and the public, again, can be witnessed in the school safety debate. Politicians both speak to and perpetuate public misconceptions about fortifying school—the public’s irrational trust in armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors (all of which have been shown to make schools more dangerous, not safer).

But that same evidence vacuum occurs throughout the adoption and implementation of education policy.

LaBrant’s 1947 unmasking of “the considerable gap” ends with her imploring English teachers and NCTE:

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)

As teachers strike across the U.S. in 2018, let’s us carry LaBrant’s message forward because the only hope that exists for our schools and the students they serve is to close the gap by allowing teachers as professionals to practice our field guided by the evidence too long ignored by the political bureaucracy that has defined public education for more than a century.


[1] The list of ideologies and practices that represent “the considerable gap” is far too long to include in the discussion above, but here are many of the key ones worth recognizing: “grit,” growth mindset, merit pay, VAM, standards, and high-stakes testing. Please refer to the Categories in the right menu for posts related to each of these.

Segregation Surprise?: How Public and Charter Schools Have (Always) Failed

On social media, I witnessed charter advocates try to justify the exact failures Andre Perry unmasks in his Charter school leaders are complicit with segregation, and it’s hurting their movement, where he concludes:

Make no mistake, segregated schools of the past and present are a result of horrible policy choices that most people are willing to accept. There is a reason that after more than 20 years, the research is mixed on charter schools. Schools in black and brown communities were built on broken foundations — i.e., segregation. By not addressing segregation, reformers are turning off the stove when the house is going up in flames.

Perry was having none of it, the apologists’ dissembling, but was far more patient and willing to engage this nonsense than I.

I also have no energy left to revisit this again, except to point out that finding it surprising that both traditional public schools and charter schools are failing the most vulnerable populations of students—often black, brown, poor, speakers of home languages other than English, and having special needs—requires being willfully ignorant of decades of evidence.

And thus, what the rabid edureformers have willfully ignored for quite some time:

Made in America: Segregation by Design

Segregation and Charter Schools: A Reader

Public School, Charter Choice: More Segregation by Design

Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam

Racial segregation returns to US schools, 60 years after the Supreme Court banned it

Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era

As Perry confronts, edureformers are embodiments of one of the most powerful warnings from James Baldwin: