HEJE Overview 11-16-17: Education


From the Senate HELP committee’s hearings on the nomination of Mitchell Zais (of South Carolina) to become undersecretary of Education…

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked Zais about his support for vouchers and whether he was aware of recent research about the impact of vouchers on student achievement. Zais responded: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that is the best fit for their children, there are improved outcomes.”

“To which Franken replied: ‘No, that is not true.’ He then cited a New York Times article from earlier this year about three studies of large voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio, which found vouchers negatively affected test results in reading and math. (Franken did not mention a major 2017 study on the nation’s only federally funded voucher program, in Washington, D.C., that showed similar results.) Zais said: ‘I was unaware of those studies that you cited.’”

–as reported by Valerie Strauss, The Answer Sheet, Washington Post

DSO: Should this really come as a surprise to anyone? 

Today’s HEJE Overview returns to Education: teaching, as a profession, is inherently political; the Washington Monthly brouhaha between Thomas Toch (pro-reform) and John Merrow (who’s seen the light) about the Michelle Rhee reformist era in the DCPS; a Philadelphia university faculty member has been studying  poverty among college students; a group of homeless persons, including schoolchildren, is evicted across the street from where the Zuckerbergs will build a private school for—you guessed it—poor students in East Palo Alto (not to be confused with Palo Alto).  

  • Teaching is inherently political
    Oklahoma 8th-grade history teacher Aaron Michael Baker delineates some of the ways in which teaching is political, even if we like to maintain a convenient façade of “neutrality.” First of all, the standards set by state legislatures are political: “Standards are the way the state tells teachers, “We have made the political decisions for you.” Secondly, textbooks are inherently political: “As social studies teachers know quite well, when publishers claim that their political agenda is the same as the state departments, they call it ‘alignment.’” And of course, teachers themselves, as individuals, “bring their own style, personality, gifts, and life experiences into the classroom, all of which are part and parcel to the political process.” “There are those on both the left and the right (though mostly the right) that envision a classroom void of politics where learning occurs strictly through the accumulation of amoral facts. This kind of classroom is neither possible nor desirable.”
  • C. “Ed Reform” ten years on: the debate

Jan Resseger reviews the ongoing debate over Washington, D.C. education reform as it’s being played out in the pages of Washington Monthly between Thomas Toch, a proponent of charters, and John Merrow, the retired PBS Newshour education reporter.

“This now-old story about the D.C. public schools still matters, because the theories and practices introduced by Michelle Rhee a decade ago in the nation’s capital continue to drive the operation of urban school districts across the United States.”

Toch (now director of a D.C. education think-tank called “FutureEd”) admires charter schools:

Toch: “Some 43 percent of D.C. students were enrolled in charters in 2013, up from less than 15 percent a decade earlier.  Many of these schools, with names like DC Prep, KIPP DC, and Achievement Prep, were earning attention for their innovative strategies and strong results.  Foundations heaped money onto them, and the young talent entering teaching through prestigious pipelines like Teach for America were keen to work in the schools.”

“Toch believes that fear is a useful strategy for making people work harder: ‘Rhee’s team deepened teachers’ angst…. Henderson ordered that student test scores make up 50 percent of teachers’ ratings if they taught tested subjects and grades. That turned out to be only 15 percent of the school system’s teaching force, but the move stoked anxiety and resentment throughout the city’s teaching ranks.’”

(Toch, con’t): “There’s no doubt that the school reform stars aligned in Washington over the past decade: There was a rare infusion of talent in the central office; stable leadership enabled by mayoral control of city schools; freedom from key collective bargaining obstacles, and substantial funding, first from grants, then from savings from improvements in the city’s special education system.”

DSO: So, reform (a) depended heavily on TFA; (b) sought to infuse angst and fear among teachers; (c) was driven from the top down. And people wonder why there is beginning to be a national teacher shortage?

Toch’s piece (“Hot for Teachers”) appeared in the July-August issue of Washington Monthly; Merrow’s rebuttal, written with Mary Levy (“Has D.C. Teacher Reform Been Successful?”), appeared in the following issue (September-October), and was further elaborated by Merrow on his own education blog.

Merrow looked closely at the data and concluded by attributing much of the improvement in overall test scores at D.C. schools to gentrification. Once the data were broken down by race/income, they looked pretty dismal, in line with the data from other urban centers with large racial and wealth disparities between schools:

“Those results, however, stop looking so good once we disaggregate data about different groups of students.  Despite small overall increases, minority and low-income scores lag far behind the NAEP’s big-city average, and the already huge achievement gaps have actually widened.  From 2007 to 2015, the NAEP reading scores of low income eighth graders increased just 1 point, from 232 to 233, while scores of non-low-income students (called ‘others’ in NAEP-speak) climbed 31 points, from 250-282.  Over that same time period, the percentage of low-income students scoring at the ‘proficient’ level remained an embarrassingly low 8 percent, while proficiency among ‘others’ climbed from 22 to 53 percent.  An analysis of the data by race between 2007 and 2015 is also discouraging: black proficiency increased 3 points, from 8 percent to 11 percent, while Hispanic proficiency actually declined from 18 percent to 17 percent.  In 2007 the white student population was not large enough to be reported, but in 2015, white proficiency was at 75 percent.”

And there are lots and lots of “experts” watching (“observing”) the teachers. The result hasn’t been encouraging for the future of the teaching profession in D.C.: (There has been) “a collapse of morale along with widespread resignations of teachers and school leaders.  Some of this is because staff are being moved among schools, enhancing disruptive change, but he notes: ‘Unfortunately, the greatest upheavals are in schools serving large numbers of low-income children, kids who need stability wherever they can find it.’”

DSO: One of the most disturbing aspects of ed reform/ the charter-voucher movement is the high rate of teacher (and principal) turnover and unfortunately, the high rates of charter school closures, which are often announced so soon to closure as to give families practically no notice that they need to seek other schools. For poorer students, the presence of a neighborhood public school is often the most stable influence in their lives during their school years—rumors about the positive benefits of “change” and “disruption” for six-year-olds are just that: rumors.

And then there was that scandal that overshadowed the end of Rhee’s tenure: “Contrary to Toch’s assertions, cheating—in the form of suspiciously high rates of erasures of wrong answers and filling in the right ones—occurred in more than half of DCPS schools.  The changes were never thoroughly investigated beyond an initial analysis by the agency that had corrected the exams in the first place, CTB/McGraw-Hill.  Deep erasure analysis was never ordered by Rhee, her then deputy Henderson, or the mayor.  The ‘investigations’ Toch refers to were either controlled by Rhee and, later Henderson or conducted by inept investigators—and sometimes both… Rhee, and subsequently Henderson, tightly controlled the inquiries, limiting the number of schools that could be visited, the number of interviews that could be conducted, and even the questions, that could be asked.”

DSO: Mutatis mutandis, this is the story of “Ed Reform” in all urban centers throughout the U.S. over the past 10-15 years: lots of promises of hope and change, lots of choice, lots of money for “consultants” and “managers,” “expert overseers,” and owners of the properties in which charters operate, followed by some good stats in terms of rising test scores for the richer, whiter schools within districts—data that might in some cases (as in D.C., where gentrification is moving well-off white students into the system) make the entire school system look better when evaluated by the algorithms).

Note: After covering Jan Resseger’s report, we saw that Diane Ravitch also covered it, and considered Toch and Merrow’s pieces the most important of her must-reads. Ravitch fills in some details about Merrow, who as a PBS Education reporter began as a big Michelle Rhee fan and only saw the light at the very end of her tenure. Ravitch: “John Merrow contributed to the myth of Michelle Rhee, in a major way. To understand his credibility now, it is necessary to recognize his role in building that myth. As the PBS education correspondent, he featured her work in D.C. about a dozen times. He was a believer. But when he was doing his last show, a full hour about Rhee, he had an epiphany. Was it because she invited him to film her firing a principal? Was it the cheating scandal? Was it the effort to cover up the cheating? I don’t know. What I do know is that Merrow had the courage to change his mind. His admiration changed to doubt then to skepticism then to criticism. I understand his transformation because I have been there. I too once believed in what is deceptively called ‘Reform.’ I saw the light. So did Merrow.”

DSO: What kind of a school superintendent (“chancellor” was her title) invites PBS to witness her firing of a principal?

Notes from a faculty member at a large urban Research I university in Philadelphia about poverty and hunger (“food insecurity”) among her own students.


“Since 2008, my team’s research on how students finance college has revealed that the main barrier to degree completion isn’t tuition; it’s having a place to sleep and enough food to eat. The best estimates suggest that food insecurity affects as many as 1 in 2 college students—much higher than the rate in the general population. Just as many struggle with housing insecurity, and a significant number (14 percent at community colleges) are homeless.”

“The College and University Food Bank Alliance has more than 525 members from coast to coast, with food pantries housed at community colleges and universities, public and private. This is a stunning increase, since in 2012 there were just over 10. … In some cases, colleges are moving beyond food pantries. Just over two dozen schools operate a program known as Swipe Out Hunger, which reallocates unused dollars on meal plans to students who need them. Homegrown efforts such as Single Stop are helping students apply for SNAP, and some institutions are beginning to accept EBT [Electronic Benefits Transfer] on campus. In Houston, the local food bank is offering ‘food scholarships’ to community college students, proactively providing groceries rather than waiting for emergencies to occur.”

Housing is not being addressed as aggressively, however. “Students who struggle to pay rent are at risk of eviction, like so many other low-income adults around the country. Those who seek out shelters find the same overcrowded and sometimes dangerous conditions that have long plagued those temporary accommodations, and students often miss out on beds because the lines form while they are still in class. Even young people who grew up in public housing can lose their housing when they enroll in college if their local housing authority deprioritizes full-time undergraduates.”

  • Homeless people—including schoolchildren—removed from street in East Palo Alto

For those of us not up on East Palo Alto demographics, the street from which about 15 RVs were removed on Wednesday lies just across from the building site of a future private school the Zuckerbergs will be construction for “poor children.” Around 75 people were displaced, including about 10 school-age children—children who, presumably, would be eligible to attend the Zuckerbergs’ school when it is completed, assuming they’re still in the area.

Why the interest on the part of the couple? Facebook’s campus lies within the catchment area of the school district where the RVs had been parked.

But there’s a huge difference between “Palo Alto” and “East Palo Alto”: “The town of East Palo Alto has long been a pocket of poverty amid the staggering wealth of Silicon Valley – the median household income there is $52,000, while in the neighboring town of Palo Alto it is $137,000.”

“The city said it had acted because RVs were emptying their chemical toilets into a storm drain, filling it and presenting a public health hazard. The assistant city manager, Sean Charpentier, said the city did its part for low-income residents – almost 40% of its housing is considered affordable. But the city had not countenanced providing public toilets. “What we did do is give them [a] list of providers where they could empty their toilets.”

Homelessness is a serious issue in East Palo Alto: “According to data gathered by the school district based on federal requirements, about 58% of its students experience homelessness, defined as couch-surfing or doubling up with other families, or sleeping in RVs and shelters, said the superintendent, Gloria Hernandez-Goff.”

DSO: How does one effect an “eviction” of the homeless?



One thought on “HEJE Overview 11-16-17: Education”

  1. An undersecretary who doesn’t read the research on vouchers. There has been lots of information available on vouchers recently, maybe he doesn’t know how to read. Betsey was bad enough, but this is even more depressing.

    Liked by 1 person

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