Opportunities to Learn: Equity in American Education- Looking Backward, Looking Forward
In an era of growing racial and class segregation in American education, what must be done to provide every student with a genuine opportunity to learn?
Conversation Series, 2014-2015
Sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers, this conversation series is designed to engender lively and informative discussions on important educational issues.
In Defense of the Public Square
A robust and vibrant public square is an essential foundation of democracy. It is the place where the important public issues of the day are subject to free and open debate, and our ideas of what is in the public interest take shape.
Good Schools VII / Turning Around Low-Performing Schools
Districts across the country are struggling to improve low-performing schools, many using school improvement formulas imbedded in state and federal law. But what can research tell us about the relevance of family and school context to learning?
ESEA at 50: The Federal Government and Equity in American Education
The basic provisions of Title I have barely changed in 50 years, and neither has the persistent inequality of educational opportunities offered to poor children. What more should Congress do?
Losing Our Way: Book Event with Bob Herbert and Randi Weingarten
After Bob Herbert filed his last New York Times opinion column in 2011, he set off on a journey across the country to report on Americans who were being left behind. The portraits of those he encountered fuel his new book, Losing Our Way.
This is Not A Test: Jose Vilson Book Event
This book follows the author through his coming-of-age story, beginning as a naïve young man growing up in the drug-tainted, community-centered projects of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and continuing through his struggles to mature and give back through a career teaching middle school math.
Good Schools IX / Creating Safe and Supportive Schools
How do we ensure that all schools are warm, welcoming, fair, and effective in the treatment of all students? How do we maintain safety and order, while protecting against the effects of the persistent, unconscious biases that plaugue our society?
The Emergence of the "Precariat": What Does The Loss of Stable Well-Compensated Employment Mean For Education?
The emergence of the global knowledge economy has revolutionized the nature of work in America – for the worse.
Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education Conversation Series, 2014-2015
Co-sponsored with the American Federation of Teachers and held the second Wednesday of every month during the school year, this series is designed to engender lively and informative conversations on important educational issues. We invite speakers with diverse perspectives.
Building Power, For Teachers And Educational Justice
For nine years, I have served as the Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute. Over this period of time, the Institute has done much work in our mission themes of public education, trade unionism and democracy advocacy. It has built a record and a reputation which makes all of us who work here—and everyone in the American Federation of Teachers, with which we are affiliated—quite proud.
One of the important responsibilities of leadership is to know when the time has come to turn over the stewardship of the work you have achieved and the organization you have nurtured to a younger and fresher generation. Social justice work is a relay race, and as much as we do our individual best on our own leg, it is the race that is important, not our personal performance. When the time comes to pass the baton to the next runner, fresh and ready, we should not hesitate. That is why, earlier this year, I told my long-time and dear friend Randi Weingarten that the time for a new Executive Director of the Shanker Institute had come. At the last meeting of the AFT’s Executive Council, I tendered my resignation, and the Council elected Mary Cathryn Ricker as the Institute’s new leader. As of July 1, I have moved to the AFT proper, where I will be an assistant to the president.
At these junctures in our lives, we are often moved to reflect on what has been accomplished, and what is being passed on to those who follow us.
A More Actionable Take On The Science Of Reading
Our guest author today is Susan B. Neuman, Professor of Early Childhood & Literacy Education, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, & Human Development at New York University.
Over the past few years, “the science of reading” has become the latest obsession in the field of education. From professors and textbook publishers claiming they teach it to politicians and principals claiming they follow it, the science of reading is everywhere.
Like so much jargon, “the science of reading” is fast becoming a meaningless label—it’s applied to draw attention to political circumstances and no longer signals any deep understanding of how literacy develops. So let’s take another approach. Let’s define reading proficiency in a way that may be comprehensible and compelling, not only to educators but to the general public as well. And the clearest model to date is Gough’s and Tunmer’s “the simple view of reading.”
The simple view of reading is rather elegant in its efficiency. Basically, it argues that reading comprehension—that is, reading with real meaning is a product of fluent decoding and language comprehension. Essentially the model goes like this: Reading comprehension (RC) = fluent decoding (D) X language comprehension (LC). Neither fluent decoding nor language comprehension alone is sufficient for reading comprehension. Like Sinatra would say, you simply can’t have one without the other.
School Funding And Equal Educational Opportunity
Equal opportunity is kind of the endgame in education policy. That is, school systems should provide all students, regardless of their backgrounds or economic circumstances, with what they need to achieve minimum acceptable outcome levels.
School funding is a huge factor in the equal opportunity realm, given that virtually all effective education policies require investment. From the finance perspective, states can achieve equal opportunity by allocating funds such that districts with higher costs—e.g., those serving higher-poverty populations—have enough to pay those costs (primarily by using state funds to help districts with less capacity to raise funds locally). In other words, the job of states is to ensure that funding is adequate in all districts.
What we’ve found in the School Finance Indicators Database (SFID), in short, is that there is plenty of educational opportunity in the U.S., but it’s not equal. Let’s quickly visualize some of our SFID data and see how that’s the case.
The Disturbingly Persistent Decline In State Education Effort
Fiscal effort (or simply “effort”) is an important tool for evaluating states’ school finance systems. Effort tells you how much of a state’s capacity—how big a slice of its “economic pie”—is devoted to K-12 schools. Effort indicators help you determine whether states lag behind in spending because they have smaller economies from which to draw revenue, or because they have simply failed to devote a large enough share of their capacities to their public schools.
Effort can change over time due to changes in spending, capacity, or both. The trend in fiscal effort over the past 20 years, and particularly since the “Great Recession” of 2007-09, is among the most concerning results we have presented from the School Finance Indicators Database (with our collaborators Bruce Baker and Mark Weber).
The graph below presents U.S. average effort (unweighted) between 1997 and 2018. Effort is calculated very simply: we divide each state’s total spending (direct to K-12 education) by its total capacity. The latter can be measured in two different ways, each of which is represented by a different line in the graph: gross state product (the blue line) and aggregate personal income (the red line). These two denominators produce extremely similar trends. The estimates for all years exclude D.C., for which effort is not calculated, and Vermont, due to irregularities in that state’s spending data in 2018 (the state is excluded from all years to keep a consistent set of states across years). Finally, note that the y-axis in the graph starts at two percent, and so year-to-changes appear a bit larger than they would if the axis started at zero.
How Non-Zero Tolerance Policies Better Support Our Students: Part II
As I discussed in a previous post, one of the most controversial approaches to school discipline in the U.S. is the use of zero-tolerance policies. These policies include exclusionary practices, such as office referrals and suspension, which remove students from their classroom and isolate them from the school community. Zero tolerance policies in schools have been shown to have a detrimental effect on all students, particularly Black and Brown students. Skiba et al (2011), for instance, wrote about how these punitive methods cause students to miss critical instructional time and feel less connected to their teachers and peers.
Zero tolerance policies are embedded in high-stakes accountability structures. As White (2020) states, these policies overly focus on student behavior and the idea that individual hard work is the best way to promote high test scores. They do not foster a sense of community- and relationship- building. While policymakers had positive intentions in promoting a more rigorous and equalitarian experience for students—laying out each infraction and punishment with the intention of applying discipline uniformly across student groups—that is not what has happened. According to the aforementioned research, Black and Brown students were still punished more harshly for the same infractions than were their peers. Thus, the negative consequences of these policies have far outweighed the benefits.
Many schools are implementing alternative methods of discipline that stress the importance of taking proactive measures to reduce exclusionary practices. In the previous post, I focused on the importance of restorative justice policies as a strong strategy to support children and their development. But there are also multiple alternative models that have been shown to be effective among students of varying ages and demographics. These models focus on relationship development, and staff training, which I will discuss below. Specifically, the three other models include: School Wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS), Monarch Room, and Inclusive Skill-Building Learning Approach (ISLA). In short, the idea that zero tolerance is the only approach is unsupportable.
The Great Divergence In State Education Spending
When we talk about K-12 education spending inequality, we're usually talking about differences in resources between high- and low-poverty districts within states. But spending levels also vary between states, and that too matters for overall spending inequality in the U.S. How has this changed over the past 25 years? In other words, does K-12 spending vary more between states than it did a quarter century ago?
Let’s take a look at one simple way to visualize this trend. In the graph below, each blue circle is a state, and there one set of 51 states (including D.C.) for each year between 1993 and 2018 (the horizontal axis). On the vertical axis is total current spending in each state, predicted for a district in each state with a 10 percent Census child poverty rate (the graph is very similar regardless of poverty level). These spending levels also control for regional wage variation, district size, and population density, all of which affect the “value of the education dollar.” This allows for a better comparison between states (e.g., it costs more, on average, to hire teachers in Connecticut than in Alabama). The red plus signs within each year represent the unweighted average spending level across all states. These data are from the School Finance Indicators Database.
Our focus here is on the “spread” of states (blue circles) within each column (i.e., within each year). A larger spread, of course, represents greater variation (and, roughly speaking, more interstate inequality). The trend over time is a bit striking.
The Uncertain Short-Term Future Of School Growth Models
Over the past 20 years, public schools in the U.S. have come to rely more and more on standardized tests, and the COVID-19 pandemic has halted the flow of these data. This is hardly among the most important disruptions that teachers, parents, and students have endured over the past year or so. But one of the corollaries of skipping a year (or more) of testing is its implications for estimating growth models, which are statistical approaches for assessing the association between students' testing progress and those students' teachers, schools, or districts.
This type of information, used properly, is always potentially useful, but it may be particularly timely right now, as we seek to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic affected educational outcomes, and, perhaps, how those outcomes varied by different peri-pandemic approaches to schooling. This includes the extent to which there were meaningful differences by student subgroup (e.g., low-income students who may have had more issues with virtual schooling).
To be clear, the question of when states should resume testing should be evaluated based on what’s best for schools and students, and in my view this decision should not include consideration of any impact on accountability systems (the latest development is that states will not be allowed to cancel testing entirely but may be allowed to curtail it). In either case, though, the fate of growth models over the next couple of years is highly uncertain. The models rely on tracking student test scores over time, and so skipping a year (and maybe even more) is obviously a potential problem. A new working paper takes a first step toward assessing the short-term feasibility of growth estimates (specifically school and district scores). But this analysis also provides a good context for a deeper discussion of how we use (and sometimes misuse) testing data in education policy.
In Memoriam: Elizabeth Davis
Elizabeth (Liz) Davis, the President of the Washington Teachers Union (WTU), died suddenly and tragically in a car accident on the evening of April 4. She was my friend and a champion in the struggle for a better world; a tireless and passionate advocate for teachers and the students we nurture and educate.
Liz was an accomplished classroom teacher of more than four decades. She was active on educational issues, even before she was elected president of the WTU. She was a reflective practitioner, and thought deeply about how to educate students—largely young people of color, and working class and poor—who attended public schools in urban districts, such as Washington, D.C. In the first video below, Liz discusses how she first came to teach, the struggles of her first years, and how she learned from her students as she became skilled in her teaching in a panel on "Teaching: Art, Craft or Science?"
School District Spending And Equal Educational Opportunity
The fact that school districts vary widely in terms of funding is often lamented in our education policy debate. If you think about it, though, that’s not a bad thing by itself. In fact, in an ideal school funding system, we would expect to see differences between districts in their spending levels, even big differences, for the simple reason that the cost of educating students varies a great deal across districts (e.g., different student populations, variation in labor costs, etc.).
The key question is whether districts have the resources to meet their students’ needs. In other words, is school district spending adequate? In collaboration with Bruce Baker and Mark Weber from Rutgers University, we have just published a research brief and new public dataset that addresses this question for over 12,000 public school districts in the U.S.
There is good news and bad news. The good news is that thousands of districts enjoy funding levels above and beyond our estimates of adequate levels, in some cases two or three times higher. The bad news is that these well-funded districts co-exist with thousands of other school systems, some located within driving distance or even in the next town over, where investment is so poorly aligned with need that funding levels are a fraction of estimated costs. To give a rough sense of the magnitude of the underfunding, if we add up all the negative funding gaps in these latter districts (not counting the districts with adequate funding), the total is $104 billion.
Evidence In Education: Is Supply Meeting Teachers' Demand
In today’s public schools, teachers and administrators are constantly pressured to implement new reforms and initiatives, most of which claim to be research- or science-based. Schools are often viewed as the recipients of new policies and new knowledge generated by research. In So Much Reform, So Little Change, Charles Payne states “Best Practice discourse lends itself to decontextualized thinking, reducing the problem of urban schooling to a cognitive one: if only our teachers and principals knew how to do it in the Big City...we should spend some time thinking with school people about what those reasons might be rather than just issuing more exhortations from on high” (p. 63). Including educators in the conversation is crucial for a successful rollout of any evidence-based intervention. Additionally, in order to best support our teachers, it is imperative we develop a system for them to have access to evidence-informed practices that are contextualized and can be tailored to their varying needs.
While there are many problems with the “research to practice” approach, one barrier is that schools are frequently not given enough training, resources, and support to make sense of educational research. Educators need evidence, innovation, and new approaches; after all, much of their job is to constantly adapt their ways of teaching to meet the unique and changing needs of their students. But right now, too many educators are doing this work without the necessary tools to be successful. In this post I would like to sketch out a tool that could improve access to and applicability of research. By access, I refer not only to the ability of finding and downloading journal articles and other sources, but also to having the knowledge to discern questionable research. According to Paula J. Stanovich and Keith E. Stanovich (2003), a failure to discern good and bad research can cause teachers to try new methods that are not strongly supported by peer-reviewed research. Applicability refers to the extent to which research has practical implications for teachers.