Do Charter Schools Advance or Impede Civil Rights?

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On January 27th, 2017, the Institute for Education Policy at John Hopkins School of Education convened a group of leaders to discuss charter schools and their relationship with civil rights.

Moderator Dmitri Mehlhorn noted that in light of the recent call for a moratorium on charter school expansion by the NAACP and introduction of bills like the Charter School Act of 2017 in Maryland where the discussion was held, the group would be discussing the impact of charter schools, especially with students of color.

The question under discussion is how much, and how fast they grow and whether charter schools themselves can violate civil rights of children, especially children of color through segregation, through discipline practices, through narrow learning, or whether the cap on charter schools is itself a violation of civil rights by preventing low income students of color from escaping schools systems that are not serving them well.

The group was composed of Hilary D. Shelton (Director to the NAACP’s Washington Bureau / Senior Vice President for Advocacy and Policy), Gerard Robinson (Resident fellow, Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute), Matthew Cregor, Esq. (Education Project Director at the Lawyers’ Committee), and Dr. Ashley Berner (Deputy Director of the Institute for Education Policy at John Hopkins School of Education).

Check out the full video of the discussion, titled “Do Charter Schools Advance or Impede Civil Rights?”

All Parents Should Know These Public Schools

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Your son will have to repeat this grade”

For my mom, as for any parent, those words were scary. My kindergarten teacher explained further that I needed to repeat the grade because I had failed the subject of “chair sitting.”

Trouble with sitting: me in the mid-1970s

Although my mom was a public school teacher herself, she decided I needed something different than the neighborhood elementary school. My parents scraped together the money for three years of tuition at a private Montessori school. Montessori was better suited to my needs at the time: upon my return to public schools, I was a full grade ahead of my chronological peers rather than a full grade behind. In other words, the three years I spent at Montessori made a difference of two full grade levels upon my return to public school.

My school days were not so unusual

My experience would not surprise education scholars. Sir Ken Robinson has shown how bad traditional K-12 schools are for many students, especially young boys. Even within traditional schools, Stanford University’s Eric Hanushek has explained that the difference between top and bottom teachers can be as much as a full year of learning per year of school (because, compared with an average teacher, a top teacher provides 150% of the learning per year, while a bottom teacher provides only 50% of the learning per year).

This scholarship helps explain parental behavior. Parents want children to have amazing opportunities, which is why taxpayers spend roughly $600 billion per year on K-12 public schools. Those who can afford to, however, also spend billions out of their own pockets for tutors, afterschool activities, summer camps, and sometimes even private schools. For parents, sending their child to private school can mean walking away from tens of thousands of dollars they have already paid in taxes — yet it happens frequently. Even in prosperous suburbs with high-performing traditional public schools, parents worry about rote learning, inapt content, unhealthy food, and uneven teacher quality. In less prosperous areas, for families with fewer financial resources, or for parents whose children have special needs, the system can feel like a brutal and hostile bureaucracy.

The new public schools: tailored to the needs of all children

That is why all parents should know about a new kind of public school. At these public schools, the technology, curriculum, and pedagogy differ from what we saw when we were students. Even the cafeteria is different: students eat whole foods instead of mass-produced tater tots stuffed with sugars and trans fats. Tablet computers deliver customized content, such as books and multi-player games, automatically adapted to each child’s level and style of learning. These tablets replace chalkboards and readers, and automatically measure student progress so kids never have to stop to take standardized tests. These regular measurements serve as mere inputs to sophisticated assessment systems that adapt to each classroom and provide actionable feedback for students, parents, and teachers. Computers also handle paperwork for the class, freeing teachers to focus on synthesis, mentoring, and individual engagement. Kids of vastly different backgrounds and abilities work together developing their full potential. The most effective teachers engage across many classrooms, communicating via technology to thousands of children.

Just as fascinating as the classroom innovations are the economics. The school costs the same as any other public school (nationally, the average cost per pupil was $12,401 for the 2011–2012 school year). Their purchasing agents resist the lobbying of textbook, computer, and agribusiness companies. They obtain nearly free content from the public domain. They use bulk purchasing and their public mission to obtain steep discounts for hardware and supplies. The find that they can purchase healthy food, often locally grown, within existing budgets. Additionally, mobile computing allows students to go outside more often. Students spend so much time outdoors that they use real estate only occasionally, for certain kinds of performances and hands-on learning. Overhead costs have plummeted, much as middle management costs were cut in the private sector decades ago. All of these cost savings are re-invested in recruiting, training, and compensating teachers, helping attract and retain amazing talent.

Where you can find these new public schools

The biggest reason parents should know about these new public schools is that they don’t exist yet. In a chapter of the book Educational Entrepreneurship Today, released this month by Harvard Education Press, several other authors and I describe how venture capitalists, venture philanthropists, teacher leaders, and public officials are working toward public schools of the type I just described.

We are already seeing the early stages. My Progressive Policy Institute colleague David Osborne recently described how teacher-led schools have innovated to better meet student needs. In San Jose, California, the teachers’ union worked with the local district leadership to combine rigorous standards with student-specific safety nets; the result raised college attendance rates despite demographic challenges. This is but one example of how the teachers’ unions have started to invest in seed ideas that might lead to big changes. These efforts are not limited to cities and suburbs; for instance, a rural high school in Indiana has started to embrace “blended learning” that combines great teaching and digital empowerment.

The private sector is also playing a key role. Businesses are sprouting up to empower teachers: a former New York City public school teacher built a marketplace for lesson plans called TeachersPayTeachers, which has paid millions of dollars to teachers who have come up with outstanding ideas. More broadly, “teacherpreneurs” are finding ways to lead changes in the profession without leaving the classroom.

As with all public sector services, however, change requires public demand. Parents who want these innovative new schools must be full partners in supporting teachers and political leaders in innovation. They can do this by accepting risks, embracing the nonprofit sector and private sector as well as paying taxes to the public sector, engaging thoughtfully, and setting high expectations. More and more, Americans are realizing that we have the tools, the resources, and the teachers to give our children the best school system in the world.

Dmitri Mehlhorn is a Senior Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy. This was republished from Medium.

Please stop calling Diane Ravitch a ‘scholar’

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When Diane Ravitch talks about the D.C. public schools, you can predict she will discount the years of reform that made progress possible. If you’ve been watching, she has signaled for years that she tired of actual academic scholarship long ago. The identification of facts, consideration of logical reasoning, and the expectation of professional integrity were getting in the way of her profitable career as a Pearson-published author of polemic attacks on education reformers.

This month, however, Ravitch formalized her break from all known norms of scholarship. In a scathing and unhinged attack, she described the results in Washington, D.C. as proof that education reform since 2007 has delivered no results for students.

Her evidence?

Mostly, she points to the recent results of Washington D.C. students on the PARCC tests (tests you may know as “Common Core”). She accurately notes that the results demonstrate students in D.C. schools have a lot of work to do to meet the rigorous new definitions of success embodied in these tests. If she were a scholar she would take the next step and compare D.C. results today vs. D.C. results before the wave of reforms that began in the middle of Mayor Anthony Williams’ term, accelerated under Mayor Adrian Fenty, and have continued under Mayors Vince Gray and Muriel Bowser.

Mayor Williams, who served from 1999 through 2007, does precisely that in a recent Washington Post column. Mayor Williams wrote that, using the gold-standard National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), “As recently as 2003 … our results were the worst in the country, and they were a considerable distance behind the second-worst.” He noted that by contrast, Washington D.C. was the fastest-improving jurisdiction in the country for the second time in a row, and that Washington D.C.’s test scores have improved for 10 straight years. Reading scores for fourth graders improved by more than any jurisdiction in the history of the test. As Mayor Williams wrote, “Such sustained advances are very rare.”

So how does Ravitch respond to Mayor Williams’ comments and evidence, which appeared a month before her anti-D.C. jeremiad?  She ignores them.  Ravitch does not utter one word about NAEP.  She focuses only on PARCC, which is a brand new test. You heard that right: there are no “before” and “after” analyses of PARCC results in D.C., because PARCC is radically different and (as Mayor Williams noted) much more difficult than the prior D.C. tests.

Using PARCC as a benchmark when there is no history with PARCC, and ignoring the NAEP scores that show enormous D.C. improvement, would be scholarly malpractice if Ravitch had any claims to continue to be a scholar.  Using that evidence base to conclude that D.C.’s reforms failed, when the overwhelming evidence shows the opposite, is flat-out mendacity.  If Ravitch had any shame left, she would feel it after writing that misleading column.

Elsewhere in her column, however, Ravitch reveals her real intention, by citing an obscure blogger named G.F. Brandenburg who concludes that D.C.’s reforms did not work. A review of Brandenburg’s blog shows that he has been obsessed with Michelle Rhee for many years. Mr. Brandenburg argues that because the pass rates on PARCC are poor, the test should be discarded in favor of a test that is easier for the schoolchildren to pass. This is not a fact-based critique, but at least it reveals Ravitch’s true goal: dumb down the test to artificially inflate pass rates.  This goal is consistent with Ravitch’s paymasters, the teachers’  union sympathizers who spend massively to buy her books and pay her speaker fees.

Ravitch has been signaling her break from scholarship for a long time.  More than anyone else, she has used her celebrity to create false narratives based on selective citations.  She bears the lion’s share of the responsibility for national misperceptions about charter school effectiveness, and the campaign of malice against education reformers.

Finally, by literally ignoring the wealth of evidence about Washington DC public school successes, she seems to be relinquishing her claim that she’s doing any of this under the banner of scholarship.

Progressives shouldn’t talk so lovingly about the history of public education

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As discussed in a recent Citizen Ed column, American public schools were built from the late 1800s through early 1900s on a foundation of racism. During this period, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants used political muscle to create segregated, compulsory local schools. In these factory-style schools, kids were processed according to race, class, and intended societal role. Although the system was built during Jim Crow, it appeared first in the North, championed by Progressives who believed in racial eugenics. Two white Protestant lobbies, the Ku Klux Klan and the National Education Association, backed the system’s national expansion. This period of time was the first and largest part of what commentator Diane Ravitch has called “the geographically based system of public education as we have known it for the past 150 years.”   

Sixty years ago, we could have shed this racist legacy. In 1954, the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision launched the civil rights movement by declaring that “segregation with the sanction of law” was impermissibly “denoting the inferiority” of black students.

Briefly, our nation seemed to be on the brink of empowering black families to attend any schools they wished. On September 24, 1957, President Eisenhower deployed federal troops to protect the ability of the Little Rock Nine to attend classes in a previously all-white public school.  The logical extension of this approach would have been to require all education dollars to pass through the oversight of black families as vouchers to attend schools of their choice. Additionally, our nation could have prohibited “zip code laws” that blocked students from attending schools in different neighborhoods. If backed by prohibitions on race-based admissions criteria, black parents would have had economic power vis-à-vis local schools, and legal power vis-à-vis private schools and wealthy public schools.  

Sadly, this liberty-enhancing choice was never taken.  Instead, as has been well documented in housing markets of the same period, power brokers adopted progressive rhetoric to undercut actual choice by black families. As described by Brooklyn-based black activist Viola Plummer at a Black History Month event last year, “Somehow, Brown’s very fundamental and basic demand for equality was calculatedly translated in a U.S. Supreme Court hoodwink as ‘integration,’ after which we witnessed our children … bused to white neighborhoods, isolated and alone in hostile and dangerous territories.” The idea of integration and busing created the notion that all blacks needed to succeed was physical proximity to white students.  Even that was short-lived: a mere 20 years after Brown, the Supreme Court clarified that even segregation was permissible so long as there was no proof it had been “deliberate.”   

In addition to shutting down individual black choices, political leaders even went so far as to prevent black communities from exerting group control in districts where they held a local majority. This struggle took place decisively in Brooklyn from 1965 through 1968, involving a set of facts that resonate today, almost 50 years later.  In that case, the African-American Teachers Association (“ATA”, originally founded as the Negro Teachers Association) worked with black parents to seek changes in how local schools educated black students. The ATA had support from many black and Puerto Rican teachers, as well as many white teachers of black children, within the larger citywide United Federation of Teachers (or “UFT,” which then as now was the mostly-white teachers’ union of New York City.) The ATA sought to eliminate a “disruptive child clause” in the union contract, which the ATA claimed was used by white teachers to disproportionately punish and segregate black students. The ATA also sought to incentivize or compel experienced teachers to work in low-income schools. Eventually, the local school board with ATA support dismissed a number of white teachers and administrators.  In response, the UFT used its massive political muscle, including citywide strikes that disrupted classes for roughly two months. During the strikes, pro-ATA protesters were charged with “harassing” the UFT strikers; several of the protesters later counter-sued claiming that law enforcement had been discriminatory and excessive. In November 1968, the strikes ended with a state takeover of the local school district; the state Education Commissioner reinstated all of the dismissed teachers and transferred the locally appointed principals.  The force of the strikes, and the reaction, intentionally set a national precedent against local black control.

Reviewing these events from the perspective of America’s long-term racial history, it’s hard to miss the disturbing parallels. The specifics changed, from “slavery is good for blacks” prior to the Civil War, to “white owners are merely holding black sharecroppers’ income” during the Jim Crow era, to “blacks cannot be trusted with either vouchers or with control of local schools.” The parallels, however, included white control of financial resources that should have been controlled by black families; freedom of choice for black families subjugated to the economic interests of whites; and a rationale that invoked vague notions of the dangerous consequences of black agency.

Roughly thirty years after Brown, and fifteen years after the Brooklyn strike, the state of American education was reviewed in a 1983 report from the United States Department of Education.  This report, called A Nation at Risk, concluded: “functional illiteracy among minority youth may run as high as 40 percent.” Numerous contemporary reports from the time showed that black, Hispanic, and Native American students continued to fail in traditional public schools.  The only surprise was that white liberals expressed surprise. As a left-of-center author recently noted, this “classic white liberal” approach of allowed whites “to feel compassionate and superior at the same time,” without having to actual give quality choices to black families.

Maybe I was too hasty in trusting Bruce Baker’s anti-reform ‘scholarship’

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When I took a full-time education policy job in 2010, I was not current on the latest research. I’d received my Masters in Public Policy, with a focus in education, a full 15 years earlier. Back then I paid close attention in my classes with Professors Jim Hines and Tom Loveless. It was widely accepted in scholarly literature that “inputs” such as money and teacher qualifications had not improved the quality of American public schools. Like many left-of-center observers, I found this scholarly conclusion disappointing, but it appeared robust, withstanding repeated attempts at re-analysis from the Coleman Report in 1966 to a 1986 survey by Eric Hanushek who is now at Stanford.

Twitter, of all things, provided me with news to the contrary in August of 2014. Mark Weber, a sincere reform skeptic and public school teacher in New Jersey, goes by the Twitter handle “Jersey Jazzman,” and is a part-time doctoral student at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education. Weber pointed me to publications written by one of his professors, a fellow named Bruce Baker. Although I had never previously heard of Baker, Weber was not the only person who recommended him. Ben Spielberg, who graduated from my undergraduate alma mater told me flatly that Baker’s “research is legitimate.” Spielberg, Weber, and other reform skeptics cited Baker often, and indeed Baker was described by AEI’s Rick Hess as the 40th-most cited education scholar in America. Even better, it seemed that Baker was willing to engage folks I knew to be smart and careful, such as Ulrich Boser at the Center for American Progress and Rebecca Sibilia at EdBuild.

I thus read Baker’s research with an open mind.

Surprise! Decades of economic research, taught at Harvard as the consensus, had been wrong!

Baker’s papers blew me away. They totally reversed the narrative. For instance, Baker pointed me to a 2012 piece he wrote called “Does Money Matter in Education,” which concluded that school spending is important and impactful for students.

This conclusions was the opposite of the consensus in academia when I had been a student in the 1990s. How had the prior research been so wrong? What had happened in the previous 15 years? Well, Baker cited Northwestern University’s Larry Hedges, who re-reviewed Hanushek’s 1986 survey of evidence using “quality control measures” to exclude some studies and change some interpretations. According to Baker, this settled the matter: “by the early 2000s, the cloud of uncertainty conjured by Hanushek in 1986 had largely lifted in the aftermath of the various, more rigorous studies that followed.”

I was surprised, but frankly relieved. As I wrote in response to Baker at the time, “Thank heavens. Someone who actually talks evidence.” Shortly thereafter, I read another piece from Baker regarding implementation of high-stakes testing, and frankly his analysis was solid. I assumed that this level of analysis was typical of Baker’s work, and was further relieved that a high-profile reform skeptic was taking the time to do careful research. As I wrote to him, “Bruce, your facts & analysis R best I’ve seen on UR side. Wish AFT/NEA pushed you, not smears.” I circulated Baker’s work to elevate that approach.

But wait, something smells fishy

 Something was starting to smell fishy

The first clues that something was fishy came as I dove deeper into Baker’s body of work. The highly respected Ulrich Boser had written a report on waste and inefficiency in school spending, and Baker had written a rebuttal. Baker’s rebuttal was, as I wrote to him, “More strident, less compelling than UR usual.” I was being delicate; Baker’s rebuttal was full of personal insults and exclamation points. Disappointing for an alleged scholar.

Then, I read a Baker critique of Mathematica policy research regarding the effectiveness of KIPP charter schools. Baker’s critique was terrible, a long list of hand-waving attacks that seemed to call into question the very possibility of actual empirical research in education. As I wrote to him, the methodology of his approach seemed like that of climate denialists, whose attacks often are a “kritik” of the very idea of research.

Things got worse still when I started to read Baker’s work about teachers’ unions, a subject about which I had substantial personal exposure from visiting state legislators in places where unions were active. As I wrote to Baker in response to a blog of his on the subject, his thumb appeared to be on the scale of the internal workings of his models. His methodology on unions was so sloppy it seemed deliberate.

Boy, was I a sucker

Yes, I actually believed Bruce Baker was a scholar

In 2015, Rucker Johnson and others published an NBER analysis of the impacts of school spending. The NBER report was broadly sympathetic to Baker’s 2012 claims that money can matter, so I read the report with interest.

Wait a minute . . . the 2015 NBER report, entirely focused on the question of “does money matter in education,” did not once mention the Bruce Baker publication from 3 years earlier with the title “Does Money Matter in Education?”

That seemed odd. Even more odd, the NBER paper referred to studies from 1995 and 1996 that showed school spending doesn’t lead to better results.

Wait, what? Wasn’t that the period of time that Baker reviewed, when he wrote that the “cloud of uncertainty” created by Hanushek in 1986 had lifted based on subsequent work? Why didn’t Baker mention those 1995 and 1996 studies by other scholars?

With my antennae finally up, I dug into Baker’s 2012 claims more fully. As it turns out, Baker omitted so much context from his report that his conclusion borders on outright mendacity. For instance, Baker chooses not to mention that Hanushek wrote several peer-reviewed rebuttals to Hedges’ work, including that they engaged in “statistical manipulations … to overturn prevailing conclusions,” and that they “misinterpret the implications of their analysis [and,] through a series of analytical choices, systematically bias their results toward the conclusions they are seeking.” Baker wrote a conclusion that “uncertainty” created by Hanushek “lifted” after 1986, without even deigning to mention that Hanushek didn’t agree? Baker’s presentation of this conclusion was so skewed that later scholars on the exact same subject didn’t even mention Baker’s paper?

Giving Baker a taste of his own medicine

Although Baker’s attacks on Ulrich Boser and others have been filled with insults and sloppiness, we do not need to go to that level to properly assess Baker’s voice in the education reform debate. After all, serious education researchers tend to not even mention Baker. Instead, Baker’s arguments should be taken for what they are: raw advocacy, rather than academic research. Thus, when he makes fair points, they can be discussed on the merits. But no self-respecting writer should ever cite Bruce Baker’s conclusions without carefully reviewing all of his hyperlinks and details, and also doing a quick Google search to see if he’s omitting crucial information.

If I had done my research, I would have known this. Dropout Nation editor RiShawn Biddle pointed out  four years ago that Baker’s so-called “analyses” are designed to achieve his intended results by making subjective and one-sided decisions about what to include and what to ignore. This may be expected for expert witnesses at trials, but is disturbing for someone who pretends to be an academic, and is not transparent that he gets paid for reports by parties with a direct financial stake in his outcomes. Indeed, going forward, jurists, litigators, and policy-makers should be careful when Baker is called in as an expert witness in contentious proceedings.

The problem with Baker was further underscored in a 2011 tape-recorded conversation in which Baker said he would play with data, manipulate the questions he asked, and “pull things in and out” of his models “to tell the most compelling story” in exchange for a substantial research grant. This telephone conversation, including Baker’s own partially exculpatory comments, appears in full at about the 3-minute mark of this video clip. [Baker offers a rather lengthy explanation and defense of what happened.]

I am disappointed in the folks who encouraged me to read Baker, but I’m even more disappointed in myself for being so gullible. None of this automatically invalidates Baker’s conclusions, but most of his research suffers the same kinds of glaring deficiencies just mentioned regarding his 2012 Shanker Institute paper. Some day, someone may decide to write a point-by-point review of Baker’s editorials, but for now the main point is to take his sweeping anti-reform conclusions with a heaping of salt.