By Chester E. Finn, Jr.
The Rand Corporation’s provocative policy brief on “truth decay” points to failings in the education system as one of a quartet of causes of today’s widening inability among Americans to distinguish between fact and fiction. Authors Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael Rich write that “The growing number of demands and fiscal constraints on the educational system have reduced the emphasis on civic education, media literacy, and critical thinking. Without proper training,” they add, “many students do not learn how to identify disinformation and misleading information, and are susceptible to disseminating it themselves.”
That truth matters should be obvious, and any blurring of the line between truth and falsehood, fact and fiction, news and “fake news” should alarm us all. “Where basic facts and well-supported analyses of these facts were once generally accepted,” the RAND team soberly declares, “disagreement about even objective facts and well-supported analyses has swelled in recent years.”
I well recall the much-quoted aphorism of my own mentor, the late Daniel P. Moynihan, that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” When there’s no agreement on the facts, we’re left with just opinion—spin, if you will—and opinion masquerading as information.
That’s what President Trump terms “fake news,” of course, and he’s not entirely wrong. As they fill their pages and our screens with opinion and cater more and more to their own echo-chamber subscribers and viewers, it becomes ever harder to get the “straight story.” But the Commander-in-Chief himself is also a propagator of fake news on a scale I can only term Orwellian. (Recall the Ministry of Truth in 1984.) The Washington Post’s “fact checker” reported on Sunday that he had tabulated 2,140 “false or misleading claims” made by Trump himself during his first 365 days in office. That’s an average of nearly six a day.
When it becomes difficult to know what’s real and what’s fantasy, what’s information and what’s opinion, what’s scientific and what’s preferential, people become both cynical and gullible. Kids believe that there’s an endangered tree octopus. Grown-ups believe in UFOs. Hoaxes seem real—and often scary—compounded by actual errors that yield misinformation, as happened last weekend in Hawaii.
Yet just as it’s wrong to place all the blame for blurring fact with fiction on the guy in the Oval Office and the media that he deplores (and, of course, consumes in massive doses), it’s also wrong to ascribe the schools’ failure to combat such blurring entirely on their inattention to subjects like civic education and media literacy. It’s certainly wrong to cite neglect of “critical thinking” as a major omission on the part of K–12 education. It’s been all the rage for years now, and the way it’s been construed and applied may even turn out to be a contributor to “truth decay.”
Critical thinking can go awry in at least two ways.
One is when it replaces knowledge. Actual information. Facts. How often have you heard education savants and practitioners say something like this: “In the age of the internet, we don’t need to supply kids with information. That they can always look up. What we must do is work on their analytic skills, especially their critical thinking.”
The problem there is that, once “thinking” gets detached from “knowledge,” the sky becomes the limit as to what one might think and whether it has any foundation in reality. Three decades back, Diane Ravitch and I wrote in What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? that “The power of the facts-versus-concepts dichotomy has grown so great within the social studies field that some professionals now harbor an instinctive distrust of facts per se.” That was thirty years ago! If educators don’t teach kids to acquire, possess, and value facts, there’s no way they can teach them to value truth. Truth clings to facts like barnacles to a rock.
The second way that critical thinking goes off track was bequeathed to K–12 education and many other realms of our society by postmodernism in higher education, the place where all our educators and education thinkers learned what they are now putting into practice with elementary and secondary school pupils.
Recall what postmodernism is. Here’s the definition posted at PBS (of all places):
A general and wide-ranging term which is applied to literature, art, philosophy, architecture, fiction, and cultural and literary criticism, among others. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually….
“Interpretation is everything.” Is that not also a definition of “truth decay?” And is it not worsening in our schools—despite the valiant efforts of the Common Core, the AP program, and others to push students to seek actual evidence in original texts rather than just saying what they think about something—as contemporary liberalism pushes them hard to embrace and amplify what historians call “presentism”? Rather than striving to understand why something happened the way it happened when it happened, we judge what happened by today’s norms, values, and prejudices, causing us to wind up being guided by our opinions of the past. Consider our curricular squeamishness in acknowledging that Columbus “discovered” America; of course those who were already here didn’t see it that way, but from the perspective of fifteenth-century Europe it was indeed a newly discovered place—albeit one found by accident!
Though Trump pretends to despise “interpretation” and wants us instead to focus on the facts, he then supplies his own interpretations and his own facts. I’m not suggesting that educators are knowingly filling kids’ minds with false facts. Rather, I suggest that they’re not supplying nearly enough actual facts—fundamental knowledge—and that this vacuum, matched with an overemphasis on “thinking skills” and refracted through postmodernism’s focus on interpretation, is contributing as much as anything to the truth decay that should gravely worry us all.
Can we find the resolve to fill these cavities?
A blog post by Kate Walsh, the longtime leader of the National Council on Teacher Quality, asks if the education reform movement has “lost its way.” She’s overtired of conferences where reformers “plead for forgiveness for our narrow-minded approach” and agree to “exchange our convictions for anything that will suggest just how broad-minded we now are—as long as we de-emphasize academic goals.” If we expand the scope of reform efforts “to include the social, economic, racial, and political contexts of students’ lives, we'll surely be more successful,” she writes, taking care not to be dismissive of those goals, but noting how “their collective impact leaves me limp and rudderless, rather than inspired. This job was hard enough.”
Just so. I recall making a similar argument myself once.
It’s worse than even Walsh’s dour post admits. If shares in the education reform movement could be purchased in the stock market, neutral analysts would grade them “underperform” and probably “sell.” We’ve seen gains in student outcomes particularly among disadvantaged subgroups. But those gains have been mostly in math and almost entirely in the younger grades. The “historic” rate of high school graduation is frothy at best, fraudulent at worst. It is not possible to look at the big indicators of K–12 performance over the last few decades—NAEP, PISA, SAT, and ACT scores—and claim that ed reform at large has been a success. The payoff is simply not there.
The singular contribution of the education reform movement has been a moral one, making it unacceptable for schools and teachers to admit to holding any child—particularly low-income, black, and brown children—to lower standards. The high water mark for ed reform, both in prestige and performance, came nearly twenty years ago, when Teach For America and KIPP were media darlings and strong bipartisan majorities in Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act. Most of the gains in student outcomes in the reform era occurred before 2010. Like many a promising athlete, ed reform peaked early, then failed to live up to its hype. That’s true in much-lauded Massachusetts, where even the shapers of the Bay State’s education “miracle” acknowledge that student achievement has plateaued.
Since then we have mostly overplayed our hand, overstated our expertise, and outspent our moral authority by a considerable margin as we morphed from idealism to policymaking. Education reform’s policy prerogatives have transformed schooling in ways that parents don’t much like—test-based accountability, in particular, focused on just two subjects—and without clear and lasting benefits to justify them. Disruption was precisely the point, of course, but there’s always a trade-off, an implied cost-benefit bargain. If you want the public’s permission to fundamentally alter the relationship between Americans and their schools, there has to be a clear, compelling, and demonstrable upside in time for people to see it. If the reform policy playbook was going to drive transformational, system-wide gains in American education, we’d have seen it by now.
A conceptual failure lies at the heart of ed reform’s underperformance: the mistaken assumption that education policy, not classroom practice, is the most important lever to pull to drive enduring improvement. But educational failure is not a tale of unaccountable and union-protected layabouts refusing to do right by children. More often than not, it’s well-intended people trying hard and failing—and not despite their training, but because of it. In short, we have a product and practice failure more than a policy and process failure.
At the same time, ed reform advocacy, which at its conception concerned itself with the education offered to all of America’s children, evolved into a majority-owned subsidiary of the charter school movement. Charter schools are engines of dynamism and lifeboats for many. But they will always be a boutique in the American K–12 education system. While there has been a clear schism between reform’s free market enthusiasts and its social justice wing, there can be little doubt that the movement’s center of gravity has shifted sharply to the left, even though political progressives mostly regard the standard reform agenda—choice, charters, testing, anti-union policies—with contempt. These self-marginalizing alliances leave a numerical majority of American parents, who like their traditional neighborhood public schools (and who’ve had it with high-stakes testing) or who don’t identify as political progressives, regarding reform with either indifference or as a threat. Worse, it makes it harder for innovative practices to become widespread if they have the scent of reform about them.
Finally, there is a perversity at the heart of the reform movement. The one unambiguous, reform-driven victory of the last two decades has been the successful networks of urban charter schools that we used to call “no excuses” schools before the term, which once meant there’s no excuse for adults to fail children, fell into disrepute and it became de rigueur within the movement to criticize those schools’ discipline practices instead of applauding them for sending tens of thousands of low-income kids of color to college, which not long ago was nearly the entire point of the movement.
If ed reform is to regain its momentum and become not merely a disruptive force, but a broad, effective, and enduring one, it must reinvent itself as a practice-focused movement. It is unlikely, for example, that any politician, policymaker, or education secretary of the last twenty years has had a greater effect on what happens in reform-minded classrooms than Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools. It is nearly impossible to walk into a high-performing charter school in America and not see his thumbprint, even in schools that have not trained with Lemov and his colleagues. I’ve long lauded the curriculum work of Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and the efforts of the University of Virginia’s Dan Willingham to translate cognitive science and research into classroom practice. Significantly, neither of them likely views himself as an education reformer since their work is not specific to a particular setting, demographic, or type of school. That says something about the scope of the reform movement and how we have marginalized our potential impact and influence.
The list of theorists and researchers whose work might guide practice-based reform is too long to mention and too obscure for comfort. How many of my policy and advocacy colleagues, I wonder, know the names Tim Shanahan, Nell Duke, Isabel Beck, Judith Hochman or anything about their work? How many of us read the “Science of Learning” report from Deans for Impact? Even at the policymaking level we would be better served to pay more attention to people like Louisiana’s John White, who has built state-level reforms around curriculum and professional development; and David Steiner, of Johns Hopkins, who did much the same in his too-brief tenure as New York’s education commissioner. Enduring and broadly distributed gains, if any are to be had, will come from this manner of classroom-facing work long before it comes from doubling down on standards and accountability. We might even be surprised to learn that there is a broad sensible center among America’s nearly four million teachers who want to be more effective in their jobs and might rather join this movement than be held accountable by it.
Like Walsh, I don’t see much point in self-flagellation. But neither do I see a compelling reason to continue placing most of our bets on policy instead of practice, or to spend more decades pursuing strategies that have overpromised and under-delivered. The way forward, in addition to refocusing reform’s considerable energies on improving practice, is to become far more pluralistic, both in the types of schools we support and the policies needed to grow and sustain them. A less narrow concept of school quality (currently limited to short-term gains in test scores alone) is essential to refocus the movement on its ultimate object: setting children on a path for lives of self-sufficiency, upward mobility, and engaged citizenship.
The inconvenient truth is that, even within the ed reform movement, school choice is regarded with suspicion. Choice generally means charter schools, not true educational pluralism, and our support is limited to schools that are willing to subject themselves to the oversight of an increasingly technocratic movement that lacks the record of accomplishment required to impose its prerogatives. Our movement may claim to care about low-income parents and people of color, but we don’t quite trust them to choose unless we strictly limit and monitor their choices. This is ed reform’s own moral failure: Our soft bigotry of low expectations hasn’t gone away. We just apply it to parents now.
Without question, the education reform movement should not abandon its efforts to create a favorable policy climate for change in statehouses and in the halls of power. That’s essential but insufficient. There is little support for the continued belief that we can bully or nanny schools to high performance. It’s time for the movement’s center of gravity to shift to schools and classrooms and to supporting and enhancing the work of educators in schools that parents choose, not the ones we choose for them.
News of Catholic school closures has become so commonplace over the past few decades that it’s almost not news anymore. What was once a vibrant nationwide school system serving five million students a year has become a struggling sector serving fewer than half that number. Last week, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced its plan to close another five schools at the end of this year, citing declining enrollment and financial challenges. One of these schools has been serving students on Chicago’s South Side for over 115 years. In Memphis, the diocese announced yesterday that all nine of its inner-city Jubilee Schools will close this year. It’s long been clear that something has to change.
The starting point is recognizing just how important Catholic schools are to our communities—even beyond the students who are enrolled. Research out of the University of Notre Dame found that, when urban Catholic schools close, entire communities suffer. In Chicago, residents of neighborhoods where Catholic schools closed had “less cohesive and more disorderly communities than residents of neighborhoods with open Catholic schools.” The research team also found that, “while serious crime declined across the city between 1999-2005, it declined more slowly in police beats where Catholic schools closed,” and, “between 1999 and 2005, the presence of an open Catholic school in a police beat was consistently associated with a statistically significant decrease in crime.”
Worse, there is not yet evidence that these community gaps are filled by the charter schools that so often take the place of closed Catholic schools. Specifically, the Notre Dame research team found that, although charter schools have been able to fill the academic void left when Catholic schools close, “they do not yet appear to generate the same positive community benefits.”
We must also recognize that access to funding alone won’t necessarily catalyze the change we need. Twenty-eight states now provide some funding to urban Catholic schools, either in the form of voucher or tax credit support, but public money hasn’t stemmed the tide of closures. In dioceses like New Orleans and Cincinnati, where publicly funded voucher and tax credit programs provide disadvantaged students public money to attend private and parochial schools, a half dozen or more schools have closed since 2014. And, if this week’s announcements from Chicago and Memphis are any indication, these won’t be the last.
But there is also reason for hope. Over the last several years, we have seen new approaches to Catholic education that shake free of the older models of how schools should be organized and run and provide proof points for a new type of Catholic school system. One such experiment is our own Partnership Schools in New York City, of which I am the superintendent. We are a network of six schools that have demonstrated game-changing academic gains over the past three years. Our turnaround efforts have nearly tripled the number of students passing the New York State math test and more than doubled those passing the English language arts exam.
These gains have brought some attention. People point to our network—which uses an independent nonprofit management organization to support Catholic schools that were at risk of being closed—as a model for the future of parochial education. But, when it comes to catalyzing change across the entire urban Catholic school sector, the more interesting question isn’t about what we’ve done at Partnership Schools to drive change. Instead it is: What did the Archdiocese of New York do that cleared a path for us to drive change?
To answer that question, let’s rewind the tape a bit.
Historically, parochial schools have been independently operated and managed locally—at the parish level by the pastor and principal.
This structure worked reasonably well for more than one hundred years. Unfortunately, due to a combination of financial challengers and demographic shifts—in which Catholic families moved from cities to the suburbs and new Catholic immigrants moved to the South and Southwest U.S. rather than Northeast metropolitan areas—urban Catholic parishes struggled, particularly those in cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, and D.C.
The combination of these financial strains and demographic shifts has, in most cases, proved far too difficult for individual parishes to address on their own.
Fortunately, diocesan leadership has stepped up to provide cash-strapped schools and parishes with subsidies and back-office support in an effort to buoy struggling urban schools. But in large dioceses like New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C, where Catholic Schools Offices oversee between one hundred and two hundred diocesan schools, the challenge has proven too difficult for a small team of barely two dozen staff to face on their own.
But there is another way. What if—true to the principle of subsidiarity on which Catholic schools were built—dioceses reinvented the role they play in school oversight?
That’s what happened in New York. A little more than more than five years ago, the Archdiocese of New York set out to reimagine the role of the diocese and the Catholic Schools Office in running Catholic schools. They called the plan “Pathways to Excellence.” His Eminence Cardinal Dolan and Superintendent of Catholic Schools Dr. Timothy McNiff realized that the diocese can retain canonical governance without needing to operate and manage every school in its purview—something that diocesan Catholic School Offices were never set up to do!
In the case of Partnership Schools, the Archdiocese inked an agreement that shifted the Archdiocese role from being an operator of schools to being an authorizer of our network. The diocese retains full governance control; the schools we run are their schools. But they have given us full management, operations, and financial control in exchange for stronger results.
The impact has been transformative. As an independent 501(c)3, we have the autonomy we need to run a small network of schools in ways that enhance the Catholic identity, that strengthen faith formation, and that drive academic excellence. We make curricular decisions, we fundraise, we set budgets and make hiring decisions, and we are nimble enough to respond to the varying needs of our schools without being bogged down by bureaucracy.
But, perhaps most importantly, we are also accountable to the Archdiocese of New York. We have a services agreement that spells out, similar to the way an authorizer contract would, what our responsibilities are. Importantly, the accountability agreement is crafted by Catholic leaders for Catholic schools. And, because the Archdiocese retains governance control of our schools, they can fire us if we fail to live up to the expectations we’ve set.
That combination of freedom in exchange for accountability is not new in the public school world, but it’s nothing short of transformational for Catholic schools.
It is not too late to write a new chapter in the history of Catholic education—one of urban renewal rather than decline. But we need more than a few examples of success. It’s time to think and act boldly by embracing a new approach grounded in autonomous networks of Catholic schools that are given the flexibility to innovate and are held accountable for results. We can spark a renaissance that will transform lives, communities, and the Catholic Church for the better, and that will live up to the audacious spirit that gave rise this unique system of education in the first place.
Kathleen Porter-Magee is the Superintendent of Partnership Schools.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
On this week's podcast, Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, and Nina Rees, CEO and president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, join Mike Petrilli and Alyssa Schwenk to discuss where the choice movement stands on the occasion of National School Choice Week. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines a study on school discipline reform in Philadelphia, complete with a jaw-dropping teacher survey.
Amber’s Research Minute
Abigail M. Gray et al., “Discipline in Context: Suspension, Climate, and PBIS in the School District of Philadelphia,” CPRE Research Reports (October 2017).
Due to the size of its charter sector and the high-profile test score gains of some of the city’s charter networks, New York City, with America’s largest school district, has featured prominently in recent charter debates. A new study by Sarah Cordes in Education Next examines how the city’s charter schools affect nearby district schools.
Cordes examines data on state test scores, grade retention, demographics, and school expenditures for 876,731 students in grades three through five over the fourteen-year period from 1996–2010, looking at 584 district schools within one mile of a charter school. She analyzes changes in test score performance of individual students at district schools before and after charters open nearby.
The study finds students in district schools performed 0.02 standard deviations higher, a small but statistically significant gain, in math and reading on annual statewide tests after charters opened within one half mile, while students in co-located district schools, housed in the same building as a charter, performed even better: 0.06 and 0.08 standard deviations higher on reading and math tests, respectively. Cordes finds no positive or negative effects on students in district schools between one half and three miles away. The improvement in test scores was positively affected by increased density of charters (three or more within a one-mile radius) and increased quality of charters, defined as schools with high average scores on fourth grade math and reading exams or being operated by an established, respected network such as KIPP. Other significant academic effects include a reduction in the likelihood of grade retention for students, with the positive effect once again increasing with proximity to the charter school.
To examine what might be changing at schools, Cordes looked at data from the NYC School Survey, a yearly survey of parents, teachers, and students. The results suggest that, after charter schools open nearby, parents and teachers report slightly more positive perceptions of school climate elements like parental engagement, school safety, and academic expectations. Cordes posits that this could be the result of changes in practice at district schools.
Other potential “spillover effects” of charters cited by those concerned about charter expansion include effects on school spending and percentage of high-needs students. Cordes finds that instructional per-pupil spending increased significantly at district schools when charters opened nearby. (The study does not examine what happens to spending on other costs like resources or facilities.) She also found small decreases in enrollment at district schools when charters opened, but no significant changes in student demographics such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or numbers of English language learners or special education students.
The study is likely to be cited by many charter advocates as definitive proof of charters’ positive effects on district schools everywhere, but Cordes is careful to contextualize her work as significant primarily for charter expansion in New York City. As of 2013, just 11 percent of New York City schools were charters. She notes that whether the results hold true in cities where a higher percent of schools are charters, like Philadelphia or New Orleans, remains to be seen, and also clarifies that her results do not demonstrate whether any of the changes are sustained over time.
Still, the study adds to existing evidence that charter schools may have positive effects on nearby schools. As the nation’s charter sector continues to expand, Cordes’ results should encourage more conversations about how charters and district schools can co-exist and improve together.
SOURCE: Sarah Cordes, “Charters and the Common Good,” Education Next (Spring 2018).
In 2009, Public Impact launched the Opportunity Culture initiative, which identifies ways for effective teachers to take on roles that enable them to positively affect many more students.
For example, under the multiclassroom leadership model, a highly effective teacher is placed in charge of a team of teachers and is accountable for the learning of all the students who are taught by her team. This multiclassroom leader is responsible for supervising instruction, evaluating and developing teachers’ skills, and facilitating team collaboration and planning. The team leaders are either not assigned students or given a light teaching load that enables them to focus on their mentorship role. The other model used in the study’s data—the time-swap model—uses learning stations facilitated by paraprofessionals to enable effective teachers to lead instruction for more students.
Earlier this month, CALDER released a working paper that examined the relationship between Public Impact partner districts that adopted these staffing models and student achievement in math and reading. Data was drawn from three public school districts: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, which contributed nearly 90 percent of the students in the research sample, Cabarrus County Schools in North Carolina, and the Syracuse City School District in New York. All three districts implemented the new staffing models in a minimum of three schools for at least two academic years. In total, the sample comprised more than 15,000 students.
Most students experienced the multiclassroom leadership model, either through direct instruction by a multiclassroom leader or via a teacher on a team overseen by a leader. Student achievement was reported using the respective state’s standardized tests. Although random assignment was not possible—schools were targeted for participation by their districts and then chose whether to participate—the research approach is similar to other studies that have measured the impact of certain teachers, such as Teach For America corps members, on student achievement.
The study finds that participating schools significantly improved students’ math performance. The multiclassroom leadership model, in particular, produced larger math gains than other models. Though many models were also correlated with positive and significant effects for reading, some were not. And overall results for models other than the multiclassroom leadership model were mixed.
This study suggests that the Opportunity Culture initiative is a promising, innovative strategy. It increases math achievement and offers teachers upward career mobility without requiring them to leave the classroom for administrative positions—a problem that regularly plagues districts and schools looking to retain their best teachers. In addition, although teachers are paid substantial salary supplements, the initiative uses models that operate within the constraints of a school’s normal operating budget—an intriguing premise that better compensates teachers without affecting the bottom line. Districts looking for an innovative way to empower and improve their teaching force would do well to take a look at this program.
SOURCE: Ben Backes and Michael Hansen, “Reaching Further and Learning More? Evaluating Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture Initiative,” American Institutes for Research (January 2018).