Don’t fix what isn’t broken: Why Betsy DeVos’ radical agenda for U.S. public education makes no sense
As the Senate prepares to vote on the nomination of Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s pick for secretary of education, it is critical to confront a key (but not always explicit) assumption. DeVos asserts that “U.S. schools are failing,” and many senators assume that to be the case. But is this true? And if so, in what ways? Answering these questions is very important, as strategies to fix failing schools should be very different from those designed to improve schools that are already doing well.
A new analysis of changes in U.S. student performance over the past decade strongly suggests that our nation’s schools are not failing. Rather, they have made real progress on two related issues we care deeply about: boosting student achievement and closing race-based achievement gaps. This analysis, by economists Martin Carnoy of Stanford University and EPI’s Emma Garcia, uses a reliable and valid gauge—reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly known as “the Nation’s Report Card.”
In a new report, Mass Incarceration and Children’s Outcomes, we argue that criminal justice policy is education policy, and should be high on educators’ lists of concerns.
Several police killings of young men in African American neighborhoods, as well as the national racial polarization exposed in the recent presidential campaign, have called increased attention to our unresolved racial inequalities, including the disproportionate numbers of African American men who are in jail or prison. In the last months of his administration, President Obama responded to excessive federal prison sentences with a stepped up rate of commutations.
President-elect Trump, in contrast, has advocated a nationwide policy of “stop-and-frisk,” a police practice concentrated in low-income minority neighborhoods that invariably leads to the arrest and eventual imprisonment of men, African American men in particular, for non-violent victimless crimes.
“Stop and frisk,” as well as excessive sentencing for minor crimes, are not primarily federal policies, and once in office, Mr. Trump will have little influence over them. These are policies and practices of local and state governments, and reform is no less realistic or urgent now than it was before the presidential election.
Last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a misleading report on school segregation, which I discussed with NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill and others on the Diane Rehm Show.
The takeaway line of the GAO report was:
From school years 2000-01 to 2013-14, the percentage of all K-12 public schools that had high percentages of poor and Black or Hispanic students grew from 9 to 16 percent.
(When the GAO referred to “poor” students, it was not really speaking of poor students, but rather of those from families with incomes less than nearly twice the poverty line and who are eligible for subsidized lunches in schools.)
Not by coincidence, the GAO report was released on Tuesday, May 17, the 62nd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision banning school segregation. So it was not unreasonable for those who did not read the GAO report very carefully to conclude that it described a dramatic increase in racial segregation over the last 13 years.
But it did not, and could not.
This blog post originally appeared on TalkPoverty.org.
Joplin, Missouri, a small city in the Southwest corner of the state, is probably best known for the devastating tornado that ripped through it on May 22, 2011. The storm killed 161 people and caused more than $2 billion in damages. Less well known is the widespread and growing poverty that is damaging the community—especially its students and schools—in quieter but no less harmful ways. But Joplin has begun to rebound, and the rest of the country should take note.
Three years before the tornado, CJ Huff, the superintendent of nearby Eldon, Missouri, was hired to lead Joplin’s 18 schools. His main charge was to raise the district’s graduation rate, which at the time hovered just above 73 percent. It quickly became apparent to Huff that the growing rate of child poverty stood in the way of reaching that goal as well as his broader aspirations to prepare students for college, careers, and active participation in a democratic society.
The Joplin school team conducted nine months of face-to-face talks with parents, teachers, and the community’s faith, business, and human services agency leaders in order to assess the school district’s needs. They discussed everything from the transition between elementary and middle school, to mental health, to mentorship. The plan they ended up with—called “Bright Futures”—is now a blueprint for school transformation in dozens of districts across the South and Midwest. Seven years later, Joplin’s graduation rate has risen to 87 percent. Here’s how Huff and the Joplin community did it.
Our recent report on the class of 2016 showed that young high school and college graduates still face high levels of unemployment and stagnant wages, even though the labor market has improved since the Great Recession. Between these two groups, however, young high school graduates face a far less forgiving economic reality: the unemployment rate for young high school graduates is over three times higher than their college-educated peers (17.9 percent versus 5.6 percent), nearly one in seven is stuck in a part-time job when they really want full-time work, and the wages of entry-level jobs have barely budged since 2000.
Despite improvement in recent years, young high school graduates’ unemployment rate remains high: Unemployment rate of young high school graduates, by gender, 1989–2016*
* Data reflect 12-month moving averages; data for 2016 represent 12-month average from March 2015 to February 2016.
Note: Shaded areas denote recessions. Data are for high school graduates age 17–20 who are not enrolled in further schooling.
Source: EPI analysis of basic monthly Current Population Survey microdata
There are clear economic advantages for young people with a college degree relative to those who do not pursue and complete a college degree. This often leads pundits to suggest that more education is a solution to the low wages and high unemployment facing non-college educated workers. While this could be good advice at the individual level, encouraging more people to pursue higher education will do little to address the ongoing wage stagnation experienced by both high school and college graduates.
By now, the story of what’s happening in Flint is well known. The city has been struggling since the decline of its automobile industry. Its financial troubles were severe enough that the city went into state receivership and an emergency manager was appointed by the state of Michigan to fix the budget. One way to lighten Flint’s financial woes was to cease piping water all the way from Detroit and instead source water locally. A water treatment facility that would be used to get water from Lake Huron would not be ready for a couple of years, so as a stopgap measure, the city began piping water from the polluted Flint River. Residents started complaining about the water almost immediately. City authorities waffled—issuing boil orders, telling residents to run their taps for five minutes before using the water, and adding large amounts of chlorine (creating another problem), before finally admitting that the water was undrinkable.
Since the switch to Flint River water, the number of children in Flint with blood lead levels over 5 micrograms per deciliter has doubled. In some Flint zip codes, the numbers are even higher. And those are only the children we know about. The number of children who are lead poisoned is likely much higher.
Children who have been exposed to lead suffer irreversible learning deficiencies and behavioral problems and the effects of early exposure persist throughout life. Even very low levels of lead contribute to cognitive impairment, including reductions in IQ, verbal, and reading ability, with no identifiable safe bottom threshold. Lead exposure also affects young children’s behavior, leading to a greater propensity to engage in risky behavior and violent or criminal activity later in life.
States and districts must fulfill the promise of more equity in education offered by new education law
For many of the nation’s schools, this week feels distinctly festive. Congress finally passed, and the President signed, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), wrapping up a nearly eight year effort.
There’s much to celebrate in the new bill. First, no more No Child Left Behind, the 2001 iteration of ESEA that shifted our flagship federal education legislation from a civil rights law supporting the nation’s neediest schools and students to one that penalized those same schools for failing to meet higher standards, while withholding many of the supports they need to do so. Second, the newly reauthorized law returns key aspects of education policy to state and local authority, making it easier for schools to target interventions and resources based on their unique contexts. Third, by incorporating such strategies as pre-kindergarten and wraparound supports for disadvantaged students, it recognizes that students’ needs—and education itself—extend beyond K-12 and the school day.
At the same time, skeptics rightly point out that many of the states and localities celebrating their renewed authority have historically used that authority pretty badly. Under ESSA, state and local education agencies must practice due diligence and recognize that with increased flexibility and autonomy comes increased responsibility. The skeptics also point out that ESSA is still a far cry from what is needed to level the education playing field. Substantially improving education and narrowing gaps requires, at a minimum, funding levels that enable ESSA to serve as a real equalizer and implementation that extends that equalizing potential at the state and local levels.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) appears, finally, to be nearing reauthorization. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Congress will, after years of effort, begin to right some of the wrongs wrought by the excessive focus on standards and accountability in No Child Left Behind (ESEA’s current iteration). The draft framework sent to the conference committee swings the pendulum from federal overreach and prescription back toward state and local control. It claws back—but does not eliminate—accountability requirements by striking “Adequate Yearly Progress,” annual measurable objectives, and the unattainable goal of 100% proficiency from the act.
Not only would this ESEA do less wrong, it would do more right; key passages hold promise to return ESEA to its civil rights and antipoverty roots. Informed by rising rates of student poverty, the proposed framework recognizes that poverty poses a major impediment to effective teaching and learning.
It is true that much of the debate around reauthorization has been about testing, funding for charter schools and vouchers, the Common Core State Standards, and a range of other issues worthy of consideration. But these are not central to the core purpose of ESEA, which was originally passed as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Over the years, that purpose has been diluted. But as 10 organizations, led by the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, wrote to education leaders of both houses last year, Congress has a unique chance to reverse course and bring ESEA back to its roots. We called on Congress to follow five key principles in ESEA reauthorization:
These five principles represent the original spirit and intent of the law, and they give states, districts, and schools the flexibility they need to address their specific concerns and meet the unique needs of their students. We propose that they be at the center of a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Bringing It Back Home, a report issued by the Economic Policy Institute at the end of October, provides a distinct service in reminding Americans that they can learn more about how to improve their schools by looking at successful American states than they can by heading overseas to pry lessons out of foreigners.
The authors, Stanford’s Martin Carnoy, EPI’s Emma Garcia, and Tatiana Khavenson at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, have produced an impressive piece of scholarship. Their work makes a genuine new contribution to the discussion about how to improve American schools.
In considering this study, several points need to be born in mind.
First, the United States has very real problems in its schools. We cannot be Pollyannas about where we are. Average student performance is not where we would like it to be, and the average conceals terrible gaps between students doing well and those bringing up in the rear.
Historically, we have done a reasonably good job with the traditional students our schools were designed to serve. But now we face a new challenge: a student population in which the majority of students are, for the first time in our history, both low-income and children of color.
This week we learned that, for the first time in its 20 year history, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) declined or were stagnant in both fourth and eighth grades in both math and reading. Naturally, this is prompting concern and questions. Are current education policies on the right course? Is the Common Core not working? Do these scores indicate “test fatigue” because kids are taking too many tests?
These questions cannot be answered by two years of data, even relatively reliable data like NAEP scores. We should be looking at longer-term trends—this decline may be a blip, even if it was across-the-board. We also need to disaggregate the data and look at not just how the average student performed, http://www.canadianpharmacy365.net/. Perhaps most important, we should always consider these data in a broader context.
Looking at this year’s scores as part of a longer term trend, we see that the past decade (post-No Child Left Behind) delivered much smaller gains than the years prior. Fourth graders gained substantially more in math between 1992 and 2003 (15 points) than in the twelve years since (nine points between 2003 and this year’s 2015 results). In eighth grade, the difference is even more striking—a gain of 15 points from 1992–2003, versus just four since. And while overall gains in reading have been much smaller, the ratio is similar—fourth graders gained five points from 1992–2003, but just one point in the past twelve years.
This post originally appeared on SCOTUSblog, as part of a symposium on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the challenge to the university’s use of affirmative action in its undergraduate admissions process.
The Supreme Court’s affirmative action decisions have been suffused with hypocrisy. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called them out, with barely more gentle phrasing, in her lone dissent to the seven-to-one majority opinion the first time Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (2013) was before the Court. “Only an ostrich,” she observed, “could regard the supposedly neutral alternatives as race unconscious,” and only a (contorted) legal mind “could conclude that an admissions plan designed to produce racial diversity is not race conscious.”
The “diversity” standard in college admissions has gained great popularity because advocates of race-based affirmative action, stymied by the Court since Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, latched onto it as an alternative that could satisfy strict scrutiny. Many proponents have since persuaded themselves that diversity is, after all, a better approach than race-based affirmative action and that if the Court had not required it, we would have had to invent it. Yet while diversity in college classes is certainly an important educational and social goal, its elevation nonetheless dodges the nation’s racial legacy and avoids our constitutional and moral obligation to remedy the effects of centuries of slavery and legally sanctioned segregation. Without acknowledging we were doing so, we have engaged in a legal sleight of hand, substituting enriching the educational experience for remedying past injustice in designing affirmative action policy.
Underlying all this has been the Court majority’s conviction, most recently in Fisher I, that university officials have not identified specific Fourteenth Amendment violations for which their policies are a remedy, and therefore their consideration of race injects, without constitutional justification, a discriminatory racial consideration into the admissions process. The paucity of African Americans at the University of Texas reflects no de jure exclusion, the Fisher I majority believed, but only de factosocial inequality for which there is no race-conscious constitutional remedy. Therefore, including racial diversity in a scheme of skill-based, interest-based, or economic diversity is suspect, requiring very strict scrutiny. Indeed, the conditions set by the Fisher I majority opinion suggest a scrutiny that is strict in theory but fatal in fact. (I discuss the Fisher cases here only as they relate to the treatment of African Americans in affirmative action plans, not to that of other national or ethnic minorities or of disadvantaged economic groups; each has a different history and status, requires different opportunities to succeed, and raises different social policy and constitutional concerns).
A new EPI study of the academic preparation of kindergartners by social class and race ended up being less about absolute preparation of children at the beginning of school and more about how prepared they are relative to one another. In short, children do not start school as equals. According to Inequalities at the Starting Gate: Cognitive and Noncognitive Skills Gaps between 2010–2011 Kindergarten Classmates, children’s school preparation is highly unequal, and what determines being better or worse off is a student’s social class.
While inequalities in the cognitive abilities of our young people have been documented by previous research (see EPI’s Inequality at the Starting Gate study from 2002 and Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis), our study uses a dataset that allowed for examining how prepared children are in both cognitive (reading and math) and noncognitive domains (social skills, persistence, and creativity, among others). The data set (the National Center for Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of the Kindergarten Class of 2010-2011) also offers information on individual and family demographic characteristics and various enrichment activities that parents undertake with their children, enabling assessment of the importance of these variables for children’s preparation. All in all, the data allowed us to understand the broad school readiness of a recent generation of students. These students were born after—and thus presumably benefited from—the spread of prekindergarten education and other advances in school preparedness research and policymaking. But these children were also raised in a context of economic stagnation.
Consistently, results showed that having less money puts children at a relative disadvantage, in terms of the cognitive and noncognitive skills developed by the age of 5, while having more money benefits them, as skill levels increase along with social class. Most gaps are striking in size and appear for all the examined cognitive, noncognitive, and executive function skills. For example, children in the highest socioeconomic group have reading and math scores that are a full standard deviation larger than the scores of their peers in the lowest socioeconomic group. To give a sense of how large this gap is, it would take up to four independent, “substantively important,” education interventions to close the gap, according to a “classification of effects” from the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse. The social-class-based gaps in other skills such as working memory, persistence in completing tasks, and self-control are 0.7, 0.4, and 0.5 standard deviations, respectively.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of Head Start, a Great Society program that despite spotty funding has brightened the lives of millions of preschoolers. My daughter is one of them.
Like three-quarters of the public schools here in Washington DC, my daughter’s school is a Title I school, where 40 percent or more of the students are from low-income families. Her pre-K program is funded in part by Head Start, even though my daughter and some of her classmates don’t qualify as low income. As it happens, my daughter’s school, HD Cooke Elementary, helped pioneer the Head Start program in 1965 (see cute picture below).
DC has a cutting-edge universal pre-K program and also participates in a pilot program where all kids eat free thanks to a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. So my daughter not only started attending a great public school at age 3, but eats two nutritious meals a day with her buddies, starting with a meet-and-greet breakfast, the social highlight of her day (and often mine).
DC is somewhat atypical in that there has been an influx of upper-income taxpayers, yet the school system still serves a heavily low-income student body. DC public schools were “majority-minority” before this was true for the United States as a whole.
The growing tax base helped pay to retrofit my daughter’s school to add more natural lighting, a beautiful library and gym, and great playgrounds. In 2010, the school, built in 1909 with an extension dating to 1960, became the first school in DC and one of the oldest in the country to be certified green. Projects like these show how infrastructure and human capital investment can combine with job creation and energy efficiency—a win-win-win unless your name is Koch.
Eleven Atlanta educators, convicted and imprisoned, have taken the fall for systematic cheating on standardized tests in American education. Such cheating is widespread, as is similar corruption in any institution—whether health care, criminal justice, the Veterans Administration, or others—where top policymakers try to manage their institutions with simple quantitative measures that distort the institution’s goals. This corruption is especially inevitable when out-of-touch policymakers set impossible-to-achieve goals and expect that success will nonetheless follow if only underlings are held accountable for measurable results.
There was little doubt, even before the jury’s decision, that Atlanta teachers and administrators had changed answers on student test booklets to increase scores. There was also little doubt that Atlanta’s late superintendent, Beverly Hall, was partly responsible because she had, as a state investigation revealed, “created a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation” that had permitted “cheating—at all levels—to go unchecked for years.”
What the trial did not explore was whether Dr. Hall herself was reacting to a culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation that her board, state education officials, and the Bush and Obama administrations had created. Just as her principals’ jobs were in jeopardy if test scores didn’t rise, her tenure, too, was dependent on ever rising test scores.
Holding educators accountable for student test results makes sense if the tests are reasonable reflections of teacher performance. But if they are not, and if educators are being held accountable for meeting standards that are impossible to achieve, then the only way to meet fanciful goals imposed from above—according to federal law, that all children will make adequate yearly progress towards full proficiency in 2014—is to cheat, using illegal or barely legal devices. It is not surprising that educators do just that.
Dear Mr. Secretary:
Several newspapers and journals, including Computerworld and the L.A. Times, have reported that Southern California Edison (SCE), a public utility, has laid off hundreds of its U.S. employees and replaced them with H-1B guestworkers employed by the India-based IT services firms Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services. As my colleague, Ron Hira, has written, “Adding to the injustice, American workers losing their jobs are being forced to do “knowledge transfers,” an ugly euphemism that means being forced to train your own foreign replacement.”
As you know, the law (the Immigration and Nationality Act) forbids the hiring of H-1B temporary foreign guestworkers whose employment would “adversely affect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers comparably employed.” Clearly, taking away the jobs, wages and benefits of the laid-off SCE employees does adversely affect their wages and working conditions.
You have authority under the Immigration and Nationality Act to investigate this case, but I have seen no announcement that you intend to do so or that you share my sense of outrage that the H-1B program is being abused in such an egregious way. I hope that we will soon learn that the Department of Labor intends to investigate and remedy this harm to skilled U.S. workers who have pursued education and training in a technical field, worked hard, and played by the rules. Our government should, at the very least, ensure that its programs, including its visa programs, are not used to destroy the careers and financial security of its people.
Economic Policy Institute
In the weeks leading up to the State of the Union address, President Obama has gradually laid out his vision for America. I am particularly impressed with his proposal to make two years of community college free for students who are willing to work for it. This program would help young adults from lower-income families get a needed start toward a four year college education or vocation training for a career.
Critics have argued it is easy to propose a new program without paying for it. Well, last Saturday, the president said how he will pay for it: raise taxes. What is great about his tax proposal is it is a twofer. First, it would raise needed revenue—$320 billion over 10 years—to pay for the policies that would help low- and middle-income families. Second, it would make the tax code fairer and help reduce the growth in the share of income going to the top 1 percent by increasing taxes on capital income—bringing taxes levied on income gained from wealth closer to income gained from working. The administration estimates that 99 percent of the impact of this proposal would affect the richest 1 percent and more than 80 percent would affect just the richest 0.1 percent.
The main tax proposal is changing how capital gains are taxed. The tax rate on capital gains and dividends is increased to 28 percent—the rate under President Reagan. Currently, the tax rate on capital gains and dividends is 20 percent plus a 3.8 percent surtax. The president’s proposal would increase the tax rate to 24.2 percent plus the 3.8 percent surtax.
In addition, the proposal removes a loophole—the “stepped-up basis” loophole—that allows the wealthiest taxpayers to escape paying tax on inherited assets. We at EPI have been pushing for this change for years. Currently, when assets are transferred, say in a bequest, no taxes are due on appreciated assets. For example, suppose an individual purchases $10 million in stock. That person would have to pay taxes on any realized capital gains when the stock is sold (if the stock was sold for $100 million then the individual would pay taxes on the difference between the purchase price—the basis—and the sales price or $90 million). But if the individual never sells the assets and passes on the $100 million of stock to an heir, no capital gains taxes are due on the $90 million gain. Furthermore, when the individual receiving the assets sells the assets, the basis is stepped-up to $100 million rather than $10 million. The president’s proposals would retain the $10 million basis for the heir (called carry-over basis) and taxes would be paid on any gains when the assets are inherited. In an era with a deeply eroded estate tax, removing this “stepped-up basis” loophole would help us tax large blocks of inherited wealth—essentially adopting some of Thomas Piketty’s ideas for pushing back against rising income and wealth inequality.
Will the Supreme Court Annihilate One of the Most Effective Tools for Battling Racial Segregation in Housing?
The U.S. Supreme Court could be on the verge of issuing a major setback to racial integration efforts. In two weeks, it will hear oral arguments regarding whether the federal government and states should be permitted to pursue policies that perpetuate or exacerbate racial segregation in housing—even where no intent to segregate is proven.
The segregation of low-income minority families into economic and racial ghettos is one cause of the ongoing achievement gap in American education. Students from families with less literacy come to school less prepared to take advantage of good instruction. If they live in more distressed neighborhoods with more crime and violence, they come to school under stress that interferes with learning. When such students are concentrated in classrooms, even the best of teachers must spend more time on remediation and less on grade-level instruction.
The Economic Policy Institute, together with the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, have organized a large group of housing scholars—historians and other social scientists—to sign a friend-of-the-court brief urging that housing policies perpetuating segregation should be banned.
In an article just published in the journal Race and Social Policy, I reviewed why education policy is inseparable from civil rights policy. Failure to recognize this connection is the greatest impediment to improving the academic performance of disadvantaged African American and other minority and low-income children.
For years now, education policymakers and advocates have attempted to close the black-white achievement gap by reforming schools. The primary vehicles have been greater accountability for schools and teachers, higher expectations for students, deregulation and semi-privatization by charter schools, and more recently, curricular reform with the Common Core.
All efforts, however, have come up short. The racial achievement gap remains.
I’ve spent several years studying the evolution of residential segregation nationwide, motivated in part by convictions that the black-white achievement gap cannot be closed while low-income black children are isolated in segregated schools, that schools cannot be integrated unless neighborhoods are integrated, and that neighborhoods cannot be integrated unless we remedy the public policies that have created and support neighborhood segregation.
When Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in August, I suspected that federal, state and local policy had purposefully segregated St. Louis County, because this had occurred in so many other metropolises. After looking into the history of Ferguson, St. Louis, and the city’s other suburbs, I confirmed these were no different. In The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles, the Economic Policy Institute has now published a report documenting the basis for this conclusion, and The American Prospect has published a summary in an article in the current issue.
Since a Ferguson policeman shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, we’ve paid considerable attention to that town. If we’ve not been looking closely at our evolving demographic patterns, we were surprised to see ghetto conditions we had come to associate with inner cities now duplicated in almost every respect in a formerly white suburban community: racially segregated neighborhoods with high poverty and unemployment, poor student achievement in overwhelmingly black schools, oppressive policing, abandoned homes, and community powerlessness.
In September, public-sector employment increased by 12,000, with the majority of that growth coming from local government education—an increase of 6,700 jobs. Local government education is largely jobs in public K-12 education (the majority of which are teachers, but also teacher aides, librarians, guidance counselors, administrators, support staff, etc.).
While this is clearly a positive sign, unfortunately, the number of teachers and related education staffers fell dramatically in the recession and has failed to get anywhere near its pre-recession level, let alone the level that would be required to keep up with the expanding student population. The figure below breaks down the teacher gap. The dark blue line illustrates the level of teacher employment. While the most recent positive trend is obvious, the longer term losses are also readily apparently.
Along with dismal trends in public sector employment in general, about a quarter million public education jobs were lost in the great recession and its aftermath. If we add to that the number of public education jobs that should have been added simply to keep up with growing enrollment, then we are currently experiencing a 377,000 job shortfall in local public education. The costs of a significant teacher gap are measurable: larger class sizes, fewer teacher aides, fewer extracurricular activities, and changes to the curriculum.
The Wallethub state school quality rankings that were released earlier this month add to a growing list of such guides. They join those of the Education Law Center, which has ranked state school systems since 2011 using a four-part funding equity model, Students First’s state report cards, and the Brookings Institution Brown Center’s Education Choice and Competition rankings of large urban districts. There are many others, but these four illustrate some of the diversity in both approaches to ranking schools and types of institutions that rank them.
All four suggest to parents and policymakers that their system identifies the highest quality schools. Yet they produce a very disparate set of “best” and “worst” states (and districts). Two of Wallethub’s top three—New Jersey and Massachusetts—are among two of the the three states that Education Law Center also ranks highest: New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. In contrast, two of Students First’s top-ranked three, Louisiana and Florida, are among the lowest on Education Law Center’s sufficiency ranking. The Brown Center gives top billing to the New Orleans’ Recovery School District, New York City, and Washington, DC, and Students First also gives DC high marks, while Wallethub has it dead last, behind Mississippi. And Wallethub ranks Louisiana, Students First’s top-ranked state, 48th of 51.
As the new school year refocuses our attention on education and school quality, what are we to make of these conflicting numbers? Can we use the rankings to help us make good decisions, whether as parents or policymakers?
Should Race-Based Affirmative Action be Replaced by Race-Neutral Preferences for Low-Income Students? The Discussion Continues
The Supreme Court has nearly abolished the obligation of selective colleges and universities to give an advantage in admissions to African Americans, as a way to compensate for centuries of racially discriminatory public policy. According to the Court, such “affirmative action” violates the Constitution, which requires public universities to be “colorblind”—equally resistant to discriminating against African Americans as to favoring them to undo the effects of past discrimination.
The only race-conscious admissions programs the Court continues to permit is the pursuit of “diversity.” Universities may seek to ensure that their entering classes include a few violinists, jai-alai players, modern dancers, chess whizzes, computer nerds and, oh yes, some African Americans as well. This is a very small hoop through which admissions officers can jump.
In response, many liberals have attempted to develop a proxy for affirmative action—policy to increase the admission of African Americans by selecting characteristics that are not specifically black, but that in practice heavily favor blacks. The most common proxy is favoring the admission of low-income students of all races, or the admission of students of all races who live in low-income communities. As Justice Ginsburg has observed, “only an ostrich” can pretend that such policy is colorblind, because everyone knows that its true purpose is to evade the Court’s prohibition of affirmative action for African Americans.
But so far, the subterfuge has worked. The academic top-tier public universities in Texas, California, and Florida have guaranteed admission to graduates with the best grade-point averages from each high school in their states. Because large numbers of African Americans in these states are trapped in segregated low-income neighborhoods, the top students from ghetto high schools are guaranteed university admission, even if their academic qualifications are weaker than those of students who are not guaranteed admission but who attend high schools in middle class communities. Some private colleges have also developed policies that favor low-income students and these, too, necessarily enroll a disproportionate number of African Americans.
In the current issue of The American Prospect, I charge that many liberals and civil rights advocates have been too quick to accommodate to a reactionary Supreme Court plurality that considers the nation’s racial problems to be solved or beyond remedy. The Court now says that institutions of higher education must be “colorblind” in their admissions procedures, because racial preferences are unacceptable unless designed as a remedy for specific state-sponsored acts to discriminate against African Americans. And such acts, the Court says, are no longer responsible for African Americans’ disadvantages.
It may well be pragmatically necessary for universities to operate within the confines of Court rulings by substituting recruitment of low-income students for African Americans and by seeking “diversity” in incoming classes. But necessary though these policies may be in the short term, they are flawed because the descendants of American slaves and the victims of government-sponsored Jim Crow rules, in the North as much as in the South, remain uniquely entitled to affirmative action. And while students from low-income families are easy to identify, it is much more difficult to remain colorblind while continuing to identify working and middle-class African American students who are the most deserving of university admission assistance.
This month, a California judge struck down California’s teacher tenure law in a landmark case, Vergara v. California. Proponents claim that eliminating tenure will mean fewer ineffective teachers at low-performing schools. But teacher tenure in the K-12 context does not mean a lifetime guarantee of a job. It means that teachers have basic rights—most importantly, the right to due process if the district wants to fire them. This distinction is critical, both because eliminating tenure does not necessarily make it easier to fire bad teachers, and because tenure can actually help attract good teachers to hard-to-staff schools, retain them, and support their role as voices for student justice in those schools.
There have been many good commentaries on why the Vergara ruling will do little to help students. Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell nails the essential point, writing, “Making it easier to fire bad teachers isn’t going to magically cause the educational achievement gap to disappear. You need to be able to attract and retain more good teachers, too.”
New York University professor (and EPI board member) Pedro Noguera notes in the Wall Street Journal that both the plaintiffs’ suit and the judge’s verdict are fundamentally flawed. Noguera agrees that there are disparities in teacher qualifications and quality between schools serving high- versus low-income students, but tenure does not contribute to these differences. The fact is that schools serving low-income students have less funding and fewer resources than schools in more affluent areas. That means they aren’t able to pay teachers as much. It means class sizes are larger, nurses and counselors are fewer, libraries are worse. These and many other factors make it harder for low-income schools to attract and retain good teachers. The due-process protections afforded by tenure, at the very least, ensure that teachers who do stay in high-poverty schools can speak out against these inequities and be advocates for a more just system for their students.
That our children attend schools that are segregated by race is probably not a surprise for any of us. While, as researchers, we might debate how consequential segregation is, we can likely agree that, on its face, segregation raises some important societal concerns; it challenges our sense of what a moral and fair system looks like. It poses barriers to social cohesion, inclusion, and integration—and their well-known positive impacts on society—and it limits our children’s preparedness for the multicultural world in which they live.
As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, and the declaration that “separate but equal” is unconstitutional, we look back on both progress made in desegregating schools and, more recently, backtracking on those efforts and current initiatives that sideline them. Although separate but equal is unconstitutional, separate and unequal is very much a reality.
A new policy guide from the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA) and the Schott Foundation’s Opportunity to Learn Campaign shows how to build high-quality early support systems for children that strengthen communities and families, promote and sustain early education, and enable children to thrive. It also covers ways to resolve one of our nation’s most intractable problems: the academic achievement gap.
We know that children arrive at kindergarten with already large gaps that divide them along lines of race, ethnicity, and social class. We know, too, that these gaps prove stubbornly difficult to close, and that they are very often widened by disparities in access to appropriately credentialed teachers, small classes, school resources, health care, nutritious meals, and other related factors.
The Economic Policy Institute, where BBA is housed, has been a leader not only in documenting these gaps, but in producing research showing how to narrow them before they get so hard to tackle. For example, in 2007, EPI calculated the economic and social benefits of investing in a voluntary, high-quality publicly funded prekindergarten program that would narrow gaps by helping disadvantaged students achieve their full potential. Seven years later, this is a cornerstone of President Obama’s proposal for early childhood investments, and of the Strong Start for America’s Children Act bills proposed by leaders in both houses of Congress.
Last Thursday, the Alum Rock school district, part of metropolitan San Jose, California, voted to reject a charter school application from the Rocketship chain of schools. As I detailed in a recent paper, Rocketship’s model, which relies on cheaper, inexperienced teachers and completely replacing teachers with computer applications for a significant part of the day, is being promoted for poor urban children, but is dismissed as inadequate by more privileged families.
Rocketship is based in the San Jose area, and thus the Alum Rock rejection represents a rebuff in the part of the country with the most first-hand experience of their methods.
The vote at Alum Rock followed a report by school district staff that identified many of the same problems described in our report. Specifically:
- While Rocketship proposed to serve students from schools that had failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Law, its application failed to mention that nearly all of Rocketship’s San Jose schools have themselves failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress for at least two years in a row.
- Rocketship’s statement to investors proclaimed that “no assurance is given” that Rocketship schools will make Adequate Yearly Progress in future years.
- Because Rocketship students spend a large portion of their day in computer labs with no licensed teacher, 4th and 5th graders will not receive the minimum instructional hours required by law.
- Rocketship was “misleading” in not including Learning Lab students in its calculation of student-teacher ratio. When all students are counted, “the true student/teacher ratio is, in fact, 37 students to 1 teacher.”
EPI Stands By the Rigorous Methods and Findings of Its Report on Privately Run Charter Schools and the Rocketship Company
Last week EPI published the report Do Poor Kids Deserve Lower-Quality Education Than Rich Kids? Evaluating School Privatization Proposals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, authored by University of Oregon associate professor Gordon Lafer, an EPI research associate. The paper includes a detailed examination of a “blended learning” model of education that replaces teachers with online learning for part of the school day, long a source of controversy in education policy debates. This approach is exemplified by the Rocketship chain of charter schools, which is being promoted for expansion in Milwaukee.
EPI maintains the highest standards of rigorous research, and this report is no exception. Dr. Lafer’s description of Rocketship’s model was largely based on Rocketship’s own corporate documents, which were cited repeatedly in the report. In addition, the author interviewed Rocketship representatives both in Milwaukee and at the company’s national headquarters, including several top executives.
After the report was published, the author emailed a copy to Rocketship executives, inviting their comment and specifically asking them to identify any particular facts in the report they might believe to be incorrect.
While Rocketship responded by issuing a statement denouncing EPI’s report, the statement is a recitation of talking points rather than a rebuttal of the report’s rigorously researched and meticulously documented findings. Indeed, the company has not identified a single inaccurate fact in the report. Further, neither this report nor EPI as an organization is opposed to charter schools per se; indeed, the report concludes with proposals for accountability standards that would allow charter schools to function on an equal footing with public schools.
New BLS Data Show College Enrollment Rates of Recent High School Grads Have Been Dropping Since 2009
In this recent post, I pointed out that after increasing for decades, college enrollment rates have dropped since 2012. The data in that post are college/university enrollment rates for people age 20-24—I used those ages because they are very easy to get from the BLS site.
This morning, BLS released their annual report on college enrollment and work activity of recent high school grads. The figure shows college enrollment of recent high school graduates (specifically, it’s the college enrollment rate in October 2013 of people age 16-24 who graduated from high school earlier the same year). The data are volatile year to year, but they show that college enrollment of brand new high school graduates has been dropping since 2009. This is a worrisome trend, particularly to the extent that it is due to students being unable to enter college because the lack of decent work in the weak recovery meant they could not put themselves through school or because their parents were unable to help them pay for school due to their own income or wealth losses during the Great Recession and its aftermath. Falling college enrollment indicates that upward mobility may become more difficult for working class and disadvantaged high school graduates.
In a couple weeks, we will release our annual “Class of …” report, which will detail the labor market prospects of new high school and college graduates. (Here is last year’s report.) In this report, we investigate the drop in enrollment, including the fact that dropping enrollment rates at a time when employment is not increasing very strongly means that a larger share of young people are “disconnected”—i.e. not enrolled and not employed. This represents an enormous loss of opportunities for this cohort that will have long-term scarring effects on their careers.
Here is some surprising and unpleasant news: enrollment rates have dropped in each of the last two years, a sharp divergence from several decades of growth. The figure below shows enrollment rates in the first quarter of every year since 1985 for people age 20-24. (Note: enrollment here is technically for college, university, or high school enrollment, but very few people age 20-24 are enrolled in high school.) Enrollment was on a general upward trend since 1985, but peaked in 2012 and has since dropped in each of the last two years. The fact that this is a two-year drop suggests that it isn’t just a one-year fluke in a volatile series.
The dotted line shows the linear trend based on 1989-2007 data (the trend line since 2007 thus shows what enrollment rates would have been in the last seven years if they had simply continued on their long-run path over this period). The data are somewhat variable year-to-year, but this shows that between 2007 and 2013, there was no meaningful departure from the long term trend, but that by 2014, enrollment was substantially below the long-run trend. This drop in enrollment rates is worrisome, particularly to the extent that it is due to students being forced to drop out of school, or never enter, either because the lack of decent work in the weak recovery meant they could not put themselves through school or because their parents were unable to help them pay for school due to their own income or wealth losses during the Great Recession and its aftermath.