By Robert Pondiscio
Many of us who view ourselves as civic-education advocates spend lots of time writing earnest op-eds and columns, attending conferences, and speaking on panels to remind our fellow citizens that the founding purpose of public education in America was not to advance the private end of college and career preparation, but the public purpose of ensuring that the nation’s children would be able to participate fully and knowledgeably in civic life as adults. Collectively, we have spilled gallons of ink urging states, school districts, and teachers to return public education to its roots.
Well, to hell with all that jawboning, says Michael Rebell, in effect. He’s going to force the issue by making a federal case out of it. Literally.
An attorney and Columbia professor, Rebell has been quietly working with a group of law school students to prepare a federal lawsuit to be filed next month, arguing that our public schools are not adequately preparing children for citizenship. His ultimate goal is to prod the U.S. Supreme Court to recognize a constitutional right to an adequate education nationwide, despite the fact that the word “education” appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution.
Before you write this off as a quixotic quest or mere law school exercise, know that Rebell isn’t just some lawyer, or even some professor. In 1993, he led the landmark Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit against the State of New York and won, claiming that New York City schools were underfunded. If the state didn’t provide them with a certain minimum level of funding, the suit contended, it was functionally denying students their right, guaranteed in New York’s state constitution, to a “sound, basic education.” After a series of higher court challenges lasting well over a decade, the Empire State’s Court of Appeals affirmed that right in 2006—and the legislature subsequently approved billions of dollars in additional state aid, billions that continue to gush from Albany.
The argument that Rebell plans to advance in his civic education lawsuit is rooted in a 1973 Supreme Court decision in Rodriguez v. San Antonio, in which the plaintiffs argued that Texas violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause by failing to distribute funding equally among the state’s school districts. To the great disappointment of the plaintiffs and their attorneys, Justice Lewis Powell, writing for a 5-4 majority, held that school financing based on local property taxes was not unconstitutional, as there is no fundamental right to an education in the Constitution. Further, Powell wrote, “the Equal Protection Clause does not require absolute equality or precisely equal advantages.”
However, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote a stinging dissent, noting that “the fundamental importance of education is amply indicated by the prior decisions of this Court, by the unique status accorded public education by our society, and by the close relationship between education and some of our most basic constitutional values.” As Rebell now explains it, “The Fifteenth Amendment says every citizen has a right to vote. The First Amendment says every citizen has a right to free expression and to participate in political affairs. But you can't exercise those fundamental constitutional rights unless you have some basic education. That was Marshall’s point.” Justice Powell, Rebell insists, was “troubled” by Marshall’s dissent, though that was beside the point: The Rodriguez plaintiffs had argued they were getting less money than other districts; they didn't make the case that Marshall made, namely that students were not getting enough education to be capable citizens. In Rebell’s reasoning, which he detailed at length in a book published earlier this year titled Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts and Civic Participation, the Supreme Court left the door open to raise the kind of “adequacy” argument implied in Marshall’s Rodriguez dissent, which is the same argument that Rebell made explicitly—and successfully—in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case. In his view, the door that Marshall cracked open has remained open for forty-five years.
Ted McConnell, executive director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, notes that there are seventeen states where a reasonable person could find language in their state constitution that either promises or can be interpreted to promise “an education sufficient to ensure the maintenance of democracy.” McConnell says that means there’s “a rich field of opportunity in terms of the adequacy of civic learning.” But Rebell isn’t resting his argument on state constitutions. “We'll be bringing this case in a federal court and relying solely on the U.S. Constitution,” he tells me. “There have been equity and adequacy litigations in forty-seven of the fifty states,” he says, with plaintiffs prevailing in about 60 percent of them.
For now, Rebell will not say where he plans to file this suit, only that it won’t be New York, where he won the Campaign for Fiscal Equity suit, or Michigan, where earlier this summer a federal district court dismissed a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of students in Detroit, ruling that “access to literacy” is not a fundamental right. That decision would seem to suggest that a similar civic education lawsuit faces an even steeper challenge: If a federal court won’t recognize a school’s obligation to provide basic literacy, surely there’s little hope that a school can be held accountable to the U.S. Constitution for preparing children for citizenship. Yet Rebell argues that the Michigan case was narrowly argued and narrowly decided and says it will ultimately prove helpful, not hurtful, to his case.
If he succeeds in getting his case all the way to the Supreme Court, Rebell will face an even more obvious hurdle. The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Court and his widely anticipated confirmation all but assures a strong Constitutionalist bent to the Court for years to come, and one that seems unlikely to take an expansive view of education as a fundamental right. This would seem to make Rebell’s suit the longest of long shots, but he is undeterred. Justices, he notes, are historically sensitive to civic education, citing in particular the post-retirement work on this exact issue by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a Reagan appointee. “I know Gorsuch speaks to high school kids all the time about the rule of law and all these things,” Rebell says, “so I don't rule out any of these judges, whatever their background, giving this serious consideration.” At the very least, however Quixote-like this quest may sound, Michael Rebell’s lance has damaged more than one legal windmill and could well do so again.
At first blush, high school would seem to be the part of K–12 education where choice should work best—and do the most good. Students are older, more mobile, more independent, with ideas of their own, often beginning to think about the directions they may take in life as adults. High school, moreover, is where it makes the most sense for schools to differ from one another, with college prep here, career and technical education there, an early college high school across town, an “exam school” not too far away, an International Baccalaureate school just a couple of miles distant, and more.
High school also tends to be where districts are most amenable to choice. Look at New York City, where every one of the 400+ high school programs enrolls students by choice, and where every eighth grader is expected to rank-order his or her choices among those programs.
Look also at this from a study of choice in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS): “[M]any CPS high school students opt to attend a school other than their default neighborhood high school. In 2002, the first year of our data, 51 percent of first-time ninth-grade students opted out of their attendance-area high schools…. By 2016, 75 percent of ninth-graders chose to attend a school other than their assigned neighborhood high school.”
Consider, too, the array of dozens and dozens of high-school options available in the Houston Independent School District—and that’s without even getting to the city’s many dozens of charter schools-of-choice that are independent of HISD.
Yet despite all that, the effective use of choice at the high-school level in the United States is cramped and crimped in at least seven ways.
First, size and geography. High schools tend to be big, and there are fewer of them than of elementary and middle schools, meaning that there are simply not as many in a given area to choose among.
Second, our tradition of “comprehensive” high schools, dating back to James B. Conant and the 1950’s, remains strong in many places. There are often choices within individual schools—programs, elective courses, honors courses, even remnants (by another name usually) of “tracks”—but when it comes to choosing among schools, most resemble each other in more ways than they differ.
Third, the myriad obstacles to high school reform in general mean that, even where the machinery of school choice is operating and options exist on paper, in many places the available choices just aren’t very good—so why bother? Access to the really good school is often restricted in various ways: admissions prerequisites, lotteries, exams, etc. And our continuing obsession with “college for all” means that heading in a different direction during high school takes vision and guts.
Fourth, due to the mediocrity of far too many middle schools, particularly in disadvantaged communities, far too many fourteen-year-olds are barely prepared for a serious high school education, regardless of the choices at hand. They already need remediating. Which also means that many of the really good high schools don’t much want those kids.
Fifth, the advising available to high-school choosers is usually awful. Middle school counselors are few and generally swamped. Districts publish information about high school choices, but often it’s unwieldy, technical, or otherwise hard to access and understand. Unless one has sophisticated navigators by one’s side—and poor and minority kids often don’t, nor do recent arrivals on U.S. shores—kids are left on their own to make sense out of the choices that may (or may not) be available to them. Plus, these are teenagers who may not be willing to seek or accept advice from grownups.
Sixth, as we learned from Amanda Ripley, American teenagers don’t necessarily view high school as a place for serious study. If they’re looking for sports, friends, extracurriculars, parties, and freedom, the basis on which they will select their schools isn’t exactly what the architects of school-choice policies have in mind. What’s more, many teens have out-of-school obligations—jobs, family, kids of their own, other programs that they take part in—that both restrict their school options and further alter their priorities.
Seventh, and finally, while online schools and courses ought to liberate high-school-age students in particular to partake of innumerable education choices at times and places that suit them—they’re more able to manage their time, to be left alone, less in need of constant adult supervision—America’s experience with “virtual schooling” has to date been mixed, to put it kindly. Yes, there are terrific course-level options available, but these are more by way of supplementing the school’s offerings than affording wholesale quality alternatives to whatever brick-and-mortar high school options are within striking distance.
Huge potential, yes—but so far high-school-level choice is a promise largely unfulfilled, even as more and more young people appear to be taking part in it.
My colleagues and I often ask educators to reflect on their practice since the rollout of the Common Core, or their state’s version of college- and career-ready (CCR) standards. New CCR standards like the Common Core call for teachers to align their practice to six overarching “Shifts” (three in math and three in English language arts [ELA]/literacy), so we’ll ask, “When adopting the Shifts, where have you seen or experienced the most success? Where have you seen or experienced the biggest challenges?”
The Fordham Institute recently asked educators to do this on a large scale. The result was a report, Reading and Writing Instruction in America’s Schools. The report itself is full of not only data from teachers about their experiences in the field, but also data about best practices and supports for educators. The report recommends seven “Literacy Lifelines,” tips to help improve instruction and address persistent classroom challenges.
These Lifelines reflect the four main takeaways the report’s authors uncovered when looking at survey data from more than 1,200 public school ELA teachers. I’d like to focus on one of these takeaways: “If we want teachers to assign texts based on students’ grade levels—rather than their reading levels—we need to do more to help them bridge the gap between the two.”
What does this mean?
Imagine, if you would, two readers. Place them in third grade, at the start of the year. In your mind, make one a struggling reader: poor decoding, no phrasing, lack of automaticity. Make the other a strong reader: This child can read all kinds of texts, decode multisyllabic words with less common sound and spelling patterns, and read with accuracy and expression.
As an educator, whether in active service in a classroom, preparing in graduate school, or in a related support role, you are likely already primed to think about how you might differentiate for these students in the classroom. And what does the act of differentiation consist of? A very common definition used pervasively comes to mind: meeting students where they are.
The concept of assessing students individually to gauge their familiarity with and mastery of a given skill or text, and then adjusting instruction in order to meet them at their level, is one that permeates the field, from professional development seminars to parent teacher conferences. “We support each student where they are” is an educational mantra. I do not dispute the value of this work, nor the need. I would like to pose a question, however, to my fellow educators: When you consider the needs of your students and where they come from, how much time, attention, and weight do you give to where they are going?
The Shifts to English language arts curricula aligned to CCR standards include a focus on complex text. Text complexity requirements by grade-level band were one of the biggest actionable moves to grow out of the Shifts. These grade-level bands set requirements for an increase in the features of complex text that students would experience in each grade band, based in part on findings from the ACT report Reading Between the Lines, which showed that the difference between students performing above or below benchmark was not based on reading skill, strategy, or question type, but on the complexity of the text students were reading.
Source: “Reading Between the Lines: What the ACT Reveals About College Readiness in Reading,” ACT, Inc. (2006).
Educators have been grappling with implications for practice and implementation ever since. As the report above shows, some have shifted their instruction more than others. Keeping our two readers in mind, it is clearly important that a teacher determines the needs for Reader One and uses those to set up an instructional plan. In many classrooms, this looks like determining independent and instructional reading levels without taking into account the grade-level band or how close the student is to reading at the grade-level band. Play this out for a minute. What will happen to these two readers as the school year progresses? While Reader Two is grappling with complicated plotlines and determining complex character motivation, will Reader One be confined to single-purpose texts? While Reader One is in a group decoding words “at their level,” won’t Reader Two be solidifying knowledge of new and sophisticated vocabulary? And when third grade is over, or fourth grade, or elementary school as a whole—when will this differentiation of learning opportunities and achievement change?
If we look at student achievement data like the NAEP assessment—stagnant for the last decade—for the answer, we quickly see it: Nothing will change. Those two readers in your mind right now, perhaps readers with names and faces you can picture, are set up from a young age to build their reading skills at different rates based on the reading instruction and text exposure they are receiving in the classroom.
Simply implementing new standards over the past eight years cannot change this trajectory alone. The Shifts are not shifts at all if they do not result in dramatically different instructional approaches in the classroom set up to break this structure and create a new one it its place. While students must engage in independent reading at a range of levels to reach a volume of reading, it is critical that all students be exposed to complex text as well. And that’s where support is needed. Putting the same complex text in front of students who are each at different reading levels does not support their instructional needs. Scaffolds are necessary to allow students at all reading levels to engage meaningfully with the complex text.
Thus, I recommend the following strategies for teachers who want to both address student needs and ensure they get opportunities to engage successfully with complex text:
- Use your formal and informal data to evaluate a student’s current reading proficiency.
- Compare the student’s strengths and needs with the expectations of grade-level text. How close is the student to reading on grade level?
- Determine areas of growth. Why is the student not reading at grade level? Is it because of weak foundational skills? Problems with vocabulary or other strategies related to comprehension? Fluency needs?
- Create an intervention and support strategy. When working with a grade-level text, select scaffolding strategies that address the student’s areas for growth.
- Continually re-assess the student’s progress within instruction. Is the student moving toward independence with grade-level text? What areas of weakness are improving (i.e., where can you pull back the scaffolding), and where do you need to provide extra support?
Teachers need support, professional development, and lots of strategies for supporting the varied learning needs of the readers in their rooms. It isn’t easy, but it’s a critical change that needs to happen if we want to close the persistent opportunity gaps in reading for our students. The first step to doing this is to remember to meet all students where they are going, not just where they are.
This article was originally published by Achieve the Core.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
On this week's podcast, Carlos Marquez, a senior vice president at the California Charter Schools Association, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss the state’s charter school politics. On the Research Minute, Adam Tyner examines the effects of the Investing in Innovation Fund.
Amber’s Research Minute
Beth Boulay et al., “The Investing in Innovation Fund: Summary of 67 Evaluations, Final Report,” U.S. Department of Education (June 2018).
A new study examines the impact of New Orleans’s market-based education reforms on a wide range of academic outcomes. Overall, the authors—Douglas Harris and Matthew Larsen, of Tulane University and Lafayette College, respectively—estimate that these reforms increased English language arts and math achievement by 11–16 percentiles, in addition to boosting the high school graduation rate by 3–9 percentage points. Similarly, they estimate that the reforms boosted college entry (by 8–15 percentage points), persistence (by 4–7 percentage points), and graduation (by 3–5 percentage points).
Practically speaking, these are large impacts. For example, a 15-percentage-point increase in the college entry rate is roughly equivalent to a 67 percent increase. However, as the authors acknowledge, there is considerable uncertainty associated with their estimates.
Because of its unique circumstances, New Orleans presents an unusual number challenges for researchers. Consequently, Harris and Larsen take two approaches to analyzing the data: First, they conduct a “returnees-only analysis,” which considers only those students who returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Second, they conduct a “cross-cohort analysis,” which allows them to consider a wider range of outcomes, but does not allow them to track the progress of individual students before and after the storm.
Notably, the returnees-only analysis yields smaller estimates than the cross-cohort analysis, suggesting that the latter may overestimate the benefits of the reforms. However, because returning students had lower pre-Katrina test-scores than non-returnees, it’s also possible that the returnees-only analysis underestimates the benefits of reform. (And of course, the trauma and disruption of the hurricane could be pushing all of the authors’ estimates down.) Hence, although it’s difficult to know which of the authors’ estimates are most credible, the evidence suggests that the returnees-only estimates are a true lower bound—meaning that students definitely made some gains following the reforms.
Perhaps the biggest threat to Harris and Larsen’s conclusions stems from “the infusion of funding that coincided with the reforms.” (A previous study documented a 13 percent increase in school spending in New Orleans relative to the comparison group.) As they note, it’s likely that some of this increase was actually an effect of the reforms. Still, insofar as this funding increase contributed to the positive effects the authors document, the implications for policy are different.
Alas, it’s exceptionally difficult to separate the effects of this funding increase from the effects of the market-based reforms Harris and Larsen focus on, though prior research does suggest that much of the improvement that New Orleans experienced during this period was the result of school closure and turnaround efforts, which is more consistent with the reform hypothesis.
In addition to that caveat, as the authors note, there are reasons to question the replicability of the New Orleans model. For example, because it was the first major city to attempt dramatic reforms, New Orleans likely had a “first-mover” advantage that allowed it to attract unusually ambitious and talented people. And conversely, the sheer dysfunction of the New Orleans school district pre-Katrina may have given reformers an unusually low bar to clear.
Still, if the most important question for policymakers is whether the reforms worked, then this study provides further evidence that the only sensible answer is ”yes.”
SOURCE: Douglas N. Harris and Matthew F. Larsen, “What Effect Did the New Orleans School Reforms Have on Student Achievement, High School Graduation, and College Outcomes?” Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (July 2018).
During the six-plus decades since the College Board took over the Advanced Placement program, it has ballooned from just 12,000 students in a hundred schools to 2.8 million students taking some 5 million exams in over 22,000 schools, including many poor and minority youngsters. Such growth has become a major point of pride for the College Board and represents a transformation from its long-time ties to elite public and private high schools.
A new analysis by Suneal Kolluri, a Ph.D. student in the University of Southern California School of Education, examines whether AP has sustained its rigor and maintained its effectiveness as it has come to serve large numbers of disadvantaged students. He undertook a vast review of the research literature from the last twenty-five years, with particular attention to whether authors examined the challenges of equity and/or effectiveness of the program.
Despite AP’s inclusion of many more kids from traditionally underserved populations, significant gaps persist in student access: White and Asian students are overrepresented in the exam-taking population when compared to black and Hispanic pupils. They also take more AP exams per student while in high school, and the differences are even more pronounced in STEM subjects.
These gaps persist despite policies in almost every state to increase AP access. And those efforts to expand participation have also coincided with declining exam results. AP exams are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, within which 3 or higher is deemed a “qualifying score” deserving of college credit. But as the number of students taking AP exams has risen, so has the rate of 1’s and 2’s, especially for marginalized groups.
Kolluri suggests several reasons why expansion and effectiveness may be incompatible. There he’s on somewhat shakier grounds than in his masterful research review.
First, he suggests that many historically underrepresented students simply cannot benefit from the AP program because preexisting achievement gaps are too large. It’s true that passing rates have dropped, especially for marginalized students. Yet the net number of individual students from these groups who are taking AP—and earning qualifying scores—has also skyrocketed during the past two decades. And organizations such as the National Math and Science Initiative, Equal Opportunity Schools, and Mass Insight Education and Research are doing yeoman's work in bringing AP success to more high schools enrolling such students.
Second, Kolluri speculates that AP courses are being taught ineffectively to underrepresented students, and that their schools often lack resources, including well-qualified teachers, minority teachers of AP subjects, and gung-ho administrators. All of these factors may negatively influence AP’s effectiveness. The extent to which the College Board alone can—or should—effectively face these difficulties is debatable, but its ambitious new Pre-AP initiative, designed to exercise some degree of curricular influence in earlier grades, may help.
Finally, he points to evidence suggesting that Advanced Placement may be a “component of social reproduction,” by which he means that its expansion in low-income schools might simply lead to even greater expansion in their middle- and high-income counterparts. In some cases—as recently happened in a high-profile way among elite D.C.-area prep schools—the upscale schools actually drop AP to distinguish themselves further. Yet it remains the case that more students of all backgrounds are still sitting for and passing the exams—even in elite schools that generally continue to administer the AP tests, despite declining to teach the classes.
SOURCE: Suneal Kolluri, “Advanced Placement: The Dual Challenge of Equal Access and Effectiveness,” Review of Educational Research (July 2018).