Senator Elizabeth Warren revealed a K–12 plan on Monday that’s big, substantive—and awful. It would reverse most of the major education reforms of the past two decades, drive a stake through the heart of what’s left of bipartisan federal and state policy, and re-enshrine adult interests (especially those of the teacher unions) in place of children’s, while wasting immense sums of taxpayer dollars.
Senator Elizabeth Warren is famous for hurling at least one major plan against every policy issue and societal problem you ever heard of—or hadn’t. It’s true that a lot of them make my head ache, some of them turn my stomach, and practically none seem likely to get enacted during her lifetime, even were she to win the Oval Office. Still, her plans often contain provocative ideas, not all of them bad. At least she’s thinking about big, substantive matters and going after them with big, substantive proposals. That’s a nontrivial part of what a presidential candidate—or president—should do.
The spendthrift K–12 education plan that her campaign team unveiled on Monday is certainly big and substantive. It’s also pretty awful, as it would reverse most of the major education reforms of recent decades, drive a stake through the heart of what’s left of bipartisan federal and state policy, and re-enshrine adult interests, especially those of the teachers unions, in place of children’s, while wasting immense sums of taxpayer dollars. (The total price tag is estimated at $800 billion.)
What’s more, the bravado of its federal overreach makes No Child Left Behind look like the Cowardly Lion.
On at least one high-profile issue, namely charter schools, Senator Warren (like several fellow candidates, notoriously including Senator Cory Booker) is also reversing herself. Indeed, she’s gone further leftward—union kissing, charter hating—than any of the other major candidates, and has done so in vivid contrast to her past praise of Boston’s charters for their impressive education achievements, achievements that likely would not have happened had they been denied the federal start-up funds she wants to bar from future charters, and surely would not have happened had they depended on the Boston school system to authorize them, as she wants. (Since states set their own rules for charter authorizing, it’s not clear—yet—how a president would go about constraining them.)
Like the Every Student Succeeds Act, charter schooling in America has been, on the whole, a triumph of bipartisanship, in this case for two decades and at both the state and federal levels. By ending that, Warren would widen the schisms in a country that sorely needs more examples of coming together, and nowhere more than in providing more quality education options for needy kids—the very population her new plan purports to help. We know from growing piles of research that urban charters, in particular, serve African American youngsters far better than district schools—and that cities with lots of charters have enjoyed a rising tide of student achievement. Yet the unions loathe charters and Senator Warren is trying to hug the unions tight.
At least five of her other major education proposals should join the charter plan with the rotted tea leaves under Boston harbor. She would:
- Pour huge new funding into Title I, which is by far the biggest federal K–12 program and which, to my knowledge, has survived umpteen evaluations with no evidence that it actually boosts the achievement of disadvantaged kids, which was the whole point. She also fiddles with the program’s myriad arcane dollar distribution formulae, which for decades have proven impervious to change.
- Encourage racialist litigation based on the misguided doctrine of “disparate impact” rather than actual discrimination. As with the Obama-era school-discipline guidance, now mercifully rescinded, this strategy assumes bias wherever any racially distinguishable data turn up, rather than looking to see, for example, whether there might be a non-racial explanation for the difference or whether anybody was actually discriminated against. (Of course, Ms. Warren was a law school professor…)
- Eliminate what she calls “high-stakes” testing without replacing it with any other form of results-based accountability for schools. In essence, she would return to a pre-Coleman focus on school inputs rather than outcomes. That would also erase one source of racially distinguishable data, namely test scores. By so doing it would again conceal the worrisome achievement gaps that so many educators, policymakers, and reformers have been struggling to narrow. Talk about shooting the messenger…
- Dump $20 billion a year more into special ed—IDEA style—rather than launch the top-to-bottom overhaul that creaky, over-regulated program cries out for. Reforming special ed is its own big topic and has recently been thoughtfully tackled by “Buzzy” Hettleman in Mislabeled as Disabled. Way back at the turn of the century, we at Fordham tackled it along with our friends at the Progressive Policy Institute. But the problems have only worsened as special ed rolls have grown, regulations have proliferated, lawyers have fattened—and outcomes for children with disabilities have flattened at far too low a level.
- Make every state a “collective bargaining” state, indeed give every public employee throughout the land the right to bargain collectively. Forget how many places have already lost control of their budgets, policies, and priorities as a consequence of runaway public-sector unions.
The good news, I suppose, is that none of this is apt to happen no matter who wins what next year. The undeniable bad news, though, is that one of the leading Democratic candidates is so wrong-headed and craven on an issue of this importance. Why is she doing this? Does she really think she has a shot at the unions’ endorsement?? If she’s trying to beef up her support among minority voters, why is she going after the charter schools that serve their children far better than urban district schools and that surveys show they favor? Or is it possible that she and her team are so into designing grand “progressive” castles in the sky that they’ve simply lost their earthly moorings?
Last year, NBA superstar LeBron James opened I Promise School (IPS), a school for at-risk kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. In its first year (2018–19), IPS served 240 students in grades three and four. This year it expanded to include fifth grade, and now serves 344 students.
IPS is a joint effort between Akron Pubic Schools (APS), the I Promise Network, and the LeBron James Family Foundation. It’s not a charter school; it’s overseen by APS, the state’s sixth largest school district, and holds a lottery to admit students. But it also offers a host of things most district schools don’t, such as free uniforms, tuition to the University of Akron when students graduate high school, and family services like GED classes and job placement assistance. The school also has some unique characteristics that are more often associated with schools of choice: an extended school day and year, a STEM curriculum, and alternative working conditions for teachers, such as required home visits.
The school’s grand opening in July 2018 made national headlines and earned James a considerable amount of well-deserved praise. There were plenty of hot takes to go along with the praise, including some folks who saw an opportunity to take potshots at their least favorite education policies, namely charter schools. But by and large, most people were excited about the prospect of another high quality school, and eager to see if IPS could follow through on its promise (pun intended) to change the trajectory of hundreds of kids’ lives.
The first round of results arrived this spring. The school announced on Twitter that 90 percent of its students had met or exceeded their expected growth in math and reading. These results were based on NWEA MAP, a national computer adaptive assessment that measures academic growth over time. Coverage in USA Today called the results “extraordinary.” The New York Times offered additional details: In reading, both the third and fourth grade classes initially tested in the 1st percentile. MAP results showed that third graders had improved to the 9th percentile, and fourth graders to the 16th. In math, third graders moved from the 1st percentile to the 18th, and fourth graders jumped from the 2nd percentile to the 30th.
USA Today was right to call these results extraordinary. But as significant as they are, they are only one measure. Even NWEA will tell you that multiple measures matter. To be considered successful, IPS was going to have to do more than demonstrate growth on diagnostic measurements.
To their credit, most media outlets recognized that. The New York Times pointed out that “time will tell whether the gains are sustainable and how they stack up against rigorous state standardized tests at the end of the year.” Locally, the Akron Beacon Journal noted in August that state test results would be “unlikely to show the school in a positive light.” The piece quoted APS school improvement coordinator Keith Liechty-Clifford saying, “We’re prepared to receive an F” because “our students come to us low, and it’s going to take some time.” But he also noted the school expected to show growth, and that “we are all operating under the belief we will not be an F school.”
Well, it’s mid-October in Ohio. That means school report cards have been out for a month or so. So, did IPS get an F?
Nope. In its first year, IPS earned an overall grade of C. For a brand new school that purposely targeted students who were performing a year or two behind grade level, that’s very impressive. It’s even more praiseworthy considering the school’s demographics: 100 percent of the student population is economically disadvantaged, 29 percent are students with disabilities, 15 percent are English language learners, and more than 80 percent are minorities.
A more detailed breakdown of state report card components shows a mixed bag. On the achievement component, which measures how well students perform on state assessments, IPS earned that F it feared. That’s not entirely surprising, considering the achievement measure looks to see how well students have mastered grade level material, and most of I Promise’s students entered the school far below grade level. IPS still has plenty of room to grow in this area, and their teachers and staff are fully committed to getting the job done. In the coming years, it will be important to keep an eye on whether the school’s Performance Index (PI) scores increase. If IPS is able raise its PI score each year, that will be a sign that kids are headed in the right direction.
The progress component, meanwhile, determines the growth of students based on their past performance. Unlike the achievement component, progress gives credit when students—including those below grade level—make significant growth during the year. IPS really shined on the progress component, earning an A. For reference, Akron Public Schools is home to twenty-eight elementary schools, of which only four (including IPS) earned an A on their progress components. In English language arts, evidence shows that IPS students made progress similar to statewide expectations—about one year’s worth of growth. In math, however, there is significant evidence that students made far more progress than expected. The school also earned high marks for progress in certain subgroups: receiving a B for students identified as the lowest 20 percent statewide in reading, math, or science, and another B for students with disabilities.
The upshot? Both the state report card and in-house MAP growth data indicate that students at IPS are learning a lot. In many cases, they’re learning more than their peers in other schools and districts. If this growth continues, the school will be well on its way to keeping its promise to Akron families and the community. The New York Times is right: Only time will tell if these gains are sustainable. The job is only going to get harder as the school expands to more grade levels. But so far, students, school staff, and the Akron community should be proud of their progress. And so, too, should LeBron—the coolest thing he’s ever done is already paying dividends for kids.
Editor’s note: This is a submission to Fordham’s 2019 Wonkathon, in which we ask participants to answer the question: “What’s the best way to help students who are several grade levels behind?” This entry does so via answers to hypothetical queries.
Q: A struggling sixth grader arrives to his new school. He failed the state’s math exam in grades 3, 4, and 5. Typically, what’s the problem?
A: The “knowledge/skill” problem? He probably cannot multiply or divide whole numbers very well, let alone handle fractions, decimals, percentages, or negative numbers.
Teacher: "What is one half plus a third?” Sixth grader: “I don’t know."
The bigger problem, now that he’s a sixth grader, is actually his mood/attitude/motivation/confidence. He’s frustrated. Math class to him is like being thrown in a swimming pool each day and thrashing about, gasping for breath.
Q: You focused on basic arithmetic. Common Core promotes “math understanding” and relevance to real life. Where does that fit in?
A: Teachers fiercely debate this point. I would say that for sixth grade strugglers, these well-intended goals make them worse off.
Let’s imagine a beginning basketball player who struggles to make a layup when shooting alone. Now we add a defender. Sometimes he manages to dribble past the defender, but still can’t make the layup. Sometimes he would have made the layup, but the defender steals the ball or blocks his shot before he can even try.
There are now two paths to fail and just one to succeed. From his point of view, you’re just being mean.
Q: No-excuses charter middle schools, like KIPP, succeed with struggling sixth graders. What do they do?
A: Some context first.
First, no-excuses charters have generally done better in math than in English, where gains remain frustratingly low. Second, no-excuses charters like KIPP have changed over the years. These days many CMOs start with pre-K students instead of new middle schoolers. Third, an MIT study showed that no-excuses charters do not help their top students much; the “average gains” come from large gains with the lowest students. Fourth, per a submission to Fordham’s 2014 Wonkathon, charters have unusual teacher populations; efforts to take charter “methods” alone, and bring to other schools without these unusual teachers, have not succeeded.
So what do these unusual teachers do when faced with a room of twenty sixth graders, ten of whom are really far behind?
They try not to despair.
Q: What do you mean? That sounds dumb and new age-y.
A: Math is not a subject like, say, history, where you have a “blank slate.” “Hey, kids. Today we’re going to learn about the Ming Dynasty. I’m going to assume nobody knows about that. So I’ll start at the beginning.”
To oversimplify, the sixth grade math teacher has two groups. One is ready to learn today’s new topic—like “how to solve for X.” The other is simply not. Teachers face an unpleasant choice.
A typical teacher will plow ahead anyway with the new topic. They despair because they know that many kids will be lost and frustrated. But the teacher can’t say, “Let’s go way back to second grade math.” That would create a different type of frustration. Moreover, the ten strugglers aren’t a coherent group: different gaps, different “false” understandings that need to be unwound.
Q: What does a charter teacher do differently?
A: First, the system—department head, principal, fellow teachers—allows more “re-teaching” in a given day of what kids didn’t grasp in previous days. There’s often permission to “slow down” as needed (though admittedly this is often quite choppy).
Second, more teachers “pull” kids to their afterschool sessions. It’s an inverted version of simply offering help after school (then shrugging when nobody shows up).
Many non-charter teachers also use these tactics as lone wolves. But that's easier when it is the norm across a whole school.
Q: How do you get students to show up?
A: Teachers build relationships with students, and perhaps more so, their parents. This means a lot of Sunday afternoon and evening phone calls home meant to parents, often to convince reluctant ones. It’s time consuming. But it allows teachers to get strugglers to at least accept some help.
Q: What happens in those afterschool sessions?
A: You’re not solving for “root cause" limitations right away. You’re solving for attitude. You’re looking for any “win” you can generate.
Often that means getting them to complete tonight’s homework, or to pass the next quiz and test, even if it’s a hazy understanding. There’s a certain “fake it until you make it” you can do around concepts. If today in class you introduced the topic of “solving for X,” you can get a kid to grasp that concept. At least he can then solve for X in “2X = 10,” even if he can’t solve for “1/4X = X - 10.5.”
If you’re lucky, you get enough time to help students on their “root cause” weaknesses, like basic multiplication.
Q: That seems inefficient.
A: Logistically, each struggler may need a few hundred hours of one-on-one tutoring to really solve her root cause issue. No teacher has that much time.
Q: It’s more than just time, right? Doesn’t the instructor need to tailor the strategies?
A: Tailoring helps, sure. But we can take a lesson here from politicians: authenticity sometimes matters more than policies.
Teacher authenticity—being “themselves” pedagogically, teaching in a way they believe in and thereby bringing more positive energy and enthusiasm—sometimes matters more to a struggler than technical math teaching “moves.”
Some star teachers take very different approaches than what I’ve outlined above. It’s not just struggling students affected by mood/attitude/motivation/confidence. That affects teachers, too. They can’t squirm into whole new personas to fit each student.
Q: Can’t we arrange that sort of high-dosage one-on-one tutoring and free up the teacher?
A: High-dosage tutoring (HDT) worked in Houston turnaround schools. Now it’s gone. It worked in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Now it’s gone. HDT is expensive. It continues to thrive in Chicago and a few other places with philanthropic support. It requires great execution. Like outlier charter schools, HDT succeeds when delivered by an unusually skilled team. Its effect seems muted with “regular” implementers doing it on the cheap. Often it’s better in those cases to do nothing at all because the remedial effect is zero and there are opportunity costs.
For political and cultural reasons, though, no matter how high its efficacy is, HDT has struggled to generate staying power.
Q: What are the political and cultural components?
A: In China, even poor parents spend huge sums to buy tutoring for their children. Here in the U.S., it’s mostly wealthy parents who pony up for one-on-one help.
As for public schools paying, HDT does not have any natural advocacy base. Class size reduction, social workers and other specialists, teacher raises—these are far more popular.
Q: Can’t technology help?
A: At the fringes. The quiet truth is that many high-performing charters just use ed tech as a way to keep students productively busy so human teachers can try to work with smaller groups.
I’m sure AI will get there one day, where computer tutors will beat human tutors, just like in chess. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are working on this issue. But for now, humans beat computers at helping struggling students. Alas, our time is expensive.
A new report evaluates whether and to what extent U.S. schools use discriminatory practices when suspending students with disabilities (SWD), including children of color. Particularly, it examines whether the well-documented greater risk of suspension for SWDs is attributable to disability status and/or racial bias or to alternative explanatory factors such as differences in student behavior.
The researchers synthesize the best-available empirical evidence on suspension risk for SWDs. Their search produced eighteen studies, only four of which controlled for student behavior (i.e., the infraction that led to the suspension) and just two of which controlled for students’ prior behavior, assessed by teacher ratings and parent- and self-reports. For each study, they calculate the ratio of significant estimates—that is, those indicating that SWDs are more or less likely to be suspended than students without disabilities—to the total number of estimates, and then calculate the percentage of significant estimates across studies by individual- and aggregate-level characteristics.
In general, they find little evidence that SWDs are more likely to be suspended than similarly behaving students without disabilities. Within the four studies that control for individual-level infractions (e.g., disobedience, fighting), over half of the estimates (58 percent) fail to indicate that SWDs are more likely to be suspended. Likewise, only two studies control for individual-level reported behavior (although they do analyze nationally representative, longitudinal data sets), and of those seven available risk estimates, five of them (or 71 percent) fail to indicate SWDs are more likely to be suspended.
Furthermore, the authors couldn’t find any rigorous studies that compared suspension rates for white and minority students with disabilities. In other words, there is no existing evidence that SWDs who are of color are more likely to be suspended than similarly behaving SWDs who are white because such contrasts have yet to be conducted.
Although students with disabilities are suspended at higher rates than students without disabilities, there is little evidence that this difference is attributable to teacher bias. The disability conditions for which most SWDs in the U.S. are identified (e.g., learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders) are associated with impulse control, self-regulation, and attentional difficulties—that is to say, behaviors that might make suspension more likely. In theory, federal law prohibits educators from suspending students for behaviors that are related to their disability. But in practice, this directive is as clear as mud. And the fact that students who are classified as disabled are generally more likely to misbehave has predictable consequences for the rates at which they are suspended.
SOURCE: Paul L. Morgan et al. “Are U.S. Schools Discriminating When Suspending Students With Disabilities? A Best-Evidence Synthesis,” Exceptional Children (September 2019).
Americans today are woefully uninformed about our democracy, and many blame the poor state of civics education for it—and they have a point. How can we expect people to participate in meaningful and informed public discourse when two-thirds of Americans can’t even pass the rock-bottom basic U.S. Citizenship Exam? With this problem in mind, University of Notre Dame’s David E. Campbell recently published a literature review that found that a robust civic education makes a significant impact on future political knowledge and participation.
Campbell examines political science studies on civics education in secondary schools and draws from related fields, such as economics and psychology, for his literature review. Then he groups the studies into five key findings that look at the effect of classroom instruction, extracurricular activities, service learning, school culture, and public policy on civic outcomes such as political knowledge and participation. He begins with a seminal 1968 study that found that formal civic education did not improve civic outcomes for most students, but that it did improve them for African American students. This is termed the “compensation effect” because African American students’ civic education made up for the disparities between politically active white and African American students’ home and community experiences. But most scholars interpreted its results as saying civic education had no impact on students, producing a decades-long research gap.
The author proceeds to cite later studies, which found that classroom instruction in civics does, in fact, produce small improvements on knowledge, test outcomes, and likelihood to vote. This applies more to classrooms that are open to sharing differing opinions. He also cites studies showing that adopting specific civics curricula in classrooms, such as We The People, produces significant learning gains, but does not affect students’ attitudes towards civics or politics. Moreover, Campbell cites studies that find two “incidental outcomes” of classroom instruction: a “trickle-up effect,” where students improve parents’ and relatives’ civic knowledge and participation; and a correlation between developing verbal aptitude as a teen and being politically active.
Campbell’s review also finds that student participation in extracurricular activities (excluding sports) and volunteerism is correlated with more civic participation. He notes, however, that the literature is unclear whether it’s because students with a proclivity towards civic engagement self-select into those activities. Furthermore, Campbell comments that studies have yet to examine the role of motivation for volunteerism (e.g., resume-building versus altruism) in improving civic outcomes. Furthermore, he finds that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to be involved in extracurriculars, so there may be a stronger causal link between involvement and civic outcomes for disadvantaged students who do participate.
The literature review distinguishes between studies on volunteerism and service learning because the latter is mandatory, either for course grade or as a graduation requirement. The author finds that most service learning studies are observational and thus unable to prove causation, and that findings are mixed on whether they positively or negatively affect civic participation in early adulthood.
Campbell’s review of the research on school culture finds that an emphasis on being an engaged citizen in high school correlates with increased rates of civic engagement, political knowledge, and a sense of empowerment to solve community problems. He notes that charter schools’ lottery admission policies make it easier for studies on charters to determine causal effects on civic outcomes and that they tend to have a positive effect on political participation. He cites a recent charter study finding that students admitted to Democracy Prep had a “16 percentage point increase in voter registration and a 12 point increase in voter turnout” over a control group. In addition, Campbell finds that students who feel unfairly treated by school discipline practices are less likely to vote or have as much trust in government, especially students of color.
The final major finding is that state education policy is associated with improved civic knowledge and participation. The author cites a twenty-year-long randomized study showing that an intervention education-model called Fast Track emphasizing psychosocial skills such as self-control, fair play, and empathy in early education incidentally produced long-term effects on voter turnout for high-risk background children. He notes that this can translate to policy impacts if schools apply similar interventions. And while some studies show little correlation between state-level policy and civic outcomes, Campbell cites a recent study of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds showing that when states imposed high-stakes civics test requirements for graduation, students—especially immigrant and Latino students—had higher NAEP scores and more political knowledge after high school. It suggests that the compensation effect that applied most strongly to African Americans half a century ago now applies more strongly to Latinos who tend to have low levels of political participation.
Campbell concludes his literature review with six recommendations. First, he recommends that education studies should test for incidental effects on civic outcomes. Second, he suggests more attention to the compensation effect in all future studies. Third, he encourages civics studies to test for “trickle-up” effects. Fourth, he invites researchers to study variation in school culture within the public, charter, and private school contexts. Fifth, he believes scholars should look beyond conventional forms of civic education, such as the effect of elected officials visiting a school. Sixth, he stresses the need for studies that determine causal pathways and not just correlation.
After decades of studies, we have learned that civic education certainly translates to political knowledge and participation in early adulthood. Campbell’s most salient findings are the impact of school culture, the positive effect of adopting high-stakes civics exams, and the compensation effect of civic education on students of color. Schools should be aware of the positive effect their culture can have on political participation and of the negative impact of poor discipline practices. And states should consider designing quality, mandatory civics exams because they can translate to learning gains. Indeed, a Bellwether study shows that Louisiana and Washington are already doing this. Lastly, researchers should pay close attention to the compensation effect and “trickle-up” of civics interventions on students of color’s political knowledge and participation in future studies.
SOURCE: David E. Campbell. “What Social Scientists Have Learned About Civic Education: A Review of the Literature,” Peabody Journal of Education (January 2019).
On this week’s podcast, Megan Kuhfeld, a research scientist at NWEA, joins Mike Petrilli to discuss her recent, sobering findings about the reading and math skills of children entering kindergarten. On the Research Minute, Adam Tyner examines how “stereotype threat” affects the results of cognitive ability tests.
Amber’s Research Minute
Oren R. Shewach et al., “Stereotype threat effects in settings with features likely versus unlikely in operational test settings: A meta-analysis,” Journal of Applied Psychology (May 2019).
For more on NWEA’s research on kindergarten readiness skills, please see the following papers:
Megan Kuhfeld et al., “Trends in Children’s Academic Skills at School Entry: 2010–2017,” NWEA Collaborative for Student Growth (September 2019).
Megan Kuhfeld et al., “Trends in Children’s Academic Skills at School Entry: 2010 to 2017,” retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University (September 2019).