Integrated But Unequal: Where Do We Go From Here?

I’ve been holding my tongue on the issue of segregated schools (mostly because I’ve been wagging my tongue about one of the facilitators of segregated schools: charter schools), but after reading an article yesterday about mixed income housing complete with a back door for the lower income residents to use , the time for silence is over. Though I’ve never mentioned it in any blog posts, I’ve long been a proponent of mixed income housing. In graduate school, I did some research with Claire Smrekar on the HOPE VI project: a federal housing initiative to tear down low income communities and rebuild mixed income housing in the exact location. People who previously lived in the neighborhood are given priority for housing once the new construction is complete.

While I like the idea of mixed income for reasons I will explain in a second, I do not like the structure of the program(s). In summary, the neighborhood has a certain number of houses dedicated to different income groups. No, the lower income houses are not on separate streets, nor are they subpar compared to the higher income houses. Essentially, all the homes look the same, are the same size and have similar layouts. Higher income residents pay their mortgage and other bills the same way they would in any community. The lower income residents who qualify for housing assistance, have reduced rent and either all or some of their utilities covered. In exchange for living in such fancy digs however, there are tons of rules for residents (mostly the lower income residents) including: no cars parked on the street, no toys in the yard, the blinds must not be damaged, children cannot be outside after certain hours, once a month the neighborhood ‘manager’ comes to inspect how well you are caring for the home. Further, the residents receiving housing assistance must also meet one of the following criteria: be working at least part time, be enrolled in school full time, or be able to demonstrate (read: prove to the neighborhood manager) you are searching for employment. Finally, residents are required to attend workshops once a month about things like ‘money management’, ‘providing a safe environment for your children’, and ‘resume writing’. I don’t have to explain why I dislike all of the rules because it is fairly obvious. For those who’ve missed the problem here, I have two words: cultural whitening.

But moving on…I have long said that the most effective way we will reduce variability in quality/achievement across public schools is to ensure every public school serves an economically diverse student population. Here is why that matters: schools are funded primarily through property taxes. The only people who pay property taxes are people who own property. The people who own property tend to be middle and upper class, and white. Consequently, schools in locations where middle and upper class people live (and pay property taxes) are much better funded than schools in neighborhoods full of renters. What’s more is that wealthier parents are also those parents most likely to be highly educated themselves. They therefore have the cultural and social capital to know how the system works. In essence, they enact their power in a democratic social institution and force public schools to be good. Whether that’s through their participation in school leadership (Board of Education, PTO/PTA), through parental involvement, or through financial contributions, they make sure their children are receiving a quality education. If lower income and working class children were in schools with higher income children, they would [theoretically] reap the benefits of higher income parents’ advocacy.

So how do we make this happen in an era of income (and racially) segregated schools? Through mixed income housing. That way, the money homeowners pay in property taxes will go to the same schools their lower income neighbor’s children attend. Beyond school funding, I do believe the presence of middle class and high income families in a community would also change the local economic market. On one hand, when communities are gentrified, we see the disappearance of the mom and pop shops in favor of Whole Foods, Starbucks, and any trendy cupcake shop. I do not approve of this. But with a mixed income neighborhood, the hope is that the local small businesses, many of which are owned by neighborhood residents, can remain while also bringing in perhaps not mega chain stores, but instead, higher quality food sources, better access to healthcare, and more reliable public services (e.g., public transportation, parks, community centers). Let me be clear here, I am not in favor of ‘urban renewal’ (read: gentrification). I do not believe people should be displaced from their homes/communities. I do not believe neighborhoods should lose their history because people who do not live in that area think it’s ‘dangerous’. I do however believe in the power of money. I do believe that consolidated poverty is the root cause of many of the issues we see in lower income areas. What do you expect to happen when you put a lot of people with little resources in a confined space with almost no access to basic necessities like quality food, healthcare, or education? How do you expect them to succeed when you’ve set them up to be crabs in a barrel under a Darwin-esque regime of survival guised as meritocracy?

But I digress.

My actual point here is to outline the ways in which I am rethinking my solution of mixed income housing to solve the problem of inequitable school funding (and all its concomitants). I still believe everything I said about the value of mixed income housing; however, I am expanding my theory to include not just the context of schooling, but also the practices within schools.

I’ve never believed that racial integration would eradicate racism. That theory to me has always been illogical and flawed. Proximity doesn’t change attitudes; it leads to polarization and stronger identification with in-groups. INTERACTION changes attitudes. It really is a catch 22 because we know that between-group interactions lead to higher achievements (because of shared knowledge/skills), but we need teachers, policies, and school climates supportive of that interaction. Diversity means nothing if there are no relationships between diverse peoples.

mixed class

Beverly Tatum made that clear in her classic text, Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? It is dangerous to believe that mixed income (and consequently, mixed race) schools will magically make everything better. It will not. Those attitudes will trickle into the classroom and before we know it, separate but equal will be WITHIN the schools, not BETWEEN schools. As we see in the article about mixed income housing in New York, those in power not only want to be in power, they want to be SEEN being in power. They want to FEEL in power. What does this mean for the schooling experiences of low income children? Will they be made to sit in the back of the classroom? Will they have separate lockers? Different teachers? We already know that even in the mixed race schools we do have, students of color are labeled special education and tracked into remedial courses at disproportionate rates. They are also suspended and expelled at rates three times that of white students. If this is the outcome of mixed income schools, I am pulling a Diane Ravitch. I rescind my support of mixed income housing and mixed income schools. I’d rather my child be in an underfunded school with fewer resources than be treated like an outcast in a well-funded school. I can supplement my child’s education, but I can’t repair my child’s broken spirit.

This is not a choice I or any parent should have to make. When will we wake up from the reality that we are sleepwalking back to Plessy?












The Pitfalls and Privilege of Pass/Fail

I’ve never left a faculty meeting more incensed than I did today. For over 2 hours, the faculty body at my College nitpicked over the smallest things such as the presence or absence of 1 additional faculty member on the College writing committee/international programs committee/advancement committee/honor council. The primary reason for these amendments to a 1-year piloted proposal was that faculty should not risk losing their voice. What’s more is that we must ensure that every academic division has equal voice in these committees. God forbid the staff or even worse, the students, have more to say than us. For that reason, we must invoke 2 hours of conversation about 5 faculty slots on 4 College committees.

I stayed through those tedious conversations and did not actually get upset until the final bullet point on the agenda: should students be limited to 6 Pass/Fail courses?

pass fail

Now let’s take first things first. I have NO IDEA why students are allowed to take more than ONE course pass/fail. Who goes to college and doesn’t want to be assessed? But I will get to that in a second. Two primary arguments in support of UNLIMITED pass/fail were: a) what if the student is experiencing mental or physical health issues and can’t meet course requirements? b) it encourages students to explore different academic disciplines without the risk of a low grade affecting their GPA.

EXCUSE ME?????  As a psychologist, I am appalled we think we should encourage students with proven mental or physical illness to remain in college instead of taking a medical leave of absence and focusing on their health. This type of implicit expectation makes students who do choose to prioritize their health feel lesser than students who ‘tough it out’. As a result, we’ve seen the increase of college students with mental health diagnoses—especially anxiety disorders—rapidly increase over the last few years. We’ve consequently seen an increase in suicides and suicide attempts. We are so heavily invested in the culture of achievement that we are telling students to ignore their health needs and to help you do so, we will lower the standards for you just so you can ‘pass’ this course.

And yes. Taking a course pass/fail is indeed lowering the standards for that student. We are in essence saying that if you master 60% of the content (or 65%–whatever the cut off is for a D), that is good enough for you to receive college credit toward a Bachelor’s degree. In what vocation are you allowed to do just 60% of your job duties and still receive a pay check? What teacher begins a course hoping that students get 60% of the content? In what world is 60% proficiency acceptable?

I will tell you what world: the world of the privileged. The world where there is a perpetual and unyielding safety net. The world where there are no consequences associated with any decisions because someone else is there to either mitigate risk or assume it for them. Coming to college is in itself a risky decision. You are moving away from your family and your home and striking out on a new adventure full of social, emotional and academic challenges. Every course for which students sign up is a risk. No one but the professor knows the demands of that course and what it will take to be successful. It is not the faculty’s job to mitigate student risk. It is our job to ensure we provide them with the tools necessary to manage risk. If you enroll in Organic Chemistry because you were awesome in chemistry in high school, then you are knowingly making a decision to enroll in a course in which you may not earn an A. You are not entitled to an A. It is not my job to give you an A. You earn what you earn. And if you earn a D, deal with the consequences of it.

My next concern is with the cognitive concomitants of pass/fail. Any educational or social psychologist familiar with role theory understands the importance of expectations and accountability in the construction of a role. The message we are sending with unlimited pass/fails is that we don’t expect much of you in your role of student and we will in fact, give you the same reward for taking this course as someone who is being evaluated and held to higher standards. We are therefore failing to properly teach the rights, duties, obligations, and expectations of their social role in a college context. Empirical research suggests that being held accountable for one’s role behaviors is correlated with higher effort, higher intrinsic motivation to learn, an incremental view of intelligence, and more collaborative behaviors. To say it more simply, when students are not held accountable, they don’t invest in their learning. And for a school charging 55k a year, we are certainly encouraging a financial investment.

Lastly, the driving force behind my outrage is how this particular policy disadvantages marginalized groups lacking the social capital to effectively use it. Students who take a lot of courses pass/fail are those who don’t understand the long term consequences of a transcript with 4 courses without grades. Students from highly educated families have parents who tell them the pitfalls of not having a GPA or not being able to represent your competency through course grades. Students from families whose parents may not have attended college, who don’t know how higher education functions, or who’ve never had to produce an academic transcript for employment do not automatically know how to effectively use pass/fail options. When students come to me proposing to take a course pass/fail, I am sure to ask the following questions: How can a prospective employer evaluate your job readiness when all you have is a listing of courses with credit allocations beside it? How do they know your differential proficiencies in the discipline when your 200 level courses have the same outcome as your 400 level courses?  How will you be able to relay your achievement when a 90% is being interpreted as a 60%?

What’s more is the social perception of students who take classes pass/fail. I strongly believe that marginalized students enacting this option will be viewed differently than wealthy and/or white and/or legacy students doing the same. If I, as a 20 year old black girl, presented a transcript to prospective PhD programs with a lot of pass/fail courses, I would have been perceived as not having confidence in my abilities, not having a strong skill set, or afraid of failure. My white friends on the other hand would be perceived as academically venturesome, courageous, and smart in their decision to mitigate risk.

I was outraged that this dichotomy was not voiced at the faculty meeting. Where was the representation of marginalized students’ voices? Where were the faculty speaking on behalf of the students who are in my office in tears saying ‘I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to take courses pass/fail’? Faculty were instead concerned with ‘punishing’ students for taking a course outside of their comfort zone. They were also concerned with ‘students who are managing anxiety issues and wouldn’t be allowed to count a pass/fail course in their graduation credits’. Or my favorite, ‘the logistics of how much work it will take to track how many pass/fail courses a student has taken.’

At this point it is natural for you to wonder why I did not stand up and say these very things. I was close. So close, I did stand up. So close that a senior colleague sitting behind me asked what I was going to say and then suggested I ‘not say anything because this really only affects about 5% of the student body who actually take 8 or more courses pass/fail.’

Translation: those 5% are not worth this discussion.

That sentiment is what caused me to walk out. Her comment reinforced what I already knew to be true: anything I said would fall on deaf ears. If there is one thing I’ve learned in 3 years of these meetings is that voices are only heard when people consent to listen.


Common Core State Standards: Doomed to Fail?


A friend of mine asked me yesterday what my thoughts were about CCSS. Coincidentally, that is the topic of today’s Ed Policy class. Interestingly, I don’t have strong opinions about the standards themselves, but I do have thoughts about the implementation of this piece of policy. A lot of the information I include in this post is primarily from Chapter 7 of The School Reform Landscape by Christopher Tienken and Donald Orlich.

But first, let’s make something clear: CCSS are not curricula. These are standards that should be used to guide the development and execution of curriculum. The choice of curriculum still lies with LEAs (districts or individual schools/classrooms).

Okay, now that that is cleared up, let’s move on.

CCSS are interesting for a lot of reasons. Firstly, the creation of them is suspicious. Depending upon your source, you might hear that a team of teachers were recruited to create the standards. Or you may hear that textbook publishers bid for the opportunity to create the standards. Given the way our education system functions, I am inclined to believe the latter. What is clear is that CCSS were supported by an array of private and public entities including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Army, Business Roundtable and Achieve. I highly doubt any of these organizations sought experienced and effective K-12 teachers for their sage guidance.

Keeping in line with the Obama administration’s rhetoric, the theme of the CCSS is college readiness. More specifically, these standards are guided by 5 criteria:

  • Alignment with college and career expectations
  • Inclusion of rigorous content via higher order thinking skills
  • Built upon current state standards
  • Informed by top performing countries
  • Evidence or research-based

The standards are also purported to use inclusionary language and focus on 21st century skills—whatever those are. Perhaps most disconcerting for me is the fact that the standards don’t come with aligned assessments. Word on the street is that LEAs can create their own assessments while the DoE vets proposals from businesses who want to create an accompanying assessment. I don’t understand how we can get reliable data about the effectiveness of these standards when curricula and evaluation of the curricula are unique to school districts. With over 14,000 school districts in the country, we will have no idea how these standards are faring.

Which brings me to my largest issue with CCSS: validity and reliability. Any person who’s taken one measurement design course would have a stroke when thinking about the variability in implementation and evaluation of the CCSS. Quick review: validity basically answers the question does the measure assess what it is supposed to assess? And reliability answers the questions will I get similar results when I use this measure with similar people in different contexts?

Well, since there is no common measure of the CCSS the answer to both of those questions is a resounding NO. There is no way to ensure that the curriculum developed by LEAs will actually align with the standards. We don’t know if the pedagogical methods used to enact the curriculum are aligned with the standards. And most of all, because most people in public education have no idea what measurement design is, the assessments used to evaluate students’ attainment of the standards will likely be invalid and unreliable.

The authors of the book I reference allege that the standards were not piloted in any form. They assert that ‘opinions’ were the primary gauge of quality during the creation of these standards. If this is true, this is very concerning but not surprising. Opinion-based research ought to be the standard phrase in education, not evidence-based research.

My final concern with CCSS is the timeline. I find it amazing that these were released in 2010 and within a few months, you could purchase textbooks aligned with the CCSS. How on Earth did these people whip up textbooks so quickly? Makes me think they already knew the contents of the CCSS…

And the incentives for states to adopt CCSS were so high, they were basically financially coerced into acceptance. States could not apply for Race to the Top monies without indicating how their school reform efforts aligned with CCSS. The Obama administration further incentivized CCSS by telling states they could more flexibly enact portions of NCLB if they adopted CCSS. Needless to say, at present, 44 states, D.C. and 4 territories have adopted CCSS.

While it’s great we are moving toward uniformity (yes, I believe in more uniformity between and within states), I think we are moving way too fast. Given that the CCSS come with no curricula, no assessments and absolutely no training, classroom teachers have been given the weighty responsibility of figuring it out on their own. Better districts try to conduct workshops, but who is qualified to lead a workshop about a set of standards created behind closed doors by special interest groups? What we have are teachers working frantically during the school year to adapt their current curriculum and pedagogy to meet new standards. This will inevitably result in teachers completely ignoring the standards or doing a haphazard job of addressing them. We continue to lay down federal and state mandates without giving LEAs the support they need to adhere to them.

Like other educational policies in this country, we are putting the cart before the horse. As a pedagogue I understand the value in backward design, but sometimes it’s imperative we understand the how before we decide on the what.

The Perceived Failure of No Child Left Behind and Misplaced Accountability


I’m currently teaching an Education Policy course and this week the students are individually charged with finding readings and leading a 3 hour class session on a particular educational policy. Today we learned about No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This is perhaps one of the most influential education policies (joining the ranks of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965—it is actually a reauthorization of this act) because NCLB marked a pivotal shift in the federal government’s role in U.S. public schools. Indeed, some scholars use NCLB as the indicator of a shift from categorical federalism to performance-based federalism.

The student leader began class with identifying the overall themes of NCLB and asked us to identify the positive effects it has had on public schools. I enjoyed this start to the conversation because given that we’ve failed to meet the January 2014 goal of 100% proficiency, NCLB is largely touted as a failed piece of legislation. But I disagree (to the surprise of some). The policy itself was not flawed. Nor was the thinking behind the policy. What failed was the implementation of the policy. What caused the failure was the lack of infrastructure to support its implementation. Who failed at providing that infrastructure were State Education Agencies (SEAs)—those constitutionally charged with managing our nation’s schools.

For those of you who’ve bought into the now common rhetoric of “NCLB is to blame for school failure”, I challenge you to compare NAEP data pre and post NCLB within an historical and economic lens and see if you can still ‘blame’ one piece of policy for the nation’s slipping global standing. I am not arguing as Diane Ravitch is prone to do that our nation’s schools are not failing. They are. We are. But I do not blame NCLB; I blame the systemic flaws across our social institutions for inciting and perpetuating inequities in education.

To make clear how I think NCLB affected school functioning and the more general conversation about education in the U.S., I provide some bullet points:

The good:

  • Set a precedent for bipartisan policy making
  • Secondary teachers must have a Bachelor’s degree in their content area
  • Data-driven instructional practices are now the norm
  • Increased awareness of the achievement gap between more than black and white students
  • Led to the creation of the Common Core State Standards through its emphasis on literacy, math, and science
  • Streamlined Title I categories so funding was more efficient
  • Partnerships between community organizations and public schools is more common
  • Forced districts to outsource some services (e.g., uniforms, food, transportation) into the private sector thus increasing the quality and economic efficiency of those services (i.e., the competition embedded in the private market yielded higher quality and lower costs—for broad scale support services, not academic services)

The almost good/not quite bad:

  • Increased services to ELL students

o   But we still don’t know the best way to get ELL students English proficient nor academic proficient. This just urged us to start strategic research.

  • Removed the mandate of neighborhood schools by allowing parents to switch schools if their school was labeled low performing for 2 consecutive years (a microcosm of school choice)

o   The parents of students who attend low performing schools are most often of color or low income. These parents are most likely to be least knowledgeable about such policies and if they are aware, they are least likely to have the life context that affords them the ability to capitalize on this ‘choice’. How do they get their child to said chosen school if there is no bus? How do they even know if their school is low performing? What are the other school options?

  • Recognized the importance of integrating technology into pedagogy

o   But we have teachers who have no pedagogical training so they do not know how to effectively use technology as more than a ‘fun’ activity

  • Created more school options for parents through charters and magnets

o   Similar to school choice, options are only options to the extent you can access them.

o   Charter schools are heavily critiqued for not being sustainable and for the difficulty in scaling up. This means that either students attend that special school until it closes in 2-3 years or only a select group of students via a lottery system can take advantage of this special school

  • Raised teacher/admin accountability

o   Phew! The wrong people are held accountable for the wrong things at the wrong time through the wrong mechanisms. (teachers/student scores/once a year/tests)

The ugly:

  • NCLB, instead of motivating success, has cultivated a fear of failure for teachers and students, resulting in decreased morale for education
  • The punitive measures outlined in NCLB (called ‘sanctions’) were far too public, thus forcing states to lower expectations for teacher quality and academic achievement to avoid being publicly shamed as ‘low performing’
  • Allowed SEAs to place responsibility for student achievement at the local level, almost solely on teachers when in fact, data suggests teachers are one of a dozen variables influential in student achievement

We ended the lesson with a brief exercise in which we stated if NCLB should be reauthorized again (President Obama reauthorized it in 2008—a year later than its intended reauthorization date). We all agreed that reauthorization should happen only if states are held accountable for creating the necessary infrastructure in which NCLB can be successful (e.g., raising teacher licensure requirements/getting rid of alternative licensure programs; providing equitable school funding; providing relevant and rigorous professional development opportunities; assessing teacher quality consistently and through multiple mechanisms; setting realistic academic goals with appropriate supports for schools; enforcing policies and enacting appropriate sanctions behind closed doors; etc).

But this is a pipe dream because the federal government has no ‘right’ to intervene in public schools and does not therefore have the authority to punish SEAs for noncompliance. For those of you calling for education reform, I urge you to make that call to the appropriate office—your state department of education.

Merit Pay for Teachers: An Alternative Model

Merit pay for teachers, also commonly called ‘pay for performance’ is a huge part of President Obama’s education reform platform (an extension of NCLB) and is an attempt to hold teachers accountable for their students’ performance on standardized state tests. Under this structure, teachers receive merit pay (bonuses) when their students score Proficient or Advanced or in some cases, when teachers take on additional responsibilities like designing curriculum or mentoring new teachers.

My biggest complaint about this structure is that it is ill defined (as are most educational reform efforts). Individual districts get to decide how they measure teachers, who they measure, what amount the bonuses are, how many bonuses they give out, and any other special awards/recognitions teachers get (e.g., the title of Distinguished Teacher). What of teachers who don’t teach tested subjects? What about those who teach students with IEPs? Should they be pitted against teachers with ‘gifted’ students? This model is also limited because it uses students’ test scores as the sole indicator of teacher effectiveness. Anyone who’s ever taught one day in a public school classroom knows this perception is myopic and unfair. There are many indicators of teacher quality far beyond summative test scores. What of pedagogical practices? Classroom climate? And in what world does it make sense to measure effectiveness once per year? Talk about a weighty assessment.

In no other profession is your future employment status determined by meritstandardsomeone else’s performance on a single indicator. Yes, I get that a great teacher should have students with high test scores; however, no matter how great a teacher you are, you can’t control factors like amount of sleep students had the night before the test, student motivation, student effort, the temperature of the testing room, or the fact that the test does not accommodate ELL students or students with unidentified LDs.

In my Education Reform class, the student who chose to lead discussion on merit pay found an alternative model with which I agree. TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement has a 3 pronged approach to evaluating teachers, as well as tiered financial incentives tied to experience and workload. Simply put, teachers are evaluated 50% on 4-6 classroom observations conducted throughout the year by a combination of the principal, master teacher, and mentor teacher—each of whom have been trained to use the TAP rubric. 20% of their evaluation is accounted for by school level performance on summative standardized tests. The remaining 30% is based on the teacher’s classroom performance on standardized tests.

I like this model because the emphasis on a single classroom of students is lessened, pedagogical practices are evaluated by an extremely rigorous rubric (which I can’t share here because it is copyrighted) by multiple qualified entities in the school, and most of all, performance is calculated using a value added growth model. You can see how a value added model is a better measure of teacher effectiveness if you consider the variability in student ability within and between classrooms. If my students begin the year 2.5 grade levels behind in math, it will be much harder for me to get them to Proficient or Advanced than my colleague whose students began the year at grade level. This model recognizes teacher and student achievement growth even if students do not perform at Proficient on a standardized test. In an interview with an elementary school principal whose school uses this, she also added that individual schools set their own growth targets even though TAP has a minimum of 1 year growth and a 2.5 out of 5 in instructional quality to qualify for the bonus.

I also like that there is a predetermined bonus amount for which all teachers qualify so they are not competing against one another for one pot of money (though there is an addendum to this. see below). Finally, I like the encouragement of professional development while remaining a classroom teacher because so often in education, a promotion means leaving the classroom in favor of an office.

And with increased responsibility comes increased financial incentive. At the particular school my class visited last week, classroom teachers could make $2500 extra per year, mentor teachers could make $5000 extra/year and master teachers could make $10,000 extra per year (there is 1 master teacher at this school and 4 or 5 mentor teachers). What is also great is that teachers do not need to achieve targets in all 3 domains to get a bonus. If just my classroom, but not the school makes the growth goal, and I average a 3 out of 5 on my classroom observations I receive 80% of the $2500.

But there are two aspects of this model I dislike. First, let’s say I am one of 10 classroom teachers in my school. Let’s also say that of the 10, only 2 made their classroom test growth goals. The pot of money earmarked for classroom teacher test growth bonus pay is now being divided between the 2 teachers who made their classroom goals which means that even though I have a theoretical max of $750 for my classroom goals (30% of $2500), I could actually get more than that because there is ‘extra’ money in that pot. My issue is that a max should be a max. I don’t think this affects between teacher competition because frankly, 70% of my bonus is still being decided by other factors and 20% of that remaining 70% fosters school-wide collaboration. But still, this rubs me the wrong way.

My second issue with this model is that while I like it for teachers, I don’t like it for administrative and support staff (e.g., principals, counselors, interventionists, literacy coaches, etc). Their model is 50% observation and 50% school performance. So if an entire school fails to make their growth goal, the school counselor’s bonus is now cut in half compared to a classroom teacher who only loses 20% of her bonus despite having more direct influence on students’ learning. I would like this better if all schools (schools choose their model) adopted the 50-20-30 split for everyone where a counselor or interventionist will be evaluated on content knowledge in place of student growth.

My final concern is actually more a concern about reform efforts in general. In my course we talked a lot about scale up and sustainability of reform models. Schools become TAP schools through a grant application process which means that once the grant ends (usually after 4 years), there are no more bonuses, no TAP rubrics to use and no master or mentor teachers funded through TAP (a school can of course have master and mentor teachers but the money to pay them needs to be found elsewhere). Though the principal at the school I visited was confident that the ‘mindset’ of rigorous teaching and learning had been instilled during their 4 years as a TAP school (she said ‘teachers see this rubric and realize, this is just good teaching!’), I remain uneasy about the future of the school’s culture when TAP teachers leave and new teachers enter. I don’t think anyone who becomes a classroom teacher does so because of financial rewards, so I am not worried about the loss of financial incentives. But I am worried about how they will support consistent and strategic good teaching in a cadre of underpaid, overworked new teachers without the very visible carrot outlining how to pull the cart faster and more efficiently regardless of which students are along for the ride.

How Much do You Know about Public Education? Take this Quiz

Americans are so delusional. We think we’re better than we are. We think we’re the best at everything. We are so great, we think other countries should emulate us. Bless our hearts. We don’t know. Like, literally. We don’t know much.

Especially about K-12 public education. Education is one of the largest social institutions in the nation touching the lives of almost every person in the country at some point, yet we put far more time and effort into researching a new car than researching our children’s schools and education policies. It is therefore unsurprising that our schools suck. Yes, I said it. They suck. We are a body of people who know nothing but continue to advocate for sweeping education reform efforts with little to no understanding of the variables that truly affect student achievement and for whom and in what context those variables are indeed causal mechanisms.

We rely on education rhetoric and political propaganda to inform our knowledge about schools. Words and phrases like “school choice”, “privatization”, “accountability”, “small classes”, “parental involvement”, “teacher quality”, and “standardization” overwhelm the discourse about education and mask the real conversations we should be having to improve our schools.

Take this 10 question(ish) quiz (answers at the bottom) and see how much you know about public education.

  1. What is the United States’ global education ranking?
  2. Define NCLB and CCSS
  3. Define RTTT. How much money has been dedicated to this reform effort?  What do school districts do to get these funds? How effective has this movement been?
  4. How are schools funded? What percentage of school funding is from the federal government? What is the relationship between per pupil expenditure (primary measure of school funding) and student achievement?
  5. What qualifications do people need to become full time K-12 teachers?
  6. Who is the Secretary of Education? What is his experience in education? Who was rumored to be an alternative nominee for the position?
  7. What is constructivist learning?
  8. Does class size or teacher quality matter more in predicting student achievement?
  9. How do charter schools differ from a privatized school? Are charter schools more or less effective than traditional schools?
  10. What is the sole predictor (i.e., the only variable we consistently see connected to achievement) of student achievement?



Don’t be this woman. Don’t just say nonsense (i.e., things about which you know very little in relation to academic achievement) as justification for choosing a particular school for your child. Educate yourself about what matters in schooling so you can see through the propaganda and be an informed participant in educational discourse.





Quiz Answers

  1. 36th
  2. No Child Left Behind, Common Core State Standards
  3. Race to the Top. For the rest of the answers, check out two past blog posts of mine. Race to the Top and Obama on Education
  4. Schools are primarily funded by local property taxes (approximately 70-75% depending on the state). Only about 8% of schools funding comes from the federal government. The remaining money is allocated to education from the state budget. Check out this post to see the relationship between school funding and achievement: School funding
  5. Teacher qualifications vary by state. Each state requires at least 1test (some states require 3) and a minimum of hours (Florida requires 200 hours. Colorado requires 800) spent in the classroom to get licensure—NOT to be a classroom teacher. One can become a full time classroom teacher with a provisional or alternative license with only a Bachelors degree and one test and zero hours in the classroom. Most states allow people to have provisional (e.g., alternative) licenses for up to 3 years before they are required to get a professional license.
  6. Arne Duncan is the SoE. Here is his Wikipedia page:  Notice that he has never been a classroom teacher or school-level administrator. He majored in Sociology in undergrad and holds no advanced degrees (nonetheless in education). Rumor has it that President Obama was going to pick Professor of Education at Stanford University, Linda Darling Hammond.
  7. Constructivist learning is not anything. Constructivism is a theory about how people come to know. It is common in educational settings to hear people say they are ‘constructivist’ teachers. Whenever someone says that, it is obvious they have never taken an educational psychology course and have little understanding of the difference between cognitive theories and pedagogies.
  8. Neither matters more. There is a tipping point at which even the best quality teacher becomes ineffective in a large class. That tipping point ranges between 32-38 depending upon level and subject matter. Prior to that, a quality teacher matters more to student achievement than class size. In other words, a good teacher can effectively teach 30 students.
  9. Charter schools are public schools that receive about 80% of their funding from private sectors. They are still held accountable to public education state standards BUT they are policed by their own charters instead of common education policy. Privatized schools are schools whose funding is 100% from the private sector. This means that they operate outside of the bounds of government control and can set their own standards and their own policies. 20 years of evidence suggests that charter schools are no more or less effective than traditional public schools.
  10. Socioeconomic status is the sole predictor of student achievement (and broad scale life success).

Voting NO for [Faux] Reform. Money Won’t Fix Our Education System.

Now that we are a little over a week beyond the defeat of Amendment 66 in Colorado, I think it’s a good time to talk about it. Surprisingly to some—most notably those who have not read my blog carefully—I voted against Amendment 66. This may seem odd because yes, I am an advocate for education reform and staunchly support equitable learning opportunities. But what I am not is someone who believes money will fix our broken education system. Do not get me wrong, many public schools are sorely lacking in financial resources; however, money is a band aid for systemic inequalities. I am more interested in addressing housing segregation, teacher preparation, standardization, music/art/PE in school, and academic rigor. These, more than anything, are what I believe will affect sustainable change.


For those who do not live in Colorado, let me overview Amendment 66:

“Had it been approved, Amendment 66 would have increased the state’s income tax to raise the amount of state tax revenue spent on public school districts by about 16.6%, from $5.5 billion under the current law, to a little over $6.4 billion. Once the increases for charter school funding were added, this would have amounted to a $950 million increase.[2] Amendment 66 would also have allowed for the implementation of the new Public School Finance Act Senate Bill 213. The new tax and education funding formulas found in SB 13-213 would have gone into effect in the 2015-16 fiscal year. At the time of the November 2013 vote the statewide per-pupil funding was $6,652 and was projected to rise to $7,426 under SB 13-213.[3][4][5] The organization “Colorado Commits to Kids” sponsored the initiative.[6]

Colorado’s current personal income tax rate is a flat 4.63%.[7] Amendment 66 would have imposed a graduated income tax with rate increases according to the following income criteria:[8]

  • Any taxable income of up to $75,000 would be taxed at a rate of 5%.
  • Any taxable income surpassing $75,000 would be taxed at a rate of 5.9%.

The proposed increases represented an 8% increase in income tax on those making less than $75,000 per year and a 26.6% increase in income tax on any taxable income over $75,000 per year.”

Colorado Commits to Kids campaigned that Amendment 66 would have allowed for the following:

  • Schools can hire thousands of new teachers to reduce class sizes
  • Teachers can provide students with the one-on-one time they need
  • Taxpayers will have confidence that new money is used only for education reforms or enhancements to existing programs
  • Districts will have more flexibility to restore funding for art and music classes, sports programs and transportation


Now, this all looks great to someone who is not engaged with social and political issues in education. My biggest concerns here are twofold: first, who is tracking the spending of this money? What guarantees do we have that these funds would go toward hiring more qualified (notice that this word is absent from campaign promises) teachers and implementing art programs? There is no guarantee. This piece of legislation merely provides local government boards with the option to spend the money as they see fit. Second, where is the evidence that more money directly contributes to higher achievement?

Allow me to answer: there is none.

What we have is evidence that money spent in ways that would benefit student learning results in higher achievement. Given the unique needs of individual students, communities and schools, there is far too much trust in our local government to a) know what students in their district need to achieve and b) to actually spend the money accordingly.  If you’ve never researched your local school board members I encourage you to do so now. You will find that very few of them have any experience in education from a practitioner’s perspective or a policy perspective. Most school board members are parents, retirees, or people looking to boost their community reputation to increase the customer base for their primary occupation. These people are not trained to investigate issues of education reform, to read educational data, nor to create educational policies. Yet, this Amendment would’ve increased their power to do so.

Decades of educational data tell us there are dozens of mediators between money and academic achievement. Here are a few:

  • food programs
  • healthcare in schools
  • extracurriculars
  • qualified teachers
  • more rigorous course offerings (e.g., AP and IB courses)
  • new school buildings
  • up to date textbooks
  • transportation to and from school
  • more diverse course offerings

Can money help implement all of those? Absolutely. Then why hasn’t it? (See above statement about unqualified and under-informed people making decisions about educational spending) Race to the Top is an excellent example of how throwing money at schools will not affect reform. I thoroughly discuss this in a previous post, so let’s look at some other evidence.

I want to look at the correlation between per pupil expenditure (since this was 66’s primary point—Colorado is under-spending per pupil) and district performance. The top spenders in 2011 were New York ($19,076), the District of Columbia ($18,475), Alaska ($16,674), New Jersey ($15,968) and Vermont ($15,925).

If we look at it by enrollment, New York City School District in New York ($19,770) had the highest current spending per student in 2011, followed by Boston Public Schools in Massachusetts ($19,181), Baltimore City Public Schools in Maryland ($15,483), Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland ($15,421), and Howard County Schools in Maryland ($15,139).

Using 2011 data from the Dept of Education, we can see that across math, reading, science and writing, those high spenders have between 8%-58% of their students performing at or above proficiency levels. Here is the state by state breakdown:

New York: 29%-36%; DC: 8%-22%; Alaska: 26%-37%; New Jersey: 34%-51%; Vermont: 41%-49%; Massachusetts: 44%-58%; Maryland: 32%-48%

Conversely, states spending the least per student in 2011 were Mississippi ($7,928), Arizona ($7,666), Oklahoma ($7,587), Idaho ($6,824) and Utah ($6,212). The percent of students performing at or above proficiency in 2011 was as follows:

Mississippi: 19%-25%; Arizona: 23%-34%; Oklahoma: 26%-33%; Idaho: 33%-39%; Utah: 33%-43

Now, without comparing mean test scores, I would hazard a guess that the performance of New York, DC and Alaska is not significantly different from the performance of the low-spending states. The remaining four high spenders are probably doing statistically significantly better but with that many students taking a test, it won’t take much to meet statistical significance. That said, having only 15% more students performing at or above proficiency does not warrant spending 3 times as much per pupil. What effect is all that money having???

Under Amendment 66, Colorado’s per pupil expenditure was expected to rise from $6,652 to $7,426. Following the trend of other states, this marginal increase would not have affected performance bands at all. In 2011, 39%-47% of CO students performed at or above proficiency across subject matters. This is already higher than Mississippi, Arizona, Oklahoma and Idaho’s performance results—all of whom have higher per pupil expenditures than Colorado.

While these are admittedly very rough comparisons, the point is clear: more money does not equate higher performance.

I continue to be baffled by the American people who believe so strongly in throwing money at problems. That strategy has not been successful (long-term) in any sector of society yet we continue to stand by our capitalist ideals.  Money, in the hands of the American people, is a divisive tool and until we figure out how to use it for good, I will always vote NO.