Thursday, May 26, 2011

It's the Poverty, Stupid.

University of Texas physics professor Michael Marder has made a most eloquent case for changing the debate about education reform in the US with a series of images. He has, sometimes literally, connected the dots between socioeconomic factors and measures of student learning in a way that champions of education reform such as Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee and David Guggenheim do not.

If you saw Guggenheim’s wildly popular film “Waiting for Superman” you’re familiar with the paradigm of these self-appointed reformers.

The simple version is:
1. Public schools are bad.
2. If public schools have to compete with each other for students they will improve.
3. Giving families choices between traditional public schools and charter schools will create that competition.
4. Standardized test scores are the only way to measure and compare schools so families can choose the best schools.
5. Students will move from failing bad public schools to successful good charter schools.
6. All students will be in great schools and the US will once again be the education powerhouse that it once was.

I’ll call this the corporate reform model since it sees schools as actors in a free market that must compete for customers (students) by producing the best product (test scores.)

The dangerous idea that free market competition – the corporate model- is the solution to the apparent crisis in public education is an intuitively attractive one.  Waiting for Superman used viewers’ heartstrings and a bit of creative license (inaccuracies and reenactments portrayed as real-life moments) to drive the point home. Superman fans came away from the film thanking their lucky stars that tough district leaders like Rhee stand up to greedy teachers unions. They can find hope in Bill Gates’ involvement since his money along with that of the Broad and Walton foundations will fund the bulk of the push for more standardized testing and the creation of more charter schools to force public schools to improve or die. The only problem with this view is that it’s not true.

This is where our professor from Austin comes in. Dr. Marder isn’t just a physicist he also runs a teacher certification program called UTeach which focuses on training math and science teachers. The folks down in Texas know about this brand of corporate school reform because former Texas Governor George W. Bush tried it out in the lone star state before he brought it with him to Washington when he became president. This model became known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and we’ve been living with it ever since. I’m pretty familiar with the corporate reform model too, since Chicago’s Mayor Daley started instituting a version of it back in 1995 when he took over the Chicago Public Schools. Now Daley’s protégé Arne Duncan has moved on to Washington as Secretary of Education demonstrating a bipartisan consensus that corporate reform is the best way to improve our public schools. It’s great to see such bipartisan agreement, except that in this case both parties are wrong.

So, back to Dr. Marder, a man of science, who decided to look at data in Texas to see how the corporate model of  standardized testing and charter schools was improving education there. Here are some of the dots Marder put together. The first visualization plots poverty concentration against percentage of students meeting the SAT college readiness criterion. Each dot represents a single high school. The size of the dot represents the number of students who tested at that school and the color of the dot represents the ethnic/racial makeup of the school.

With very few exceptions, schools with a low concentration of low income students scored better on the SAT. There is no real surprise that richer students in schools that are mostly made up of richer students do better on the SAT. As the poverty rate goes up, college readiness goes down. In Texas, just like here in Chicago and in most other places race and ethnicity correlate with lower incomes and lower test scores. But this being Texas where the corporate reform model was born, you might expect that if Dr. Marder were to show us which of those dots were charter schools we’d see that they are some of the heroic outliers… like that mostly minority school with about a 57% poverty concentration that has about 80% of it’s students ready to succeed in college according to the SAT.

Unfortunately for Texans in charter schools, you’d be wrong about that heroic outlier being a charter school. In fact at every income level charters don’t fair all that well compared to  traditional neighborhood public schools in Texas. There is one charter with about 82% poverty concentration that is doing better than its peers… but even this success is small and very limited with only about 15% of its students meeting the SAT criterion. Most of the charters have close to 0% meeting these criteria. Zero percent.

The main idea I took away from Dr. Marder’s elegant scatter plots is that the socioeconomic factors of race and income play a larger role in student achievement than does the public vs. private management of schools. The idea that charters are the silver bullet that will save education is actually a distraction from the real issues that could improve the lives and the educations of low income students. The idea that public schools are bad is false. For well-off white kids public schools are pretty good. Students from low income families, many of whom are not melanin deprived, just aren’t achieving college readiness at the level of their more wealthy peers.

When G.W. Bush first introduced NCLB it was a voucher system that was supposed power the invisible hand of free markets to improve schools and close the achievement gap between rich and poor, Black and White. Vouchers were too unpopular, so Bush compromised and pushed for charters instead. This corporate approach is just not working.
As I teach my students in AP Psychology at my traditional neighborhood public high school in Chicago, correlation does not equal causation. We can't look at these graphs and know with any certainty that poverty or racial inequality is causing schools to fail. What we can conclude, though, is that charter schools don't do any better than traditional schools on the SAT. In fact most of them do significantly worse than the traditional schools. Dr. Marder's data visualizations illustrate the failure of corporate education reform.  

You can watch a video compilation of similar graphs using different measures of student learning in California, New York, New Jersey, and Florida at the UTeach site. Charters consistently perform worse than traditional neighborhood public schools and family income is the most obvious correlate to success on the learning measures.

Thank you Dr. Marder for connecting the dots. Now we just need to get people talking about the real issues in education. Let’s shift away from the corporate paradigm for our kids. This particular silver bullet is killing those students who need great neighborhood schools the most. Countering the effects of poverty and marginalization will take way more than treating schools like businesses, kids like customers and test scores like products.

You can see more representations of this data at the UTeach site 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Antidote to Astroturf: A Real Grassroots Movement

From Education Week

The Antidote to Astroturf: A Real Grassroots Movement

images by Anthony Cody.

If you are wondering what to do about the corporatization of public education, this article has some suggestions. Mostly it calls for organizing and building coalitions between parents, teachers, students and lovers of democracy.

"So how do we mount an effective response? The best response to a phony grassroots campaign is to create a genuine one. Parents, teachers and students, and others who care about children, are doing just that. The Save Our Schools March is uniting parents and teachers in a true grassroots effort to bring attention to the need for sanity in education policy. We are connecting with others, like the educators that publish Rethinking Schools, and the advocates for sane testing at FairTest. There are teachers organizing to make sure their unions represent them well, and preserve their rights to collective bargaining and due process. There are groups like Parents Across America, and the work surrounding the documentary movie Race to Nowhere, which are engaging parents in thinking about how our schools are affecting their children."

In Chicago we also have the "Raise Your Hand Coalition" which formed when our former mayor wreaked havoc on CPS by attempting to raise class size to 37 students per class.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

It's not just unfair, it's unconstitutional.

School Funding in Illinois is Unfair and Unconstitutional
Is our state education funding system set up to keep the rich rich and the poor poor? Why are some Illinois schools excellent and some failing in so many ways? While there are numerous variables that affect school quality, one critical issue in Illinois is fair funding of schools. Schools in wealthy areas spend much more per student than schools in lower income areas. According to the Illinois Comptroller’s office, “…expenditures per pupil ranged from a low of $4,281 to a high of $28,285...” This disparity is obscene.
Not only is it unfair, it is also unconstitutional.
Article X, Section 1 of the Illinois Constitution states:

A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities. The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services. Education in public schools through the secondary level shall be free. There may be such other free education as the General Assembly provides by law. The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.

Illinois is not living up to this admirable constitutional declaration. The last provision, that the state of Illinois has the “primary responsibility” for financing free, efficient and high quality educational institutions and services, is clearly not being enforced. In fact, during the 2007-2008 school year the state of Illinois contributed a smaller percentage to k-12 public schools than all other states. Illinois only contributes 26.7% of total school funding, placing Illinois dead last in the United States; 50 out of 50. Instead, the responsibility for funding public schools in Illinois has fallen on local governments, which cover 65% of the cost of k-12 education, the highest percentage of any state.

Why does it matter if the state of Illinois funds a smaller percentage of education, leaving local governments to pay a larger percentage? In small affluent suburbs it doesn’t cause much of a problem at all. With large property tax revenues, relatively small school-age populations, and shared interest in excellent schools these suburbs more than make up for the state’s lack of funding. So, in Illinois, some schools receive less than half the state average of  $9,099 per student and some receive more than twice that average?

While some argue that money does not matter in education, it is hard to believe that a district which spends $4,281 per student is providing the same, constitutionally mandated, high quality education provided by a district which spends $28,285. Apparently, children in rural and urban low-income communities just don’t deserve the same “high quality education” as children in upper income suburbs.

In 1987 Education Secretary William Bennett said, ''I'm not sure there's a system as bad as the Chicago system'' and extreme actions such as mayoral control and expanding charter schools have been taken to try to remedy the situation but by most measures public schools in Chicago haven’t improved much. The real problem begins in our funding formula. Nobody is complaining about failing schools in Winnetka, Highland Park and Oak Park which benefit from high funding rates stemming from local wealth.

Mayoral control, Renaissance 2010 school closings and the move to charter and contract schools haven’t improved schools in Chicago much. A recent national study showed that only about 15% of charter schools perform better than comparable neighborhood schools which means that 85% perform as well or worse. Charters alone are clearly not the answer. Why are we putting our eggs in this charter basket, when a more fundamental issue is likely to blame for our chronically underperforming urban and rural schools.

The constitutional goal is a fair one, promising “efficient,” “free,” and “high quality” education in the state. I propose that policy be enacted to guarantee that Illinois funds the actual cost of providing this high quality education to all students in the state. At a minimum, the state should be required to follow the guidelines set by the non-partisan Education Funding Advisory Board (EFAB) with additional funding to be provided based on students with special needs since the EFAB specifically does not include those students in its estimates. Currently the state is not required to meet EFAB guidelines and never has since they were first enacted in 2003.

I suggest that state legislators and Governor Quinn walk through some of our Illinois schools that get by on less than $5,000 per student and then take a drive to a few of the schools which spend over $15,000 per student.  Maybe then they will commit to scrapping our unfair, inequitable education funding system in Illinois and live up to the constitutional commitment that our state will be the primary source of funding for the “educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.”

Monday, April 25, 2011

A rose by any other name.... would still push for charter schools.

The Renaissance School Fund is changing its name to New Schools for Chicago, but it is still pushing to turnaround schools it considers failing. At least it is now recognizing that some of the charter schools which were seen as the solution are actually part of the problem.

From Catalyst 

Ty Fahner, the president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago is quoted in the article as saying, “But we’re not going to continue to make-believe that just because it’s a charter that makes it better. That’s not the case.” So why is the Commercial Club of Chicago still pushing charters?

One thing that the CTU spokesperson left out of her critique of charters in the article is that nationally only 17% do any better than neighborhood schools... even with additional private funds and the (intentional or not) skimming of the most motivated students and families and filtering out the most difficult and expensive to educate students.

I'm glad that there is finally an admission that just being a charter school does nothing to improve a school. Maybe we can shift the debate to improving all schools which serve the most high need students.

Nobody ever called for charters in the Northshore suburbs where schools are well funded and students don't suffer the ill-effects of poverty and marginalization. Those schools have strong teachers unions, elected school boards and superintendents rather than CEOs. Nobody is trying to run Northshore or private schools on the corporate model, why do we think that low income kids need schools "turnedaround" by the Commercial Club of Chicago?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The false choice of education reform: Corporate Model vs. Status Quo

From Truthout's article about the false choice many corporatist education reformers push, and too many media outlets promote:

"...the corporate reformers, such as Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee  - present the public with a false choice: that there is, on the one hand, the "status quo," one that doesn't work, and, on the other, their "reform" movement, which is the only pathway out of our morass of mediocrity. Unfortunately, the mainstream media has unquestioningly bought into this limited conception of educational reform."

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Education 'Inception' and Michelle Rhee's wrong idea

Michelle Rhee sweeping out the dirt...

Valerie Strauss's "Answer Sheet" blog posts a commentary by Sam Chaltain suggesting that Michelle Rhee is using the language of conquest and conflict to build support for her version of slash-and-burn education reform.

Chaltain suggests that building positive emotions around issues works better, and we can certainly point to the success of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as evidence that this is sometimes true.

It seems to me, though, that in the education debate the drivers of the conversation have had great success with a negative emotional approach. From Bill Bennett's 1988 assertion that the Chicago Public Schools were the worst in the nation to Bill Gates' recent attacks on teachers unions through Performance Counts legislation in Illinois, the language has been about creating conflict between parents and teachers as if they have very separate agendas.

What works best? Language of conflict and conquest or language of cooperation and shared goals? So far in the education reform debate (arena), conflict and conquest seem to be more effective (dominating.)