A Nation At Risk: This Time For Real

I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them.

Jerry Falwell (1933-2007), from America Can Be Saved (1979) pp. 52-53, from Albert J. Menendez and Edd Doerr, The Great Quotations on Religious Freedom (2002)

Teacher-bashing has become the motif of the day. . . . I have tried to figure out where all this anger toward teachers comes from. I just don’t get it.

— Diane Ravitch, “Why Are People So Gullible About Miracle Cures in Education?”, Education Week

The problem with today’s popular remedies—like merit pay, charter schools, and firing teachers—is that they are about carrots and sticks, not about giving teachers better tools to meet student needs.

— Edward Moscovitch, “Teachers Are Not to Blame“, CommonWealth

[I]nstructional decisions cannot be formulated on high then packaged and handed down to teachers.

— Linda Darling-Hammond, The Right to Learn: A Blueprint for Creating Schools that Work (Jossey-Bass, 1997)

Zen stones

Students learn some things fast.

On 26 April 1983, a seminal political document in the school reform movement, entitled A Nation At Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform, was released. It was issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, a group convened by Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education, Terrell Bell. In the tone of the Cold War paranoia of the time, it famously declared:

Our Nation is at risk . . . . The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people . . . . If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war . . . . We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament . . . .

Not surprisingly, this created the perception among much of the public that America’s schools were “broken”.

From the start, however, some doubts must have risen about the crisis rhetoric, because in 1990, Admiral James Watkins, the Secretary of Energy (yes, energy), commissioned the Sandia Laboratories in New Mexico to document the decline with some actual figures. Using their huge computers to crunch available test data, the scientists found that test scores had actually gone up for every subgroup. A statistical anomaly, known among mathematicians as “Simpson’s paradox“, had caused the average scores to go down because a larger proportion of students with low but improving scores were taking the tests. This “Sandia Report” (also known as “Perspectives on Education in America”) concluded:

There are many problems in American public schools, but there is no system-wide crisis.

Of course, it was never officially released. The Sandia Report went into peer review and there died a quiet death. Its message was not one that a Republican administration wanted to hear, given that its privatization agenda was predicated on the idea that American public schools are in terrible shape. (Ironically, some observers have concluded that Diane Ravitch, then Assistant Secretary of Education in the now defunct Office for Educational Research and Improvement, colluded with others in the administration of Bush the First to suppress the report.) Education Week published an article on the Sandia Report in 1991 but unlike A Nation At Risk, the Sandia Report critique received almost no attention. Hardly anyone else knew it even existed until, in 1993, the Journal of Educational Research, read by only a small group of specialists, printed the report.

A 2007 article (“Education at Risk: Fallout from a Flawed Report”) lays out the history quite well. Here are some important excerpts:

A Nation at Risk (1983) — what the report claimed:

  • American students are never first and frequently last academically compared to students in other industrialized nations.
  • American student achievement declined dramatically after Russia launched Sputnik, and hit bottom in the early 1980s.
  • SAT scores fell markedly between 1960 and 1980.
  • Student achievement levels in science were declining steadily.
  • Business and the military were spending millions on remedial education for new hires and recruits.

The Sandia Report (1990) — what was actually happening:

  • Between 1975 and 1988, average SAT scores went up or held steady for every student subgroup.
  • Between 1977 and 1988, math proficiency among seventeen-year-olds improved slightly for whites, notably for minorities.
  • Between 1971 and 1988, reading skills among all student subgroups held steady or improved.
  • Between 1977 and 1988, in science, the number of seventeen-year-olds at or above basic competency levels stayed the same or improved slightly.
  • Between 1970 and 1988, the number of twenty-two-year-old Americans with bachelor degrees increased every year; the United States led all developed nations in 1988.

Unfortunately, the so-called education reforms that have been spawned by A Nation At Risk are based on faulty logic just as was the notorious 1983 report.

The first important thing to understand is this: The “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) Act, the “Race to the Top” (RTTT) program, and the “ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) Blueprint for Reform” are NOT about education reform. They ARE about using test scores to label K-12 schools as failing, thereby creating incentives for states to relax charter school regulations, establish common standards, set up expensive data tracking systems to determine which teachers get merit pay, and which get the harsh reform measures — while doing nothing to improve curriculum and instruction, teacher preparation, or physical conditions in the schools themselves.  However, the worst feature of these laws is that they do not even treat teachers in the classroom in the way that professionals, which they are, deserve to be treated.  And this, if nothing else, not only dooms the laws to failure but threatens our entire education system, including higher education, in the United States.

The NCLB Act enacted in 2002 has not produced large gains in reading and math, the only subjects that are tested by the program. In fact, the gains in math were larger before the law was implemented, and the most recent national tests showed that eighth-grade students have made no improvement in reading since 1998. By mandating a utopian goal of 100 percent proficiency, the law encouraged states to lower their standards and make false claims of progress. Worse yet, the law stigmatized schools that could not meet its unrealistic expectation.

In fact, the NCLB was a fraud from the start.  It was inspired by the so-called Texas Miracle, the amazing test score gains and plummeting drop out rates that paved the way for President George Bush the Second and former Houston schools superintendent, Bush’s Fed Ed Head Rod Paige, to enact the NCLB Act. According to an interview with Robert Kimball by Catherine Capellaro:

Robert Kimball was the assistant principal at Sharpstown Senior High School in Houston, Texas, when Houston’s schools were being lauded nationally as the forefront of education reform under then-Superintendent Rod Paige. In the 2001-02 school year, Houston schools were reporting dramatically reduced dropout rates. Overall, the district claimed a 1.5 percent rate; Sharpstown, which served many low-income students of color, reported a dropout rate of zero percent.

Kimball knew something was amiss and wrote to his principal in November 2002, “We go from 1,000 freshmen to 300 seniors with no dropouts. Amazing!”

When nothing happened, Kimball contacted a local television station. Because of Paige’s prominence, the national media picked up on the story, and Kimball appeared on “60 Minutes II.” As a result of the media scrutiny, the district investigated and confirmed that the miraculous dropout rates were faked. A state investigation showed that the district under-reported dropouts by 2,999 students.

Kids wise up.

In fact, a few scholars had warned in 2000 that the gains in Texas were a mirage; they said the testing system actually caused rising numbers of dropouts, especially among African American and Hispanic students, many of whom were held back repeatedly and quit school in discouragement. The state’s rising test scores and graduation rates were a direct result of the soaring dropout rate: As low-performing students gave up on education, the statistics got better and better. Furthermore, as teachers spent more time preparing students to take standardized tests, the curriculum was narrowed: Such subjects as science, social studies, and the arts were pushed aside to make time for test preparation. As a result, students in Texas were actually getting a worse education tied solely to taking the state tests! The truth had come out, but nobody wanted to listen.

The latest example of how test results can be doctored is the New York state testing scandal, which broke open last July. The pass rates on the state tests had soared year after year, to the point where they became ridiculous to all but the credulous. The whole house of cards came crashing down after the state raised the proficiency bar from the low point to which it had sunk. In 2009, 86.4% of the state’s students were “proficient” in math, but the number in 2010 plummeted to 61%. In 2009, 77.4% were “proficient” in reading, but now it is only 53.2%. In New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg used the supposedly historic increase in test scores to win re-election and win renewal of mayoral control of the schools, the pass rate in reading for grades 3-8 fell from 68.8% to 42.4%, and the proficiency rate in math sunk from an incredible 81.8% to a dismal 54%. So much for mayoral accountability.

The Obama administration’s RTTT program contains these key elements:

  • Teachers will be evaluated in relation to their students’ test scores.
  • Schools that continue to get low test scores will be closed or turned into charter schools or handed over to private management.
  • In low-performing schools, principals will be fired, and all or half of the staff will be fired.
  • States are encouraged to create many more privately managed charter schools.

So, what’s wrong with the RTTT program?

  • It will make the current standardized tests of basic skills more important than ever, and even more time and resources will be devoted to raising scores on these tests.
  • Meanwhile, relying on standardized testing to identify the best teachers and schools and the worst teachers and schools is foolhardy.  The tests are simply not adequate to their expectations.
  • The curriculum will be narrowed even more than under Bush the Second’s NCLB, because of the link between wages and scores. Teachers will teach to the test, and there will be less time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign language, and even physical education.
  • There will be more cheating, more gaming the system.
  • Charter schools on average do not get better results than regular public schools.

But aren’t charter schools supposed to be the panacea for public schools, which are supposed to be so bad?  A press release for a recent national study of charter schools by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, entitled Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States, declared:

[The CREDO study] found that there is a wide variance in the quality of the nation’s several thousand charter schools with, in the aggregate, students in charter schools not faring as well as students in traditional public schools.

While the report recognized a robust national demand for more charter schools from parents and local communities, it found that 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37 percent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their traditional public school counterparts, with 46 percent of charter schools demonstrating no significant difference. [Emphasis added]

There are excellent charter schools, just as there are excellent public schools. But how about the charter chains that are mired in unsavory real estate deals, or the charters where most students are getting lower scores than those in the neighborhood public schools? How about the charter principals who have been indicted for embezzlement, or the charters that blur the line between church and state? How about the charter schools whose leaders are paid $300,000 to $400,000 a year to oversee small numbers of schools and students?

Then and now.

Experts at the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) recently took a look at the quality of research represented in the Obama administration’s ESEA Blueprint to see if the education policies contained in the Blueprint are grounded in a strong research base.  The short answer: no. And the the Blueprint is built right on top of the shaky foundation of Bush’s NCLB program.

And how about merit pay? In a national survey of 40,000 teachers co-sponsored by the Gates Foundation and released in March this year, 36 percent said that tying pay to performance is not at all important in retaining good teachers, while only 8 percent said it’s essential. And 30 percent said it would have no effect on student achievement — triple the proportion that said it would have a very strong impact. But what do we know? A recent study has concluded that teacher bonuses are not linked to better student performance. According to an article in the Washington Post on 21 September 2010:

Offering teachers incentives of up to $15,000 to improve student test scores produced no discernible difference in academic performance, according to a study released Tuesday, a result likely to reshape the debate about merit pay programs sprouting in D.C. schools and many others nationwide.

The study, which the authors and other experts described as the first scientifically rigorous review of merit pay in the United States, measured the effect of financial incentives on teachers in Nashville public schools and found that better pay alone was not enough to inspire gains [sic].

(. . .)

“Pay reform is often thought to be a magic bullet,” said Matthew Springer, a Vanderbilt University education professor who led the study. “That doesn’t appear to be the case here. We need to develop more thoughtful and comprehensive ways of thinking about compensation. But at the same time, we’re not even sure whether incentive pay is an effective strategy for improving the system itself.”

(. . .)

Central to such changes is the idea that teachers should be rewarded when their students achieve outsize gains on standardized tests. That is a major shift from the tradition of determining pay by seniority and credentials such as master’s or doctoral degrees.

(. . .)

On the whole, researchers found no significant difference between the test results from classes led by teachers eligible for bonuses and those led by teachers who were ineligible. Bonuses appeared to have some positive effect in the fifth grade, researchers said, but they discounted that finding in part because the difference faded out when students moved to the sixth grade.

Evading the question.

Furthermore, much research suggests that teachers judged excellent or effective one year often fall out of the category the next, and vice versa. Either the teachers themselves are practicing wildly different methods from year to year, or the attempts to link test scores to teacher performance are not actually a “no-brainer” at all, no matter what the media might think.

Of course, that doesn’t stop the luminaries of the “education reform” movement from insisting that they have a crystal ball that tells them who is a good teacher and who is not.  In October 2010, the Wall Street Journal published an article by Michelle Rhee, former public school chancellor of Washington D.C. and Adrian Fenty, former mayor of D.C., on what they learned while pushing to reform the city’s “failing” public schools:

The great tragedy of the education debate in America is that most people know at least the basics of how to turn around our urban school systems. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that underperforming teachers will not produce a new generation of rocket scientists.

(. . .)

Nonetheless, year after year, our schools have been run for the benefit of the adults in the system, not for the benefit of the kids.

In September 2009, for example, we faced a significant challenge after a budget cut. To deal with the shortfall, the City Council had recommended that we cancel our summer school program. We knew, however, that getting rid of summer school would mean lower graduation rates and fewer students being on track academically. We looked at the numbers, and the school district was overstaffed for the number of students we served, with a teacher to student ratio of about 16-to-1. It is never easy when people lose their jobs, of course, but for us, the choice was clear: By cutting some staff, we could keep intact a critical program for our students. So we decided to conduct layoffs.

School districts traditionally lay off teachers using what’s called the “last in, first out” principle, with the newer teachers let go first. But this is a classic example of putting the interests of adults above those of children. There were heroic veteran and new teachers alike doing great things [?] for kids every day in their classrooms. In any industry or organization, keeping employees based only on their years of service, regardless of their contribution to success, is simply not good policy. So we decided to allow principals to make the layoffs based on the quality, value and performance of their staffs. [emphasis added]

Of course, Rhee and Fenty don’t tell you that a 16-to-1 student/teacher ratio means better outcomes for the students and therefore laying off teachers is bad for the kids. Nor do they tell you that 40 to 50 percent of new teachers quit during the first five years, or that experienced teachers are crucial to mentoring new teachers, or that it is nearly IMPOSSIBLE for anyone to reliably determine who is an “effective” teacher and who is not. But they want you to believe one thing without question: Schools are run either for the benefit of the students or for the benefit of the teachers — if something is good for teachers, it must be bad for students, and vice versa.  This is pure, unmitigated teacher-bashing and union-busting. It is no coincidence that the article appeared in the Wall Street Journal.  As Robert J. Samuelson has written recently in The Washington Post, “[F]ew subjects inspire more intellectual dishonesty and political puffery than ‘school reform'”.

If “year after year, our [public] schools have been run for the benefit of the adults in the system, not for the benefit of the kids”, ask yourself: Who are charter schools run for? For example, cafeteria food at traditional public schools has long had a bad reputation, but at least children can count on a meal that’s free for needy families. Mealtime is more complicated at the more than 900 publicly financed charter schools in California. Unlike traditional campuses that must follow state nutrition regulations for schools, charters can make independent decisions about what’s for lunch. So, what happens? Some charter school officials decide not to serve it at all, even if that might mean that the nutrition needs of some of the state’s poorest children are not being met — in spite of consistent research showing that hungry children struggle to learn. But that is alright with charters, who have no incentive to attract students from low-income families since living in poverty makes them much more likely to fail.

American Learning, then and now.

The second important thing to understand is this: The fundamental principle of so-called education reform in the Age of Bush and Obama is measure and punish. As education historian Diane Ravitch, who was Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander under President George Bush the First from 1991-1993, has pointed out:

If students don’t get high enough scores, then someone must be punished! If the graduation rate hovers around 50%, then someone must be punished. This is known as “accountability.”

(. . .)

It would be good if our nation’s education leaders recognized that teachers are not solely responsible for student test scores. Other influences matter, including the students’ effort, the family’s encouragement, the effects of popular culture, and the influence of poverty. . . . Since we can’t fire poverty, we can’t fire students, and we can’t fire families, all that is left is to fire teachers.

In another article, Ravitch stated:

Every article and book about successful education systems in other nations say that their students are “hungry” for education, “hungry” for the learning that will propel them and their families to a better life. Our children — with too few exceptions — don’t have that hunger. It’s not the fault of their teachers.

We will continue to misdiagnose our educational needs until we focus on the role of students and their families. If they don’t give a hoot about education, if the students are unwilling to pay attention in class and do their homework after school, if they arrive in school with a closed and empty mind, don’t blame their teachers.

Bill Mahr, who certainly has at least as much expertise in education as Bush the Second or Obama, has bluntly observed:

Yes, America has found its new bogeyman to blame for our crumbling educational system. It’s just too easy to blame the teachers, what with their cushy teachers’ lounges, their fat-cat salaries, and their absolute authority in deciding who gets a hall pass. . . .

But isn’t it convenient that once again it turns out that the problem isn’t us [parents], and the fix is something that doesn’t require us to change our behavior or spend any money. It’s so simple: Fire the bad teachers, hire good ones from some undisclosed location, and hey, while we’re at it let’s cut taxes more. It’s the kind of comprehensive educational solution that could only come from a completely ignorant people.

Firing all the teachers may feel good — we’re Americans, kicking people when they’re down is what we do — but it’s not really their fault.

Asking the wrong question.

A case in point: On 23 February 2010, the school board of Central Falls, Rhode Island, voted 5-2 to fire all 93 members of the staff in their low-performing high school. They did this ostensibly  because about half of the school’s students graduate, and only 7 percent of 11th-graders were proficient in math in 2009.  Central Falls is the smallest and poorest city in the state, and it has only one high school. Those fired included 74 classroom teachers, plus the school psychologist, guidance counselors, reading specialists, and administrators.  This has become known, not surprisingly, as the “Central Falls Massacre.”

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan added insult to injury by praising the decision to fire the teachers; he said the members of the school board were “showing courage and doing the right thing for kids.”   At an appearance before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on March 1, Obama applauded the idea of closing the school and getting rid of everyone in it:

So if a school is struggling, we have to work with the principal and the teachers to find a solution. We’ve got to give them a chance to make meaningful improvements. But if a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show any sign of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability. . . . And that’s what happened in Rhode Island last week at a chronically troubled school, when just 7 percent of 11th-graders passed state math tests — 7 percent.

School answer key.

But, consider this: At a high school in Providence, Rhode Island, called “The Met” — which, incidentally, Obama lauds — the proficiency scores are virtually identical to the scores at Central Falls High School. At Central Falls, 55% of the kids are classified as “proficient readers,” just like 55% at The Met. The math proficiency at The Met is 4%, actually below that at Central Falls!  Ah, but The Met has one big advantage over Central Falls High School:  Its graduation rate is 75.6%.  But ask yourself:  How can a high school where only 4% of the students are proficient in math and only 55% are proficient readers produce a graduation rate of 75.6%?  The implications are clear:  Either the graduation standards at the high school Obama likes are lower, or, as we have already seen is possible, the graduation rates at The Met have been faked.  But does anyone really care, other than the fired employees? George McLaughlin, a guidance counselor who was fired along with his wife, a chemistry teacher, said the school has been inaccurately cast as a place with low graduation rates:

We have the most transient population in this state. Nobody comes close to us. So when they say that 50 percent of the people graduate, a very high percentage of our students leave our school. They return. They leave again. They go back to other countries.

The Central Falls Massacre becomes even more questionable because Central Falls High School had seen consistent improvement over the past two years. Only last year, the Rhode Island State Commissioner sent in a team to look at the school and commended its improvements. It noted that the school had been burdened by frequently changing programs and leadership. With more support from the district and the state, this improvement might have continued. Instead, the school was given a death warrant.

In fact, the real, underlying reason for the mass dismissal of the faculty was not the low graduation rate or math proficiency of the students, or the alleged incompetence of the teachers. A week before the school board meeting,  School Superintendent Frances Gallo recommended firing the teachers, stating the move was necessary due to “callous disregard” by the union. She said union leaders “knew full well what would happen” if they rejected the six conditions Gallo said were crucial to improving the school. The conditions were:

  • adding 25 minutes to the school day;
  • providing tutoring on a rotating schedule before and after school;
  • eating lunch with students once a week;
  • submitting to more rigorous evaluations;
  • attending weekly after-school planning sessions with other teachers; and
  • participating in two weeks of training in the summer.

Actually, the teachers had not rejected the six conditions. A spokesman for the union said the teachers had accepted most of the changes, but wanted to work out compensation for the extra hours of work. The superintendent admitted the two sides could not agree on a pay rate. Angela Perez, who has a daughter at the high school, said:

It’s not fair. They shouldn’t be punished because the students are lazy.

Perez’s daughter, Ivannah Perez, a recent Central Falls graduate, said:

I’ve seen them stay after school. I’ve seen them struggle. It’s the students. They don’t want to learn.

One of the terminated employees, Sheila Lawless-Burke, an English-as-a-Second Language teacher, said teachers were not opposed to working harder — or longer; they simply wanted the opportunity to negotiate the details of their contract, not have it imposed from above. She said:

It’s all about the politics, about making Fran Gallo look good. The issue is having the right to negotiate. [emphasis added]

Diane Ravitch posed some intriguing questions about the Central Falls Massacre:

Will it be replaced by a better school? Who knows? Will excellent teachers flock to Central Falls to replace their fired colleagues? Or will it be staffed by inexperienced young college graduates who commit to stay at the school for two years? Will non-English-speaking students start speaking English because their teachers were fired? Will children come to school ready to learn because their teachers were fired?

(. . .)

This strategy of closing schools and firing the teachers is mean and punitive. And it is ultimately pointless. It solves no problem. It opens up a host of new problems. It satisfies the urge to purge. But it does nothing at all for the students. [emphasis added]

Blaming the teachs.

Among the “host of new problems”, I have witnessed the attitude of “blame the teacher” begin to infect  community college students.  During an introductory biology lab recently, one of my students, probably dismayed at the large number of students who had dropped the course due to their poor performance, blurted out in class  that “you are only as good as your teacher” — that the grade she will get is determined solely by the competence of the teacher (me).  Of course, this is not only wrong but illogical — if that were the case, why are college instructors not simply handing out good grades to all their students in order to look good?  In fact, it is the bad professors that do so, and it is the student that ultimately suffers when good grades become so ubiquitous that they are meaningless.  In addition to being wrong, the student I mentioned who refuses to take responsibility for her own learning is not likely to take responsibility for her actions in other areas of her life, with tragic consequences for herself and others.

Fortunately, almost two months after the Central Falls Massacre, the school district announced that it had reached an agreement with the union to return the current staffers to their jobs. The two sides said a transformation plan for Central Falls High School for the coming school year would allow the roughly 87 teachers, guidance counselors, librarians and other staffers who were to lose their jobs at the end of this year to return without having to reapply. More than 700 people had already applied for the positions. Teachers will receive $30 an hour for a mandatory 90 minutes of after-school planning time and a $3,000 stipend for the longer school day, which will be paid with a federal grant, Gallo said.

Unfortunately, the Central Falls Massacre was not the first of its kind, nor  will it be the last. According to a survey conducted last fall by the school administrators’ association, nationally 6 percent of districts closed or consolidated schools for the 2009–10 school year, double the number from the 2008–09 school year. The ranks of public school closures are expected to grow to 11 percent for the 2010–11 school year. Closing schools is good news for privatizers looking to make a buck, for it actually increases the school system’s ability to qualify for state construction dollars that can be turned over to private corporations. Consequently, the contracts to build new schools are given to Wall Street corporate financiers and developers.

The third important thing to understand is this:  Wall Street wants to take over the public schools, not because it has better expertise in education or because it can address the problems that actually result in low-achieving students, but because it can thereby make money.

Hucksters for education.

Where are the profits in schools? Well, any reading of either the content or advertisements which saturate Education Week instantly reveals that there is a massive education industry which is getting ready to carve up the new “turnaround schools” — those to be restructured due to below average test scores. They will carve some schools for charters and slate others for “school improvement” which will be based on a model of constant reform.  This will involve any number of school improvement products and services, from school improvement plans, to endless professional development, to differentiated learning computers and software, to tutoring corporations, and to education management organizations (EMO’s, the educational equivalents of HMO’s) that actually run schools — and don’t forget sleazy deals.

Bill Gates, Founding Father of Ed Reform

All of the teacher bashing, union bashing, NCLB, RTTT, ad nauseum begins to make sense if you recall what I wrote at the beginning of this article:  By mandating a utopian goal of 100 percent proficiency . . . the [NCLB Act] stigmatized schools that could not meet its unrealistic expectation.  Diane Ravitch repeated this observation during a speech before the NEA Convention in July, 2010:

[No Child Left Behind is] a disaster. It has turned our schools into testing factories. Its requirement that 100 percent of students will be proficient by the year 2014 is totally unrealistic. Any teacher could have told them that. Thousands and thousands of schools have been stigmatized as failing schools because they could not reach a goal that no state, no nation, and no district has ever reached. By setting an impossible goal, No Child Left Behind has delegitimized public education and created a rhetoric of failure and paved the way for privatization.

(. . .)

If we pursue the path of privatization and deregulation, we better keep in mind what happened with the stock market in 2008. And to those who tout the benefits of vouchers and charters, I want you to point out this example to them, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Milwaukee has had charters and vouchers now for almost 20 years. Twenty years with vouchers, almost 20 years with charters.

They have seen a steadily declining enrollment in the public schools, and meanwhile research now shows that African-American students in Milwaukee, the supposed beneficiary of all of this choice, have test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, test scores that are below those of their African-American peers in Mississippi and Louisiana.

(. . .)

The single most reliable predictor of test scores is poverty, and poverty, in turn, is correlated to student attendance, to family support, and to the school’s resources.

(. . .)

The overwhelming majority of low-performing schools enroll students in poverty and students who don’t speak English and students who are homeless and transient. Very often, these schools have heroic staffs who are working with society’s neediest children. These teachers deserve praise, not pink slips. Closing schools weakens communities. It’s not a good idea to weaken communities. No school was ever improved by closing it. [emphasis added]

Privatization in education is being driven by what is called “manufactured demand” in the marketing industry. It is the same thing that Wall Street has done time and again to get you to buy things you don’t need — like bottled water.



The fourth important thing to understand is this:  In the case of U.S. public schools, corporate philanthropists like Eli Broad and Bill Gates have great influence on the curriculum whereas parents have little to none. Broad brags he’s “not beholden to public opinion”, meaning that, because of his wealth and the political power it buys, he is not accountable to the public.  He admits, “We don’t know anything about how to teach or reading curriculum or any of that. But what we do know about is management and governance.”  A chemistry teacher at a low-income public high school commented:

Although Broad admits he doesn’t know anything about how to teach, the business model he imposes on public schools demands that his “trained” administrators come into our classrooms and force us to follow “standards-driven” teaching practices, supposedly to raise test scores. My district can’t provide working heat, light, or running water for my under-equipped lab, but we pay hundreds of thousands to the consulting businesses he promotes. The real drive behind his manipulations is the marketing plan for the useless “services” and products provided (at public expense) by his for-profit entrepreneurial “partners.”

What is most alarming is the arrogance displayed by Broad. “We’re often accused of having too much influence in education,” Broad has said. “I’m not sure how you’d restrict that.” While foundations and nonprofits are barred by law from getting involved in politics, they might expand their reach by spinning off organizations with a different tax status that allows them to back political candidates and lobby for pieces of legislation, Broad said. He said the Klein-chaired Education Equality Project is considering doing just that.

Education philanthropists are not elected or even appointed, but their money is changing the ways public schools operate today. They may do this for altruistic reasons, but what is a citizen’s recourse when their ideology harms children? And, worse, what happens if a billionaire finally throws up his or her hands and publicly exclaims, “Even I can’t fix the public schools”?  Our schools may not be able to survive the sudden cash withdrawal — or the backlash.

For example, consider the Washington D.C. school reform that Rhee and Fenty so glowingly spoke of in their article in the Wall Street Journal. How could a cash-strapped district pay for the salary bonuses promised to “effective” teachers?

In exchange for giving up tenure and linking pay to performance [they don’t say so, but they mean student test scores], teachers would be able to earn up to $130,000 a year. . . . Since the city did not have the money for a significant raise, we implored several foundations to consider providing the resources to enact a groundbreaking contract. The funders, including the Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, were clear that they would put up the money, but not if they were only backing a marginal improvement.

In fact, in Spring 2010 when Rhee’s future as chancellor was becoming more and more uncertain, several corporate donors, including the Walton Family Foundation, which is the charitable arm of Wal-Mart, indicated that they would withdraw millions of dollars if she was not retained. “The Foundation reserves the right to discontinue support for this initiative if there is a material change in [D.C. Public Schools]’ leadership.” wrote Buddy D. Philpot, executive director of the Walton Family Foundation, in a March 17 letter to the D.C. Public Education Fund.

Using money from private foundations to pay public school teachers is unwise and unsustainable, and ultimately undemocratic. As Diane Ravitch has pointed out in the Education Week blog:

We now have an “education reform” movement which believes that democracy is too slow and too often wrong, and their reforms are so important, so self-evident that they cannot be delayed by discussion and debate. So self-assured are the so-called reformers that they can’t be bothered to review the research and evidence on merit pay or evaluating teachers by test scores or the effects of high-stakes testing. If they can find one study or even a report by a friendly think tank, that’s evidence enough for them.

Bill Gates travels the country encouraging people to “jump on the bandwagon” that America‘s public schools are failing and must be saved via a number of market-based reforms — either outsourcing education to supplemental educational service providers or closing public schools and restructuring them as private, for profit, or charter schools. On 26 February 2005, governors, policy makers, and business leaders from across the nation met to discuss ways of preventing American students from falling behind their international competitors. The “National Summit on High Schools,” sponsored by Achieve Inc., marked the beginning of the conference, and Bill Gates was there to deliver the keynote address, where he made the following remarks:

America‘s high schools are obsolete . . . By obsolete, I don‘t just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and under-funded – though a case could be made for every one of those points. By obsolete, I mean that our high schools – even when they‘re working exactly as designed – cannot teach our kids what they need to know today . . . Training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today‘s computers on a 50-year-old mainframe. It‘s the wrong tool for the times. Our high schools were designed fifty years ago to meet the needs of another age. Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will keep limiting – even ruining – the lives of millions of Americans every year [emphasis added].

Since 1999 Achieve Inc. has received over ten million dollars from the Gates Foundation in order to “help states align secondary school math expectations with the demands of postsecondary education and work,” as well as provide assistance for encouraging “specific states to adopt high school graduation requirements that align with college entry requirements.” In fact, analysis of Gates Foundation records reveals that 441 organizations received $3,369,942,557 for educational projects between 1999 and June 2007. Among them, four think tanks appeared to be the most politically active:  The Education Trust; Education Sector; the Thomas B. Fordham Institute; and The Aspen Institute’s Commission on NCLB. The “facts” that all four organizations forward are misleading at best and flat out lies at worst; they amount to misinformation campaigns on behalf of Bill Gates’ agenda. Some of the claims they promote that are misleading, contradictory, oversimplifications, or flat out lies include:

  • Other countries are out performing America, endangering its place in the global economy;
  • Test scores are related to economic competitiveness;
  • Schools alone can close the achievement gap between students; and
  • The fastest growing jobs are all high-tech and require postsecondary education.

For example, on 19 July 2007, Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust told the host of NPR‘s “On Point” that America‘s “most affluent kids are getting their lunches eaten by kids in other countries”, a claim that was easily and decisively refuted by Gerald Bracey. More recently, the results of the 2009 administration of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released, showing American 15-year-olds doing generally average in reading and science and below average in math as compared to 65 other countries (including members and non-members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which puts out PISA) and other education systems. Although American students have maintained the same standing for years, reaction here was swift, sharp, and sometimes hysterical:

  • Education Secretary Arne Duncan: “For me, it’s a massive wake-up call.”
  • U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee: “ . . . Average won’t help us regain our global role as a leader in education. Average won’t help our students get the jobs of tomorrow. Average is the status quo and it’s failing our country. This is clearly an issue we need to tackle in the next Congress . . . ”
  • In a speech to a college audience in North Carolina, President Obama said, “Fifty years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back.” With billions of people in India and China “suddenly plugged into the world economy,” he said, nations with the most educated workers will prevail. “As it stands right now,” he said, “America is in danger of falling behind.”
  • Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who wrote in an article entitled “Sputnik for the 21st Century” at the Education Next journal website:  “On Pearl Harbor Day 2010, the United States (and much of the rest of the world) was attacked by China. Too melodramatic? Maybe you’d prefer ‘Sixty-three years [sic] after Sputnik caused an earthquake in American education by giving us reason to believe that the Soviet Union had surpassed us, China delivered the aftershock.’. . . We must face the fact that China is bent on surpassing us — and everyone else — in K-12 education, too, and that they are accomplishing precisely that goal, today in Shanghai but tomorrow in many more parts of that vast land. Will this be the wake-up call that America needs to get serious about educational achievement? Will it be the Sputnik of our time? Will it stir us out of our torpor and get us beyond our excuse-making, our bickering over who should do what, our prioritizing of adult interests and our hang-ups about the very kinds of changes that China is now making while we dither?”
  • The Education Trust in a statement released on 9 December 2009:  “Economic and technological innovations successfully moved the United States from the Industrial Age to the Digital Age. Americans have entered — and now must compete in — a more sophisticated, technological global economy. Unfortunately, 2009 data from Programme for International Student Assessment shows that the nation’s schools have failed to keep up with corresponding educational demands, leaving our young people unprepared for the international marketplace.”
  • Achieve Inc. president Michael Cohen in a news statement: “These results are a timely reminder that the work of states, districts and schools has significant implications, not just for the future of individual students, but for the long-term viability of the U.S. economy and our ability to compete and lead on the world stage. This must be a priority not just for those already working on the agenda but for the nation as a whole. States, districts and schools that have committed to this agenda need considerable support in order to succeed,” concluded Cohen.

The politicians, think tanks, and corporate philanthropists would like to use the latest test scores to promote their “reform” agenda for the schools: more charter schools, more reliance on competition and free-market strategies, more testing, more use of test scores to evaluate teachers, more firing of principals and teachers, more closing of low-scoring schools. They would have us believe that they know how to close the achievement gap and how to overtake the highest-performing nations in the world. In fact, PISA proves that they don’t.

First of all, bear in mind that the “China” results are only from a highly advanced city, whereas the U.S. results are country-wide. China still has a huge population so poor that education is not even an option. If PISA had taken a report from just a certain town in Massachusetts or from one of the top cities across America, I guarantee you the U.S. ranking would be in the first place or near the first place.

Diana Ravitch points out “The Real Lessons of PISA” at Education Week‘s blog called “Bridging Differences”:

Consider the two top contenders on PISA: Shanghai and Finland. These two places — one a very large city of nearly 21 million, the other a small nation of less than six million — represent two very different approaches to education. The one thing they have in common is that neither of the world leaders in education is doing what American reformers propose.

(. . .)

These two systems are diametrically opposed in one sense: Shanghai relies heavily on testing to meet its goals; Finland emphasizes child-centered methods. Yet they have these important things in common: Neither of them does what the United States is now promoting: They do not hand students over to privately managed schools; they do not accept teachers who do not intend to make teaching their profession; they do not have principals who are non-educators; they do not have superintendents who are non-educators; they do not “turn around” schools by closing them or privatizing them; they do not “improve” schools by firing the principal or the teachers. They respect their teachers. They focus relentlessly on improving teaching and learning, as it is defined in their culture and society.

The lesson of PISA is this: Neither of the world’s highest-performing nations do what our “reformers” want to do. How long will it take before our political leaders begin to listen to educators? How long will it take before they realize that their strategies have not worked anywhere? How long will it be before they stop inflicting their bad ideas on our schools, our students, our teachers, and American education?

PISA 2009 Reading USA (Click on image to read it)

Another lesson of PISA 2009 is that the achievement gap is primarily the poverty gap.  In particular, the data from PISA 2009 tells us that poverty, as usual, had a huge impact on the reading test scores for American students. The percentage of students in a school who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch through the National School Lunch Program is an indicator, in the United States, of the socioeconomic status of families served by the school. While the overall PISA rankings ignore differences in socio-economic status among the tested schools, when sub-groups based on the rate of free and reduced lunch in the U.S. are created, a direct relationship between poverty and reading is established.

  • In American schools where less than 10 percent of students get free or reduced lunch, the reading score is 551. That would place those U.S. students at No. 2 on the international ranking for reading, just behind Shanghai, China which topped the ranking with a score of 556.
  • In schools with 10 to 25 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, the reading score averaged 527, which was behind only Korea and Finland.
  • Students in U.S. schools with 25 to 50 percent qualifying for free and reduced lunch averaged 502 in reading, which would be No. 10 in the international ranking.
  • In schools where 75 percent or more of the students get free or reduced lunch, the reading score was 446. That’s off the bottom of the charts, below last-place Greece’s 483.

With strong evidence that increased poverty results in lower PISA scores the next question to be asked is what are the poverty rates of the countries being tested? Of all the nations participating in the PISA assessment, the U.S. has, by far, the largest number of students living in poverty — 21.7 percent. The next closest nations in terms of poverty levels are the United Kingdom and New Zealand, which have poverty rates that are 75 percent of ours.

A more accurate assessment of the performance of U.S. students would be obtained by comparing the scores of these American sub-groups to those of other countries with comparable poverty rates.

  • American schools with less than a 10 percent poverty rate had a PISA score of 551.  When compared to the ten countries with similar poverty numbers, that score ranked first.
  • In the next category (10 to 24.9 percent) the U.S. average of 527 placed first out of the ten comparable nations.
  • For the remaining U.S. schools, their poverty rates over 25 percent far exceed any other country tested (see above).  However, when the U.S. average of 502 for poverty rates between 25 to 49.9 percent is compared with other countries it is still in the upper half of the scores.

According to Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals:

These data remind us that U.S. schools do rather well by students who come to school ready to learn, but it’s impossible to ignore the persistent correlation between poverty and performance. Once again, we’re reminded that students in poverty require intensive supports to break past a condition that formal schooling alone cannot overcome.

Arne Duncan

Mel Riddile writes in an article entitled “PISA: It’s Poverty Not Stupid” on his blog called “The Principal Difference”:

If the so-called experts would have honestly and responsibly reported the PISA results, we might now be on the road to responsible school improvement instead continuing down the road of “reform de jour.” . . .

When it comes to student achievement and school improvement, it’s poverty not stupid! Researchers report that perhaps the only true linear relationship in the social sciences is the relationship between poverty and student performance. While there is no relationship between poverty and ability, the relationship between poverty and achievement is almost foolproof. To deny that poverty is a factor to be overcome as opposed to an excuse is to deny the reality that all educators, human services workers, law enforcement officers, medical professionals and religious clergy know and have known for years.

And how about the claim by politicians, think tanks, and corporate philanthropists that America is being harmed because our schools are not keeping up with those in other advanced nations? Policy makers justify this concern by pointing to evidence showing that, for individuals within the U.S., higher test scores predict a number of important life advantages, such as going on to college and making more money as an adult. From this they extrapolate that higher national test scores correlate with global success. The origins of the notion that education is crucial to the nation date back to the Founding Fathers, especially Jefferson, who held that a well-educated citizenry was the foundation of a nation’s, especially a democracy’s, success in the world.

But the fact is, there is no association between test scores and national economic success, and, contrary to one of the major beliefs driving U.S. education policy for nearly half a century, international test scores are nothing to be concerned about. As Keith Baker points out in the October 2007 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, America’s schools are doing just fine on the world scene. When policy makers and politicians infer that the same relationship holds between nations as is found within nations, they commit the logical error known as the ecological correlation fallacy. That is, examining the relationship between personal education levels and personal income and then drawing conclusions is one thing; however, transferring those same conclusions to international tests and national economies is quite another. Evidence of the effects of education within nations does not transfer to differences among nations.

In another study, Christopher Tienken examined the relationship between ranks on international education tests and future economic competitiveness using the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI). Tienken’s report was published in the International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership in 2008. Among other findings, the most interesting is:

The United States remains a global leader in overall economic strength (WEF, 2005) as measured by the GCI. The WEF ranked the U.S. economy first or second during six of the last seven years. Only Finland ranked consistently higher during that time period (ranked 1st in five of seven years). Only one Asian country, Singapore, achieved a rank in the top two (in 2000) during that time period. (The United States ranked first in 2000.) Japan ranked in the GCI top 10 only twice since 2000. Although the United States consistently ranks within the top 2 percent of all countries in the GCI sample (N = 125 countries), it did not rank in the top 50 percent of international achievement for participating countries on the assessments sampled for this study. In the case of the United States, the data do not support the claim that a correlation exists between performance on international tests of mathematics and science and economic strength as measured by the GCI.

If the above statistics have your head spinning, then just ask yourself: If American schools have been “broken” since at least 1983, why does the U.S. continue to be the most economically competitive country in the world? The World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Institute for Management Development have consistently ranked the U.S. economy as the most competitive in the world. Education is only one part of multi-factor systems in rankings. WEF is especially keen on innovation. The U.S. also continues to be the most innovative country, as measured by patents issued. No other country comes close to the U.S. when it comes to exports of intellectual property/knowledge (patents, royalties, copyrights, license fees). In 1989, when Japan was supposedly outcompeting the U.S., education historian Lawrence Cremin put everything in perspective, no matter how competitiveness is conceptualized:

American economic competitiveness with Japan and other nations is to a considerable degree a function of monetary, trade, and industrial policy, and of decisions made by the President and Congress, the Federal Reserve Board, and the federal departments of Treasury, Commerce and Labor. Therefore, to conclude that problems in international competitiveness can be solved by educational reform, especially educational reform defined solely as school reform, is not merely utopian and millenialist, it is at best a foolish and at worse a crass effort to direct attention away from those truly responsible for doing something about competitiveness and to lay the burden instead on the schools.

The claim that jobs in the future will require a highly skilled workforce is likewise another myth promulgated by politicians, think tanks, and corporate philanthropists. A majority of the fastest growing jobs do, in fact, require some kind of postsecondary training. But, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), they account for very few jobs. It’s the Walmarts and MacDonald’s of America that generate the jobs. Office and administrative support services occupations alone are expected to grow by 1.3 million jobs, accounting for about one-fifth of the job growth among the 20 occupations with the largest growth.

Suggested Reading:

  • Keith Baker (Oct 2007).  “Are international tests worth anything?” Phi Delta Kappan 89 (2): 101-104.
  • Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (New York, NY: The Penguin Group, 2008).
  • David C. Berliner and Sharon L. Nichols, Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’’s Schools (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2007).
  • Gerald W. Bracey (Jan/Feb 1995).  “The Assessor Assessed: A ‘Revisionist’ Looks at a Critique of the Sandia Report.Journal of Educational Research 88 (3): 136 – 144.
  • Gerald W.Bracey, Setting the Record Straight: Responses to Misconceptions About Public Education in the U.S., 2nd Edition (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004).
  • Gerald W. Bracey, Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006).
  • Gerald W.Bracey,  Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality (Alexandria, VA: Educational Research Service, 2009).
  • Carson, C.C., Huelskamp, R.M., and Woodall, T.C. (May/Jun 1993). “Perspectives on Education in America.” Journal of Educational Research 86 (5): 257-312.
  • Lawrence A. Cremin. Popular Education and its Discontents (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1990). [see p. 103 for the quote cited above]
  • Jim Horn, Ph.D., “The Education Reformation of NCLB and the Crusade to Kill Public Schools,” Schools Matter blog accessed 25 April 2011.  http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2005/10/education-reformation-of-nclb-and.html
  • Gary Ravani, “Decades of school ‘reform’ in U.S. based on faulty assumptions,” California Teacher 64 (2): 12 (Nov/Dec 2010).
  • Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2010).
  • Ronald Reagan, “Remarks on Receiving the Final Report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education – April 26, 1983“, from The Public Papers of President Ronald W. Reagan, The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
  • Robert J. Samuelson, “School reform’s meager results,”  The Washington Post online (6 Sep 2010).
  • Christopher H. Tienken (25 April 2008). “Rankings of international achievement test performance and economic strength: Correlation or conjecture?International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership 3 (4): 1-15.
  • Angela Valenzuela, editor, Leaving Children Behind: How “Texas-style” Accountability Fails Latino Youth (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005).
  • Yong Zhao.  Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2009).


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