ESEA Reauthorization – Beware – What’s on the Table and What’s under the Table

I’ve been watching the heated debate about the ESEA reauthorization process and standardized testing.   The joint statement by the AFT and the Center for American Progress is clearly problematic for those who want to end the onslaught of testing in public schools and represents an about face of the AFT.  And the call for maintaining standardized testing as part of the reauthorized ESEA by civil rights groups has the potential to thwart efforts to minimize our country’s obsession with testing and data.  I’m not surprised by these actions.  The same things occur whenever federal education policies have been debated.  One thing is consistent, however.  Over the years, the monied lobby groups tend to prevail — not because what they seek is good for children, but because federal policies represent a whole lot of capital that can be exploited and used to increase the coffers of the private sector.  

It’s a good thing that Congress will hold hold hearings to discuss standardized testing.  At least there will be an official record of the concerns of citizens about the abuse of standardized testing and its impact on children, teachers, schools, and public education.  It’s a good start.  However, the AFT and the civil rights coalition have supplied corporate education reformers with a rationale for maintaining standardized tests as a key component of ESEA.  By framing the discussion about testing as an issue of equity, and by invoking the NCLB mantra of “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” the path for maintaining standardized testing is made clear — whether or not that path is paved with good intentions.  And never forget that standardized testing has proven to be very lucrative for free market corporate education reformers.  

But the conversation about standardized testing is on the table, visible for all to see.  There are, however, other ESEA policy issues at stake, too.  One education policy issue that will survive is the promotion of charter schools and funds for starting charter schools.  And that’s a good thing for the corporate education privatization movement.  I would argue, that they embrace the rancorous discourse regarding standardized testing because it takes the focus off of their real motive — privatization.  As I explained in a recent post about the domino effect and charter schools:

“… hedge fund managers and entrepreneurs aren’t so much concerned about [ academic achievement] in spite of their catch phrases, advertising slogans, and cliches.  They just want more charter schools full of students that bring with them a hefty sum of tax dollars.  I have a feeling that once charter schools dominate in the education sector, standardized test scores will become less consequential.  The Republican legislature is already hinting at a move to lessen the emphasis on standardized testing.  That only makes sense when you think about it.  Standardized testing is not demonstrating the superiority of charter schools over public schools.  So, standardized tests are less appealing than they were in the years leading up to NCLB, when choice proponents were convinced that public schools would be shamed into closing when they had to compete with charter schools.”

I fear that there is another big issue that the public is not aware of that is at stake in the ESEA reauthorization debate.  According to David DeShryer of Whiteboard Advisors,  “Sen. Lamar Alexander’s discussion draft bill provides new supplement, not supplant language that may have significant implications for the education market.”  To be clear, Whiteboard Advisors is in the business of promoting entrepreneurship in the policy arena.  Its co-founder is Ben Wallerstein who once served as an aide to David Kearns — the former Xerox CEO who worked with Diane Ravitch at the Department of Education under George H.W. Bush during the era in which choice, school vouchers, and charters gained solid footing as a potent education reform mechanism.  Whiteboard Advisors is a go-to source for business as a way to monitor federal and state governmental policies that favor their profit interest.  DeShryer explains how Lamar Alexander’s proposal for ESEA reauthorization would benefit private interests.  Title I funds, intended to “serve at-risk students in schools with concentrations of poverty,” could be tapped without oversight or accountability.  Alexander’s proposal “says that no district would be required to identify individual costs or provide specific services through a particular instructional method or setting in order to demonstrate compliance.”

DeShryer further states:

“The importance of the change cannot be overstated. Today, unless a school is operating a “school-wide” model, the test to ensure compliance is rather fact specific and burdensome – a gift to auditors and attorneys. That changes under this bill. A district need only to show that the methodology of getting state and local funds to its schools is clear and transparent enough to ensure that Title I funds are not used to supplant state and local dollars. Under that test, it does not matter if an innovative digital learning program benefits Title I eligible students and all other students in the district. It does not matter that the service can both address core instruction and remediation. These factors are not relevant to the founding formula compliance test, and this opens up the market and makes innovative school leadership much easier to realize.”

This has huge implications for schools, teachers, and, most importantly, students.  Congress is throwing a party, in the form of congressional hearings, to discuss standardized testing in the spirit of democratic and transparent discourse — setting the table for the issue they are willing to put on the table for discussion.  However, what is most important is what is going on under the table.  While invoking the equity argument to maintain standardized testing, what the AFT and the civil rights groups are not discussing is the fact that Lamar Alexander’s proposal for ESEA reauthorization could, in fact, deprive the students, who need Title I funds the most, of the resources they need to be successful.  An unfettered free market of education would certainly benefit one group the most — the businesses who market their services and wares to public schools.  Cha Ching!!!

For Poor Children, “It is the Economy, Stupid”

As I concluded the research for my upcoming book, The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy, I was left with the conviction that untangling and dismantling corporate free market education reform policies requires a citizen mass willing and able to speak truth to power.  Topping my list of recommendations for reclaiming our public schools in the U.S. is the following:

“When politicians or pundits begin a discussion with an assertion that the entire American public school system is a failure it is a clear indication that … they would rather target public schools for reform than engage in a meaningful discussion about how to eliminate poverty and larger social issues that are at the root of low academic achievement in some communities in America” (p. 210).

You see, for children, education reform should and must begin with efforts to eliminate poverty.  Those of us who have taught in high-poverty schools and worked with children who are the victims of our nation’s allegiance to free market economic policies know all too well that simply reforming schools and blaming teachers for low achievement doesn’t target what is really at the heart of low achievement.  A number of years ago, as I was interviewing an excellent veteran reading teacher in the Mississippi Delta, she made a poignant statement that I will never forget.  She was talking about her efforts to provide reading interventions in a school that served children living in extreme poverty.  She felt defeated and frustrated and, on this day, she was sad.  She said, “I’m trying to teach these children to read, and they’re trying to survive.”

Brett Dickerson, too, understands how high poverty rates impact students and teachers.  In August, he wrote “… schools with high poverty rates tend to wear down the best teachers and burn them out from the relentless pressures of poverty-related issues in their students.”

In my years in Mississippi working in high poverty schools I was keenly aware of how vulnerable and isolated children are when they live in impoverished communities — both urban and rural.  They are, indeed, trying to survive.  They are highly motivated to learn, but sometimes life just gets in the way.  It’s hard to concentrate when you don’t know if you’ll have anything to eat at home or you don’t know where you’ll be staying that night.  It’s hard to concentrate when your neighborhood is not a place where you can safely play.  So many of the children I taught talked about violence they’d witnessed first-hand and they were too knowledgeable about the drug culture that surrounded them every day.  On two separate occasions I saw children pick up freshly sharpened pencils and use them to pretend they were injecting themselves with drugs in the crooks of their little arms.  It broke my heart. These were very young children.  And they didn’t ask for the opportunity to be so worldly wise.

James Carville, President Clinton’s campaign manager is attributed with developing the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  It was a successful strategy and helped Clinton get elected.  However, four years later Clinton enacted his welfare reform strategy, prompting Clinton appointee Peter Edelman to publicly resign his position and write a scathing critique for The Atlantic entitled “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done.”  The nation should have listened when Edelman stated, “I am afraid … that along the way we will do some serious injury to American children, who should not have had to suffer from our national backlash.”  But the nation didn’t listen.  And children have suffered.  Peter Edelman’s wife, Marian Wright Edelman, is the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund.  The Edelmans met in 1967 when Peter accompanied Senator Robert Kennedy to the Mississippi Delta and witnessed first-hand the devastating poverty in the region.  Marion Wright, then working for the NAACP, accompanied Kennedy and her future husband, Peter Edelman, as they toured impoverished communities and homes.

Marian Wright Edelman has been a stalwart voice for poor children in the United States.  The Children’s Defense Fund ceaselessly advocates for children, publishing annual reports on the state of childhood poverty in our country.

Because, of course, for children, “it is the economy, stupid.”  And for Black children, the situation is dire.  In September, 2014, the CDF provided the following analysis of childhood poverty in the U.S.:

“Poverty data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on September 16, 2014 reveal that child poverty dropped significantly for the first time since 2000, from 21.8 percent in 2012 to 19.9 percent in 2013. While child poverty decreased for Hispanic, White and Asian children, Black children saw no decrease and continue to have the highest child poverty rate. Despite some decreases child poverty among all children remains at shamefully high levels. Nearly one in five children – 14.7 million – were poor in 2013, and children remain the poorest age group in the country. Although 1.5 million fewer children were poor in 2013, there were still 1.3 million more poor children than in 2007 before the recession began.”

No amount of education reform initiatives, grit studies, or no-excuse charter schools can overcome the unwieldy noose of poverty that strengthens its grip every day on the lives of poor and vulnerable children.  Peter Edelman began his article for The Atlantic with the statement, “I hate welfare.”  I do, too.  Most of all, I hate the need for welfare and I hate the fact that it is the children who suffer the most.  For one of the wealthiest nations in the world to have nearly 20% of its children living in poverty is a national disgrace.

I am sad, too, that our politicians and education policy makers continually point to teachers and schools as the institution that has the power to overcome childhood poverty.  We cannot.

ACT, Data, and Grit: Don’t You Want to Know if Your Kindergartner has the Right Stuff?

ACT wants to ensure that teachers have access to “actionable” data to improve instruction.  Apparently, access to actionable data means longitudinal P-16 data systems to track students from preschool through college so that students are prepared for the 21st century.  Teachers, schools, and districts need to “closely monitor student performance at every stage of the learning pipeline.”  It’s not enough to follow students’ academic success, either. According to the ACT, it is equally important to monitor behavioral habits that will ensure later postsecondary success.  These behaviors include “motivation, social engagement, and self-regulation.”  And it’s not enough to begin instilling these virtues in students as they enter middle or high school; the ACT asserts that it is necessary to begin as early as possible — in preschool.  Certainly, if ACT begins collecting data in preschool, by kindergarten it can be determined if students need remediation in the areas of motivation, social engagement, and self-regulation.  There’s a growing body of research to enable schools and teachers to begin the process of making sure that children — at the same time they are learning to tie their shoes, share toys, correctly name the letters of the alphabet, make a swing go back and forth without the assistance of another person, ride a bike, and speak in complete sentences — are prepared for college and careers.

Leading the charge of developing the research base to enable schools to gather the data to be used in these endeavors has been the Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania.  This is the lab that has developed the Grit Scales celebrated by Paul Tough in his widely popular book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  I read Tough’s book a few months ago.  The first few chapters of the book were compelling.  However, by the end of the book I realized that what he really learned from his research in the area of education, grit, and the hidden power of character was a contradiction in itself.  The reality is that children who come from money and comfort, who attend elite private schools, in fact need no grit at all to succeed.  On the other hand, children who come from poverty and insecure communities need all the grit available to overcome all the obstacles that are commonplace features in their lives.  And even then grit may not be enough to succeed academically — their grittiness may be channelled into other areas in order to make life bearable.  Tough’s book didn’t leave me so much in a state of dissonance, but with a level of discomfort at the obvious contradictions in his book.  Tough’s conclusions on one hand are so obvious — poor kids are trapped in a world not of their making and, therefore, will face extreme odds in their efforts to succeed.  The solution to disparities in academic achievement, according to Tough, is to overtly teach grit-oriented skills and behaviors to poor students.  On the other hand, it is clear that money and privilege create a world for some in which the world is full of possibilities.  These kids don’t need grit; they just need to follow their parents’ lead as they enter the world of college and careers.  So, does grit really matter?

The Duckworth Lab, under the leadership of Angela Duckworth, provides the road map for organizations like the ACT in developing a plan for measuring college and career readiness behaviors among young children.  While researchers at the lab may claim that they are simply continuing in the research already championed by psychologists for more than a century, their research agenda reveals the potential for misuse of their findings to impose on teachers, schools, and children practices that may very well be problematic and even harmful.

First, there is the very real potential for students to not only be labeled deficient based on their academic record, but also labeled as deficient for not being sufficiently motivated to learn and unable to persevere in tasks.  This is already happening at KIPP schools, whose leaders have partnered with Angela Duckworth in developing a report card for “predictive character strengths that are correlated to leading engaged, happy, and successful lives: zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity.”

A second potential problem with the Duckworth grit notion is a sense that the inferential statistics that the grit scales are based on are reliable in predicting success.  It positions the individual, and in this case children, as having the power to direct their own lives solely based on their possession of these traits.  While these character traits may be very good things to possess as an individual, I think it is clear that adults make policy decisions about economics, healthcare, employment, education, and national security that inhibit an individual’s ability to succeed.  Just ask college graduates who have amassed an average of nearly $30,000 in student loan debt and are having difficulties finding jobs if their level of grit has ensured their success.  They certainly had the grit it supposedly takes to earn a college degree, but that sometimes doesn’t make their entree into the career world any easier and doesn’t reduce their financial constraints as they try to being an adult life.  The Duckworth approach to success and happiness ignores the power of cooperative and collective action in making the world a better place.  Where on the KIPP report card is there any mention of cooperative action?  The only trait that moves beyond the individual is social intelligence and even that is defined in a way that doesn’t necessarily reflect a sense of shared community.  According to KIPP, social intelligence is measured as the ability to “find solutions during conflicts with others,” to show that “s/he cared about the feelings of others,” and to adapt “to different social situations.”  It is about individual actions, not about the health and well-being of the whole.

Third, and perhaps most troubling, is the potential of grit research to lead to stereotyping, bias, and racism.  The application of Duckworth’s research to children attending schools in low socioeconomic communities, schools which predominantly serve children of color, exacerbates discussions of how to improve the outcomes for these children.  It provides a convenient tool for blaming the children and their families for the social problems that inhibit their ability to succeed.  It diverts attention away from the structural factors that have left entire communities without jobs that pay a living wage, with crime and violence and a police state ready to counter with violence, and with the vestiges of a racist society that too quickly judges people based on the color of their skin or the language they speak.  The Duckworth Lab’s research statement should be a harbinger for all who care about education and children.  The research of Francis Galton, the father of the eugenics movement, is cited as providing a theoretical foundation for the lab’s research.  In the world of research, I suppose, all research is relevant in that it can be expanded upon, confirmed, or negated.  It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that Galton’s research formed the basis for the Nazi regime’s actions toward Jews and other ethnic groups, homosexuals, and those suffering from genetic and mental disorders. Angela Duckworth expands upon Galton’s research and, therefore, resurrects his name in the arena of research in human development. Whatever value the researchers at the Duckworth lab may find in Galton’s research, it is clear that his research was misused and had a catastrophic impact on humanity. So, why resurrect it now?  And why apply it to our most vulnerable citizens — the children who have no vote or voice in education policy decisions?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to say it again and again.  Data is not destiny.

Follow Deborah Duncan Owens on Twitter and Facebook.

So, Does the United States Really Love its Children?

In a nation that seems obsessed with comparing our educational achievement with other nations across the globe, I think it is fair to ask if our nation really does love its children.  It’s appalling that the U.S. is one of only three nations refusing to ratify the United Nations’ “Convention on the Rights of the Child” treaty.  The other two nations rejecting the concept of the rights of children are Somalia and South Sudan.  That’s really bad company!

Today is the 25th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the children’s rights treaty.  In spite of the fact that the Reagan and H.W. Bush administrations played a role in constructing the treaty and in spite of the fact that the U.S. is active all over the world in nation building and promoting democracy, we have refused to join hands with other nations across the globe in declaring that children have inalienable rights.

While on the campaign trail in 2008, Obama openly declared his support for the ratification of the children’s rights treaty, declaring, “It is embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land. It is important that the U.S. return to its position as a respected global leader and promoter of human rights. I will review this and other treaties to ensure that the U.S. resumes its global leadership in human rights.”  However, six years later, the rights of children seem to be another one of the dreams deferred.

The rationale generally provided for a failure to ratify the U.N. treaty typically revolve around concerns that it would erode U.S. sovereignty.  Some voices on the far right decry the U.N. treaty as part of a broad conspiracy to control our nation’s children.  Ironically,  in 1993 Phyllis Schlafly asserted that the U.N Convention on the Rights of the Child was designed in part to be a “grab for power over education.”  Schlafly wrote: Suppose Congress were to consider legislation to set up a procedure for the Federal Government (or the U.S. Department of Education) to define the content of the education of every child. Imagine the howls that would go up as parents and concerned citizens protest that Congress has no business prescribing school curriculum. From all sides, we would hear citizens reassert their dedication to local control of education. Private schools would express fear that they would become an endangered species.”

Well, Phyllis, the federal government did it and the howls weren’t so loud, were they?  As a matter of fact a number of your fellow conservatives have been the most stalwart proponents of the movement to erode local control of public schools, prescribe curriculum through national common core standards, and gift the corporate world with huge profits through efforts to privatize and “charterize” education.

Arguably, if the U.S. were to embrace the U.N. treaty and actually recognize the rights of children, it could impact the money-lenders, hedge fund managers, and corporate education reformers who can only seem to see the dollar bills that are atop every child in America.  Consider, for example, Article 12 of the treaty which states, “When adults are making decisions that affect children, children have the right to say what they think should happen and have their opinions taken into account.”  This is clearly not the case in the United States where children are subjected to hours and hours of standardized tests and are used as data producing machines.

All of America’s closest international allies have ratified the children’s rights treaty.  These are the countries that cause education policy makers so much angst when international education rankings are published.  Or maybe it causes them joy — because they can keep perpetuating the lie that our schools are a dismal failure and in need of continuous reform that translates into ready profit.

How would education policy change if we truly loved our children in the U.S. and formalized our declaration of love by recognizing that they have the same rights as children in countries like Finland, France, Germany, and Sweden?  Maybe this would, in the words of George W. Bush, help create a “kinder and gentler” nation for America’s children.  It would certainly be easier to enact policies that favor families, providing the impetus to fund universal preschool programs and affordable childcare.  It would certainly be easier to enact policies that help to eliminate poverty and result in genuine education progress.