School choice proponents argue that when parents vote with their feet—and dollars—schools listen. But choice is no match for the pandemic of wokeness that has seized K–12 education. The most advantaged, privileged, and powerful parents in America have been cowed into submissive silence when elite schools of choice adopt neoracist practices masquerading as “anti-racism.”
My progressive credentials were in reasonably good order until I became a South Bronx public school teacher. It didn’t take long after that to become uncomfortably aware of a glaring inequity: Each morning I dropped my daughter off at the elite Manhattan private school that my wife and I had chosen, then taught fifth grade two subway stops away at one of the city’s lowest-performing public schools, where my students had no choice but to attend their zoned neighborhood school.
So I became a choice advocate, seditiously at first, quietly asking the parents of my students with younger siblings if they’d heard about the new KIPP middle school down the street. Over time, I become more vocal and adamant on the matter. My students deserved the same flexibility and freedom that I had to find a school that was the right fit. You don’t have to be Milton Friedman to grasp the essential logic: Break the monopoly of public education and the tyranny of zip codes, force schools to compete for students and funding, and they can no longer afford to be lazy, lousy, or both. Give parents the ability to vote with their feet—and take school funding dollars out the door when they go—and you’ve upended the traditional power dynamic. Parents are now consumers armed with options and a backpack full of cash. Simplicity itself.
Well, maybe not. There are now examples—lots of them—that suggest school choice is no match for the pandemic of wokeness that has seized K–12 education. At the high end of the market, the opposite dynamic has taken hold: The most advantaged, privileged, and powerful parents in America have been cowed into submissive silence when elite schools of choice adopt neoracist pedagogy and practices masquerading as “anti-racism.” The cutthroat demand for seats combined with social pressure to be woke has made those schools less responsive, leaving type-A parents, for a range of reasons, unwilling to buck these schools’ new orthodoxies.
A remarkable piece in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal by ex-New York Times columnist Bari Weiss takes us to a backyard meeting of rebellious parents (but not too rebellious) whose children attend Harvard-Westlake, the most prestigious private school in Los Angeles. They are deeply troubled that the school’s plan to become an “anti-racist institution” is “making their kids fixate on race and attach importance to it in ways that strike them as grotesque,” she reports. These parents are awash in every conceivable form of privilege, including the ability to pay $50,000 in annual tuition. The school is forcing their children to speak, think, and behave in compliance with an ideological movement they find abhorrent, yet none are willing even to speak to Weiss on the record, let alone leave the school for one more aligned with their views and values.
To fully grasp what’s going on here, read a second piece, the cover story of the latest issue of The Atlantic, a brutal indictment of elite independent prep schools. The author, Caitlin Flanagan, is a brilliant and acerbic writer who used to teach at Harvard-Westlake. It’s a mesmerizing tale of wretched excess at bastions of privilege that have somehow convinced themselves that they are, all appearances notwithstanding, indispensable engines of inclusivity and social justice. Flanagan ferrets out data that explain why parents at these elite school may seethe, but they don’t leave. Less than 2 percent of the nation’s K–12 students attend schools like Harvard-Westlake, however one-fourth of the admitted class of 2024 at Yale and Princeton attended one. At Brown and Dartmouth, it’s nearly 30 percent. “This is why wealthy parents think it’s life-and-death to get their kids into the right prep school,” Flanagan concludes, “because they know that the winners keep winning.”
Money talks, but anxiety shrieks. When a school is perceived to be a golden ticket to something precious and rare, even the most discerning and well-connected parent becomes not an empowered consumer, but a supplicant willing to put up with nearly anything: attendance at annual antiracist orientations for family members; children as young as five years old instructed to “check each other’s words and actions”; students and parents sorted into “affinity groups” based on their race; and schools where children are told “if you are white and male, you are second in line to speak.” The standard logic of school choice advocates would suggest that parents at odds with all of this should be first in line to spend their money elsewhere. But it’s not just love that money can’t buy, it’s moral courage, too.
Flanagan’s piece deliciously carves up the hypocrisy of exclusive prep schools unctuously mewling about their commitment to inclusivity. “If these schools really care about equity, all they need to do is get a chain and a padlock and close up shop,” she writes. But her essay unwittingly reveals the impotence of choice alone to fully empower parents and dissuade schools from programs and policies that are out of step with the values of families who pay for them. “Private-school parents have become so terrified of being called out as racists that they will say nothing on the record about their feelings regarding their schools’ sudden embrace of new practices,” Flanagan writes. “They have chosen, instead, anonymous letters and press leaks.” When choice-driven demand is high enough, it’s no different than when neighborhood schools have a monopoly: It’s the school—not the parents—holding the cards. They have no reason to change or even to listen, and everyone knows it.
In the end, school choice is no match for the promise of an Ivy League acceptance letter, groupthink, and social pressure to comply with elite schools’ determination to be “antiracist.” Weiss, one of our most fearless journalists, sees this clearly and calls it out. The parents in her story “are not parents with no other options. Most have the capital—social and literal—to pull their kids out and hire private tutors,” she writes. “That they weren’t speaking out seemed to me cowardly, or worse.”
“This ideology isn’t speaking truth to power,” Weiss concludes. “It is the power.”
Editor’s note: This is the first post in a series that puts the themes of 2020’s Getting the Most Bang for the Education Buck into today’s context, with particular attention to the effects of the pandemic and federal relief dollars. Edited by Rick Hess and Brandon Wright, the book features nine chapters by twelve authors. Each entry in this series will draw primarily upon a single chapter.
Last week, President Biden signed into law the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, including $129 billion for schools. That brings the K–12 Covid-19 aid total up to $195 billion. These dollars are important and could do much to mitigate the damage the pandemic has inflicted on American education and students. But they don’t address the underlying fiscal challenges that many school systems face, some of which the virus may have made worse. Even more than they do now, education leaders will have to find ways to spend whatever funds they receive wisely, effectively, and in ways that make a difference. That will likely be more difficult in the future, but no less important.
To be sure, America’s short- to medium-term economic outlook is much better than we thought it would be six months ago. Part of this is due to our K-shaped recovery, wherein the rich have gotten richer, softening the hit to state revenues, while the poor have gotten poorer. Plus the $5.3 trillion in aid that Washington has provided since the pandemic began.
But the longer-term outlook is rough. Even if America successfully gets back to a pre-pandemic normal in the next few years, our schools were staring down a challenging funding future well before the virus arrived. That’s mostly a consequence of fundamental demographic shifts in the American population, as Matthew Ladner explains in his chapter in Getting the Most Bang for the Education Buck. “By 2035, the Census Bureau projects, the elderly will outnumber the young for the first time in U.S. history,” he writes about a phenomenon that the Covid baby bust is poised to make even worse. “The implications are profound for every public service and governmental function in the land, including K–12 education.”
One of the problems is reduced tax revenue, which has also been worsened by the pandemic. “People in their peak earning years pay a lot of taxes, but retirees live on fixed income,” says Ladner. That’s part of the reason why “larger elderly populations correlate with slower rates of economic growth, and thus with slow state revenue growth.” Retirement age in the United States is generally considered to be sixty-five. And for years now and on through at least 2030, an average of 10,000 baby boomers reach that age in our country every single day.
An aging population also increases non-school costs. When Americans reach retirement age, they begin drawing from entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare—which both “show massive unfunded liabilities and depleting trust funds,” observes Ladner. They also start to pull retirement benefits from public pensions, which today “face large structural deficits despite large increases in required contributions from current employees, including teachers and the school systems for which their work.” Chad Aldeman, in another chapter in the book, quantifies these programs’ collective deficit: “$500 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.”
Faltering revenues and rising costs, however, aren’t the whole story when it comes to determining school funding. It’s also public will, and that, too, is likely to wane. As Ladner writes, “Our public schools enjoyed decades of nearly uninterrupted funding increases—typically gauged in inflation-adjusted, per-pupil dollars—throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.” This, he says, “signaled both the broad economic success of American society during that period and its willingness to invest in its children’s future.” An aging population changes this. Because of the elderly’s fixed income, “they prefer to avoid tax increases,” writes Ladner. Moreover, “the financial interests of the elderly is in health care and pensions, while young adults have a competing demand for K–12 and university investments.” So as a greater proportion of Americans reach retirement age, “continued increases in health spending will put pressure on all other categories of state spending, including K–12 education.”
The federal government’s pandemic relief dollars may reduce the public’s will for greater education spending even further. Some people are going to think that so much money has been dumped on schools—more than they can spend—that there’s surely no need for more state and local K–12 funding. Critics, for example, have already questioned whether schools need the additional $129 billion provided by the American Rescue Plan, after the Congressional Budget Office estimated that much of the money from previous Covid-19 stimulus bills hasn’t been spent. Republican U.S. Senator John Thune of South Dakota used the report to say that it “hardly seems like you can call that ‘emergency funding,’” as Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa reported. And the Wall Street Journal editorial board, pointing to the same CBO estimate, said that the money “isn’t about Covid relief.... You can bet many districts will also use the money for pensions and higher salaries. The bill is essentially a nearly decade-long subsidy for the unions that supported Joe Biden.... Democrats are using the banner of ‘Covid relief’ not to increase student learning but to reward a Democratic constituency at taxpayer expense.”
It’s hard to imagine substantial further increases in school funding across the country when leading Republican voices already say they’ve received too much. Even though the public tends to like boosting education dollars, many Republicans don’t, and they remain in power in a majority of states, and could easily come back into partial power in Washington in 2022. Moreover, if all of this spending starts to lead to inflation, interest rate hikes, or tax increases, the appetite for additional spending might disappear.
Getting the Most Bang for the Education Buck is about identifying insights, lessons, and suggestions that can help schools use their funds effectively in whatever spending environment they find themselves. This environment is challenging today and unlikely to improve in the future. It’s vital, then, that state, district, and school leaders budget smartly and carefully in the years to come. They should start by using Covid-19 relief dollars to improve learning and get kids back on track after suffering substantial learning losses, but do so without creating expensive new obligations. Otherwise, within a few short years, they will push their schools off a fiscal cliff of their own creation.
Now that Uncle Sam’s check is in the mail, one of the biggest hopes for schools is that they will be able to leverage the massive infusion of cash to be more creative, imaginative, and innovative. This was the topic of a plenary session I moderated earlier this month titled, “The Schools, They Are a-Changin’,” under the auspices of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. (I serve on the League’s board of directors.) The conversation featured Ian Rowe, resident fellow at AEI and trustee at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute; Jaime Casap, former chief education evangelist at Google; and Kathleen Porter-Magee, superintendent of Partnership Schools, a network of Catholic schools in New York City and Cleveland.
The hour-long discussion was wide-ranging and freewheeling, deliberately so, as I was interested in exploring the calls for big ideas and moonshots ahead of the next school year. Part of the challenge is one of language, as astutely observed by Rowe: “We need a giant glossary of terms because seven people will use the same word and there are nineteen different definitions of the same.” Indeed, the gossamer language being employed—from “reimagination” and “reinvention” to “equity” and “redesign”—can be rendered meaningless without the clarity of shared understanding. The use of “innovation” is particularly suspect in our sector, and yet it’s casually bandied about as a goal to which schools and systems must aspire.
What should innovation in schools look like? It’s a question that’s often been posed to Casap as someone who often speaks about the need to prepare students for a rapidly changing workforce. In the context of the pandemic, he recounted his six-year-old’s experience with her Montessori school and their consistent approach to ensuring the safety of all students. From daily pre-screening questions to vigilance around the use of PPE, the school has established a coherent process from which they never waver:
Everyone thinks of innovation as being creative...what’s it like to be creative at Google and you throw things up on the wall and you sit on medicine balls and all these other things... the reality is real innovation is hardcore, army-like discipline [emphasis added]. [My daughter’s] school has been very disciplined in how they approach things.... They don’t budge…. They stick to their rules. [As a result,] the school has stayed open for the entire time.
It was a refreshingly novel definition that turns the warm and fuzzy term on its head, and a stark departure from how it’s defined by, well, just about anyone, including the U.S. Department of Education:
Innovation is the spark of insight that leads a scientist or inventor to investigate an issue or phenomenon.... [It] is based on curiosity, the willingness to take risks, and experimenting to test assumptions. Innovation is based on questioning and challenging the status quo.
When folks talk about the need for innovation in schools, they’re thinking more along the lines of what the feds are describing than what Casap is. But what’s intriguing is that the examples of innovation provided by the other two panelists were more closely aligned with Casap’s zeal for robust systems and processes.
To wit, Rowe talked about his effort in shaping the National Summer School Initiative, which aimed to improve online teaching by leveraging expert “mentor teachers” to improve “partner teachers,” a process akin to the Japanese model of teacher-led lesson study, but on steroids:
Imagine a scenario in which a mentor teacher is teaching a class, it’s videotaped, and then that videotape and the mentor teacher can now have daily professional development with all of these partner teachers in the same grade, same subject, all across the country. [The mentor teacher can] have a real time conversation to say, “Here’s the class that I taught today that you’ll be teaching tomorrow or the next day. Here are the kinds of moves that I made, here are the likely questions you’ll get from the students, here’s video of me making this move....” It’s the kind of intellectual preparation that’s like gold.
Porter-Magee was similarly clear in her convictions about what was required to ensure the success of her students and teachers:
When we think about what we had to do and what innovation looked like across Partnership Schools, we don’t necessarily have a model as much as we have a mindset. Our mindset is one of focus, excellence, and support. On the focus side, it means deciding what is most important and then finding a way to do that at an extremely high level.
She credited this mindset with helping her schools make the initial shift to remote learning last spring when her team used an extensive review of their curriculum—prioritizing key content that had to be taught synchronously versus what could be done asynchronously or independently—to reorganize the daily schedule. The “innovation” was the elbow grease to figure out what was most essential for her in-person teachers to take on, and taking everything else off their plates.
Elsewhere in these pages, Mike Goldstein and Bowen Paulle recently published a white paper on high-dosage tutoring and spoke about it on Fordham’s Education Gadfly Show podcast. Both HDT and the need for moonshots are having a moment at the tail end of the pandemic, but investors eager to dive into the silver bullet market would do well to be skeptical. What we don’t need are grand new designs from a high-powered consulting firm, Goldstein and Paulle argued, but excellent local managers who can try a certain approach, evaluate it, and make adjustments on the fly. To the extent there’s a recipe to education recovery, it’s strong leadership, A-plus execution, and a culture of continuous improvement.
Still, I’m of two minds when it comes to these calls for more innovation. As a policymaker, I admittedly get excited about out-of-the box ideas like the ones recently offered by my colleague Mike Petrilli. But as a former teacher, I’m simpatico with my other colleague Robert Pondiscio, who believes that the problems facing schools today are not for a shortage of ambition. After moderating this panel, I wonder if it would be helpful to drop the term “innovation” from our lexicon altogether and instead adopt a do-what-works ethos where clearer evidence and better implementation are afforded a higher premium.
Concerns over the increased potential for cheating are front and center in A new report from a group of researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in New York details their cheat-resistant online exam protocol, an innovation that could fill an immediate need and pave the way for the future of testing..
Methods ofexist, but they are often expensive, riddled with privacy concerns, and draconian, forcing students to, for example, keep microphones on and remaining in frame for an hour. They also signal to students, perhaps unintentionally, that adults don’t trust their honesty. Text-recognition software can discreetly detect plagiarism, but it’s useless on multiple-choice or calculation questions and younger students’ written work. Using a huge bank of test items to randomly deliver different questions to different students could also limit remote cheating opportunities, but it requires an extraordinary amount of work for educators and best educational practices.
The RPI team sought to address the drawbacks of each of these models by creating a simple, cost-effective, and privacy-conserving solution that would help educators administer a valid remote assessment with minimal efforts. The key component of their model, called a distanced online test (DOT), is timing. Rather than having all students start the DOT at the same time, the test is broken down into sections which are given to different groups of students at various times. Those at the lowest-mastery levels of the content—as determined by midterm scores, current GPAs, SAT scores, or other class grades received prior to the DOT—start the test first. Once that lowest-mastery group has completed the first section, they move on to the next—with no option to return to previous sections—while the next-highest-mastery group starts the first section. And so on.
Without live proctoring, the main cheating concerns are internet searches for answers and collusion with others.into online testing found that nearly 80 percent of cheating events occurred via collusion, 42 percent via copying from the internet, and 21 percent falling into both categories. Statistical evidence suggested that collusion would be strongly suppressed by the DOT model’s staggered start. With no ability to return to closed sections, students wishing to collude would have to do so in real time. But the higher-mastery students—from whom help would most likely be solicited—would not be working on the same set of questions. Internet copying, meanwhile, could be addressed through question construction and a slightly larger question pool.
The main benefit promised by the DOT method was simplicity. No additional equipment required, no random question generators needed, and no violations of student privacy. While more test questions were required in the optimal DOT method—so that the test sections received by each cohort would not be exactly the same in content—the RPI team determined that a maximum pool just 1.5 times larger than the number of total test items would do the trick, especially if questions were mainly of a type that “require intellectual efforts [rather] than factual recalls.”
The RPI team honed their model and then tested it as a fully-remote, non-proctored final exam in a class where the midterm exam had been given fully in person earlier in the semester. Seventy-eight students took both exams, which each consisted of forty graded items. All were multiple choice questions. The DOT final was broken into two sections of twenty questions each. There were two mastery cohorts for the DOT final, and thus two starting times. The results of the midterm served as a control to which the DOT exam results were compared. Both exams produced the typical bell-shaped curve of a normal distribution of scores, and analysis showed that both distributions had the same mean value, demonstrating consistent evaluative results of the same population via the two very different types of testing methods. Their analysis also found random patterns of incorrect answer matches between any given pair of students—a traditional means of testing for evidence of cheating—and an approximately equal distribution of correct answers between the two test sections. This latter test was DOT-specific and attempted to account for the fact that more collusion was to be expected in one half of the exam versus the other. Given these findings, the RPI team determined that the DOT reduced the possible point gain due to collusion to less than 0.09 percent. Post-exam surveys indicated general approval of the DOT structure by students, reasonable assessment of question difficulty, and positive disposition toward ease of use.
The RPI team concluded that their DOT model not only met the criteria of an easy, cost-effective, non-proctored remote testing platform, but also that, when students knew they could not collaborate with others, they wereto achieve correct answers themselves. These are all important aspects of good online exams, but it cannot be overlooked that the tested version of DOT was developed for college students, where the possibility of expulsion for cheating is a real concern, and that it included only multiple-choice questions and covered just two mastery cohorts. Whether this approach to online testing will work at scale in K–12 education is hard to know. But RPI’s simple strategy to stagger testing times might just be a way to lessen the potential for cheating.
SOURCE: Mengzhou Li, et. al., “,” npj Science of Learning (March 2021).
A substantial research literature supports what many of us know intuitively: Teachers matter, perhaps more than anything else a school has to offer. But some of the lowest performing schools have the most difficulty recruiting and retaining effective teachers, and improving those schools without a strong staff may be impossible. How then can school leaders and policymakers make low-performing schools more appealing workplaces?
Work published in the American Educational Research Journal sheds light on this important question by asking what teachers in low-performing schools want. The authors surveyed 811 current and former teachers in Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD). The ASD was established in 2012 to provide additional support and new management to some of the state’s lowest performing schools; they are run by district staff or charter management organizations.
The survey asked teachers questions about a variety of school attributes, which were grouped into three categories: “fixed,” “structural,” and “malleable.” Fixed attributes cannot be easily changed, such as the racial and socioeconomic makeup of the student body, prior academic achievement, and school location. Structural attributes include salary, tenure, and performance-based bonuses. Often these policies are set at the district or state level and remain in place for many years at a time. Malleable attributes are those that can be addressed by school administrators, including school safety, classroom size, teacher autonomy, administrator support, disciplinary policies, professional development, teacher relationships, and prep time.
Each of these categories have distinct policy implications. If teachers have strong preferences for fixed attributes (e.g., preferring schools with higher-income students), education policy may not have much of a role to play in where teachers choose to work. If teachers have strong preferences around structural attributes—if a higher salary successfully draws teachers to lower-performing schools—state lawmakers have a clear role to play. Finally, if teachers show a strong preference for malleable attributes (e.g., wanting a school that allows for a high degree of teacher autonomy), principals know what direction they need to move their school in.
The authors asked the teachers about these attributes using four types of questions. The first asked teachers to label them as “desirable” or “undesirable.” The second was about rating them as “important” or “unimportant” when choosing between jobs. The third offered two options and asked which they preferred. And the fourth was how likely they were to choose a job with a select group of attributes.
So what do teachers care about?
Two specific attributes stand out as the most important to teachers working in low-performing schools: school discipline, labelled as “malleable” by the analysts; and salary, a structural attribute. Salary is a simple issue to address, at least from a policy implementation standpoint. The authors found that teachers prefer uniform salary increases over performance-based bonuses, but they’d rather have leaders prioritize performance-based bonuses over most malleable and all fixed school attributes. Like with any job, increasing pay is a straightforward way to attract talent.
School discipline is more challenging, as it relies heavily on the unique human capacity and context of each individual school. Nevertheless, teachers have a very strong preference for schools that consistently enforce discipline—indeed, it beats out higher pay, if only just barely. The survey does not specify what “discipline” means, but teachers also have a clear preference for strong administrative support, which suggests that teachers at the very least want to be on the same page as their leaders. A recent survey by Fordham connects these dots, with almost half of teachers surveyed reporting that they “put up” with offending behavior due to “a lack of administrative support.”
The results are, of course, only useful if teachers actually make employment decisions consistent with their survey responses. To check for this, the authors use administrative data to test whether teachers generally work in schools with characteristics that match their expressed preferences. In general, they find that they do match, with the exception of higher salary—though this is likely because the average salary difference between schools in the sample is only about $1,600. Teacher pay just doesn’t vary all that much.
Attracting teachers to low-performing schools is a foundational component of school improvement. Administrators can help facilitate this with consistent disciplinary policies and support for staff in implementing them, and state policymakers should consider offering salary bonuses to teachers who opt to work in low-performing schools. The students in them, among the most disadvantaged in the country, stand to benefit a great deal.
SOURCE: Samantha Viano, Lam D. Pham, Gary T. Henry, Adam Kho, and Ron Zimmer, “What teachers want: School factors predicting teachers’ decisions to work in low-performing schools,” American Educational Research Journal 58(1), 2021, 201–233.
On this week’s podcast, Mike Petrilli and David Griffith are joined by Michael Goldstein, founder of Match Education in Boston, and Bowen Paulle, a faculty member at the University of Amsterdam, to discuss the new Fordham paper they co-authored, The narrow path to do it right: Lessons from vaccine making for high-dosage tutoring. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines a recent and rapid rise in private tutoring centers.
Amber's Research Minute
Kim, Edward, Joshua Goodman, and Martin R. West. (March 2021). Kumon In: The Recent, Rapid Rise of Private Tutoring Centers. (EdWorkingPaper: 21-367). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: https://doi.org/10.26300/z79x-mr65
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- High-dosage tutoring can do more than help recover learning loss. It can build human connections. —Christian Science Monitor
- Making the American Rescue Plan’s child tax credit permanent would create an opportunity for bipartisanship—and for parents to invest in their children’s education. —Michael Gerson
- Why Majority Leader Schumer and AFT President Randi Weingarten supported almost $3 billion in relief aid for private schools. —New York Times
- A suburban Ohio superintendent, Tim Weber, managed to reopen schools and keep peace between competing community interests. —Wall Street Journal
- An Illinois district made gifted programs accessible to students of color. Can others do the same? —Hechinger Report
- “Why learning pods might outlast the pandemic.” —New Yorker
- “Lessons from the pandemic that can improve leading and teaching.” —Education Week
- A USC survey helps explain the racial divide in attitudes about reopening schools. —Center on Reinventing Public Education
- Despite requests for guidance from local officials, New York’s state government keeps punting on school pandemic protocols. —New York Post
- Five ways that public schooling should change in the wake of the pandemic. —Nina Rees