2 Good Reasons Not to Endorse Senate’s ECAA: Standardized Tests and Charter Expansion

First, there is no language whatsoever that softens the blow of standardized testing for children.  None.  For children, all standardized tests are high stakes and, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter whether these tests are foisted on them by their state government or the federal government.  It still detracts from their education.  Standardized tests merely measure, sort, and label — they don’t educate.

Second, nearly 10% of the bill is devoted to the expansion of charter schools.  The entire bill is 601 pages.  The first 11 + pages consist of a table of contents.  That leaves 590 pages of text.  Fifty-five of those pages — nearly 10% — outline a plan to expand charter schools.  I think the record is clear that charter schools are problematic.  Remember — the charter school movement emerged from the voucher and choice movement.   Milton Friedman’s own foundation — The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice — claims the charter school movement as a boon to the free market, competition driven ideology of neoliberals.  Charter schools = privatization.

Question:  So, what further provides impetus in the move to privatization?

Answer:  A steady stream of standardized tests to support the faulty logic promoted by A Nation at Risk — and barely challenged — that our entire public school system (which Friedman labeled a monopoly and socialistic) is a failure and in need of constant systemic reform.

How can anyone who supports public schools and the children they serve support this legislation?  And I anticipate the final bill that emerges from the House and Senate conference committee will be worse.

 

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!!!

The Flipping of Education Policy: When Big Government Became a Good Thing and Local Control Became Bad

Several years ago my husband, Thomas Fiala, and I presented a paper at the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) conference regarding education policy.  President Obama had recently been elected and No Child Left Behind was choking the life out of public education. The steady drumbeat of free market privatization was clearly echoing across the nation.  Race to the Top was starting to boil across the country and its scalding corrosive steam was beginning to be felt.  Our paper explored the convergence of education policy discussions across the decades and we presented it at a political science conference because it was as much about the intrusion of economic policy and conservative ideology in the education arena as it was education policy.  The MPSA conference was an excellent venue for vetting our ideas.  Instead of preaching to the choir, we were talking with scholars from other disciplines who could challenge us and help us in our quest to understand how we ended up in this place and time with the federal government driving education policy — something that has been traditionally considered a local issue or, at best, in the hands of state governments to decide.

One of our discussants at MPSA posed an interesting question, asking, “How do you explain the fact that conservatives have always been opposed to centralized federal government and yet it was a Republican president who brought us the most far-reaching federal education policies in U.S. history?  How do you explain that?”  “Aaaah,”  We responded.  “That is the question that drives our research.”  Far from being definitive, our paper had opened up a number of questions that were not easy to answer.  And so we continued to delve into our research.

By 2014, the Common Core State Standards had become a lightning rod in the U.S. and was driving an angry groundswell of dissenters on both the political right and left.  While many conservatives were angry about the federal overreach in promoting a set of national education standards that were suspect by their very nature, many liberals were crying foul over the continued assault on public education and teachers, and an onslaught of standardized tests. And both sides were questioning the profit motive that was driving corporate influence in education policy.

The time was right to write The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy.  In this book I try to answer the question posed at the Midwest Political Science Association conference several years earlier.  While the key to understanding current education policy is acknowledging the powerful influence of conservative voices that have never missed an opportunity to criticize the very notion of public education since at least 1931 when Albert Jay Nock wrote The Theory of Education in the United States, to understand how these ideas became the wellspring of current education policy requires an examination of public policy in general. Conservative thinkers such as Nock and those who followed him, most notably free market economist Milton Friedman, were provided a national stage when President Reagan was elected.  And while Reagan’s first order of business in the education policy arena was intended to be the abolition of the federal Department of Education, the publication of the erroneous, misleading, and factually wrong report A Nation at Risk created a heady atmosphere among Reagan supporters that their conservative ideas could finally form the basis of national education policy in the years to come.  While ANAR did not immediately yield the fruit of their most cherished idea — vouchers and school choice — it did provide a platform for promoting the privatization of public education.  And the inflammatory report did provide the impetus for dismantling our nation’s public school system by creating a crisis mentality and promoting the zeitgeist that all our public schools are failing.  This zeitgeist has gone largely unchallenged, and when it was challenged in the early 90s with the Sandia Report, the administration of George H.W. Bush had the report buried so that it would never be publicly reported to the American citizens.

When a Democrat was elected as president, our nation had an opportunity to reclaim our nation’s public school system and celebrate the achievement of a nation that had for so long envisioned public schools as an arena for hope and equity.  Acknowledging that schools serve and reflect communities and that there was still so much work to be done to overcome structural problems like poverty, income disparity, racism, and unequal funding for public schools that interfere with a child’s educational attainment, we could have embarked on an era of genuine reform — both socially and educationally.  Instead, we placed our faith in Bill Clinton and understanding his public and education policies is essential if one is to understand the origins of the Common Core.  He opened the gate, through his allegiance to the free market and his adoption of third way politics, to corporate leaders who took a place at the head of the table in education policies.  And corporate leaders seized the opportunity with gusto.  As a result, Bill Clinton became the architect of what would become No Child Left Behind, which would be skillfully named by George W. Bush to reflect the trademarked motto (“Leave no Child Behind”) of Marian Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund.

Corporate leaders have been setting the agenda in education for several decades now.  They do not act in a conspiratorial way.  They were invited to the policy table and they have not left.  No one blinked an eye when they openly declared that they envisioned the education arena as a way to make huge profits.  They organized summits and conferences to plot their strategy.  Corporate leaders and think tank executives move freely between governmental appointments and private enterprise to expand their influence.  They act boldly and brush off any criticism about their actions because they can afford to do so.

A growing number of scholars have begun to acknowledge that governmental decision making in the U.S. has been corrupted by this third way of governance.  Mike Lofgren calls it the Deep State, explaining the phenomenon on the Bill Moyers show.  In deciphering the policies that have culminated in RTTT and CCSS, I think I now understand how we got here.  The question now remains — how do we get out of here?  How do we reclaim our public schools?   A first step, I believe, is reclaiming local control over public schools.  This we cannot surrender.  A growing number of education critics are arguing that local school governance is the problem.  We are seeing a growing trend in which entire school districts are being turned over to private management firms and the power of local school boards is being assaulted.  It is only at the local level, with democratically elected school boards, that we can complete the work of reclaiming public schools and address problems inherent with faulty standards, curricula, high stakes testing, teacher evaluation, data mining, and the other toxic policies emanating  from centralized authorities who long ago relinquished their responsibilities to corporations intent on using education policies as a way to make a buck on the backs of our children.  School boards have the power to drive the money lenders from the temple.  Of course, they must seize their power by collectively demanding that our elected officials restructure school funding so that school districts do not have to bow to the altar of state and federal officials to ensure that their children receive equitable funding for their public schools.

Christopher Lubienski’s Review of The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy

I am indebted to Christopher Lubienski for taking time to review my book, The Origins of the Common Core:  How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy.  I consider his scholarship to be a valuable resource for anyone engaged in the quest to reclaim the democratic institution of public education in the U.S.  His book The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools (co-authored with Sarah Theule Lubienski) provides much needed insight into the failure of market-based education reform efforts.  Dr. Lubienski is a professor of education policy, organization and leadership at the University of Illinois.

I felt very honored to read Dr. Lubienski’s review of my book on the Palgrave Macmillian website:

“This timely book goes beyond the tired debates about the Common Core State Standards and asks instead: How did we get here, with self-appointed “reformers” casting public schools as the enemy, and unproven market models for education as the answer? This comprehensively documented treatment of that question proves that Deborah Duncan Owens is a voice to be reckoned with in education policy debates.” – Christopher Lubienski, Professor of Education Policy, University of Illinois, USA; Sir Walter Murdoch Visiting Adjunct Professor, Murdoch University, Australia; and author of The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools (2014)

Again, thank you, Dr. Lubienski!

Deb

Public Schools as Public Freedom

By Thomas J. Fiala

I was just reading a review of Francis Fukuyama’s new book Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy” published in 2014. The review appeared in the October 2014 issue of The Atlantic and was written by Michael Ignatieff, the Edward R. Murrow Professor of the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Recall it was Fukuyama who became famous in 1989 when he wrote an essay entitled “The End of History.” Ignatieff’s insightful and well written review of Fukuyama’s new book in the Atlantic is the reason I have already ordered my copy. More specifically, however, what did I find interesting in this review that made me “shell out the cash” for this book?

Ignatieff tells us that while Fukuyama believed that “history as we knew it had ended with the victory of liberal-democratic capitalism over Communism … Fukuyama wondered … whether citizens in the newly hegemonic West would lose spiritual and moral purpose now that the all-defining conflict with Communism was over.”

But what Ignatieff then says is what really made me think about capitalism and a free market approach to governance, and in particular how all this related to the current assault on America’s institution of democratic public schools. Again, quoting Ignatieff, “Capitalism did win in 1989– no credible alternative has emerged – but capitalism did not lead to liberal democracy.” (Interestingly enough 1989 was the first year of the governor’s conference on education that many would argue really opened the gates (no pun intended) for free market education reform initiatives.) Now here is where Ignatieff starts to pique my interest a little bit more! He states, “Market systems turned out to be politically promiscuous: they could share a bed with any number of political regimes, from Nordic democracies to Singaporean meritocracies. In Xi Jinping’s China or Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Western liberal democracy now faces a competitor Fukuyama did not anticipate: states that are capitalistic in economics, authoritarian in politics, and nationalist in ideology.” Now here is what really caught my attention and something I’ll have to think a great deal about as I read Fukuyama’s new book!!! Quoting Ignatieff again, “These new authoritarians are conducting an epoch-making historical experiment as to whether regimes that allow private freedoms can endure when they deny their citizens public freedoms.”

Now maybe I am way off when I say this – although I don’t think so – but to me America’s locally controlled public schools are an example of one of those public freedoms. Consider, for example, the last thought in The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free market Became Public Education Policy:Public schools are not government schools, nor are they corporate free market schools. Public schools belong to the public. Public schools are citizen schools, and it is now up to citizens to re-claim what is theirs!

Now supposedly Fukuyama still believes, according to Ignatieff that “history still has a democratic destiny … and the prospects for democracy globally remain good.” But now Ignatieff really gets me thinking about education reform in the United States and how we are going to help – or not be able to help – students living in poverty. He explains that “this assessment depends greatly on the global rise of the middle class.” As Harvard theorist Barrington Moore Jr. proclaimed, “No bourgeois, no democracy.”

I along with many who are reading this blog would agree with this statement. And if this is the case, then America is really in trouble considering that America’s middle class has been shrinking at an alarming rate since Reagan became elected president and Democratic presidents after Reagan often acted more like Republicans particularly when it came to adhering to free market ideas regarding education reform. It seems, particularly when it comes to the creation of education policy, this is an example of governmental and corporate mutualism. This way of governing is but an illusion of liberal democracy in action, and instead reflects a free market political authoritarianism that seeks to take decision-making, in the case of public schools, away from democratically elected school boards. I would argue that America’s public schools are an example of citizens’ public freedom. And when the federal government became allied with free market education reformers in a for-profit education government and corporate mutualistic love-fest, many citizens who understand the importance of public schools in America’s pluralistic democracy became irate! As Ignatieff explains, “… people become insulted when authoritarian systems of rule treat them as disobedient children.” Fukuyama observes that “there is a crisis of representation” leaving millions of Americans convinced that their politicians no longer speak for them.

When it comes to the current state of education reform in the United States, and the corporate free market assault on America’s democratic institution of public schools with the support of central government authoritarianism, clearly it is time for America’s citizenry to reclaim what is theirs – their locally controlled democratic public schools!

Ya know” – come to think of it – I am also going to read Michael Ignatieff’s Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics.” I think that both of these books seem like a wise purchase for all American citizens to further understand what is going on in America!

Why I Wrote “The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy”

My book will be released next January by Palgrave Macmillan.  It represents a number years of research which began when I was an elementary public school teacher in Mississippi.  What originally began as an inquiry into the voucher movement emerged throughout the implementation of No Child Left Behind and the introduction of the Common Core State Standards and Race to the Top policies.

http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/the-origins-of-the-common-core-deborah-duncan-owens/?isb=9781137482679

It’s Sunday morning and my husband, Thomas Fiala,  and I are listening again to an interview with David Berliner that was posted on Chalk Face radio last summer.*  Berliner has been a valuable voice in education policy for quite a number of years.  The book he wrote with Bruce Biddle in 1995, The Manufactured Crisis, is an essential read for anyone attempting to understand education policy history.  I read The Manufactured Crisis when it was first released.  It remains on my bookshelf, now highlighted, annotated, and a little worse for wear — an enduring valuable resource.

David Berliner was asked by Shaun Johnson, how do we go about having a conversation with our teacher colleagues about what’s happening in education?  Berliner basically said, by somehow getting enough people to talk about it will get the conversation going.  I found it interesting that the interview began with the notion that we need to get a conversation going, given that the blogosphere seems to be well populated with voices opposing Race to the Top policies and the Common Core.  Grassroots movements, such as the opt-out movement, have indeed been fueled by the blogs.  However, it’s hard to stop a freight train, particularly when it carries a cargo laden with millions of federal RTTT dollars and a slew of free market devotees poised to make huge profits from charter school expansion policies, creating data mining systems, publishing and administered standardized tests, and promoting Teach for America and alternate certification paths for teachers.  Well funded conservative think tanks have dominated education reform discussion for many years and they continue to fuel the education reform freight train, persevering in efforts to free-marketize and privatize public education.

The grassroots movement to address failed education policies certainly lack the financial resources of those who are actually making education policy in the U.S.  To the billionaires who have a seat in policy discussions, the blogosphere represents a swarm of mosquitoes biting at their heels, which they too often seem to easily swat away. Will grassroots efforts have an impact?  YES!!  Certainly, for example, the opt-out movement has the power to impact education policy — and it doesn’t cost a thing to simply refuse to take a standardized test.

One of my motivations in writing the Origins of the Common Core was to do my part in helping to get a meaningful conversation started.  However, I wanted to not only get teachers involved in the conversation, but to get all citizens involved who support their public schools and local control over those public schools, something that Berliner indicated was important.  I realized that what was needed was a coherent story that helped explain how we ended up in this place and time in education policy history.  On March 2, 2014, as I was completing my book, Diane Ravitch spoke at the first Network for Education conference in Texas, echoing my thoughts.  In her speech she explained, “The problem that liberals have is liberals believe that facts will persuade people.  Conservatives understand that stories persuade people, so we must have our story.  We already have the facts. … There is no question that the facts are on our side.  But we have to shape the narrative. … So its very important that we shape our narrative to say we’re defending American democracy, we’re defending the children, we’re fighting for what’s right.  We have the narrative.  We’ve got to think about our rhetoric and get the story to the public …”.**   In writing this book I have tried my best to accomplish this task.

Over the years, as I transitioned from elementary teacher to teacher educator, first at Arkansas State University and now at Elmira College in New York, I continued to try to make sense of what was happening in education policy. Why is America so convinced that our public schools are a failure?  Why were the dominant voices in education policy coming from conservative think tanks, continuously promoting school choice, high stakes standardized testing, VAM teacher accountability models, the erosion of local public school governance, and national standards?  And in spite of the voices of scholars like David Berliner, Susan Ohanian, Alfie Kohn, Patrick Shannon, Joel Spring, and Gerald Bracey, to name just a few, who for many years warned the American public that we were on the wrong track, the freight train of systemic education reform continued at break neck speed.  Nevertheless, the voices of these giants should be heeded as never before!  Seamlessly, however, from one presidential administration to the next, education policies were re-hashed, re-framed, re-named, and foisted on the American public.  I breathed a sigh of relief when Barack Obama spoke along the campaign trail about the problems associated with high stakes testing and promised to address these issues once he became president.  It soon became obvious, however, that President Obama would heed the siren song of free market ideas in the education arena.  His appointment of Arne Duncan solidified his position and, once again, the U.S. would continue its quickstep march toward free market education reform. Race to the Top policies would solidify the Obama administration’s allegiance to free market reform initiatives in education.

While much has been written about the current problems associated with the Common Core and corporate reformers, and certainly Bill Gates is being well and thoroughly blasted on the blogosphere, how is it that the Common Core so readily became the law of the land?  And why are charter schools seen as the panacea for education reform?  I set out in The Origins of the Common Core to lend my small voice in telling that story.  It was an interesting journey, leaving me to realize that our federal education policy makers acquiesced their decision making responsibilities to corporate reformers a long time ago.  Tech companies have led the way.  Bill Gates is walking, albeit with much more money at his disposal, in the footsteps of other technology corporate superstars like David Kerns and Lou Gerstner, who led the charge to revolutionize education policy through systemic free market reform education policies.  Other billionaires would lend their effort to these efforts.  Along the way, the voices of less monied education scholars were systematically silenced.  Federal policies, built on the false notion that America’s public schools were a total failure, continued to thrive in spite of documentation to the contrary.

The titles of the chapters in The Origins of the Common Core demonstrate a road map to my journey in writing the book:

  1. The Nation Was at Risk and the Public Schools Did It
  2. Public Schools: Conservative Coalescence and the Socialist Threat
  3. Friedmanomics, School Vouchers and Choice
  4. Corporate Superstars and an Inconvenient Truth
  5. Public Schools and a Third Way of Governing
  6. NCLB and the Texas Tall Tale
  7. Education Reform and the Deep State: An Alternate Universe
  8. The CCSS: Systemic Education Reform Writ Large
  9. CCSS: The Gorilla in the Room for Free Market Education Reform

*http://www.blogtalkradio.com/chalkface/2014/08/17/david-berliner-the-chalk-face

**http://www.publicschoolshakedown.org/diane-ravitch-speech-network-public-education-conference

http://www.amazon.com/The-Manufactured-Crisis-Americas-Schools/dp/0201441969