Archives for category: Race to the Top

Who knew that “adequate yearly progress” and “accountability” could be the subject of a comic novel? John Thompson just read that novel and he reviews it here.

Roxanna Elden’s Adequate Yearly Progress is a hilarious, satirical novel that nails the very serious truths about the real world effects of corporate school reform. Although Elden’s humor spectacularly illuminates the reformers’ often-absurd mindsets, she also reveals the good, bad, and the ugly of a diverse range of human beings.

Adequate Yearly Progress begins with Lena, a young, black, literature teacher returning to school at Brae Hill Valley High School in a high-challenge Texas neighborhood. The way she is greeted starts to reveal some of the flaws of the complex people who teach there. A colleague asked, “Don’t you read the news? Miss Phil-a-delphia?” She thus assumed that Lena comes from a city where everyone is in a hurry and no one attends church.

The news is that Nick Wallabee, a political celebrity without real-world experience in classrooms, but who had written a book on “easy fixes” to schools, has been hired as the district’s superintendent. Any discussion about Wallabee was likely to become a “morale-draining gripe session.”

The Wallabee administration starts by introducing a new accountability metric, the “Believer Score.” Stressing the positive, the administrator said the measure will “let you gain points by proving you believe all children can learn.” Teachers need to “just be ready to show that you fully embrace any new initiatives.”

The announcements caused “collective grumbling,” but hope was raised by the school’s principal, Dr. Barrios. He was known as “the superintendent whisperer,” who had always been able to buffer teachers from the ill-conceived quick fixes that are routinely dumped on schools.

Wallabee was a new type of micromanager, and even Barrios was unable to temper his new boss’ hubris. Wallabee asserted, “I know there are adults (spitting out the word adults) … who take issue with being held accountable.” He proclaimed the willingness to break eggs to make an omelette, and it became clear that Brae Hill Valley HS and Barrios were targeted.

The school was turned into a “Believers Make Achievers Zone.” A series of “three-ring binders, the highest level of the organizational hierarchy” would guide the process. Brae Hill Valley became a “Curriculum Standard of the Day Achievement Zone.” Teachers were given the first of a series of orders, and each Curriculum Standard of the Day must be written in its entirety on the board each day.

The next interventions were the “fearsome Office for Oversight of Binders and Evidence of Implementation,” the “Pre-Holiday Cross-Departmental Midyear Assessment Data Chart” (PHCDMADC), and the “Cross-Disciplinary Compare-And-Contrast Holiday Review Packet,” as well as worksheets to identify what students don’t know in order to fortify instruction. A non-educator, Daren Grant of “Transformational Change Advocacy ConsultingPartners,” then distributed the folder, “Research-Based Best Practices That Work,” and made surprise visits to classrooms, as well as the football team’s locker room during halftime.

Two of those visits foreshadow climactic outcomes.  Hernan Hernandez was perhaps the school’s best teacher, even though he refused to join the teachers union. A student who was exited from the “Demographics Don’t Determine Destiny” or Destiny Charter School arrived unexpectedly, and disrupted Hernan’s class. This happened as Daren, the consultant, dropped in.

Second, in perhaps the only type of activity in the novel which I had never witnessed in schools, he spoke to Coach Ray and his players, using the same data-driven vocabulary and reality-free exhortations in the middle of a game, as Coach Ray was exhorting the team to put on their “inner game face.”  (I would have loved to witness such a scene.) It foreshadowed a positive outcome that offset the sad result of the consultant’s dropping-in to Hernan’s class.

Coach Ray, brought much of the negative baggage of his family in Huntsville, the infamous prison’s town, to coaching, but he had another side that made him the story’s silent hero.

Also foreshadowing a crucial realization at the end of the novel, Lena seemed to have mixed but mostly negative feelings about a scene with white people clapping off-key and rapping a poem with the line “I got ninety-nine problems , but a b____ ain’t one of them”

A young Teacher Corp history teacher, Kaytee, was understandably outraged by her mentor who offered the “QUIT” or “Quit Taking It Personally” advice. Even though I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a veteran teacher who didn’t oppose the data-driven accountability systems that were imposed by non-educators, Kayte would be right to resent the response of some of her colleagues to those metrics. They called for the “neck-tattoo statistic.” Students who wear those tattoos can’t be expected to meet outcome metrics as well as poor children of color who don’t wear them.

Then, Wallabee sought to ramp up the types of teaching methods that Kaytee was taught in her Teacher Corp classroom management principle professional development class. The consultant said, “I’d like to start by having everyone in here physically unpack their preconceptions and assumptions and put them in the assumption box.” Her call to “raise the roof!” was followed by pressed palms reaching up to imaginary roof beams.

Kaytee seemed destined to rise in the reformers’ world after her blog post went viral when it was endorsed by the filmmaker of Show Me You Care and I’ll Show You My Homework. That anti-teacher film was followed by How the Status Quo Stole Christmas, which, of course meant How Teachers Stole Christmas.  That foreshadowed the possibility of a different education film genre, The Mystery History Teacher.

Reality started to set in, for instance, after Kaytee’s effort to teach a culturally relevant lesson was undermined by the technology which was supposed to drive “transformational” change. Her video of Cesar Chavez “Fighting for Improved Hand Job Conditions” was blocked by the online autocorrect censor. Much worse, after being assaulted by a student and no disciplinary consequences were contemplated, she started having second thoughts about whether simplistic memes could really help students. 

Eventually, Kaytee found herself drafting a letter to a law school admissions office. She knew the best pitch would be something like how she had learned to “lead from the classroom and scale up her macro impact for low-income students.” But she wanted to write, “Dear Admissions Committee, I want to go to law school because I will do anything in this world to get out of being a teacher.”

As the “Crunch Time” which always proceeds high-stakes testing approached, even more test prep was mandated. During a faculty meeting, angry teachers asked whether the principal was “trying to tell us to teach nothing but test-taking skills?” Principal Barrios replied with the standard answer, “I don’t think that’s exactly what I said.” He thus stirred an “amiable laugh,” while exemplifying the culture of compliance that traditional teachers resent, and corporate reformers tried to exorcise. (To complicate things, those on all sides of the teacher wars complained that the principal hadn’t fired an obvious incompetent.  However, nobody else knew that Barrios was reluctant to fire the teacher in his late 6os because he  had cancer.)

As the year ended, reformers focused on the need to terminate teachers based on their “Believer Scores.” Because of their relationship with Global Schoolhouse’s test creation division, an administrator seeking to replace Barrios felt free to let favored teachers with high “Believer Scores” preview sample test questions, so that the two accountability metrics would line up with each other.

A scandal then leads reformers to shift gears and invest in a new virtual school charter network startup.

Another result was a great teacher was “selected out of the classroom.” On the other hand, these experiences help inform Lena’s growing enlightenment, inspiring the line in her poem, “Tapping their feet, shifting and creaking the seats, struggling students with ninety nine problems apiece.”

In a brilliant ending, that I don’t want to reveal too much about but which spoofs another test question meme, Elden asks, “What would an additional scene at the end of this story most likely be?”

Will an anxious principal be looking at the test scores, or will the new Global Schoolhouse School Choice Solutions be started? Will filmmakers shift from themes that demonize teachers, or will there be a happy ending for an excellent, unfairly fired teacher?

Or will the answer be, “All of the above.”

The standardized tests to which our students have been subjected for two decades have not improved American education. They have degraded it into endless months of test preparation, for tests of dubious reliability and validity. Schools have reduced or eliminated the arts, recess, civics, and other subjects because they “don’t count.” Only the tests count.

Standardized tests do not reduce achievement gaps. Standardized tests do not increase equity. Standardized tests label children as winners or losers, and the same students are labeled “losers” or “failures” year after year by these flawed instruments. Standardized tests are highly correlated with family income. Standardized tests had their origins in racist and eugenicist theories. They should be thoroughly discredited, but our policymakers refuse to see the harm they do.

Federal law requires that every student in grades 3-8 take standardized tests in the spring. The teachers are not allowed to discuss the questions. The scores are returned 4-6 months later, when the students have different teachers. The teachers are not allowed to know which questions students got right or wrong. The tests have no diagnostic value. None.

FairTest              
National Center for Fair & Open Testing

for further information:
Bob Schaeffer    (239) 395-6773
            mobile    (239) 699-0468

WHAT:    National Town Hall on Suspending High-Stakes Testing in Spring 2021 

WHO:     U.S. Representative Jamaal Bowman, New York — House Education Committee 
                Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig, Dean, University of Kentucky College of Education 
                Dr. Lorrie Sheppard, Distinguished Professor of Education, University of Colorado 
                Dr. Jack Schneider, Asst. Professor, Leadership in Education, University of Massachusetts 
                Dr. Lisa Escarcega, Colorado State Board of Education 
                Roberto Jiménez, School Committee Member, Chelsea, Massachusetts 
                The event will be MC’d by Bob Schaeffer, Executive Director, FairTest, 
                            and Ilana Spiegel, University of Colorado Board of Regents. 

WHEN:   Tuesday, January 26, 2021 — 6:00pm EST 

WHERE:  online via Zoom webinar 

HOW:      Register at:  https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_FCKpfQKmSqmXKMo-KKH3Og  — recording available via Facebook after the event

WHY:       Public school parents, educators, and community leaders believe that no test score is worth risking the lives of students and school personnel. Forcing children to return to classrooms to take government-mandated standardized exams would be dangerous and irresponsible. No one needs a test to know that many low-income children in under-resourced schools have fallen further behind. Results from tests administered this spring could not be valid or reliable; the conditions in which students tried to learn have not been “standardized.”


                Parents and educators overwhelming support canceling spring 2021 exams.  According to the “Understanding America Study” by the University of Southern California, nearly two thirds of parents agree with suspending this year’s testing mandates. Fully 72 percent of Black parents favor cancellation. So do the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association.


                The time and resources spent administering tests this year would be better invested in educating students while supporting their emotional needs.  Federal testing requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act and state high-stakes exam mandates must be suspended for at least another year.

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, reviews historian Jack Schneider and journalist Jennifer Berkshire’s A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door. Schneider and Berkshire have collaborated on podcasts called “Have You Heard.”

Thompson writes:

The first 2/3rds of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, by Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire, is an excellent history of attacks on public education. It taught me a lot; the first lesson I learned is that I was too stuck in the 2010s and was wrong to accept the common view of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as a “joke” and a “political naif.” The last 1/3rd left me breathless as Schneider’s and Berkshire’s warnings sunk in.

A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door starts with an acknowledgement that DeVos isn’t the architect of the emerging school privatization tactics. That “radical agenda” has been decades in the making. But she represents a new assault on public education values. As Schneider and Berkshire note, accountability-driven, charter-driven, corporate reform were bad enough but they wanted to transform, not destroy public education. They wanted “some form” of public schools. DeVos’ wrecking ball treats all public schools as targets for commercialization. 

Schneider and Berkshire do not minimize the long history of attacks on our education system which took off after the Reagan administration’s A Nation at Risk blamed schools for “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation.” They stress, however, that it was a part of Reagan’s belief that our public schools and government, overall, were failing, and how it propelled a larger attack on public institutions.

Forty years later, free marketers are driving a four-point assault. They contend that “Education is a personal good, not a collective one,” and “schools belong in the domain of the Free Market, not the Government.” According to this anti-union philosophy, it is the “consumers” who should pay for schooling.

The roots of this agenda lie in the use of private school vouchers that began as an anti-desegregation tool. Because of “consumer psychology,” the scarcity of private schools sent the message that they were more valuable than neighborhood schools. But, neither private schools nor charter schools made good on their promise to deliver more value to families. Similarly, Right to Work legislation and the Janus vs AFSCME ruling have damaged but not destroyed collective bargaining.

Neither did online instruction allow the for-profit Edison schools or, more recently, for-profit virtual education charter chains to defeat traditional schools. Despite their huge investments in advertising spin, these chains produced disappointing outputs. For instance, DeVos claimed that virtual schools in Ohio, Nevada, and Oklahoma had grad rates approaching 100%. In reality, their results were “abysmal.”

To take one example, the Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy had a 40 percent cohort graduation rate, not the 91 percent DeVos claimed. It received a D on the Oklahoma A-to-F Report Card for 2015-16. Also, in 2015, a Stanford study of 200 online charters found that students lost 72 days per year of learning in reading and 180 in math in a 180-day year.

Such dismal results prompted more calls for regulations for choice schools. Rather than accept more oversight, free marketers doubled down on the position that parents are the only regulators. To meet that goal, they borrowed the roadmap for Higher Education for-profits, adopting the tactics that failed educationally but made them a lot of money.

So, Schneider and Berkshire borrow the phrase “Lower Ed” from Tressie Cottom  as they explain how privatizers patterned their movement after Higher Ed where 10 percent of students attended for-profit institutions. Their profits came from the only part of public or Higher Education that could produce big savings, reducing expenditures on teaching. This meant that since the mid-1970s tenure-track faculty dropped by ½, as tenured faculty dropped by 26 percent. Consequently, part-time teachers increased by 70 percent.

Moreover, by 2010, for-profit colleges and universities employed 35,000 persons. They spent $4.2 billion or 22.7 percent of all revenue on marketing and recruiting. 

In other words, the market principles of the “gig economy” are starting to drive the radical “personalized” education model that would replace “government schools.” Savings would begin with the “Uberization” of teaching.  A glimpse of the future, where the value of a teaching career is undermined, can be found on the “Shared Economy Jobs” section of JobMonkey where education has its own “niche.” Teachers could expect to be paid about $15 per hour.

And that leads the system of “Education, a la Carte,” which affluent families need not embrace but that could become a norm for disadvantaged students. What is advertised as “personalization” is actually “unbundling” of curriculum. Algorithms would help students choose courses or information or skills and teachers (who “could be downsized to tech support”) that students think they need.

Worse, this “edvertising” is full of “emotional appeals, questionable claims, and lofty promises.” Its “Brand Pioneers” started with elite schools’ self-promotion and it led to charters adopting the “Borrowing Prestige” dynamic where the implicit message is that charters share the supposed excellence of private schools. And then, charters like Success Academy took the “brand identity” promotions a step further, spent $1,000 per student on marketing SA logo on You-Tube, Twitter, Instagram, baby onesies, and headphones.

Schneider and Berkshire also described the KIPP “Brand Guidelines” video which compares the charter chain to Target, which wouldn’t represent its business differently in different cities. So, it says that every conversation a KIPP teacher has about the school is “a touch point for KIPP’s brand.”

Similar edvertising techniques include the exaggerated size of waiting lists for enrolling in charter chains. Their marketing role is sending the message, “Look how many people can’t get in.”  Charters have even engaged in “market cannibalism,” for instance issuing gift cards for enrolling children in the school.

Worse, demographic trends mean that the competition between choice schools and traditional schools will become even more intense as the percentage of school age children declines, For instance, 80 percent of new households in Denver since 2009 didn’t have children. And even though corporate reformers and DeVos-style free marketers have failed to improve education, their marketing experts have shown an amazing ability to win consumers over.

So, here’s Schneider’s and Berkshire’s “Future Forecast:”

The Future Will Be Ad-Filled;

The Future Will Be Emotionally Manipulated;

The Future Will Be Micro-Targeted;

The Future Will Have Deep Pockets;

The Future Will Tell You What You Want.

You know the old line, “Failure is not an option.” Well, we have federal education policy built on the idea that failure doesn’t matter. Failure is not only an option, it is the only option. No Child Left Behind failed; the same children who were behind were left behind. Race to the Top was a failure; no one reached “the top” because of its demands. Common Core was a failure: It promised to close achievement gaps and raise up fourth grade test scores; it did not. Every Student Succeeds did not lead to “every students succeeding.” At some point, we have to begin to wonder about the intelligence or sanity of people who love failure and impose it on other people’s children. Testing, charter schools, merit pay, teacher evaluation, grading schools A-F, state takeovers, etc., fail again and again yet still remain popular with the people who control the federal government, whether they be Democrats or Republicans.

Peter Greene sums up the problem with his usual wit and insight: Democrats need a new vision. They need to toss aside everything they have endorsed for at least the past 20-30 years. The problem in education is not just Betsy DeVos. The problem is the bad ideas endorsed by Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. Will Biden and Cardona have the wisdom and the vision to understand that?

For four years, Democrats have had a fairly simple theory of action when it came to education. Something along the lines of “Good lord, a crazy lady just came into our china shop riding a bull, waving around a flamethrower, and dragging a shark with a head-mounted laser beam; we have to stop her from destroying the place (while pretending that we have a bull and a shark in the back just like hers).” 

Now, of course, that will, thank heavens, no longer fit the circumstances. The Democrats will need a new plan.

Trouble is, the old plan, the one spanning both the Clinton and Obama years, is not a winner. It went, roughly, like this:

The way to fix poverty, racism, injustice, inequity and economic strife is to get a bunch of children to make higher scores on a single narrow standardized test; the best shot at getting this done is to give education amateurs the opportunity to make money doing it.

This was never, ever a good plan. Ever. Let me count the ways.

For one thing, education’s ability to fix social injustice is limited. Having a better education will not raise the minimum wage. It will not eradicate poverty. And as we’ve just spent four years having hammered into us, it will not even be sure to make people better thinkers or cleanse them of racism. It will help some people escape the tar pit, but it will not cleanse the pit itself.

And that, of course, is simply talking about education, and that’s not what the Dems theory was about anyway–it was about a mediocre computer-scorable once-a-year test of math and reading. And that was never going to fix a thing. Nobody was going to get a better job because she got a high score on the PARCC. Nobody was ever going to achieve a happier, healthier life just because they’d raised their Big Standardized Test scores by fifty points. Any such score bump was always going to be the result of test prep and test-taker training, and that sort of preparation was always going to come at the expense of real education. Now, a couple of decades on, all the evidence says that test-centric education didn’t improve society, schools, or the lives of the young humans who passed through the system.

Democrats must also wrestle with the fact that many of the ideas attached to this theory of action were always conservative ideas, always ideas that didn’t belong to traditional Democratic Party stuff at all. Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire talk about a “treaty” between Dems and the GOP, and that’s a way to look at how the ed reform movement brought people into each side who weren’t natural fits. The conservative market reform side teamed up with folks who believed choice was a matter of social justice, and that truce held until about four years ago, actually before Trump was elected. Meanwhile, in Schneider and Berkshire’s telling, Democrats gave up supporting teachers (or at least their unions) while embracing the Thought Leadership of groups like Democrats for Education Reform, a group launched by hedge fund guys who adopted “Democrat” because it seemed like a good wayto get the support they needed. Plus (and this seems like it was a thousand years ago) embracing “heroes” like Michelle Rhee, nominally listed as a Democrat, but certainly not acting like one. 

All of this made a perfect soup for feeding neo-liberals. It had the additional effect of seriously muddying the water about what, exactly, Democrats stand for when it comes to public education. The laundry list of ideas now has two problems. One is that they have all been given a long, hard trial, and they’ve failed. The other, which is perhaps worse from a political gamesmanship standpoint, is that they have Trump/DeVos stink all over them. 

But while Dems and the GOP share the problems with the first half of that statement, it’s the Democrats who have to own the second part. The amateur part.

I often complain that the roots of almost all our education woes for the modern reform period come from the empowerment of clueless amateurs, and while it may appear at first glance that both parties are responsible, on closer examination, I’m not so sure.

The GOP position hasn’t been that we need more amateurs and fewer professionals–their stance is that education is being run by the wrong profession. Eli Broad has built his whole edu-brand on the assertion that education doesn’t have education problems, it has business management problems, and that they will best be solved by management professionals. In some regions, education has been reinterpreted by conservatives as a real estate problem, best solved by real estate professionals. The conservative model calls for education to be properly understood as a business, and as such, run not by elected bozos on a board or by a bunch of teachers, but by visionary CEOs with the power to hire and fire and set the rules and not be tied down by regulations and unions. 

Democrats of the neo-liberal persuasion kind of agree with that last part. And they have taken it a step further by embracing the notion that all it takes to run a school is a vision, with no professional expertise of any sort at all. I blame Democrats for the whole business of putting un-trained Best and Brightest Ivy Leaguers in classrooms, and the letting them turn around and use their brief classroom visit to establish themselves as “experts” capable of running entire district or even state systems. It takes Democrats to decide that a clueless amateur like David Coleman should be given a chance to impose his vision on the entire nation (and it takes right-tilted folks to see that this is a perfect chance to cash in big time). 

Am I over-simplifying? Sure. But you get the idea. Democrats turned their backs on public education and the teaching profession. They decided that virtually every ill in society is caused by teachers with low expectations and lousy standards, and then they jumped on the bandwagon that insisted that somehow all of that could be fixed by making students take a Big Standardized Test and generating a pile of data that could be massaged for any and all purposes (never forget–No Child Left Behind was hailed as a great bi-partisan achievement). 

I would be far more excited about Biden if at any point in the campaign he had said something along the lines of, “Boy, did we get education policy wrong.” And I suppose that’s a lot to ask. But if Democrats are going to launch a new day in education, they have a lot to turn their backs on, along with a pressing need for a new theory of action.

They need to reject the concept of an entire system built on the flawed foundation of a single standardized test. Operating with flawed data is, in fact, worse than no data at all, and for decades ed policy has been driven by folks looking for their car keys under a lamppost hundreds of feet away from where the keys were dropped because “the light’s better over here.”

They need to embrace the notion that teachers are, in fact, the pre-eminent experts in the field of education.

They need to accept that while education can be a powerful engine for pulling against the forces of inequity and injustice, but those forces also shape the environment within which schools must work. 

They need to stop listening to amateurs. Success in other fields does not qualify someone to set education policy. Cruising through a classroom for two years does not make someone an education expert. Everyone who ever went to the doctor is not a medical expert, everyone who ever had their car worked on is not a mechanic, and everyone who ever went to school is not an education expert. Doesn’t mean they can’t add something to the conversation, but they shouldn’t be leading it.

They need to grasp that schools are not businesses. And not only are schools not businesses, but their primary function is not to supply businesses with useful worker bees. 

If they want to run multiple parallel education systems with charters and vouchers and all the rest, they need to face up to properly funding it. If they won’t do that, then they need to shut up about choicey policies. “We can run three or four school systems for the cost of one” was always a lie, and it’s time to stop pretending otherwise. Otherwise school choice is just one more unfunded mandate.

They need to accept that privatized school systems have not come up with anything new, revolutionary, or previously undiscovered about education. But they have come up with some clever new ways to waste and make off with taxpayer money.

Listen to teachers. Listen to parents in the community served by the school. Commit to a search for long term solutions instead of quick fixy silver bullets. And maybe become a force for public education slightly more useful than simply fending off a crazy lady with a flamethrower. 

President-Elect Joe Biden will soon announce his choice for Secretary of Education. He promised to choose a person with experience as a teacher. He said he wants a Secretary who is committed to public education. Here is my choice.

I can’t think of anyone better qualified to be Secretary of Education than Dr. Leslie T. Fenwick, other than Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, who is chair of the Biden education transition team and has taken herself out of the running.


Dr. Leslie T. Fenwick is Dean Emeritus of the School of Education at Howard University.


She has been a teacher, a teacher educator, a scholar, and a dean. She taught middle school science in Toledo, her hometown. 


She understands the most important needs of American education: adequate and equitable funding; experienced teachers; and a commitment to equity and inclusion.


I have watched her lectures online, and I was blown away by her wisdom, her articulateness, and her deep understanding of the needs of children, teachers, and schools.


Leslie Fenwick is steeped in knowledge of teaching and learning, and she knows the details of federal policy. 


She is the perfect person to clean up the mess that Betsy DeVos created, to reverse four years of an administration that sought to demolish civil rights protections, to defund public schools
, to fund private and religious schools, and to impose financial burdens on college students who are deep in debt or were defrauded by for-profit institutions.

After twenty years of failed federal policies of high-stakes testing and punishment for schools and teachers, American education needs bold and forceful leadership, not incremental change.


Leslie Fenwick knows that public schools are an essential element of American democracy. They are community institutions that belong to the public, not to entrepreneurs or corporate chains. 

She will support schools instead of closing them. She will support teachers instead of threatening them.

She is a strong and clear-thinking leader.


She respects educators.


She is an inspiring speaker.

She would be the ideal Secretary of Education for the Biden administration. 

If you want to show your support for Dr. Fenwick, please sign the NPE Action petition and tweet your support:

Here is the petition: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/dr-leslie-fenwick-for-us-secretary-of-education

For twitter: contact @joebiden @DrBiden @Transition46


The past two decades have been rough times for the two big teachers’ unions. Republicans have demonized them. The Obama administration courted their support but did little to help them as they were attacked by the right in Republican state houses and the Courts. Duncan gleefully promoted the misguided use of test scores to evaluate teachers, despite repeated warnings by eminent researchers that the methodology was flawed. In fact, eligibility for states to compete to get more than $4 billion in Race to the Top funding was contingent on states enacting laws to do exactly that. “Value-added measurement” flopped; it was not only a costly failure but it was enormously demoralizing to teachers. When the Los Angeles Times and the New York Post published the VAM scores of teachers, Duncan applauded them.

As a candidate, Joe Biden made clear that he’s not only pro-teacher, he’s a union man. Whether or not either will be chosen, the names of the leaders of the NEA and AFT have been floated as possible choices for Secretary of Education. This would have been unthinkable at any time in the past 20 years.

Politico suggests that the Biden administration heralds a new day for the unions. Certainly they worked hard for his election. He is listening to the unions in a way that Obama never did. The pro-charter Democrats for Education Reform is not happy with this development.

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/12/18/biden-obama-teachers-union-447957

The president-elect benefits from witnessing the union blowback against Obama, who enraged educators when he publicly supported the firing of teachers at an underperforming Rhode Island school in 2010. The National Education Association — Jill Biden’s union — even called on Obama’s first Education Secretary Arne Duncan to resign amid fights over academic standards, public charter schools and testing, though tension faded when Obama in 2015 signed bipartisan legislation to overhaul No Child Left Behind.

By contrast, Biden is starting off with a plan that his wife, while pointing to herself, likes to say is “teacher-approved.” He has pledged to nominate a former teacher as his education secretary and told union members, “You will never find in American history a president who is more teacher-centric and more supportive of teachers than me.” 

But within the Democratic party, the spectrum of ideology on education issues is far more complex than “pro-teacher.”

Biden will need the support of teachers and Congress as he tries to meet his goal of safely reopening most schools in the first days of his administration. But he will also need to navigate sharp divisions that remain within theDemocratic party on charter schools and student assessments — both flashpoints during the Obama administration as well.

The president-elect has been critical of charter schools. And the Democratic Party platform — written with input from teachers unions — argues against education reforms that hinge on standardized test scores, stating that high-stakes testing doesn’t improve outcomes enough and can lead to discrimination.

But it’s an open and pressing question whether Biden’s education secretary will waive federal standardized testing requirements this spring for K-12 schools for a second year or to carry on, despite the pandemic. Teachers unions say it isn’t the time, but a host of education and civil rights groups say statewide testing will be important to gauge how much students have fallen behind during the pandemic…

Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, said she does not expect the Biden administration to recycle the education policies of the Obama years.

Biden has called for tripling federal spending on low-income school districts, boosting funding for special education, increasing teacher salaries, helping states establish universal preschool and modernizing school buildings. His education plan also calls for creating more community schools, with expanded “wraparound” support for students — a big priority for unions.

“The Biden administration is going to support public schools, which means not only turning away from the policies of Betsy DeVos — that’s a given — but also turning away from Race to the Top,” she told POLITICO before the election.“It’s going to be very different.”

Bob Shepherd returned to teaching after many years in the education publishing industry, where he developed curriculum and assessments. He writes about what changed while he was away. Thanks to State and federal mandates, he found himself ensnared by stand

I taught at the beginning of my career, had a successful career in educational publishing, and then returned to teaching at the end of my career. What a difference these years made!!!!

At the beginning of my career, I had English Department Chairpeople who were highly experienced teachers. The general attitude of administrators was that English teachers were the experts on English, History teachers the experts on History and the teaching of History, etc., and they pretty much stayed out of stuff that wasn’t their business. We in the English Department would hold regular meetings and discuss what was and wasn’t working in our classes, choose curricula, share tips and lesson plans and materials (many of which we had developed), and set policies and procedures. Once a year, the English Department chairperson would do evaluations of the teachers in his or her department. We made our own tests. There was enormous opportunity for innovation because we could actually discuss with one another various pedagogical approaches and curricular materials and make our own decisions. Our discussions/debates about pedagogy and curricula were vigorous and spirited. Many of the teachers were older women who had been doing the job for years. They were, almost to a person, scholarly and highly knowledgeable. The kids learned a lot.

I loved teaching. The only reason I left was that the pay wasn’t great. I started a family, and the year I left, I almost tripled my salary.

Flash forward 25 years. When I returned to teaching, everything was micromanaged. We still had department meetings, but these had devolved into sessions in which the Department chairperson read to us the latest mandates from our administration or from the state. Curriculum materials were chosen for us and were HORRIBLE, test-preppy crap. We were expected to follow a day-by-day script from the state. Formal evaluations were done four times a year by APs or the Principal, using mandated checklists, and in addition, there were four other informal evaluations and a system of demerits for not completing an enormous list of requirements (if, for example, an AP came into one’s classroom and the standard, bellwork, essential question, daily vocabulary, and homework for the hour’s lesson weren’t posted on the board; if one’s Data Wall or lesson plan book (each class had to have a two-page lesson plan in a folder) were not completed and up to date; and so on (there were hundreds of such requirements–far too many for anyone to keep track of them). In short, the Department Chairperson and the teachers had lost all autonomy. We were expected to do enormous amounts of test prep because what mattered–to the evaluations of the students, of us, of the administrators, and the school–were the scores on the invalid, sloppy, ridiculous state tests. My pay depended upon the school’s state rating based upon those demonstrably invalid tests.

And the teachers had changed. They were mostly young. They were not scholarly and not knowledgeable. “What’s a gerund?” the 26-year-old English Department Chairperson asked me, looking at the month’s required grammar topics. “Oh, what’s that book?” a fellow English teacher asked me about a volume I was carrying. Never heard of this guy. YEETS?”

“Yeats,” I said. “His collected poems.”

“Oh, I don’t read poetry,” she said.

The Reading Coordinator informed us that our 9th graders had to read ALL of the Odyssey, in her words, “the ENTIRE NOVEL.” She freaking thought that The Odyssey was a novel!!! When we met to discuss a classical literature unit, she had no idea that the term referred to the literature of ancient Greece and Rome.

And there was enormous churn. Between a quarter and a third of the teaching staff every year.

To teach at all sanely, I had to pretend to be following the rules while secretly making my own curricular materials in the form of handouts.

I spent most of my time carrying out required tasks that were of ZERO value to my students, most of the related, in one way or another, to supposed “accountability.”

The profession had been utterly ruined in the name of “reform.”

Peter Handel writes at Truthout that President-Elect Biden must change education policy if he wants to heal the nation. By his choice for Secretary of Education, Biden must acknowledge the damage done to America’s children by the high-stakes testing regime of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Bush’s law and Obama’s program were kissing cousins; both were disasters that hurt the most vulnerable children.

Handel quotes Lee-Ann Gray, a clinical psychologist, who says that the American school system is nothing short of traumatic for many Black students and other students of color. In her book, Educational Trauma: Examples From Testing to the School-to-Prison Pipeline, she exposes how schooling in the U.S. routinely undermines students’ mental health, limits their potential, and, in the worst cases, causes lifelong harm.

As a new administration is poised to take the reins of government, Gray says it is time to demand both widespread changes to the U.S. education system and public measures to address the mental health crisis facing many marginalized students. She urges Joe Biden to start by re-examining Race to the Top, an Obama-era education program that ties funding to performance, and instead begin cultivating compassionate alternatives that promote learning and well-being.

Gray told Handel:

As a clinical psychologist, certified in treating trauma, I observed blatant and overt traumas in the youth presenting for care in California. It was especially evident to me when the prevalence rate of ADD/ADHD rose to the point that teachers were identifying it and referring students to psychiatrists for prescriptions. I saw that schools in America perpetrated little t traumas every day, everywhere. Francine Shapiro, the creator of EMDR, a trauma treatment, indicated that shame, slights, humiliation, embarrassments and failures are smaller traumas that can accumulate to critical symptoms. The rate of bullying and the negative effects of testing are riddled with little t traumas. Standard education protocol in the U.S., with its emphasis on testing, intense competition and conformity, is a breeding ground for little t trauma. This is particularly problematic in low-income schools where students are dehumanized and often face multiple oppressions before entering the classroom.

Finally, I knew I was seeing trauma when I stumbled across psychologist Alice Miller’s concept of “poisonous pedagogy,” which describes how harmful practices are perpetuated in the name of education. From high-stakes testing to harsh discipline to inadequate mental health support, poisonous pedagogy is rife in U.S. schools.

She added:

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTT) are two federal reward programs offering schools extra funds for higher test scores. They essentially use a market demand model to demonstrate that students are learning, when, in fact, learning cannot be measured in this way. Testing is a very flawed measure of student success. Moreover, the model used to evaluate school scores is even more flawed in that teachers’ careers depend on the scores of students they’ve never taught. Ultimately, these two federal incentive funding programs bind teachers’ hands so that they aren’t able to employ their professional expertise.

There is more to this thoughtful interview. Open the link and read it.


In 2012, Tennessee created the “Achievement School District” (ASD) and promised that it would catapult the state’s lowest performing schools into high-performing schools. So confident were state leaders that they hired Chris Barbic, who ran a celebrated charter chain in Houston, and he was confident that the state’s weakest schools could be transformed within five years by handing them over to charter operators. Other states were excited by the idea and created their own state takeover districts.

The ASD failed, even though it was funded by $100 million in Race to the Top money. But Tennessee refuses to accept that taking over struggling schools and giving them to charter operators is a bad idea.

The North Carolina Policy Watch reported on Tennessee’s insistence on protecting failure. North Carolina created an “Innovative School District,” modeled on the ASD.

Greg Childress writes:

The state-run school district in Tennessee, the one on which this state’s Innovative School District (ISD) is modeled, has failed.

According to reports out of Tennessee, the Achievement School District (ASD), is working on a plan to return 30 ASD schools in Memphis and Nashville to their local districts by 2022.

State officials in Tennessee contend the district, which was established in 2012 to improve achievement in low-performing schools, “grew too quickly” and that “demand outpaced supply and capacity.”

Still, Tennessee officials aren’t giving up on the ASD. They’re billing the new proposal as a “reset” of the district, which has fallen short of its goals to move low-performing schools from the bottom 5 percent and into the top 25 percent.

Most ASD schools were handed over to charter school operators after being pulled from local districts.

“The Achievement School District remains a necessary intervention in Tennessee’s school framework when other local interventions have proven to be unsuccessful in improving outcomes for students,” officials said in a presentation obtained by Chalkbeat.

“The Commercial Appeal” in Memphis reports that most of the schools remain in the bottom 5 percent and that several have closed due to low enrollment. Teacher retention has also been a major challenge, the paper reports.

Tennessee school officials plan to stand by their Big Idea, even though its failure is clear even to them.

North Carolina’s “Innovative School District” has not fared any better. Although the state wanted the ISD to be a major reform effort, like the ASD, only one school entered the new district. NC had other low-performing schools, but whenever one was told to join the ISD, its leaders ran to their elected officials and got exempted.

To put it mildly, NC’s ISD has “struggled to get off the ground.”

Childress writes:

After only one year, state officials made wholesale leadership changes at ISD. The ISD got a new superintendent, the lone ISD school got a new principal and a new president was hired to lead the private firm that manages the school.

James Ellerbe, the ISD superintendent hired in July, reported this week that there are 69 schools on the state’s 2019 qualifying list, meaning the low-performing schools are at risk of being swept into the ISD.

The ISD will bring only one school into the state-run district next year. The school with the lowest performance score among Title I schools in the bottom 5 percent will be brought into the ISD.

The ISD was approved in 2016 by state lawmakers even though the ASD had showed little signs of success after being in business four years.

Not only is the NC ISD based on a failed model, its one school has both a principal and a superintendent!

All of which leaves unanswered question, why do failed reforms never die?


Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider have written a valuable new book called A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School. They recently published an opinion article in The New York Times in which they demonstrate the role of Betsy DeVos in the “school reform” movement. They point out that Congress rejected her primary policy goal–sending public funding to private voucher schools–and that the new Biden administration is certain to reverse her assault on civil rights enforcement in education.

Her major accomplishment, they argue, was not one that she aimed for. She managed to disrupt the bipartisan consensus on national education policy, embraced by both the Bush and Obama administrations. That consensus consisted of high-stakes testing and charter schools. Because DeVos advocated for charters and vouchers, many Democrats now view them warily and recognize that school choice was always a conservative policy. DeVos was never a huge supporter of high-stakes standardized testing except to the extent that test scores could be used to harm public schools. Her primary interest was defunding public schools and helping religious schools. Thanks to DeVos, the Democratic party may have fallen out of love with school choice.

They write:

More than three decades ago, conventional Republicans and centrist Democrats signed on to an unwritten treaty. Conservatives agreed to mute their push for private school vouchers, their preference for religious schools and their desire to slash spending on public school systems. In return, Democrats effectively gave up the push for school integration and embraced policies that reined in teachers unions.

Together, led by federal policy elites, Republicans and Democrats espoused the logic of markets in the public sphere, expanding school choice through publicly funded charter schools. Competition, both sides agreed, would strengthen schools. And the introduction of charters, this contingent believed, would empower parents as consumers by even further untethering school enrollment from family residence...

Through her attention-attracting assault on the public education system, Betsy DeVos has actually given the next secretary of education an opportunity — to recommit to public education as a public good, and a cornerstone of our democracy.