Jeanne Kaplan is a veteran civil rights activist who was elected to serve two terms on the Denver school board. She has been active in multiple campaigns to stop privatization and over-testing and energize a genuine effort to improve the public schools. She wrote this piece for this blog.


  THE SISYPHEAN TASK IN DENVER

The dictionary defines Sisyphean task as something you keep doing but never gets completed, an endless task.  In Greek mythology Sisyphus is punished by the god Zeus and is tasked with endlessly pushing a rock up a steep mountain, only to have it roll back down each time he nears the top.  I will leave the deeper philosophical meanings to others.  Simply interpreted, public education advocates residing in the Queen City of the Rockies, “transformers” if you will, will find similarities to this story as we reflect on our battle to defeat “education reform.”  In Denver’s case the Sisyphean task master has not been a vengeful god, but rather a school board member or a school board itself which through their betrayals continues to keep “transformers” tasked with pushing the education transformational rock up the mountain.

Call it the Sisyphean Challenge, Groundhog Day, a Broken Record, Déjà vu.  However you describe it, these “transformers” are experiencing another setback in their attempts to stop or at least slow down the business-based “education reform” model. In 2009 Denver voters thought they had put an end to the then still budding “education reform” movement.  “Transformers” won four of seven seats on the school board but quickly lost that advantage when, within hours of the election, one supposed “transformer” flipped sides.  For the next ten years education reformers had free reign in Denver. Four to three boards became a six to one board, became a seven to zero board.  All for “education reform.”  Forward ten years to today.  “Transformers” once again gained control of the Denver School Board in theory.  This time the transformer majority was believed to be 5-2.  But local education reformers – with a lot of help from national reform partners – once again figured out how to get their privatization agenda through this hypothetically anti-privatization 5-2 Board.  By consistently voting to renew and re-establish privatization policies and projects, today’s Board has deprived Denver voters once again of reaching the mountain top, and usually by a 6-1 vote.  And from today’s perspective the rock has once again rolled down the mountain.

The below listed organizations, initiatives and foundations have all had their hand in preventing educational transformation in Denver. The list is thorough but not comprehensive:

1 – A+ Colorado30 – Empower Schools
2 – Adolph Coors Foundation31 – Gates Family Foundation
3 – Anschutz Family Foundation32 – Janus Fund
4 – Bellwether Education Partners33 – KIPP – Knowledge is Power Program
5 – Bezos Family Foundation34 – Koch Family Foundations
6 – Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation35 – Laura and John Arnold Foundation
7 – Bloomberg Philanthropies36 – Laurene Powell Jobs – Emerson Collective
8 – Boardhawk37 – Leadership for Educational Equity
9 – CareerWise38 – Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation
10 – Chalkbeat39 – Lyra Learning – Innovation Zones
11 – Chan Zuckerberg Initiative40 – Michael and Susan Dell Foundation
12 – Schusterman Family Foundation41 – Moonshot
13 – Chiefs for Change42 – PIE Network (Policy Innovators in Ed)
14 – City Fund43 – Piton/Gary Community Investments
15 – City Year44 – Relay Graduate School of Education
16 – Colorado Health Foundation45 – Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation
17 – Colorado Succeeds46 – RootEd
18 – Community Engagement & Partners47 – Rose Foundation
19 – Daniels Fund48 – School Board Partners
20 – Democrats for Education Reform49 – Stand for Children
21 – Denver Families of Public Schools50 – Students First
22 – Denver Foundation51 – Teach for America
23 – Denver Scholarship Foundation52 – The Broad Academy/The Broad Center
24 – Donnell-Kay Foundation53 – Third Way
25 – EdLeadLeadership54 – TNTP
26 – Education Pioneers55 – Transform Education Now (TEN Can)
27 – Education Reform Now56 – Wallace Foundation
28 – Education Trust57 – Walton Family Foundation
29 – Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation

Below are some of the reform ventures coaxed through by these groups.  Many have been used to maintain the failing status quo.  Some have been used to make money for friends and colleagues.  Some have been outright failures.   But by its failure to address them or by its continued tolerance of them, the DPS Board has sanctioned the continuation of privatization in our city:

·      At a time when education reform was truly hanging on by a thread in Denver, the Board assured its continued existence for the foreseeable future by voting to renew the use of the racially biased state accountability system, going even further into reformland by promising to develop a new accountability “dashboard” (a key “reformer” tenet).  While testing is state mandated, the District did not even explore the possibility of waiving its obligation to rely on this system. This one decision has also allowed the proliferation of many of the above listed groups and has given new life to the overall privatization movement.  A lot of new players are making a lot of new money from the public education system in Denver. After all, what is the business model really about if it is not about making money?  This one vote has allowed the continuation of some of the most divisive and punitive practices such as:

1.     Relying on high stakes testing even though the Board has given lip service to wanting a waiver this year due to COVID; 

2.     Relying on a non-transparent Choice system, which some believe is being used to fill unwanted charters;

3.     Ranking of schools and continued competition resulting in winners and losers among students and schools;

4.     Relying on Student Based Budgeting where the money follows the student;

5.     Marketing of schools, whereby wealthier schools and schools with their own board of directors (charters and Innovation Zone schools) have a distinct advantage;

6.     Giving bonuses to employees of schools based on test scores.  

Other recent reform-oriented Board decisions include:

·      Voting to renew or extend all 13 charter school contracts that were up this year even when some were struggling for enrollment and academic success.  The Board claimed it did not want to disrupt kids and families.  Portfolio model.

·      Promoting school MERGERS as opposed to school CLOSURES for under enrolled neighborhood schools, somehow thinking voters won’t notice that merging schools results in the same failed policy as school closures, that campaign promises have been broken, and that charter schools are being treated differently.  Portfolio model.  

·      Voting to approve new Innovation Zones, the hybrid portfolio model that supposedly gives schools more independence while, unlike charters, is still under the control of the school board.  These Innovation Zones do, however, have their own administrative staff as well as their own boards and have ushered in their own cottage industry. Portfolio Model.

·      Working with City Fund funded School Board Partners for Board training. City Fund is a relative newcomer to the education privatization world and is largely financed by Netflix Reed Hastings and John Arnold of Laura and John Arnold Foundation.  Locally, City Fund has dropped $21 million into Denver’s own RootEd to assure “every child in Denver has the opportunity and support to achieve success in school, college and their chosen career.” This needs to be done equitably, of course!  And only within a non-union school!  Grant funding from private sources to promote private interests.

·      Hiring a Broad trained Superintendent search company, Alma Advisory Group.  Alma has also been involved in executive searches for both City Fund and The Broad Academy, two quintessential privatizers.  More than four months have gone by since DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova resigned.  Four metro Denver school districts have had superintendent vacancies this winter.  Two have already found their leaders.  Denver is still holding community meetings which if they follow DPS history, will end up be ing rather meaningless.  Most importantly, will this “reform” inclined group be able to bring a wide-ranging group of candidates forward? The Broad Academy, training leaders in education reform.

·      Continuing to allow and expand non-licensed teachers and administrators from programs such as Teach for American and Relay Graduate School of Education into DPS’ schools and continuing to tell the public they are just as qualified as professional educators.   Anyone can teach!

Why do these examples matter, you might ask?

For starters, review the list of organizations and people pushing privatization.  The sheer number is staggering.  Then check out the similarity of language in their missions, visions, and goals and the uniformity of strategies and messaging.

·      Every child deserves a great school. 

·      Every school deserves all the support it needs to ensure equity.

·      Every school should have parent and community partners.

·      Every school should be anti-racist, celebrate diversity, be inclusive.

These are all worthy goals, albeit very general ones.  But what is the overall strategy to achieve them?  Privatization and the business model focusing on innovative and charter schools using an accountability system based on high stakes testing to define success seems to be their answer.  And in spite of claims that “reformers” are agnostic as to the type of school they foster, there are a few common characteristics they demand in their privatized schools:  

·      the ability to hire and fire anyone at any time; employees do not have to be licensed; at-will employees if you will.  That’s right.  No unions in innovation or charter schools.  Anyone can teach. 

·      an accountability system based on high stakes tests; schools and employees evaluated and punished by the results of these racially inappropriate tests.

·      market-driven criteria used to define school success.  Winners and losers, competition, closures, choice, chaos, churn.

·      “learning loss,” the pandemic-based slogan, must be addressed by unrelenting dependency on high stakes testing.  No test waivers for this crazy school year.  “Reformers” must have that data, and they must remind everyone that in spite of Herculean efforts on many fronts, public education has failed. 

Add to this scenario the amount of money being spent to further this agenda. Determining this takes some patience because the tax records are often difficult to find and decipher. Then try to deduce who is benefitting from each program.  This also takes some digging, for let me assure you, public education has spawned not a cottage industry but rather a mansion industry!  Search the group you are interested in and check out its board and staff.  And finally, look at the effect all of this has had on kids.  Yeah, yeah, yeah. Isn’t it always about the kids?  In reality few of these extra ventures have had any effect on kids.  Fewer still touch kids directly.

Each privately funded unit on this list has had a privatized DPS connection of some sort.  Some initiatives are duplicative. Some are very narrowly focused. Some purport to be THE ANSWER to public education’s struggles.  There is no tolerance for differing beliefs.  Yet, after 15 years of experimentation Denver’s students remain mired in mediocrity, suffering from an ever narrowing curriculum and dependent on evaluations, ratings, and a definition of success based on racially biased tests.  Nationally, Denver Public Schools remains a leader in implementing “education reform” but alas, it also remains a leader in teacher and principal turnover and home to one of the largest achievement/opportunity gaps in the nation. 

We in Denver have been subjected to the high-octane version of “education reform” for more than 15 years.  Choice, charters, competition, closures have resulted in three unequal tiers of schools (charter schools, innovation zones, neighborhood schools).  Reformers call this “the portfolio model.”  I call it structural chaos. Michael Fullan calls it fragmentation, a system wrongly focused on “academics obsession, machine intelligence, and austerity.”  To those privatizers who say, “but you have no solution,” Fullan has one that would turn public education on its head and could possibly produce what all of us involved in the public education scene say we want: robust, equitable education for all.  Fullan has a solution for whole system success that would be focused on the human elements of public education:  learning and well-being, social intelligence, and equality of investments.   But in order for anything like this to work the superintendent and the board must be on the same page.  Elections matter.  And candidates need to understand what is at stake and what they have been elected to do.

Public education is the cornerstone of our democracy. (Given today’s America it might have slipped to second place behind voting rights). I ran for school board on that belief, I witnessed its importance through the lives of my immigrant parents. I do not believe our democracy will survive without public education, but the cornerstone must change. Radically.  Dramatically.

Imagine if all of the efforts of those 50 plus organizations were combined into one united movement focused on an anti-racist, equitable systemic change.  And imagine how truly revolutionary, transformative and unifying this movement could be if it included voices and ideas not aligned with the business model but with people who are willing to truly look at things differently, people who were willing to be honest and show leadership.  Imagine how during this unique time in our nation’s history this new system could have resulted in a new and exciting way of delivering and evaluating teaching and learning, well-being, equity and equality.  Imagine how exciting this unique time in Denver could been had we taken advantage of this opportunity.  , Instead, DPS decided to continue with the status where money and power continue to rule, where a business model has been buttressed to portray a non-existent success, and where an elected Board of Education has turned its back on its mandate.

Historically “transformers” in Denver have been dogged in their attempts to get that rock to the mountain’s peak.  We have kept fighting even when betrayed by school board members, even when organization after organization has put down roots to continue the mirage of success, even when untold millions of dollars have been invested in programs that have yet to make a significant difference in educational outcomes.  Can we in Denver defy Greek mythology and end this Sisyphean nightmare? Or are there too many yet unknown obstacles in our path to stop us once again?  Elections will decide. Time will tell. 

Julian Vasquez Heilig, Jameson Brewer, and Frank Adamson have written a peer-reviewed analysis of the politics of school choice. As Heilig wrote in his description of the analysis, “Modern notions of “markets” and “choice” in schooling stem from the libertarian ideas Milton Friedman espoused in the 1950s. Considering the underlying politics of school choice, it is important to examine the ramifications of neoliberal and collective ideology on market-based school choice research. In this chapter we point out that much of the research suggesting positive findings is continually conducted and promoted by neoliberal ideologically-driven organizations.” I would add to their analysis that Milton Friedman was not the sole originator of the ideology of “school choice.” As I wrote in the New York Review of Books, Friedman shares that dubious distinction with white Southern politicians who were adamantly opposed to the Brown decision and desegregation.

About a decade ago, when policy elites were bashing teachers on a regular basis, Ken Futernick was writing about the challenges that teachers face every day, including lack of support by administrators and poor working conditions. Recently, he has been creating podcasts in which teachers explain how they teach about important issues of the day, like teaching about racism and the Black Lives Matter movement, teaching during the pandemic, and teaching history in a way that is relevant to all students. He shared these three podcasts with me.


Brown University Psychology Professor Malik Boykin Teaches about Prejudice and Invites us to Dance for FreedomMalik Boykin (aka Malik Starx) is an accomplished musician and a professor of psychology at Brown University where he teaches a course on stigma and prejudice. Boykin shares two transformational teacher stories–the first from second grade when he was sent to the principal’s office for raising questions about Christopher Columbus. The second is about Dr. Jaia John, his social psychology professor at Howard University who carved out time at the start each class for students to share a poem, a personal story, or even a musical performance that had some relation to the course content. 

Inspired by Dr. John, Boykin became a social psychologist and, like John, encourages his students to share something personal at the start of his classes. One of his students, Gabrielle Tanksley, describes what it’s like to be one of Boykin’s students, and she reads an extraordinary poem she shared recently in class. Starx wrote and performed “Dancing for Freedom,” the soundtrack played in this Teacher Story episode. At the end, he reflects on the inspiration for the song.

The Power of Stories and Early RelationshipsWhen 4th grade teacher Miriam Marecek turned down the lights and lit the reading candle, magic happened. Pediatrician and journalist Perri Klass describes what it was like being one of Ms. Marecek’s students and the impact it’s had on her life and professional career. Now, as national medical director for Reach Out and Read, Dr. Klass, promotes reading aloud together starting at birth.

In this episode she says, “If children grow up in literacy, rich environments, if there’s a lot of back and forth…they will, by the time they come to school, understand how books work. They will understand how print works. They will understand all kinds of things about stories and sequence that will help tremendously with learning to read. This is about growing up, enjoying the back and forth around early literacy in books with the other people in your family.” 

Three Educators Reflect on How to Teach about the Insurrection Like most Americans, these three veteran teachers were horrified as they learned about the insurrection at the nation’s Capitol on January 6th, 2021. But each of them had to decide how to address this highly controversial topic with their students. What’s the proper role for a teacher with an event like this? What if some students’ parents or the students themselves supported the insurrection? Is there any way to talk about this and other controversial topics with very young students? Listen in as each teacher reflects on these and several other challenging questions. 

My spouse and I have a wonderful dog named Mitzi. She is a 57-varieties mixed breed. When people ask me what she is, I say she is a genuine pedigreed Muttheimer. She is black with white paws and weighs 100 pounds. She may be the sweetest dog I have ever known.

But Mitzi has one problem. Since puppyhood, she has suffered from bouts of diarrhea. A few years back, I used metronidazole, which was prescribed by the veterinarian. One time, her diarrhea was so bad in the middle of the night that I rushed her to a vet clinic, where they gave her the same drug and charged me with $250. Then I learned I could buy it online without a prescription because it is used to treat bacteria in fish-tank fish. I passed along that advice and was chastised for advising a medical treatment for other people’s dogs.

So I now offer you a far better treatment. A few months ago, Mitzi got the ailment again. The metronidazole didn’t help her; it was completely ineffective. So I went online, read reviews of other products, and found something new. It is basically Kaopectate for dogs, called Pro-Pectalin. It has no drugs in it that require a prescription. It works like a charm. I grind it up, mix it with her food, and within a day, she was feeling herself again.

I wrote this in late March. I am in intensive care in the hospital now.

Peter Greene is well-known as a blogger, a teacher, a columnist for Forbes, and a humorist. He taught in the public schools of Pennsylvania for nearly 40 years. He wrote this article at my request.

He wrote:

I believe in public education.

I believe in the promise that every child should have a free quality education. And not by going out to shop for it, to hunt it down like looking for deals on a toaster or a used car, nor to travel far from home to find it, nor to have to beg and apply and hope that the school will accept them, but to have it delivered to them in their own community without exception.

Not that we’ve always hit the bullseye in this country. Our system of tying school financing to housing leaves much to be desired. The same forces of racism and economic inequity that twist and turn our society as a whole also leave their mark on our education system. Those forces include the rise of “I’ve got mine, Jack” culture in which folks don’t want to have to worry about what anyone else needs.

We’re living through a time of unprecedented assault on public education. Members of the data cult, free market advocates, social engineers, profiteers and privatizers (some sincere in their concern, and some motivated by base opportunism) are looking for ways to dismantle the system, disenfranchise parents and taxpayers, and to “liberate” billions and billions of taxpayer dollars. Their ranks are filled with education amateurs who don’t really know what the heck they’re talking about. 

What none of these disruptors promise is an education system that delivers a quality education to every single child in the country. Nor do they promise accountability to the taxpayers who fund the system, nor a system that is owned and operated by the citizens of the community. 

Only public education has those goals as its North Star.

I devoted my professional life to public education because I believe in it. I believe in the goals and promise of public education. I believe that every child in this country deserves a chance to learn, to grow, to discover and become their best selves, to learn what it means to be more fully human in the world (a whole host of things beyond the measure of a bad standardized test). I believe in a system that brings trained, qualified professionals into every community, for every child. 

We will always struggle with challenges. What is required for a quality education? How can each child’s individual needs best be mt? What makes a good teacher? But as long as our North Star is the promise of public education, and not a higher test score or a better ROI, we can navigate those difficult discussions. And we can navigate them in a thousand different ways, as individual communities work out the local education system that best suits them.

That’s the other beautiful part of our public education system—it’s not actually one education system, but thousands and thousands of local individual systems set in every kind of community imaginable. All the variety present in America is there in our schools as well. It is a big, beautiful, sprawling, messy monument to our highest aspiration, our dream that every child can grow and rise because we all, together, work to lift every child up. 

So I believe in the promise of public education. May we continue to sail toward that North Star.

This is a beautiful story. It happened in New York City. A man was rushing to have dinner with his new friend when he saw what looked like a doll on the ground in the subway. It was wrapped in an old sweat shirt. But it wasn’t a doll, it was a baby who had been abandoned. You will enjoy reading this. You might even cry. It’s good to be reminded of the goodness in the world.

John Thompson is an historian and a retired teacher in Oklahoma. He wrote this piece for the blog at my request.

In 2006, our John Marshall High School was enduring the worst of the five months-long, extreme meltdowns I witnessed in 18 years with the Oklahoma City Public Schools. Many days, I’d see the anarchy and the blood-splattered halls, and ask if I was dreaming. One thing that kept me sane was the discovery of education blogs, above all Deborah Meier’s and Diane Ravitch’s conversations in Bridging Differences. In a prescient example of the wisdom which grew out of their “animated conversation,” they agreed:

That a central, abiding function of public education is to educate the citizens who will preserve the essential balances of power that democracy requires, as well as to support a sufficient level of social and economic equality, without which democracy cannot long be sustained. We agreed that the ends of education–its purposes, and the trade-offs that real life requires–must be openly debated and continuously re-examined.

As Oklahoma City pulled out of the crack and gang crisis in the early 1990s, I saw a pattern that persisted for two decades – and which became more tragic during the third decade when I was a part-time teacher and an education writer. Each year, our school would make incremental improvements. Then, the district would bow to pressure and implement disastrous policies that would wipe out those gains – or worse. It would mandate policies that Ravitch later dubbed “corporate school reform.” Administrators who publicly endorsed policies where segregation by choice was combined with data-driven decision-making would often tell me off-the-record in the parking lot, that they knew the reforms would backfire. But they had no alternative.

During the first years after the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, local and state leaders often had some success in minimizing the damage done by school “choice” and in “monkey wrenching” the push towards high stakes testing. But, as in the rest of the nation, that resistance angered market-driven reformers who then pushed for harsher, more punitive policies. As opposed to Meier’s and Ravitch’s counsel, they believed that it was essential to remove balances of power, so they could force everyone to “be on the same page.”

One of the worst examples was requiring benchmark testing to be graded; that absurd policy drove John Marshall’s dropout rates for 9th and 10th graders through the roof. Then, the poorest halves of our high school and its middle school feeder were combined into a new school characterized by extreme, concentrated poverty. When a new data-driven staffing model was implemented, a deputy superintendent privately acknowledged that these two, intertwined “reforms” could be disastrous but said that the only thing I could do was lobby the state legislature for more support.

Back then, partially because of my success in conversing with conservative legislators, I naively believed that I could communicate with neoliberal output-driven, competition-driven reformers and the non-educators who conducted their research. But I eventually had to admit that Meier and Ravitch were correct when writing:  

Almost all the usual intervening mediators–parent organizations, unions, and local community organizations–have either been co-opted, purchased, or weakened, or find themselves under siege if they question the dominant model of corporate-style “reform.”   …

This allows these elites the opportunity to carry out their experiments on a grand, and they hope uninterrupted, “apolitical” scale, where everything can, at last, be aligned, in each and every school, from prekindergarten to grade 12, under the watchful eye of a single leader. If they can remain in power long enough, it is assumed (although what actually is assumed is not easy to find out) that they can create a new paradigm that no future change in leadership can undo.

Not understanding how single-minded “venture philanthropists” were in using “disruptive innovation” to drive top down “transformational change,” I didn’t understand why they would be so adamant about ignoring educators and social scientists, who continually reexamined their hypotheses and complicated analyses. (Falsifiable hypotheses! Who needs falsifiable hypotheses?, was the reformers’ response. We’ll just run more controls on our statistical models.)

When practitioners and researchers tried to explain the interconnected challenges faced in high-poverty schools, these true believers in “the Market” dismissed our advice as “Excuses,” and “Low Expectations.” Reformers instead gambled that they could find individual levers, like data to engineer a “better teacher,” who could turn schools around.

That is why edu-philanthropists sought to use the stress of competition to overcome the stress of generational poverty and trauma, and segregation by choice to overcome the legacies of de jure and de facto segregation. They seemed to deny that the trade-offs that Meier and Ravitch acknowledged even existed.  Reformers thus ramped up high-stakes testing to force compliance; in doing so, they ensured that soulless worksheet-driven instruction would result in in-one-year-out-the-other educational malpractice which often would push the most disadvantaged schools over a tipping point.  

Then – and now – if I could get data-driven, competition-driven reformers to listen to one thing, I would try to explain why their misunderstandings about generational poverty led to hurried doomed-to-fail micromanaging. I’d try to tell them the story of our run-of-the-mill inner city school, a place with tragic failures as well as great strengths, that corporate school reform turned into the lowest-performing secondary  school in the state, where meaningful teaching and learning was replaced with nonstop remediation.

Our Marshall H.S. had survived “White flight,” and the crack and gangs crisis of the 1980s. It had working class and a few middle class students, as well as students from situational and generational poverty. It had a significant number of students who were seriously emotionally disturbed and/or burdened by multiple traumatic experiences, now known as Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs). Back then, however, we also had numerous students with reading and math learning disabilities, who often became student leaders. Despite confidentiality laws, it was easy to identify many of the students on Individual Education Plans (IEPs) on the first day of class. They disproportionately sat on the front row, with carefully prepared notebooks, ready to “work smart” and succeed.    

By 2005, however, school choice had produced an exodus of the top teachers and students (including special education students who were not wrestling with behavioral or emotional disturbances.) Our highest challenge neighborhood was known as the “New Hood,” the home of families that had been driven out of the “Old Hood” by urban renewal. The Old Hood had endured plenty of racism and economic oppression, but it was a community full of African-American churches and home-grown institutions that had resisted Jim Crow.

The New Hood combined concentrated generational poverty, with families disrupted by multiple traumas, in a neighborhood lacking social capital. For example, when campaigning for Jesse Jackson, I learned that we didn’t try to canvass the New Hood because the high incarceration rate resulted in so few eligible voters.  Even so, when I canvassed the neighborhood for Barack Obama, I conversed with parents and learned that the majority of its students officially or unofficially transferred to schools in the 20+ districts across the metropolitan area.    

Because it is so much harder to improve education “outcomes” in schools serving the highest challenge neighborhoods, our low test scores led to more worksheet-driven mandates. This increased official and under-the-table transfers out of our poorest neighborhoods by families who could find legal or other ways of getting their children into the best schools that they could get to.

After NCLB, it was the highest challenge neighborhoods in the eastern half of our school’s area which first lost their recesses, art and music classes, and extracurricular activities, as drill-and-kill instruction failed to increase test scores. When the school board chairman visited my class and was thrilled by the standing room only audience, each student told him something about their elementary school. Virtually everyone who attended schools in the western half of our feeder area had positive things to report. The majority of those who came from the poorer eastern neighborhoods had horror stories to tell. Those from the New Hood were especially angry about being “robbed” of an education by nonstop test prep.    

The tipping point was crossed in 2006 when school staffing was driven by a primitive statistical model that could not distinguish between low income students and children of situational poverty, receiving Free and Reduced Lunch, as opposed to children from extreme poverty, who had endured multiple traumas. Because of the additional costs of providing services for the most seriously emotionally disturbed students, teachers in “regular” classrooms were assigned up to 250 students.  So, I had classes such as the one with 60 students where many students on the west side of the room had had family members killed or wounded by family members of classmates on the other side of the room.

Within a couple of years, even after the staffing formula had been worked out, segregation by choice created classes of 35 or more, with more than 40% being on IEPs or English Language Learners, with a majority carrying a felony rap (whatever that meant in a state with the world’s highest incarceration rate); and where two students had recently witnessed the murder of a parent, and two others watched the murder/suicide of their parents; during a year when our kids buried an unprecedented number of family members.

As I have explained, these doomed-to-fail, test-driven, competition-driven policies were pushed by corporate school reformers who knew little or nothing about the nuances of poverty and the legacies of segregation. They ignored the cognitive science which explained why their test-driven approach would drive holistic teaching and learning out of the classroom. 

As we deal with the legacies of today’s COVID pandemic, I hope we can learn from the history of my school and so many others. Maybe we can agree with Meier and Ravitch that “democracy cannot long be sustained” without public – not market-driven education. If nothing else, let’s agree that our democracy requires adults to listen to each other, as well as to students.

Two friends got together to address an important topic for readers of the blog. Yong Zhao is a much-published international scholar based at the University of Kansas. Bill McDiarmid is Dean Emeritus of the College of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

They write:

COVID-19 has disrupted schooling in its traditional sense. It has also disrupted other school related activities such as state standardized testing. As schools return to “normal” thanks to vaccination, many states are already pushing to resume standardized testing as part of the “normal” operations of formal education and to assess the so-called “learning loss” (Zhao, 2021). Resuming standardized testing is perhaps one of the worst things that can happen to children, especially after more than a year of social isolation and unprecedented disruption.

Standardized testing in schools has been criticized repeatedly for multiple reasons. A decade and a half ago, Sharon Nichols and David Berliner clearly articulate the damage to American education caused by standardized tests in their book, Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools (Nichols & Berliner, 2007). Dan Koretz has cited mounting evidence to show that test-based accountability has failed to significantly improve student performance in his recent book The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better(Koretz, 2017). State-mandated high-stakes testing has led educators and educational authorities to cheat, reduced education to a narrow band of the knowledge spectrum, demoralized educators, and failed to significantly close the opportunity and results gaps that marginalized students and their families continue to endure (Emler, Zhao, Deng, Yin, & Wang, 2019; Tienken & Zhao, 2013).

The negative impact of standardized testing on students cannot be overstated. First, testing discourages many students, especially historically marginalized students who may not do well on the tests for reasons outside their control. These students, primarily because of where they happen to live, have performed worse on standardized tests than their counterparts from wealthier, suburban, and mostly white neighborhoods. The results, then, are often used to hold them back or relegate them to remediation. Consequently, they miss opportunities to participate in more meaningful activities that could nurture their talents, interests, and, thus, their engagement with school.

Second, standardized testing for each grade is designed to measure students learning for that year in school. The learning thought to be measured for a given year, however, may be less important than other knowledge, skills, and dispositions students may have developed that will serve them better in their lives.  For example, although students may have not mastered certain mathematical formulae measured on the state test, they may have improved their talents, curiosity, confidence, or collaborative skills which are valuable in life (Zhao, 2018). Opportunities to build these essential skills may be rare. Mathematical formulae, on the other hand, can be retrieved online as needed. Assessment in education has been heavily focused on short-term instructional outcomes and knowledge while largely ignoring non-cognitive skills and skills needed to be life-long learners. In a world in which workers will be changing jobs four or five times and established industries will die out and new ones arise, students will need the skills suited to frequent self-reinvention.

Third, standardized testing has typically focused on two subjects: literacy and numeracy. Other subjects and domains of knowledge have been slighted or ignored. Equally important it fails to offer students opportunities to demonstrate their learning in activities and domains that are of greatest importance to them and in which they may excel. As a result, although testing results show students’ talent in taking tests in mathematics and language, it says nothing about students’ strengths and their potential to be not only good but, potentially, excellent at whatever are their innate talents and interests (Zhao, 2016). Many examples exist in multiple areas of human achievement of people who tested poorly in school but made extraordinary contributions to our world. Testing does nothing to further educators’ efforts to deploy strength-based practices that encourage and support interest-driven learners. 

After years of criticism from many students, families, and educators, and exposure of the corrupting and distorting effects of high-stakes testing, many policymakers, educational authorities, and members of the public cling to test-based accountability. Although ESEA has reduced testing requirements, the change is minimal. U.S. students may face fewer tests than a decade ago but, except for the pandemic period, students are still over-tested.  

Some argue that testing is necessary to figure out if school systems are addressing the persistent failure to justly serve marginalized students and communities. This could be accomplished, however, without high-stakes consequences for schools, educators, students, and families. We can also imagine assessments that place as much emphasis on the skills needed for the rapidly evolving world of work as on the legacy curriculum subjects. According to the World Bank, McKinsey, the OECD, and other crystal-ball-gazingorganizations, if students are to succeed in the future, these include creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, as well as non-cognitive skills such as persistence, teamwork, and conscientiousness.  Some researchers are currently testing surveys that provide reliable data on these skills (STEP, 2014).  

In line with “never waste a crisis,” the current moment of disruption is the time for us to radically rethink our addiction to high-stakes assessments. It won’t be easy. Many are heavily invested in the testing status quo. At the very least, we need a conversation that includes the voices of all concerned – students, educators, families, communities, and policymakers.  

References:

Emler, T. E., Zhao, Y., Deng, J., Yin, D., & Wang, Y. (2019). Side Effects of Large-Scale Assessments in Education. ECNU Review of Education, 2(3), 279-296. 

Koretz, D. (2017). The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Manyika, J., Lund, S., Chui, M., Bughin, J., Woetzel, J., Batra, P., . . . Sanghvi, S. (2017, November 28). Jobs lost, jobs gained: What the future of work will mean for jobs, skills, and wages. McKinsey Global Institute.Retrieved 03/25/21 from:https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/jobs-lost-jobs-gained-what-the-future-of-work-will-mean-for-jobs-skills-and-wages

Nichols, S. L., & Berliner, D. C. (2007). Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

STEP skills measurement surveys : innovative tools for assessing skills (English). Social protection and labor discussion paper, no. 1421. Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group. Retrieved 03/25/21 from: http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/516741468178736065/STEP-skills-measurement-surveys-innovative-tools-for-assessing-skills

Tienken, C. H., & Zhao, Y. (2013). How Common Standards and Standardized Testing Widen the Opportunity Gap. In P. L. Carter & K. G. Welner (Eds.), Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance (pp. 113-122). New York: Oxford University Press.

Zhao, Y. (2016). From Deficiency to Strength: Shifting the Mindset about Education Inequality. Journal of Social Issues, 72(4), 716-735. 

Zhao, Y. (2018). What Works May Hurt: Side Effects in Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Zhao, Y. (2021). Build back better: Avoid the learning loss trap. Prospects, 1-5.

Yong Zhao

Foundation Distinguished Professor

School of Education and Human Sciences

University of Kansas

Professor in Educational Leadership

Melbourne Graduate School of Education

University of Melbourne

and


G. Williamson McDiarmid

Dean Emeritus

College of Education

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hil

Bob Braun was an education reporter for 50 years. After he retired from the New Jersey Star-Ledger, he began blogging and paid close and critical attention to the state takeover of Newark. This column, posted in 2014, is as timely now as it was when it first appeared.

Let’s get this straight. Those of us opposed to the structural changes to public education embraced by crusaders ranging from the billionaire Koch brothers and the Walton Family Foundation to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—along with Governor Chris Christie and Microsoft founder Bill Gates—are not opposed to the reform of public schools. We oppose their destruction.

We do not oppose making schools more accountable, equitable and effective—but we do oppose wrecking a 200-year-old institution—public education—that is still successful in New Jersey.

Public schools give students from all backgrounds a common heritage and a chance to compete against privileged kids from private schools. We don’t want schools replaced by the elitists’ dream of privately managed, publicly funded charter schools, which can be money makers for closely aligned for-profit entities.

We oppose eliminating tenure and find laughable the idea embodied in Teach for America (TFA), an organization that recruits new college graduates for short stays in urban schools, that effective classroom instructors can be trained in weeks if they’re eager and want breaks on student loans—breaks that come with TFA participation. We oppose breaking teacher unions, reducing education to the pursuit of better test scores and using test results to fire teachers. We want our teachers to be well trained, experienced, secure, supervised, supported and well paid. We want our kids to graduate from high school more than “college and career ready”—a favorite slogan of the reformers. We want them to graduate knowing garbage when they see it—to understand mortgages, for example, rather than just solving trigonometry problems.

Don’t call it reform, call it hijacking. A radical, top-down change in governance based on a business model championed by billionaires like Eli Broad, the entrepreneur whose foundation underwrites training programs for school leaders, including superintendents—among them, Christopher Cerf, New Jersey’s education commissioner from late 2010 until this past February. The Broad Foundation seeks to apply to public institutions, like schools, the notion of “creative destruction” popularized for businesses by economists Joseph Schumpeter and Clayton Christensen. In a memo forced into public view by New Jersey’s Education Law Center, leaders of the Broad Superintendents Academy wrote that they seek to train leaders willing to “challenge and disrupt the status quo.”

Sorry, but it’s neither clever nor wise to disrupt schools, especially urban schools. Irresponsible, distant billionaires cause unrest in communities like Newark, a place they’ll likely never get closer to than making a plane connection at its airport. These tycoons say they want to improve learning—to narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor, black and white. I don’t buy that. The gap is caused by poverty and racial isolation, not public schools. They want reform that doesn’t raise taxes and won’t end racial segregation. So they promote charter schools that segregate and pay for them with tax funds sucked from public schools. Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers Graduate School of Education, calls it “revenue neutral and nonintegrative” reform. What that means, Baker says, is “don’t raise our taxes and don’t let poor black and brown kids access better-resourced suburban schools.”

School reform once meant equity and integration. Now it’s called choice. Not the choice that would allow Newark kids to take a bus 15 minutes to Millburn. Not the choice that would allow the dispersion of disadvantage so the poorest attend the same schools as the most advantaged. It’s choice limited to a district. And choice limited to families who win a lottery for charter-school admission. “We’re letting poor parents fight it out among themselves for scrap—it’s Hunger Games,” says Baker.

Charters segregate. In Newark, where there are 13 charter schools, children with the greatest needs—special education kids, English-language learners, the poorest children—are stranded in asset-starved neighborhood schools. Disadvantage is concentrated, public schools close, and resources shift to charters. In Hoboken, three charter schools educate 31 percent of the city’s children, but enroll 51 percent of all white children and only 6 percent of youngsters eligible for free lunches.

Such skimming of the more able students lets proponents like Christie claim that charters outperform public schools. But charters serve a different population. In his devastating send-up of Newark’s North Star Schools, titled “Deconstructing the Cycle of Reformy Awesomeness,” Baker describes how charters achieve high test scores and graduation rates by shedding underperforming students. Half the kids—including 80 percent of African-American boys—dropped or were pushed out.

Charters are not the solution. “Overall, charters do not outperform comparable public schools and they serve a different population,” says Stan Karp, an editor at Rethinking Schools, an advocacy organization dedicated to sustaining and strengthening public education. He adds, “Nowhere have charters produced a template for district-wide equity and system-wide improvement.”

Many suburbs have resisted charters, but state-run urban districts like Newark cannot. In Newark, Christie joined with then Mayor Cory Booker, a devotee of privatization, to bring in Broad Academy graduates Chris Cerf to be state schools chief and Cami Anderson to be Newark superintendent. They were awarded a pledge of $100 million from Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg to support school reform in Newark.

Suburbs cannot escape other reforms, including federal insistence on relentless, time-consuming annual testing to measure student achievement and teacher performance. While states can opt out of testing, the price in lost federal revenues can be high. Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a national political action committee, applauds these changes as “bursting the dam” of resistance from unions to test-based evaluation and merit pay.

The coalition of foundations, non-governmental organizations and financial institutions promoting privatization is an opaque, multi-billion dollar, alternative governance structure. They include the Broad and Walton foundations; the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation; the Charter School Growth Fund and the NewSchools Venture Fund (a pair of nonprofit investment operations overseen largely by leaders of for-profit financial firms); the training and support organizations New Leaders for New Schools, the New Teacher Project and America Achieves; as well as the advocacy groups Stand for Children and Education Reform Now.

At its most recent summit of education reformers—including Newark’s Anderson—the NewSchools Venture offered workshops on “How Disruptive Can We Be?” and a seminar on charter schools that was advertised this way: “Charter schools are being brought into the center of reform strategies, not just to provide new options for some students, but to transform an entire public education system, based on a diverse portfolio of autonomous school operators.”

Why is school privatization such a draw for investors? Is it just philanthropy? No, there is also profit to be made from the $650 billion spent annually on public schools. Some charter school operations are profit making, including nearly two-thirds of charter school operators in Michigan and many in Florida—and Christie has been pressing to allow profit-making charters in New Jersey. Salaries for operators of charter school chains can run as high as $500,000 a year. The New Markets Tax Credit, pushed by charter supporter Bill Clinton when he was president, allows lenders to reap higher interest rates. Then there are rents paid by charter schools to charter-related profit-making companies like Newark’s Pink Hula Hoop (started by TEAM Academy board members); legal fees; and the sale of goods and services.

The costs of this movement: urban schools stratified. It’s an apartheid system, with the neediest warehoused in neglected public schools and a few lucky lottery winners in pampered charters. It is stratification on top of a system already stratified by all-white suburban districts and $35,000-plus private schools.

More costs: unconscionable amounts of time, energy and resources devoted to test preparation. The brightest young people, says Baker, will leave teaching to short-stay amateurs rather than endure the unpredictability of evaluations that rate a teacher “irreplaceable” one year and “ineffective” the next.

New Jersey ranks at the top nationwide in educational achievement, reports Education Week. We are second in “chance for success,” third in K-12 achievement and fifth in high school graduation. These statistics include urban schools; if properly funded, they succeed. Look at Elizabeth: good schools, no charters. Christie left it unmolested and provided millions in construction funds kept from other cities—perhaps because the school board endorsed him.

New Jersey is not the basket case Christie says it is. Urban schools are not failure factories. We don’t need a hostile takeover by Wall Street.

State Senator Mike Romano of West Virginia wrote an article about the hoax of charter schools, which will cost the state’s public schools hundreds of millions of dollars without improving education.

He wrote:

In the shadows of Covid, bills have passed during the 2021 Legislative session that will move West Virginia backwards. From the weakening or elimination of state licensing for electricians, plumbers, crane operators, elevator technicians, among others, to the weakening of drinking water standards, to creating a new layer of government with an Intermediate Court that no one wants (except insurance companies), which will cost tens of millions of tax dollars every year.

As bad as those bills are, no bill has the potential to damage our collective future or waste more of our tax dollars than charter schools. The obsession of the Republican Majority with charter schools and private school vouchers could result in the loss of nearly one-half of our public school funding.

Charter schools have mixed results around the country, at best. Ohio lost $4 billion on charters and rural states have had almost no success. In 2019, county boards of education were permitted to approve applications for and oversee charter schools preserving local control of education. The bill passed this Session eliminates local oversight by creating a new board, appointed by the governor, to approve charter schools regardless of the will of the citizens. Local control and oversight of public education have ended.

In-person charter schools are limited to 10 percent of each county’s public school population, but, as bad as that could be for public schools, the bill also authorizes two statewide virtual charter schools for up to another 10 percent of the statewide public school population. Those numbers should be alarming. If in-person and virtual charter schools take just half of the permitted public school students (10 percent), more than $200 million will be taken from public school budgets every year with little accountability. Although the charter school itself may be not-for-profit, in a clever ruse, for-profit Education Service Providers or ESPs can be hired to run it with our tax dollars.

Most important, virtual charters will receive the same amount of money (around $7,400 per student) as in-person charters, yet virtual classes are conducted over the internet without the need for school buildings, desks, cafeterias, janitors, liability insurance and all other costs of a brick and mortar school. Virtual charters won’t even hire the same number of teachers. In Florida, for example, each virtual charter teacher instructed over 250 students. Profits will be the priority and staggering. Someone’s pocket is getting lined with tax dollars and no one cared.

Amazingly, the Republican Majority did not know that more than $200 million in public school tax dollars were being shifted to private, for-profit ESPs if charters take just one-half of the students permitted under the bill. According to the State Board of Education, more than 6,000 public school teachers and service personnel would lose their jobs as a result. If the teacher/student ratio in virtual charters is like Florida, 50 teachers will replace over 3,000 public school educators and staff, most of whom will leave the state. Add the $130 million being taken from the public school system for the Republicans’ private school voucher program, and the public school system could evaporate.

As West Virginia ventures into this great unknown, the negatives have not even been acknowledged let alone considered. For example the effects on high school sports of the loss of 20 percent of the public school population would be devastating. Undoubtedly, student-athletes will go to charter or private schools and not play for their local teams. Coaches will lose their jobs or be required to take on additional responsibilities to keep their jobs. Every dollar that goes to a charter school student is eliminated from our public schools, which will reduce funds for facilities, uniforms, medical care, and other sports-related needs. The loss will be felt by every school.

While the legacy of the Republican majority has been one of voting contrary to facts, their obsession with charter schools in our state has led to a grand deception. They have underfunded public education for years. They now claim it’s broken and, in a move to defend it, preach school choice. The smart course, given the majority’s obsession for charter schools and vouchers, would be a slow march with common sense limits on in-person charter schools and, more important, on the number of students allowed to attend virtual charters. Unfortunately, those limits were eliminated under pressure from Senate Republican leadership.

Public schools are the backbone of our nation, providing a future for our children, but the Majority’s plan will make public schools a place for those not lucky enough – or rich enough – to escape. It will be a modern form of segregation, and we all will pay the price when undereducated students become unproductive adults.