Education’s “Proficiency” Deception

If you’ve ever wondered why, even though most parents are satisfied with their children’s public schools, many politicians and policymakers are vocal and often harsh critics of American public education, here’s the answer in a single word, PROFICIENT.

The real world defines PROFICIENT as “Adept, skilled, skillful, expert.” It means having great knowledge and experience in a trade or profession. Proficient implies a thorough competence derived from training and practice.”  Proficiency is a pretty high bar.  

Unfortunately, public education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the so-called “Nation’s Report Card,” presumes that all students who fail  to reach proficiency are either falling behind or are already failures.  

For complicated, bizarre, and political reasons, NAEP established only four benchmarks: Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced.  As veteran school superintendent Jim Harvey points out, the media and those hostile to public education are quick to assume that “proficient” means being on grade level.  It does not!  In fact, students who score at the ‘basic’ level are on track to graduate.  And, as you will read below, half of 17-year-olds denigrated by NAEP as ‘basic’ have earned their college degrees!

So when you read alarming stories about how many American students are ‘below grade level,’ dig deeper, because chances are those spouting the ‘statistics’ have an agenda.  

Below is James Harvey’s analysis, which I endorse.  Jim is a savvy observer who recognizes that public education has its share of problems….but widespread failure is not one of them.

Every couple of years, public alarm spikes over reports that only one-third of American students are performing at grade level in reading and math. No matter the grade — fourth, eighth or 12th — these reports claim that tests designed by the federal government, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), demonstrate that our kids can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. It’s nonsense.

In fact, digging into the data on NAEP’s website reveals, for example, that 81 percent of American fourth-graders are performing at grade level in mathematics. Reading? Sixty-six percent. How could this one-third distortion come to be so widely accepted? Through a phenomenon that Humpty Dumpty described best to Alice in “Through the Looking Glass”: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean.”

Here, the part of Humpty Dumpty was played by Reagan-era political appointees to a policy board overseeing NAEP. The members of the National Assessment Governing Board, most with almost no grounding in statistics, chose to define the term “proficient” as a desirable goal in the face of expert opinion that such a goal was “indefensible.”

Here’s a typical account from the New York Times in 2019 reporting on something that is accurate as far as it goes: results from NAEP indicate that only about one-third of fourth- and eighth-graders are “proficient” in reading.

But that statement quickly turns into the misleading claim that only one-third of American students are on grade level. The 74, for example, obtained $4 million from the Walton and DeVos foundations in 2015 by insisting that “less than half of our students can read or do math at grade-level.”

The claim rests on a careless conflation of NAEP’s “proficient” benchmark with grade-level performance. The NAEP assessment sorts student scores into three achievement levels — basic, proficient, and advanced. The terms are mushy and imprecise. Still, there’s no doubt that the federal test makers who designed NAEP see “proficient” as the desirable standard, what they like to describe as “aspirational.”

However, as Peggy Carr from the National Center for Education Statistics, which funds NAEP, has said repeatedly, if people want to know how many students are performing at grade level, they should be looking at the “basic” benchmark. By that logic, students at grade level would be all those at the basic level or above, which is to say that grade-level performance in reading and mathematics in grades 4, 8 and 12, is almost never below 60 percent and reaches as high as 81 percent.

And the damage doesn’t stop with NAEP. State assessments linked to NAEP’s benchmarks amplify this absurd claim annually, state by state.

While there’s plenty to be concerned about in the NAEP results, anxiety about the findings should focus on the inequities they reveal, not the proportion of students who are “proficient.”

Considering the expenditure of more than a billion dollars on NAEP over 50-odd years, one would expect that NAEP could defend its benchmarks by pointing to rock-solid studies of their validity and the science behind them. It cannot.

Instead, the department has spent the better part of 30 years fending off a scientific consensus that the benchmarks are absurd. Indeed, the science behind these benchmarks is so weak that Congress insists that every NAEP report include the following disclaimer: “[The Department of Education] has determined that NAEP achievement levels should continue to be used on a trial basis and should be interpreted with caution” (emphasis added).

Criticisms of the NAEP achievement levels

What is striking in reviewing the history of NAEP is how easily its policy board has shrugged off criticisms about the standards-setting process. The critics constitute a roll call of the statistical establishment’s heavyweights. Criticisms from the likes of the National Academy of Education, the Government Accounting Office, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Brookings Institution have issued scorching complaints that the benchmark-setting processes were “fundamentally flawed,” “indefensible,” and “of doubtful validity,” while producing “results that are not believable.”

How unbelievable? Fully half the 17-year-olds maligned as being just basic by NAEP obtained four-year college degrees. About one-third of Advanced Placement Calculus students, the crème de la crème of American high school students, failed to meet the NAEP proficiency benchmark. While only one-third of American fourth-graders are said to be proficient in reading by NAEP, international assessments of fourth-grade reading judged American students to rank as high as No. 2 in the world.

For the most part, such pointed criticism from assessment experts has been greeted with silence from NAEP’s policy board.

Proficient doesn’t mean proficient

Oddly, NAEP’s definition of proficiency has little or nothing to do with proficiency as most people understand the term. NAEP experts think of NAEP’s standard as “aspirational.” In 2001, two experts associated with NAGB made it clear that:

“[T]he proficient achievement level does not refer to “at grade” performance. Nor is performance at the Proficient level synonymous with ‘proficiency’ in the subject. That is, students who may be considered proficient in a subject, given the common usage of the term, might not satisfy the requirements for performance at the NAEP achievement level.”

Lewis Carroll’s insight into Humpty Dumpty’s hubris leads ineluctably to George Orwell’s observation that “[T]he slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

NAEP and international assessments

NAEP’s proficiency benchmark might be more convincing if most students abroad could handily meet it. That case cannot be made. Sophisticated analyses between 2007 and 2019 demonstrate that not a single nation can demonstrate that even 50 percent of its students can clear the proficiency benchmark in fourth-grade reading, while only three could do so in eighth-grade math and one in eighth-grade science. NAEP’s “aspirational” benchmark is pie-in-the-sky on a truly global scale.

What to do?

NAEP is widely understood to be the “gold standard” in large-scale assessments. That appellation applies to the technical qualities of the assessment (sampling, questionnaire development, quality control and the like) not to the benchmarks. It is important to say that the problem with NAEP doesn’t lie in the assessments themselves, the students, or the schools. The fault lies in the peculiar definition of proficiency applied after the fact to the results.

Here are three simple things that could help fix the problem:

  • The Department of Education should simply rename the NAEP benchmarks as low, intermediate, high, and advanced.
  • The department should insist that the congressional demand that these benchmarks are to be used on a trial basis and interpreted with caution should figure prominently, not obscurely, in NAEP publications and on its website.
  • States should revisit the decision to tie their “college readiness” standards to NAEP’s proficiency or advanced benchmarks. (They should also stop pretending they can identify whether fourth-graders are “on track” to be “college ready.”)

The truth is that the NAEP governing board lets down the American people by laying the foundation for this confusion. In doing so, board members help undermine faith in our government, already under attack for promoting “fake news.” The “fake news” here is that only one-third of American kids are performing at grade level.

It’s time the Department of Education made a serious effort to stamp out that falsehood.

If you’d like to reach Jim, write to him at harvey324@gmail.com.

SAVING PUBLIC SCHOOLS, ONE STATE AT A TIME

Anyone paying attention is aware that Republicans are waging open war on public schools.  What’s less clear are the root causes of the war, the reasons Republicans are implacably hostile to public education.  

I believe there are three:  1) The GOP’s animosity toward unions; 2) Seething resentment of years of ‘social engineering’ by the Federal Government, which has often used education policy to try to remake other parts of American society; and 3) Anger at the Democrats’ broken promise that ‘education is the ticket to the middle class.’

The anger has bubbled over and has put public education squarely in the sights of many Republican politicians, who are now engaged in open warfare against public schools.  Waving the flag of “Parents’ Rights,” they have jumped on hot-button issues like transgender bathrooms and Critical Race Theory, even though these iissues have little or nothing to do with what actually happens in classrooms.  Why these ambitious politicians are going after public schools is not complicated. They’re trying to enhance their status with the conservative wing of the GOP and perhaps position themselves to run for President in 2024.  At the local level, some Republican activists have embraced the same issues (plus mask mandates) and have been disrupting school board meetings and threatening elected school board officials.

The Generals in this war include Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida, Bill Lee of Tennessee, Kay Ivey of Alabama, Greg Abbott of Texas, Brian Kemp of Georgia, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, Doug Ducey of Arizona, Tate Reeves of Mississippi, Brad Little in Idaho, Eric Holcomb in Indiana, and Kim Reynolds of Iowa. Former Florida Governor (and failed Presidential candidate) Jeb Bush has been trying to break up public education for years, and he hasn’t stopped.

If public education is to be saved, other governors will have to step up, and soon.

FALSE PROMISES:  Is education the gateway to the middle class? Ask the 46 million Americans whose college loan debt approaches $1.75 trillion!   $1,750,000,000,000 is enough to pay for four years at Harvard for 23 million students. While some who took out student loans are now enjoying successful careers, many more former students are still deeply in debt–with little to show for it.

For 70 years Democrats preached a powerful message: Education is the highway to upward mobility and economic success. They won elections by telling voters that public schools were, in Barack Obama’s words, “ladders of opportunity.”   Work hard in school, Democrats promised, and you can achieve the American Dream.  But for the past 40 or so years, that promise, sadly, has been largely an empty one, because social mobility has been elusive for most Americans since the late 1970’s. In other words, for about 40 years Democrats have been making false promises that schools have not been able to keep.

A study published in 2008 showed that, while economic mobility in the U.S. increased from 1950 to 1980, it  has declined sharply since then; another study by the Brookings Institution in 2013 found that income inequality was becoming more permanent, thus sharply reducing social mobility.  In other words, if you begin school today as a low income student and work your tail off to achieve academically, the odds are that you are more likely to become a low income adult than to be a thriving member of America’s middle class. 

Although it’s not the school system’s fault that the American social structure is rigidly stratified, it is irresponsible and hypocritical to make false promises to millions of young people.  Unfortunately, the Democratic Party hasn’t changed its basic message.  Democrats haven’t accepted the reality that today’s public schools are more likely to ratify the existing social order, rather than provide those “ladders of opportunity” that President Obama talked about.

So what about the millions who bought that line and worked hard in school but still haven’t climbed the social and economic ladder? What about the millions who are saddled with crippling debt?   Instead of questioning the validity of their own assumptions about school as a ladder to success, some Democrats seem to blame the victims (“I guess they just didn’t work hard enough”). That’s a sure-fire recipe for stoking anger and resentment among voters, which savvy Republicans have capitalized on.

“SOCIAL ENGINEERING:”  Ever since the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawing school segregation, the Federal Government has been using the schools to try to change other aspects of American society, in hopes of making life more fair for all citizens.  The logic was straightforward: If we can change the attitudes of children, they will grow up to be broad-minded adults. However, the attempts at what opponents called ‘social engineering’ upset a large swath of American society, including white conservatives, evangelical Christians, and proponents of state’s rights.  This was ‘federal intrusion’ for many Republicans, whose suspicion of–and hostility toward–the federal government seems to be in their DNA.  It was President Ronald Reagan, the Republican icon, who proclaimed in his 1981 inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”   

Education is a particular flash point. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the states are reserved to the states respectively or to the people.”  Because the Constitution never specifically mentions education, it is, by default, a state function.  However, 49 states (all except Hawaii) have ceded most authority over schools to local communities, hence the hallowed notion of “Local Control.”

Despite the 10th Amendment, well-intentioned Democrats (especially President Lyndon Johnson) wanted to use public schools as a lever to change not just schools but the larger society:  Make life fairer for all Americans, end racial discrimination, and make the American economy more competitive.  But this ‘social engineering’ to improve society required spending more money on the education of poor and minority students; it meant supporting court-ordered school integration.  And it upset the white status quo and its hallowed “Local Control” of public schools. 

“Local Control” has enabled schools to evolve into a mechanism to identify, label, and sort children from a very young age, a system that often perpetuates bias.  Even though tracking has long since fallen out of favor, “Local Control” allows most schools still have subtle, or not-so-subtle, tracking systems. They ask one question about a student–“How Smart Are You?”–and then use standardized test scores to provide the answer.  Because scores correlate closely with parental income and education levels, by third or fourth grade most kids know, deep down, whether the system sees them as ‘winners’ bound for college or ‘losers’ headed somewhere else.  “Local Control” also helps maintain the status quo.  Because school characteristics are nearly always a function of a community’s wealth, some schools are decrepit to the point of being unsafe, which has the effect of ‘tracking’ those students downward. Schools in wealthy communities have modern facilities, the most experienced teachers, the latest technology, and perhaps even climbing walls in the gym. That is the track for ‘winners’.

Throughout the second half of the 20th Century, Washington increased its presence in and influence over public education.  In 1965, President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act(ESEA) increased the federal presence in local schools. In 1975 Congress passed the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, which guaranteed a free, appropriate public education to each child with a disability in every state and locality across the country, but this essential law was widely seen by Republicans (including President Gerald Ford) as an ‘unfunded mandate’ requiring schools to spend money they didn’t have.  Jimmy Carter’s decision to create a federal Cabinet-level Department of Education in 1979 further enraged conservatives and states-righters, and in 1983, “A Nation at Risk” warned us that our schools were ‘drowning in a rising tide of mediocrity.’  The ensuing clamor raised standards and tightened academic requirements but also kicked started high-stakes testing. 

Make no mistake, federal involvement in education has improved the lives of millions of American children. Title One of ESEA created educational opportunities for disadvantaged kids, as did Head Start. The handicapped legislation brought hundreds of thousands of disabled children out of attics and institutions and into public schools.

Eventually and inevitably, however, Washington went ‘a bridge too far,’ notably with George W. Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind Act’(NCLB) in 2001.  Pre-NCLB, federal programs like those created by ESEA targeted specific groups of students, such as the disadvantaged or the disabled, but NCLB went well beyond that. It stipulated that, if a school accepted even one dollar in federal funds, then every one of its students had to meet federal standards. And failure to meet those standards meant drastic, even draconian penalties, such as firing the school’s entire staff.  

And since virtually all of our nearly 100,000 public schools accept money to support one federal program or another, it was game over: the federal presence was everywhere, challenging, overruling, and riding roughshod over ‘Local Control.’

NCLB relied on one measure–standardized test scores–to determine whether a school was making what it called “Adequate Yearly Progress,” and before long recess, art, music, physical education, drama, and every other ‘non-essential’ aspect of school disappeared from schools everywhere, replaced by test prep and drill.  

Bush’s NCLB was followed by Barack Obama’s “Race to The Top,” which prioritized charter schools and the evaluation of teachers and schools based on the standardized test scores of students.  Sixteen consecutive years of a punitive ‘drill and kill’ approach to education never produced higher test scores and saw a decline in student performance on the well-regarded National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

Quite naturally, public education’s critics pounced.  Demands for vouchers, charter schools, and other schemes to divert money away from public schools increased.  Some blamed poor test scores on teachers, leading some districts to hire (expensive) supervisors to spy on teachers in their classrooms.  School districts spent millions to create ‘teacher-proof’ curricula and to bring in untrained Teach for America volunteers, whose idealism and academic credentials from top colleges were supposed to be enough to leave career educators in the dust.

One parent, a Floridian, said it well:  “I began to wake up during my daughter’s first grade year, when she no longer had recess. … For example, my daughter spent 180 minutes on English Language Arts and a certain amount of time on science and math, instructional time which, as we were told, was critical to prepare children for testing.”

REPUBLICANS AND UNIONS:  Republicans dislike unions in general, but they specifically despise teacher unions.  Of course, the party of unfettered capitalism has always been suspicious of organized labor, but the GOP took a hard right turn in 2012, when the party platform dropped explicit support of the right of workers to be in a union and encouraged states to pass right-to-work laws and supported a national right-to-work law.  

Teacher unions are a favorite target for at least two reasons: Teachers are the most heavily unionized part of the workforce, and their unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, contribute millions of dollars to politicians, with an estimated 95% of the money going to Democrats for at least 30 years. 

It’s not difficult to connect the dots: Republicans are attacking public schools, accusing them of ‘grooming’ their children to be gay, of making white children ashamed of their race, of undermining American patriotism and pride, and more.  Their goal is to persuade more parents to home-school their children, or enroll them in non-union Charter Schools, or use vouchers to pay non-public school tuition. Public  school enrollment will drop, teachers will be laid off, teacher union revenue will decline, and less money will flow to Democrats.  

REPORT FROM THE BATTLEFIELD:  Republicans are winning the war on public education, as Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider argued in The New York Times. Teacher morale is low, and teachers are leaving the field in droves, forcing one state, New Mexico, to call in the National Guard to serve as substitutes.  Enrollment is declining at institutions that train their replacements, and in at least three large school districts, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, student enrollment in public schools has dropped for the second consecutive year. 

Republicans are winning by focusing on these four headline-grabbing issues: Critical Race Theory, Parents’ Rights, Transgender Students, and “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.  

CRITICAL RACE THEORY is not a K-12 issue, as every Republican politician knows. It’s an academic theory studied in colleges and universities that views much of America history through the lens of race and racism.  Despite its being a non-issue, Republican Governors are in a frenzy. Florida’s Ron DeSantis put it this way: “Our tax dollars should not be used to teach our kids to hate our country or to hate each other.” And Florida has now banned a number of math textbooks, accusing the publishers of trying to indoctrinate children with Critical Race Theory. 

In the name of defeating CRT, Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee has invited Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian institution based in Michigan, to create 50 charter schools in Tennessee with public funds, including $32 million for facilities.  As the New York Times reported, Governor Lee believes these schools will develop “informed patriotism” in Tennessee’s children.  The Hillsdale curriculum also presents a negative take on FDR’s New Deal, LBJ’s Great Society, the Civil Rights movement, affirmative action, and climate change.  Professor Bruce Fuller of UC Berkeley told The Times, “I’ve been following charter schools over the last 25 years, and I’ve never seen a governor use charters in such an overtly political way.”

PARENTS’ RIGHTS: At least 10 Republican governors say that Parents’ Rights should supersede and control teaching about race. They say parental objections to ‘inappropriate’ content in school libraries and curricular materials should lead to their removal.  As Arizona Governor Doug Ducey said to his state’s lawmakers, “Let’s require all that a child is taught, all curriculum and academic materials, be put online and available to search and review by every parent, grandparent and interested citizen.” As the Associated Press reported: “Republican state lawmakers across the U.S. are trying to require schools to post all course materials online so parents can review them, part of a broader national push by the GOP for a sweeping parents bill of rights ahead of the midterm congressional elections.”  Some GOP politicians want parents to be able to monitor their children’s classrooms, either in person or on video once cameras are set up in school classrooms. 

TRANSGENDER STUDENTS: The Republican lies and distortions are dangerous.  A columnist for the New York Post called the transgender curriculum “The Left’s new religion.” Militant transgender advocates are imposing their agenda with uncompromising zeal on schoolchildren. That’s fine with President Joe Biden…. From the youngest age, students are being brainwashed with gender ideology. Children — as young as 5 — are being encouraged to disregard their anatomy and choose their gender based on their feelings.”

The Fox News personality Laura Ingraham also weighed in: “When did our public schools, any schools, become what are essentially grooming centers for gender-identity radicals? As a mom, I think it’s appalling, it’s frightening, it’s disgusting, it’s despicable.”

The actual number of transgender students is small–less than 2% in high school–but their situation is precarious.  In a 2019 study, one-third reported attempting suicide.  But it’s a hot-button issue for Republican politicians bent on undermining public education–and winning re-election.  NBC reported recently that “State lawmakers have proposed a record 238 bills that would limit the rights of LGBTQ Americans this year — or more than three per day — with about half of them targeting transgender people specifically.  Nearly 670 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed since 2018, according to an NBC News analysis of data from the American Civil Liberties Union and LGBTQ advocacy group Freedom for All Americans, with nearly all of the country’s 50 state legislatures all having weighed at least one bill.” 

Nearly all of these bills concentrate their attention on schools, by 1) restricting LGBTQ issues in school curriculums, 2) permiting religious exemptions to discriminate against LGBTQ people and 3) limiting trans students’ ability to play sports, to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, and to receive gender-affirming health care.

“DON’T SAY GAY” LEGISLATION:  Most national attention has been on Florida, which has approved two controversial bills limiting conversations about race and racism and restricting younger students’ access to lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity.  The newspaper Education Week reports that fifteen states have passed similar legislation over the past year, and 26 others have introduced bills attempting to restrict these lessons.  Both bills—widely referred to as an anti-“woke” bill and a “Don’t Say Gay” bill—are part of a nationwide effort push to limit lessons on systemic racism, sexism, gender and sexuality, and LGBTQ+ topics. 

The deluge of state legislation on these issues probably means that Congress will begin paying attention, according to political scientist Alex Garlick of the College of New Jersey. If Republicans win control over one or both houses of Congress in the midterm elections, as prognosticators expect, they will likely pass similar pieces of legislation — even though they would have “no chance” of being signed by President Biden, Garlick told The 74. 

Republicans are winning other battles at the state level, according to The Network for Public Education, a left-leaning research and advocacy organization.  Their new report, “Public Schooling in America,” awards only three states–Nebraska, North Dakota, and Vermont–a grade of A or A- for their support of public education.  Twelve states received a grade of D, and 17 received an F.  The NPE report examined state support for vouchers, education savings accounts, home schooling, and for-profit charter schools and concluded that most states with these programs are failing to protect vulnerable children while also turning a blind eye to deception and graft. 

WHAT CAN BE DONE TO SAVE PUBLIC SCHOOLS?  

Saving public education will require far more than playing defense against the Republicans.  GOP hostility toward teacher unions seems fixed in stone, but the oft-broken promise of education as a game-changer can become true for our children–if Washington and some individual state governors are willing to engage. It will require challenging and modifying ‘Local Control,’ which is certain to be a flash point for those invested in maintaining the status quo.

Saving public education makes economic sense, because strong public schools attract businesses and build strong communities.  Remember that public schools serve the entire community, not just the children who attend them and their parents.  About 90% of all children attend public schools, but it is in everyone’s interest–not just parents’–to see that all children have the opportunity to achieve their potential.  Parents do not get to decide what children are taught in public school; that’s part of the social contract.  Consider this: One day some of the graduates may monitor the IV drip and measure out the medications that are keeping your aging parent alive; others may tune up the jet engines on the plane your family will soon board, repair the gas main leak just down the street in your neighborhood, count the votes in the next elections, and so on. 

So, for example, if we want adults to be able to work well with others, then schooling ought to include group project-based activities.  If we want adults to be able to speak coherently in public, then schooling ought to include public speaking and debate.  If we want adults to be able to read with understanding, then students ought to be reading a lot in school.  And so on…..

Individual states have to develop a new vision and then implement aggressive, proactive strategies to make that vision a reality.  Who among current Governors might be willing to act to save their public schools? I believe the process will be easier in relatively small states, so perhaps the Governors of Connecticut, Oregon, Rhode Island, Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, Vermont, and Maryland might be willing to engage in an open dialogue with all their citizens–not just parents–about what they want the state’s young people to become and to be able to do, as adults. Only then can schools be reimagined.

Some first steps: 1) Make it harder to become a teacher by raising admission standards at state-supported institutions that train teachers. 

 2) Encourage young people to enter the field by awarding full scholarships with one significant string attached: the recipients must teach for five years in the state….or repay the full amount. 

3) Raise teacher salaries overall but provide an extra boost for those who are willing to teach in the state’s toughest schools.

4) Finally, if teachers are to be true professionals, then our system must learn to trust them. Right now, we do not.  Many districts now spend big bucks on bureaucrats who spend their time hovering over classrooms.  End that practice now. The goal here is to make it easier to be an effective teacher. 

State leadership will have to work closely with local school boards, which should be allowed to maintain certain prerogatives like hiring and teacher evaluation. But other local practices like tracking and maldistribution of resources must be stopped. 

Leadership matters.  Governors like Ned Lamont of Connecticut (a Democrat) or Larry Hogan of Maryland (a Republican) need to encourage a wide-open and free-wheeling dialogue about the purposes of education.  In fact, Maryland has started down this road with its remarkable Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which passed the legislature in 2021. The Blueprint calls for salaries commensurate with those in professions requiring the same amount of education, bonuses for those willing to teach in the toughest areas, and a $10,000 salary boost for teachers who meet the challenging National Board standards. It promises more resources for the most-challenged students, and, significantly, it insists that teachers should spend less time teaching full classrooms and more time in small groups and one-on-one situations.

More states have to do the hard work that Maryland has begun, but if education is to become a reliable route to achieving the American dream, we must do more than reimagining schooling. The entire playing field has to be level.  In other words, the federal government must commit to raising taxes on the rich and then use those resources to strengthen the social safety net of housing, nutrition, and health care. 

Florida’s governor is providing the model for how NOT to save public education. Ron DeSantis has sued local school boards and threatened to withhold funding over mask mandates, and recently he ordered all public schools to devote 45 minutes to teaching students about “the victims of Communism.”  Bullying and heavy-handed interference won’t work.

The U. S. Department of Education has an important role to play.  Because Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spent four years touting religious schools and promoting vouchers to enable children to ‘escape’ public schools, succeeding her should have been a slam dunk for Miguel Cardona, President Biden’s choice.  Unfortunately, Secretary Cardona seems to be focused on “getting things back to normal.”  This is a huge error because ‘normal’ school is no longer the path to the American Dream of higher social and economic status. 

To be fair, reimagining public education is not Secretary Cardona’s role, because public education is the responsibility of individual states.  Still, the Secretary could be calling on Americans to get involved in public education; he could be asking us to think about what we want our children to grow up to become…and how to make that happen.  The Department should clamp down on for-profit charter schools and other scammers.  Above all, the Department must continue to act to protect the civil rights of all students, particularly the most vulnerable.

We are not starting from scratch. About 5% of our public schools are what are known as ‘Community Schools,’ which feature partnerships between the school and community resources.  In these 5,000 schools, an integrated focus on academics, health, social services, youth/community development, and community engagement has been shown to lead to improved learning, stronger families, and healthier communities.  I’ve been impressed by Expeditionary Learning, whose 150 member schools stress group projects, outdoor activities, and a holistic view of each child.

There’s no quick fix, but there’s also no time to waste.  The efforts of cynical, ambitious politicians like DeSantis, Abbott, Ducey et alia to destroy public schools must be stopped.  Public schools that are genuinely responsive to the needs and talents of all children will once again make the American Dream a genuine possibility, and at the same time make our democracy stronger and more resilient.

The New Rules

(Note to readers: I received this transcript from a teacher I got to know when I was reporting for the PBS NewsHour. While I cannot swear that it’s legitimate, this teacher has never misled me in the past.  I’ve changed the names of the principal and the teacher and removed references that might identify the location of the school.)

PRINCIPAL: Well, Mrs. Peterson, I’ve finally managed to connect with all the parents of your students, and I have some good news and some bad news.

MRS. PETERSON: What’s the good news, Mrs. Montoya?

PRINCIPAL: Nearly all the parents trust you and want you to teach their fifth graders the way you feel is best.

MRS. PETERSON: Thanks, but I don’t like that “nearly all.”  What does that mean?

PRINCIPAL: The parents of five of your 5th graders have some problems, and they are invoking the new state law.

MRS. PETERSON: Meaning?

PRINCIPAL: Rose’s parents want to make certain that none of the math problems involve animals, especially dogs and cats, because Rose is allergic to cats and was bitten by a dog when she was three.  They’re afraid forcing her to deal with them, even in words, could bring about a panic attack.  The law is on their side, I’m afraid.

MRS. PETERSON:  OK, so I’ll be careful about math problems.  What else?

PRINCIPAL: Regina’s Dad wants a guarantee that you will cover both sides when the children are studying the Civil War.

MRS. PETERSON:  Of course.  

PRINCIPAL: He means that he wants you to tell the students that Abraham Lincoln owned slaves.

MRS. PETERSON: That’s preposterous! Lincoln freed the slaves. He didn’t own any slaves! 

PRINCIPAL: Well, Regina’s Dad showed me some material he had downloaded from the internet, and he wants that story told.  And he’s claiming one of the five seats we have installed for parents in the back of your classroom.

MRS. PETERSON: What seats? What are you talking about?

PRINCIPAL: The new law requires parental seating for any parent who wants to observe their child’s teacher at work.  He says he plans to be there regularly.

MRS. PETERSON: This is ridiculous.

PRINCIPAL:  It gets worse, actually, because some legislators want cameras installed in every classroom so that parents can keep an eye on teachers.  

MRS. PETERSON: Ok, who’s next?

PRINCIPAL: Wally’s parents have decided to homeschool him during Black History Month, unless the School Board creates two White History Months.

MRS. PETERSON: Are they crazy? The rest of the whole damn year is White History Year!

PRINCIPAL: Well, they say that, since whites are in the majority, there ought to be TWO White History Months, and they are going to petition the School Board to create them.  They don’t want Wally to feel bad for an entire month, because never owned slaves or belonged to the Klan. He shouldn’t be made to feel guilty because he’s white, they say.

MRS. PETERSON: OK, that’s Wally, Rose, and Regina.  What are the other two complaining about?

PRINCIPAL: Sonia’s folks have some concerns about how you are dealing with sexuality and gender issues.

MRS. PETERSON: What do they mean?  I don’t ‘deal with’ those subjects. That’s not in my curriculum.

PRINCIPAL: Yes, but you have a student with two Dads, and Sonia’s parents want to make sure you never ask stuff like “What did you do with your parents this weekend?” or “Do your parents go trick-or-treating with you?”  Anything that would bring up gay marriage and stuff like that.

MRS. PETERSON: What on earth are they afraid of? Do they think I’m grooming their children?

PRINCIPAL: Actually, they did use that term, and I told them they were being ridiculous. Still, they were talking about suing you–and me–if their child comes home feeling depressed or put upon for being straight.

MRS. PETERSON: What if their child is gay, or just confused? Am I supposed to ignore their pain?

PRINCIPAL: Actually, yes, because the new law says that’s none of your business.  And don’t  forget to post all your lesson plans and curriculum materials on line so parents can review everything, with enough time to file objections.

MRS PETERSON: This is getting worse and worse.  This new law is for the birds.

PRINCIPAL: Just one more: Frank’s parents are very upset about the portraits of President Biden and Vice President Harris that hang near your door.

MRS. PETERSON: Don’t they know those portraits hang in every classroom in the school? That’s not my doing.  I think that may be a state rule, actually, or perhaps the School Board’s. 

PRINCIPAL: They know, and they want them taken down and replaced by portraits of Trump and Pence.

MRS. PETERSON: They lost!

PRINCIPAL: Not according to Frank’s parents. The election was stolen, they told me several times.

MRS. PETERSON: Well, I’m not taking down any portraits. President Biden won the 2020 election, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. 

PRINCIPAL:  I asked the Superintendent for guidance, and he told me to take down all the portraits, to calm things down. 

MRS. PETERSON: Now that’s a profile in courage!  Run and hide…  Why can’t we get the other parents involved?  After all, I have 32 students, meaning that 27 families are satisfied with my teaching.  Isn’t there some way to make them aware of what’s going on?

PRINCIPAL:  Almost all parents appreciate what we do, but they don’t have a clue about what’s going on.

MRS. PETERSON: That’s the truth.

PRINCIPAL: I wish I could work with you to figure out how to get parents involved, but I have a meeting with some School Board members. They have big plans for Teacher Appreciation Week.

“Those People”

“Good lord, how can those people stand to live like that!”

Those words were spoken in 1955, either by me (age 14) or my 15-year-old sister. And “those people” were Negroes who were sitting on their fire escapes or leaning out their open windows, seeking to avoid the blistering heat of a late August afternoon.  We saw them clearly through the windows of the train that was taking us from Grand Central Station in New York City to Noroton Heights, Connecticut, where we lived on a small farm.  We had been ‘working’ in our father’s office in Manhattan, and he might have been with us on the train.

Of course, those weren’t the exact words, but the sentence perfectly captures our thinking, our assumptions.  We weren’t equipped to wonder why “those people” lived where they did, or to ask whether they had other options.  If it were possible to excavate and analyze our thinking, you’d probably discover that we assumed that everyone could choose where to live.  After all, our parents had chosen to leave New Jersey and buy a small farm in Connecticut so we could grow up in the country and learn responsibility by caring for animals. And naturally we assumed that everyone had that option.  Ergo, those Negroes must be choosing to live in crowded, hot, dirty neighborhoods.  Had someone pressed us, we probably would have blamed them for their bad choices.  Maybe those Negroes were spending their money stupidly, on alcohol or flashy Cadillacs, instead of buying a nice home with a big yard, we might have concluded. 

If our father had heard our comment and if he had been aware of red-lining, income inequality, substandard schooling and health care, and other barriers that stood in the way of Americans who did not look like him (white and male), it would have been a teachable moment.  But our father, a truly decent man, was a product of his age. In fact, it’s conceivable that he could have said those words to us, and not the other way around.  

As I remember the events of 65+ years ago, whoever said those words was making a statement, not asking a genuine question. And that’s sad, because without questions and curiosity, children–and adults–are stuck, running in place.

I wish we had instead asked real questions: “Why do they live there? Do they have a choice? Why aren’t there any Negroes living in our town?”  But our environment did not equip, encourage, or expect us to challenge the fundamentals of the world around us. Because we only saw “those people” through a train window and nowhere else, we were not prepared to see Negroes as real human beings who wanted to succeed in life and who cried and laughed and felt pain and joy, just as we did.

Some six years earlier, on April 7, 1949, the Broadway musical “South Pacific” brought racism center stage:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear

You’ve got to be taught from year to year

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear

You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade

You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late

Before you are six or seven or eight

To hate all the people your relatives hate

You’ve got to be carefully taught

With all due respect to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, overcoming casual and systemic racism is more complicated.  My sister and I (and our siblings) weren’t “carefully taught” to hate or even to be prejudiced.  Our daily life experiences trained us to accept as ‘natural’ what we saw with our own eyes and–without conscious thought or explicit teaching–to draw unspoken conclusions about ‘fundamental’ racial differences between us and “those people.”

Perhaps we could rewrite the song, adding NOT at critical points: 

You’ve got to be taught NOT to hate and fear

You’ve got to be taught from year to year

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear

You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught NOT to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade

You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late

Before you are six or seven or eight

NOT To hate all the people your relatives hate

You’ve got to be carefully taught

It’s not enough to not teach hatred, and it’s not enough to simply teach tolerance. A more promising solution is direct and routine contact with those who look different or worship differently or speak different languages.  And we should be teaching a true history of our country, a history that includes accurate accounts of the horrors of slavery, Jim Crow, ‘red lining,’ the struggle for women’s suffrage, and more. We can handle the truth!

All children need to be encouraged to ask “Why?”  By their parents, by other adults, and by their teachers.  Skepticism is a commendable practice, while cynicism has no place in education. There’s no such thing as a stupid question, and no student should be shamed for admitting “I don’t understand.”  

Paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, “All children see things and should ask “Why?” And then some of them will dream things that never were and ask “Why not?”

While we have moved forward from 1955, the events of the past few years are clear evidence that America has a long, long way to go if we are ever going to achieve the ‘More Perfect Union’ that we dream of.

“Parents’ Rights” & the War on Public Schools

“Republicans believe that parents matter. It was true before the pandemic and has never been more important to say out loud: Parents Matter.” 

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, 3/1/2022

Selected to provide the GOP response to President Biden’s State of the Union speech, Iowa’s Governor also asserted that regular people are  “tired of politicians who tell parents they should sit down, be silent, and let government control their kids’ education and future.” 

Claiming to stand for “Parents’ Rights” is the Republicans’ playbook for the 2022 elections, largely inspired by this simple sentence:  “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach kids.” 

That sentence basically lost an election for a Democrat in Virginia last fall…..results which provided a road map for ambitious Republicans everywhere.  Here’s one news report on what happened.  “Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe handed his Republican gubernatorial opponent Glenn Youngkin a campaign ad on a silver platter during a Tuesday debate by stating that he would not allow parents to tell schools what to teach their children.  McAuliffe… proudly acknowledged Tuesday that he vetoed legislation while governor that would have alerted parents when there was sexually explicit content in instructional materials. “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision,” McAuliffe said. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Youngkin hit that softball out of the park.  As Reuters reported, “In what could be a blueprint for next year’s congressional contests, Youngkin appealed to voters who disapproved of COVID-19 health rules and how public schools include race in their curricula while keeping Trump at arm’s length, despite receiving his endorsement.”

Inspired by Youngkin’s success, Republicans everywhere are painting public schools and the educators who work in them as the enemies of parents.   This isn’t new, of course, but it represents a dramatic escalation in an ongoing war on public schooling.

Take note, Democrats. The GOP will continue to present itself as “The Defender of Parents’ Rights” until Democrats come up with an effective counter.  You will find my suggestion at the end of this piece, and I’m sure you will have other ideas.

(Democrats may have another hurdle to get over: misleading reporting. Focus on what Reuters said about education, “…and how public schools include race in their curricula.”  The reporters, Jason Lange and Chris Canipe, seem to be accepting without reservation that school curricula in Virginia shouldn’t but do manage to ‘include race.’  Sadly, they are simply parroting Youngkin instead of giving their readers perspective.  In his campaign, Youngkin often claimed–without evidence–that “Critical Race Theory” was influencing the K-12 curriculum, even though he must have been aware that CRT is an academic subject covered in college, if at all. That line of attack became shorthand for ‘blaming whites for everything’ and making white students feel bad about being white.  Elect him, Youngkin promised, and he would to an immediate halt to what in fact wasn’t happening. It worked!)

Even though CRT is not part of any known K-12 curriculum, seven state legislatures have already banned it, and another 16 are considering bans.  “Indeed, to date, only Delaware has passed legislation to positively affirm the goals and intentions of teaching about racism, and the deleterious effect that that has had on generations of minorities of Black Americans in the United States.”

Republicans are also attacking public education in other ways, as NBC News reported recently.  As state legislatures kick into gear this month, Republican governors and lawmakers who have fought to limit discussions of race in public schools are lining up to support a new aim: curriculum transparency.

Lawmakers in at least 12 states have introduced legislation to require schools to post lists of all of their teaching materials online, including books, articles and videos. The governors of Arizona, Florida and Iowa, who have previously raised concerns about how teachers discuss racism’s impact on politics and society, called for curriculum transparency laws in speeches to their legislatures this month.” 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was blunt: “Florida law should provide parents with the right to review the curriculum used in their children’s schools.”

Opportunistic politicians are also attempting to limit classroom discussion of other controversial topics.  In late February Florida’s House of Representatives passed a bill to ban “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in the state’s primary schools.  Governor DeSantis has indicated that he will sign the bill if the Senate passes it.  

Of course, the GOP maintains that it’s doing this for parents  “Speaking to legislators on the House floor, Rep. Joe Harding, the Republican who introduced the bill, said the measure is about “empowering parents” and improving the quality of life for the state’s children.”  Florida isn’t alone. According to the highly regarded publication Chalkbeat, at least 36 states have adopted or introduced laws or policies that restrict teaching about race and racism. 

As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote recently, “Defenders of this push for censorship say they are simply working to protect the nation’s children from prejudice, psychological distress and inappropriate material. ‘To say there were slaves is one thing, but to talk in detail about how slaves were treated, and with photos, is another,’ said Tina Descovich, a leader of (a Florida chapter of) Moms for Liberty, a conservative group that seeks to enshrine ‘parental rights’ into law.”

Ms. Descovich, who lost her seat on a local school board in 2020, is a parent, but many of the adults who have been disrupting local school board meetings not only do not have children enrolled in those schools; they are classic outside agitators, perhaps even from neighboring states. 

Simply reviewing curricula and banning discussion aren’t enough for some. Legislators in Florida, Iowa, and Mississippi want cameras installed in classrooms so parents can watch what’s going on. “The Iowa bill, H.F. 2177, would require that cameras be placed in every public school classroom in the state, except for physical education and special education classes.  The cameras would feed to livestreams that could be viewed on the internet by parents, guardians and others.”  Educators who fail to keep the cameras operational would lose 5% of their salary, per infraction.  The bill died in Committee, but its supporters haven’t given up.

The pandemic has created opportunities for opponents of public education.   Twenty-two states created or enlarged school voucher programs in 2021, and more are in the offing.  “School voucher proponents in statehouses across the country have spent much of the past year working to pass legislation that transfers critical public school funding to the private sector. Framing these debates around education “reform” and the inauthentic culture wars surrounding public schools, voucher proponents have been steadily working to undermine public education on the state level.”  That’s from the publication of the National Education Association, which explains the loaded language. 

But the NEA numbers are correct, as others have reported​​”Nearly half of all state legislatures last year increased funding for school choice programs in their state budgets or passed laws to expand or create new Education Savings Accounts or scholarship programs. They also notably expanded eligibility requirements to include home-schooling, charter schools and private schools.  Four states created entirely new programs; three created new and expanded programs, and Ohio created the most improved programs of them all, according to the analysis. The majority, 14, either expanded or improved their existing school choice programs.”

While this isn’t the time or place to debate vouchers, let’s stipulate that money dedicated to vouchers would otherwise have gone to public schools. 

COVID and the ensuing closure of most public schools frustrated many parents, some of whom felt that teachers cared more about their own health than their students’ learning.  Teacher unions, a favorite whipping boy of the right, may have hurt their own cause by defending members who did not want to risk contracting COVID–but defending their members is what unions are supposed to do.  

But what’s happening now has very little to do with education and far more to do with politics.  Republicans feel that being ‘pro-parent’ is a winning position, even though barely 20% of households have school age children.  I don’t think most Republican politicians really care whether parents dig deeply into curriculum. What they hope is that the other 80%–those without children–will be outraged at the idea of meddling teachers indoctrinating America’s children. Their goal is for the other 80% to go to the polls and vote Republican.

However, Democrats should be heartened by a recent CBS poll indicating that a large majority of adults oppose these restrictions.   “Americans overwhelmingly reject the idea of banning books about history or race. One reason for that: a big majority also say teaching about the history of race in America makes students understand what others went through.  Large majorities — more than eight in 10 — don’t think books should be banned from schools for discussing race and criticizing U.S. history, for depicting slavery in the past or more broadly for political ideas they disagree with.  We see wide agreement across party lines, and between White and Black Americans on this. Parents feel the same as the wider public.”

The thoughtful blogger Jan Ressenger has a comprehensive and very readable post on the GOP efforts and the pushback here. Why Public School Supporters Need to Keep On Pushing Back Against Laws Banning Discussion of “Divisive” Subjects at School

Keep that in mind as we go back to the question that sank Democrat Terry McCauliffe in Virginia , about parental involvement in what’s taught in schools.  Just how involved should they be?  

I think every Democrat running for any office should answer the question along these lines:

“All citizens–not just parents– should care deeply about the education of all of our children. Let’s ask ourselves what we want kids to grow up to be able to do, and what kind of adults we want them to become.  Do we want them to write well, speak clearly, understand numbers, be able to differentiate between truth and fiction, speak more than one language, be healthy, and work well with others?  Of course we do.  And that means they must do those things in school, because, as the great philosopher Aristotle said long ago, “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”  

And so because we want our children to be able to write clearly, then they must write and rewrite, repeatedly. Because we want them to be able to speak clearly and persuasively, they must do those things in school, repeatedly.  And because we want them to be successful in working with others, then in school they must work together on academic projects, play on teams, act in plays, and help produce the school newspaper.   Because we want them to become healthy adults, they must have regular recess, free play, and physical education.  And so on….

Let me give you three reasons adults without school-age children should care about what happens in schools:  First, those kids are going to grow up and be involved in your life, whether you want them to be or not. Some may be tuning up the jet engines on the planes you or your grandchildren fly on. Others may be called on to repair a gas line leak in your neighbor’s home, to look over your state tax returns, or to take care of your sick pet. And some of those kids will grow up to be nurses and hospital technicians, checking on your IV drip when and if you are hospitalized.

Second, having a well-educated workforce means that more companies will decide to locate here in our great state, instead of locating in….

Third, poorly educated adults are a threat to public safety and a drain on the state’s finances.  Investing now in the education of all our state’s children will save you money and keep you safer. Thank you.”

In the name of ‘personal freedom’ and ‘parents’ rights,’ many Republican politicians are running a giant scam. They are trying to tear down public education so they can divert public funds to private companies and individuals and, at the same time, destroy the teacher unions.  Finally, they hope to undermine the vital concept of a common good.  

To accomplish these goals, they plan on keeping voters inflamed and ignorant.  

We cannot let that happen…..

The GOP’s “I am Spartacus” Moment

In the 1960 movie “Spartacus,” after the Roman Army puts down a slave revolt, the Army Commander offers to pardon thousands of slaves from crucifixion on one condition: they must identify Spartacus, the leader of the revolt. Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) stands to give himself up, but as he says, “I am Spartacus,” so does another slave (Tony Curtis), followed by first one and then another. Eventually all the slaves are shouting proudly and defiantly “I am Spartacus.”  It is a memorable display of heroism and solidarity.

Today, to declare “I am Spartacus” is to stand with those who are being wrongly accused or persecuted, no matter the cost. 

Which brings us to Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, two Republican members of the House of Representatives who were recently censured by the Republican National Committee “for their behavior which has been destructive to the institution of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Republican Party and our republic, and is inconsistent with the position of the Conference.”  The resolution, passed overwhelmingly by voice vote of the RNC’s 168 members, also describes the January 6th insurrection as “ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.” 

If ever there was a moment for traditional Republicans to stand and declare “I am Liz Cheney. I am Adam Kinzinger,” it is now.

It hasn’t happened.  No Republicans are saying “Enough.”  No elected Republicans have declared that they will no longer align with the GOP until it comes to its senses. 

Instead we are mostly getting “Twitter outrage” and strong statements released by PR operatives.   

Utah Senator Mitt Romney used Twitter: “Shame falls on a party that would censure persons of conscience, who seek truth in the face of vitriol. Honor attaches to Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for seeking truth even when doing so comes at great personal cost.”  

Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse also Tweeted: “January 6th was not ‘legitimate political discourse’ and I’ll say it again: It was shameful mob violence to disrupt a constitutionally-mandated meeting of Congress to affirm the peaceful transfer of power.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said in a tweet, “It’s a sad day for my party—and the country—when you’re punished just for expressing your beliefs, standing on principle, and refusing to tell blatant lies.”

In her Tweet, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said that calling January 6th “legitimate political discourse” was “just wrong.”  Murkowski also went on CNN and said, “When there is a conflict, when the party is taking an approach or saying things that I think are just absolutely wrong, I think it’s my responsibility as an Alaskan Senator, speaking out for Alaskans, to just speak the truth. The easier thing to do is just go along to get along, or just keep your mouth shut. But you know what, that’s not why we’re here.” 

“The RNC is censuring Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger because they are trying to find out what happened on January 6th – HUH?” Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana said in his Tweet. 

Senator Susan Collins of Maine waited a few days and then issued a statement saying those “who assaulted police officers, broke windows and breached the Capitol were not engaged in legitimate political discourse, and to say otherwise is absurd.”

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Trump critic who is not running for re-election, issued a statement through his PR team: “The Governor commends anyone who is willing to step forward and tell the truth, and disagrees with this vote. He has been clear that the January 6th riot was a violent insurrection and a sad day for democracy.” 

Republican Senators John Cornyn (Texas), Shelley Moore Capito (West Virginia), Kevin Cramer (North Dakota), Roy Blunt (Missouri), Joni Ernst (Iowa), and Lindsay Graham (South Carolina) voiced mild criticism.

Former President George W. Bush has not been heard from.

Leading from behind, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell weighed in four days after the RNC action, calling January 6th “a violent insurrection for the purpose of trying to prevent the peaceful transfer of power, after a legitimately-certified election, from one administration to the next.”  He went on to add, “The issue is whether or not the RNC should be sort of singling out members of our party who may have different views from the majority. That’s not the job of the RNC.”

In the film, the defiant slaves pay dearly for their act of courage.  Because Spartacus was not identified, the Roman leader crucifies the slaves, saving just two to battle to the death, for the amusement of Roman citizens–with the victor then to be crucified. 

Spartacus, the slave leader, learned an important lesson from what had happened: “When just one man says ‘No, I won’t,’  Rome begins to fear. And we were tens of thousands who said ‘No,’ and that was the wonder of it.”

While no Republicans would be literally crucified for publicly declaring “I am Liz Cheney. I am Adam Kinzinger,” they would, of course, be excoriated by Fox News and other right wing voices.  But if several dozen prominent elected Republicans found the courage to declare “I am Liz Cheney. I am Adam Kinzinger,” they might very well emerge strong enough to rebuild the Grand Old Party. It certainly would not take ‘tens of thousands’ to halt the downward spiral the Republican Party has taken under Donald Trump.

But don’t hold your breath. Today’s Republicans and the slaves of “Spartacus” differ in two crucial respects. The courageous slaves in the film are being held in slavery against their will.  Today’s frightened Republicans have chosen to be slaves.  Their bondage is voluntary!  

We won’t hear Republicans declaiming lines from “Spartacus,” although we may hear one memorable line from “Gone With The Wind:”

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”

A Surplus of FORMER Teachers

“I’m curious to know how many of us around this table have been school teachers.”

When that question was asked at a recent dinner party, of the twelve people at the table, seven of us–including my wife and me–raised their hands. We twelve certainly did not represent a cross-section of America.  Ten of us were over 70 years old, the other two in their mid-30’s.  All were college graduates, and most had earned advanced degrees.  

But still, seven out of twelve of us used to be schoolteachers!

Actually, I was not surprised, because whenever I have asked that question, at least half in every group said that they had taught school at some point. Turnover is a huge problem in public education, with a reported 40-50% of new teachers leaving the field sometime in their first five years on the job.

American society is full of former teachers because teaching has a far higher turnover than traditional occupations like law, engineering, medicine, architecture, and accounting.  As the Learning Policy Institute noted five years ago, “The teaching workforce continues to be a leaky bucket, losing hundreds of thousands of teachers each year—the majority of them before retirement age.”  According to Penn professor Richard Ingersoll, “Even nurses tend to stick around longer, and the only fields with higher quit rates are prison guards, child care workers, and secretaries.”

Ingersoll is himself a former public school teacher. “One of the big reasons I quit was sort of intangible but very real,” Ingersoll told me. “It’s just a lack of respect. Teachers in schools do not call the shots. They’re told what to do; it’s a very disempowered line of work.”

When a persistent but solvable problem like ‘teacher churn’ is allowed to fester, it’s always instructive to ask “Who benefits from not solving the problem”?  I explored that in my 2017 book, “Addicted to Reform.” Here’s what I found :  

So, who benefits when schools have to find replacements for so many teachers every year?  The obvious answer would seem to be school boards (and taxpayers), because green teachers are cheaper than white-haired veterans.  Payments into retirement plans are lower, because those dollars are a function of salaries, and new teachers earn less.

But if school boards help new teachers succeed by mentoring them as they learn classroom management and other tricks of the trade, then churn is not a way to save money.  However, my experience as a reporter has been that many, perhaps most, school systems are content to let new teachers ‘sink or swim’ on their own.

I nominate schools and colleges of education as the primary beneficiaries of churn.  After all, someone has to train the replacements.  Consider one state, Illinois: Its institutions of higher education recently graduated over 43,000 education majors, presumably the majority of them trained to be teachers. The largest producer of teachers, Illinois State University, has more than 5000 would-be teachers enrolled, and its website reports that one of four new teachers hired in Illinois between 2008-2011 was an ISU graduate.  Illinois K-12 schools employ about 145,000 teachers. If 20% leave in a given year, that creates 29,000 vacancies–I.E., jobs for 29,000 replacements.  If only 10% opt out, the K-12 schools would still need 14,500 trained replacements.

But if only 5% of Illinois’ teachers left every year, there would be just 7,250 job openings for the state’s 43,000 graduates who majored in education.  So is it in the interest of Illinois higher education and its teacher-training institutions to help make teaching a job that more people want to keep?  Or do they benefit from the churn because it means their classrooms are full and their professors occupied?

As the lawyers say, asked and answered.

Our pool of ‘former teachers’ is growing larger and larger, unfortunately.  “Exhausted and underpaid” teachers are leaving in greater numbers this year because of COVID-19 and its ramifications.  A shortage of teachers in the US was already a growing problem before the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly in high poverty schools. The shortage has worsened during the pandemic. Some schools have closed when too many teaching positions could not be filled, while others grapple with higher than normal teacher vacancies, leaving the remaining teachers overworked.

In Florida, teacher vacancies this year increased by more than 67% compared with August 2020, and a 38.7% increase from August 2019.

When teachers suddenly resign or contract COVID-19, administrators must find substitutes, and that’s become a real problem“They are called upon to teach in schools where children are likely still unvaccinated and might not be required to wear masks. In some cases, they’re filling in for teachers who are quarantining at home after being exposed to COVID-19. And many substitute teachers are in an age group that is more vulnerable to the disease.  ‘A number of our substitute teachers are retired educators, and in many cases, they simply are not willing to risk the COVID challenges to come to work,’ (Superintendent Michelle) Reid says.”

Making teaching more attractive and more remunerative are essential steps. That will attract better candidates, but we won’t be out of the woods unless we change aspects of the teacher’s job that are belittling and sometimes humiliating.  Teachers can’t make or take a phone call when they need to, or use the bathroom when nature calls.  Rarely do they get to watch their colleagues at work and then share reactions and ideas, which is something most professionals take for granted.  

All that has to change, but, unfortunately, none of this seems to be a priority of the U.S. Department of Education or the political leadership in any state that I am familiar with.  Instead, public education’s opponents are using COVID-19 as cover for their efforts to fund religious education, create private school vouchers, expand for-profit virtual charter schools, and allow parents to deduct school tuition from their taxes, all strategies to defund public education.

Today’s political climate is making matters much worse for teachers.  Many public schools and their school boards have become flash points for the anti-vaccination, anti-masking crowd, making teachers feel even more stressed.  We should expect the exodus to continue until our political leaders develop the courage to take strong action to defend public education.  

I should end with my own question: Where is Miguel Cardona, the U.S. Secretary of Education, on the serious challenges facing public education? COVID-19 notwithstanding, Dr. Cardona started off in a sweet spot. He replaced the absolute worst U.S. Secretary of Education imaginable, a woman who worked overtime to undercut public schools. Replacing Betsy DeVos was like being hired by Brinks to replace a guy who drove around with the back door of the armored car wide open and money spilling out onto the street. Just close the damn back door, and you’re off to a great start!

An abundance of good will greeted the new Secretary. And we anticipated some obvious first steps, akin to closing that armored car door. But all I hear is silence……

The Lives We Lost

Public education’s losses in 2021 were staggering. COVID killed more than 1,000 educators nationwide.  Here’s a report from one state, Kentucky.  

Many thousands more left public education rather than continue working in situations that threatened their lives. One in four American teachers reported considering leaving their job by the end of the last academic year, in a survey taken in January and February by the Rand Corp., a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. That’s “more than in a typical pre-pandemic year and at a higher rate than employed adults nationally,” the report explained.  Pre-pandemic surveys found that one in six teachers were considering leaving the field. 

I could not find reliable data on the number of students who succumbed to COVID nor information about children left without parents because of the pandemic, but there were far too many stories like this one about 10-year-old Teresa Sperry, a 5th grader in Suffolk, Virginia,  

COVID also caused a spike in suicides among the young.

And in 2021 we also lost these nine men and women, all of whom cared deeply about America’s youth and public education:  

First, the Teachers We Lost:

There may be people who weren’t charmed by Vartan Gregorian or awed by his accomplishments, but I’ve never met any. He was quite simply one of the most remarkable people I have ever known: Generous, smart, hard-working, tireless, ethically upright, funny, and more. Vartan improved everything he touched. He saved the New York Public Library, built Brown University into an intellectual jewel, and led Carnegie Corporation of New York, a major foundation, in new and challenging directions. As the New York Times put it, he was “A brilliant historian and educator, he led Brown University and the Carnegie Corporation, but his crowning achievement was the revival of the New York Public Library.”

I hope you will take the time to read his obituaries here, here, here, and here, but in case you don’t have the time, here’s a paragraph from one of them: Dr. Gregorian was a fighter: proud, shrewd, charming, a brilliant historian and educator who rose from humble origins to speak seven languages, win sheaves of honors and be offered the presidencies of Columbia University and the Universities of Michigan and Miami. He accepted the presidency of Brown University (1989-1997), transforming it into one of the Ivy League’s hottest schools, and since then had been president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a major benefactor of education.

That’s from The Times. Here’s a bit from the Wall Street Journal: With help from new friends including Brooke Astor and David Rockefeller, he raised $327 million from public and private sources. He discovered that New Yorkers would compete to pay large sums for the honor of sitting next to authors at library events. That helped pay for humidity controls to protect books, scrubbing of blackened facades and restoration of elegant rooms that had been chopped up into cubicles.

A Stanford graduate, he was also an inspiring teacher (at San Francisco State University; UCLA; the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Pennsylvania).  Vartan was also a thoughtful and graceful writer.  I treasure a signed copy of his very readable autobiography, “The Road to Home: My Life and Times.” 

Vartan Gregorian died in New York City in April.  He was 87.

I wish I had known bell hooks, who was only 69 when she died in December.  She was a groundbreaking author, educator, and activist; her analyses of the intertwining of race, gender, economics and politics helped shape academic and popular debates over the past 40 years.  What a loss, but what a life she led…..

James Loewen, the historian who wrote “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “Sundown Towns,” died in August after a long struggle with bladder cancer.  Jim, only 79 when he died, made every day count. You can read about his life and accomplishments here

Here’s one critical piece of his biography, from Wikipedia: Loewen attended Carleton College. In 1963, as a junior, he spent a semester in Mississippi, an experience in a different culture that led to his questioning what he had been taught about United States history. He was intrigued by learning about the unique place of nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants and their descendants in Mississippi culture, commonly thought of as biracial. Loewen went on to earn a PhD in sociology from Harvard University based on his research on Chinese Americans in Mississippi. (And he returned to teach at Tougaloo, an HBCU.)

Never a shrinking violet, Jim regularly circulated information about his speaking engagement to a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. He used this to pull in more invitations because he was determined to spread his message: that America needed to stop lying to itself about its own history, particularly when it comes to race and racism.  I wish I could remember when Jim and I first met, but somehow we began corresponding fairly regularly. When he discovered that I had grown up in Darien, Connecticut, he loved reminding me that Darien was the quintessential Sundown Town, a place where Black people were not allowed after dark.  When I protested that we lived on a working farm of 23 acres and had Black and Russian families living with us at, Jim would let up….but only slightly.  

One quick story: The year I turned 70 I began commemorating my birthday by biking my age. Then, in 1977 I asked readers of this blog to donate (at least) $77 to their favorite charity–if I made it.  As it happened, Jim was in New York and we met for lunch a few days before my June 14th birthday.  He knew about the challenge and said, with some fanfare, that if I did make it, he would donate $77,000 in my honor!  

I thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t….

Sure enough, he donated $77,000 to Tougaloo College, the HBCU in Mississippi where Jim had taught.  

(It didn’t diminish my gratitude or pleasure when Jim told me that he gave Tougaloo $100,000 every year, part of his royalties from “Lies My Teacher Told Me.”)

If you haven’t read “Sundown Towns” or “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” please do. And The New Press has also issued a version of the latter aimed at younger readers.

Shirley McBay, who in 1966 became “the first Black person to receive a doctorate from the University of Georgia, and who went on to be a leading voice for diversity in science and math education, died on Nov. 27 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 86.”  Please read her obituary in the New York Times.

People in the world of education knew Robert Moses because of The Algebra Project, which he started in the 1980’s to teach struggling high school and middle school students mathematics, but Bob Moses was much more than an inspiring educator.  He was a Rhodes Scholar, a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Award winner, and a Civil Rights leader who was arrested in Mississippi for helping Blacks register to vote, all before starting The Algebra Project.

I deeply regret that I never reported on The Algebra Project or met Dr. Moses, who was ‘press shy,’ as this elegant PBS obituary put it. 

Moses was born in Harlem, New York, on January 23, 1935, two months after a race riot left three dead and injured 60 in the neighborhood. His grandfather, William Henry Moses, has been a prominent Southern Baptist preacher and a supporter of Marcus Garvey, a Black nationalist leader at the turn of the century.

But like many black families, the Moses family moved north from the South during the Great Migration. Once in Harlem, his family sold milk from a Black-owned cooperative to help supplement the household income, according to “Robert Parris Moses: A Life in Civil Rights and Leadership at the Grassroots,” by Laura Visser-Maessen.

While attending Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, he became a Rhodes Scholar and was deeply influenced by the work of French philosopher Albert Camus and his ideas of rationality and moral purity for social change. Moses then took part in a Quaker-sponsored trip to Europe and solidified his beliefs that change came from the bottom up before earning a master’s in philosophy at Harvard University.

Moses didn’t spend much time in the Deep South until he went on a recruiting trip in 1960 to “see the movement for myself.” He sought out the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta but found little activity in the office and soon turned his attention to SNCC.

“I was taught about the denial of the right to vote behind the Iron Curtain in Europe,” Moses later said. “I never knew that there was (the) denial of the right to vote behind a Cotton Curtain here in the United States.”

The young civil rights advocate tried to register Blacks to vote in Mississippi’s rural Amite County where he was beaten and arrested. When he tried to file charges against a white assailant, an all-white jury acquitted the man and a judge provided protection to Moses to the county line so he could leave.

He later helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which sought to challenge the all-white Democratic delegation from Mississippi. But President Lyndon Johnson prevented the group of rebel Democrats from voting in the convention and instead let Jim Crow southerners remain, drawing national attention.

Disillusioned with white liberal reaction to the civil rights movement, Moses soon began taking part in demonstrations against the Vietnam War then cut off all relationships with whites, even former SNCC members.

Moses worked as a teacher in Tanzania, Africa, returned to Harvard to earn a doctorate in philosophy and taught high school math in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Later in life, the press-shy Moses started his “second chapter in civil rights work” by founding in 1982 the Algebra Project.”

Moses believed that math literacy was ‘the next phase’ of the struggle for civil rights.  “Education is still basically Jim Crow as far as the kids who are in the bottom economic strata of the country,” he said in 2013. Moses believed that algebra in particular was a critical “gatekeeper” subject because mastering it was necessary in order for middle school students to advance in math, technology, and science; college was out of reach without it. 

By design, The Algebra Project takes students who score the lowest on state math tests and aims to prepare them for college level math by the end of high school by doubling up on math courses for the four years of high school. Participants have consistently scored better on state exams than non-participants, often by wide margins. 

Dr. Moses died in July. He was 86. 

If you’re a reader and have children or grandchildren, books published by Scholastic are probably an important part of your life.  For this you can thank Richard Robinson, who took over Scholastic, his father’s magazine company, and transformed it into a children’s book publishing giant.  Think “Harry Potter,” the “Hunger Games” Trilogy, “The Magic School Bus,”  “Goosebumps,” “Captain Underpants,” “Clifford the Big Red Dog” and “The Baby-Sitters Club,”to name a few.  

Robinson, who told the New York Times that  he considered reading a civil right, prided himself in “reviving books and promoting narrative storytelling as a muscular rival to video games in the competition for children’s attention.”

“Publishing the ‘Harry Potter’ books has changed the company and made it more visible,” he told The New York Times in 2005. “But what everybody feels the most about Harry Potter is that it brought kids to the reading process who had never been readers.”

He was fun to be around, quick to grin, and full of good stories.  He taught public school early in his career, served as head of the Association of American Publishers, and led the capital campaign for the Manhattan Children’s Museum. 

Dick Robinson died in June in Chilmark, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard, of an apparent heart attack. Off island, he lived in Greenwich Village. He was 84. 

Next, the Advocates:

Eli Broad was best known for his devotion to the arts and to the city of Los Angeles.  Although public education was just one of Broad’s many interests, the billionaire committed a great deal of energy and money to it. In 2002 he created the Broad Prize ($500,000 in college scholarships) for the year’s most outstanding urban school district. The Prize was awarded with great fanfare at a gala event in either Washington, DC, or New York City for 13 years, and, like the Oscars or football’s Heisman Trophy, the finalists all showed up. Then–roll of drums–the envelope was opened.  

However, the Prize eventually lost momentum, largely because not enough urban districts were actually showing improvement, something I wrote about in “Addicted to Reform.”  

When Mr. Broad concluded that prizes weren’t going to change urban education, he suspended the annual award and put his energy and money into charter schools.  This made him even more controversial, a status that did not seem to concern the combative billionaire. I was among the critics.  Even so, I was seated with the Broads at a dinner and tried to persuade Eli and his wife, Edith, that the term ‘charter school’ had become meaningless because many state laws allowed grifters and con artists to open charter schools and (legally) rob public treasuries blind, but the Broads weren’t having any of it. 

Eli Broad died in Los Angeles in April. He was 87.

​​Denis Doyle died at eighty-one on December 2 in Los Angeles, his home in recent years. I was privileged to know Denis during my years in Washington. He was smart, funny, curious, and generous.  Checker Finn published a warm tribute recently, and I hope you will take a few minutes to read it.  You can find it here.

Denis was more than willing to take on education’s sacred cows, as he did in 2004 when he asked the question “Where do public school teachers send their own children?”

His research proved what a lot of people suspected: “Across the states, 12.2 percent of all families (urban, rural, and suburban) send their children to private schools —a figure that roughly corresponds to perennial and well-known data on the proportion of U.S. children enrolled in private schools. But urban public school teachers send their children to private schools at a rate of 21.5 percent, nearly double the national rate of private-school attendance. Urban public school teachers are also more likely to send their children to private school than are urban families in general (21.5 vs. 17.5 percent).” 

George M. Strickler Jr. was a civil rights attorney who fought to desegregate Southern schools in the 1960s and was pushed out of his University of Mississippi teaching job amid uproar over his work on behalf of Black clients. He died September 2 at the age of 80.

In addition to the loss of so many dedicated individuals, 2021 was a year of lost opportunities for public education. Most school systems and teachers were unprepared for a year of virtual teaching.  And most school boards were ill equipped to do anything except try to ‘get back to normal.’ Although every crisis is also an opportunity, school boards are historically reactive and status quo oriented, and that is beyond unfortunate.  

If ever a time called for ‘thinking outside the box,’ it was 2021 (and 2020 of course).  If you want to go deeper into the issue of missed opportunities, see here and here and here.

While we mourn the losses of 2021, please keep in mind the heroes of 2022, the men and women who teach and work with our children. They need our support.

My White Privilege

“Walt, I think you missed our turn.  Weren’t we supposed to turn left back there?”

“Shoot, you’re right. I’ll find a place to turn around”

“Well, there’s no traffic. Just make a quick U-turn, and we won’t be late.”

“I’ll find a good place to turn around, up ahead.”

“Walt, there’s no traffic. It’s safe to do a U-turn here.”

“I’ve got this, John.”

I remember being frustrated by Walt’s response.  Why drive on?  Why not just make a U-turn?  Had I been behind the wheel, I would have slowed down, pulled way over to the right, and then swung the car around for a U-turn.  Maybe it would have required another stop-and-start, but the road was clear, so who cared about making an illegal U-turn?

As I remember, Walt drove on for another half-mile or so until we came to an intersection, where he turned his car around and headed back to our destination, a restaurant.

Some background: It was 1969.  Walt and his wife, Lillian, were our backyard neighbors on the campus of Virginia State College, an HBCU (Historically Black College or University).  Walt was head football coach and a Professor in the Department of Physical Education, and I was an English Instructor.  Our wives bonded first, sharing the highs and lows of new babies, both about 18 months old. And, conveniently, one of their other children was old enough to babysit, meaning we could have a night off.  

Oh, and Walt and Lillian were/are African Americans, we were/are White.

I’m pretty sure it was rare for a White couple and an African American couple to socialize in public in Southside Virginia back then, but I don’t recall being uncomfortable, probably because I had spent my entire life–29 years–swimming in a sea of whiteness and was–to put it kindly–blissfully unaware.

In fact, I might never have given that driving incident another thought if I hadn’t missed a turn seven or eight years later, the way Walt did that night in 1969.  I was with National Public Radio at the time, driving to interview teachers and students at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school on a Navajo reservation in Arizona.  When I realized my mistake, I did what I had wanted Walt to do: I checked to make sure the road was clear, slowed down, pulled way over to the right, and swung the car around for a U-turn.  

No big deal, right?  But then I heard a siren and saw flashing lights.  A cop pulled me over.  

But still no big deal, because I assumed the cop would understand and cut me some slack.  And so when he approached my window, I smiled and explained why I had made that turn, something about being late for interviews with Navajo teachers and students.  I figured he would appreciate my dilemma and let me off with a warning. However, he didn’t smile back, just said, “You’re on our land, White man, and you have to follow our rules.” And he wrote me a ticket.

This may be hard for you to believe, but my mind immediately flashed back to that evening in Virginia, and I suddenly understood why Walt, a Black American, had refused to make an illegal U-turn. For the first time in my life I had a glimmer of understanding what life must be like for non-White Americans.  True, I had spent two years as a minority on a Black campus, but that experience hadn’t punctured my ingrained sense of White privilege. 

Because of my own illegal U-turn and the subsequent traffic ticket, I thought that I had put two and two together. For years I believed that Walt hadn’t made that illegal U-turn because he was afraid of getting a traffic ticket.

Then a White cop in Minneapolis casually murdered George Floyd on May 25, 2020.  On video.  Knowing he was being videotaped, the murderer displayed indifference, even contempt, for more than 9 minutes while Mr. Floyd struggled to breathe and eventually died.  And his fellow cops stood by and did nothing.

Only then did I grasp the awful truth that, if Walt had been pulled over for making an illegal U-turn back in 1969, the consequences could have been far worse than a traffic ticket.  

I am not clueless; I know about–and am outraged by–the idea that “Driving While Black” is justification for police intervention, but knowing something intellectually and even emotionally is vastly different from actually feeling it in your bones.  

For many White theater-goers, Christopher Demos-Brown’s powerful 2018 play “American Son” made real the awful terror that ensues when skin color determines treatment.  The entire play takes place in a police station, where an African American mother is trying to get the police to help her find her teenage son.  He was driving the family car, on which he had put–in an act of youthful defiance–a bumper sticker that proclaimed “SHOOT THE POLICE” with a (small) image of a camera, not a gun.  It’s gut-wrenching because at that moment we know that the young man will be shot and killed by a policeman.  

“American Son” is not about White privilege. Its subject is being Black in an America where the inescapable companions of White privilege are hostility or indifference to those who aren’t White.  

I am not claiming to have been ‘transformed’ by my insight. I remain the product of all of my experiences, not just those two U-turns, one taken and one not taken.  However, I do understand that White privilege is pernicious, and, while it’s not the equivalent of White racism or White supremacy, it’s in that neighborhood.  

Unfortunately, White privilege isn’t disappearing. In fact, in our current political climate, it seems that a growing number of White Americans are openly embracing not just White privilege but White supremacy.  Former President Donald Trump has brought out the worst in many of his followers by making it acceptable to ‘say the quiet part out loud.’ Trump and his enablers have endorsed and even celebrated being openly vulgar, selfish, clannish, parochial, violent, and racist.  

We seem to be getting further and further away from Dr. King’s dream that someday we will be judged by the content of our character, and not by the color of our skin.  

We are a divided country, a long way from being the best we can be.  Can we reverse directions and treat others–whatever they may look like and whatever they happen to believe–as we wish to be treated?  Generosity toward all begins with listening to those around us, especially those we disagree with.  

Do We Really Need a Department of Education?

“Don’t you agree that it’s time to get rid of the Department of Education?”  My good friend Joe asked me that question at the end of an evening recently. Before I could answer, he added, “The Department has been around for about 45 years, and public schools have just gotten worse and worse.”

I should mention that Joe is a hard-core Republican, deeply conservative but not a Trumpian. We argue politics from time to time, and I figured he was just jerking my chain, giving me something to stew about until we saw each other again.

His strategy worked.  I did spend some time thinking about how I would convince my friend that the Department was essential.  This turned out to be far more difficult than I expected.

Some background information may be helpful.  Because ‘education’ is not mentioned in our Constitution, it is therefore the responsibility of the sovereign states, according to the Tenth Amendment, which states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” 

That has not kept Washington from getting involved in higher education, however.  For example, during our Civil War, the Morrill Act of 1862 created the Land Grant Colleges and Universities, and the second Morrill Act (1890) essentially guaranteed the survival of HBCUs, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, by prohibiting discrimination. The GI Bill enabled millions of veterans to get an education, creating our middle class. Later, Pell Grants opened up colleges to millions of low income students. 

But K-12 education has been a different kettle of fish, a hands-off situation for the federal government.  However, after the Russians launched Sputnik, the first space satellite, in October, 1957,  President Eisenhower and the Congress felt they had to improve American public education. The result was NDEA, and the D is noteworthy. It stands for DEFENSE, which is to say that, in 1958, the only way President Eisenhower could persuade Congress to pass the National Defense Education Act was to maintain that improving education would defend us against godless Communism!

Now the door was ajar, and Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, pushed it open–but only in support of specific groups of children: either the poor or the disadvantaged.  His ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, is with us today (although its name has been changed several times).

1975 saw the passage of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, another federal law targeting a specific category of children.  This law is, I believe, the only federal legislation whose signing was not photographed!  That’s right. President Gerald Ford, a Republican, was so opposed to the law that he flat out refused to allow photographers to record his signing the bill (which had passed with veto-proof majorities in both Houses of Congress). The new law, known as PL 94-142, required schools to educate all disabled children in the ‘least restrictive environment’ but provided less than 40% of the money. This created an ‘unfunded mandate,’ which President Ford correctly predicted would unbalance local school budgets, make states resent ‘federal interference,’ and create tensions between groups.  

Jimmy Carter ran (against Ford) on a pledge to teachers and their unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, to put Education into the Presidential Cabinet, and he delivered on that promise.  The Department of Education was created in 1979, and President Carter persuaded a Federal District Court judge, Shirley Hufstedler, to leave the court and become its first Secretary.  

The Department’s own website adds this interesting tidbit: “Although the Department is a relative newcomer among Cabinet-level agencies, its origins goes back to 1867, when President Andrew Johnson signed legislation creating the first Department of Education. Its main purpose was to collect information and statistics about the nation’s schools. However, due to concern that the Department would exercise too much control over local schools, the new Department was demoted to an Office of Education in 1868.”  

Just as a Democrat created the federal Department, Democrats generally spearheaded efforts to get involved in public education, but they were not making rules for all schools or all children.  Republicans did that!  

While Democrats got their noses well into the tent, a Republican President pushed over the tent completely– albeit with the help of liberal Democrats.  George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” law mandated that all schools and all identifiable subgroups of students had to make ‘Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)’ or face severe sanctions, which included firing all the teachers and closing schools.  Under this sweeping law, every school district that accepted any federal education money (and all did) was accountable to Washington.

For eight years schools struggled to adapt.  Because AYP was determined by how many kids got over the test score bar in English and Math, testing and test prep became the order of the day.  Most public schools cut art, music, and other ‘non-essential’ classes. They eliminated programs for gifted children, because they got over the bar easily; at the same time schools paid minimal attention to kids who were really struggling, reasoning that no amount of help would get them over the bar–so why bother at all!  Some schools eliminated physical education and recess.  

And because of the pressure to raise test scores, quite a few schools and teachers cheated, big time, with Atlanta and Washington, DC under Michelle Rhee being the poster children!  

For many, the lesson of NCLB was clear: Washington couldn’t and shouldn’t run public education! But, unfortunately, the incoming Obama Administration came to the opposite conclusion. It doubled down by creating what Education Secretary Arne Duncan called “The Race to the Top.”  

Moreover, because of ‘The Great Recession’ and the subsequent Congressional bailout, Secretary Duncan found himself with a huge pot of money, $100 billion, with virtually no strings attached. The 9th U.S. Secretary of Education had far more ‘free money’ than his eight predecessors combined!

Desperate for money, all 50 states and 14,000 school districts were willing to do whatever Secretary Duncan wanted.  He had a tabula rasa. He might have decided to reward those who embraced more art, music, and science; or  project-based and inquiry-based learning, or career and vocational education.  Because his mother was a prominent early childhood educator and because he himself worked in her center, reasonable people expected him to reward districts and states that embraced early learning and all-day kindergarten.

He did none of these things.  He established what he called “Four Pillars,” two of which led to more testing and the evaluation of teachers based almost entirely on student test scores.  Another “Pillar” led directly to the expansion of the Charter School movement, despite a paucity of evidence that Charter Schools produced better results than traditional public schools. 

(One “Pillar”–the demand for coherent data systems–made sense to most observers, because states and districts used wildly different ways of counting graduation rates, dropout rates and just about everything else, making comparisons almost impossible.)

Perhaps because Secretary Duncan was an outstanding college basketball player, he made “Race to the Top”  an open competition.  Whoever wanted the money had to compete for it: write an elaborate proposal and then come to Washington to defend it. Money would be parceled out in competitive rounds, with lots of fanfare.  In an interview for The NewsHour, he told me that whoever wanted the money had to do what he said.

Duncan ruled for nearly eight years (giving way to John King in the waning months of the Obama Administration), but the backlash in Congress was severe.  “Who does Duncan think he is? “The Nation’s School Superintendent?” And so when it was time to reauthorize the original ESEA, now known as No Child Left Behind, Congress clamped down on Duncan and his successors. The Every Child Succeeds Act specifically restricts the authority of the Secretary over public schools.

But for all his misguided priorities, Arne Duncan was a believer in, and supporter of, public schools.  What would happen if someone who was downright hostile to schools became Secretary of Education?

Enter Betsy DeVos, a born-again Christian with an unmatched zeal for private religious education.  The 11th U.S. Secretary of Education went about dismantling the Department, rescinding Obama-era orders and declining to enforce rules protecting disadvantaged students, those who were being discriminated against, and victims of sexual assault. With student debt ballooning, particularly among students at for-profit colleges, the Secretary opted to put the proverbial fox in the henhouse: She chose a top executive from a for-profit chain to run that division. On her way out, DeVos urged her Department’s career staff how to approach the incoming Biden Administration, “Be the resistance.”

DeVos is gone, replaced by a 46-year-old career educator with deep roots in public schools, Dr.Miguel Cardona.  

So do we need a United States Department of Education?  And if we do, what should its mission be?  And what should it NOT be doing?

If it were up to me, I would get the Department out of the business of evaluating schools and school districts.  No Child Left Behind and its successors have been a disaster. Evaluation of students should be up to school districts, and judgements about school districts should be left to their states. None of that is Washington’s business…and it’s certainly not Washington’s area of expertise.

We have a National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The so-called “Nation’s Report Card” samples judiciously and reports the results by grade levels and in subject areas….and that’s enough.

However, we do need a strong Department of Education to protect the civil rights of students, with particular focus on those who have historically been shortchanged.  The Department should be in the business of leveling the playing field with dollars, persuasion, and litigation when necessary. And it should also return to its oldest federal function–good statistics–because there is a dearth of basic information. It should also assume a modern function–reliable professional research. Research matters because state and local education authorities do very little, and private research funding is limited and often strongly politicized.  (The latter suggestion comes from the invaluable Gary Orfield.)

Finally, the Secretary of Education must use his or her Bully Pulpit to remind Americans that a strong public education system and a well-educated citizenry are essential to our nation’s survival.

I believe that President Eisenhower got it right: Education is National Defense. And President Carter also got it right: Education deserves a seat at the table.

What do you think?