Category Archives: Education / Youth

If Evidence Mattered…

I post fairly frequently about my multiple problems with school voucher programs, and I apologize for the repetition, but really!

Vouchers tend to be a “work around” the First Amendment–a mechanism for transferring tax dollars to religious schools; they steal critical resources from public schools that need those resources; they are re-segregating the schools…I could go on.

Vouchers were marketed as a mechanism allowing poor kids to escape from failing public systems and enroll instead in private schools that would give them a much better education. Proponents also argued that having to compete for students would lead to the improvement of the public schools.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Vouchers are increasingly used by families that would have and could have sent their children to parochial schools with or without them (in Indiana, families making up to 100,000 a year); meanwhile, starving public schools of resources doesn’t exactly help them improve.

Most significantly, research consistently shows that those “superior” private/parochial schools have failed to improve the educational outcomes of the children who use vouchers to attend them.

Brookings recently added to the available evidence

Four recent rigorous studies—in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio—used different research designs and reached the same result: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools. The Louisiana and Indiana studies offer some hints that negative effects may diminish over time. Whether effects ever will become positive is unclear.

The four different studies analyzed by Brookings used four different methodologies, but arrived at the same conclusion: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students who do not attend private schools. The four recent studies thus replicated the results of eight previous research projects, which Brookings also referenced.

The Trump Administration–and especially Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education–have been pushing voucher expansion. DeVos was largely responsible for the expansion of charter and voucher schools in Michigan, and does not appear to be deterred by the fact that student performance declined dramatically. An article in a Michigan newspaper, reproduced in the Washington Post, reported

In Detroit, parents of school-age children have plenty of choices, thanks to the nation’s largest urban network of charter schools.

What remains in short supply is quality.

In Brightmoor, the only high school left is Detroit Community Schools, a charter boasting more than a decade of abysmal test scores and, until recently, a superintendent who earned $130,000 a year despite a dearth of educational experience or credentials.

On the west side, another charter school, Hope Academy, has been serving the community around Grand River and Livernois for 20 years. Its test scores have been among the lowest in the state throughout those two decades; in 2013 the school ranked in the first percentile, the absolute bottom for academic performance. Two years later, its charter was renewed.

Or if you live downtown, you could try Woodward Academy, a charter that has limped along near the bottom of school achievement since 1998, while its operator has been allowed to expand into other communities.

This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape — where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and “choice” means the opposite for tens of thousands of children — is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.

And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos, the west Michigan advocate whose family has contributed millions of dollars to the cause of school choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout Michigan.

There is much more, and I encourage anyone interested in DeVos’ success in destroying Michigan education to click through, or to Google the numerous other articles chronicling the decline.

As the Brookings article notes, it used to be rare for policy initiatives to be expanded in the face of evidence that those initiatives are having negative effects on key outcomes. But this is an anti-evidence administration. Zealotry, religious convictions and (in Trump’s case) gut instinct–seasoned with breathtaking ignorance– are what guide policy prescriptions in Trump’s Washington.

 

“Elite” Colleges And Rich Delusions

When the news broke about rich parents buying their children’s admittance to “elite” colleges–falsifying credentials, paying smart kids to take the SATs, and bribing admissions personnel–it reminded me of my mother’s most abiding regret.

My mother was extremely bright, and made excellent grades in high school. She desperately wanted to go to college–but her parents were poor, and could only manage tuition at a local college if she lived at home. Room and board elsewhere were out of reach. My mother wanted a traditional campus social experience (as she said later, she was young and misguided), so she just didn’t go to college. She read voraciously and educated herself, but the local college was very good and she would have benefitted from going.

The lesson–which I never forgot–is that If a good education is really what you want, it is widely available.

There are an estimated 5,300 colleges in the U.S. They vary widely in the breadth and quality of their offerings, but you can get a very good education–I will go so far as to say an excellent education–in the top 500 or so. (Probably more.)

Of course, you need to want an education–not merely a social life, an impressive credential, connections to wealthy classmates, or bragging rights for making it into the most selective institutions.

I’m not knocking the benefits of going to a school with the offspring of the rich and famous; I still remember being a first-year associate in a law firm with a number of Harvard and Yale graduates. If a client needed local counsel in another state, the lawyer involved would frequently pull out his alumni register and hire a classmate practicing in that state. I’m sure that those school ties are equally valuable in a number of other professions.

As the news media has delved into the scandal, what they have discovered is something that most of us who are in academia have always known: the “elite” schools are certainly very good, but they are also selective about their selectivity, routinely favoring the offspring of alumni, especially generous alumni. (Jared Kushner’s father endowed a building at Harvard, and presto! despite mediocre grades, Jared was admitted) They also have special “quotas” for certain kinds of athletes.

You can find plenty of intellectual deadwood in those “groves of academe.”

The parents involved in this particular scandal apparently fall into the “bragging rights” category, but whatever their motivations, ensuring that their children received a superior education was pretty clearly not among them.

What this sordid episode revealed was the utter superficiality of so much of American culture, where appearances are more important than substance, where a college education is seen as a credential rather than an opportunity to explore the store of knowledge that humans have amassed, or an effort to confront the existential questions that loom so large when we are young.

Approaching a college education as if it is a more “elite” form of job training is why many middle-tier struggling institutions are jettisoning courses in the humanities in favor of technical skills and STEM, and why parents try to talk their children out of majoring in “impractical” subjects like philosophy or anthropology or English literature.

People who view all of life as a game of one-upmanship want their children to attend “prestige” universities, whether or not those institutions are the best fit for that child.

People who view life as an adventure to be illuminated by knowledge, who view learning as a life-long task and college as a place where you learn how to engage in that task, are satisfied if their children attend any of the many, many institutions able to nourish their intellectual curiosity and introduce them to the great minds and achievements of human civilization.

If I was still helping my children search for those places, however, I think I’d look askance at the schools that (legally or illegally) traded admissions for money…

 

 

What Is Civic Literacy?

Those of us who have spent years warning about the consequences of Americans’ low levels of civic literacy can take some comfort in the fact that Trump’s election not only proved our point, but seems to have generated an awakening among people who were previously unimpressed with the importance of the issue.

Here in Indiana, former Governor Mitch Daniels, who is now the President of Purdue University, has called for a campus-wide, mandatory civics test.

The faculty has been debating the proper approach to testing students’ civic literacy; in the meantime, they have

promised to let the president ask for a straight up-or-down vote on his baseline assumption that students should at least be able to pass the same test given to newly naturalized citizens.

Ah yes–the naturalization test.

As concerns about levels of civic ignorance have grown, a number of states have passed laws mandating the use of the naturalization test in order to graduate from high school. It’s so typical of American lawmakers, who tend to favor what I call “bumper-sticker” solutions. Civics instruction inadequate? Well, here’s a test. Give that. Problem solved.

Unfortunately, the questions on the naturalization test tend to be “civic trivia.” How many stripes on the flag? Name one branch of government? What are the first three words of the Constitution? How many U.S. Senators are there?

Now, knowing the answers to the questions on the civics test is fine. But it certainly doesn’t mean that the responder understands the way American government works. Knowing the length of a Senator’s term (another question on the test) tells you nothing about the operation of the federal government, or federalism’s division of jurisdiction–the relationships among local, state and federal levels of government.

It’s certainly nice if the test-taker can name ONE right protected by the First Amendment (another question), but that ability doesn’t translate into understanding the interaction of the religion clauses, or the purpose of free speech or a free press. Knowing that the first ten amendments are called the Bill of Rights doesn’t translate into understanding the “negative liberty” premise of the Bill of Rights– the reason that the provisions of the Bill of Rights only restrict government. (I wish I had a dollar for every student who has come into my classroom utterly unaware of that essential fact.)

What’s the difference between civil rights and civil liberties?

What is probable cause and why does it matter?

What do we mean by due process of law? The equal protection of the law?

If we really care about an informed electorate, a citizenry capable of debating the application of the actual constitution rather than a fanciful Fox-ified document, a citizenry with at least a superficial understanding of America’s history,  that isn’t going to be accomplished by a requirement that students correctly answer six questions from the citizenship test.

If I had a magic wand, I’d make every high school in the country require We the People–a curriculum that actually produces civically-literate citizens.

But that’s a solution that wouldn’t fit on a bumper-sticker.

The Unremitting Attacks On Public Education

The attacks on public education by “privatization” ideologues have ramped up under Betsy DeVos, who–as Mother Jones has reported–wants to use America’s schools to build “God’s Kingdom” and who has spent a lifetime working to end public education as we know it. She has ramped up those efforts since becoming Education Secretary, and she has help from other billionaire privatizers.

Last September, The Guardian reported on an Arizona effort spearheaded by DeVos and the Koch brothers.

Arizona has become the hotbed for an experiment rightwing activists hope will redefine America’s schools – an experiment that has pitched the conservative billionaires the Koch brothers and Donald Trump’s controversial education secretary, Betsy DeVos, against teachers’ unions, teachers and parents. Neither side is giving up without a fight.

Groups funded by the Koch brothers and cheered on by DeVos succeeded in getting Arizona lawmakers to enact what the Guardian describes as “the nation’s broadest school vouchers law.” (If it is broader than Indiana’s program, that’s saying something.) The state-funded vouchers were designed to give parents more school choice and–like Indiana’s–could be used to enroll children in private or religious schools.

For opponents, however, the system wasn’t about “choice”–it was about further weakening Arizona’s public school system.

Six women with children in the public schools had lobbied unsuccessfully against the measure, and they decided to fight back. Arizona law allows referenda (Indiana’s does not), and the women decided–long odds or no– they would gather the 75,321 signatures they needed to get a referendum on the ballot to overturn the law. They formed a group, called it Save Our Schools, and set out to collect the needed signatures.

The six women inspired a statewide movement and got hundreds of volunteers to brave Arizona’s torrid summer heat to collect signatures – in parks and parking lots, at baseball games and shopping malls. Their message was that billionaire outsiders were endangering public education by getting Arizona’s legislature – in part through campaign contributions – to create an expensive voucher program.

One reason for their success in generating a movement was the fact that Arizona’s public schools are so obviously underfunded. Some classes have 40 students; schools have to ask private citizens to donate money for supplies and books.

One study foundthat Arizona, at $7,613, is the third-lowest state in public school spending per student, while another study foundthat from 2008 to 2015, school funding per pupil had plunged by 24% in Arizona, after adjusting for inflation – the second-biggest drop in the nation.

Save our Schools submitted 111,540 signatures to the secretary of state in August 2017, but the Koch brothers’ political arm, Americans for Prosperity, sued to block the referendum. A judge dismissed the lawsuit and approved the referendum for 6 November – it’s called Proposition 305. The vote will be closely watched by people on both sides of the debate as the Kochs and DeVos hope to spread the voucher scheme and opponents look to Arizona for clues on how to stop them.

Save our Schools won. 

A grassroots group of parents successfully overturned the massive school voucher expansion supported by the state’s Republican establishment, as the “no” vote on Proposition 305 won by a wide margin, the Associated Press has projected.

The “no” vote victory on Prop. 305 has major implications for the school-choice movement in Arizona and nationally, as the state has long been ground zero for the conservative issue and Republican leaders have crowned the Empowerment Scholarship Account expansion as a national template.

This is the way democratic systems are supposed to work when legislatures pass measures that conflict with the desires of the voters.

If we have public schools that are not performing satisfactorily, we need to fix them–not abandon them. And we absolutely should not be sending tax dollars to religious schools–a practice that only deepens America’s already troubling tribalization.

The Vouchers Scam

A recent state report and a blistering–and entirely correct–blog post from Doug Masson pretty much destroy the myth that Indiana’s school vouchers do anything for poor children, or were really intended for use by children “trapped” in failing schools.

The 2018-19 voucher report from Indiana’s Department of Education includes the information that there are over 1,300 households receiving vouchers that have incomes over $100,000. That means those households are in the top twenty percent of Hoosiers by income.

It’s impossible to read the report without concluding that Indiana’s voucher program was purposely constructed to evade the constitutional prohibition against government support for religion–designed to allow taxpayer dollars to be diverted from the state’s public schools and used to promote religious education. (Nearly all of the participating private schools are religious.)

Indiana’s voucher program costs taxpayers $161.4 million and disproportionately serves white children, many of whom are clearly not “escaping failing schools” because–despite lawmakers’ original promises– they never attended public school.

As Doug Masson wrote, after reading the report:

This reinforces my view that the real intention of voucher supporters was and is: 1) hurt teacher’s unions; 2) subsidize religious education; and 3) redirect public education money to friends and well-wishers of voucher supporters. Also, a reminder: vouchers do not improve educational outcomes. I get so worked up about this because the traditional public school is an important part of what ties a community together — part of what turns a collection of individuals into a community. And community feels a little tough to come by these days. We shouldn’t be actively eroding it.

Vouchers have now been around long enough to allow for a fair amount of academic research, and–as Doug points out–that research has pretty thoroughly rebutted the assumption that sending children to private religious schools would lead to improvement in classroom performance. At best, students post academic results that are the same as those of their peers who attend public schools, and in several studies, academic outcomes were actually worse.

What vouchers have done successfully is re-segregate student bodies, and there is some emerging evidence that avoiding racial integration was the real motive for a number of proponents. For others–notably, former Indiana Governor Mike Pence and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos–the voucher program was a way to prop up the declining finances of Christian religious schools.

If they could also destroy the teachers’ unions, well, that was just icing on the cake.

For those looking to avoid integration or working to “bring children to Jesus” with our tax dollars, the rhetoric about giving poor families “choice” was a marketing ploy. (I do think it is interesting that conservatives who are such rabid proponents of individual choice when it comes to schooling and health care are so horrified at the prospect that pregnant women might also want to exercise it…)

The Department of Education’s report should be a wake-up call for Indiana’s lawmakers, but then, this is gerrymandered Indiana, where rural voters call the shots….and those elected to safe seats in the General Assembly feel free to prioritize their ideologies over the will of the voters.