Archives for category: Poverty

Privatization of important parts of the public sector is a great scourge of our times. No institution is more fundamental to the American Dream than public education, and it is under assault by powerful and well funded forces. By billionaires who have dreams of lower taxes and libertarians who want to destroy whatever government provides. We must fight privatization of the goods and services that belong to us.

Frankly we should join together to fight for a society where there are no billionaires and no poverty. Let us agree to take care of one another and have a fairer society, where everyone has a decent standard of living, where there is no hunger or homelessness. I recommend a book called The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, in which two British sociologists-Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett-demonstrate that societies with more equality are happier than those where great inequality persists. By contrast, scan Bloomberg Billionaires Index. I am not a socialist, but I don’t believe we should have either billionaires or poverty.

The pandemic impoverished millions of people. But the billionaire class got richer, much much richer. Senator Bernie Sanders said recently that the fifty richest people in this country have wealth equal to the bottom 50 percent of the population. That is gross, disgusting, obscene inequality.

Our nation and its democratic ideals are being undermined by extremes of wealth and income. The middle class is struggling not to slip into poverty.

From Forbes in 2018:

In the 1950s, a typical CEO made 20 times the salary of his or her average worker. Last year, CEO pay at an S&P 500 Index firm soared to an average of 361 times more than the average rank-and-file worker, or pay of $13,940,000 a year, according to an AFL-CIO’s Executive Paywatch news release today.

This is not the America I grew up in, and it’s not what America should be.

I have found these old English rhymes to be inspiring.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who takes things that are yours and mine.

Politico writes that Senator Bernie Sanders deserves credit for key features of the $1.9 trillion Biden plan and for encouraging Biden not to compromise with moderate Republicans who offered a $900 billion plan.

Politico said:

 Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) played the most dramatic role during the passage of the Covid relief bill into law. But the senator with the greatest imprint on the script itself was his colleague on the opposite end of the Democratic ideological spectrum: Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). 

Sanders’ influence on the most ambitious piece of domestic legislation in a generation is evident in several places, particularly the guaranteed income program for children, the massive subsidies for people to buy health care, the sheer size of the $1.9 trillion measure and the centerpiece of it — direct checks to working Americans. 

But the specifics of the law tell only part of the story. The calculus by which the legislation was crafted and passed — a belief that popular bills endure more than bipartisan ones — is quintessentially Sanders. And it raises a thought-provoking question: Has any elected official in American history had such a profound influence on a major political party without ever formally joining it? 

Six years ago, Democrats were in a different place. Austerity politics were still gripping parts of the party. The ambitious agenda items were more social than economic: immigration reform, gun control, police reform after Ferguson. And in a few months time, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee would make serious inroads among the white working class voters who had served as the bedrock for Democrats for decades. 

Within that landscape, Sanders was a throwback: a labor-oriented big-government liberal who seemed like more of a gadfly than a serious player. He was known for passing little-noticed amendments but also found a knack for making well-noticed public spectacles, often as acts of disagreement with the Obama White House on items like domestic surveillance laws and the extension of the Bush tax cuts. As his following picked up, a depiction of him emerged as an ideologue who valued ideological purity over progress and was content to undermine a historic president in the service of it.

That never jibed with reality. Though admittedly stubborn, Sanders voted often for major bills that fell short of his ambitions (Obamacare), cut deals that went against his ideology (VA reform), and made sure his public shows of opposition didn’t actually turn into catastrophes for the Democratic Party. When his legislative white whale (a $15-an-hour minimum wage hike) was nixed by the parliamentarian a few weeks back, he could have insisted that his fallback option be given a vote. He didn’t, calculating that it wasn’t worth jeopardizing or delaying the entire enterprise over the minimum wage. As one Sanders aide described it: “He knows when to throw down and when it’s time to get s— done…”

The Democratic Party today holds razor-thin majorities in both chambers and is helmed by a president who might have been the most moderate of the 20 or so candidates who ran in the primary. And yet every single member — save one in the House — voted for a nearly $2 trillion deficit-financed bill that sends money without strings attached to the poorest Americans, all while embracing a unionization effort targeting the biggest e-commerce giant in the world and entertaining a $4 trillion follow-up bill to revamp American infrastructure that will likely include tax hikes on the rich. If Sanders was just a touch more extroverted, we’d likely see signs of euphoria in Burlington.

Of course, credit (or, if you’re so inclined, blame) isn’t his alone. The enlarged child tax credit has been the project of countless Democrats, including Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). The bill’s $86 billion bailout for multi-employer pensions was spearheaded by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). And none of it would have been possible without twin Senate wins in Georgia or Biden’s insistence that he needed to go big out the gate. 

But, it’s worth recalling, that Biden easily could have charted a bipartisan approach instead. In early December, Manchin and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) announced the outlines of a $900 billion relief bill of their own, with a splashy Washington Post op-ed framing it as the logical step toward ideological comity. Five other senators in the Democratic caucus were on board with the idea

Sanders rejected the proposal out of hand. His move sent an early signal to the White House that it would have to scramble for votes even on a center-of-the-road approach. Weeks later, the Georgia election happened, Biden stuck to the script that bigger was better, and the pieces of a $1.9 trillion package — upon which the success of the Demcratic Party now hangs — fell into place.

Sheelah Kolhatkar, a staff writer for The New Yorker, describes the most remarkable part of the Biden COVID rescue plan: its income payments for children. The fate of this experiment depends on electing enough Democrats in 2022 to extend it into the future and convincing Republicans that the program is so popular that they should support it. Now that the legislation has been passed, Biden must work hard to forge a bipartisan coalition to make it permanent.

On Tuesday, March 9th, Amy Castro Baker stood on her front porch and watched as her two teen-age children boarded a bus and went off to school together for the first time in a year. Her sense of relief was profound. Baker, a researcher of economic mobility and an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice, had been through a challenging period familiar to most parents—and especially to working mothers. For the past year, she had balanced the demands of a full-time job with overseeing her kids’ online schooling, while also cooking, cleaning, and running the household as a single parent. “We’re at the point in my home where it’s a choice between what’s higher risk, covid or my kids’ mental health,” Baker said. “I’m not sure I could have handled another month.” These are the kinds of difficulties that the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9-trillion pandemic-relief bill recently passed by Congress, was designed to address. Benefits in the bill could help millions of families who are facing similar challenges and are living under much greater financial precarity.

The bill, which was signed by President Joe Biden on Thursday, offers a variety of benefits intended to address economic hardship caused by the pandemic. No Republicans voted for the legislation, largely based on the argument that the pandemic will end soon and the economy doesn’t need the help. And it’s true that some aspects of the legislation go beyond the demands of the pandemic, addressing economic disparities that existed before covid-19 hit. The bill includes provisions to give one-time, fourteen-hundred-dollar payments to individuals earning fewer than eighty thousand dollars a year, and to increase unemployment insurance by three hundred dollars per week until early September. But it is the plan’s expanded, fully refundable child tax credit—which is worth thirty-six hundred dollars for each child under age six and three thousand dollars for those aged six to seventeen—that has the greatest potential to change the way that the United States addresses poverty.

A typical child tax credit can only be claimed by people earning enough money to pay taxes in the first place, which excludes those with an earned income of fewer than twenty-five hundred dollars—in other words, those in the most dire need. The new child tax credit works differently: starting in July, the federal government will send cash each month, until December, to parents for every child that they have regardless of the family’s employment status, and the remaining balance will be disbursed once families file their taxes next year. “It will actually maintain and lift living standards for millions of women and their children,” Heidi Shierholz, a senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, told me, adding that she hopes the credit will eventually become a permanent benefit. “There’s also a massive racial-justice angle here, too. This will disproportionately help families of color, and it will disproportionately bring Black kids and Hispanic kids out of poverty. This is groundbreaking.”

In some ways, the credit resembles much debated proposals to set up a universal-basic-income program, which would send cash to families every month to help them get by. Such a program never seemed possible in the United States, but lessons from the 2008 financial crisis, the Trump Presidency, and the pandemic have changed what policymakers are willing to try. “It signals a turn in the way that we approach alleviating poverty and supporting the unpaid care work of women that makes the economy move,” Baker told me.

From the earliest days of corporate reform, which is now generally recognized to have been a failed effort to “reform” schools by privatizing them and by making standardized testing the focal point of education, we heard again and again that a child’s zip code should not be his or her destiny. Sometimes, in the evolving debates, I got the sense that some people thought that zip codes themselves were a problem. If only we eliminated zip codes! But the reality is that zip codes are a synonym for poverty. So what the reformers meant was that poverty should not be destiny.

Would it were so! If only it were true that a child raised in an impoverished home had the same life chances as children brought up in affluent homes, where food, medical care, and personal security are never in doubt.

But “reformers” insisted that they could overcome poverty by putting Teach for America inexperienced teachers in classrooms, because they (unlike teachers who had been professionally prepared) “believed” in their students and by opening charter schools staffed by TFA teachers. Some went further and said that vouchers would solve the problem of poverty. All of this was nonsense, and thirty years later, poverty and inequality remain persistent, unaffected by thousands of charter schools and TFA.

In effect, the reformers held out the illusion that testing, competition, and choice would level the playing field and life chances of rich and poor kids. After 30 or more years of corporate reform, it is clear that the reform message diverted our attention from the wealth gap and the income gap, which define the significant differences among children who have everything and children who have very little.

Imagine the cost of assuring that every school in the nation were equitably and adequately funded. Imagine if all students had small classes in a school with beautiful facilities, healthy play spaces, the best technology, and well-paid teachers. That would go a long way towards eliminating the differences between rich schools and poor schools, but our society has not taxed itself to make sure that all kids have great schools.

None of the promises of “reform” have been fulfilled. The cynical among us think that the beneficiaries of reform have been the billionaires, who were never willing to pay the taxes necessary to narrow income and wealth inequality or to fund good schools in every neighborhood. They gladly fund “reforms” that require chicken feed, as compared to the taxes necessary to truly make zip codes irrelevant.

Valerie Strauss writes about the dramatic effect that the Biden COVID relief plan will have on children. The effects will last only for one year, but Democrats hope to make the family income provision permanent. To do that, they need to retain a majority in 2022 because the GQP doesn’t believe in direct cash benefits to families. They prefer tax cuts for the rich, which might (or might not) incentivize them to create new jobs. That’s trickle-down economics. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it “feeding the sparrows by feeding the horses.”

Valerie Strauss suggests that the plan

President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is aimed at helping the country recover from the coronavirus pandemic — but it is another thing, as well: a major federal school reform unlike those we’ve seen in the past few decades.

While the new law is aimed at helping families get back on their feet and helping businesses and schools reopen after a year of turmoil, it includes measures that together have the potential to slash poverty among the 12 million students who live in low-income households.

Biden himself tweeted recently: “No child should grow up in poverty. The American Rescue Plan will expand the child tax credit and cut the child poverty rate in half.”

Outside estimates on its impact have come to the same conclusion, including one from the nonprofit Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which said that two key tax credit provisions could “together lift more children above the poverty line, 5.5 million, than any other economic support program.” An Urban Institute analysis of the plan said the child poverty rate in 2021 will fall by more than 52 percent, largely from changes in tax law and the $1,400 stimulus checks that are part of the relief package.

It should be noted that most of the provisions in this new law will remain in effect only for a year or two — and there is no guarantee what will happen beyond then. But directly aiming to reduce child poverty is exactly what many advocates for children have long said is needed.

Policymakers have been focused for decades on improving public schools with a culture based on standardized testing, the expansion of charter schools and other “school choice” measures, and, in some places, the demonization of teachers. Child poverty, they said, was an excuse for poor performance by adults.

But the testing/choice/big data approach has not closed the achievement gap, and on some measures, it has barely moved.

Critics say research clearly shows that standardized test scores are fundamentally a metric of the state of child poverty in America, not of school quality. Students who live in low-income Zip codes virtually always have lower test scores than those who don’t.

While conditions inside many schools do need to be overhauled — and some teachers need better training — what happens to children outside of school has a far larger effect on their performance than what happens in class, researchers have said.

“On nearly every single outcome that we can assess, public schools have a marginal impact that is really small relative to the impact of families,” said Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and founding director of the university’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning.

Many schools nationwide have attempted to address the out-of-school lives of students, including “community schools” that forge partnerships with local agencies and organizations to provide wraparound services for children.

But federal policy has been focused on other things since 2002′s No Child Left Behind law ushered in an era of standardized-testing accountability systems for schools and districts. While running for president, Biden had said he wants to make education equity a top priority.

Biden’s rescue plan will, among other things, send direct cash payments of $1,400 to more than 85 percent of U.S. households, make health care more affordable and extend unemployment benefits.

It will also make key changes in federal tax law, including with the child tax credit, which until now has largely helped middle- and high-income families. Under the new law, many more low-income families will be eligible for the credit, which will rise from $2,000 to $3,600 per child every year. The money will be sent to families over the course of the year in installments — essentially a guaranteed income.

Biden has said he wants the changes in the child tax credit to be permanent, which would have a lasting effect on the child poverty rate. At this time, they aren’t.

In 2011, writer Sarah Garland said in the Hechinger Report,“Increasingly, educators and experts are questioning the reformers’ tactics and asking whether the single-minded focus on schools has become an excuse to avoid the hard work of addressing poverty.”

The American Rescue Plan seems to be a start.

Joe Biden just signed the most sweeping economic relief package since the New Deal. He has addressed poverty and inequality directly and fearlessly. Trump could boast of a massive tax cut for the rich. Biden can boast of putting money in the pockets of most Americans at a time of dire need. The number of children in poverty, by most estimates, will be cut in half.

A significant and permanent decline in the child poverty rate—currently higher in the U.S. than in other industrialized nations—will improve the lives of not only children, but families and communities. Children will have better nutrition, better child care, better access to medical care, and more stable lives, as the economic prospects of their families improve.

The plan establishes the benefit for a single year. But if it becomes permanent, as Democrats intend, it will greatly enlarge the safety net for the poor and the middle class at a time when the volatile modern economy often leaves families moving between those groups. More than 93 percent of children — 69 million — would receive benefits under the plan, at a one-year cost of more than $100 billion.

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The bill, which is likely to pass the House and be signed by Mr. Biden this week, raises the maximum benefit most families will receive by up to 80 percent per child and extends it to millions of families whose earnings are too low to fully qualify under existing law. Currently, a quarter of children get a partial benefit, and the poorest 10 percent get nothing.

Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect calls this “a watershed moment” that could demonstrate to working people that government is on their side. He writes:

With the passage of the American Rescue Plan, people who voted for Donald Trump grasped that the government, under a Democratic president, is sending each of their kids at least $3,000 a year, paying for their health coverage if they lose their jobs, topping up their unemployment compensation, keeping their local governments from cutting services, and a great deal more.

Government, in friendly hands, just might be on the side of the people—in a way that is simple, direct, and not filtered through private profiteers. Imagine that. Reprogram some tax breaks for the very rich that do nothing for anyone else, and government might deliver even more.

All of this public outlay will boost the economy so much that conservatives, who once emphasized the need for fiscal discipline and business tax breaks, are now warning that direct government help to regular people might cause the economy to grow too fast. What a nice problem to have.

Activist government has been demonized for more than a generation. A great many working-class people, who saw government under both parties getting into bed with elites rather than providing practical help, joined in the demonizing. Now, they just may give government and the Democrats a second look.

The New York Times said that the rescue plan’s direct income support for children amounts to “a policy revolution.”

Obscured by other parts of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimuluspackage, which won Senate approval on Saturday, the child benefit has the makings of a policy revolution. Though framed in technocratic terms as an expansion of an existing tax credit, it is essentially a guaranteed income for families with children, akin to children’s allowances that are common in other rich countries.

The plan establishes the benefit for a single year. But if it becomes permanent, as Democrats intend, it will greatly enlarge the safety net for the poor and the middle class at a time when the volatile modern economy often leaves families moving between those groups. More than 93 percent of children — 69 million — would receive benefits under the plan, at a one-year cost of more than $100 billion.

The bill…raises the maximum benefit most families will receive by up to 80 percent per child and extends it to millions of families whose earnings are too low to fully qualify under existing law. Currently, a quarter of children get a partial benefit, and the poorest 10 percent get nothing.

Joe Biden has staked his presidency on policies that echo FDR. He is the right leader for the moment. I have and will criticize his education policies. Mandating testing in the middle of a pandemic is thoughtless and cruel. But in confronting a once in a century pandemic and economic peril, his leadership has been peerless. And as Robert Kuttner wrote, Biden may even persuade working people to vote in their own interest and not to be swayed by the endless culture wars (e.g., trans bathrooms, cancel culture, Colin K’s knee) that Republicans use to mask their lack of any economic policy that benefits the vast majority of Americans.


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.