By Michael Petrilli
This year will feature a whopping thirty-six governors’ races, half of which are wide open, with incumbents who are term-limited or not running for re-election. Victors will have the opportunity to improve policies in many areas. But they’ve sadly said little about their ideas for education, according to an analysis by Rick Hess and Sofia Gallo of the American Enterprise Institute. “The accountability, standards, and teacher evaluation reforms at the heart of the Bush-Obama agenda have almost no outspoken champions among the nation’s would-be governors,” they concluded. Mentions of school choice and charter schools are surprisingly scarce as well.
It could be that the candidates are reading polls showing the fading popularity of these reforms. But I suspect the reason is deeper than that. Candidates for high office generally want to talk about new ideas. And there aren’t many in education right now. Myriad education policy debates, such as those over teacher evaluations, have run their course; others, such as charter schools, have descended into trench warfare.
To rectify the situation, here’s a hat trick of fresh ideas that could help receptive candidates not only get elected, but also significantly improve their states’ schools.
1. Create thousands of new seats in high-quality career and technical education (CTE) programs. One of the few issues with real juice right now is CTE. Hess and Gallo found that more than sixty governors have discussed expanding their states’ offerings. And for good reason: Lots of well-paying “middle skills” jobs are unfilled because high school and community college graduates aren’t prepared for them.
While more wonks and politicians are acknowledging that not everyone needs to go to a four-year college, that’s not enough. We also need to expand serious career and technical education that gives young people high-quality credentials. Legitimate programs—in which eleventh and twelfth graders, for example, gain workplace skills and experience through partnerships with local technical or community colleges—are far too rare. Colorado, Louisiana, and Delaware are helping change that; other states should follow suit.
2. Raise the bar for teacher tenure. Most statewide policies that link teacher evaluations to students’ academic growth have been huge failures. They have cost proponents a ton of political capital, angered teachers and parents, and fueled testing backlashes. And, in the end, they have done very little to change the bottom line: The overwhelming majority of teachers still earn top marks.
So candidates would be crazy to double down. They should instead transform the tenure process itself: Delay tenure until teachers have completed four or five years of service; make it conditional on demonstrations of quality and effectiveness in the classroom; and pair it with a significant pay bump. This would make tenure an honor, not a given. And it would solve many of our teacher-quality problems by screening out ineffective educators before they get lifelong protections. If it is designed correctly, even teacher groups will get behind this.
3. Thread the needle on curriculum reform. For states with strong standards, assessments, and accountability systems—and gladly, that’s many more states than in the past—the next step is effective implementation. More than anything, that means curriculum reform. Mandating curricula is too politically perilous, so candidates should follow in John White’s footsteps and make it easier for local districts to choose their own high quality resources. They should support local teachers’ choice of materials they themselves have found to be effective and aligned to statewide standards, and they should offer training that helps educators teach it.
Education policy reform isn’t dead. And anyone who runs on these three ideas gets my vote as the next “education governor”—a honorific held by such luminaries as Jim Hunt, Lamar Alexander, Jeb Bush, and Mitch Daniels. It’s currently up for grabs, candidates. Who wants it?
A version of this article original appeared in a slightly different form at Real Clear Education.
Way back when you were young (i.e., 2003), the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation published a hard-hitting report titled Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? It lamented the manifest failures of social-studies education, identified a number of culprits, and recommended a series of fundamental rethinks and reforms.
Among the shortcomings that we cited was “hostility on the part of many educators at all levels to the kinds of basic knowledge ordinary Americans think important for their children to learn.” Another was the displacement of discipline-based education in history, geography, politics, and science with something far more amorphous, touchy-feely, and non-substantive known as “social studies.” Recounting its emergence in our pages, Diane Ravitch wrote:
Educational theorists complained that teaching about heroes and history stories was nothing more than “daydreaming.” They wanted the schools to deal “realistically” with the problems of the world. They encouraged the schools to socialize their students by centering their activities on home, family, neighborhood, and community. They said that the schools should teach the present, not the past. One state after another began to eliminate history from the elementary grades and to replace it with expanding environments (home, neighborhood, community). The very idea that students would have fun learning about long-dead kings, queens, pirates, heroes, explorers, and adventurers was dealt with contemptuously by prominent educational reformers as a form of unacceptable escapism from the real problems of society.
Plenty of culprits turned up in the pages of our report, but most prominent among them—both because of its widespread influence in American K–12 education and because of its ceaseless flow of bad curricular and pedagogical ideas—was the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).
One example (again from our 2003 publication):
Astonishingly, the website of the National Council of the Social Studies in September 2002 stressed the teaching of tolerance as an antidote to “the anti-democratic” forces at work in the United States represented by the Bush administration, and listed as its first recommended lesson plan a look at the internment of Japanese-Americans that followed Pearl Harbor. This was consistent with the advice given by a keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the National Council for Social Studies just two months after 9/11, who “warned against patriotic displays like the singing of ‘God Bless America.’”
Fast forward to today and nothing much has improved—except that the world (and nation) in which we live has greater need than ever before for its young adults to possess a solid grounding in the country’s history, values, and civic institutions. In an earnest attempt to do something about the civic illiteracy that besets the overwhelming majority of Americans, a number of people started wondering why we don’t expect kids, as a condition of high school graduation, to pass the same test that the U.S. requires of immigrants seeking citizenship.
It’s not a high bar. A few years back, the test itself was overhauled into a hundred basic questions about U.S. history, government, and geography, all of which have straightforward factual answers: Name the three branches of government, for example; or name one right or freedom from the First Amendment. Some of the questions resemble trivial pursuit: How many Amendments does the Constitution have, for instance; name one of the authors of the Federalist Papers. But it’s far from burdensome. You could pass it with a few hours diligent study. Frankly, if a seventh grader, much less a high school student, can’t already answer six out of ten questions chosen at random from a set of one hundred questions—that’s what candidates for naturalization must do—it’s an indication that something has gone quite awry in your education. Check out the test for yourself and see if you don’t agree.
With the encouragement and support of a non-profit organization called the Joe Foss Institute, another non-profit called the Civics Education Initiative has been urging state leaders to mandate passing the citizenship test as a high school graduation requirement. To date, some seventeen states have adopted some version of this recommendation. But, true to form, NCSS takes a dim view of the initiative. In a position statement issued last month (fifteen months after passing a similar resolution at their annual meeting), that organization doesn’t exactly denounce the citizenship test, terming it an “admirable effort,” but NCSS then declares that the exam “threatens to derail the effort at implementing both a quality civic education and an effective associated assessment.”
A curious reader at this juncture might well ask, “Derail what effort?” In the 2014 round of National Assessment testing, a mere 23 percent of U.S. eighth graders scored at or above proficiency in civics; just 18 percent in U.S. history. Given these alarming scores, one might expect NCSS to grab like a drowning man reaching for a life preserver at any excuse to inject history and civics content into America’s classrooms.
The organization, however, sees things quite differently. It goes on—at some length—to beg educators and policymakers instead to implement its own preferred approach, which turns out to be both pie in the sky and far more controversial than anything in the citizenship test. For it seeks not just “classroom instruction” and “discussing current events and controversies,” but also such things as “school governance” (and “school climate reform”), “social and emotional learning,” service learning, and, potentially most controversial of all, “action civics,” which is a little nebulous but seems to boil down to advocacy and protests. Those are certainly fundamental rights of Americans, but how public schools approach them, particularly in today’s overheated, polarized climate, is a very touchy matter indeed.
I would never suggest that memorizing the answers to a hundred questions turns one into a great citizen, much less that we shouldn’t expect much more from a proper civic education in our schools. But when almost no schools are delivering a proper civic education, and just a third of states hold either schools or students to account for imparting or acquiring such an education, it seems not unreasonable to start with the basics. If nothing else, it’s a matter of simple fairness. If we demand that naturalized citizens master a few rudimentary facts of U.S history and civics, it seems churlish to exempt our seventeen-year-olds from the same extremely modest demands.
Something is better than nothing. In that spirit, requiring all kids to learn the stuff that new citizens are expected to know is a whole lot better than what passes for civics (and social studies) education in most of the U.S. today. Could and should schools do more than that? Of course. But why not start with something that’s both doable and laudable, rather than damning it with faint praise and substituting something that is both unworkable for schools and apt to stick in the throats of many parents, voters, and taxpayers? This isn’t a case of the best becoming the enemy of the good. It’s an example—the NCSS is really good at this!—of the questionable becoming the enemy of the plausible.
As the Trump Administration inches closer to a decision about what to do with a 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter sent by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education, defenders of the Obama-era policy have ratcheted up the rhetoric. Because the document “simply gave further information about how [the law] relates to school discipline,” and just “encourages schools to reflect on whether its discipline practices are affected by racial bias,” rescinding it would “signal that discrimination is OK.”
Statements like these make me think that some proponents of the letter still don’t understand what’s in it, or why many of us (mostly but not entirely on the right) think it’s so bad for our schools. So in the spirit of public service, let me take a stab at delineating between the document’s innocuous, even helpful, parts, and the portions that need to be deleted.
If readers follow this link, they will find a version of the original letter with my edits in redline. I added one word and deleted 799, this out of a document that is more than 12,000 words long, including its appendix and footnotes. In other words, I believe that 94 percent of the letter is perfectly fine, and should be retained. Those sections include:
- Reminders of schools’ responsibilities under civil rights laws;
- An overview of the troubling disparities in discipline rates across different racial groups;
- A long discussion, with examples, of the differential treatment of students of different races in the administration of school discipline, which is clearly illegal under the law;
- An explanation of what the Departments of Justice and Education consider when doing civil rights investigations, and potential remedies they might mandate; and
- An appendix with suggestions for “best practices” around school discipline.
So what’s my beef? It’s the one section that applies racially-based disparate impact analysis to differences in disciplinary frequency without regard to circumstances or actual student behavior. Here are some of the most concerning passages:
The administration of student discipline can result in unlawful discrimination…if a policy is neutral on its face—meaning that the policy itself does not mention race—and is administered in an evenhanded manner but has a disparate impact, i.e., a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.
Schools also violate Federal law when they evenhandedly implement facially neutral policies and practices that, although not adopted with the intent to discriminate, nonetheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race.
Examples of policies that can raise disparate impact concerns include policies that impose mandatory suspension, expulsion, or citation (e.g., ticketing or other fines or summonses) upon any student who commits a specified offense—such as being tardy to class, being in possession of a cellular phone, being found insubordinate, acting out, or not wearing the proper school uniform.
Why, for example, should the federal government concern itself with local discipline policies that suspend students for “being found insubordinate”—if that means cursing at a teacher, for example? Why should we accept such behavior from any student, regardless of race? And can’t everyone see how the language cited above can encourage a de facto racial quota system? (See this post for a much longer discussion about what’s wrong with applying disparate impact theory to discipline.)
So all I want is to strike fewer than 800 words. Discipline reformers can keep the other 11,000-plus, and declare victory.
On this week’s podcast, Rebecca Kockler, Louisiana’s assistant superintendent of academic content, joins Mike Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio to discuss her state’s curriculum initiative. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines how career and technical education affects students’ noncognitive skills.
Amber’s Research Minute
Albert Cheng and Collin Hitt, “Hard Work and Soft Skills: The Attitudes, Abilities, and Character of Students in Career and Technical Education,” American Enterprise Institute (April 2018).
No, the new GAO report on discipline doesn't prove racial disparities are caused predominantly by racial bias
Since its release, the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) recent report on discipline disparities has generated substantial heat, but no new light. Based on an analysis of the most recent discipline data collected by the Office of Civil Rights, it concludes that “Black students, boys, and students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined…in K–12 public schools.” But if that sentence contains any new information, it is well hidden. And as the report acknowledges, by themselves these disparities “do not establish whether unlawful discrimination has occurred.”
Using a generalized linear regression model—basically a more flexible version of ordinary linear regression—the authors of the report investigate the relationships between various school-level characteristics and discipline outcomes. However, as they acknowledge, their methodology has at least two important limitations.
First, because they don’t have student-level data, the authors can’t actually control for poverty and other factors at the student level. Thus, although the study finds that schools with more black students have higher suspensions rates—even after controlling for the number of poor kids—it doesn’t show that poor black students are more likely to be suspended than poor white students.
Second, as the authors once again acknowledge, “some variables that may be related to student behavior and discipline are not available in the data.” Consequently, their estimates are vulnerable to omitted variable bias, meaning (in this case) that their control variables may not fully account for school level differences in behavior.
Because of these limitations, the authors characterize their results as “associational” rather than causal. And instead of actually reporting the estimates generated by their model, they merely categorize the associations it reveals as positive, negative, or insignificant.
So much for the claim that the report proves the existence of racial bias.
But what of the more important question—that is, whether suspensions have a negative impact on suspended students? Or even more to the point, whether their costs outweigh their benefits?
Here the report provides no new information whatsoever. Worse, its tone is decidedly biased. For example, the first page notes that “research has shown that students who experience discipline that removes them from the classroom are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.” But of course it doesn’t follow that removing students from class is the cause of these negative outcomes. (Why do I feel like I’m repeating myself?) In fact, the problems with the discipline studies the report cites are well documented—and the most plausibly causal studies, which suggest that suspensions may have negligible costs—are conspicuous in their absence. And the question of how suspensions and other disciplinary actions affect other students—including students of color—is never raised in the report, despite the fact that it is central to the debate.
In short, despite the fuss the report has generated, there isn’t anything new in it. So informed readers needn’t question their preconceived notions of school discipline on account of its findings: As was the case prior to the report’s release, racial bias either does or doesn’t have a significant impact on suspension rates. The costs of suspensions either do or don’t outweigh the benefits. And the Department of Education either has or hasn’t overstepped in its attempts to right the discipline wrongs it perceives via regulation.
SOURCE: “Discipline Disparities for Black Students, Boys, and Students with Disabilities,” United States Government Accountability Office (March 2018).
Although there is much research about “achievement gaps” between wealthy and poor students and the effects of “toxic stress” on academic outcomes, a recent study sought to examine the depth at which such issues as homelessness, domestic violence, neglect, and abuse can affect students in school, as well as the prevalence of the problem across schools and demographic groups.
Brian Jacob and Joseph Ryan conducted the study for the Brookings Institution. Matching school records collected from the Michigan Department of Education to child maltreatment information collected by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, the researchers focused on students in the third grade (Michigan administers a statewide test to all in children in this grade), as young children have higher rates of exposure to maltreatment and it has more harmful effects on younger children. The authors examined cases of both substantiated and unsubstantiated Child Protective Services (CPS) investigations, relying on the assumption that the existence of any complaint might point to some trauma, even in the unsubstantiated cases, where there was not enough evidence for a formal investigation to continue. They repeated their analysis using only substantiated CPS investigations, and came to the same pattern of results. Controlling for additional factors, the researchers compared children with CPS investigations in their records to peers who were the same race, gender, and birth year, had the same income level as measured by eligibility for free or reduced lunch, lived in the same neighborhood, and attended the same elementary school.
Jacob and Ryan found that early childhood maltreatment is associated with significantly lower academic outcomes. Only 57 percent of third graders with a prior CPS investigation achieved basic proficiency levels on the statewide reading exam, compared with 65 percent of third graders with no prior CPS investigation. For the math exam, it was 44 versus 51 percent.
Maltreated children were also more likely to have been held back than their peers. Sixteen percent of third graders who had no involvement with CPS were held back in kindergarten, first, or second grade, whereas 23 percent of third graders with a maltreatment investigation were retained.
The homes of children in more disadvantaged subgroups also had higher rates of both substantiated and unsubstantiated maltreatment investigations than their peers. Almost 30 percent of black student homes, for example, were investigated—nearly double that of white students. Similarly, families of 25 percent of students living in relatively high-poverty areas were investigated, compared to just 15 and 10 percent of those in middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods, respectively. And a quarter of pupils attending urban schools lived in homes subject to CPS investigations, compared to just 13 and 17 percent of their suburban and rural counterparts.
Despite the clear effect on educational progress, data on child maltreatment is infrequently linked to a child’s educational records as a matter of data privacy. But this also means that teachers and administrators, who might be in effective positions to offer additional supports to these children, will have little or no information about maltreatment. This study emphasizes the idea that we must place a special focus on the invisible and little understood factors that continue to contribute to inequality in our schools.
SOURCE: Brian A. Jacob & Joseph Ryan, “How Life Outside of School Affects Student Performance in School,” Brookings Institution (March 2018).