Archives for category: Poverty

Historian of education Christina Groeger writes that Americans have long believed that education is the key to equality, but she thinks that this faith is misplaced.

She writes:

“The best way to increase wages and reduce wage inequalities in the long run is to invest in education and skills,” wrote economist Thomas Piketty in his landmark Capital in the Twenty-First Century. For nearly 200 years, education has been seen as a central means of reducing the gap between rich and poor. Today, this idea has become something of a national faith, as politicians across the political spectrum tout the power of education to shape a more egalitarian society. However, faith in educational expansion as a means of achieving the American Dream has obscured the ways the same process has in fact deepened economic inequality at different historical moments. If we don’t explore its full consequences, education as a policy tool can become a dangerous trap.

In the U.S., the relationship between education and social inequality points to a paradox. On the one hand, the U.S. has long had among the highest rates of school enrollment and attainment in the world. In 2017, the United States ranked second-highest globally for the average years of schooling for individuals over the age of 25. On the other hand, the U.S. currently has one of the highest rates of social inequality and lowest rates of social mobility in the Global North. In sum, even though many Americans are getting educated at unusually high rates, the U.S. economy is extremely polarized between the 1% and the rest. If education were indeed the great equalizer, this could not be true.

This seeming paradox stems from the fact that the American educational system and the modern corporate economy grew up together and mutually shaped one another from the start.

After briefly reviewing the importance of education in opening up new opportunities for clerical and sales workers and for white collar workers, she maintains that education does not produce equality.

The uneasy truth is that educational solutions often were and are politically palatable to those with the most economic power precisely because they do not directly threaten that power. Educational solutions have tended to place the burden of reform onto individuals to improve their skill level, rather than the larger structure of a vastly unequal economy. The notion that we can “upskill” our way out of an unequal economy, however, misdirects our attention away from the role of employers and economic elites in maintaining their immense workplace authority.

Between the 1940s and 1970s, inequality fell. What role did education play? Many scholars have attributed the decline in social inequality to massive public investment in education. However, the mid-20th century decline had to do with much more than just education. Particularly important was the power of new industrial unions. Unlike exclusive craft unions, industrial unions organized workplaces across lines of skill, race, ethnicity, and gender, reaching a peak of 36% of all private sector workers by 1953. Organized workers became the mass base of support for public policies like a high progressive income tax and social welfare programs. The expansion of public education on its own would not have been able to account for the significant decline in inequality in this period; rather, the growth of worker power, economically and politically, was the primary driver of these changes.

Since the 1970s, workers’ rights have been stripped away, unionization rates have fallen to a mere 6% of private sector workers, budgets for public services have been slashed, and the wealthy pay less in taxes. The economy is increasingly polarized between low-wage service jobs performed disproportionately by women and people of color, on the one hand, and the professional beneficiaries of the “knowledge economy” on the other. The history of the early twentieth century teaches us that there is nothing inherent in educational expansion that means its economic benefits will be equally distributed. In fact, as we are seeing today in the highly-credentialed fields of financial services, corporate law, and specialized medicine, when worker power is at an all-time low, educational expansion without additional protections can simply concentrate the power of existing elites.

The meaning and significance of education is much greater than economic advancement. But until economic subsistence is addressed, education will be tied to these vocational ends, understandably for so many students for whom education is a means of securing a living. If we want to free education up for non-vocational ends, we need to ensure that all people can achieve a livelihood first.

School expansion must be coupled with efforts that build worker power, which historically has been the basis of a more egalitarian society. These include building strong and inclusive unions, raising the minimum wage, expanding social welfare programs, and implementing the progressive taxation necessary to fund them. The collective power of workers, not education level, is ultimately what will matter most for creating a more egalitarian society.

Thus, we can understand the ongoing barrage of attacks on teachers’ unions and the growth of nonunion charter schools as efforts by elites to prevent workers from having any power and from building the egalitarian society that is part of our national creed.

Nicholas Kristof wrote an important article in the New York Times about our national indifference to the well being of our children. Kristof knows that nothing we do is more important than reducing the child poverty rate, which is scandalously high. We have hundreds of billionaires, but millions of children who live in extreme poverty. Instead of spending billions of dollars on standardized testing, what if we directed that money to helping children have a safe and healthy childhood and helped their families achieve a decent standard of living?

Kristof begins:

Imagine you have some neighbors in a mansion down the road who pamper one child with a credit card, the best private school and a Tesla.

The parents treat most of their other kids decently but not lavishly — and then you discover that the family consigns one child to an unheated, vermin-infested room in the basement, denying her dental care and often leaving her without food.

You’d call 911 to report child abuse. You’d say those responsible should be locked up. You’d steam about how vile adults must be to allow a child to suffer like that.

But that’s us. That household, writ large, is America and our moral stain of child poverty.

Some American children attend $70,000-a-year nursery schools, but 12 million kids live in households that lack food. The United States has long had one of the highest rates of child poverty in the advanced world — and then the coronavirus pandemic aggravated the suffering.

Now we could have a thrilling breakthrough: President Biden included a proposal in his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that one studysays would cut child poverty by half. We in the news media have focused on direct payments to individuals, but the historic element of Biden’s plan is its effort to slash child poverty.

“The American Rescue Plan is the most ambitious proposal to reduce child poverty ever proposed by an American president,” Jason Furman, a Harvard economist, told me.

A couple of decades from now, America will be pretty much the same whether direct payments end up being $1,000 or $1,400. But this will be a transformed nation if we’re able to shrink child poverty on our watch.

So the most distressing part of 10 Republican senators’ counterproposal to Biden was their decision to drop the plan to curb child poverty. Please, Mr. President, don’t budge on this.


Recently Tom Ultican responded to something I posted on Twitter.

His response contained a typo.

He meant to write “Common Core Standards,” but mistakenly wrote “Common Care Standards.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our schools had “Common Care Standards,” in which we acknowledged our responsibility to care about students?

The standards might read like this:

All children shall have access to high quality preschool.

All children should have time to play every day, between classes and after school.

All children should have three nutritious meals every day.

All children should see a school nurse whenever they don’t feel well.

All children should be checked by a doctor and dentist annually.

All children should have access to a well-stocked library.

All children should have a safe place to live.

All children should have the arts as part of their daily schedule.

All children should have a school curriculum that includes not only reading and mathematics, but civics and history, science, literature, and foreign language.

Do you have anything to add to the Common Care Standards?

Valerie Strauss writes in her Washington Post blog called “The Answer Sheet” about the growing number of states that want waivers from the federal requirement for annual testing. DeVos granted waivers last year but said she would not do it again. But she will be gone. Now it is up to Joe Biden and Miguel Cardona to decide whether it is wise to subject students to high-stakes standardized tests in a year where schools have repeatedly opened and closed, beloved teachers have died, family members have fallen ill, and many families are without food or a secure home.

I am sorry that the Secretary of Education-in-waiting describes the standardized tests as “an accurate tool,” because the only thing they accurately measure is family income, disability status, and English language proficiency. There are cheaper ways to get this information than to subject millions of children to useless standardized tests of reading and mathematics The tests are completely useless and provide no information to teachers about student progress: None. As Strauss points out, the results come in months after the tests were given, the students have different teachers, the teachers seldom see the questions and are not allowed to discuss them, and they never discover how their students answered any given question.

Let me repeat: The tests benefit no one other than the testing corporations, who collects hundreds of millions of dollars. Whatever we want to know about test scores and “achievement gaps” could have been gleaned at far less cost and inconvenience from the biennial National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), which was canceled this spring. The annual tests for individual students in grades 3-8 should have been canceled instead. No high-performing nation gives a standardized test to every student every year as we do.

Strauss writes:

There are growing calls from across the political spectrum for the federal government to allow states to skip giving students federally mandated standardized tests in spring 2021 — but the man that President-elect Joe Biden tapped to be education secretary has indicated support for giving them.

The issue will be an early test for Miguel Cardona, the state superintendent of education in Connecticut whom Biden picked for education secretary, and his relationship with teachers and others critical of giving the exams during the coronavirus-caused chaos of the 2020-2021 school year.

The current education secretary, Betsy DeVos, approved waivers to states allowing them not to administer the annual exams last spring as the coronavirus pandemic led schools to close. She said recently she wouldn’t do it again, but Biden’s triumph in November’s elections means the decision is no longer hers. It’s up to Cardona — assuming he is confirmed by the Senate, as expected — and the Biden administration to decide whether to provide states flexibility from the federal law.

The annual spring testing regime — complete with sometimes extensive test preparation in class and even testing “pep rallies” — has become a flash point in the two-decade-old school reform movement that has centered on using standardized tests to hold schools and teachers accountable. First under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law and now under its successor, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, public schools are required to give most students tests each year in math and English language arts and to use the results in accountability formulas. Districts evaluate teachers and states evaluate schools and districts — at least in part — on test scores.

But just how much the scores from the spring tests ever reveal about student progress, even in a non-pandemic year, is a major source of contention in the education world.

Supporters say that they are important to determine whether students are making progress and that two straight years of having no data from these tests would stunt student academic progress because teachers would not have critical information on how well their students are doing.

Critics say that the results have no value to teachers because the scores come after the school year has ended and that they are not allowed to see test questions or know which ones their students got wrong. There are also concerns that some tests used for accountability purposes are not well-aligned to what students learn in school — and that the results only show what is already known: students from poor families do worse than students from families with more resources.

Enter Cardona into this testing thicket. Biden last week surprised the education establishment by naming Cardona, who less than two years ago was an assistant superintendent of a 9,000-student school district. One big factor in his favor for the Biden team was that he has not been a partisan in the education reform wars of the past two decades. Yet he won’t be able to avoid it over this issue.

Last spring, Connecticut, like other states, did not administer spring standardized tests after receiving waivers to the federal law from DeVos.

Cardona has said he wants students to take the exams this spring but with a caveat: He doesn’t want the results used to hold individual teachers, schools and districts accountable for student progress on the scores. (DeVos, too, had said she would have granted that kind of flexibility to states in 2021.)

“This [academic] year, we want to provide some opportunity for them [students] to tell us what they learned or what gaps exist so we can target resources,” Cardona said at a recent news conference before he was tapped by Biden, according to the Connecticut Post.

The education department he heads in Connecticut released a memo in October calling state assessments “important guideposts to our promise of equity.” It said: “They are the most accurate tool available to tell us if all students — regardless of race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, disability, or zip code — are growing and achieving at the highest levels.”

Cardona’s press secretary, Peter Yazbak, said the Biden transition team was answering all questions about his role as education secretary. The Biden team did not immediately comment about whether the new administration would consider providing waivers from the tests.

Cardona is already facing a growing chorus of voices who are demanding some flexibility from the federal law, including some that say forcing students to take the tests for any reason is a waste of money and time.

The Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonprofit that represents state education chiefs, released a statement this month calling for unspecified flexibility around the spring testing requirements. While its members are “committed to knowing where students are academically,” it said, “states need flexibility in the way they collect and report such data.” The CCSSO said it wants to work with the Biden administration “on a streamlined, consistent process that gives states the flexibility they need on accountability measures in the coming year.”

Others were more direct, including the two major teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. In a letter to the Biden transition team, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote:

“We know there are concerns that not having this data will make student achievement during covid-19 and particularly deeply troubling equity gaps less visible, that this will mean two years of lost data. However, there is no way that the data that would come out of a spring 2021 testing cycle would accurately reflect anything, and certainly not accurate enough to hold school systems accountable for results. But curriculum-linked diagnostic assessment is what will most aid covid-19 academic recovery, not testing for testing’s sake.

Another issue is whether the tests can be administered to all students safely this spring. Millions of students are still learning remotely from home as the pandemic continues to infect and kill Americans. Though Biden has called for the safe reopening of most schools within 100 days of his inauguration, it is not clear whether that will happen or whether the tests can be securely administered online.

Bob Schaeffer, interim director of a nonprofit called the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which works to stop the misuse of standardized tests, noted that DeVos recently sought the cancellation of the 2021 administration of the national test known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) because it could not be administered effectively and securely.

“IF NAEP is cancelled for 2021 due to pandemic-related concerns, how can federal and state mandated exams be administered safely and accurately this academic year?” Schaeffer said. Meanwhile, his group, FairTest, has launched a national effort for a suspension of all high-stakes standardized tests scheduled for spring 2021.

This is why a waiver strategy is so necessary,” it says.

It’s not only state superintendents, teachers unions and testing critics who are looking for flexibility from the federal testing mandate.

As early as June, officials in Georgia said they would seek a waiver from the spring 2021 tests. DeVos’s Education Department denied the request, so this month, state officials agreed to dramatically reduce the importance of end-of-course exam grades for the 2020-2021 school year. They will have virtually no weight on students’ course grades.

In South Carolina, SCNOW.com reported, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, a Republican who is among Trump’s strongest supporters, signed onto a letter calling for a testing waiver for spring 2021, as did Rep. Tom Rice (R).

Scores of Texas state representatives from both sides of the political aisle have joined to ask State Commissioner of Education Mike Morath to seek necessary federal waivers to allow the Texas Education Agency to cancel the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, test in the 2020-2021 school year.

A letter, sent by the office of Democratic Rep. Diego Bernal said: “The covid slide, an academic deficit that the agency has widely recognized, has resulted in students, across the state, being behind grade-level in nearly every subject. Instead of proceeding with the administration of the STAAR as planned, the agency, along with our districts and campuses, should be focused on providing high-quality public education with an emphasis on ensuring the health and safety of students and educators.”

In Ohio, Dayton schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli recently said that that state should seek a federal waiver from the spring standardized testing, WHIO-TV reported. “Using the standardized testing as we typically have done is inappropriate and ineffective,” Lolli said.

“The only thing it does is it rates poverty,” she said. “We know that the lowest scoring schools across this country are schools that have high numbers of children who live in poverty. That’s the only thing we’re doing [by testing] is identifying those locations once again.”

In North Carolina, the State Board of Education in early December tentatively approved a proposal that would have students take the exams but that would ask the federal government if it can have flexibility in how it uses the scores of the tests.

In Colorado, advocates for English-language learners have asked the state Board of Education to cancel ACCESS, the test these students take annually, or to make sure parents know that they can opt their children out without penalty.

Other actions are being taken in other states to persuade officials to seek and lobby for federal waivers, and that is likely to pick up in pace as spring approaches.

The New York Times published an editorial correctly blasting Betsy DeVos as the worst Secretary of Education in the 40-year history of the Department of Education. Unfortunately, the balance of the editorial was a plea to administer tests to find out how far the nation’s children had fallen behind because of the pandemic.

This is a misguided proposal, as I have explained many times on this blog. See here.

The Times wrote in this editorial:

Given a shortage of testing data for Black, Hispanic and poor children, it could well be that these groups have fared worse in the pandemic than their white or more affluent peers. The country needs specific information on how these subgroups are doing so that it can allocate educational resources strategically.

Beyond that, parents need to know where their children stand after such a sustained period without much face-to-face instruction. Given these realities, the new education secretary — whoever he or she turns out to be — should resist calls to put off annual student testing.

The annual federally mandated testing will not answer these questions, at a cost of $1 billion or more.

The information the Times wants could have been efficiently collected by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests scientific samples of students in reading and mathematics every other year. The cost would have been substantially less than testing every single student in grades 3-8.

But DeVos canceled the 2021 administration of NAEP. NAEP would have provided voluminous amounts of data about student progress, disaggregated by race, gender, English learner status, and disability status. Everything the Times’ editorial board wants to know would have been reported by NAEP, with no stakes for students, teachers, and schools. No student takes the entire test. The sampling is designed to establish an accurate snapshot of every defined group, and there is a timeline stretching back over decades.

So now, as the editorial demonstrates, the pressure is on to give the annual tests to every single student. The results will be useless. The teachers are usually not allowed to see the questions, never allowed to discuss them, and never allowed to learn how individual students performed on specific questions. The results will be reported 4-6 months after students take the test. The students will have a new teacher. The students will get a score, but no one will get any information about what students do or don’t know.

The tests will show that students in affluent districts have higher scores than students who live in poor districts. Students who are English language learners and students with disabilities, on a average, will have lower scores than students who are fluent in English and those without disabilities. This is not a surprise. This is what the tests show every year.

If Secretary-designate Cardona needs to know how to allocate resources, he doesn’t need the annual tests for direction. He already knows what the tests will tell him. Federal funds should go where the needs are greatest, where low-income students are concentrated, where the numbers of English learners and students with disabilities are concentrated. The nation doesn’t need to spend $1 billion, more or less, to confirm the obvious.

Anyone who thinks that it is necessary or fair to give standardized tests this spring is out of touch with the realities of schooling. More important than test scores right now is the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff.

Advice to the New York Times editorial board: Talk to teachers.


Arnold and Carol Hillman were educators in Pennsylvania. They retired to South Carolina and, instead of golfing and relaxing, they became involved with rural public schools. They created clubs for high school boys and girls and helped steer their kids towards college. I wrote about their work with students in rural schools several times. See here. Arnold wrote me recently to tell me about the devastating impact of the pandemic on rural students, and I asked him to write it up for the blog. He wrote the section about Rasheem, and Carol wrote about LaRonda.

They wrote:

Rasheem and LaRonda are two students in a rural South Carolina county. A review of county statistics will show that the county is 700 square miles. It is one of the poorest counties in the state. Over the past five years, the education system has declined in quality. The ACT scores have descended 15.8%. Even the state’s average ACT scores have gone down from 18.6 to 18.1. 

When you travel around the county, you are struck by the endless roads that seem to include only a forested area on both sides and a town or two with some stores and maybe a gas station. You must travel to the county seat to go shopping at a supermarket or travel to the other urban center at the bottom of the county.

Choices in any aspect of normal life are limited. There is one dentist in the area. He is a homer, comes from one of the towns. Other medical facilities such as a hospital are close to Route 95 near the bottom of the county. The rural districts that occupy both sides of Route 95 have been dubbed, “The Corridor of Shame.” That was also a documentary film done in 2007 to describe the area and the public schools.

We have visited 21 of the 41 (will be 37 districts when certain consolidations take place) rural school districts in the state. There are many Rasheem’s and Laronda’s in those areas. Having traveled to see away basketball games, we can also point out that there are many similarities up and down these counties.

The school district personnel are well aware of the problems of both of these students. Rasheem lives with his grandmother. His parents have had other children and could not handle Rasheem too. So, when he turned seven, they transferred responsibility for raising Rasheem to his maternal grandmother. Zelda provides all of the necessities of life, as much as she can, to Rasheem. She lives on a pension and social security.

Rasheem’s parents were divorced sometime after Rasheem went to live with his grandmother. They both have new families with new spouses or live-ins. Rasheem is a senior in high school and like many kids his age, has dreams of getting away from home and making a better life for himself. He wants to go to college or join the air force or maybe become a racecar driver. He works part-time at a local Piggy Wiggly and has a used car he bought from an uncle. His earnings cover his car insurance, gas, and the $200 he must pay in South Carolina annual car tax. Anything left over covers his school clothes, which he keeps outgrowing. He plays basketball and hopes to win a scholarship. The coach thinks he’s good enough for a Division I1 school. 

However, his dreams may not come true. This Covid-19 year, a number of schools have cancelled football and other fall sports, as well as the winter sports seasons Therefore, as hard as it was for scouts to come down to see him and others playing, it is now just a dream.

Rasheem has a 3.4 GPA (Grade Point Average) and he works hard to keep his grades up, so he has become pretty good at time management. The one subject he struggles with is math. It’s not really the math that is so hard, it’s that he can’t always understand his math teacher. Rasheem’s school, like many South Carolina rural schools, is very isolated and very poor. They can’t afford to pay teachers well and there are no places for teachers from outside of the county to live. So, when the high school principal tries to fill vacancies with certified teachers, she often needs to recruit teachers from India or South America, people looking for any job they can find in America. These teachers may know their subject matter, but their grasp of American English and even their understanding of American students is often lacking. 

When Covid-19 appeared last March, schools in South Carolina closed. Everything went virtual. This fall there has been a back and forth between virtual and in-person education. Because of senior students wanting to play some kind of ball, both girls and boys, some of them have transferred to private schools. 

Rasheem’s guidance counselor has been trying to talk to him about his future plans since he was a junior, but it wasn’t until he hit his senior year that he paid much attention. The guidance counselor has a big case load. She has students with many different and sometimes pressing problems.  She tries to remind her seniors about college applications and financial aid forms. The burden of staying on top of all this is up to the students. Rasheem does not have anyone in his family who has been to college, in fact, his grandma did not graduate from high school.

Neither Rasheem nor his grandma are familiar with anything to do with college, but among the good choices he has made are his decisions to join the basketball team and ROTC. Colonel Manning and Coach Phillips are both very caring, capable individuals who have Rasheem’s best interest in mind. They have been trying to talk to him about what he needs to do to realize his dreams. 

Working with the group that I have been mentoring for 5 years has become almost impossible. Many of the students have gotten jobs and are really not calling or Zooming with me. When I do hear from them, it is a short call with me asking them if they have filled out their FAFSA forms, if they have any intent of going to college. 

Rasheem is planning to take the ASVAB. The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery is a test you must take to get into the armed services. You need a score of 31 out of 99 to get into the Army and a 36 for the Air Force. He took the ACTs (American College Testing) last year and scored a 16 out of 36 on the test. He will need to bring that score up to somewhere in the mid 20’s, which is not a score that many students get in rural South Carolina. While students from some of the advantaged districts come from families that prepare them for college, most rural parents are not aware of steps to take to help their children. Many of the parents have not gone to college and are not familiar with FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) forms. 

Students from families with college experience have been preparing for the transition from high school to college from the time their children were born. Their children have visited colleges and taken practice tests of both the ACTs and the SATs. Rasheem has done none of that because he didn’t have a family helping him. This is only one challenge Rasheem is facing.

Other challenges are the fact that his high school does not have a high rating on the South Carolina state tests. They do not have a high graduation rate. Many of Rasheem’s classmates do not see education as a priority and so he competes for his teachers’ attention with disruptive students. Some of his teachers are burnt out from dealing with the Covid -19 problems and don’t provide the best possible instruction. 

On days when school is in session, Rasheem eats a free breakfast and lunch at school. When he gets home, after school and before work, his grandma gives him supper. On weekends and over vacation breaks Rasheem doesn’t always get three meals a day. Even working in a grocery store does not entitle him to free food.

His family has been generous enough to help him pay for senior pictures and the prom (if they have one), but he will not be attending the senior class trip (if there is one) because he can’t afford it.

LaRonda is a junior at the same high school.  She is smart, quick with a quip and talented in art and writing. Last year, LaRonda played on the basketball team. She is skilled, agile and has a burning competitive spirit. She has a 4.0 Grade Point Average and has taken all the AP (Advanced Placement) Courses the school offers.

Her family situation is not the same as Rasheem’s. LaRonda has a mom and dad. She has two brothers and a new baby sister. She is responsible for taking care of her younger brothers, as well as helping with the baby. This restricts her from getting a job or having any social life.

Transportation is a real problem. LaRonda’s family has one car and it serves Mom, Dad, Grandma and LaRonda.. She has started a small business of her own “doing hair.” Because of COVID and the baby sister, she cannot do hair at home. She needs to travel to clients. Again, the problem of sharing the car.

LaRonda is angry. She resents her mother for having more children whom LaRonda needs to care for. Her friends advise her to “have it out” with her mother and say she is going to get an after-school job so she can have her own money. LaRonda really wants to do that, but then she thinks, “what will happen to my baby sister”?

LaRonda is in the gifted program She has taken Algebra I three times. The first time was when she was in 7th grade. She was in the gifted program so she, along with other gifted 7th graders, was put in Algebra 1 (usually given in 9th grade). You only get credit for a course if you pass the final exam. She and her friends got all “A’s” in the class but were told that because they were only in 7th grade, they could not take the test. In 8th grade they took Algebra I, again getting “A’s”, but were not allowed to take the final exam because, “since you took Algebra 1 before it’s not fair to the other students who were taking Algebra 1 for the first time.” In 9th grade, when the non-gifted students had gone on to Geometry, LaRonda and her cohorts were taking Algebra 1 for the third and final time. They all passed the final exam with flying colors! 

Before COVID-19 made meeting in-person impossible, Carol and Lynn met with the 10 girls they mentored weekly. They shared lunch, laughter, sometimes tears and always hello and goodbye hugs. Together the group has mentored younger students and run fundraisers that have enabled them to go on trips and exciting overnight adventures. All that is missing now. 

Carol and Lynn try to stay in touch with the girls they have been mentoring, but, like Rasheem and his friends, COVID is making that difficult. Carol and Lynn call the girls individually. That works sometimes. When LaRonda desperately needed a computer, Lynn found a computer and printer for her that had been refurbished by a friend. 

LaRonda has always said she wants to go to college to become a pediatrician, but her older friends who were in college are now dropping out. They loved college in person – spending time with friends on campus, but they are so turned off by the virtual learning and so unsure of their futures that they are no longer willing to scrimp and save to pay for college. That makes LaRonda think maybe she should go into the military.

She told Carol, “I wanted to be the first to tell you I might not go to college, because I thought you’d be disappointed in me. I took the ASVAB test and got a 56. Is that good? My friends are going into the Army so I might do that too.” Carol reminded LaRonda that she would never be disappointed in her, that it was her life and she needs to make her own decisions, but that she should keep up her schoolwork and take the ACTs so she has options. She asked LaRonda, “What does your mom say?” LaRonda, “She says, ‘Whatever you think, is fine with me.’ “

When they talk about the future, LaRonda is not the only one who says, “I pray every day that I can get out of here and not end up like my mom, but I love my mom. It’s in God’s hands and whatever happens will be for the best.

Through no fault of their own, Rasheem and LaRonda have very uncertain futures.

​​​

The Boston Globe reports that Chelsea, Mass., is about to launch a bold experiment in addressing the persistent problem of poverty.

Chelsea, one of the poorest cities in the state, is about to host a bold experiment in reimagining capitalism, one that may answer an age-old question: Can giving away money with no strings attached help people out of poverty?

Beginning in November, about 2,000 low-income families will be given $200 to $400 a month, money that can be used for anything from food to paying bills. The trial, with $3 million in seed money and set to run for four months at first, is a version of the universal basic income concept that has long been debated, tested in small measures, but not implemented by any country. Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang made it a plank of his brief presidential campaign.

The Chelsea pilot may seem like a simple way to support families living on the brink during the pandemic, but the social experiment could have broader implications — perhaps shedding light on the argument over whether giving money away without conditions encourages poor people to quit their jobs or spend it unwisely, or empowers them to make decisions to break the cycle of poverty…

To United Way chief executive Bob Giannino, the real value of the Chelsea pilot is removing the indignities of receiving public assistance — whether it’s standing in line for food or battling a bureaucracy for benefits. Giannino knows the feeling too well, having grown up in a family that relied on government handouts.

“The tactic is putting money on a card so people can buy their own food,” Giannino said of the Chelsea program. “The strategy is independence. The strategy is dignity.”

Dana Milbank is a regular writer for the Washington Post. He writes in this column about Mitch McConnell’s hypocrisy.

The Trump administration and House Democratic leaders are in striking range of a deal to send $1,200 stimulus checks to American families and to pump $2 trillion into the flagging economy.

But Rich Mitch is having none of it.

As The Post reported, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — anti-Trump Republicans have taken to calling him “Rich Mitch” because of his $34 million net worth — told Republican colleagues Tuesday that he had warned the White House not to strike an agreement with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on a coronavirus relief package before the Nov. 3 election.

Who cares if tens of millions of Americans are in increasingly desperate straits? Even if negotiators reach agreement despite McConnell’s sabotage, he refused to commit to voting on it before the election.

Then, on Wednesday, McConnell had the chutzpah to stand on the Senate floor and claim he was looking out for the little guy. “Maybe coastal elites who can practically find a million dollars in their couch cushions are indifferent about whether we get an outcome here,” he said, alleging that “blue-state billionaires” are Democrats’ top priority — not “working families like the Kentuckians I represent.

Yet McConnell claims he’s fighting elites to “get an outcome” for working families. What outcome? Bankruptcy?

It’s a timely reminder, a dozen days before Election Day, that removing President Trump won’t repair dysfunction in Washington as long as McConnell remains in charge of the Senate.

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, read the New York Times Magazine’s report on the possibility of a “Lost Year” and wrote these reflections:

Three times, I had to take a break from reading the New York Times Magazine’s special education issue, “The Lost Year.” The Magazine’s powerful reporting delivered gut punch after gut punch, forcing me to put the magazine down, calm myself, and contemplate the suffering our children are enduring.

Three times, as these compelling and emotionally overwhelming student stories hit home, I would get sick at my stomach. I’d sense anxiety growing to the point where it hit as hard as when ideology-driven, Trumpian policies are announced. As these tragedies unfolded over recent months, I got into the habit of taking a break, breathing heavily, and relaxing, resulting in naps to calm my nerves.

The anecdotes in “The Lost Year” illustrating the damage being done to our most vulnerable children hit me especially hard because of decades working in the inner city and our most disadvantaged schools. But I must warn readers who may not have been covered by so many students’ blood or worried over as many traumatized kids that The Lost Year will not be an easy read for them either.

Samantha Shapiro’s “The Children in the Shadows” describes the “nomadism” perpetuated by the New York City homeless shelter system 3-1/2 decades after the Reagan Administration sparked the housing crisis by decimating social services (as his Supply Side Economics destroyed blue collar jobs.) The cruelty was continued in the 1990s as neoliberals tried to show that they could be just as tough as the rightwingers.

Shapiro starts with the obstacles faced by the parents of several elementary students with histories of rising to excellence but who are suffering through The Lost Year. A 2nd grade child of an immigrant, Prince, has been homeless for years (prompted by his mother enduring severe domestic abuse) but who seemed to be headed for magnet or gifted programs before the pandemic. After wasting hours after hours, days after days, accompanying his mother through the bureaucracy, he gets an 84 on a test, and tells her, “I’m sorry, Mama. I’ll do better next time.”

The father of another outstanding 2nd grader worries that her ability to read is being lost, “I’ve seen her watch YouTube 24 hours a day.” Shapiro then describes another second grader, who was very competitive and earned good grades but, before the shutdown, she had a disagreement with a classmate. After being asked to come into the hall to discuss it, the girl screamed piercingly, ripped down bulletin boards, threw things. As she deescalated, the girl asked her social worker to hold her, saying “Are you still proud of me? Do you still love me?

Shapiro also describes J, her son’s best friend, and his wonderful people skills. Despite having dyslexia, J had been doing well in school. His mother, Mae, repeatedly cried through entire nights during an intense effort to avoid eviction. J cried at the loss of his dog due to their eviction. Mae kept him away from her encounter with the marshals, but his sister was too anxious to be separated from her. So, her daughter whistled at birds, and zipped her favorite stuffed animal into her hoodie, as they were evicted.

Nicole Chung’s “A Broken Link” explores the new challenges facing special education students. Chung draws upon her experience as the mother of a 9-year old child with autism to illustrate the obstacles facing kids in good schools, even when they have the advantages of families who can go the extra mile in helping to implement Individual Education Plans. During last spring’s school closures, a “multitude” of children, “many of them disabled,” “‘just fell off the grid.’” This year, with so many schools starting the year online, meaning that they likely begin without personal connections between students and educators, the challenges are likely to be much worse.

By sharing her family’s frustrations, Chung helps make the case presented by Julia Bascom, executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, that “The pandemic has magnified these huge structural issues. Ultimately, it’s going to be disabled and marginalized students bearing the burden, being delayed, losing time and progress.”

Then, Paul Tough addresses the costs to upwardly striving, low-income students from a high school that had been making progress helping its students succeed in higher education. Disadvantaged students tend to be hurt by the “summer slide,” or the loss of learning gains over summer vacation. Tough focuses on Richmond Hill H.S.’s efforts to prevent “summer melt,” or the loss of students who had intended to go straight to college but don’t enroll in the fall.

Richmond Hill uses “bridge coaches,” who are “near peers” or recent graduates that serve as mentors, and other personalized efforts to help students transition to higher education. This requires “a lot of hand-holding,” and other guidance, and not enough of those personalized contacts are possible during the pandemic. Richmond Hill’s students lost more than 30 parents to the coronavirus, as hundreds of their providers lost their jobs. This means the losses of The Lost Year will be reverberating for years to come.

And that leads to the ways that each story in The Lost Year returns to social and emotional connections, as well as the need to tackle structural issues outside the four walls of classrooms. And that is why the failure of urban schools to reopen has been so tragic.

At times, a discussion moderated by Emily Bazelon, featuring Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova, the Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones, former Education Secretary John King, the University of Southern California Dean Pedro Noguera, and middle school teacher Shana White, seemed likely to veer off into the blame game. My sense, however, was that they intentionally avoided opportunities to refight the battles of the last two decades. They wisely limited most criticism for the inability of schools to serve at-risk kids to the malpractice of the Trump administration and a lack of resources and time.

For instance, Hannah-Jones pushed the question of why Denver’s low-wage childcare workers were back in class, but not the higher-paid teachers. But Bazelon shifted gears and asked her about other inequities she had seen. This brought the discussion back to big-picture inequities. Hannah-Jones then focused on affluent families who can afford private schools, adding, “I have this deep pit in my stomach about the disparities and really the devastating impact that this period is going to have.”

This also foreshadowed Bazelon’s worries that an increase in private schools and vouchers will worsen segregation.

Hannah-Jones rightly warned that last spring her daughter’s online class of 33 only had about 10 students logged in. Since the discussants also had justifiable complaints about the flawed preparations for this fall’s virtual learning, it could have led to another round of attacking the education “status quo.” But Hannah-Jones explained how she mistakenly believed her daughter had turned in all of her assignments. This candor also encouraged a discussion of the structural problems that make the transition to online learning so daunting.

When asked about the big picture issues and solutions, the discussion remained constructive. Hannah-Jones brought up the opportunity for rejecting high-stakes testing. Bazelon asked if the crisis could promote outdoors learning and flipped classrooms (for older students) where tapes of “star lecturers” free teachers for the people-side of classroom learning. She also asked whether schools should be focusing on emotional health, hoping students will catch up on academic content over time. Noguera largely agreed, and replied with a call for “a national push to get kids reading. Low-tech. Actual books. And writing.”

John King then praised online curriculum provided by organizations like Edutopia. More importantly, he then declined that opportunity to repeat the corporate reform attacks on teachers, who supposedly could have singlehandedly overcome the legacies of segregation, poverty, and trauma if they had “High Expectations!” Contradicting the company line he had long espoused, King called for more counselors, mental health professionals, “high-dosage” tutoring, the expansion of AmeriCorp programs, and full-year instruction.

Superintendent Cordova then called for a new type of summer program where kids “engaged in learning for learning’s sake – not ‘third grade is about multiplication tables…” Instead of mere remediation, she would motivate kids by exposing them to the larger world. This is consistent with Corova’s hope that schools will be able to “try to go deeper as opposed to broader” in teaching and learning.

Shana White, the Georgia teacher, wished that districts had planned for “worst-case scenarios.” That should seem obvious given the state “leadership” coming from Trump loyalists. It sounds like White teaches in a worst possible scenario where teachers must do both – conduct in-person and virtual instruction using Zoom at the same time.

I’m an optimist who believed that data-driven, competition-driven reformers would have recognized what our poorest students would lose if their test-driven reforms were mandated. I wrongly believed that if accountability-driven reformers had known more about real-world schools, and shared experiences with flesh-and-blood students, that they would seek better levers for changing schools. But, it is possible that the pandemic has revealed both the complexity of our intertwined problems, and how there are no shortcuts for bringing true equity to high-poverty schools. It’s a shame that students had to lose so much this year in order to bring an opportunity for adults to come together for real, structural solutions.

It’s also a shame that Trumpian campaigns to deny the reality of “community-spread” of viruses and ideology-driven mandates to hurriedly reopen schools have guaranteed The Lost Year for our most vulnerable children. But maybe we can all unite in a fact-based campaign against Trump and then learn the lessons of The Lost Year, and engage in holistic, meaningful education reforms.

Sarah Jones is an amazingly perceptive writer who has trained her sights in the real crisis in American education: not low test scores, but underfunding and stark disparities of funding.

Her latest article is brilliant. It begins:

Andrew Worthington’s public school was in trouble even before the coronavirus struck. “We have lead in the pipes,” the Manhattan-based English teacher said. “We have all sorts of rodents. There’s soot in the ventilation system. The bathrooms are constantly out of service.” When school is in session, Worthington said, most classes have over 30 students. About 80 percent of the student body qualifies for free and reduced lunch, and many lack the tech they now need to keep up with classes.

After the pandemic turned classrooms dangerous, Worthington’s students faced widening gaps. The iPads the school handed out could only do so much. “It’s hard for them to write essays on a tablet,” Worthington observed.

Like any natural disaster, the pandemic is a stress test for our systems and institutions. It locates their weak spots, and presses until something snaps. Public education could be its next casualty, advocates and experts told Intelligencer; a victim not just of the virus, but of something older and more deliberate, too. America’s public schools haven’t been properly funded for years. Twenty-nine states spent less on public education in 2015 than they did in 2009, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has reported. Local governments in 19 states cut per-pupil spending over the same time period; elsewhere, small increases couldn’t make up for drastic, state-level reductions. If schools buckle now under the weight of the pandemic, lawmakers bear much of the blame.

With school back in session, administrators and teachers alike must stretch already scarce resources to meet new demands. If school buildings reopen at all, social-distancing demands smaller class sizes and more teachers. If schools keep classes virtual, poor students need tools that their districts might not be able to afford. Because the pandemic helped spawn a recession, schools also face crippling cuts as state and local tax revenue contracts. A new report from the American Federation of Teachers projects a funding gap of $93.5 billion for pre-K–12 education, and an additional $45 billion gap for higher education. Unless Congress and Donald Trump can agree on a rescue package, the union estimates that around one million jobs for pre-K–12 educators will disappear.

Maybe no one could have prevented coronavirus, or something equally drastic, from transforming public life and public schools. But the situation didn’t have to be quite so dire, said Diane Ravitch, an education historian and the founder of the Network for Public Education. “We have been through a long period of devaluing public education, especially the education of children who are poor,” she told Intelligencer by email. “High-wealth communities invest in their schools. In poor neighborhoods, where children have low test scores, politicians have opened charter schools and offered vouchers, which saps funding from schools that need it most.”

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, put matters in even blunter terms. “I hear the word ‘chronic,’ and that’s a good word,” she said. “But there’s another word that has to be put with it, and that’s ‘intentional.’” Lawmakers, she added, “are intentionally, chronically underfunding our schools.”