Category Archives: Education / Youth

Don’t Confuse Her With Evidence….

Students at one of America’s historically Black colleges recently booed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who had (inexplicably) been invited to deliver the graduation speech. Many of the graduates also turned their backs when she spoke.

This behavior was rude–but it was understandable.

Like most of Trump’s Cabinet, DeVos is manifestly unfit for public office. She is an ideologue in the Pence tradition; a theocrat with a rigid and limited worldview who has demonstrated a lack of engagement with, let alone understanding of, the issues that face the department she’s been tapped to head.

DeVos has been a “Betsy One-Note,” focused on voucher programs that despite misleading rhetoric, actually replace public schools with religious ones. She insists that private schools do a better job, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. As the New York Times recently reported,

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education was a signal moment for the school choice movement. For the first time, the nation’s highest education official is someone fully committed to making school vouchers and other market-oriented policies the centerpiece of education reform.

But even as school choice is poised to go national, a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them. The results are startling — the worst in the history of the field, researchers say.

Voucher advocacy has gradually become part of GOP ideology, and as Republicans have assumed power in the states, voucher programs have expanded–especially in Indiana. That expansion has allowed researchers to make comparisons that had been less reliable when there were fewer schools to compare, and the results of that research began to emerge in late 2015.

Here are some of those research findings–conclusions that would make an intellectually honest educator revisit her preconceptions:

The first results came in late 2015. Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.

The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana’s voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

This is very unusual. When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It’s rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result. Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature” — not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.

It is important to note that these results come from voucher proponents as well as voucher skeptics. As the Times article noted,

In June, a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math.

DeVos has been an outspoken opponent of even minimal efforts to regulate schools that accept vouchers, but it has become clear that such regulation is necessary and salutary:

The new voucher studies stand in marked contrast to research findings that well-regulated charter schools in Massachusetts and elsewhere have a strong, positive impact on test scores. But while vouchers and charters are often grouped under the umbrella of “school choice,” the best charters tend to be nonprofit public schools, open to all and accountable to public authorities. The less “private” that school choice programs are, the better they seem to work.

If DeVos has seen these studies or addressed their findings, I haven’t seen it reported.

Betsy DeVos is certainly entitled to live in her own alternate universe. What she isn’t entitled to is a public position that allows her to inflict considerable damage on the rest of us.

The Evidence Keeps Accumulating…

Periodically, I use this blog to indulge a rant about Americans’ lack of civic literacy. (Regular readers are probably getting tired of my preoccupation with civic education–or more accurately, the lack thereof.) Be warned– I’m going to beat that dead horse again today.

A column written by Colbert King from the Washington Post has highlighted still another research project confirming Americans’ low levels of civic knowledge. 

King introduced the topic by noting what we might call “constitutional challenges” in Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign.

He proposed a religious test on immigration, promised to “open up” U.S. libel laws and revoked press credentials of critical reporters. He called for killing family members of terrorists, said he would do “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” terrorism suspects and suggested that a U.S.-born federal judge of Mexican heritage couldn’t be neutral because of his ethnicity. He whipped up animosity against Muslims and immigrants from Mexico, branding the latter as “rapists.”

When protesters interrupted his rallies, he cheered violence against them. He told a political opponent that if he won, he would “get a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” adding “you’d be in jail.” He threatened not to respect election results if he didn’t win and, in Idi Amin fashion, made the claims of a strongman: “I alone can fix it.” He publicly expressed admiration for authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Cherished notions of religious freedom, a free press, an independent judiciary and the rights of minorities took a beating from him. The prospect of mob violence in his defense and imprisoning of political opponents found favor.

An electorate with even a basic understanding of the U.S. Constitution would have found these assaults on foundational American principles reprehensible. And in fairness, civically- educated Americans did recoil.

The problem is, we don’t have enough civically-educated Americans.

How did a pluralistic nation that propounds democratic values and practices come to this?

“This” not being the authoritarian in the White House who dismisses basic constitutional principles as if they were annoying gnats, but “this” — an electorate that looks past the disrespect shown toward democratic ideals.

That haunting question has occupied the minds of Richard D. Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey, two education scholars and writers who began to take a hard look at this fundamental domestic challenge long before November’s results came in.

Kahlenberg and Janey addressed the scope of the problem in a joint Century Foundation report released in November, “Putting Democracy Back into Public Education.” The report was also discussed in an article in the Atlantic, “Is Trump’s Victory the Jump-Start Civics Education Needed?”

Janey and Kahlenberg argue that our “schools are failing at what the nation’s founders saw as education’s most basic purpose: preparing young people to be reflective citizens who would value liberty and democracy and resist the appeals of demagogues.”

They said today’s schools turn themselves inside out trying to prepare “college-and-career ready” students who can contend with economic globalization and economic competition and find a niche with private skills in the marketplace.

As for preparing them for American democracy? Raising civics literacy levels? Cultivating knowledge of democratic practices and beliefs with rigorous courses in history, literature and how democratic means have been used to improve the country? Not so much or maybe not at all, they suggest.

This has to change. And in Indiana, at least, a number of us are committed to changing it.

Women4Change Indiana is currently launching an effort to increase civic education; I am heading up a subcommittee that will encourage the formation of book clubs around the state focused upon the history and philosophy of America’s constitution. We will also be enlisting volunteers who will advocate in their local school systems for inclusion of the “We the People” curriculum, which is now entirely voluntary. Research has demonstrated that We the People has a salutary, lasting influence on students who have gone through it.

Citizens will not–cannot–protect what they don’t understand.

Taxes and Religion

Last week, the Indianapolis Star did something called “journalism.” (These episodes have become sufficiently rare that we should applaud loudly when they occur. I’m clapping.)

Snark aside, the Star followed the money, in this case, our tax dollars, which are flowing ever more generously to Indiana’s parochial schools. And as the introductory paragraphs made clear, these are schools that take both their religious identity and religious instruction seriously.

At Colonial Christian, an Indianapolis school on the northeast side that receives public funds through Indiana’s private school voucher program, students are warned they can be kicked out of school for “promoting a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.”

At even more voucher-accepting schools, families are required to sign statements of faith as a condition of enrollment, affirming that they hold the same religious beliefs and values as the school.

Theology classes are required for four years at Bishop Chatard High School, as are hours performing service and outreach. And some schools, including Bethesda Christian in Brownsburg, require a recommendation by a pastor.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having religiously-based private education available to parents who want their children educated in such environments. Whether that education should be paid for with tax dollars, however, is a different question.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled several years ago that voucher programs could  pass constitutional muster, despite the Establishment Clause, because the voucher (theoretically) was issued to the parents, and those parents could (again, theoretically) choose either a secular or religious school.

When Indiana’s Supreme Court was faced with specific language in the state constitution that seemed to foreclose the federal evasion, Indiana’s Court nevertheless opted to follow the same “logic.” (So much for “originalism” and “textual” analysis, which–had either of those purported judicial approaches actually been applied–would have required a different outcome.)

The Star’s article on religious schools’ participation in the state’s voucher program was the fourth in a series on Indiana’s voucher program, a program that was “grown” by former Governor Pence to be the largest in the country. Pence–like Betsy DeVos– was clear about his intent to privilege religious education, and neither of them seems troubled by the constant stream of research showing that children using vouchers do more poorly in English and math than children from similar backgrounds who attend public schools.

In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of vouchers, the majority indulged in an abstract–and intellectually dishonest– exercise: the pretense that the voucher went to the parents (it is my understanding that, while the parents choose the ultimate recipient, they never touch the money), and –far more consequently–that the parents are free to choose from among religious or secular private schools. The “facts on the ground” are otherwise; almost all of the nonpublic schools accepting vouchers are religious, and those that are not tend to be geared to special populations: children with disabilities or behavioral issues or the like.

Let’s be honest, at least. Vouchers are support for religious education, and the quotations from parents in the Star article underscore the reality that most parents opting for vouchers do so because they want to send their children to a religious school.

So–back to my original question: why should taxpayers who believe in science and the importance of science education pay for children to attend schools that teach creationism (one of the administrators interviewed insisted that opposition to the “theory” of evolution was essential to his school’s approach)? Why should taxes paid by LGBTQ citizens and their allies be used to send children to schools that proselytize against “homosexual lifestyles”? Why should tax dollars be diverted from a public school system that serves all children and sent to schools that are unaccountable to those taxpayers and that research tells us are not providing an equivalent education?

I remain convinced that the Court in Zelman got it wrong–on both the law and the facts. But even if vouchers are constitutionally acceptable, they fail any reasonable test for what constitutes good public policy. If Americans want to promote alternative educational approaches and parental choice, there are ways to do that within the public system; charter schools, for example, are still public schools, with (among other things) an obligation to teach science and abide by the Bill of Rights.

The Star has illustrated what many educators already know: Indiana’s voucher program is an effort to circumvent the Establishment Clause’s prohibition on government funding for religion.

Educational outcomes are incidental.

 

 

 

 

 

Another Assault Begins…

The Hill reports that Trump has rolled back the Obama Administration’s education measures intended to ensure adequate teacher preparation and assess school performance.

The teacher preparation regulations included training requirements for educators, and the school accountability rules were meant to gauge schools’ effectiveness.

The rules drew sharp criticism from Republicans, who argued states should have more control over the classroom. This falls in line with the philosophy of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Republicans lawmakers earlier this month voted to strike down the two rules through the Congressional Review Act, which gives them the power to roll back certain regulations. In the Senate, the special procedure prevents the use of the filibuster.

Trump signed the bills Monday, not only eliminating the Obama-era education rules, but also prohibiting future presidents from issuing similar rules.

Repealing these rules will “encourage freedom in our schools,” Trump said.

Yes indeed. States like Indiana should be free to bleed resources from public schools without having to comply with pesky rules from Washington requiring that they actually evaluate the performance of the (primarily religious) schools that are receiving those resources.

Parents should be free to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools without some bureaucrat requiring confirmation that the people teaching in those schools actually know anything about subject-matter or pedagogy.

Evidently, the respect for “freedom” shown by Trump and DeVos doesn’t extend to the freedom of taxpayers to demand accountability for enterprises being supported by our tax dollars.

In fact, a discussion about what elements of our social and physical infrastructure should properly be provided by citizens’ tax dollars is long overdue.

We have bridges failing and roads that look like those of third-world countries. We barely–and grudgingly– support public transit. Our tattered and insufficient social safety net is under unremitting assault by politicians who demean Americans who rely on any aspect of it, while ignoring their own dependence on the public purse. (Yes, Paul Ryan, I’m looking at you–but you have a lot of company.)

The public school system is a key element of our social infrastructure. At its best, it provides skills enabling children to escape poverty, a “street corner” through which diverse citizens come to know and understand each other, and an introduction to civic competency.

Do all public schools meet that standard? No. But we have an obligation to fix those that don’t–just as we have an obligation to fix our decaying bridges. Instead, the Republican response is to privatize education and let private interests build–and toll–our roads and bridges. That approach is a rejection of the very definition of an infrastructure–utilities that serve all citizens.

Trump and the GOP don’t want to fix either our schools or our bridges; their definition of “freedom” is enriching private interests at the expense of the public good.

 

Will Incompetence Save Us?

This Dana Milbank column on Betsy DeVos is nothing short of wonderful. For one thing, it is really funny, and laughs are hard to come by these days. Beyond the humor, however,  Milbank also offers a ray of hope in the wake of yesterday’s (bare) confirmation of DeVos as Secretary of Education. He begins:

Rarely is the question asked: Is our Cabinet secretaries learning?

And if we is being honest with ourself, we says: No, they is not.

Today’s lesson: the education of Betsy DeVos.

Anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock (and I’m not judging–hiding under a rock is perfectly understandable in the Age of Trump) knows at least four things about Betsy DeVos: 1) she is monumentally unqualified for her post; 2) she gave gazillions of dollars to a large number of the Republican Senators who voted to confirm her (Conflict of interest? What conflict of interest?); 3) she is a proponent of siphoning taxpayer dollars from public schools to support Christian schools via vouchers; and public opposition to her confirmation was more intense and widespread than most observers can ever recall seeing.

It took DeVos’ longtime collaborator and fellow culture-warrior Mike Pence to break a 50/50 tie and get her over the finish line.

Milbank has words of consolation for those of us who view DeVos as an unmitigated disaster.

Democrats in the long run may thank the majority Republicans for confirming DeVos. In the fight against President Trump’s agenda, the new administration’s incompetence is their friend. Trump’s choice of DeVos signals a dangerous desire to dismantle public schools. It would be more dangerous if he chose somebody who was up to the task.

As bad as DeVos is, Milbank points out that she is only marginally the worst of a crew that includes Ben Carson (at Housing and Urban Development because–hey!–he lives in a house), Rick Perry (who admitted he had no idea what the Department of Energy did) and others.

Heading the National Security Council is Mike Flynn, reportedly drummed out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency for poor management. Nikki Haley, the U.N. ambassador, has no foreign policy experience; Treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin has no government experience and displayed his financial skills during his confirmation hearing by failing to disclose $100 million in personal assets.

One can already see future Cabinet meetings shaping up in the White House, as Trump goes around the table asking for updates:

Carson: “Pass.”

DeVos: “Could you come back to me, please?”

Flynn: “Sorry, what?”

Perry: “Oops.”

No doubt there is some value in nominating people outside the “establishment.” But the value is diminished if your outsiders can’t do the job.

Milbank noted that after Senate Democrats spent hours addressing DeVos’ manifest ignorance of even the most basic issues facing the Department of Education, John Cornyn’s response failed to rebut any of those charges. Instead he simply said that “The president will get the Cabinet he nominated and deserves.”

As Milbank concluded: Yes, he will.