Thursday, September 14, 2017
When State Discretion Turns Against State Superintendents of Education; Another Flaw of the Every Student Succeeds Act
In Abandoning the Federal Role in Education: The Every Student Succeeds Act, I detail the numerous ways in which the Act eliminates federal leadership in education and leaves states to implement almost any sort of accountability system they can dream up. The shift in power is so significant that Act does not, as a practical matter, demand accountable. Instead, it demands the appearance of accountability. This, I argue, allows states to manipulate the system.
The article did not consider the possibility of in-fighting within state bureaucracies. The paper, for the most part, speaks of the "state" as a monolithic unit. It focuses on the worst case scenario in which the legislature, state department of education, and powerful school districts are all in favor of an accountability system that covers up their failures. Not all states, however, will fit this framework. Recent events in Alabama suggest that, once one moves beyond that framework, curious disagreements can happen at the state level.
Edweek reports that
[Michael] Sentance was hired by the [Alabama state] board in August of last year to replace longtime Superintendent Tommy Bice who retired after a years-long battle over the expansion of charter schools and a dispute between the state and local officials over how to rank the state's districts and schools.
. . . .
Sentance quickly ran into political turmoil as he traversed the mostly rural, economically deprived, ethnically diverse and politically conservative state to gather thoughts on what the components of the state's ESSA plan should be. Meanwhile, the state's department began to take over Montgomery Public Schools, one of the largest districts in the state, a process Sentance said would bring stability, autonomy and school choice, but which parents and school officials called unfair.
He sided with district superintendents in a debate over whether the state should keep or get rid of its A-F letter grades of schools' performance.
But in an evaluation sprung on him by the state board last month, district superintendents and board members took issue with his leadership style and policymaking.
"I do not take this situation lightly, and as President of the State Board of Education, I will ask the Board to accept his resignation," Ivey said in a statement. "Over the past two years, Alabama has experienced far too many changes in state government. As with previous changes in leadership positions, we will use the pending resignation of the state superintendent as an opportunity to move forward and begin a new chapter in public education.
The article also indicates that the national average tenure for state superintendents of education is barely two years. As a result, there is no continuity between the development, submission, and implementation of ESSA plans.
The lesson I take from this story is the possibility that the ESSA may have made some state superintendents' jobs a lot harder. Under NCLB, there was far less flexibility. Beneath the surface, a state superintendent was able to game the state's results, but the metrics and methods of the accountability system were set by federal law. Putting aside the question of whether NCLB was a normatively good law, it set clear parameters for state superintendents. They knew what their job was and had legal cover if legislators or other state political actors criticized them.
The ESSA, in contrast, offers states and their superintendents a universe of options. It is almost entirely up to them how they approach school improvement, ranking, accountability, and quality. As a result, there is very little cover for superintendents who might want to do what they think is best for schools and students, but in the process might make the state look "bad." If a state board or state legislature wants to manipulate its accountability system and a state superintendent does not, the superintendent can easily find herself as the odd person out.
If these respects, the ESSA accomplishes two distinct and problematic devolutions of power. First, it cedes power to states, which I demonstrate is highly problematic here. Second, even if state power is not inherently problematic, the ESSA incentivizes power struggles and instability at the state level.
The first was the specific intent of the Act. The second is likely an unintended negative consequence.
Monday, August 7, 2017
States' New Plans for Complying with the Every Student Succeeds Act Confirms Just How Little the Law Expects of States
Last fall, in Abandoning the Federal Role in Education, I wrote that the Every Student Succeeds Act "moves education in a direction that was unthinkable just a few short years ago: no definite equity provisions, no demands for specific student achievement, and no enforcement mechanism to prompt states to consistently pursue equity or achievement. The ESSA reverses the federal role in education and returns nearly full discretion to the states." As a result, I predicted the Act would lead to vague state plans, obfuscation, widening inequality, and downright confusion.
Thus far, most of these predictions have come true. Earlier this year, Secretary DeVos, expecting that Congress would repeal the Obama's administrations ESSA regulations, changed the deadline for states to submit their plans and suggested they would have flexibility in their plans. The problem is that states actually need federal leadership. As of today, less than a third of states have their ESSA compliance plans in. And those that have their plans in have done little to dispel my concerns. As a new report by Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success reveals, the sixteen state plans submitted thus far do not ensure that all students' performance is counted in state accountability plans.
While there were promising elements, our peer reviewers found that most state plans failed to provide significant details about how their systems would work in practice. For example:
• How will schools be held accountable for the performance of all subgroups of students?
• How will schools be identified for improvement?
• What steps will schools identified for improvement need to take, and how will they demonstrate they’ve made sufficient progress to exit improvement status?
A new NPR story points out that this "should raise some red flags concerning kids with disabilities, English language learners and those from low-income families." States have thrown so many measures of school quality into their metrics that the public is unlikely to know what school quality actually means or what schools are required to do to address it.
In the end, these plans reveal the central flaw in the ESSA: its success rests on the extent to which states are willing to engage in good faith efforts to provide equal and adequate opportunities. As NPR writes, parents must simply trust their states. Unfortunately, recent history reveals there is almost no reason to place this faith in states. They have slashed public education budgets, manipulated test scores, and watched school segregation increase.
This is not to say that federal reform has been well-crafted. It has not. But the solution is better federal policy, not giving up.
Read a summary of the ESSA, its flaws, and proposed solutions here.
Wednesday, August 2, 2017
Nora Gordon and Eloise Pasachoff penned a new essay in Edweek. They implore the public to go back to the basics and engage the notice and comment process that dictates the development of federal policy. For all the objectionable things Secretary DeVos has done or promoted since taking the job, the public push back has primarily been in newspapers. While newspapers provide a means for political accountability, the administration is completely free to ignore them. What the administration must, however, address are the comments that individuals and groups make as part of the formal notice and comment period surrounding changes in federal regulations and guidance.
Gordon and Pasachoff remind us that in February, "President Donald Trump called on federal agencies to review their regulations and identify which to cut." DeVos is now digging into that work and has "issued a notice in the Federal Register asking the public to identify 'unduly costly or unnecessarily burdensome' regulations and guidance documents by submitting comments to the Education Department by Aug. 21." This process, however, can be used to do more than target those policies that need to be eliminated, it can be used to focus on things that must be kept (because others will certainly be calling for elimination).
Not only do the comments that the public makes require some response (if if only internal to the Department), they require a "cost-benefit analysis to make sure that rules are for the common good."
Gordon and Pasachoff offer these directions on engaging the process:
The more specific you can make your comments, the better. You can find the Education Department’s existing regulations at Title 34 of the electronic version of the Code of Federal Regulations, and the significant guidance documents are also available online. Explain what you like, referring to specific language. Offer language on desired changes, citing provisions by number. Alternative policy solutions are welcome. You can submit comments on both regulations and guidance online (at docket number ED-2017-OS-0074-0001) by the strict deadline of Aug. 21.
Read the full essay here.
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
The Trump administration has announced its plan to transform education funding as we know it. The new budget proposal takes aim at a host of elementary, secondary and higher education programs that serve needy students, redirecting those funds toward K-12 school choice in the form of vouchers, tax credits and charter schools.
Public schools that enroll a large percentage of low-income students stand to lose significant chunks of their budget, as well as a number of specialized federal programs for their students. At the same time, the Trump budget will incentivize families to leave not only these schools, but public schools in general.
As a scholar of education law and policy, I note that my recent research on state voucher and charter programs shows that the loss of both money and core constituents proposed by this new budget could throw public education into a downward spiral.
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
The past four years of the U.S. Department of Education' Office for Civil Rights may have been its strongest in decades. Under Catherine Lhamon, the Office's work expanded substantially. The Office published a number of new guidance documents that made it clear that it would enforce the law, including disparate impact. The symbolism of these documents, along with growing faith in the Office, likely explains increases in complaints to the Department. Unfortunately, the new Acting Assistant Secretary for the Department, Candice Jackson, signals that the coming years may look far different. Jackson was formally named the Deputy Assistant Secretary, which does not require Senate confirmation, and will serve as acting Assistant Secretary until the administration formally nominates someone to that position and the person is confirmed by the Senate.
Pro Publica has published an article on Jackson's background. It appears that the administration is following the game plan we saw with DeVos, appointing someone with limited experience, but strong ideological leanings. Pro Publica describes her background this way:
Although her limited background in civil rights law makes it difficult to infer her positions on specific issues, Jackson’s writings during and after college suggest she’s likely to steer one of the Education Department’s most important — and controversial — branches in a different direction than her predecessors. A longtime anti-Clinton activist and an outspoken conservative-turned-libertarian, she has denounced feminism and race-based preferences. She’s also written favorably about, and helped edit a book by, an economist who decried both compulsory education and the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Jackson’s inexperience, along with speculation that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will roll back civil rights enforcement, lead some observers to wonder whether Jackson, like several other Trump administration appointees, lacks sympathy for the traditional mission of the office she’s been chosen to lead.
Her appointment “doesn’t leave me with a feeling of confidence with where the administration might be going,” said Theodore Shaw, director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina School of Law, who led Barack Obama’s transition team for civil rights at the Department of Justice.
“I hope that she’s not going to be an adversary to the civil rights community and I hope that the administration is going to enforce civil rights laws and represent the best interests of those who are affected by civil rights issues.”
Wednesday, April 5, 2017
Last year, I wrote that the Every Student Succeeds Act “ESSA reverses the federal role in education and returns nearly full discretion to the states.” I predicted that the flexibility afforded to states in devising their new ESSA accountable schemes would make “educational opportunity a random occurrence rather than a legal guarantee.” States would manipulate their accountability schemes and rely on a convoluted set of factors that effectively make it impossible to get a sense of school performance.
Early looks at these accountability systems suggest my prediction was correct. A recent analysis of California’s new ESSA system found,
Nearly 80% of schools serving grades three through eight are ranked as medium- to high-performing in the new ratings, earning them positive colors on report cards sent to parents. Last year in state testing at those same schools, the majority of students failed to reach English and math standards. More than 50 of those schools whose average math scores fell below proficiency receive the dashboard’s highest rating for math.
At the same time, Maryland is also considering legislation that would severely restrict the weight the state board of education could place on student achievement. The Washington Post reports, “Among the restrictions being advanced by lawmakers: limiting measures of actual school effectiveness (student achievement, student growth and graduation) to 55 percent of a school’s accountability rating, in favor of factors such as teacher satisfaction; . . . and barring the state from taking significant actions to reform the worst-performing schools, even after districts have had years to set them straight.”
State flexibility is not, as Betsy DeVos claims, being use to unleash the creativity and good faith efforts. It is being used to hide the fact that states are and have been doing a poor job providing equal and quality educational opportunities. To be clear, this does not mean that the No Child Left Behind took the correct approach or that standardized tests should drive school quality. But a common and transparent yardstick for school accountability is important. ESSA is allowing states to devolve into a system of apples, oranges, pears, watermelons, and lemons. By doing so, it deprives us of the ability to compare schools in any meaningful respect. For that reason, the new accountability systems are not simply hard to interpret, they are a complete waste of time.
Rather than devise a convoluted accountability system, Congress should have just fessed up to the fact that it was abandoning the federal role in education. Instead, it sought to keep up the ruse by requiring states to waste a lot of time and effort on these new systems.
For my full analysis of how the Every Student Succeeds Act abandons the federal role in education and what else is likely to come, see here.
Thursday, March 30, 2017
The Washington Post reports that the Department of Education has killed funding for one of its few voluntary integration programs. The rationale is pretty flimsy. According to the Post, an official said it was not a good use of money because the funds were for planning rather than implementation. What? Doesn't planning often lead to implementation? Aren't planning grants predicated on promises that districts will implement the plan? I hope this is just a poor excuse and not a guiding principle for future policy: act first, plan later. But if this is just a poor excuse, it begs the question of why the Department is killing this program. Is it anti-integration?
In a letter earlier this month, the National Coalition on School Diversity urged DeVos to retain the program. In the letter, it wrote:
[W]e write to express our support for the Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunities program (“Opening Doors”), and urge you to make the awards under this program as expeditiously as possible. As evidenced by the large number of districts from all over the country that expressed their intent to apply for the program, there is tremendous interest in this program and what it seeks to do—namely to use school choice to achieve diversity and increase equity in our nation’s public schools. This program gives parents more options, and will help to expand innovation and educational opportunity.
We were excited to hear your recent comments regarding the importance of diversity in American schools. During the Magnet Schools of America 2017 National Policy Training Conference, you eloquently spoke of the “the vital role [magnet schools] played to improve the lives of … students, combat segregation, and provide a quality option to parents and kids alike.” Opening Doors seeks to advance the same goal: combating segregation in our nation’s public schools, for the benefit of our children and future generations. Furthermore, during your confirmation process, you wrote in response to a question by Senator Murray (D-WA), stating: “I believe government policies should not be established to intentionally create racial isolation, especially in our elementary and secondary schools.”
Opening Doors will help combat the rising resegregation we are seeing take hold in many public schools across the country. As the Government Accountability Office noted last year, while schools serving primarily Black and/or Hispanic students represented only 16 percent of all K-12 public schools, they accounted for the majority (61 percent) of high-poverty schools in 2013-14. Diversity is beneficial to all students, regardless of socioeconomic background or race. As you likely know, research shows that students attending socioeconomically and racially diverse schools have better test scores and higher college attendance rates than peers in more economically and racially segregated settings.
For these reasons, we urge you to award the Opening Doors grants to qualified applicants as soon as possible. Doing so will provide school districts with locally-developed tools that will foster diversity, which will benefit all students and our society as a whole.
Thursday, March 16, 2017
President Trump has released his blueprint for the budget. It includes a number of cuts and program eliminations across various sectors. He would not spare the Department of Education. Here is the USA Today's summary of the cuts:
Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants program ($2.4 billion): The White House says the program is "poorly targeted and spread thinly across thousands of districts with scant evidence of impact."
21st Century Community Learning Centers program ($1.2 billion): The formula grants to states support before- and after-school and summer programs. "The programs lacks strong evidence of meeting its objectives, such as improving student achievement," the budget says.
Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program ($732 million): This financial aid program, known as SEOG, help give up to $4,000 a year to college students based on financial need. The Trump administration says it's a "less well-targeted" program than Pell Grants.
Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Program ($190 million): The grants are targeted toward students with disabilities or limited English proficiency.
Teacher Quality Partnership ($43 million): A teacher training and recruitment grant program.
Impact Aid Support Payments for Federal Property ($67 million): Obama also proposed the elimination of this program, which reimburses schools for lost tax revenue from tax-exempt federal properties in their districts.
International Education programs ($7 million): This line item funds a variety of exchange programs, migrant schools and special education services abroad.
My knowledge is thin on most of these programs, but the biggest cuts strike me as the most curious. Funding for before and after school programs may or may not be improving student achievement. That, however, should be beside the point if those programs provide a safe place and child care for needy students. Cutting this out only places more pressure on the child care issues that Ivanka Trump has been raising. Likewise, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant helps needy students pay for college. Trump may be correct that it is not as targeted as it could be, but this begs the question of how it might be better targeted, not whether the funding should be cut.
Finally, the Impact Aid Support seems like a particularly odd target. Those funds have a significant impact in communities that serve our military families. Those families, for a variety of reasons, do not pay the same taxes as others in those communities. No one has any qualms with giving our service members those benefits. The downside, however, is that the schools their children attend do not have the same tax base as other schools with fewer military members. To offset this oddity, the federal government makes a direct payment bumps to those schools. This cut is a hard one to figure out.
Tuesday, March 14, 2017
The structure the Every Student Succeeds Act creates for supporting, monitoring, and improving public schools is, in the collective, incoherent. The Every Student Succeeds Act is the popular title of the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Every Student Succeeds Act, however, stands apart from its predecessors. All prior versions have been premised on improving educational opportunities for disadvantaged students by promoting equality in inputs, equality in outputs, or both. The Every Student Succeeds Act proceeds as though we can improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged students without equality in inputs or outputs. This would be quite a novel, if not incoherent, thesis.
In a lecture last week, I remarked that the more forgiving thesis I might ascribe to the Act is that if the federal government would get out of the way of states states would devise their own new theories by which to achieve equality or would simply achieve input and/or output equality of their own volition. Yesterday, Betsy DeVos confirmed my speculation was correct. At the annual legislative conference of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 68 big-city school system, DeVos remarked “When Washington gets out of your way, you should be able to unleash new and creative thinking to set children up for success.”
I knew it. Washington is the problem and the Every Student Succeeds Act has cured it. States did not really need the couple hundred billion dollars that the federal government gave to states during the recession to keep their education budgets from falling off a cliff and teachers being wholesale dismissed. It was really the federal government that made states cut education by 20 or so percent once they exhausted federal stimulus funds. It was really the federal government that forced some states to slash taxes rather than fund education. It was really the federal government that has insisted that over half of the states continue to fund education at levels below the pre-recession years, even though their tax revenues exceed pre-recession levels. It was really the federal government that insisted that states spend more money in schools that do not serve low-income students than in those that do.
If only President Obama had appointed Betsy Devos eight years ago, we could have avoided this mess.
Or maybe the flawed logic of the Every Student Succeeds Act and Betsy DeVos are just window dressing for the fact that many no longer believe equality is possible or a virtue worth pursuing. This is an idea that would likely cause many educators and families to revolt, just as they did in opposition to DeVos, which is why the window dressing is necessary.
For more on the federal role in education and the Every Student Succeeds Act, see here.
Monday, March 13, 2017
Is the Historic Role of the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in Jeopardy or Simply Undergoing an Expected Shift?
James Murphy's new article in the Atlantic offers a excellent and compelling overview of the Office for Civil Rights. He details the various people who have headed the Office over the last fifty years and the major policies they have pursued. He also contrasts the policies of the administrations that have transitioned into and out of the office. With this backdrop, he suggests that major changes from the new administration are the norm for this Office. How far those changes will or will not go, however, is not yet clear.
Under DeVos, the guidance on sexual violence will almost certainly be modified, if not withdrawn, as will the transgender guidance law. So, too, might the guidance on discipline, seclusion, and restraint, in particular. Seclusion (removing a student from a classroom and putting her in isolation) and restraint (restricting a student’s movement, often by pinning him to the floor) have been used disproportionately against students with disabilities and African American students. President Trump’s rhetoric about “American carnage” and “bad dudes” suggests he is more likely to embrace the “zero-tolerance” policies.
Justice is slow, childhood is fleeting, and the task of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is to make those schedules match. Information and transparency are key to attaining that goal. In addition to making its resolutions part of the public record so other school leaders could learn from them and increasing its outreach to schools through technical assistance (through, for example, workshops, flyers, and community meetings), the OCR under Obama made the data it is required to collect about civil rights in primary and secondary schools more easily accessible, comprehensive, and public-facing. Now, state and local governments, schools, community organizations, journalists, and citizens could use them. The OCR has used it biennial CRDC reports to highlight disparities in such areas as discipline, college and career readiness, and absenteeism.
Repeatedly in interviews, civil-rights stakeholders expressed their support of the OCR’s decision to make the CRDC more public-facing and to use it as a tool for shining a light on civil-rights issues. Liz King of the Leadership Conference points to this change as evidence that “leadership matters. From Arne Duncan, we saw a huge premium on data transparency” and a “strong emphasis on CRDC.” They also expressed concern that this could change in the Trump administration. Monique Dixon, the deputy director of policy and senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, praised the Obama administration’s transformation of the CRDC into a mechanism for confirming the scale of civil-rights abuse, but she worries that the new administration could mean a “return to inactivity.”
The staff that created the reports will remain in place at the OCR, but it will be up to Secretary DeVos and her assistant secretary for civil rights whether they will carry out that task. It is easy to imagine the argument from the incoming administration: that the extent of the data collection places an unreasonable burden on schools, and so it needs to be scaled back. When I asked Gerard Robinson, an adviser to Trump's education-policy team, about this possibility, he suggested that the changes made to the CRDC were part of Secretary Duncan’s “data-driven vision,” which he attributed to his having been a superintendent. Robinson asserted that Trump “is also a data guy. Betsy DeVos is also a data person.” No data were provided to back up these claims.
Thursday, February 23, 2017
Civil Rights Rollbacks, the Federal Role in Education, and the Need for Judicial Intervention: An Interview with Jennifer Berkshire
Jennifer Berkshire was nice enough to talk with me the the future of civil rights enforcement under this new administration, as well as several of the ideas I raise in Ending Zero Tolerance. Her questions consistently go to the heart of the matter. I am sure many of you follow her work more than mine, but I highly recommend it. Her pieces go deeper than mine--more in the vein of investigative journalism at times. She also has a great podcast series.
Her interview with opens:
Jennifer Berkshire: The Trump Administration has just rescinded guidelines to schools banning discrimination against transgender students. There’s a lot of speculation about just how the joint letter from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions actually was. But you seem unconvinced by the portrayals of DeVos as a fierce protector of civil rights.
Derek Black: The stream of bad news over the past few months has been steady. The Trump transition team said the administration would scale back the civil rights work in education. At her confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos was reluctant to take an affirmative stance on enforcing students’ disability rights. Since taking the post, she has remarked that she could not *think of any* current pressing civil rights issues where the federal government has a role to play; things like racial segregation and exclusion of females were things of the past in her opinion.
Now reports are coming out that Gail Heriot is likely to be the next head of the Department’s Office for Civil Rights. Heroit has been critical of the Office’s aggressive civil rights stance in recent years. With these individuals in place, it is hard to imagine much good happening at the federal level. Even if they do not rescind other Department positions on integration, school discipline, English Language Learners, and school resources, they are very unlikely to enforce existing regulations and policy guidance. Disparate impact enforcement, for instance, will be non-existent. Rather than take on traditional civil rights concerns, I would expect they will identify fringe issues to pursue.
Berkshire: OK—forget about *much good happening at the federal level.* Is there anything we can feel hopeful about? That was only the first question of our interview and I’m not sure how much more of this I can take…
Black: We have been here before. Disparate impact was not enforced during the Bush era either. And it focused on more marginal issues like Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act. I think we are actually in a better place to weather the storm today than we were last time. The school-to-prison pipeline is a household word now. More districts are voluntarily pursuing integration. California is bringing back bilingual education. And parents are fed up with standardized testing. On a host of issues, there are local advocates and local politicians that are going to do the right thing regardless of what the Department of Education does. No doubt about it, there is a storm coming, but there are a lot of hardworking and committed people on the ground.
Berkshire: You’re the author of a book called Ending Zero Tolerance: The Crisis of Absolute School Discipline that is turning out to be alarmingly prescient.
Black: One of the central premises of the book is that when nobody else will stand up for kids, it has to be the courts. There are numerous systemic instances over the past few decades where schools and states have gone too far. And when they do it is only the courts that are the saving grace, because we have good political times and bad political times, as we are seeing.
Get the full interview here.
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
A Chronicle of Higher Education story indicates the likely nominee for the Assistant Secretary for the Office for Civil Rights will be Gail Heroit, who may take the Office in an entirely new direction. As discussed here and here, the Office has recently done incredible work. It seems that the task of the new Assistant Secretary is to undo substantial portions of it. The Chronicle writes:
Leading conservative activists are predicting that the Trump administration will put a prominent critic of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights in charge of it, to scale back its efforts.
Although the White House has yet to tip its hand on its pick as the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, speculation among plugged-in Republicans whose views have influenced other cabinet picks centers on two well-known conservative figures: Gail Heriot and Peter N. Kirsanow. Both Ms. Heriot and Mr. Kirsanow are members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights who recently have accused the department of overreach in dealing with sexual assault and the rights of transgender students on college campuses. Both also have been vocal critics of colleges’ consideration of race in admissions and student housing.
Of the two, Ms. Heriot, a professor of law at the University of San Diego, may be most likely to get the nomination. That’s partly because Mr. Kirsanow, a labor lawyer in Cleveland, has a broad background that places him in the running for an array of other federal positions. That Ms. Heriot is a woman also could work in her favor, as the Trump administration might see her sex as giving her a measure of political cover in carrying out one of its top priorities for the civil-rights office — reducing the office’s guidance on Title IX, the federal gender-equity law.
More than 240 activists and college faculty members, nearly all conservative or traditionalist in their views, have joined the National Association of Scholars and six other organizations in sending Trump-administration officials a letter endorsing Ms. Heriot as assistant secretary.
Monday, February 20, 2017
Even if Betsy DeVos understood her job, she could not have taken over the Department of Education at a worse time. The busiest and most complex process that any Secretary of Education will likely see over the next several years is beginning. States are set to submit their brand new implementation plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act. They have been operating under No Child Left Behind plans since 2002 and are now transitioning to entirely new schemes.
These plans include lots of moving parts and policy choices within a much larger regulatory structure. The people who understand those parts just exited the Department of Education building. New staffers are coming into the building and, as evidenced by the confirmation hearing, their boss does not understand the basic rules that have been in place for decades, much less the new ones.
To make things worse, DeVos just added to the confusion. On February 10, DeVos sent a letter to states telling them that the timeline for submitting their implementation plans remains in place, but everything else is up in the air. In November, the Department enacted final regulations outlining what should be in those plans, but DeVos indicates states should not worry about complying with those regulations. She points to a letter from White House staff and the possibility that Congress might disapprove the regulations. In such case, "these regulations 'shall have no force or effect.'" In other words, turn your state plans in on time, but forget the rules.
This letter creates a host of problems, none of which have anything to do with partisan politics. White House staff cannot repeal or stay regulations once they become final--certainly not with a memo. Final regulations can be repealed through the legislative process, but only if the House, Senate, and President act together. While the House has voted to repeal the regulations, the vote was largely symbolic. During the Obama administration, the House passed several similar resolutions regarding non-education regulations, but the Senate never acted. Senator Lamar Alexander has made rumblings about repealing these regulations, but one has to think they are largely rumblings. Congress recessed last week having taken no action. Quite simply, the Senate has much bigger fish to fry right now: agency confirmations, a Supreme Court Justice, and repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act. The last time Congress debated the ACA it led to nearly a decade-long delay in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In short, my money is on the regulations remaining in effect for some time.
Regardless, repealing the regulations in whole will create a huge vacuum, leaving states with no detailed guidance regarding an entirely new process. Surgically removing some of the regulations is equally problematic because it requires that someone actually understand the regulatory substance and structure. Consider, for instance, just one issue like the difference between student proficiency and student growth. Who is Congress going to ask about regulations that go much deeper than proficiency versus growth? Besty DeVos?
If any of the regulations are repealed, the Department will presumably want to replace them. That takes time--often lots of time. The Department must go through the notice, comment, and finalization process. The regulatory vacuum will persist while this drags out.
Even if time were not an issue, new regulations require a sense of where the Every Student Succeeds Act should go. Betsy DeVos standard line is to let states decide. But states do not want to decide everything. They need some sense of the parameters. More important, so does Congress. While the Every Student Succeeds Act gives states a lot of discretion, Congress did not just pass a 400 page bill so that states would be left with no rules or regulations at all. Congress could have done that in a page.
The current regulations are the law whether the Secretary likes it or not. Secretaries may defer enforcement of certain matters on a case by case basis, but Secretaries lack the authority to skip the entire administrative process through letters that repeal or disregard entire regulatory structures.
These problems make the lower level political appointments at the Department more important than ever. Someone who understands education and administration needs to steer the ship. If someone does not figure this out soon, the Every Student Succeeds Act will be dead on arrival.
As a way of limiting the Secretary’s power, the Act includes a provision that automatically approves state plans if the Secretary does not reject them within 120 days of receiving them. So if Department’s leadership does not figure out the Act quickly, any state plan that comes through the door will be approved. If a state wants to rate schools on how often they clean their windows, and punish those who clean too infrequently with mandatory ice cream breaks on Fridays, those plans will set the course for education reform.
Monday, February 6, 2017
The Department of Education recently released its findings of its study of the impact of school improvement grants (SIG) to districts. The results were not that promising. First, the districts receiving grants did not seem to adopt reform at a significantly higher rate than other schools. They did implement certain reforms, but so did other schools. In other words, they may have received grants to do things they would have done anyway. Second, the specific reforms implemented did not appear to affect student achievement. To be clear, however, the problem may have simply been in the reform models preferred by the SIG grants. Spending money on the wrong policies surely will have no positive effect. Unfortunately, this is not new. Benjamin Superfine wrote a similarly interesting article on the Race to the Top grants. See Benjamin Michael Superfine, Stimulating School Reform: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Shifting Federal Role in Education, 76 Mo. L. Rev. 81 (2011). In any event, the Department offered this summary of its new findings:
- Although schools implementing SIG-funded models reported using more SIG promoted practices than other schools, we found no evidence that SIG caused those schools to implement more practices. Our descriptive analysis found that schools implementing a SIG-funded model used significantly more SIG-promoted practices than other schools (22.8 of the 35 practices examined [65 percent] versus 20.3 practices [58 percent], a difference of 2.5 practices). Our more rigorous RDD analysis found a similar ES-2 difference of 3.3 practices, but it was not statistically significant. Therefore, we are unable to conclude that SIG caused the observed difference in use of practices.
- Across all study schools, use of SIG-promoted practices was highest in comprehensive instructional reform strategies and lowest in operational flexibility and support. In the comprehensive instructional reform strategies area, study schools reported using, on average, 7.1 of the 8 SIG-promoted practices examined (89 percent). In the operational flexibility and support area, study schools reported using, on average, 0.87 of the 2 SIG promoted practices examined (43 percent).
- There were no significant differences in use of English Language Learner (ELL)- focused practices between schools implementing a SIG-funded model and other schools.
- Overall, across all grades, we found that implementing any SIG-funded model had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.
- When we compared student achievement gains from different models in elementary grades (2nd through 5th), we found no evidence that one model was associated with larger gains than another. For higher grades (6th through 12th), the turnaround model was associated with larger student achievement gains in math than the transformation model. However, factors other than the SIG model implemented, such as baseline differences between schools implementing different models, may explain these differences in achievement gains.
Get the full study here.
Friday, February 3, 2017
When news broke a couple of days ago that two republican senators would vote against confirming Betsy DeVos as the next Secretary of Education, speculation over the possibility that she might not be confirmed went into hyper-drive. If just one more senator defected, DeVos would fail and there were five or more republican senators who, due to politics in their home states, might very well vote against her. Given that opposition to her was not just political, but basic competency, picking off just one senator seemed possible. After all, some major charter school advocates had even come out against her. If her confirmation died, it is not clear that anyone other than Donald Trump would be personally bothered (although those whose bundle campaign contributions might feel the pain). The past two days seemed to dash those hopes, however, as one, after another, Senators Rubio, Toomey, Heller, Fischer and others have indicated support for her.
This morning at 6:30 a.m., the full Senate began the process of voting on her. For procedural reasons, the final vote will not happen until Monday or Tuesday. I would not rule out a last minute surprise, but odds are that she will be confirmed. Some will see this as a loss, but at this point, the vote does not really matter. Those who want to protect education have already won. Here's why.
First, Trump is not going to nominate anyone that public education supporters will like. He has all but called public schools cesspools of financial waste and failure. If Betsy DeVos fails, Trump would double down on undermining education, not moderate. So a no vote on DeVos would be a moral victory, but not necessarily a practical one.
Second, Trump would be unlikely to make the same mistake twice in terms of appointing an incompetent Secretary. Often times, blocking a nominee draws a concession of sorts, but because the problem with DeVos is competency, the concession--if there was one-would be on credentials. Trump's second nominee would likely have some education experience and knowledge. If so, that person would sail through and look strong by comparison. Finding such a person would be easy. As I pointed out, Betsy DeVos may be in the top one percent in terms of wealth, but she is probably in the bottom twenty-five percent in terms of education knowledge.
Third, someone with competency would be more dangerous than DeVos. As I pointed out here, DeVos does not appear to really understand the nature of the Secretary's job. If she does not understand her job, it is reasonable to predict she might not be able to do much with it. True, she offers no hopes for those who want to see improvements in education, but it is possible she might just be irrelevant.
Fourth, and here is the key to why she might become entirely irreverent, this bruising confirmation and the possibility of only being confirmed by virtue of Mike Pence casting a tie-breaking vote has mortally wounded Betsy DeVos. She may become Secretary of Education, but she will not have a bully-pulpit or political support. So many groups have come out against her publicly that she has lost what would have been her presumptive base. And everyone is now clear that she is unqualified for the job. Why would they listen to her? And she has fired teacher unions and supporters who would normally take a measured approach. Even those senators who vote for her are unlikely to stick their necks out for her in the future.
The skeptic might say, yeah, but if she wins, she has power and can do what she wants. Fortunately, that is just not true. As a reaction to Secretary Duncan's overreach with No Child Left Behind waivers, the Every Student Succeeds Act severely restricted the powers of the Secretary. As I explain here, the Act shifted an enormous amount of power and discretion back to the states, reducing the Secretary to a paper-pusher.
The Secretary, as paper-pusher, is free to cheer-lead for the policies he or she likes, but that is about it. The silver-lining of this confirmation is that DeVos is a cheerleader that half of the Senate wants to tar and feather and another third wants to just go away and not be seen any more. After all, her nominal supports are smart enough--I hope--to remember they have already taken away the Secretary's power, so what difference does it make if she is incompetent.
For a number of reasons, including symbolism and leadership, I think competence does matter and my idealism still wants to see her voted down because it just is not right to have someone who lacks basic qualifications to rise to this level. But given the way things are shaking out, those who support schools and competency may have already won.
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
Former Secretary of Education John King said the Department would work until the last moment, as it had important work still to do. January 19th, 2017 did not disappoint. The Department released a guide for improving diversity in public schools. The introduction states:
This brief provides information to support school districts and stakeholders seeking to improve student diversity in their schools through voluntary, community-led programs as part of an overall effort to increase equity and excellence for all students. Diversity can include many factors, such as race, national origin, disability, socioeconomic status, and language proficiency. What follows is an action-oriented summary of considerations when embarking on efforts to increase student diversity, starting with possible steps to consider when conducting a diversity needs assessment and planning for implementation. Potential diversity strategies and a few examples from the field are included, as well as thoughts on efforts to sustain an inclusive environment once diversity strategies are being implemented.
The guide goes through the nuts and bolts of data collection, decision making, and funding for diversity programs--the basic things a school needs to look at to determine what is or is not necessary. It then focuses on five specific types of programs and policies that schools can use to diversify: magnet schools; controlled choice; open enrollment; high-quality charter schools. The guide also offers suggestions for maintaining an inclusive environment in diverse schools: culturally relevant instruction, detracking/expanding access to advanced coursework within schools; diversifying the teacher workforce; and teacher development.
There is nothing particularly new in the document, but it offers good resources and a strong vote of confidence for districts considering positive changes.
Get the full report here.
Thursday, January 26, 2017
Trying to get a better sense of where Betsy DeVos stands on education, reporters have descended on Michigan in recent weeks to study what has actually happened. Jennifer Berkshire canvassed the state and took a close look at its present and past history. The story she tells is that Betsy DeVos's charter and voucher agenda is a small part of a much bigger agenda. DeVos' real goal is political and her real target is the Democratic Party. The basic strategy: undermine public schools and you undermine public school teachers. Undermine public school teachers and you undermine the biggest unions. Undermine the biggest unions and you kill the Democratic Party.
That is pretty somber logic, but fits well with other data points outside of DeVos. Advocates in California, New York, and Minnesota have filed lawsuits claiming that teacher tenure violates students’ right education under state constitutional law. On its face, their claims are plausible. But the motivations behind those claims had relatively little to do with education and far more to do with breaking the backs of unions. That movement had been underway in several states and when it failed, advocates come up with the idea of these lawsuits. A major problem in those lawsuits, however, was that advocates overplayed their hands. They let their policy preferences for how teachers should be hired, fired, and evaluated dominate their constitution claims. In the end, their policy preferences were masquerading as constitutional claims and courts began to see through it.
I stand by that analysis, but these recent reports out of Michigan suggest that it is niave to consider these claims solely in the context of education policy. For those funding the movement—although certainly not all those who joined it--the challenge to teacher tenure was not just about policy preferences in education. It was about seizing political power.
This adds troubling layer onto the nomination of DeVos. Over the past few days, those who care about education have been shocked by how little DeVos actually knows about education. Enforcing disability laws, for instance, may very well be the biggest job of the Department of Education. Complaints of disability discrimination consume forty percent of the Department’s civil rights docket. And in terms of day-to-day functioning, ten percent of more the nation’s students are in enrolled in special education, which federal law closely governs. DeVos could not answer the simple question of whether all schools should have to comply with these laws. Later, she tried to clear up her lack of knowledge by saying she may have been “confused” about what the law required. In other words, she did not realize that it is a mandatory obligation of all schools receiving federal funds.
But if we go back to DeVos’s larger agenda in Michigan, these responses should not be shocking at all. Her desire and qualification for this job may not be about education at all. It may be about pure politics. This fits with a fact she was willing to confirm. Senator Bernie Sanders asked if it was true that her family has donated $200 million to the Republican Party over the years. After first evading the question, she admitted that it was “possible.”
The scary idea is not that DeVos knows nothing of education or event that the Secretary of Education position is quid pro quo for politic donations. Those things happen. The scary idea is that she might use the power of the Secretary of Education to break the Democratic Party. Parents and families of all political parties want a Secretary of Education who cares about education, regardless of whether they agree with her policies.
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Betsy DeVos's lack of expertise has been cited as a point of opposition to her appointment, but as this morning's commentators remarked, DeVos was not appointed for her expertise. She was appointed to shake up the system. She, in fact, describes herself as a disruptor. This is her claim to fame. If this is the basis for her appointment, however, she is still not a good choice for Secretary Education. The problem with some disruptors is that they do not know enough about the thing they seek to disrupt to actually disrupt it. They speak with bluster, but in the end, that is all it is.
Anyone who thinks the Department of Education has not been disruptive as of late and is just doing the same old things has not been watching closely. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan shook up the education status quo like no one in a long time. He went after teacher rights and public school monopolies. Teacher unions and tenure have long been seen as immovable aspects of the status quo that prevented serious reform. Likewise, traditional public schools' "monopoly" on education made competition and institutional reforms similarly difficult.
Arne Dunce broke the backs of both of these pillars of education. Through Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind waivers, he encouraged, cajoled, coerced, and compelled more than forty states to institute teacher evaluation systems that fundamentally altered the way teachers are hired, fired, retained, promoted, and tenured in many places. These changes were so radical that they generated a series of lawsuits in places like Texas, Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and New York, alleging that teachers' constitutional rights had been violated.
Likewise, when state education budgets were in free-fall during the recession, Duncan told states that if they did not lift their caps on the number of charter schools they would create, he would, in effect, kill their applications for new federal funding. This move, combined with other factors, resulted in the number of students attending charter schools doubling during the recession. Although Duncan did not compel it, while states were at it, several also drastically expanded their voucher programs. Caps on who could apply for a voucher were lifted and voucher funding doubled, tripled, quadrupled, and septupled in some instances.
These are the same types of policies DeVos supports. So the policies she wants to bring to Washington are already there. In fairness, she would seek to significantly expand these policies, but this is not disruption; this is fueling the system. If we look back at Duncan's tenure, would she say she wants to fuel much of his system? If that is all she would do, is she really the leader she claims to be? Would parents be excited about her ideas?
The one type of disruption we need and have not seen in Washington in decades is a serious commitment to equal access to learning opportunities. The Every Student Succeeds Act is one of the worst examples of gutting this concept from federal policy. And charters, vouchers, and other choice-like reforms are insulting substitutes for equal access to learning opportunities. They espouse the premise that all students are entitled to equal learning opportunities and reason that since students are not getting those equal opportunities in public school, they should be allowed to go elsewhere. The irony is that the people promoting these policies are so often unwilling to do much of anything to ensure students get equal access to learning in regular public schools. Likewise, they are unwilling to place oversight on vouchers and charters to determine whether opportunities are equal there either. In other words, they are pursuing choice for choice's sake, and the reasoning in support of choice is circular.
This leaves us in a tough place. Those who want disruption through DeVos will not get it. And if they understood enough about the system to know what real disruption is, they probably would not want it.
As a small update, DeVos's hearing has been postponed from today until next week so that she can complete her financial disclosures and other paperwork.
Monday, January 9, 2017
Are Pence and DeVos a One-Two Knock Out for Education Policy? Recent Reports Out of Indiana Suggest Yes
My recent posts have focused on DeVos and the problems she presents for public education, although I emphasize that without new legislation she does not have power to do too much. Some new information out of Indiana regarding the education system Governor Pence has overseen suggests more trouble on the horizon and give me pause about assuming an incompetent education administration. Pence actually has a track record of getting things done in Indiana and what he has accomplished should raise red flags for those invested in improving public education.
Most notably is the state's teacher bonus system. By law, the state mandated that $40 million in bonuses be handed out to the state's teachers. I am all in favor of increasing teacher pay in ways that make the profession more attractive to new teachers and encourage others to stay. Indiana's incentive pay, however, has two major problems. First, it is having a very inequitable effect on teachers and driving most of the money to school systems that need it the least. Cory Doctorow offers this summary:
[The state gives] bonuses for teachers who preside over high-achieving classes. This year, the biggest payouts will go to schools teaching the richest kids in the state, while schools for poor kids will get little-to-none of the payouts.
The biggest winner in the giveaway are the Carmel Clay Schools, where 9% of kids qualify for free or subsidized lunches, where the teachers will get $2422 each. The Indianapolis district -- the largest in the state -- will give each teacher a $128.40 bonus.
Emanuel Felton adds:
Carmel Clay Schools, where just 9 percent of their 16,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, will get the most— $2.4 million or roughly $2,422 per teacher. Another well-off Indianapolis suburban district, Zionsville Community Schools, where fewer than 5 percent of students qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program, will receive about $2,240 per teacher. Meanwhile, Indianapolis, the state's largest district will receive just around $330,875, or $128.40 per educator. So teachers in those wealthy suburban districts will get bonuses nearly 20 times larger than effective and highly effective educators in Indianapolis.
Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith calls it a "flawed" system.
"While educators at well-resourced schools performed well and received a much-deserved bonus, the educators teaching in some of the most challenging districts where socioeconomic factors can negatively impact student and school performance, were left out," she said in a statement. "We need high-quality educators to teach at our most-challenged schools, and this distribution of bonuses certainly won't compel them to do so."
Even if Indiana fixed this inequity, the performance pay has a second big problem: no evidence shows that these systems actually improve student performance. Instead, they tend to frustrate teachers because the metrics that determine whether teachers receive a bonus are ones over which teachers have little control. The distribution of bonuses appears random or keyed to who gets to teacher certain students. More on these problems here.
Of course, the more obvious problem in Indiana is a voucher system on steroids that increasingly drives public funding to middle and upper income families in private schools while funding for public schools falls short. Indiana was among the nation's worse offenders on that score in recent years. More on that here.
All of this spells trouble. While one could hope for an isolated and irrelevant Secretary of Education, this one, should she be confirmed, may have an ally in the White House who knows how to implement new education frameworks.
Tuesday, December 13, 2016
Two big challenges will face advocates in dealing with the Department of Education in the coming years: 1) insisting that it enforces civil rights law and 2) stopping it from excesses of power. Advocates will have relatively few tools in their bag to force the Department to do its civil rights job, but they will have clear statutory language and powerful precedent on its side to stop the Department from going beyond its job. On this second point, one need look back no further than the recent controversies surrounding the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
In the process of writing Federalizing Education by Waiver?, I spent a good deal of time worrying about whether I was being fair in my assessment that Secretary Duncan had exceeded his power in imposing various conditions on the statutory waivers he began granted under NCLB. To be honest, when he initially rolled the waiver process out in 2012, I paid almost no attention. The process was bureaucratic, something had to be done to avoid the sanctions that NCLB would have required, and almost anything seemed better than the decade of high stakes testing our schools had endured. I saw little need to crack open the statute and seriously consider the matter.
Common Core, as a matter of substance, did not pique my interest either. Lesson plans and what is actually taught in K-12 curriculum goes beyond my expertise. I found the new teacher evaluation systems curious primarily because they relied so heavily on the standardized tests everyone had railed against for years, but the systems were so complex that, again, I did not dig deeper. It was really only the growing power of the Secretary between 2012 and 2014 and the sense that he might just do anything he wanted in elementary and secondary education that finally gave me pause. And it was because I was generally neutral as to the substance of his policies that I reassured myself that my conclusions were sound and I was not simply crying foul because I disliked his policies.
My conclusions in Federalizing Education by Waiver? and proscriptions for the future seem all the more valid and important now. The point of the article was to take executive power seriously, even when your friends are the ones exercising it, because some day some one other than your friends may exercise it. And the best way to maintain credibility in calling out those with whom you disagree is to call out your friends for the same thing. So while the NCLB waiver process and the legal issues it raised seemed to fade into nothing last year when Congress replaced NCLB with the Every Student Succeeds Act, I am glad I wrote the article (and later testified against the department). And the importance of statutory text and the limits it places on executive power remain crucially important to those who may disagree with the privatization model that Trump administration intends to pursue.
As I wrote yesterday, it is not clear that Betsy DeVos really knows what her job is and what its limits will entail. Should she secure the job, I hope that her general counsel will read the Every Student Succeeds Act carefully and advise her as to what it makes abundantly clear: the Secretary now has very limited power and will serve more as a figure head and paper pusher than anything else. If she attempts more than this, Republicans should challenge her use of executive power as forcefully as they did that of the prior administration. Surely, Democrats will be right beside them.
This time around, I clearly disagree with the substance of the policies the administration is proposing. But if DeVos, or any one else, seeks to impose or cajole them through the Every Student Succeeds Act, I will oppose them because they are beyond the Department's power.