Is disparate impact analysis an appropriate tool for the federal government to use to investigate school discipline practices? As debate over the fate of the Obama administration’s school discipline policy heats up, expert opinion sharply diverges on this question. Allison Brown and Marlyn Tillman argued recently in USA Today that it’s altogether appropriate. Michael Petrilli argued here in Flypaper that it’s a bad fit. This debate is interesting, but it’s based on a false premise. Properly understood in our nation’s jurisprudence, the Obama Administration’s 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter did not apply disparate impact doctrine.
Disparate impact theory is the notion that an apparently neutral policy that has a disproportionate impact on a particular group may indicate the existence of discrimination. It’s an evidentiary tool, not a substantive standard. Even its strongest proponents would never claim that any policy leading to different outcomes for different groups constitutes unlawful discrimination. It’s hard to imagine how any law could possibly be legal under that standard. It also doesn’t hold that any policy leading to different outcomes is presumptively unlawful discrimination. The rule of law could not possibly hold under the presumption that federal bureaucrats could find virtually any law unlawful at any time.
No, disparate impact theory holds that substantial statistical differences may constitute evidence of discrimination. To determine whether discrimination is actually occurring, investigations must be careful and diligent. But the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) policy put forward in 2014 guaranteed that the investigations would be neither.
The letter correctly cites the three-part test of disparate impact in education set by court precedent in Elston v Talladega:
- The plaintiff must demonstrate that a facially neutral practice has a disproportionate adverse effect on a protected group.
- If the plaintiff succeeds, the defendant must prove that there exists a legitimate justification for the challenged practice.
- If the defendant carries that burden, the plaintiff can still prevail if it’s able to show that there exists a comparably effective alternative practice that would result in less disproportionality (or that the practice was merely a pretext for discrimination).
Suppose under Elston that the school policy said, “a student will get suspended if s/he wears braids.” If the district decided to defend this policy, it might argue that, “while this ban does have a disproportionate effect, it’s necessary to maintain a consistent dress code, which is good for school culture.” A judge may or may not deem this a legitimate justification. Supposing he does, the plaintiff might show that consistent dress could be less disproportionately achieved by a school uniform requirement. Then, a judge would overrule the district. Or perhaps the plaintiff discovers an email suggesting a racial sentiment behind this ban. Then, a judge would overrule the district. All in all, it seems reasonably likely that a ban on hair-braids would not pass a disparate impact test.
But suppose the school policy said a student will get suspended if s/he drops an f-bomb on a teacher. The school would be on pretty firm grounds to argue that there’s a legitimate justification here. The plaintiff might argue that there are other ways to prevent classroom profanity. But, in evaluating that, a judge would (as they did in Elston) give some deference to the school district. He will recognize that the school leaders have years of direct experience serving children. A judge would likely uphold the district’s policy.
But things work quite differently in a court of law than they do in an administrative investigation. Under the 2014 policy, the district has no chance to publicly plead its case, and the investigators need give them no deference. OCR acts as judge, jury, and executioner based on its whim. Or, more accurately, based on what the 2014 letter says.
The letter and its attendant materials make clear, a priori, that no deference will be given—indeed that no good-faith disparate impact investigation will even occur. The answers to questions two and three of the aforementioned three-part test are pre-ordained. Of course there’s not a legitimate justification for suspending students because it’s the stated position of the Department of Education that “suspensions don’t work—for schools, teachers, or students.” And of course there’s a comparably effective alternative because the Department of Education says “there are effective alternatives to suspension,” such as “positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS).”
The “Dear Colleague” letter makes the three-part disparate impact test a farce. There’s only one yes-or-no question: What do your statistics look like? If they show differences, you’re guilty. Just as soon as OCR gets around to telling you so.
Not that OCR need ever issue a verdict. The Sixth Amendment guarantees a right to a speedy trial, but it doesn’t apply to administrative investigations. These investigations drag on for years and end whenever OCR lets them, whether or not OCR ever finds anything.
Oklahoma City’s resolution agreement, for example, belies the notion that OCR uses a legitimate disparate impact test. The resolution finds plenty of fault with Oklahoma City’s statistics. But after two years of investigation, OCR admitted that it never got around to the second or third part of the three-part test:
The District requested to resolve the complaint prior to the conclusion of OCR’s investigation. In order to make findings to conclude OCR’s investigation of this allegation, OCR would have to conduct additional interviews, including interviews with building-level principals and other administrators to discuss their implementation and understanding of District discipline policies. In particular, interviews would need to be conducted to establish whether or not there is a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the disparate numbers outlined above.
District-wide investigations are tethered to individual complaints. Did the facts OCR found substantiate any of allegations? No. Not the allegation of race-based harassment, the allegation of retaliation, or the allegation of different treatment. But despite finding no direct fault, and even after two years of investigation, OCR hadn’t bothered to look into whether the district’s discipline policies were justified. Oklahoma City is only unique in that, unlike hundreds of other cases, it came to a “voluntary” resolution agreement to end the investigation. “Voluntary” is a funny word when the process is the punishment, when a federal investigation is the Sword of Damocles requiring endless administrative time and effort to keep from falling.
What have the results of this resolution agreement been? Well, before it was even inked, administrators were boasting that their new policy led to a 42.5 percent reduction in school suspensions. What did teachers have to say? Let’s do something federal investigators never did: listen to them.
We were told that referrals would not require suspension, "unless there was blood." Students who are referred do not seem to worry about consequences and are seldom taken out of class, even for a talk with an administrator. There was an instance of a one-day suspension for a premeditated fist fight that occurred as two classes passed each other in the hall. Four students had planned this; one student got suspended for one day. They do not respect consequences.
Students have no consequences for their actions. They continue to defy authority and disregard the consequences of their actions. As a new teacher with a new assistant principal, I am having trouble understanding the discipline procedure. It also is very developmentally inappropriate for young children.
This is the worst student behavior I have seen in over thirty years of teaching. The violence in the hallways is extreme.
It is amazing the district reports to the local news media that the discipline/referrals issues have gone down when that is not the case at all. Teachers are being abused physically. There is total defiance from students as early as first and second grade.
And yet another:
Student behavior problems are just sent back to the teachers. This year alone a third grade student brought an X-Acto knife to class. The knife was taken by the principal, and the student returned to class. The teacher had to call the parent. This student has also brought a BB gun to school and threatened students.
Principals are telling teachers that THEY are being told NOT to write referrals and NO suspensions. This means that teachers must DEAL WITH IT!! Parents don't show up for behavior meetings, so writing B.I.P.’s is a joke. Teachers should NEVER have to choose between defending themselves or losing their job!!!
And, I know this is painful, but just one more:
Students are yelling, cursing, hitting, and screaming at teachers and nothing is being done. But teachers are being told to teach and ignore the behaviors. That is very hard to do now that these students know there is nothing a teacher can do. Good students are now suffering because of the abuse and issues plaguing these classrooms.
What do these teachers think would help? Two thirds want greater enforcement of traditional discipline. As one teacher said, “We need to be able to suspend students for repeated bad behavior. After so many referrals or in-house suspensions they need to be suspended.” Only one quarter of teachers believe in “restorative” interventions.
But, remember, OCR never actually got around to talking to teachers, and the stated position of the U.S. Department of Education since 2014 is that suspensions do not work. The agency doesn’t seem to care what teachers think. OCR investigators certainly could have reviewed the teacher survey and read the harrowing teacher accounts of what was happening in their district because of the federal investigation. But, if they did, it didn’t stop them.
And now, even if Oklahoma City wanted to change course and put student safety first, it might not be able to because it “voluntarily” agreed to “submit any proposed changes to its discipline policies, procedures, and practices to OCR for review and approval prior to implementation.” So, in the rare cases in which OCR allows an investigation to close, whether or not it ever found anything, it retains veto power over the district’s discipline policy.
The “Dear Colleague” letter does not call for investigations based on disparate impact doctrine. It calls for show-trials without the show. Just this week, OCR forced a resolution agreement on Milwaukee Public Schools. According to the superintendent, she had “no choice.” And several school board members stated they had no idea the investigation was happening.
The secrecy of these investigations is why (aside from the fact that it was never actually even used) disparate impact is unsalvageable as a tool for federal investigation into school discipline.
Even if Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos were to rescind the guidance and re-issue a letter that called for a more conscientious application of disparate impact theory, that wouldn’t be enough. Just one vague threatening word from the next secretary and we’ll be back to where we are right now: Districts are presumed guilty and unable to prove their innocence in closed-door pseudo-investigations that maybe not even the school board knows about, while activists applaud manipulated statistics and ignore the voices of teachers and students.
This must stop. And it must never be allowed to happen again. Rescinding the guidance is not enough. Re-issuing better guidance would not cut it. Secretary DeVos should open the official regulatory process and explicitly prevent future administrations from using disparate impact in school discipline investigations. By all means, investigators can and should review data whenever an allegation of disparate treatment is made. But school districts must never again be presumed guilty and unable to prove their innocence, and kids should never again be put in danger because of statistics.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
It is not often that I describe a book I have read as a treasure, but David Driscoll’s Commitment and Common Sense: Leading Education Reform in Massachusetts is exactly that. The book, written in the form of a memoir, is mainly the story of the implementation of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act, a comprehensive redesign of the Massachusetts education system that enabled the state, alone among all the states in the United States, to enter the ranks of the world’s top-performing education systems.
The book tells it like it is. It is an authentic, at times funny, always compelling account of how this landmark comprehensive policy reform was shaped and implemented. It won’t surprise you that I strongly recommend that you buy this book and read it.
But, at the same time, I would urge some caution. I have known David Driscoll for many years and, like so many others, come to love him. He is such a decent, caring human being, overflowing with that most uncommon quality: common sense as well as a vast horde of carefully considered experience. The very antithesis of an ideologue, he can see merit in each of two opposing views. He can hold his own, but he does not seem to hold a grudge. ‘Politician’ seems now to be a swear word, but Driscoll is an education politician of the highest order, if by ‘politician’ you mean a person who has the personal gifts needed to bring people from every station in life and point of view and narrow interest together to forge a new way of doing things at scale. He was exactly the right person to lead the implementation of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act.
It is also true, as Driscoll points out in his book, that Massachusetts was extremely lucky in its leadership when it most needed it. Driscoll was not alone. Were it not for an extraordinary business leader, a gifted advisor to that business leader, several governors in succession of both parties, key legislative leaders and Driscoll’s predecessor as Commissioner of Education, all of whom were deeply committed to what became their common agenda, the “Massachusetts Miracle” would almost certainly have died aborning. If just one of those people had opposed the effort or simply dragged his or her feet, the whole thing might easily have come apart.
Commitment and Common Sense, more than anything else, reads like a study in leadership. And that is the problem. Yes, it is unquestionably true that the stars lined up for Massachusetts, enabling the state to create a comprehensive agenda for education that not only gained enough support for passage as legislation, but went on to be deeply and widely implemented over a period of many years. And, yes, it took courage, commitment and persistence of a kind rarely seen in American politics at either the state or national levels.
So it is not surprising that most of the reaction to Driscoll’s book has come in the form of praise for Driscoll and the other people who can reasonably share the credit for leading Massachusetts to a level of success at a scale that no other state in the United States has managed to come close to. The praise is well deserved and the qualities of leadership and commitment that were displayed are justly celebrated.
But that very fact can make it seem that it was the remarkable alignment among an unusual constellation of leaders, and not the agenda they embraced, that accounted for their success. What this account of the Massachusetts Miracle leaves in the background are the specific policies and practices that the state implemented to achieve the student performance it now enjoys. Those policies and practices are very important. It is highly likely that if another set of policies and practices had been pursued with the same persistence and courage, the results would have been nowhere near as impressive.
How do I know that? Because our organization, NCEE, has been studying the countries with the most successful education systems for almost thirty years and has been able to identify nine common components of those high-performance education systems. The program of reform that Massachusetts enacted, it turns out, is largely addressed to those components. This is not to say that Massachusetts was influenced by the other countries. I have no evidence that they did any such thing. But it is evidence that these components need to be present in any design for an education system to produce high performance at scale. Further, as Driscoll points out in the book, you need them all. This is not a collection of separate policies. They collectively constitute a new system.
Our organization has distilled what we have learned about what it takes to create high performance education systems into a document titled 9 Building Blocks for a World-Class Education System. What follows is the heading for each building block, with a very brief commentary on the way in which Massachusetts has addressed each of them:
1. Provide strong supports for children and their families before students come to school
Here we refer to high-quality early childhood education, quality affordable day care, child allowances, health care, paid family leave, wrap-around social services and other services for families with young children. This is the one building block for highly successful education systems that Massachusetts did not address. As Driscoll put it to me in a conversation: “We punted on this one.” Paul Reville, one of the key figures involved in designing the Massachusetts Education Reform Act, after later serving as Secretary of Education in the state, stepped down to devote himself to addressing this oversight by leading a wide-ranging research program at Harvard University designed to help the state identify and implement the policies needed, especially by low-income and racial and ethnic minorities, to send their children to school with the health, confidence, vocabularies, cultural experiences, levels of cognitive development and social skills they would need to succeed in school. I am of the view, a view I think is shared by Reville, that if Massachusetts were to create a powerful set of well-designed and well-aligned programs in this area, it could substantially close the gaps in performance between low-income and minority children in the state and the high flyers.
2. Provide more resources for at-risk students than for others
The Massachusetts education reform act had been preceded by a school finance case charging that the state had failed to provide adequate funds to districts serving mainly poor children. This set the stage for a bill that would include revising the school finance formulas to provide more equity in school finance. But Governor Weld had come to office pledging no new taxes. He was widely viewed as a classic budget hawk and it was widely assumed that he would be opposed to any large increase in school funding, without which an increase for schools serving low-income and minority students would have been very difficult. But he was totally on board with the reform program and offered to increase the education budget by two billion dollars if the educators agreed to raise the standards for student performance and agreed to be held accountable for getting their students to the standards. And he followed through, while keeping his promise not to raise taxes. The formula for distributing the funds was much more equitable than the one it replaced.
3. Develop world-class, highly coherent instructional systems
This is one of the great success stories of the Massachusetts design. Massachusetts still leads the nation in the quality and integrity of its state instructional system, which continues to have important features not yet adopted—to my knowledge—by any other state. By “instructional system,” I mean a highly-aligned system of standards for student performance, curriculum frameworks, and assessments, with course requirements well enough specified so that the observer can be sure that expectations for all students are everywhere the same. Further, that teachers’ colleges are expected to teach prospective teachers how to teach the courses that students are expected to take. And finally, that the questions asked in state examinations are released along with an explanation of how each question relates to the standards. This last piece costs real money, because test items have to be developed and field tested to replace the ones released. But Driscoll evidently understood that the purpose of a good assessment system is not just to measure but to help improve student performance, in this case by giving both teachers and students a clear idea of what kind of work students need to do to reach the published standards. Without that, teachers and students are shooting in the dark. The United States as a whole continues to be way behind the international leaders in this crucial arena, but, while Massachusetts could still take some lessons from some of the global top performers, it is way ahead of the U.S. pack.
4. Create clear gateways for students through the system, set to global standards, with no dead ends
Here again, Massachusetts is way out front in the United States. As Driscoll tells the tale, there was a battle royal over where the cut points would be set for the new state exams. Many wanted to do what Texas had done and set them low and then try to inch them up. In the shootout, the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Board Chair lined up against the then-Commissioner of Education, who lost his job over the issue. The decision was made to set the standards for graduation at a level comparable to the Proficient level on NAEP. Many predicted that a large proportion would fail to graduate and chaos would ensue. But, when the educators, parents, and students stopped resisting, they buckled down to work, and student performance ended up much higher than most had predicted.
5. Assure an abundant supply of highly qualified teachers
The nations in the world’s top ranks put a lot of emphasis on this strategy and most do it mainly by limiting the right to offer teacher education to top universities with tough entrance standards, thereby assuring the country of a steady supply of teachers who did very well in high school. But it is very, very hard to do this in the United States. So, Massachusetts did the next best thing. It greatly raised its standards for licensing teachers, and created a new set of licensing exams for this purpose, abandoning the very weak PRAXIS tests used by most states.
6. Redesign schools to be places in which teachers will be treated as professionals, with incentives and support to continuously improve their professional practice and the performance of their students
One of the least understood (in the United States) but most important factors in the success of the countries with the highest-performing education systems is their approach to school organization and management. It is a fundamental change from an early twentieth century form of industrial organization in which teachers are treated like blue collar workers to a modern form of professional work organization in which teachers are treated as real professionals. More and more in these countries, one finds that teachers are teaching only 40 or 45 percent of their time. The rest of their time, they are working in teams to create highly effective lessons which they then all use, combing the world’s research literature to find ways to improve their collective practice, sharing their findings with their colleagues, and assembling all the teachers of a student who is falling behind to pool their knowledge of what is going on with that student and agreeing on what is to be done to get the student back on track. It feels much more like a modern law firm or engineering firm than like an old assembly line. It turns out that Massachusetts set out to move their schools toward these new forms of work organization, too. They do not seem to be as far along this track as some high performers, but they appear to be well ahead of any other state I know of.
7. Create an effective system of career and technical education and training
Most states have been talking for years about getting their students college and career ready, but have been doing very little about the career part. When they have addressed the career part, it has often come in the context of assuming that career and technical education is for the kids who are not very good at academics. That is not what the top performers have done. They assume that, whether a student is going on to college or to a career after high school, that student needs to meet high academic standards. That is what Massachusetts did. Because it did that, it could build a career and technical education system on the assumption that the students coming into that system had a solid command of the basic skills. Their regional vocational high school system is among the most admired in the country. While I think it has a way to go to match the achievements of Singapore or Switzerland in this arena, its recognition that a good high school vocational program has to be built on the assumption that the students entering that program have a strong mastery of the basic skills coming in enabled the state to create a strong base on which they can now build to create a world-class career and technical education program.
8. Create a leadership development system that develops leaders at all levels to manage such systems effectively
It is with some pride that I can say that, when Driscoll and his colleagues went looking for a highly effective, highly efficient way to give their principals the leadership training they would need to implement the new reforms with energy, commitment, and understanding, they came to our National Institute for School Leadership’s Executive Development program. Over a period of many years, we ended up training almost all of Massachusetts’ principals and many of their successors. One of the things that distinguish the top-performing nations from most American states is that they put as much energy and capital into implementing their reforms as they do into the design of their reforms and the passage of the enabling legislation. Many of them have said to me, in so many words: “Implementation is policy.” That is, the only policy that matters is the policy that is implemented. Training is the key to good implementation and a good part of that training is providing a compelling rationale for the reforms as well as the skills needed to carry them out effectively. Driscoll makes it clear over and over again that, in the last analysis, reforms do not succeed because practitioners are made to do them but because they think they are the right thing to do. That is how the top performers do it and it is how we approach our training.
9. Institute a governance system that has the authority and legitimacy to develop coherent, powerful policies and is capable of implementing them at scale
Effective systems reform requires the kind of coordinated actions that are needed to build highly aligned systems. That function is typically provided by a ministry of education. But the states in the United States usually have highly fragmented systems of governance that make it almost impossible to create coherent, powerful education systems. Massachusetts has worked hard to fix this over the years, at the school level, the district level, and the state level. At the school level, for instance, it made it clear that the principal chooses his or her subordinates. At the district level, it removed the authority of school boards to play any role whatsoever in personnel decisions except for the hiring and firing of the superintendent. At the state level, it created a new cabinet level position of Secretary of Education reporting to the Governor, responsible for coordinating all of the previously separate entities in the education arena at all levels. These actions have not yet given the state the equivalent of a ministry of education, but, step by step, the fragmentation of education governance in Massachusetts has been reduced and the coherence of its education policy has been increased.
The Massachusetts Miracle owes its success to great leadership, sound design, and good implementation. The design is not perfect. There are other countries, provinces and states elsewhere in the world that do parts of this design better than Massachusetts, just as there are parts that Massachusetts does better than some of them. If your state is interested in going down this path, give us a call. If you have the leadership, we will help you come up with the design and we will help you implement it. That’s what we do..
A version of this article was originally published in Education Week.
Editor’s note: David Driscoll serves as the chairman of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Board of Trustees.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
You don’t have to look far to find cogent rebuttals to a recent Associated Press story on charter schools and segregation. That analysis—which blames charter schools for intensifying segregation in public schools—is reminiscent of a political campaign where, running from a suspect track record, an incumbent blames the challenger for something he himself has done.
In this case, in a country that is deeply segregated, and whose public schools are deeply segregated both because of changing demographics and the precondition of residential assignment that pervades the public system, charter schools are being scapegoated for creating the racially divided and isolated world that the public schools themselves have given us. It’s the sort of pablum only a politico could offer.
The arguments many have made to counter this are spot-on, in particular about the difference between being assigned to racial isolation versus minorities making affirmative choices to be with people who share their skin color and, perhaps, their values. But there’s a piece that’s missing, and so much turns on understanding it that we gloss over it at our own peril.
The truth is, the attack on charters and their perceived role in segregation reveals a deep and troubling double standard. It’s powered by a desire to destroy black academic excellence—along with those who seek it out and those who seek to provide it—in the name of some other set of democratic fundamentals that, at this point, don’t exist even on paper, let alone in reality. This line of attack illuminates the preferential treatment that non-black minorities and, of course, white Americans receive in the realm of public education as a framework for schooling. A framework that doesn’t work for millions of black and brown children but is valorized over those we see having life-changing effects, particularly in our large urban centers.
You can see this bias clearly when you examine how traditional district loyalists and anti-charter activists defend underperforming and overwhelmingly black neighborhood schools. These folks have held these schools blameless during their destructive reign even as black futures have been squandered within them.
They’ve been messaging test cases for the limits of what schools can do (overcome poverty and now segregation) even while they’ve remained central to arguments for more dollars and more people in the system. While in the ’burbs, testing is an evil visited upon stressed-out swizzle-stick-loving toddlers, in the ’hood—where learning is incidental—they’ve been used as a crucible no teacher should have to bear. These schools are the Jeanne d’Arc of “community” even as they rip communities apart, their existence crucial to the overall notion of democratic rule even when that rule is ruinous.
A shining and ironic example of this can perhaps be seen in New York, where the Bloomberg-era school closure and restart strategy—which has ultimately been proven beneficial—was attacked by the United Federation of Teachers and its then-handmaiden the NAACP (a relationship that has only metastasized). Consider Paul Robeson High School. The school, named for the civil rights activist who was ultimately blacklisted for his advocacy, undermined the very promise of his life of service even as it failed to pass on his brilliance to its students. On his opposition to closing the school, UFT President Michael Mulgrew offered, “We cannot continue with policies that allow inequality not only to exist, but to flourish.”
One must wonder to which policies he referred. The residential assignment policies that ensure schools like Robeson are racially isolated? The adult deployment policies that result in the students within them getting the least-experienced teachers who also have the least support (an inequity now fully present as those in New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve pool are reassigned to low-income, high-minority schools)? These are the sorts of policies we expect black families to support in the name of democracy and community?
The policy menu of black academic oppression is too long to list. But its record of ravaging the black community is one that must not be lengthened in the name of an oppressive view that holds student achievement among its lowest priorities.
Conversely (and courtesy of the charter segregation lobby) we also see what these folks would have us attack: schools working for black families that exist because those same families have made the affirmative decision to attend them.
Depending on what cocktail parties you attended this holiday season, you likely heard any number of derisive characterizations of today’s modern-day Freedom Schools. Some outright condescending (those families don’t know how to choose a school) to counterintuitive (those schools cream the best families). The latter is particularly destructive because it penalizes black families—some foreign-born, some the home-grown descendants of slaves, but all of whom want a better future for their children—for that quality we value most in every other race and creed in the American patchwork: ambition.
Consider how this same ambition is handled in some of America’s other numerous racial tranches. White urbane families who like cities but still want accelerated education have an entire network of segregated academies within the public schools, most commonly known as gifted and talented, fostered for them. It’s widely known that these programs pass over black kids, but no one seems to care, even as cries for the expansion of these programs continue to grow.
Or look at the selective high school admissions process in New York, where Stuyvesant High School—arguably the crown jewel of the network—is overwhelmingly Asian (annually, the combined black and Hispanic student cohort numbers in the single digits). Conservatives defend the hard-work ethic of Asian families. Liberals cite Stuyvesant as a bastion of excellence to which many other races should have access, even if it means lowering the bar for entry.
This excellence is prized and sought after even as Success Academy Charter Schools—among the state’s best schools of any type—which brim over with black and brown kids, battles building by building to get necessary space for its families. It is indeed easier for a store that caters to “adult” interests to open in New York than it is to expand opportunity for minority kids in charter schools. What’s the message being sent here?
Black folks are unique in America because we are often asked to sacrifice some notion of personal agency or sovereignty “for the greater good” in manners that other groups are not asked to and would never be expected to. Don’t protest police shootings because law and order matter more than living and breathing. Give up school choice because democratic school boards are more fundamental than if your kid is educated. Don’t seek a school that may mirror your values and affirm your racial and ethnic identity because integration and assimilation are more important, even if the former is a problem of white preference and the latter potentially undermines your child’s sense of self.
In this round of “segregationist” attacks on charters (a line of reasoning now also core to union opposition against charters as well), we see the latest in a long line of American school policies that all amount to the same thing: a raucous and callous shout of “get to the back of the line” to the country’s black families.
It’s a command to which no family, charter or otherwise, should assent. Now or ever.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in The 74.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
On this week's podcast, Margaret Horn, an executive at CenterPoint Education Solutions, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss how policymakers and philanthropists can help educators implement high standards. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines public preferences for universal and targeted preschool.
Amber’s Research Minute
Erica H. Greenberg, “Public Preferences for Targeted and Universal Preschool," AERA Open (January-March 2018).
Designing school funding policy is a delicate juggling act for state leaders. Contentious issues include deciding the responsibilities of local and state governments; determining efficient and fair ways to allocate funds; and ensuring economically friendly tax policies while raising sufficient revenue. Those seeking a firmer grasp of these topics should read a recent policy brief by Urban Institute researchers Matthew Chingos and Kristin Blagg that summarizes funding across the U.S. Three points in particular are worth highlighting.
First, the analysts show that state governments have increased their contributions to public education since the 1930s. When that decade began, local revenues constituted the lion’s share of schools’ finances, contributing more than eighty cents of every dollar. Since then an increasing percentage has come from states. In most states today, local and state contributions each constitute about 45 percent of school funding; the federal government supplies the remaining ten percent. Yet these funding statistics, authoritative as they may be, arguably understate the true role of state governments in financing public education. In Ohio, for example, districts must levy a minimum 2 percent property tax in order to receive state funds. While these revenues are deemed “local,” they are integral to the state funding program and might be better categorized as state funds.
Second, Chingos and Blagg look at the relationship between districts’ capacity to generate local funds and the educational needs of their pupils. Conventional wisdom suggests that low-capacity districts—those with weak property-tax bases—educate the neediest students. This is true in some cases. For instance, the property-poor Dayton, Ohio, school district serves a disproportionate number of students from low-income families. But, in eleven of the sixteen states analyzed in this paper, districts’ property wealth and poverty rates are weakly correlated; the other five show a somewhat closer link. The point is that relying on property wealth alone to target state money doesn’t necessarily ensure that districts serving low-income students receive the funds they need.
Third, the brief finds that 72 percent of state dollars nationwide are distributed via formula aid, or general assistance grants, and the rest comes from categorical aid designated for specific programs or students, such as special education, transportation, and gifted or bilingual programs. But the ratio varies across states. In Ohio, for example, formula aid constitutes 90 percent of state funding. Yet it accounts for less than half in places like Connecticut, Florida, and South Carolina. As Chingos and Blagg mention, categorical funding can restrict districts’ flexibility while formula-based aid is generally less rigid. They don’t argue strongly for one over the other, but many school reformers favor more flexible formula-driven aid so long as states hold schools accountable for outcomes. As a recent paper from Foundation for Excellence in Education argues, “Districts are in the best position to decide which services are most beneficial for their students and should have maximum flexibility to do so. Funding restrictions harm this important flexibility.” Following this idea, states such as California have enacted reforms that shift from categorical to formula aid.
The analysts touch on other important matters in school finance too. Overall, the policy brief is a worthwhile introduction to the complex world of school funding policy.
SOURCE: Matthew Chingos and Kristin Blagg, “Making Sense of State School Funding Policy,” Urban Institute (2017).
How to evaluate teachers is a perennial question that is especially relevant now that ESSA has loosened requirements on state teacher evaluation systems. A recent U.S. Department of Education study examines whether increasing the frequency and detail of written and oral feedback offered to teachers and principals improves teaching practice and student achievement.
The authors studied math and English language arts teachers at sixty-three elementary and middle schools in eight large, primarily urban school districts. Each educator was observed four times a year for two years, once by a school administrator and three times by study-hired observers, followed up each time with an in-person conference, plus a written report with ratings and feedback. The system used to deliver this feedback differed, however, between districts. Four used the Classroom Assessment and Scoring System (CLASS) and four used Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching (FFT). Teachers also received annual student growth reports that included their value-added scores. Participating principals were evaluated based on twice-yearly teacher surveys examining their instructional leadership and teacher-principal trust.
Both teachers and principals reported finding the feedback more helpful than previous district feedback. A majority of principals described it as more practical and objective, and most teachers found it more specific and useful but also more critical than their district’s, even though more than half the educators received high marks in the study. Participants were less enthusiastic about the value-added growth reports: Only 48 percent of teachers and 74 percent of principals agreed that the value-added score was a good measure of student learning.
The feedback-delivery system also made a difference. When researchers videotaped and analyzed lessons to see how teachers’ practice changed, they found that educators in districts using CLASS improved by 7 percentile points on that rating scale, but found no effect in those employing FFT. Moreover, both helped to identify principals and teachers who needed support, but neither system reliably identified specific areas for improvement.
The interventions also had a limited effect on student achievement. They caused a statistically significant increase in math scores in the first year of the study but not the second, and they did not affect English language arts outcomes at all. There was, however, a positive correlation between achievement in both subjects and classroom lessons that CLASS and FFT rated highly.
In sum, the study’s elaborate observation and feedback systems were expensive and time-consuming, yet produced little effect on student achievement or teaching practices. However, the positive effects on teaching practice under the CLASS metric and the improvement in first-year math scores show that such systems have potential. Clearly, further work is needed to develop observation systems that provide useful feedback and consistent results at a sustainable cost.
SOURCE: Michael S. Garet, et al., “ The Impact of Providing Performance Feedback to Teachers and Principals,” U.S. Department of Education (2017).