Category Archives: Conventional School Reforms

The California Context: CA Policymakers and Educators Shift from Test-and-Punish to Build-and-Support

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The California Context
California Policymakers and Educators Shift from Test-and-Punish to Build-and-Support

by Bill Honig

California, under the leadership of Governor Jerry Brown, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, and the legislature, and backed by almost the entire educational establishment and advocacy groups in the state, including the teacher unions, has embraced the long-range and comprehensive Build-and-Support strategy. California’s approach is based on valid, reliable school improvement research and patterned after the practices and policies of high-performing states such as Massachusetts. All California stakeholders agree that educational performance in the state must improve substantially and that it will take 10–15 years of concerted effort to successfully implement the more demanding instructional program envisioned by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The specifics of the California strategy follow.

Ensuring Adequate Funding Levels

Early in his term, Governor Brown sponsored Proposition 30, a tax increase initiative that temporarily raised income tax rates on top earners and provided for a ¼-cent sales tax increase. It passed. Those funds and the economic recovery in the state allowed the governor, working with the state legislature, to increase per-pupil funding for K–12 by about 40% during his first term. The hefty increase was designed to make up for the precipitous drop in support caused by the recession. The governor and the legislature also revamped the educational funding system under the Local Control Funding Program (LCFP). It now gives districts more flexibility in how to manage their funds and to provide additional resources for high-risk students.

Adopting a Rigorous, Standards-Based Liberal Arts Curriculum

After widespread discussions, the State Board of Education (SBE) in California approved the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the English Language Arts (ELA) Standards, and the English Language Development (ELD) Standards. The later two were both later integrated into the ELA/ELD Framework. It also signed on to the CCSS-aligned Smarter Balanced Assessment Program (SBAC). California policymakers were careful to emphasize that the primary purpose of the assessments was to feed back information to improve instruction, not for high-stakes consequences. At the same time, they eliminated a cluster of existing state tests. The SBE, backed by the political establishment, postponed testing until the new SBAC tests were ready and refused to submit to federal pressure requiring that testing be tied to teacher evaluations. The state legislature also gave the SBE two years to devise a new accountability system.

Delivering High-Quality Instruction

Recognizing the need for additional support, the SBE authorized the development of frameworks to advise teachers and districts on how best to translate the standards into curriculum and instruction, deliver effective professional development, build collaborative teams, and adopt instructional materials consistent with the standards.

Useful California Content Frameworks and Support Documents

These frameworks have been widely supported in the state. The California Department of Education, county offices, districts, educational organizations, newly created networks of schools and districts, and especially the state teacher unions have been aggressively pursuing the implementation of the more active and deeper instruction envisioned by the CCSS. The California Teachers Association has been in the forefront of standards implementation efforts and has formed partnerships with Stanford and other educational entities to that end.

In 2012, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson formed a prestigious commission chaired by Linda Darling-Hammond and Chris Steinhauser. Darling-Hammond is one of the most respected school improvement researchers in the country, and Steinhauser is superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District, which was designated one of the top school districts in the world. The commission produced Greatness by Design, a superb policy document that provides the blueprint for a Build-and-Support strategy in the state. In 2015, it followed up with A Blueprint for Great Schools: Version 2.0. These documents have had a major influence on practice in California, as has the expert advice of Michael Fullan.

In addition, the governor and the legislature invested almost $2 billion specifically for supporting the CCSS implementation and associated curricular and assessment changes and another $500 million for similar purposes in the 2015 budget. That latest allocation also included attracting, training, inducting, and supporting new teachers as one of the primary goals of the item, consistent with the recommendations of Greatness by Design, although there is still much to be done to revitalize the teaching profession.

Creating Useful and Fair Accountability Systems

In California, political and educational leaders proposed and the legislature enacted a plan to develop a new assessment and accountability system using multiple measures of student performance. The primary goal of the new system is to feed back information that will support local improvement efforts and not to punish schools and teachers. State leaders also created a new entity, the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, to support and review the CCSS and LCFP implementation and organize site visits and support for struggling schools.

Most districts have been hard at work on the day-to-day business of implementing the Common Core State Standards. In addition, two effective networks of districts have been collaborating on the CCSS implementation. One network, CORE Districts, is composed of some of the largest districts in the state; the other is the California Collaborative on District Reform. CORE Districts obtained a federal waiver to develop its own broader assessment system (although it had to agree to test-based teacher evaluation, which each district will soon be able to ignore under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Engaging Stakeholders

A potent informal network funded by foundation support, the Consortium for the Implementation of the Common Core State Standards, was formed with representatives from major educational and government entities, districts, county education offices, teacher groups, the research community, higher education, and advocacy groups. It has helped on such key issues as implementation planning, coordinating the work of support providers, communication, technology, understanding the state mathematics and ELA/ELD frameworks, accountability, and new teacher policies. Its first publication, Leadership Planning Guide California, was intended to assist districts and schools in addressing the implementation of the CCSS. In 2015, the consortium produced user-friendly summaries of the math and ELA/ELD frameworks.

Resisting High-Stakes Testing

Moreover, almost every educational group has joined the political and educational leadership and the legislature to successfully resist federal demands for excessive high-stakes testing and accountability and not-ready-for-prime-time student and teacher evaluation schemes. The one exception has been the CORE Districts, which sought a waiver from severe No Child Left Behind (NCLB) penalties and were forced to accept test-driven teacher evaluation as the price for the waiver. Many of the districts are now struggling with implementing those evaluations, which have caused disharmony within the districts. In addition, although many in management continue to support such measures as test-driven teacher evaluation, their numbers are decreasing in the face of the Build-and-Support agenda being promoted by educational leaders across the state. Finally, the presidents and chancellors of the four higher education segments all signed a letter pledging support for the Common Core State Standards.

A brief summary of California’s approach is available in a slide presentation by Michael Kirst and an article in CALmatters, “A Stanford Professor’s High-Stakes Plan to Save California Schools.” See also Jeff Bryant’s 2015 interview of me in Salon and his follow-up article on California as a potential role model for the country. Lastly, see Charles Kerchner’s blog post, “Can the ‘California Way’ Turn Around Underperforming Schools?”

How California Avoided the Push-Back Against the Common Core

There is widespread backing for Common Core in the state thanks to these efforts, particularly the tempered rolling out of the CCSS, the postponing of testing and accountability to allow time for implementation, and the divorcing of accountability from evaluations. The resistance to the CCSS that has erupted in other states from abrupt implementation and tying the standards themselves to high-stakes accountability has not occurred in California. The study Leveraging the Common Core to Support College and Career Readiness in California reports finding widespread excitement among high school teachers for the promise of the more active instruction offered by the CCSS.

In 2015, a poll by Children Now found 67% support among the general public in California for the CCSS. Interestingly, if respondents were asked only about the ideas behind the standards, without mentioning the name Common Core, support rose to between 85% and 93%. The findings were similar for parents who had children in public schools, and for those employed in the education field, 82% expressed support for the standards.

Build-and-Support Is Working in California

In 2013, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised a few cherry-picked states that had followed the administration’s proposed reforms and improved their National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results. Duncan failed to mention the larger number of states that had also implemented the policies but did not grow and experienced lackluster results overall. In a glaring case of omission, Duncan never acknowledged California’s reform efforts, which, although resisting many of the federal reform policies, topped the nation in growth in eighth-grade scores.

That trend has continued. From 2009 to 2015, California was first in growth, along with Washington, DC, in eighth-grade scaled reading score growth—up six points from 2009 compared to the national growth rate of one point. California was among the four-highest states in eighth-grade growth in mathematics—up five points from 2009 compared to a national decline of one point. California did not fare as well on NAEP fourth-grade scores. They have remained low with flat growth, mirroring the rest of the nation.

Added note: 2017 NAEP results have accelerated this trend, though there is still much work to do.

NAEP 8th and 4th Grade Reading and Math Average Scaled Score Growth for 2009-2017  California has the most second language students, the most diversity, and high levels of low income children compared to other states. Top growth scores nationally for 8th grade reading, 4th grade reading, 8th grade math. Weak growth for 4th grade math.  

Reading: 8th grade: First in the nation. California growth +10 and now within 2 points of the national average. National growth +3

4th grade: Tied for 2nd nationally California growth +6  and now within 6 points of the national average. National growth +1 

Math: 8th grade: Tied for 2nd nationally. California growth +6, Now within 5 points of the national average. National growth 0.

  4th grade: Tied for 15th in growth +1. 7 points behind nationally. National growth 0. 

Gaps have actually narrowed in the state. White student scores have not grown as fast as Hispanic and Black children.
Some subgroup info: 
 Hispanic growth scores for reading 2009-2017; 8th grade reading +10; 4th grade reading +8
  Black: 8th grade +7; 4th grade -1!!!.
   Hispanic growth scores for math: 8th grade +6; 4th grade +4
   Black: 8th grade +5; 4th grade +1 

Two California Urban Districts under the Federal Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) program showed top gains in NAEP. 

LA: 8th grade reading average score growth 2009-2017. +11.  1st in nation.
       4th grade reading: +10;  1st in nation (Tied DC)

       8th grade math:  +8 (Tied for 3rd)
       4th grade math: +1 (Not good—tied for 7th)

San Diego

        8th grade reading: +10. (2nd nationally after LA)
        4th grade reading: +9.  (tied for 2nd nationally)
        8th grade math:  +3 (tied for 7th)
        4th grade math +1 (tied for 7th)

Another set of data from the Urban Institute app which adjusts NAEP scores for language, poverty, race, and special ed. And whether the adjustments are accurate or not,  comparisons using the same standards are legit.  
One caveat is that the intervals on the ranks are still being scaled which might change 
rank growth somewhat but the overall picture will remain very similar. 

I took off the age control but let the others stay. (If you look at the website be sure to refresh after looking at math to allow you to click from math to reading and when you do remember to put off the age control) These data are ranks based on average scores, and if you mouse over the state it shows the growth in rankings. It is apparent that California has made large jumps in rankings this year from the past few years. (Florida has not grown as much but is at the top or near the top nationally in all the rankings—whether from state policy or district independent efforts needs to be determined) 

In 8th grade reading we are now 14th in the country up from the low 40’s as recently as 2013. In 4th grade reading we are 19th in the country up from the high 30’s in 2015. 

In 8th grade math we are 22nd up from the low 40’s as recently as 2013.In 4th grade math (our weakest area where we need to undertake considerable work) we are 37th up from the low 40’s in 2011 and 2015.   

Some confirmation is provided by our most recent state testing, the SBAC. 11th grade reading scores. 60% now reach the “proficient” level—a level consistent with 4yr college work and the NAEP proficiency level which compares favorably to the other SBAC states that are much less diverse. To me, getting 60% of our diverse students to that level is impressive and a tribute to the hard work of our educational practitioners and policy direction. On the other hand, the state is much weaker in SBAC math performance at 11th grade (although improving) and math will be a major area of subsequent improvement efforts. 

In addition, from 2010 to 2015, the Golden State improved its high school graduation from 74.7 to 82.3, an increase of 7.6 points, which is significantly greater than the improvement in the national rate. Despite having one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation, the state graduation rate is now higher than the national average. California Latino and African-American students progressed even faster. The rate of Latinos has increased 15% since 2010 to 78.5%; African-American students increased 11% to 70.8. Finally, in 2015, 43.4% of graduates completed all the necessary coursework to meet the minimum admissions requirements for the University of California and the California State University systems, a substantial jump from the 36.3% meeting the requirements in 2010.

Even though California scores have been increasing on NAEP, at least at the eighth-grade level, student achievement must improve substantially in the next decade. The first Smarter Balanced assessments based on the Common Core State Standards were given in 2015 and formed the base year for determining growth rates and improvements.

Preliminarily, SBAC reported four levels—standard exceeded, standard met, standard nearly met, and standard not met. It is important to understand what “standard” means. It was established to be comparable to the NAEP proficiency standards, which predict success in a four-year college credit-bearing course. Massachusetts, whose students score among those in the top countries worldwide, is the only state in which just over 50% of its students score proficient on NAEP.

The number of students in California meeting or exceeding the standard on the SBAC test at 11th grade is one indication of how many students are being adequately prepared for both four-year colleges and community colleges where students transfer to four-year colleges after two years or to one of the more demanding career tech pathways.

The 2015 scores in the 11th grade were decent in English language arts—58% of students reached the four-year college-bound level. The scores were low in mathematics—only 28% reached or exceeded the college-bound standard. This may be due to the shift in instruction called for by the CCSS or the greater language demands of the math test, or the test may have been too dependent on Intermediate algebra, which is not appropriate for many career paths. Researchers are currently examining the discrepancy between student performance in math and reading.

At elementary and middle grades, the percentage of students meeting the on-track to a four-year college standard was generally in the mid-30% in math and mid-40% in reading. The achievement gaps between low-income children or children of color and their higher-income or Caucasian peers increased from previous tests. This is most likely due to the fact that the new SBAC assesses deeper learning and provides a more accurate picture of actual performance.

Meeting the Challenges of Diversity and Underfunding

California has one of the most diverse groups of K–12 students in the nation: 54% Hispanic/Latino; 25% white; 12% Asian, Pacific Islander, or Filipino; 6% African-American; 3% mixed race; and 0.6% Native American. Its English-language learner (ELL) population is 25%, the largest in the nation. The states with the next largest ELL populations are Texas with 15%, Florida with 10%, and New York with 9%. Our state also ranks high in poverty levels.

Importantly, California spends significantly less per pupil than other states. In 2014–2015, it ranked 42nd after adjusting for cost of living, and it is significantly behind other states in additional support measures that affect school quality as well.

Yet, compared to the 12 other states that took the SBAC, California ranked in the middle of 11th-grade scores for both reading and math. None of the other states are as diverse. In the lower grades, however, California was either at the bottom or near the bottom. Unquestionably, much work is to be done in the state, but the Build-and-Support policy framework being pursued offers the best chance of substantial improvement during the next decade.

Career Tech Pathways

Many of us in California have one major problem with the Common Core State Standards, which is how the SBAC standards were set and how the CCSS in general are portrayed in the media. Although the literature maintains that the goal is “career and college readiness,” as I explained above, the high school standards are actually primarily aimed at preparing students for four-year colleges or alternative career paths that demand the highest educational levels. This is particularly true of third-year high school courses in mathematics.

Many have questioned whether intermediate algebra (made more demanding by Common Core Standards) is an appropriate course for those preparing to be dental hygienists or to be trained in precision manufacturing. For those tech/prep students, rigorous substitutes such as statistics and quantitative reasoning or embedding these subjects in career tech application courses seems to be a better alternative. In fact, many states have pursued this direction. For example, Texas just recently changed its requirements.

The Charles A. Dana Center in Texas recently examined 34 career paths—from accounting to visual communication—to determine which math skills were needed. Most careers only demanded the use of the math learned through eighth grade that can be applied in complex and unique situations. See also “Programs of Study & Mathematics Alignment” on the Dana Center’s website. It presents an analysis of the mathematical demands for nursing, communications, criminal justice, and social work.

Currently, about 40% of students nationally reach the levels needed for succeeding in a credit-bearing four-year college course. We should definitely be trying to increase that number, and the Common Core State Standards are valuable for that goal. Yet even for the college bound some flexibility is warranted. The University of California’s Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) establishes the courses that count for college admission, and the state university and community college systems follow its lead. Recently the BOARS committee approved some substitutions for intermediate algebra and the community colleges are considering changes along these lines.

But that still leaves a large number of students who could profit from rigorous tech-prep pathways yet are usually neglected in a system that is primarily geared for the four-year college bound. California has lagged behind some other states showing leadership in developing these pathways such as Illinois, but it is now devoting resources and attention to this problem.

Robert Schwartz, of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, has been one of the major national proponents of improving the pathways for the non–four-year college bound. See his Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century and Career Pathways: A Route to Upward Mobility, a paper he coauthored with Nancy Hoffman. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute also has been promoting alternative pathways. See the papers and video presentations from its Education for Upward Mobility Conference that are devoted to the issue. David Conley and Linda Darling-Hammond have also been champions of this approach. See the handouts on the California Department of Education web page that summarize their work. For a California perspective, see Career Technical Education Pathways Initiative, and for a national perspective, see The State of Career Technical Education. See also the fall 2014 online issue of American Educator, which is devoted to this topic.

Pamela Burdman has authored three excellent reports on mathematics college placement issues in California sponsored by the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) as well as a short article on the inaccuracies of college placement exams. A compendium of research from a conference on this subject can be found at a LearningWorks conference on the future of college math placement. The conference focused on three main issues:

  1. Are there alternative paths to college other than the usual mathematics sequence that ends in intermediate algebra such as statistics or quantitative reasoning?
  2. Is relying on a placement test an accurate and fair way to force students into remedial classes based on Algebra 2, which many will not pass. Are there better alternatives? Placement tests provide only a tiny percentage improvement on the predictions generated by merely relying on transcripts but do result in high levels of misplacement.
  3. Are there more successful ways to teach the remedial classes?

In 2016, a major report by the Center for Community College Student Engagement made similar points about the deficiencies in our system of remediation, and a summary of the research demonstrates the defects of community college placement exams that 87% of community college students are forced to take.

Some extremely effective groups have been formed to support alternatives for the college bound and programs that offer rigorous preparation for the tech/prep bound. Among them are Linked Learning and ConnectEd. See also the High Tech High charter organization, which is devoted to school/career integration with an emphasis on project-based learning, and the many career academies that over the past two decades have been providing successful career preparation in important fields such as health, business, and manufacturing.

California has invested one-and-a-half-billion dollars in collaborative tech/prep grants aimed at two-year community college pathways to careers or four-year colleges or apprenticeships. This has been accomplished under the leadership of Governor Brown and the state legislature, with the full support of State Superintendent of Public Education Tom Torlakson. The investments have been made over the past few years and are slated to continue for the next few years.

Although some civil rights advocates are reluctant to support the premise that it is an unattainable goal for all students to become prepared for four-year institutions of higher learning, we are doing a disservice to many youngsters by only concentrating on that pathway. Many students who could succeed in a rigorous alternative route will falter under a four-year college prep sequence. These substitute pathways are a far cry from the old vocational education, which often became a dumping ground for low-performing students and devolved into tracking for minority and low-income students. One policy goal should be to maximize the number of students who qualify, attend, and graduate from four-year colleges, but we should also attend to the needs of those students who could profit from a rigorous tech/prep pathway.

The jury is still out on whether our large, diverse state will successfully implement the ambitious instructional program envisioned by the Common Core Standards over the next decade by following a Build-and-Support approach. So far, so good.

Recent Developments

7/30/2016. Michael Petrilli has edited a just-released book Education for Upward Mobility (2016). This work contains essays under three headings. First, Transcending Poverty through Education, Work, and Personal Responsibility which includes chapters on the “Success Sequence” (graduate high-school, obtain a full-time job, and wait to have children until 21), tech-prep pathways, certification, and apprenticeship. Second, Multiple Pathways in High School: Tracking Revisited? which includes chapters on small schools of choice, college-prep high schools for the poor,  and high-quality career and technical education. Finally, there is a section, The Early Years with chapters on the importance of the first five years, the centrality of knowledge acquisition in the elementary years, and issues of tracking in middle schools. Many of these authors support the main points in the article above.

7/30/2016 Two reports from the Education Commission of the States on what states require for early reading. California doesn’t do as much as many other states. Although our ELA/ELD framework is solid, we are missing some of the other infrastructure.;


Reference Notes

Adopting a Rigorous, Standards-Based Liberal Arts Curriculum
Fensterwald, J. (2015, Jun 22). State Board Gets Extra Year to Create Measures of School Progress.

Delivering High-Quality Instruction
Fensterwald, J. (2014, Dec 1). CTA Launches Large-Scale Teacher Training.

Tom Torlakson’s Task Force on Educator Excellence. (2012, Sep 17). Greatness by Design: Supporting Outstanding Teaching to Sustain a Golden State. California Department of Education.

Blueprint 2.0 Planning Team. (2015, Jul 27). A Blueprint for Great Schools: Version 2.0. State Superintendent of Public Instruction. California Department of Education.

Fullan, M. (2015, Jan). A Golden Opportunity: The California Collaborative for Educational Excellence as a Force for Positive Change.

Mead, S., Aldeman, C., Chuong, C., & Obbard, J. (2015, Jul 28). Rethinking Teacher Preparation: Empowering Local Schools to Solve California’s Teacher Shortage and Better Develop Teachers. See also Ellison, K., & Fensterwald, J. (2015, Jul 14). California’s Dwindling Teacher Supply Rattling Districts’ Nerves.

Creating Useful and Fair Accountability Systems
CORE Districts.

California Collaborative on District Reform.

Engaging Stakeholders
Consortium for the Implementation of the Common Core State Standards. (2013, Oct). Leadership Planning Guide California: Common Core State Standards and Assessments Implementation. California County Superintendents Educational Service Association.

Yakes, C., & Sprague, M. (2015). Executive Summary: Mathematics Framework for California Public Schools: K–12. California Department of Education.

Slowik, H Y., & Brynelson, N. (2015). Executive Summary: English Language Arts/English Language Development Framework for California Public Schools: K–12. California Department of Education.

Gewertz, C. (2014, Sep 4). California Higher Education Systems Pledge Common-Core Support.

Resisting High-Stakes Testing
Kirst, M. W. (2015, Jul). California Education Policy Overview 2015. Education Policy Fellowship Program.

Lin, J. (2016, Jun 4). A Stanford Professor’s High-Stakes Plan to Save California Schools.

Bryant, J. (2015, Apr 14). Common Core Consequences: What Currently Passes for “Reform” Has Caused Considerable Collateral damage to Schools and Teachers.

Bryant, J. (2015, Apr 23). An Alternative to Failed Education “Reform,” If We Want One.

Kerchner, C.T. (2016, Jun 6). Can the “California Way” Turn Around Underperforming Schools?

How California Avoided the Push-Back Against the Common Core
Freedberg, L. (2016, Jan 10). Common Core: New York Stumbles, California Advances on Common Core Implementation.

Venezia, A., & Lewis, J. (2015, Aug). Leveraging the Common Core to Support College and Career Readiness in California. Education Insights Center. California State University, Sacramento.

Children Now. (2015, Apr 20). New California Poll Shows Strong Support for Common Core and Its Approach.

Build-and-Support Is Working in California
National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). NAEP State Profiles. U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences.

Leal, F. (2016, May 17). California’s Graduation, Dropout Rates Improve for the Sixth Straight Year.

Blume, H. (2015, Sep 11). Achievement Gaps Widen for California’s Black and Latino students. Los Angeles Times.

Meeting the Challenges of Diversity and Underfunding
Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health. Public School Enrollment by Race/Ethnicity. – fmt=451&loc=2,127,347,1763,331,348,336,1&tf=84&ch=7,11,621,85,10,72,9,73&sortColumnId=0&sortType=asc

Federal Education Budget Project. (2012, Mar 28). Student Poverty Rate.

Kerchener, C. T. (2015, Nov 23). Tax Proposals Would Lift California’s Low School Funding.

Kaplan, J. (2015, Nov). California’s Support for K-12 Education Ranks Low by Almost Any Measure.

Smarter Balance Results by State: 2014–2015. and McCrea, D. (2015, Nov. 20). Personal letter to author.

Career Tech Pathways
Schulzke, E. (2015, Dec 12). How Much Math Do College-Bound Students Really Need?

Fechter, J. (2014, Jan 31). State Nixes Algebra 2 for Most Students, Offers Other Math Options.

The Charles A. Dana Center. (2013, Jul). What Students Need to Know: Mathematics Concept Inventories for Community College Workforce Education Programs. The University of Texas at Austin.

The Charles A. Dana Center. Programs of Study & Mathematics Alignment. The University of Texas at Austin.

UC Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools. (2015, Jan 16). Statement on Approval of Statway. University of California. See also UC Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools. (2013, Jul). Statement on Basic Math for All Admitted UC Students.

Walton, I. (2013, Jun). Alternatives to Traditional Intermediate Algebra. Academic Senate for California Community Colleges.

Symonds, W. C., Schwartz, R., & Ferguson, R. F. (2011). Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: Pathways to Prosperity Project, Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Schwartz, R., & Hoffman, N. (2014, Dec 2). Career Pathways: A Route to Upward Mobility.

Thomas B. Fordham Institute. (2014, Dec 2). Education for Upward Mobility. The papers from this conference have been published in a 2015 book edited by Michael Petrilli, Education for Upward Mobility, and a second video conference on the book was held in 2016.

California Department of Education. PSAA Meeting Webcast Archive 2014. Meeting Handouts.

California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. (2013, Aug). Career Technical Education Pathways Initiative.

Advance CTE. The State of Career Technical Education.

American Federation of Teachers. (2014, Fall). American Educator.

Burdman, P. (2015). Publications. Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE).

Burdman, P. (2015, Nov 5). Math Placement Tests Deserve More Scrutiny.

Learning Works. (2015, Nov 10). Testing and Beyond: A Summit on the Future of College Math Placement.

Center for Community College Student Engagement. (2016). Expectations Meet Reality: The Underprepared Student and Community Colleges. The University of Texas at Austin, College of Education, Department of Educational Administration, Program in Higher Education Leadership.

Belfield, C., & Crosta, P. M. (2012, Feb). Predicting Success in College: The Importance of Placement Tests and High School Transcripts. Columbia University Teachers College Community College Research Center.

Linked Learning Alliance.

The California Center for College and Career (ConnectEd).

High Tech High.

Leal, F. (2016, Jan 26). $1.5 Billion Helping Career Pathways Take Off in California’s High Schools.

How Top Performers Build-and-Support: Provide an Engaging Broad-Based Liberal Arts Curriculum

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How Top Performers Build-and-Support
Provide an Engaging Broad-Based Liberal Arts Curriculum

by Bill Honig

A major component of every successful educational improvement effort is addressing the issue of what will be taught. Specifically, world-class educational performers provide all students with a challenging and engaging broad liberal arts curriculum—precisely the type of curriculum envisioned by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which have been adopted by more than 40 states. Many conventional reformers have supported the CCSS, seeing them as a mechanism for their high-stakes accountability agenda. Their position has been to establish national standards, assess performance against those standards, and attach consequences to low performance—the Test-and-Punish approach. I stand with a vast number of educators who, while rejecting an emphasis on test-based accountability, support the CCSS and the promise they hold for improving curriculum and instruction. The standards are consistent with what our most knowledgeable teachers and researchers have been advocating for years.

Why the Common Core State Standards Are So Important

The California Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts & Literacy (which almost identical to the national Common Core Standards) and the state’s framework explicating them (listed below) are based on the deeper learning that is taking place in our best schools and classrooms—reading, writing, and discussing literature and complex text and ideas; synthesizing those texts and ideas to construct arguments; reading widely; and mastering core academic content in history, science, civics, and humanities to enhance comprehension and better understand the world.

Deeper learning entails mastering more complex thinking and applying twenty-first-century skills. Deeper learning also produces higher learning. For a scholarly treatment of the concept of deeper learning, see the work of Maggie Lampert, the Learning Deeply blog, and Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine.

Mehta and Fine define the term this way:

There is no consensus on exactly how to define deeper learning. For example, it has often been described as the integration of academic, inter-, and intrapersonal skills and knowledge. Recent research findings strongly suggest that in order to succeed in college, careers, and all aspects of adult life, young people require more than just a command of academic content. They also need to be able to solve complex real world problems, collaborate, communicate effectively, monitor and direct their own learning, and develop an academic mindset.

Among many cognitive psychologists, however, deep learning—or what they might call learning for understanding—refers to the ability to transfer knowledge. The idea is that knowledge becomes deeper when one can use it not only to address a problem in the context in which it has been taught, but also to understand or explain something in a different but related context. Rather than seeing isolated facts, deep learners see patterns and connections because they understand the underlying structures of what they’re exploring.

The authors of this paper suggest that deeper learning requires the ability to transfer knowledge, and more. It often emerges at the intersection of mastery (knowledge of substantive content, including the ability to transfer), identity (driven by relevance to the learner), and creativity (the ability to act or make something from the knowledge).

However one defines it, though, deeper learning poses a multipronged challenge to current classroom practice and educational systems. It will require a major increase in the cognitive demand of the tasks that most students, particularly in high-poverty schools, are asked to complete.

The Common Core State Standards and the frameworks explicating them envision a substantial instructional shift to this type of enriched learning. (These frameworks are discussed in greater depth later in this article.)

I caught a glimpse of the future back in 1985, when I was California superintendent of public instruction and visited a seventh-grade classroom in Santa Barbara. The students were presenting research papers on college-level questions such as “What effect did the Galileo trial have on scientific investigation in southern and northern Europe?” I was amazed as teams of students presented their papers and then engaged in a sophisticated discussion with the rest of the class. Almost every student contributed. Discussants were serious, used sophisticated language, asked perceptive questions, and responded appropriately to what was being said. Afterward, when I met with their superb teacher, Naomi Johnson, it became apparent how much work had gone into creating the conditions that allowed the students to successfully participate in such an erudite academic discussion. She assured me that these advanced behaviors and abilities were also the result of several years of sustained learning in previous grades and tremendous efforts by the entire faculty at the middle school to assure that each class reinforced the skills students need to conduct research and actively contribute to academic discussions.

The Common Core State Standards for Mathematics are also internationally benchmarked—reflecting what math educators have been recommending: go deeper into fewer topics, incorporate practices such as modeling, discussion both in class and with peers, problem solving, and a greater emphasis on procedural skills, conceptual understanding, and application to increasingly complex situations. Both sets of standards, English language arts (ELA) and mathematics, build on existing best practices but demand significant changes in instruction. In addition, California combined the ELA Common Core Standards with state-adopted English Language Development (ELD) standards to create a framework that integrates both sets of standards, the ELA/ELD Framework.

The recently developed Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) offer similar pedagogical approaches in science, combining content and practices. These science standards have also been adopted by numerous states.

Similar documents have been developed to create national standards for history-social science such as the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards. In addition, many states have drafted and implemented their own standards for history-social science. The importance of science and history-social science content is also emphasized in Common Core’s ELA and mathematics standards.

Why Support the Common Core State Standards?

Most teachers in California are excited by the educational promise of providing an active, engaging curriculum, as called for in the new standards. They have long believed in and have expressed a strong interest in bringing the ideas to fruition. One of the most exciting aspects of the CCSS is that they incorporate the complex instructional expertise and practices that make up effective teaching. This means that implementing the CCSS can become the catalyst for every school to address each of the crucial components of effective instruction. It has been shown that failure in any one component affects successful practice and outcomes. Moreover, the shift to the more complex and active instruction envisioned by the CCSS requires schools to build collaborative teams and provide the support needed for continuous improvement in individual teacher and school performance. Each school can decide how to tailor its implementation strategy based on the needs of its staff. Depending on the teacher or school program, some proficiencies will become second nature while others may need constant attention. For more on the topic of effective teaching, see the companion article Provide High-Quality Instruction. For more about team building, see the companion article Build Teams and Focus on Continuous Improvement.

I know that the CCSS are controversial and that many people strongly object to various aspects of the standards. Some concerns do not relate to the standards themselves but to unwarranted classroom practices and misguided implementation policies. Examples include over-scripted instruction, assigning inappropriate activities to kindergarteners, or abuses at the state level such as New York State’s decision to arbitrarily set cut levels so high that huge numbers of students failed the tests. Criticisms of the standards are often based on a misinterpretation or misreading of what they actually say. For example, many people decry the devaluation of literature, basing their objections on the standards’ recommendation that 70% of high school reading materials should be informational text. However, a closer reading of the language in the standards reveals that the 70% refers to all high school reading, which means there would still be plenty of time in English classrooms for a full literature program. At the same time, incorporating some powerful essays, biographies, and nonfiction books such as The Double Helix into the English curriculum promotes the deeper learning educators seek.

I should mention that not all of my fellow Build-and-Support advocates believe in the value of the CCSS, as I do. In addition to opposing the Test-and-Punish approach, “market-based reform efforts,” privatization of schools, and corporate overreach, Anthony Cody, Diane Ravitch, and a few other respected thought leaders reject the Common Core State Standards themselves. They think the standards are so entwined with high-stakes accountability that they are unsalvageable and not educationally warranted or legitimate. I disagree on both counts. Diane graciously allowed me to plead my case on her blog. I began my post with “Common Core Standards, YES. High-stakes Testing, Rewards and Punishments, and Market-based Reforms, NO. The California Story.” My comments engendered quite the discussion.

For an intelligent critique of the Common Core State Standards, see also Thomas Newkirk’s Postscript: Speaking Back to the Common Core. California made a concerted effort to address many of his criticisms in its adoption of the Common Core Standards, in the frameworks based on them, and in its implementation strategies, which divorced the Common Core rollout from test-driven high-stakes accountability. For more on this topic, see the companion articles in The California Context.

The Crucial Role of Content Frameworks

In California and other states, content frameworks translate the CCSS into guides for curriculum, instruction, professional development, and adoption of materials. They are critical in turning the standards into a workable curriculum. Ideally, the effort of schools across this country to implement a curriculum that reflects the content frameworks aligned with the CCSS or other comparably ambitious standards can be the centerpiece of an alternative Build-and-Support reform movement. The key is to detach implementation of the Common Core Standards from the high-stakes, test-based punitive measures too often linked with them. This is what California and a few other states have done.

Useful California Content Frameworks and Support Documents

The Common Core State Standards Are Not a Curriculum

Before I discuss the California mathematics and ELA/ELD standards as examples of the complexity of curriculum and the discipline-based instruction proposed, one clarification is needed. The most successful districts spend time, effort, and thought in translating standards into a coherent and sequenced curriculum and thus avoid the trap of thinking that standards alone will improve educational performance.

The CCSS delineate what students should master, but they are not a curriculum. Jumping from the standards to create lesson plans misses the crucial middle step of developing a sequenced, coherent curriculum. Creating a local curricular framework for the district or utilizing one from the state informs the sequence and breadth of instruction. Developing this “scope & sequence” is complex. And without it, implementation of the CCSS is destined to fail.

For example, one of the seventh-grade math standards is to use proportional thinking and percentage to solve problems such as “If $50 is 20% of your total funds, how much do you have?” The standard does not say how much instructional time should be invested in helping students master the requisite skills (actually quite a lot) nor does it list which strategies will be effective, recommend a progression of learning, or explain how instruction should correlate with previous units.

The same is true of Common Core’s ELA & Literacy Standards. They stress the need for a coherent curriculum and a systematic buildup of knowledge through broadly defined literature and the disciplines. But the standards do not specify the actual content that should be used to reach those goals.

Unfortunately, many districts have not undertaken this crucial work. The Common Core State Standards Implementation Survey surveyed 818 districts in California, which represent 83% of state public school enrollment. In late 2013, only about one-third of the districts had created a scope and sequence for the CCSS in either English-language arts or mathematics for at least some grades. More than one-third of the districts reported that this work is planned “for the future,” and about one-quarter reported that they are not planning to engage in this work at all. At the same time, only about half the districts were creating units or lessons, or aligning existing units or lessons with the new standards. The situation has improved since 2013, but many districts still have not adopted a coherent standards-based curriculum including essential materials.

Resources for Developing a Coherent Scope & Sequence

First, existing framework documents such as the one developed by California provide essential advice on how to structure the curriculum, including the order in which standards should be taught; how much time should be spent on each standard; how a standard fits in the larger context of the grade-to-grade buildup of knowledge; strategies for instruction, intervention, and assessment; links to resources; and illuminating vignettes. Teachers need this broader context to maximize the effect of adopted or available materials.

Second, many proprietary core reading and math programs offer a well-constructed scope & sequence. Among them are those adopted in California in mathematics and in ELA/ELD. Some open-source education materials also have sound scope and sequences. All materials have undergone extensive reviews and have translated the CCSS and state frameworks into a serviceable curriculum for teachers. The programs also allow flexibility so that our best teachers and districts can enhance their materials with a variety of open-source educational materials such as those listed by ISKME—a mix-and-match strategy. Also see a network of states devoted to sharing open-source material.

Third, many of the nation’s best districts have developed their own scope and sequences, although many still incorporate basal texts in many disciplines based on their criteria. For example, Long Beach’s scope and sequence documents provide a comprehensive “blueprint” for strategically sequencing and operationalizing the grade level/course standards in ELA and mathematics. The critical attributes of each document are units laid out in sequence by theme/title; an indication of how much time to spend on each unit; a narrative description of each unit explaining its focus and purpose; a description of the standards to be assessed for each unit; an assessment narrative detailing the formative assessment strategies and practices included in each unit so teachers can monitor how well the students are learning; a notation of formative assessment lessons to be included in each unit during the second half of the unit with time allowed for reteach/review; an explanation of the structure and purpose of the interim or end-of-unit assessment; a list of item types that may be included, along with the rationale; and finally the reading-level range of the texts used in each ELA unit. Long Beach provides very detailed advice. Other districts may wish to offer more general guidelines.

Fourth, many websites offer progressions and scope and sequences for instruction such as Achieve the Core and Illustrative Mathematics. A November 2013 report by Hanover Research contained an exhaustive list of Common Core curricular resources and planning tools that are used by various states. Another list of resources is available at the California Department of Education (CDE) website, and a national open resources list aligned to the Common Core can be found at OER Commons. Finally, an online Internet tool for California educator collaboration and resource sharing, My Digital Chalkboard, contains supporting links and resources. Many states have also produced curricular planning guides. For example, the Colorado Department of Education has posted its own guide (Colorado’s District Sample Curriculum Project), as has New York. Many district scope and sequence efforts and units of instruction for standards implementation are available at the CDE, California County Superintendents Educational Services Association (CCSESA), and county office of education websites. Most districts are willing to share their work.

The Role of Core Basal Programs

One question that is troubling educators is how much they should rely on traditional prepackaged, comprehensive basal programs. With the availability of online and open-source materials, some people are predicting the demise of these programs. We are not quite there yet. Textbooks can be very useful in certain instructional areas, if they are part of a broader curricular approach and supplemented by digital or niche resources. For example, in addition to oral language development and reading books aloud, teaching beginning reading in English requires an organized, systematic presentation of letter/sound correspondences, progressing from the easier to the more difficult. Children need practice reading “decodable text,” or material that follows the letter/sound correspondences they have been taught. Designing such materials is complex, time consuming, and usually better left to knowledgeable sources.

Many textbooks have become too hefty—emphasizing coverage of content over depth. The new CCSS and corresponding frameworks propose deep learning, in which students learn how to read, evaluate, and create a range of multimedia. This requires differently designed materials. For example, Asian math textbooks are thinner and organized around challenging questions. In the US, publishers are creating hybrid programs that use both print and digital supporting materials. The recently adopted ELA/ELD materials in California are of high quality and reflect the values of the Common Core State Standards and California’s 2014 English Language Arts/English Language Development Framework.

While relying only on traditional basal programs would be a mistake and deprive teachers of engaging, effective options, refusing to take advantage of some organized materials would limit and diminish instruction for most teachers. The vast majority of teachers resist demands that they develop a full curriculum on their own—they have neither the time, expertise, nor inclination. Striking the proper balance with a mix-and-match strategy offers the best approach.

Unfortunately, reformers have neglected the crucial role of curriculum and instructional materials in improving educational performance. Linda Diamond, one of finest reading educators in the country, uses the metaphor of a three-legged stool. Teacher’s content and pedagogical knowledge of a strong, liberal arts curriculum is the first leg. Excellent instructional materials are the second leg. Doctors need the best tools, and so do teachers. Effective teams, support structures, and leadership are the third leg.

Improved Mathematics Instruction

As an example of the Common Core’s consistency with powerful research, the mathematics standards aim for deep content understanding—both procedural and conceptual—and the ability to apply such knowledge in increasingly complex situations. Instruction envisions a more interactive classroom that marries content with practice standards such as asking yourself if the answer makes sense, modeling, questioning, and explaining.

While delving into each discipline in detail is not the purview of this article, I will attempt to provide the flavor of the changes in each discipline. As an example of an instructional shift in mathematics, Jo Boaler proposes that students work on provocative questions. In What’s Math Got to Do With It?, she provides this example for third graders: “How would you solve 15 times 6 without pencil and paper?” This type of question stimulates a deeper understanding of the number system before students learn the algorithm and become procedurally fluent. Students can work in groups or individually to develop multiple ways of solving the problem and report back to the class for discussion of the pros and cons of each approach, all of which advance number sense.

Students might come up with these ideas: 6 times 10 and then add 6 times 5; 2 x 15, 3 times; 6 times 30 and divide by 2; 5 times 6, 3 times, and so on. Boaler challenges sixth graders with this math problem: A man on a diet can only eat ¼ of a pound of turkey a day. The market only sells packages of three slices, which is ⅓ of a pound. What fraction of the three slices can he eat? This question takes some thought, and there are several ways to solve it. (Spoiler hint: How many slices in a pound?) Or, a large cube that is painted on the outside that comprises smaller cubes of equal size, 10 by 10 by 10. How many cubes have one side painted, two sides, and three? Professor Boaler has collected scores of these engaging questions on her website. A steady diet of working on such problems produces deeper understanding and problem-solving abilities. For more on this topic, see “Not a Math Person: How to Remove Obstacles to Learning Math.”

I would add another example. Most adults have difficulty with proportional thinking, especially percentage. Many try to solve problems by rote application of the cross-multiplication rule, which is complex, prone to error, and precludes thinking about the underlying relationships. If you give students a problem such as “2 is to 3 as what is to 9?” (in the form of a 2-inch-high stick casting a 3-inch shadow, and a tree casting a 9-foot shadow—what is the height of the tree?) and ask them to figure out as many ways to solve it as they can, they will develop a deeper understanding of proportional relationships. Students could approach the problem as:

  • 2 is ⅔ of 3, so what number is ⅔ of 9?, or conversely
  • 3 is 1½ times 2, so 9 is 1½ times what number?, or
  • 9 is 3 times 3, so what number is 3 times 2?, or
  • the standard cross-multiplication procedure 2:3=x:9, so set up the equation 2/3=x/9, solve by cross-multiplying: 3x = 2 x 9 or 3x=18, 18 ÷ 3 = x, which leaves x alone and the answer is 6.

All of these methods work; each develops an understanding of proportional relationships. Outside the classroom no one proficient in mathematics would use the more complicated formulae in this situation. Instead, they would think about what is being asked and use one of the simpler relationships to determine the answer. Vignettes demonstrating examples of active classroom instruction are included in the California mathematics framework, and videos and grade-level content are available from numerous sites.

I know some people will question this approach, asking “Why waste all this time: Why not just teach students the most efficient procedure first?” Eventually, they need to learn to be automatic with a procedure so they can think about new material, but initially the opportunity to struggle with a question, to think about the relationships and concepts, and to communicate and listen to ideas is too beneficial to miss. Ask the Japanese who have perfected this method and lead the world in math performance. Often, learning to rely exclusively on applying a rule or procedure precludes deeper thinking about the problem: Which procedure makes the most sense?; which data is important or superfluous?; and does the solution comply with a reasonable estimate? Of course, some procedures just need to be eventually memorized such as multiplication facts. This is what the California Mathematics Framework advocates, although even in this case, there are proven strategies and patterns to facilitate the effort.

Jo Boaler argues that the way math has been taught in the US as a set of rules to apply—show a procedure, work a problem in front of the class, have students practice and do homework, and then test—is ineffective for many students. They forget the steps, plug in the wrong numbers to the formula, and don’t know which procedures to use when they encounter a more complex problem, which is key to being able to use numbers. Classroom instruction usually masks this point by making it obvious which procedure to apply (a student will know that all of the day’s problems are about multiplying fractions). For many students, when they encounter a problem without the clue they are stumped. Instead the CCSS standards of content and practice emphasize conceptual understanding in addition to procedural knowledge and application. Finally, a steady diet of a rigid instructional routine—get the answer by following the rules—alienates many students.

Facility with percentage provides a perfect illustration of the problem. Percentage is probably one of the most useful mathematical tools in everyday life. Yet only about 45% of the US population can use percentage effectively. Sal Khan has commented that Khan Academy collects data from millions of people around the world. They have discovered that percentage problems rank among the most difficult for large numbers of adults. This finding was explained years ago by Parker and Leinhardt in a 90-page article entitledPercentage: A Privileged Proportion.

According to these and later researchers such as Susan Lamon, fourth graders are better at solving percentage problems than sixth graders. Since they have not been taught the algorithm, they think creatively using benchmarks. For example, when asked “What is 60% of 40?,” fourth graders think: “I know 50% of 40 is 20, and 10% is 4, so it must be 24.” Many students in later grades stop thinking and just attempt to apply a rule. (Witness the difficulty people have with tipping 15%.)

What is hard about percentage is that the tool is actually shorthand for conceptually complex relationships and meanings tied to a 100th scale, which was historically developed over thousands of years. The key issue is determining the base for comparison and the ability to flexibly shift bases. For example, imagine that your boss tells you that owing to financial difficulties, she has to cut your monthly salary of $1,000 by 10% for one month, but she will raise it 10% after the month is over. You won’t be back to your previous level because the first base for the cut is $1,000, while the second base for the increase is $900. Or, a more common situation: The graduation rate in your school is 50% and increases to 60%. Is that a 10% increase or 20%? It is both, depending on what you are attempting to communicate. Ten percent more than 50% is a 10% increase compared to 100% (entire student body)—a standard way of evaluating schools, but the pool of graduates (represented by 50%) rose 20% (10/50). Tricky.

In middle grades, solving percentage problems is usually taught procedurally in a few lessons using the cross-multiplication rule. This results in massive failure rates. On assessments, significant numbers of eighth graders could not answer the question “What is 100% of 8?” If five to six weeks of class time are invested with heavy language mediation and numerous examples of comparing this to that and that to this, about 95% of students will become proficient in using percentage. This is an example of the CCSS approach—fewer topics taught more in depth.

Many students want to know why a procedure works and desire to tackle more complex problems using the practices delineated in the new standards. Direct instruction definitely has its place, and many successful teachers use it predominately and still manage to encourage deeper student thinking. But for most practitioners, posing complex questions and providing open-ended tasks should be added to their teaching routines. The California mathematics framework calls for teachers to determine a proper balance between direct instruction and more engaging activities.

What is mathematically most useful for the vast majority of people is the ability to figure out how to set up a problem and decide which data are relevant and which procedures to use—a skill that is developed through practice by encountering large numbers of problems and completing activities that require thinking. This idea was brought home to me when I was participating in a review of potential test questions for the CCSS-aligned Smarter Balanced assessments. At my table was Mike Kirst, president of the California State Board of Education and a professor from Stanford. Also present was the then chair of the University of California’s Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) committee who was an engineering professor at one of the UC campuses. We were given several questions to rank for difficulty. The one we all agreed was the hardest required only adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing but was challenging to think through, set up, and decide which procedures and practices to use and when.

The math used by most adults except for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) occupations is the application of math learned through eighth grade such as fractions, rates, proportions, and percentage applied to complex or unique situations. Also important is the ability to reason quantitatively such as reading charts and extrapolating data. Andrew Hacker maintains that that ability is missing from most secondary math courses.

A 2016 study from OECD sheds some interesting light on strategies that help low-performing math students. The authors found that students don’t necessarily hate math but have high levels of anxiety. Extracurricular activities, which don’t need to be math based, help. A major finding is that the right amount of homework is crucial. Six hours of math homework a week reduces the odds of becoming a low performer—a whopping 70% compared to those doing little or no homework. Beyond six hours, homework becomes stressful and further results stall. Finally, in a controversial finding, in the US and a few other countries, ability grouping actually increased performance of struggling students.

For an in-depth analysis of implementation issues, see the reports produced by the Math in Common (MIC) network, which is devoted to the successful execution of the California Common Core State Standards in Mathematics. Owing to the complexity of this more demanding math instruction, many districts are shifting to have upper-elementary math taught by math specialists.

More Comprehensive and Engaging Language Arts

Reading, writing, discussing, and analyzing text in a more active manner are hallmarks of the English Language Arts (ELA) Standards. The California ELA/ELD Framework integrates two sets of standards: state Common Core English Language Arts (ELA) Standards and state English Language Development (ELD) Standards.

Following is a short excerpt from a 2014 summary of the ELA/ELD Framework authored by JoAnn Isken, Carol Jago, and me, which explains the ideas behind the framework:

The outer ring of the graphic identifies the overarching goals of ELA/ELD literacy and instruction. By the time California’s students complete high school, they should have developed readiness for college, career, and we added civic life; attained the capacities of literate individuals; become broadly literate; and acquired the skills for living and learning in the twenty-first century.

California has grounded the framework in these broader purposes of the language arts. We want students to be able to understand complex text and ideas as well as reason, analyze, persuade, and problem solve. We also wish them to encounter a rich liberal arts education—learning about the world, civic life, and the human heart, being well read, and helping them reach their potential. We would like our youngsters to encounter a significant representation of the best classic and contemporary literature including novels, biographies, essays and plays as well as coherent content informational text in science, history, and the humanities. We would like them to experience the joy of reading engrossing stories and fascinating material.

So the ELA/ELD framework is about two main thrusts: First, attention to the totality of what students read both on their own in independent reading and in school in their liberal arts disciplines (including literature) during their school years, and second, the analytical, reasoning and literacy skills necessary to comprehend and apply knowledge gleaned from a variety of text structures. Both ideas are stressed in the multi-state Common Core ELA standards. To this end, the framework also recommends an organized independent reading program for each student to supplement what is read in school and provides advice on how to implement such a strategy in Chapter 2.

The developers of the ELD standards made a crucial decision from the start. They designed the standards to aid the large number of English-language learners (ELLs) in mastering the CCSS, which greatly facilitated the integration of the two sets of standards. They organized the ELD standards around five overarching themes—foundational skills, language, written and oral expression, content knowledge, and meaning-making strategies such as drawing inferences and making connections. The integrated ELA/ELD Framework adopted this architecture. All five themes work together to develop student comprehension.

The first strand is foundational skills. To understand the ideas in a text, the reader needs to automatically recognize almost all the words. For words already in the reader’s speaking vocabulary, that is the role of foundational skills—to teach them a process for becoming automatic with a growing number of words. Foundational skills address how to teach them these skills and include phonics, word attack skills (learning how to sound out new words, handle multisyllabic words, and recognize word structures such as prefixes, suffixes, and roots), and fluency instruction (the rationale and more details are covered in the companion articles The California Context). The foundational skills in the California framework are summarized in an extremely well-written white paper by Hallie Yopp, one of the authors of the framework.

For a useful compendium on research-based reading instruction and strategies, see Honig, Diamond, and Gutlohn’s Teaching Reading Sourcebook, Updated 2nd Edition and its companion book Assessing Reading: Multiple Measures, 2nd Edition. Both books were produced by the Consortium on Reaching Excellence (CORE), where I am president. The Sourcebook was one of only 10 publications endorsed by the National Council on Teacher Quality to cover beginning reading adequately. Of the 10, it was the fourth most used publication for preservice teachers.

In 2015, Louise Spear-Swerling wrote The Power of RTI and Reading Profiles and David Kilpatrick wrote Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. Along with the Sourcebook, these two books are among the best research-based books on how to teach children to read. They also explain some current misguided reading approaches that are still in widespread use. The companion article How the California Reading Wars Got Resolved: A Personal Story goes into further detail on the issue of the importance of foundational skills.

The second theme, language, deals with the crucial topic of vocabulary, text structure and syntax, and academic language—all critical to understanding text. Academic texts in English contain a large number of words that appear infrequently but are essential to understanding. To successfully complete high school, students need to understand approximately 65,000 words, although some words are members of the same word family. Consequently, from the outset, there must be a rich vocabulary development strand coupled with an extensive independent reading program. This is particularly crucial for the large numbers of low-income or ELL students who start school knowing far fewer words than their middle-class and English-speaking peers. For a valuable resource, see CORE’s Vocabulary Handbook and Word Intelligence, which is a vocabulary program for middle-grade students. In addition, as material and sentence structure become more complex and demanding in upper elementary, students must learn to handle challenging elements such as complex sentences with multiple dependent clauses. Finally, different disciplines such as history and science organize information in different ways and students need help in navigating these varied text structures.

The third theme enhances comprehension by concentrating on a student’s ability to express ideas in writing and speaking. This strand also includes spelling and writing conventions such as grammar. Often, until you have tried to explain something, you really don’t know it.

The fourth theme deals with the vital role content knowledge plays in comprehension and the importance of a systematic buildup of disciplinary and cultural knowledge through organized class work and independent reading. See the vast work on this subject at Core Knowledge and Liana Heitin’s blog “For Reading, Knowledge Matters More Than Strategies, Some Experts Say.” See also Vicki Cobb’s article “Why Reading to Learn Is Seldom Taught.”

And, finally, meaning making addresses the meta-cognitive skills of self-monitoring, drawing inferences, and thinking about what is being read.

Similar to math, English-language arts shifts to a more active instructional program including book discussions, projects, research, and making arguments and taking positions both in writing and speaking.

History, Civics, Economics, Geography, Humanities, and the Fine Arts

Changes in history/social science instruction follow a similar pattern as math and English language arts. The new California History-Social Science Framework and the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards encourage a more active curriculum. For example, in sixth grade, instead of marching through the growth of empires in Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, India, China, Africa, and Mesoamerica, teams of students may be assigned a particular area. Groups then investigate the history of their area, report to the class, and discuss the similarities and differences. Or, a teacher may pose the question: “Why did the Industrial Revolution start in England?” As in the other subject areas, understanding a combination of factual, conceptual, and historical processes seems the best mix, supported by powerful motivational content such as stories, narratives, historical fiction, biographies, projects, and performances.


Similar to the other disciplines, the new Next Generation Science Standards and the new California Science Framework elucidating them stress the marriage of content in physics, chemistry, life, and earth sciences, including health; evolution and human origins; practices such as modeling, explaining, and observing; active investigations and hypotheses generation; understanding historical science; the incorporation of larger cross-cutting themes such as energy; and motivational efforts such as biographies of leading scientists and stories of the fight to conquer various diseases. For a wonderful compilation of engaging and motivating stories of scientists, see Joy Hakim’s Science Stories: Proof That Informative Can Be Engaging.

Other Crucial Student Learning

Similarly, teachers need to know the latest research and best practice related to how students learn and retain knowledge. Many of the works cited above will help. In addition, I recommend:

  • Building Blocks for Learning: A Framework for Comprehensive Student Development
  • How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, which discusses the importance of personal and relational skills
  • Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, which covers the importance of self-monitoring and self-testing strategies
  • Mindset, which explains the importance of students believing that effort will lead to their success
  • Teacher and Student Evaluation: Moving Beyond the Failure of School Reform
  • Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, which reviews the research on which strategies produce the largest effect size such as just-in-time intervention and actively involving students in the educational process

Practitioners should know where to go to obtain answers to key questions that arise from their efforts to improve instruction. High on the educational agenda should be making pedagogical wisdom available in a usable format to the professional learning teams at each site. School teams could then adapt those ideas to their individual students.

This article has dealt with the what of teaching and learning—the curriculum. See also the companion article, Provide High-Quality Instruction, which explores how teachers can best deliver that curriculum in the classroom.

BBS Companion Articles

How Top Performers Build-and-Support
Ground Efforts on Unassailable Research
Provide High-Quality Instruction
Build Teams and Focus on Continuous Improvement
The California Context
California Policymakers and Educators Shift from Test-and-Punish to Build-and-Support
How the California Reading Wars Got Resolved: A Personal Story

Reference Notes

Why the Common Core State Standards Are So Important
Bitter, C., & Loney, E. (2015, Aug). Deeper Learning: Improving Student Outcomes for College, Career, and Civic Life.

Lampert, M. (2015). Deeper Teaching. Students at the Center: Deeper Learning Research Series. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.

Amarillas, M. (2016, Feb 4). Deeper Learning, Metacognition and Presentations of Learning.

Mehta, J., & Fine, S. (2015, Dec). The Why, What, Were, and How of Deeper Learning in American Secondary Schools. Jobs for the Future.

NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States.

Heitin, L. (2016, Feb 23). Curriculum Matters: Eight Things to Know About the Next Generation Science Standards.

California Department of Education (CDE). (2013). Next Generation Science Standards for California Public Schools: K–12.

National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). (2013). College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K–12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History. Silver Spring, MD: NCSS.

California State Board of Education. Content Standards.

Why Support the Common Core State Standards?
Ravitch, D. (2014, Jan 7). Bill Honig: Why California Likes the Common Core.

Newkirk, T. (2013). Postscript: Speaking Back to the Common Core.

The Common Core State Standards Are Not a Curriculum
Honig, B. (2014, Jan 29). Coherent and Sequenced Curriculum Key to Implementing Common Core Standards. See also Tucker, M. (2016, Feb 11). Building a Powerful State Instructional System for All Students.

California County Superintendents Educational Services Association (CCSEA). (2013). Common Core State Standards Implementation Survey: Statewide Summary of Results.

Resources for Developing a Coherent Scope & Sequence
California Department of Education. (2014, Jan 15). 2014 Mathematics Adoption.

California Department of Education. (2015, Nov 4). 2015 ELA/ELD Adoption.

OER Services.

Zubrzycki, J. (2026, Feb 26). 13 States Join Federal Open Resource Initiative.

Long Beach Unified School District. Scope and Sequence Documents.

Achieve the Core.

Illustrative Mathematics.

Hanover Research. (2013, Nov). Final Report–Common Core Implementation Tools. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

California Department of Education. All Curriculum Frameworks.

OER Commons.

My Digital Chalkboard.

Colorado Department of Education. Colorado’s District Sample Curriculum Project: Introduction.

New York State Education Department. New York State Learning Standards and Core Curriculum.

California Department of Education.

California County Superintendents Educational Services Association.

The Role of Core Basal Programs
Dobo, N. (2015, Nov 4). The Federal Government Urges K–12 Schools to Try Open Educational Resources.

California Department of Education. (2015). English Language Arts/English Language Development Framework for California Public Schools: K–12.

Boser, U. (2015, Oct 14). The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform: Do States and Districts Receive the Most Bang for Their Curriculum Buck?

Consortium on Reaching Excellence (CORE). The CORE Approach to Building and Sustaining Lasting Academic Excellence.

Improved Mathematics Instruction
Boaler, J. (2015). What’s Math Got to Do With It? How Teachers and Parents Can Transform Mathematics Learning and Inspire Success. New York: Penguin Books.


Schwartz, K. (2015, Nov 30). “Not a Math Person”: How to Remove Obstacles to Learning Math.

Heitin, L. (2015, Aug 13). Common Core’s Focus on Concepts Is Key to Improving Math Education, Report Says.

Parker, M., & Leinhardt, G. (1995). Percent: A Privileged Proportion. Review of Educational Research Winter 65.

Hacker, A. (2016, Feb 27). The Wrong Way to Teach Math. The New York Times.

Cuban, L. (2016, Mar 10). The Wrong Way to Teach Math (Andrew Hacker).

Heitin, L. (2016, Feb 11). What We Know About Struggling Math Students According to PISA Results. See also OECD. (2016, Feb 10). Low-Performing Students: Why They Fall Behind and How to Help Them Succeed.

WestEd. Math in Common Evaluation. See also Fong, T., Perry, R., Reade, F., Klarin, B., & Jaquet, K. (2016, Jan). Many Pathways to Student Success in Mathematics: Middle and High School Math Course Sequences and Placement Decisions in Math in Common Districts. and Perry, R, Finkelstein, N., Seago N., Heredia, A., Sobolew-Shubin, S., & Carroll, C. (2016, Jul). Taking Stock of Common Core Math Implementation: Supporting Teachers to Shift Instruction Insights from the Math in Common 2015 Baseline Survey of Teachers and Administrators. and Flaherty Jr., J., Sobolew-Shubin, A., Heredia, A., Chen-Gaddini, M., Klarin, B., & Finkelstein, N. (2016, Sep 26). Under Construction: Benchmark Assessments and Common Core Math Implementation in Grades K–8. and Perry, R. R., Seago, N., Burr, E., Broek, M., Finkelstein, N. (2015, Jan 26). Classroom Observations: Documenting Shifts in Instruction for Districtwide Improvement.

Disare M. (2016, Feb 16). 75 Schools Will Overhaul Math Teaching, a Move Fariña Says Will Reduce Inequity.

More Comprehensive and Engaging Language Arts
Isken, J. A., Honig, B., & Jago, C. (2014, Nov 15). California’s Recently Adopted English Language Arts/English Language Development Framework: Translating the Common Core State Standards to a Coherent and Sequenced Curriculum for All Students. California Department of Education.

Yopp, H. (2015). Resource Guide to the Foundational Skills of the California Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. California Department of Education. – search=Yopp 2015 Resource guide&view=FitH&pagemode=none

Honig, B., Diamond, L., & Gutlohn, L. (2013). Teaching Reading Sourcebook, Updated Second Edition. Novato, CA: Arena Press.

Diamond, L., & Thorsnes, B. J. (Eds.). (2008). Assessing Reading: Multiple Measures. 2nd Edition. Novato, CA: Arena Press.

Consortium on Reaching Excellence (CORE).

National Council on Teacher Quality. (2014). Standard 2: Early Reading. What Consumers Need to Know About Teacher Preparation.

Spear-Swerling, L. (2015). The Power of RTI and Reading Profiles: A Blueprint for Solving Reading Problems. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Kilpatrick, D. (2015). Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Diamond, L. & Gutlohn, L. (2006). Vocabulary Handbook. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

CORE. Word Intelligence.

Core Knowledge.

Heitin, L. (2015, Oct 29). For Reading, Knowledge Matters More Than Strategies, Some Experts Say.

Cobb, V. (2015, Jul 21). Why Reading to Learn Is Seldom Taught.

History, Civics, Economics, Geography, Humanities, and the Fine Arts
National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). (2013). College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards.

NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States.

Hansel, L. (2015, Aug 27). Joy Hakim’s Science Stories: Proof that Informative Can Be Engaging.

Other Crucial Student Learning
Stafford-Brizard, K. (2016). Building Blocks for Learning: A Framework for Comprehensive Student Development. Turnaround for Children.

Tough, P. (2013). How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

Lavigne, A. L., & Good, T. L. (2014). Teacher and Student Evaluation: Moving Beyond the Failure of School Reform. New York: Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York and London: Routledge.

How Top Performers Build-and-Support: Ground Efforts in Unassailable Research

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How Top Performers Build-and-Support
Ground Efforts in Unassailable Research

by Bill Honig

The failure of the reform movement could have been easily predicted. Reformers’ solutions are inconsistent with research findings on the best ways to build high-performing schools, and fly in the face of modern management theory. Unfortunately, policymakers continue to ignore what the most successful schools, districts, states, and nations have actually done. In becoming world-class institutions, none of the top performers used a fire-the-worst-teachers-and-reward-the-best strategy. Nor did they rely on the pressure of test-driven, high-stakes accountability, competition, privatization, and choice as the centerpiece of their improvement initiatives.

A Blueprint for Success

Over the past 30 years, a widespread consensus has emerged in the educational community on the best ways to improve school quality and student performance. These educators do not deny that large numbers of schools and classrooms need to greatly upgrade learning, but they believe that with the proper leadership, social and educational resources, and organizational support, most failing schools have the potential to succeed. The advocates of this Build-and-Support approach base their efforts on an overwhelming body of impeccable scholarship, indisputable evidence, and compelling experience.

This powerful consensus supports placing instruction at the center of improvement efforts, with a rigorous and active liberal arts curriculum. It recognizes the need to build teachers’ content and pedagogical knowledge and to provide effective instructional materials and tools. It emphasizes strategic long-term efforts aimed at building capacity and continuous improvement systems to support enriching instruction and focuses on the interaction of all these elements.

These measures also aim to improve working conditions by developing school, district, parent, and community social capital and teamwork. They base accountability on respect for the professionals at the school, and they connect school and district improvement efforts to usable information about best practice. This Build-and-Support approach recognizes the need for districts and states to reorient from a top-down command-and-control compliance mentality to a field-facing support approach based on dialogue and discussion of needed improvements.

Prominent Experts and Authors

An enormous and powerful cadre of respected researchers, educators, and practitioners has forcefully advocated and implemented the positive Build-and-Support strategy. The following pages present a few of those whose work has deeply influenced the positions and policies promoted on this Building Better Schools site. We will begin with Michael Fullan and Linda Darling-Hammond.

Michael Fullan is professor emeritus of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He is one of the prominent researchers and policy experts who promote building continuous improvement capacities around powerful instruction. He has been the intellectual godfather of Ontario, Canada’s successful rise from mediocre to world-class education. Fullan is currently advising many districts and states, including California, as well as other countries. For an example of his thinking, see Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform. He recently coauthored Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts, and Systems (2015) with Joanne Quinn.

A seminal thinker of the Build-and-Support approach, Fullan examines policy and strategy levers that drive reform. He has found that the four “drivers” now in favor in the US are inadequate and often counterproductive. He offers an alternative four that have proved to be more effective at improving student performance and closing the gap for lower-performing groups relative to higher-order skills and competencies. Fullan says these successful drivers foster intrinsic motivation of teachers and students, engage educators and students in continuous improvement of instruction and learning, inspire collective or team work, and affect all teachers and students 100%.

In Fullan’s view, the key to systemwide success is to appeal to the energy and dedication of educators and students, aligning the goals of reform with the intrinsic motivation of participants. Though superficially compelling, the prevailing drivers do not work. According to Fullan, these are the four “wrong” drivers:

  • accountability—using test results and teacher appraisal to reward or punish teachers and schools (vs. capacity building and continuous improvement)
  • individual teacher and leadership quality—promoting individuals (vs. collaboration and group solutions)
  • technology—investing in computer systems and digital media assuming they will be a quick fix to low performance (vs. using the best of a blended learning approach with a variety of educational media)
  • piecemeal reform measures (vs. integrated or systemic strategies)

Although each of these “wrong” components may be useful at times, they can never be successful drivers. In fact, Fullan notes that none of the top-performing countries in the world led their reforms with the four drivers that are the current favorites in the US.

Another way to describe Fullan’s more positive effort is “building a teaching profession around effective instruction.” A 2010 McKinsey report, How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better, supports his position. The report concludes that improving system performance “ultimately comes down to improving the learning experience of students in their classroom” and that systems achieve the best results when they “change their processes by modifying curriculum and improving the way that teachers instruct and principals lead.”

Linda Darling-Hammond is faculty director of Stanford University’s Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCORE). She is one of the most respected school improvement researchers in the country and a true national treasure. Darling-Hammond has been a tireless advocate of the Build-and-Support approach and an outspoken critic of the dangers of Test-and-Punish strategies. She has published hundreds of books and articles on these issues. Her book The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future received the coveted Grawemeyer Award in 2012. Among her most recent books are Getting Teacher Evaluation Right: What Really Matters for Effectiveness and Improvement and Beyond the Bubble Test: How Performance Assessments Support 21st Century Learning. She also wrote an article that appeared in American Educator (2010, Winter) about what it takes to build an effective teaching profession, citing examples from this country and abroad.

In 2012, California superintendent of public instruction Tom Torlakson created a prestigious commission chaired by Darling-Hammond and Chris Steinhauser, superintendent of Long Beach, which was designated one of the top districts in the world. The commission produced Greatness by Design: Supporting Outstanding Teaching to Sustain a Golden State, a superb road map for the Build-and-Support strategy, as it applies to supporting and improving teachers. California has used it to guide statewide improvement efforts. This document should greatly assist other states as they shape educational policy under the new powers given them in the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Greatness by Design delineates many of the key components of the Build-and-Support strategy:

  • a strong liberal arts curriculum and active instruction envisioned by the Common Core standards as the driver of improvement efforts
  • a focus on team building and capacity for continuous improvement with the structures to support those efforts
  • attracting, training, induction, effective individual and team professional development, evaluation geared to program improvement, and career opportunities for our best teachers to remain in the classroom but also to become master teachers with additional responsibilities as peer mentors

Professor Darling-Hammond also coauthored an excellent guide pertaining to professional learning, the Learning Policy Institute’s publication Maximizing the Use of New State Professional Learning Investments to Support Student, Educator, and School System Growth. This topic will be further explored in the companion article Build Teams and Focus on Continuous Improvement.

Lee Shulman, also of Stanford University, is president emeritus of the respected Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching, an organization that champions the Build-and-Support strategy. Throughout his career, he has championed the importance of craft knowledge and pedagogical practice in improving schools.

Michael Kirst, whose authorship has bolstered the Build-and-Support position, is president of the California State Board of Education and has led the charge for a more supportive strategy in California. Kirst was coauthor of an EdSource report that examined middle school math programs. It found that what distinguished high-performers from laggards was the extent to which the schools organized and collaborated around how best to teach a strong instructional program with district support.

Edward Haertel is professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and one of the top psychometricians in the country. He has persistently warned of the dangers of misusing tests for evaluation schemes.

Richard F. Elmore has also written extensively on the Build-and-Support approach. For example, he authored the chapter “Leadership as the Practice of Improvement” in Improving School Leadership, Volume 2.

Jal Mehta, a strong advocate for instruction-driven reform and capacity building, edited The Futures of School Reform. Mehta coauthors Learning Deeply, an influential blog, with Richard Rothman, a perceptive opinion leader.

Andy Hargreaves, of Boston College, is a policy expert who has supported and consulted on the positive Build-and-Support approach. Like Mehta and Rothman, he has written extensively about the importance of building social and professional capital and teacher engagement aimed at deeper learning for students. He coauthored Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School with Michael Fullan.

David Cohen is an important researcher who with coauthor Susan L. Moffitt wrote about the missing ingredient in federal policy—building capacity—in The Ordeal of Equality: Did Federal Regulation Fix the Schools?

Marshall Smith is the former dean of the Stanford School of Education and was undersecretary at the federal Department of Education during the Clinton years and program officer at the Hewlett Foundation. He has ceaselessly lobbied for a course correction of federal policy along the lines I have discussed. Smith was one of the first policy experts to encourage the feds to look at Massachusetts as a model rather than to pursue the Test-and-Punish approach.

Anthony Bryk is the president of the prestigious Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In 2010, it published a study examining the reform efforts that actually worked in the Chicago schools, which were in stark contrast to those undertaken by Arne Duncan when he was Chicago’s superintendent. Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago stresses school collaboration, along with strong curricular and instructional focus, principal leadership, community involvement, and student service support as the critical elements that characterized successful schools. Bryk’s team recently authored the superb book Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better.

Marc Tucker is president of the National Center for Education and the Economy. He authored Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform and an EdWeek article, “Creating Education Success at Home.” In 2011, Tucker published Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems, which advocated the Build-and-Support approach. Tucker’s extremely informative blog Top Performers is an excellent source of information about positive strategies being used worldwide.

In one of his blog posts, Tucker pointed readers to Is School Reform Working?, a must-read document bolstering the more constructive and effective measures. The author is Geoff Masters, chief executive officer of the Australian Council for Educational Research and one of the brightest educational theorists. Masters was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia, the highest honor the Australian government can bestow on its citizens. No slouch.

In his paper, Masters contrasts two improvement strategies. The first is incentive driven, using rewards, punishments, and competition—the familiar Test-and-Punish strategy. The second strategy focuses on building the capacity of teachers and educators to deliver high-quality instruction for all students and to continuously improve—the Build-and-Support approach. He found that the countries with falling scores on international assessments such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are those that adopted the Test-and-Punish approach, including Australia, New Zealand, England, and the United States. The countries that experienced improved results are those that followed the Build-and-Support strategy.

Master’s paper also provides one of the best descriptions of what successful nations do to support school improvement, specifically:

  • attracting and retaining high-quality teachers
  • ensuring that teachers know subject matter content and pedagogy
  • developing and supporting the capacity of teachers and leaders to work together toward improving teaching and instruction; and
  • guaranteeing that talent is widely distributed

Is School Reform Working? has a detailed description of the measures that school leaders should follow if they want results—measures that are completely aligned with the Build-and-Support approach proposed on this website.

Diane Ravitch has written extensively about the failures of the reform strategies, the widespread collateral damage to public schools, and the threat to the existence of public education by the “privatization” movement. Diane is the author of two recent books sounding the alarm about the punitive and privatization approaches being foisted on schools: Reign of Terror: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools and The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. She also edits one of the most influential blogs in the country, mentioned below.

Greg Anrig Jr. from the Century Foundation wrote Beyond the Education Wars, an important book about the importance of building social capital.

E. D. Hirsch, the founder of Core Knowledge, has advocated tirelessly for building students’ content knowledge and content’s role in comprehension. Core Knowledge promotes the steady buildup of knowledge. Schools using Core Knowledge materials have done spectacularly well.

Lisa Hansel is a perceptive commentator on the Core Knowledge blog.

David C. Berliner and Gene V. Glass cowrote 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education.

Pedro Noguera is the author of excellent books and articles. He contributes to the Bridging Differences blog, focusing on the dangers of the “reform agenda” and the importance of funding student support efforts and involving communities.

Two experts from management science have also made important contributions to our understanding of schools as complex, dynamic institutions:

Carrie Leana is George H. Love Professor of Organizations and Management at the University of Pittsburgh. She argues that collaboration at the school site is the most powerful strategy for improving instruction. Her research found that instructional conversation and help from fellow teachers outweigh all other improvement initiatives. Professor Leana calls into question reforms that pursue test-driven rewards and punishments. Since, according to her estimates, only about five percent of US schools are actually managed this way, the unrealized potential in expanding this approach far outweighs other strategies. Team building around powerful instruction and curriculum should be one of our major priorities.

Professor Leana emphasizes that this approach requires the following:

  • training principals how to promote collaboration and holding them accountable for it
  • building the infrastructure to support instructional improvement and team building
  • striving to get more talented people into our schools
  • avoiding rhetoric and policies that make collaboration more difficult

Writing for the Albert Shanker Institute blog, Esther Quintero has published a series of articles on the crucial importance of building social capital.

Content and Pedagogy Advocates

To build teacher’s content knowledge and pedagogy in mathematics, we can turn to several expert content specialists:

Deborah Ball from the University of Michigan is one of the foremost authorities on teacher knowledge necessary to teach mathematics and ascertain what students actually know. There are also Phil Daro, Jason Zimba from Student Achievement Partners, and Bill McCallum, who has developed the progressions tools and the fantastically helpful, illustrative math blog, Tools for the Common Core Standards. Daro, Zimba, and McCallum were primary authors of the Common Core Mathematics Standards that call for a more active classroom combining procedural, conceptual, and application instructional practices. Each is extremely active in Common Core implementation.

Other content experts include Karen Fuson from Northwestern University, one of the top researchers and experts on elementary mathematics, and Jo Boaler from Stanford, author of What’s Math Got to Do With It?, a book every teacher of math should read. Boaler is a strong advocate for the shift to more active and engaging instruction and a leading proponent of problem-driven and project-based instruction. She taught a widely popular MOOC course on the subject, and thousands of followers visit her website, Youcubed.

Also of note is Alan Schoenfeld from the University of California, Berkeley, whose writings on conceptual understanding, problem solving, and performance assessments have been very influential.

Professor Boaler has been an effective disciple of Carol Dweck, who wrote Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. The breakthrough book demonstrated the power of teacher attitude and active instruction in persuading all students that they can be proficient at math if they work at it. This is very different from the prevailing view of most teachers, students, and US citizens that math ability is fixed—you’re either good at it or not. Finally, there are the contributors to the Second Handbook of Research on Mathematics Teaching and Learning whose writings address necessary teacher knowledge in math. Ensuring that their ideas, which are incorporated in the Common Core Standards, become standard practice should drive improvement efforts.

To build teacher’s content knowledge and pedagogy in language arts, we can turn to the work of these authorities:

Timothy Shanahan, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Illinois; Linnea Ehri of the City University of New York (CUNY), one of the most respected theoreticians of beginning reading; Louisa Moats, contributing writer of the Common Core State Standards, Foundational Reading Skills; Louise Spear-Swerling, whose 2015 book The Power of RTI and Reading Profiles: A Blueprint for Solving Reading Problems is one of the best summaries of how best to teach children to read; Kenji Hakuta of Stanford University and one of the architects of the English Language Development Standards adopted in California that are now incorporated in a powerful ELA/ELD Framework; the writers of the California ELA/ELD Framework, Hallie Yopp Slowik, Nancy Brynelson, and Pam Spycher; Susan Pimentel and David and Meredith Liben from Student Achievement Partners; and Linda Diamond from the Consortium for Reaching Excellence in language arts.

In other disciplines, outstanding educational leaders include the following:

In science—Helen Quinn, a world-famous physicist from Stanford, wrote the national science framework on which the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) was based and co-chaired the California Science Curriculum Framework Committee.

In history/social sciences—Michelle Herzog is president of the National Council for the Social Studies, which produced the C3 Framework for Social Studies, and Nancy McTygue, from the University of California, Davis, directed the writing of the History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools.

In music, the arts and humanities, and physical education—Kristine Alexander is from the California Arts Project, and Diane Wilson-Graham is from the Physical Education-Health Project. Lynne Munson leads Great Minds, which brings schoolteachers together in collaboration with scholars to craft exemplary instructional materials and share them with the field.

Finally, under the leadership of Michael Cohen, the Achieve organization has been a major force for implementing the deeper learning envisioned by the CCSS.

Website Contributors and Bloggers

A number of influential bloggers and authors promote the Build-and-Support approach and caution against relying on more punitive measures:

Diane Ravitch, mentioned above, is one of the country’s most prominent educational historians. Her blog has a huge number of followers. A great deal of the content of Building Better Schools has relied on the extensive articles and authors she has published.

In addition to Marc Tucker, also mentioned above, there is Matthew Di Carlo a capable and fair researcher who writes on Albert Shanker Institute’s blog. He has written many pieces on the issues raised in this article. He also authored and sponsored a series on the importance of social capital, featuring Esther Quintero whom I have also mentioned previously.

Carrie Leana and Frits Pit contribute to the excellent Albert Shanker Institute blog. See, for example, “A New Focus on Social Capital in School Reform Efforts.”

For another preeminent authority, see Stephanie Hirsh’s website Learning Forward. It is one of the best sources of advice and protocols for building collaborative efforts at school sites.

Since 2012, Jennifer Berkshire has relentlessly and with great humor unmasked deceptive reform claims and practices on her blog, EduShyster.

Jeff Bryant writes for Salon and the Education Opportunity Network about the benefits of the more supportive option.

On his blog, Living in Dialogue, Anthony Cody writes about punitive reform measures and corporate overreach in schools.

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley critiques VAMs on her blog VAMboozled.

Lisa Hansel writes for the Core Knowledge blog. Her post “Seeking Confirmation” explains the complex nature of school improvement and investigative pitfalls.

On his blog, Dan Willingham gives commonsense advice and published a powerful series of articles on instruction.

David Kirp, of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote the recent book Improbable Scholars. It chronicles how Union City, New Jersey, and two other districts rose to excellence by following a supportive approach to reform.

Charles Kerchner writes an Education Week blog about California’s exceptional path.

Robert Pondiscio writes for Flypaper at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Educational Excellence Network.

Julian Vasquez Heilig is a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at California State University, Sacramento. His Cloaking Inequity blog examines the inequities of the reform agenda.

Mercedes Schneider is a Louisiana-based researcher who brilliantly refutes many of the reformers’ excessive claims on her blog, deutsch29.

Bruce Baker is professor of education finance and policy at Rutgers University. His website, School Finance 101, debunks many of the “reformers” arguments.

John Thompson is a historian who became an award-winning inner-city teacher. Writing for the Huffington Post, he deflates reform rhetoric.

The blogger Jersey Jazzman (Mark Weber) provides in-depth analysis of reform nostrums and the value of the alternative Build-and-Support approach.

KQED, a public TV station in the San Francisco Bay Area, has an excellent blog, MindShift, which is a fount of valuable educational ideas.

One of the best places to find theoretical support and practical advice related to the Build-and-Support philosophy is American Educator, the American Federation of Teachers magazine available online. Issued quarterly, it has been a consistent vehicle for top-notch scholarship in this area.

State and Local Leaders

As commissioner of education in the 2000s, David P. Driscoll helped lead Massachusetts to greatness. Tom Torlakson, California’s current superintendent of public instruction, has been a strong voice for the more collaborative approach centered on improving instruction.

Local leaders of exemplary California school districts successfully translated these supportive ideas into practice. Among them are Chris Steinhauser and Carl Cohn from Long Beach, Ronald Johnson from Sanger, Gabriela Mafi and Laura Shwalm from Garden Grove, Sandra Thorstenson from the Whittier High School District, Michael Hanson from Fresno whose attention to the potentially college bound has almost doubled the number of students who actually enroll in college, Dave Gordon and Sue Stickel from the Sacramento County Office of Education, Tom Adams from the California Department of Education, Joshua Starr and Jerry Weast from Montgomery County in Maryland, and Donald Shalvey, who previously ran the Aspire Public Schools, a charter school network. I must also acknowledge the many extremely capable administrators and teachers who work for and with these educational leaders. (Be sure to look at Turning Around a High-Poverty District: Learning from Sanger by Joan Talbert from Stanford and Jane David, a fascinating description of Sanger’s success story published by S. H. Cowell Foundation.

Successful districts have enjoyed the support of networks such as Jennifer O’Day’s California Collaborative on District Reform, which has sponsored scores of meetings between large districts and researchers in California to advance a Build-and-Support strategy and provides reports on major issues discussed. Rick Miller from the California Office to Reform Education (CORE), which comprises some of the largest districts in the state, is examining broader assessment alternatives, and the New York City Collaborative on Performance-Based Assessment is offering replacements for fill-in-the-bubble tests. Also see the list of networks compiled by the Carnegie Foundation.

In addition, David Plank from Policy Analysis for California Education has provided very helpful reports on implementation of Common Core issues. Three advocacy group leaders—Ted Lempert from Children Now, Ryan Smith from Education Trust West, and Arun Ramanathan from Pivot Learning—have supported Common Core because of the potential of those standards to improve the performance of low-income students and students of color.

The expert advocates I have named in these pages make up an impressive list of Build-and-Support proponents. I offer my apologies to the countless others who have also contributed to redirecting reform on a positive path but are not included here. The list could go on, but the main point is that there is extensive and unassailable backing for a supportive approach and validation of the dangers of the punitive strategies that are being promoted and implemented throughout our country.

In summary, the experts cited have found that all successful schools, districts, states, and nations have framed their initiatives around respect and trust. They eschewed short-term “silver bullet” approaches. Instead, they focused on long-term, comprehensive measures and adequate resources to encourage engagement, cooperative effort, relational trust, and continuous improvement. All efforts were aimed at improving the quality of instruction of individual teachers centered on a broad, liberal arts curriculum as well as developing the capacities of the whole school staff—the building of social capital. These strategies are emphasized in business and management schools, are widely used in industry, and are especially appropriate for high-performing professional enterprises. Such organizations are staffed by professionals who deal with complicated and difficult problems on a daily basis and require skilled practitioners to repeatedly adapt craft knowledge to complex situations.

Highly productive schools and districts understand that the secret to top performance is participation and teamwork. Only by unleashing their power can institutions improve and enhance the performance of each individual. To that end, they devote significant efforts to helping teachers trapped in isolated classrooms learn how to work together in becoming better at what they do. These exemplary districts understand that punitive, high-stakes schemes often undermine engagement and cooperative effort.

BBS Companion Articles

How Top Performers Build-and-Support
Build Teams and Focus on Continuous Improvement

Reference Notes

A Blueprint for Success
Tucker, M. (2016, Mar 3). Why the Common Core Will Be Declared a Failure.

Prominent Experts and Authors
Fullan, M. (2011, May). Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform. Centre for Strategic Education.…/Fullan-Wrong-Drivers-Paper.pdf

Fullan, M., & Quinn, J. (2016). Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts, and Systems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Mourshed, M., Chijioke, C., & Barber, M. (2010, Nov). How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better. See also Paine, S. L., & Schleicher, A. (2011, Mar). What the U.S. Can Learn from the World’s Most Successful Education Reform Efforts. McGraw-Hill Research Foundation.

Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. Linda Darling-Hammond.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future. New York: Teachers College Press.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2013). Getting Teacher Evaluation Right: What Really Matters for Effectiveness and Improvement. New York: Teachers College Press.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Adamson, F. (2014). Beyond the Bubble Test: How Performance Assessments Support 21st Century Learning. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.

Tom Torlakson’s Task Force on Educator Excellence. (2012, Sep 17). Greatness by Design: Supporting Outstanding Teaching to Sustain a Golden State. California Department of Education.

Bishop, J., Darling-Hammond, L., & Jaquith, A. (2015, Nov). Maximizing the Use of New State Professional Learning Investments to Support Student, Educator, and School System Growth.

Williams, T., Haertel, E., Kirst, M. W., Rosin, M., & Perry, M. (2011, Feb). Preparation, Placement, Proficiency: Improving Middle Grades Math Performance. EdSource.

Haertel, E. (2013, Oct 21). The Flaws of Using Value-Added Models for Teacher Assessment.

Elmore, R. F. (2008, Jul 31). Leadership as the Practice of Improvement. OECD.

Learning Deeply.

Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cohen, D. K., & Moffitt, S. L. (2009). The Ordeal of Equality: Did Federal Regulation Fix the Schools? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S., & Easton, J. Q. (2010). Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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Why Conventional School “Reforms” Have Failed: Reformers Allowed Their Rhetoric to Be Hijacked

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Why Conventional School “Reforms” Have Failed
Reformers Allowed Their Rhetoric to Be Hijacked

by Bill Honig

One of the unfortunate side effects of the reform movement is that it has allowed anti–public school advocates to hijack the rhetoric that demonizes teachers and trumpets market-based solutions for schools. Policymakers have used negative reform rhetoric to justify severe, highly damaging cuts in public education as they pursue an aggressive agenda of privatizing public schools through unrestricted charter school expansion or voucher plans, emasculating teacher unions, and significantly reducing workplace protections for teachers.

Damaging Cuts in Public Education

Many of these destructive schemes were recently enacted in several states that were once staunch supporters of public education. In Indiana, for example, from 2009 to 2013 public school funding was cut by more than $3 billion. During the same period, charter funding was increased by $539 million, vouchers by $248 million, and virtual schools by $143 million. Students who attend public schools account for 94% of Indiana students and took a huge hit. The remaining seven percent gained more than $900 million.

Similarly, in North Carolina, which had been a lighthouse state in the nation, scoring among the top-performing districts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Diane Ravitch reports:

Tea Party Republicans took control of the legislature in 2010, and a Republican governor was elected in 2012, the first time in a century that Republicans controlled the state. Since taking power, the Republicans have slashed the budget for public education at all levels. They have enacted a law to authorize charter schools, including for-profit charters. They enacted a voucher law. They welcomed for-profit virtual schools. They have set out to shrink government and diminish the public sector. Per-student spending is now near the lowest in the nation, as are teacher salaries. The legislature has gone after teachers’ tenure and benefits. It shut down a five-year career teaching preparation program at the University of North Carolina, called the North Carolina Teaching Fellows, yet allocated almost the same amount of money to pay for Teach for America recruits, who will come and go.

See also a series of articles published in the North Carolina Observer decrying the severe cuts and negative legislation affecting public schools. Michael Leachman and his colleagues drafted a report for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that documents the severe cuts in education nationally since the 2009 recession:

At least 31 states provided less state funding per student in the 2014 school year (that is, the school year ending in 2014) than in the 2008 school year, before the recession took hold. In at least 15 states, the cuts exceeded 10 percent.

Antigovernment and Antiunion Forces at Work

The extreme-right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has convinced many Republican-led legislatures and Republican governors to enact a privatization agenda driven by antagonism to government services in general and public schools specifically. This is a continuation of the nineteenth-century fight waged by antitax forces that opposed funding public education and resisted government-sponsored schools, objecting to the cost of educating other people’s children. For an excellent summary of these battles, see Dana Goldstein’s book, The Teacher Wars.

Luckily for this nation, the counterargument won the day and proved to be accurate—public schools for all has a beneficial influence on the economic and democratic health of our country. Public education is universally recognized as the cornerstone of the spectacular growth the country experienced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Regrettably, ALEC and some of its billionaire supporters such as the Kochs are trying to re-litigate the issue. An alarming account of how the libertarian Koch brothers and their billionaire fellow travelers foisted an extreme right-wing agenda on the Republican Party nationally and in many states and thus in much of the country is chronicled chapter and verse in Jane Mayer’s 2016 book, Dark Money.

As an example, Rick Hess, who has solid reform credentials, has taken his fellow reformers to task for the motives underlying the way they structured the passing levels on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC), the new assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Hess claims reformers advocated setting the passing levels arbitrarily high; then they used the discontent engendered by mass failures to drive their agenda of harsh accountability and privatization of public schools. He argues that their strategy was particularly effective in suburban districts.

Moreover, many wealthy “reform” advocates have spent huge amounts of money promoting wholesale expansion of charter schools and vouchers. One example is the Walton Foundation, which announced in 2016 that it will spend $1 billion on new charter schools. Similarly, Netflix’s Reed Hastings’s new foundation will spend $100 million on charter expansion. His expressed goal is to convert all public schools to charters. The Bradley Foundation in Wisconsin has spent more than $100 million to encourage the privatization of public schools, including voucher programs. A final example is the advocacy group headed by Campbell Brown and heavily funded by the same cast of characters. The former anchor is helping the billionaire-backed charter lobby spread the gospel of educational reform.

Alas, much of the negative reform rhetoric is also driven by a desire to break or curtail teacher unions for political reasons or because reformers believe unions prevent the dismissal of low-performing teachers. Ironically, the most unionized states have the best educational records. Massachusetts is a case in point. Recent research supports this view—the extent of unionization doesn’t lower performance but rather enhances it. As further evidence, many states with weak or no teacher unions lag considerably in student achievement.

Almost all of our highest-performing districts have figured out how to work closely with their unions to focus on improving instruction. Often, the push for enhancing instruction and continuous improvement originates with union advocacy. It is also true that local union recalcitrance sometimes frustrates genuine improvement efforts such as making it difficult to create learning teams at schools. For an example of a cooperative approach, see “Teacher-Community Unionism: A Lesson from St. Paul” and “Turning Around a High-Poverty School,” which discusses how Sanger Unified in California, a high-scoring district, developed working partnerships with its unions. Finally, Humphrey, Koppich, and Tiffany-Morales in their 2016 report Replacing Teacher Evaluation Systems with Systems of Professional Growth: Lessons from Three California School Districts and Their Teachers’ Unions demonstrated how San Jose, Poway, and San Juan school districts created effective working relationships between their district administrations and teachers’ unions.

A Toxic Narrative

One disturbing aspect of the current reform storyline is particularly galling to educators. It is bad enough that reformers and the media ignore the fact that Test-and-Punish measures do not work and fail to consider the compelling body of research that shows the efficacy of Build-and-Support. But there also exists a tendency among reformers and their advocates to ascribe all examples of educational excellence to charter or private schools and to ignore exemplary practices in public schools despite their widespread existence. This is a flagrant case of bias.

In our political, cultural, and social spheres a superficial narrative has taken hold—“Public schools and their teachers are bad; charter schools are good.” We’ve gone from Goodbye, Mr. Chips; To Sir, with Love; and Dead Poets Society to Bad Teacher and the hanger-on teacher in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. One of the most egregious examples of the media’s anti–public school bias and attacks on teachers’ unions is the 2010 documentary Waiting for “Superman.” Sponsored by reformers and praised by the press, the film gives a hallowed view of every charter school. Every vignette from the public school is horrendous. The film could just as easily have profiled a superstar public school and an appallingly ineffective or fraudulent charter school, which would have been similarly one sided and dishonest.

Positive stories about public schools are seldom seen. Two good examples are an article about an inner-city school in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and a story about a low-income public school in Watts whose success was powered by veteran teachers and effective teamwork. Although the story is highly positive overall, its headline begins with a gratuitous slap: “In a desert of school failure …” Another account of home-grown school improvement appears in Dale Russakoff’s book, The Prize. It describes the valiant success of Brick Avon School, a public school in Newark, New Jersey, that faced detrimental district policies.

Even some supporters of the Build-and-Support approach fall into the trap of biased reporting. The book Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works makes the case for the importance of craft and pedagogical knowledge. In the otherwise impressive book, author Elizabeth Green writes only about charter schools when providing examples of excellence. She contends that many started out with a narrow educational philosophy based on a strict, behavioristic “no excuses” approach focusing on reading, math, and test prep. After realizing that this did not produce results, a few responsive leaders shifted to a broader curriculum and an evidence-based educational philosophy that recognizes the importance of engagement. This evolution should be commended. But countless excellent public schools with a rich educational program never succumbed to a prison-like, test-prep atmosphere. They have been producing extraordinary results for years. Green never mentioned them.

Impossible Goals and Severe Consequences

The toxic narrative was exacerbated by federal and state policies that set impossible goals with severe consequences. For example, a decade ago reformers at the national level established an absurd standard: Every school had to reach 100% “proficiency” by 2014. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation may have sounded reasonable on its face, but the standard was based on the NAEP proficiency levels that equate to A or B work and designed to predict readiness for a four-year college curriculum. Only about a third of US students intend to attend four-year institutions. Increasing the number of students prepared for four-year colleges was a laudable goal and should be part of any accountability system given the rising demand for college graduates. But to enshrine that goal as the only measure of success was inappropriate and unfair for a large number of our students who could profit from rigorous alternative pathways. It was also patently unfair for the educators who were working with them.

Tellingly, no country, district, and almost no schools performed at that unrealistic 100% proficiency level. Our highest-performing state, Massachusetts, which scores among the world’s best, had just over 50% of its students reaching proficiency. Widespread failure was built in at the start because politicians were afraid to set reasonable goals for fear of looking weak or reducing pressure on schools. Most of our political and opinion leaders were completely indifferent to the devastating effect that setting this unreachable goal would have on public education. Others were more purposeful—intentionally attempting to discredit public education as more and more schools would be labeled failures. Sadly, the media has joined in this unfair characterization. Although the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) eliminates this impossible requirement, most accountability schemes including the SBAC and PARCC tests as well as media reports of test scores continue to use this level as a standard. Any student not meeting the four-year college preparation level is labeled a “failure.”

During his tenure as US secretary of education, Arne Duncan gave waivers to large numbers of states when it became apparent that under NCLB almost every school in the country was going to be deemed a “failing school.” Unfortunately, he required states to adopt certain policies in exchange for the waiver—one of them being a discredited teacher evaluation system based on student test scores. A few states, including Washington, balked at the requirements and had their waivers terminated. That state was in the ludicrous position of having to brand nearly every school in the state a failure, which would have devastated teacher, parent, and student morale and further eroded public support. Again, the new ESSA legislation not only eliminates unrealistic national goals but abolishes the secretary of education’s ability to unilaterally enforce reform policy.

Lessons from New Orleans

In some extreme instances, states have privatized entire districts, converting all public schools to charter schools. A decade ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana forced New Orleans to follow this path. What ensued was the wholesale elimination of the public schools that were the center of many communities, the firing of most teachers, and the creation of nonaccountable institutions under the umbrella of the state-run New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD). Unquestionably, prior to Katrina the district was severely dysfunctional and one of lowest scoring in the country. But the drastic measures taken in the name of reform created new problems. This is tragic given that better, less disruptive alternatives could have been pursued.

The New Orleans experience has been hyped by reform advocates as an extraordinary success story and, until recently, uncritically covered by the media. Adam Johnson wrote an excellent critique of the fawning media coverage. More objective analyses of the RSD have questioned the purported gains and detailed significant collateral damage: hours-long bus rides and other hardships foisted on children, substantial resegregation, and unaccountable schools as well as community erosion and alienation.

Failing Grades

According to blogger and education activist Mercedes Schneider, one decade later most New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD) charter schools received Ds or Fs by a charter-friendly state education department. Out of 57 schools, 15 received Fs or were so low as to be in turnaround status; 17 received Ds; only 7 received Bs; and none earned an A. The RSD schools still rank among the lowest-scoring schools in the country. Schneider also cites a recent report that showed only an embarrassing 12% of the high school students in the district who took the ACT college preparation test scored high enough under the state’s regent requirement to qualify for a Louisiana four-year college. Schneider has also debunked claims of better-than-average graduation rates.

Other people have documented the continued extremely low performance of the RSD despite a decades’ worth of effort. Among them are Julian Vasquez Heilig and Andrea Gabor, who raised potent questions about the viability of the New Orleans model for reform when she wrote a response to the defenders of the district in The New York Times. See also “The Uncounted,” Owen Davis’s blog post that raises the possibility that the New Orleans reform effort harmed the city’s most vulnerable children:

A decade after Hurricane Katrina spurred New Orleans to undertake a historic school reform experiment—a shift to a virtually all-charter district with unfettered parent choice—evidence of broader progress is shot through with signs that the district’s most vulnerable students were rebuffed, expelled, pushed out or lost altogether.

For another negative report on the supposed success of the RSD, see Ten Years after Katrina, New Orleans’ All-Charter School System Has Proven a Failure. Finally, an editorial in The New Orleans Tribune, a major African-American newspaper, decried the reform efforts in New Orleans and its meager results.

In 2015, Frank Adamson, Channa Cook-Harvey, and Linda Darling-Hammond produced the most comprehensive and exhaustive examination of the New Orleans experiment in districtwide charters. Whose Choice? Student Experiences and Outcomes in the New Orleans School Marketplace is their 72-page report developed for the Stanford Center on Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE). The authors came to conclusions similar to those I have previously discussed. The New Orleans experiment led to the creation of a stratified system, which more often than not produced low-quality education and was highly detrimental to large numbers of vulnerable students and their communities. They demonstrated that claims of increased performance for the RSD were not warranted and that schools in the RSD still scored extremely low on measures using accurate data.

Limited Gains and Unnecessary Damage

Even reports that found some progress demonstrate that in light of the extremely low starting point, the gains in New Orleans have been minimal. After 10 years, the effect size ranges from only 0.2 to 0.4 SD—still leaving the district as one of the lowest scoring in the nation, with one of the country’s highest levels of economic and educational disparities according to race.

The alleged gains could just as easily be attributed to the substantial increases in funding that occurred over the last decade or to changes in demographics since large numbers of low-achieving students left New Orleans after Katrina. Clearly, these small increases were hardly worth the major disruptions caused by closing just about every local school and firing 7,000 teachers, most of whom formed the backbone of the African-American middle class in the city. For a heart-wrenching account of the callous treatment of New Orleans teachers, see “Death of My Career: What Happened to New Orleans’ Veteran Black Teachers?” in Education Week and the extensive quotations in the SCOPE report cited above. For a forum with differing points of view on the New Orleans experience, see the Albert Shanker Institute’s series of conversations “Ten Years After the Deluge: The State of Public Education in New Orleans.” Finally, Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance, by Kristen Buras (2014), provides a devastating look at the harm caused in New Orleans by the abandonment of public schools.

Unquestionably, some excellent charter schools have been created in New Orleans, and many dedicated teachers and principals are making heroic efforts to improve instruction. Yet better schools and outcomes could have been produced without such drastic measures. Even researchers who supported the reforms have declared that New Orleans should not be held up as a model for the nation.

Other Failed Examples: State Takeovers

Problems similar to those in New Orleans have been found with the Achievement School District (ASD) in Tennessee, which is now being touted as a model for the rest of the country. The ASD forces low-scoring schools into a state-run district. Its mission was to increase schools scoring at the fifth percentile or below to the 25th percentile in five years. Three years into the project, of the six original schools, the percentile scores of two had decreased; two stayed the same; and two increased to only the sixth percentile. Hardly a success story. Chris Barbic, the district’s superintendent, had been promising significant growth. He resigned at the end of the third year. In 2015, Memphis requested a halt to expansion of the Achievement District due to low performance. Other reports show that recovery districts in Philadelphia and Michigan have been similarly ineffective. According to a balanced review of state achievement districts, state-run districts have not been able to turn around most low-performing schools. The Center for Popular Democracy published a report titled State Takeovers of Low-Performing Schools: A Record of Academic Failure, Financial Mismanagement & Student Harm. The report includes a summary of its findings:

The rapid proliferation of the takeover district as an educational panacea is alarming. In this report, we examine the record of the three existing takeover districts, and find that there is no clear evidence that takeover districts actually achieve their stated goals of radically improving performance at failing schools. We find that:

  1. Children have seen negligible improvement—or even dramatic setbacks—in their educational performance.
  2. State takeover districts have created a breeding ground for fraud and mismanagement at the public’s expense.
  3. Staff face high turnover and instability, creating a disrupted learning environment for children.
  4. Students of color and those with special needs face harsh disciplinary measures and discriminatory practices that further entrench a two-tiered educational system.

Similarly, the National Educational Policy Center issued a well-researched report, The “Portfolio” Approach to School District Governance, documenting the harm done to communities by portfolio or recovery districts closing neighborhood schools. The report instead advocates solutions aimed at improving existing neighborhoods and their schools.

Incredibly, some other states and districts are now pursuing the creation of “district-wide recovery districts.” As a potential model for his state, the governor of Georgia recently visited New Orleans—despite the district’s poor performance. A local editorial took the governor to task for looking at New Orleans, instead of taking his delegation to Massachusetts, which has world-class schools. A conservative Republican legislator objected to the proposal, citing its crony capitalism and support from ALEC. On a more hopeful note, parents, educators, and other citizens in Arkansas recently defeated a statewide privatization attempt by the Walton Family Foundation that would have replaced public schools with charters.

Privatization Failures

Washington, DC, in the past decade and Milwaukee 20 years ago instituted extensive voucher and choice plans, and both continue to score at the bottom of urban districts on the NAEP test, state assessments such as PARCC, and college attendance and graduation rates. Arizona’s 20-year-old voucher program, disguised as a tax credit, has been the object of similar criticism. Denver instituted the full Test-and-Punish and privatization agenda several years ago and remains near the bottom of urban districts.

An evaluation of the Louisiana voucher program found that students using vouchers to enroll in private schools did substantially worse—a 0.4 SD drop in mathematics and a large drop in other subjects. The report states: “Attendance at an LSP-eligible private school lowers math scores by 0.4 standard deviations and increases the likelihood of a failing score by 50%. Voucher effects for reading, science and social studies are also negative and large. The negative impacts of vouchers are consistent across income groups, geographic areas, and private school characteristics, and are larger for younger children.” David Lubienski has summarized recent research showing that vouchers do indeed harm students.

Those responsible should have examined the harm caused when countries such as Sweden, Chile, and Colombia pursued aggressive privatization agendas. Sweden, which adopted wholesale voucher and choice approaches, suffered a drastic drop in educational performance on international assessments and is reconsidering its privatization policies.

Chile provides another perfect case study on what not to do. Twenty years ago, acolytes of Milton Friedman engineered a privatization voucher scheme. Results were a dramatic decrease in educational funding and a substantial rise in inequality caused by the steady decline into a two-tiered educational system. Chile scores near the bottom on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, and the country is now revising its entire educational plan, including eliminating for-profit voucher schools.

Finally, the argument made by voucher advocates that they assist low-income students turns out to be false. According to a 2016 report by the Southern Education, Race and Ethnicity in a New Era of Public Funding for Private School, recent voucher plans have exacerbated the problems of segregation by diverting over $1 billion to less diverse private schools.

There is evidence from both home and abroad that the privatization of public schools is not the answer. Yet many states—those with newly elected Republican majorities as well as New York—have intensified their interest in reform measures that are actually thinly disguised voucher plans. These initiatives offer substantial business tax credits for “scholarship” plans or donations. The initiatives have not produced worthwhile results but have drained large sums from public schools. Public school budgets must initially absorb the costs of paying tuition for up to 10% of students presently in private schools. Then they suffer further financial burdens when students opt to leave a public school for a private school. The cost to the public schools has been substantial. As an example, in Wisconsin, “according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the voucher program will cost Wisconsin taxpayers over $1.1 billion from 2011 through the end of the 2015–17 budget cycle. Meanwhile, a new report found that Wisconsin schools have suffered the 4th biggest cuts in the nation through 2014.” In light of these realities, in 2016 a Nevada court found that the recently enacted voucher program in that state violated the state constitution and halted the program, saying vouchers diverted funds from public education to the private sector.

Even the most ardent defenders of free-market competition would never countenance requiring their industry to pay for potential competitors, yet that is exactly what states are demanding of public schools.

In many states, governors and legislators are responding to pressure from well-heeled owners of charter school franchises who make sizable political contributions. With minimal financial or educational accountability and transparency, they are pushing through lucrative property deals and public bond funding to replace large numbers of public schools. This type of giveaway is reminiscent of Russia’s gifting billion-dollar state enterprises to a favored few. In a recent interview, Preston Green contends that unregulated charter school expansion will result in a catastrophe comparable to the subprime mortgage crisis.

Finally, while the costs of a few charters do not put a district in jeopardy, if charter expansion becomes widespread, at some point a tipping point is reached. At that point, schools serving the non-charter student must substantially cut back and the district becomes extremely vulnerable. Further widespread privatization plans severely impact communities.

It is disappointing how many politicians from both parties have joined forces with or played into this agenda. One example is New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who has vowed to “break” public education. At the urging of a small number of billionaire hedge funders, he has been a forceful advocate for the Test-and-Punish approach. Unlike other states, New York rashly began high-stakes testing before teachers had a chance to implement the Common Core State Standards. It took part in setting the proficiency levels way too high, which forced large-scale failure rates. State leaders then berated the schools and teachers for their low performance. Cuomo has publically denounced teachers and their unions and, most disturbingly, has persuaded Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature to enact an extremely punitive teacher evaluation plan that incorporates all the damaging components of Test-and-Punish. Mike Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, labeled Cuomo’s proposal “insane.” Cuomo is also pursuing voucher plans for private schools. Faced with mounting opposition, the governor backed off some of these proposals in late 2015.

Seeking Common Ground

Thankfully, some original supporters of Test-and-Punish strategies are now revising their views in light of stalled performance gains and evidence of massive disruption and backlash. Chester Finn, president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is a strong advocate of choice and charters, but he now admits that he undervalued the importance of instruction and capacity building. Mike Petrilli, the institute’s current president, has been promoting a more balanced, less punitive approach to reform. Petrilli has also changed his view on what he now perceives as federal overreach. We do disagree on two issues: the relative importance of charters and the supposed harm caused by unions.

Katy Haycock from EdTrust initially argued that it was necessity to put pressure on the schools because without coercion schools would not attend to the needs of minority children. She now supports a more nuanced position, also emphasizing the need for positive engagement and capacity building. Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is another thought leader who recommends a balanced view of teacher evaluation and accountability. Here is an excerpt from his blog post:

Test data also fueled the teacher accountability movement, perhaps the greatest overreach in the reform playbook and surely the source of much of the anger driving the opt-out movement. Hess observed that the reform agenda “was crafted with the troubles of the inner-city in mind . . . many suburban and middle-class parents have issues when those reforms are extended to the schools that educate their children.” He’s right. When well-loved teachers at popular suburban schools tell parents, fairly or not, that testing undermines their work and keeps them awake at night worrying about their jobs, reformers cannot expect those parents to sit idly by.

If reformers want the data that testing provides, they may simply have to abandon attempts to tie test scores to individual teachers. Personally, I think that’s a fair exchange. Test scores in a single classroom can have at least as much to do with class composition, curriculum, and district-mandated pedagogies as teacher effectiveness. Uncoupling tests from high-stakes teacher accountability to preserve the case for higher standards, charters, and choice might be the reasonable way forward. Ultimately, there may be no other choice.

Many Democrats and some Republicans are backing away from severe anti-school and anti-teacher rhetoric. The new ESSA legislation coauthored by Senators Lamar Alexander (Republican) and Patty Murray (Democrat) responded to perceived federal overreach and rejects test-driven high-stakes teacher and school evaluations. President Obama, himself, has warned of the dangers of over-testing and in his 2016 budget proposed $1 billion to engage and support teachers. John King, who replaced Arne Duncan as secretary of education, has also embarked on an effort to reconcile with teachers. In addition, many states and districts are retreating from questionable teacher evaluation programs and devoting more resources to teacher support and development. The school system in Washington, DC, is one example.

Recently, advocates from the two camps—conventional reform and Build-and-Support—have been engaged in finding common ground. Steve Barr, who ran the Green Dot public charter schools in Los Angeles, is now the head of the California branch of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), whose parent organization and state affiliates have been strong advocates of an aggressive reform agenda. In several meetings, it became apparent that both camps could reach agreement on 80–90% of the Build-and-Support ideas championed on this website.

Barr is somewhat of an outlier among reform advocates, having said: “Don’t lead with test-driven teacher evaluation. That would not even make my top ten list of important measures to pursue.” But he seems to represent a growing number of reformers who want to get beyond the conflict and who increasingly agree with many of the planks in the Build-and-Support approach:

  • school- and district-level capacity building
  • continuous improvement
  • implementation of the Common Core State Standards
  • focus on attracting, training, and supporting the next generation of high-caliber teachers

Importantly, almost all of the conventional “reform” and Build-and-Support groups have banded together in TeachStrong, a new coalition of organizations that advocates measures that will strengthen the teaching profession. Another group looking for common areas of agreement is Third Way. I would agree with many (but not all) of their proposed compromises.

Nationally, there is also some movement toward the more engaging Build-and-Support model. In his blog post “One Size Fits Most,” Mike Petrilli offers a window into a potential compromise. He argues that education reform doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition between two of the most powerful strategies for how to improve our schools. He describes the two views as the Coherence Camp, which aims to build the teaching profession around teaching and learning (Build-and-Support), and the Dynamic Camp, which wants to enlist American ingenuity to create new methods of schooling. He does not define the reform group by test-driven high-stakes accountability. He believes that the coherence idea should be the default position with opportunities for the dynamic bunch to create alternatives.

Here is the way Mike Petrilli describes the Coherence Camp:

The Coherence Camp looks longingly at Europe and Asia, where many (national) systems offer teachers the opportunity to work as professionals in environments of trust, clarity, and common purpose. (Japan envy yesterday, Finland envy today?) The members of this camp praise national standards, a national (or at least statewide) curriculum that gathers the best thinking about how to reach these standards and shares this thinking with the teaching corps, authentic assessments that provide diagnostic information, and professional development (pre-service and in-service) that is seamlessly woven into all of the rest. These countries can (and do) pore over their latest PISA results, identify areas for improvement, and get their educators to row in unison toward stronger performance. And their scores go up and up and up.

I would only add that many schools and districts in this country are also raising their scores by following these ideas. The next series of companion articles How Top Performers Build-and-Support address these measures in detail.

Recent Developments

9/14/2016 14 out of 15 schools in Michigan’s state takeover district are still “failing”

7/30/2016 A recent publication by Eunice Han, who has a PhD in Economics from Harvard, shows that unionized districts experience increased retention of the best teachers, more layoffs of incompetent teachers, and as a result produce higher quality learning.

7/30/2016 Another report demonstrating that massive cuts to education funding are harming kids.

BBS Companion Articles

How Top Performers Build-and-Support
Ground Efforts in Unassailable Research
Provide Engaging Broad-Based Liberal Arts Curriculum
Provide High-Quality Instruction
Build Teams and Focus on Continuous Improvement
Provide Adequate School Funding
Lessons Learned from Successful Districts
Exemplary Models of Build-and-Support

Reference Notes

Bryant, J. (2015, Jul 9). State Governments Continue an Assault on Public Schools. See also Hursh, D. (2015). The End of Public Schools: The Corporate Reform Agenda to Privatize Education. New York and London: Routledge.

Damaging Cuts in Public Education
Ravitch, D. (2015, Oct 10). Indiana: Less Money, More Chaos.

Ravitch, D. (2015, Dec 13). North Carolina: Important Discussion of Wrecking Ball Crew Trying to Demolish Public Education.

Seward, C. (2015, Dec 19). “Altered State” Report Measures the Toll of NC’s Shift to Right. The News Observer.

Leachman, M., Albares, N., Masterson, K., & Wallace, M. (2016, Jan 25). Most States Have Cut School Funding, and Some Continue Cutting. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Antigovernment and Antiunion Forces at Work
Resseger, J. (2016, Mar 14). ALEC Relentlessly Cashes in on Kids and their Public Schools. See also The Center for Media and Democracy. (2015, Jul 14). Alec Exposed.

Goldstein, D. (2014). The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. New York: Doubleday.

Ehrenhalt, A. (2016, Jan 19). “Dark Money,” by Jane Mayer. The New York Times.

Hess, R. (2012, Nov 30). The Common Core Kool-Aid.

Ravitch, D. (2016, Jan 10). Walton Family Foundation Will Spend $1 Billion to Start New Charters Across the Nation.

Brown, E. (2016, Jan 13). Netflix Chief Announces $100 Million Fund for Education. The Washington Post.

One Wisconsin Institute. (2015, Dec 17). Bradley Foundation’s Radical Education Privatization Campaign Rolls On.

Holloway, K. (2016, Mar 28). Campbell Brown: The New Leader of the Propaganda Arm of School Privatization.

Bryant, J. (2015, Dec 8). Study Finds Unions Improve Teacher Quality, Lead to Lower Dropout Rates.

DuFour, R. (2015). In Praise of American Educators: And How They Can Become Even Better. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Ricker, M. C. (2015, Jul 20). Teacher-Community Unionism: A Lesson from St. Paul.

David, J. L., & Talbert, J. E. (2012, Oct). Turning Around a High-Poverty School District: Learning from Sanger Unified’s Success. Final Report. S. H. Cowell Foundation.

Humphrey, D., Koppich, J., & Tiffany-Morales, J. (2016, Mar). Replacing Teacher Evaluation Systems with Systems of Professional Growth: Lessons from Three California School Districts and Their Teachers’ Unions. SRI International.

A Toxic Narrative
Miles, K. H., & Baroody, K. (2015, Jul 2). Schools Succeeding Because of the System, Not in Spite of It.

Stewart, J. (2015, Aug 3). In a Desert of School Failure, 96th Street Elementary in Watts Soars by Rewriting the Rules. LA Weekly.

Russakoff, D. (2015). The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Green, E. (2014). Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (And How to Teach it to Everyone). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Lessons from New Orleans
Johnson, A. (2015, Aug 28). Katrina’s “Golden Opportunity”: 10 Years of Corporate Media Celebrating Disaster.

Thompson, J. (2015, Jun 15). The New Orleans Charter Mentality of “My Way or the Highway” Is Not the Path Toward Building Learning Communities, and Breaking the Cycles of Poverty.

Failing Grades
Schneider, M. (2015, Jun 16). A Bad Day for the RSD “Improvement” Narrative: The History of La. Graduation Rates.

Schneider, M. (2013, Mar 5). New Orleans’ Recovery School District: The Lie Unveiled.

Sims, P., & Rossmeier, V. (2015, Jun). The State of Public Education in New Orleans: 10 Years After Hurricane Katrina. Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University.

Heilig, J. V. (2015, Aug 28). Should Louisiana and the Recovery School District Receive Accolades for Being Last and Nearly Last?

Gabor, A. (2015, Sep 9). Why Jon Alter Needs to Do More Homework on Charters.

Davis, O. (2015, Aug 28). The Uncounted.

Kimmett, C. (2015, Aug 28). Ten Years after Katrina, New Orleans’ All-Charter School System Has Proven a Failure. In These Times.

Miller, L. (2015, Aug 9). New Orleans Recovery District Called a Dismal Failure by the City’s Leading African American Newspaper.

Adamson, F., Cook-Harvey, C., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2015, Sep 30). Whose Choice? Student Experiences and Outcomes in the New Orleans School Marketplace. Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.

Limited Gains and Unnecessary Damage
DeArmond, M., Denice, P., Gross, B., Hernandez, J., Jochim, A., & Lake, R. (2015, Oct). Measuring Up: Educational Improvement and Opportunity in 50 Cities. See also Prothero, A. (2015, Aug 4). New Orleans Test Scores Have ‘Shot Up’ 10 Years after Katrina, Report Says.

Berkshire, J. C. (2015, Aug 3). “Reform” Makes Broken New Orleans Schools Worse: Race, Charters, Testing and the Real Story of Education After Katrina.

Mitchell, C. (2015, Aug 19). “Death of My Career”: What Happened to New Orleans’ Veteran Black Teachers? Education Week.

Albert Shanker Institute. (2015, Sep 9). Ten Years After the Deluge: The State of Public Education in New Orleans.

Buras, K. L. (2014). Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance. New York and London: Routledge.

Harris, D. N. (2015, Aug 31). How Everyone Is Getting It Wrong on New Orleans School Reform. The Washington Post.

Other Failed Examples: State Takeovers
Rubenstein, G. (2014, Jul 31). Underachievement School District 2014 Edition. For a 2015 Vanderbilt report showing little or negative effect for the Achievement District, see also Zimmer, R., Kho, A., Henry, G., & Viano, S. (2015, Dec). Evaluation of the Effect of Tennessee’s Achievement School District on Student Test Scores.

Rubenstein, G. (2015, Jul 31). The Underachievement School District 2015 Edition, Part 1.

Ravitch D. (2015, Dec 19). Tennessee: Memphis School Board Calls for Moratorium for Achievement School District.

Felton, E. (2015, Oct 19). Are Turnaround Districts the Answer for America’s Worst Schools?

Electablog. (2015, Dec 6). The Sad, Predictable, Outrageous, and Infuriating History of the Education Achievement Authority in 127 Headlines.

Sen, A. (2016, Feb 5). State Takeovers of Low-Performing Schools: A Record of Academic Failure, Financial Mismanagement & Student Harm. The Center for Popular Democracy. See also Downey, M. (2015, Aug 19). Opinion: Who Sees Greatest Opportunities from Deal’s Opportunity School District?

Mathis, W. J., & Welner, K. G. (2016, Mar). The “Portfolio” Approach to School District Governance. National Education Policy Center.

The Center for Media and Democracy. (2015, Jul 14). Alec Exposed.

Holloway, K. (2015, Sep 1). How the Billionaire Kingpins of School Privatization Got Stopped in Their Own Back Yard.

Privatization Failures
Ravitch, D. (2015, Dec 1). D.C. Test Scores Are Disastrous. See also the massive evaluation report on Washington, DC, schools, which found mixed results: Merrow, J (2015, Dec 8). A Premature Celebration in DC. and Heitin, L. (2016, Mar 2). 3rd Grade Reading Scores in D.C. Show No Improvement.

Luzer, D. (2015, Aug 5). Arizona’s Magic Private School Tax Credits Don’t Work. Washington Monthly.

Kaplan, J. (2016, Feb 29). Parents, Teachers, Students, Communities Unite and Fight: A Speech to Boston’s Teachers and Communities. See also Kaplan, J. (2016, May 17). What’s Next?

Abdulkadiroglu, A., Pathak, P. A., & Walters, C. R. (2016, Mar 25). School Vouchers and Student Achievement: Evidence from the Louisiana Scholarship Program. National Bureau of Economic Research. See also Bryant, J. (2015, Jun 26). Lessons to Be Learned from New Orleans Style Education Reform. and National Education Policy Center. (2015, Jul 13). New Orleans Recovery School District Not Quite as Recovered as Advertised. and Bigard, A. (2015, Aug 13). From New Orleans: Washing Machine-Style Education Reform. The Progressive.

Lubienski C. (2016, Mar 7). New Studies of Vouchers Show Harm to Students.

Ravitch, D. (2014, Apr 20). Swedish Experiment in Privatizing Schools Floundering. See also Pollard, N. (2013, Dec 10). Insight: Sweden Rethinks Pioneering School Reforms, Private Equity Under Fire. Reuters. and Hargreaves, A. (2016, Mar 2). Teachers and Professional Collaboration: How Sweden Has Become the ABBA of Educational Change.

Hatch, T. (2014, Oct 29). Proposals for Change in Chile. See also Ravitch, D. (2014, Apr 20). Chile: Dismantling the Most Pro-Market Education System in the World. and Carnoy, M., & McEwan, P. (2014, Jul 25). Does Privatization Improve Education? The Case of Chile’s National Voucher Plan. Research Gate.’S_NATIONAL_VOUCHER_PLAN/links/53d28d770cf228d363e94866.pdf

Southern Education Foundation. (2016). Race and Ethnicity in a New Era of Public Funding for Private Schools.

One Wisconsin Institute. (2015, Dec 17). Bradley Foundation’s Radical Education Privatization Campaign Rolls On.

Education Law Center. (2016, Jan 11). Court Declares Nevada Voucher Law Violates State Constitution. See also Heilig, J. V., & Portales, J. (2012, Nov 10). Are Vouchers a Panacea or Problematic?

Berkshire, J. (2016, Jan 4). Are Charter Schools the New Subprime Mortgages? See also Grant, P. (2015, Oct 13). Charter-School Movement Grows—for Real-Estate Developers. The Wall Street Journal.

Heilig, J. V. (2016, Jan 25). Updated: Hostile Charter Takeovers Sideline Communities.

Clukey, K. (2015, Dec 9). Common Core Panel to Call for Teacher Evaluation Moratorium, Test Overhaul.

Taylor, K. (2015, Nov 25). Cuomo, in Shift, Is Said to Back Reducing Test Scores’ Role in Teacher Reviews. The New York Times.

Joseph, G. (2015, Mar 19). 9 Billionaires Are About to Remake New York’s Public Schools—Here’s Their Story. The Nation. See also Di Carlo, M. (2015, Mar 9). How Not to Improve New Teacher Evaluation Systems.

Seeking Common Ground
Finn, C. E., Jr. (2014, Jul 30). Education Reform in 2014.

Petrilli, M. J. (2015, Mar 9). How to End the Education Reform Wars.

Petrilli, M. J. (2015, Aug 12). The New ESEA Will Be “Loose-Loose” Because Arne Duncan Went Overboard with “Tight-Tight.”

Pondiscio, R. (2015, May 8). Four Lessons from the Opt-Out Debate.

Sawchuk, S. (2016, Feb 12). Could $1 Billion Make Teaching the Best Job in the World?

Brown, E. (2016, Feb 20). John King Is Trying to Repair the Obama Administration’s Frayed Relationship with Teachers. The Washington Post.

Brown, E. (2016, Feb 10). D.C. Public Schools, Closely Watched for its Reform Efforts, Is Overhauling Teacher Evaluation and Training. The Washington Post.


Hiler, T., & Hatalsky, L. E. (2016, Feb 22). The New Normal in K–12 Education.

Petrilli, M. J. (2011, Aug 26). One Size Fits Most.

Why Conventional School “Reforms” Have Failed: Four Nostrums of Conventional School Reform

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Why Conventional School “Reforms” Have Failed
Four Nostrums of Conventional School Reform

by Bill Honig

The reform movement has failed to produce results overall, and reputable evaluations have shown that individual reform measures also proved to be ineffective. Turnaround schools, charter schools, incentive schemes, or test-based school and teacher accountability have had either nonexistent or trivial effects. In his book Visible Learning, John Hattie writes that even when reforms produced small gains, they fall far below the improvements brought about by validated initiatives. In this article, I examine four other nostrums of reform.

Major Problems with Teach for America (TFA)

Teach for America (TFA) attracts bright, motivated graduates from our top colleges who agree to teach in public or charter schools for two years. They receive just five weeks of training and then are thrown into schools to sink or swim. Not surprisingly, many flounder and, at the end of their two-year commitment, leave the classroom in large numbers. By the end of five years, large numbers have left teaching. You cannot build a profession on a two-year commitment with minimal training.

Gary Rubenstein is a former TFA teacher. For a devastating, ongoing critique of TFA’s practices, see his blog. In another alumni critique, Andrew Gerst offers suggestions for improvement based on the Aspire charter management organization training model. Aspire has a one-year internship, which results in large numbers of neophytes performing well in their second year and staying in the profession. Both critics claim that TFA is unwilling to spend its considerable profits to fix flagrant deficiencies. Many former TFA teachers, now dissident apostates, have written about major flaws with the program. See also an interview with Daniel Katz who recommends that his students not consider Teach for America. The organization has been addressing some of these issues. TFA has a small pilot that requires a longer commitment and provides an initial year’s internship, is beginning to invest more heavily in first year coaching, and is allowing local TFA regions to institute changes in the model.

One of Rubinstein’s most powerful points is that although many TFA teachers leave at the end of two years, some stay in education and wind up as unseasoned principals and superintendents. Despite the teachers’ limited backgrounds in education and minimal experience, good political connections enable them to move into these important positions. Many of these young TFA veterans prove to be disasters as administrators. In part, this is due to their unwillingness to learn from competent educators and their ignorance of educational best practice. Of course, it did not help matters that they often were cast as knights in shining armor coming to save inept over-the-hill educators.

Mathematica conducted an evaluation of a small number of high school TFA teachers and found essentially no advantage in hiring them. The analysis found no difference in reading scores and only a negligible difference in math. A recent report on elementary TFA teachers also found no effects and revealed that most were planning to leave the profession quickly. In addition, their view of the training received had fallen compared to that of participants in previous years. For a critical review of the report, see Vasquez Heilig’s blog.

Barbara Veltri is a former TFA trainer. She wrote a disparaging analysis of TFA’s practices claiming, among other deficiencies, that a large number of TFA teachers are especially ill equipped to teach math. Katie Osgood adds to the discussion by describing how TFA’s heavy indoctrination of teachers hampers their classroom effectiveness. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the program and its infrastructure could have been invested in supporting new teachers who wanted to make education a career and who were willing to get the proper training. Finally, Julian Heilig and Jameson Brewer have produced several podcasts titled Truth for America detailing the shortcomings of TFA by former TFA teachers.

Teach for America has turned into a massive financial enterprise—with assets worth nearly $500 million and managers earning absurdly high salaries. In 2013, its two co-CEOs received $382,000 and $342,000, respectively, and TFA founder Wendy Kopp received $156,000 for an eight-hour workweek during that same year. TFA obtains large federal and state grants as well as funding from conservative foundations that seem eager to replace competent experienced teachers with cheap raw recruits. For providing these low-cost replacements, TFA charges districts a hefty sum. In 2013, it received grants of $74 million in “government grants” and charged districts an additional $32 million in “service fees.” Not bad for a supposedly charitable nonprofit organization staffed by raw recruits, many of whom will be gone in two years. Fortunately, the word is getting out about TFA. Its enrollments are down, and districts are starting to eliminate the program.

In 1969 I was part of a similar federally funded project called Teacher Corps, which truly was a solid program. Our cycle had 40 people from different walks of life and different ethnic/racial backgrounds. We were 10 African-Americans, 10 Asian-Americans, 10 Hispanics, and 10 whites. The major difference between Teacher Corps and Teach for America’s program was that we did not limit our commitment to two years, and a respected school of education at San Francisco State University managed the program. We were given extensive training, not only in the summer before we started as interns, but for one full year after that. The education I received both at the college and on-site in the schools was excellent. No sink or swim. The Aspire charter school network has a similar internship program as do some of our best performing public school districts.

In promoting itself, Teach for America has used rhetoric closely aligned with the narrative used by some of the more extreme members of the “reform movement.” Its leaders have the unfortunate habit of claiming that public schools and teachers are inept and have nothing of value to teach TFA, and that only its recruits can save America’s failing schools. This is how the organization attempts to energize and motivate its trainees—by tearing down the existing structure. We got some of that in Teacher Corps, but were very quickly disabused of this arrogant attitude when it turned out that our supervising teachers in the schools actually knew what they were doing. We learned a great deal from them.

Many Teach for America teachers who chose to stay in education have become stellar professionals. Many others have left under duress after two years or to take more lucrative jobs in the corporate sector. But it is absolutely indefensible to build up your own organization by castigating public schools, allowing your teachers to replace qualified veteran teachers because they are cheaper, and allying yourself with extreme reformers who are bent on privatizing public education.

How About Merit Pay?

Merit pay sounds like a good idea. Pay our best teachers more and teachers will strive harder and stay in the profession longer. Unfortunately, just about every study has found that merit pay does not improve student or teacher performance. A few evaluations have reported gains from merit pay, but the increases were negligible. Merit pay schemes cause considerable collateral damage by forcing teachers to compete against each other, instead of encouraging and rewarding team-building and collaboration. Often merit pay proposals also use ill-conceived mechanisms for determining who gets rewarded. The result is that a significant number of deserving teachers get overlooked, while low-performing teachers get rewarded. Ironically, the extra money is not what motivates most teachers; they would rather be part of an effective group effort.

At any rate, there is a much better way to reward our best teachers and keep them in the profession—career ladders. Let our most proficient educators earn more money, but we should require them to mentor existing or new teachers and take on instructional development or leadership roles in addition to their classroom duties. They would earn more pay, but instead of merit pay’s something-for-nothing approach, they would contribute their talents to the continuous improvement efforts at the school. See the report written by Catherine F. Natale and her colleagues, Creating Sustainable Teacher Career Pathways: A 21st Century Imperative. Why pay our best teachers stipends without receiving additional help from them? Most teachers strongly oppose merit pay, but few have objections to paying our best practitioners for taking on additional responsibilities. In fact, there is already a strong precedent for career ladder strategies. In secondary schools, department chairs receive a stipend when assuming additional duties.

Is Test-Based Retention Effective?

Similar problems occur when test results have high-stakes consequences for students. Comparable to using test performance for teacher evaluations and merit pay, single application tests should not be used to decide whether a third grader gets promoted to fourth. As discussed in the companion article Have High-Stakes Testing and Privatization Been Effective?, performance on a standardized test isn’t sufficiently accurate, and there are much better ways to determine student progress. It might be acceptable to use the information from once-a-year test results as one piece of data (albeit a very weak source of information) to ascertain what a student knows and to fashion appropriate instruction or intervention. But relying primarily on a broad-scale assessment to determine a high-stakes decision such as promotion is especially dangerous and unfair.

Many states that have adopted retention schemes offer students alternative methods to avoid being retained. Even so, holding students back is still an unsound policy. Sadly, many districts have lately been forced to adopt retention policies under state legislation authored by conservative governors and legislatures, many of whom are at the beck and call of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). These harsh legislative mandates were passed under the guise of ending “social promotion.” This flies in the face of 30 years of research that has shown this strategy does not work and causes substantial harm to those children held back. These policies are tantamount to educational malpractice—research condemns them as academically, emotionally, and socially harmful to the student retained and to the class he or she is placed in. Retention is also very expensive—costing about $11,000 per student for one additional year of schooling. The money could be spent on far more effective approaches. See also David Berliner and Gene Glass’s 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools and the Education Week article “Should 3rd Grade Be the Pivot Point for Early Reading?” Thankfully, some states are now retreating from such an ill-advised policy after witnessing its disastrous results. However, Nevada just adopted a retention scheme.

This valid and reliable research has found that when compared to the performance of students who are held back, the performance, graduation rates, and emotional health of similar struggling students who are promoted are all appreciably higher. The retention strategy often is based on noneducators’ unsound assumption that first-, second-, and third-grade students fail because they are not trying hard enough, and if they are held back or threatened with retention, they will exert more effort. The fact is that these students do not lack motivation. I have yet to encounter a child who doesn’t possess an intense desire to learn how to read. But I have witnessed the pain caused to youngsters who are separated from classmates and made to feel like failures because of misguided policies.

Two reports that studied retention found improvement in performance in later years. But, as critics of the reports and the report writers themselves point out, what the studies actually showed was that intensive intervention will lower failure rates. They never compared intensive intervention for comparable students not held back with intensive intervention and retention, which of course is the issue.

Virtually all cases of reading failure stem from a deficiency in initial reading instruction and the lack of proper intervention, even in kindergarten. There really is no excuse for not implementing the powerful knowledge about how to teach youngsters to read. Successful reading instruction and timely intervention will teach almost every student to read, and for those still having problems, support in the next grades will be much more fruitful than retaining those students. In addition, most retention plans concentrate policy on the third grade, which is several years too late. For a review of this research covering best first teaching practices and timely intervention, see the white paper on foundational skills in the California ELA/ELD framework and an article by Linnea Ehri summarizing what is known about beginning reading. Struggling students should not pay the price for a school’s failure to provide evidence-based instruction and early intervention. See also David Kilpatrick’s Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties and Louise Spear-Swerling’s The Power of RTI and Reading Profiles: A Blueprint for Solving Reading Problems.

Further, all too often the retained student encounters the same instruction in the new class that the student received previously, thus producing little improvement. Then too, placing a resentful, older, and usually male student in a third-grade class when he is chronologically and socially ready for fourth grade, isolated from friends, and labeled a failure is a recipe for a problem-plagued year.

Forced retention of elementary students is a cruel and mean-spirited policy. What is frustrating for educators is that this politically imposed “solution” to reading difficulties hardly ever helps struggling students but does cause tremendous damage to those children and the school. It is another example of a highly touted “reform” that ignores a compelling body of research, adopts a simple but wrong solution to a complex problem, fails to pursue what does work, and then blames the victim.

How destructive this “reform” could be was brought home to me personally a decade ago. I will never forget the poignant conversation I had with a retained first grader. I was at the park with my three-year-old granddaughter, Annika. While she was playing, I struck up a conversation with a boy who was amazingly skillful on the monkey bars and who turned out to be quite engaging—overall, a great kid. In the course of our chat, I asked him how old he was (since he was so physically coordinated) and what grade he was in. He was old enough for second grade but had been retained in first. This was his previous teacher’s recommendation as the best approach for helping his struggles with reading. All of a sudden, these strong emotions emerged as he started to talk about being held back, his sadness over being cut off from his friends, his anger at what had been done to him and not knowing why they did it, and his sense of personal failure.

All this surfaced during a 15-minute conversation. I did talk to his grandparents who were with him at the park and counseled them to raise the issue with the parents, but they seemed reluctant to challenge the teacher or the school on the issue. What has never left me was how mature and outgoing this child was—even while suffering from a profound sadness from what had happened to him. And I was struck by how the people in the system, while thinking they were doing something helpful, had in fact caused him tremendous humiliation and anguish for naught by following such a benighted policy. What also bothered me enormously was that he was made to pay for the school’s mistakes. The school did not know how best to teach him to read, did not have support systems in place to help him other than holding him back, and placed misguided faith in the efficacy of retention. It reminded me of the doctors hundreds of years ago who caused patients substantial harm by bleeding them, under the mistaken belief that such a practice was beneficial.

A similar heartbreaking story unfolded for thousands of children in Mississippi who were held back when the governor sponsored legislation for strict retention but never funded support for early intervention.

Is Technology Innovation Key to School Improvement?

Many reform advocates tout technology as a critical disruptive element that will enable schools to perform better at less cost. Many opponents of conventional market-driven reform strategies initially worried that the movement to incorporate more technology in schools or to replace teachers with computers was just a ploy to sell unneeded devices or an invitation to corporate America to privatize education by replacing public schools with low-cost corporate schools. The experience in many states gives credence to these concerns. The terrible results from virtual charter schools, discussed at the end of this article and in the companion article Charter Schools Are Not the Key to Improving Public Education, are clearly a cautionary tale. For a 306-page handbook on the corporate takeover of our schools, see American Revolution 2.0: How Education Innovation Is Going to Revitalize America and Transform the US Economy.

A second objection to the use of technology to improve schools is based on Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation, one of the theories promoted by reformers. Christensen’s innovation has wreaked havoc on many neighborhood community schools without actually improving student or teacher performance. Critics argue that massive disruption does not seem appropriate for important public institutions like our schools. Jill Lapore seriously questions Christensen’s research in “The Disruption Machine: What the Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong.”

Finally, the critics of technology express concerns that standards, test production and grading, and newly required materials and training are all being proposed in order to create huge new markets for the private sector. I am less apprehensive about this point. There is plenty of room for a vibrant public school sector to use the expertise of private and charitable entities in its pursuit of an effective Build-and-Support strategy. Proprietary instructional materials can supplement open-source materials. For an excellent example of the growing open-source material segment, visit the ISKME website. For an article about open-source materials, see “Free Online Content Helps Teachers Meet Common Core Demands.” See also the Common Sense Media website for reviews of digital and other educational materials or the tips for blended learning.

The more active curriculum envisioned by the Common Core standards and the Next Generation Science standards could profit from digitally delivered activities that are sophisticated, dynamic, and engaging. For example, a digital platform offers students the chance to investigate an epidemic in another country using online synchronous collaboration, access digital content that explains why the Industrial Revolution started in England, or participate in virtual science labs with simulations and graphic modeling. Relevant materials could be organized for these activities, thus avoiding open-ended Internet searches that are often overwhelming and unproductive for students.

Further, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) demonstrate how technology has the potential to provide all students with access to rich, effective curricula, including those with physical disabilities, learning differences, or limited proficiency in English.

For information about web tools, see the links provided by EdTechReview. Adaptive technology can drive instructional improvement by giving students immediate feedback, adjusting content and the amount of scaffolding to their individual needs, and organizing and reporting student performance data to help teachers track growth in important standards in real time. See, for example, the GOORU site.

One exciting development in the educational technology sector is the growing interest in gamification, or the use of game-design mechanics and principles to motivate and engage students. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center is at the forefront of research in this field. For a list of 100 websites in this area, see “Play to Learn: 100 Great Sites on Gamification” and The Game Believes in You, a recent book on the subject by Greg Toppo. See also the article “Frontiers of Digital Learning Probed by Researchers” and “Can Digital Games Improve Our Schools?,” a nuanced perceptive article by John Thompson.

Two books offer a critical analysis of eLearning games and digital simulation, questioning whether virtual activities actually produce results or work for all children. Our past experience with other supposedly “breakthrough” innovations suggests that the most appropriate approach is to avoid going overboard and to insist on balance.

Some educators and parents are worried about student privacy issues, but with proper prohibitions against selling data and restricting its use to feedback to teachers, those fears can be minimized. The potential power of these initiatives is too important to ignore.

Finally, there is the push for blended learning and performance-based instruction using technology. In blended-learning settings, a student works with a teacher and digital devices. In proper balance and if done right, blended learning could greatly enhance the curriculum. For an example, see Blackboard K–12. However, as widely documented, blended learning can be misused. For an international cautionary note, see a recent report that recommends a balanced approach after finding that too much technology in the classroom actually lowered student performance.

The jury is still out on whether technology innovation will improve instruction or suffer the same fate as previous technological fixes such as hyped teaching machines several decades ago, which turned out to be a huge fiasco.

As mentioned previously, virtual or online charter schools have had major problems in performance. Investigations have revealed some high-profile scams and exploitation. A 2015 report produced by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), Mathematica Policy Research, and the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that virtual charters result in the loss of a full year’s worth of instruction—a disastrous result. Both Samuelsohn and Stober have questioning the value of virtual schools have been published by many different sources.

Unquestionably, some technology advocates go too far and envision a future where machines and software replace expensive teachers and eliminate the social aspects of learning under the guidance of a competent, caring teacher. So far, that nightmare has not been realized.

Several major issues need to be more fully explored. One major question is how different students profit or fail to profit from technological solutions. Some youngsters have no problem with digital learning, while others become easily flummoxed or bored. Another concern is how to avoid overindulgence in unproductive games, prevent the hampering of social development, and escape the tendency to replace robust traditional instructional activities with low-level computer-based busywork.

Summing Up: The Failure of Conventional Reform

The ineffectiveness of current federal and state policies based on conventional reformers’ agendas should not have been surprising. Fifty years ago, W. E. Deming warned of the negative side effects of an overreliance on evaluation strategies and incentive schemes. Fear tends to make employees disengage, narrow their efforts, or game the system so they appear compliant. It diverts attention from and decreases motivation for collaborative teams and local structures that allow for continuous improvement. This ruinous situation is well known in the social sciences, articulated as Campbell’s law.

As Diane Ravitch explains:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

That is exactly what has occurred far too often in our educational system during the past decade under policies pursued by conventional “reformers.” Knowledgeable educators predicted that these initiatives would fail, but their warnings were ignored. As foretold, high-stakes, test-driven accountability has resulted in narrowing the curriculum, gaming the system or cheating, using unproven and unfair reward and punishment tools (such as the recent teacher evaluation debacles in many states), and encouraging superficial teaching to the test to the detriment of deeper learning. It has diverted attention from, de-emphasized, or belittled the policies that actually produce substantial results. No wonder the results have been disappointing.

More importantly, punitive management techniques and demonization of teachers and schools have not only eroded support for the institution of public education but have created widespread alienation among teachers.

This is why recent polls found that teachers in the US score among the highest on scales of liking their profession but among the lowest on satisfaction with their working environment, the very opposite of the engaged professionals we need to perform effectively in the difficult circumstances encountered in schools across the country. For example, a recent survey of 30,000 teachers by the American Federation of Teachers found high stress levels among teaching staff:

  • Only one in five educators feels respected by government officials or the media.
  • Fourteen percent of educators strongly agree with the statement that they trust their administrator or supervisor.
  • More than 75% say they do not have enough staff to get the work done.
  • Seventy-eight percent say they are often physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of the day.
  • Eighty-seven percent say the demands of their job are at least sometimes interfering with their family life

A MetLife survey found that in the face of ill-conceived reforms and political and societal censure, the percentage of teachers who were “very satisfied” dropped dramatically from 62% in 2008 to 39% in 2012. See also Jeff Bryant’s blog post “We Won’t Get Great Teachers by Treating Them Badly.”

Worse yet, the Test-and-Punish regime has convinced many teachers to leave the profession, a costly decision for schools and students, as reported in Revolving Door of Teachers Costs Schools Billions Every Year. High-stakes testing is one of the major causes of the wholesale flight of teachers from harsh “reform states” to more supportive jurisdictions. There are serious shortages of teachers in states such as North Carolina, Utah, Indiana, and Kansas. England has suffered similar effects from a Test-and-Punish regime.

Ironically, these studies also show that teachers yearn to break out of the traditional isolated culture of most schools and work together with their colleagues in an effort to become better at what they do. We should give them the chance to enlist in this crucial effort.

Broad swaths of the public have begun to turn against Test-and-Punish and privatization strategies; it is time for our political and opinion leaders to follow suit. The reaction to Arne Duncan’s resignation on October 1, 2015, as national secretary of education is instructive. Of the 228 comments written in response to a New York Times article reporting the event, it was hard to find even one supporting the aggressive policies the Obama administration had pursued. The comments were uniformly negative and angry—accusing the administration of devastating public education and providing the least effective educational leaders in recent history.

A statement by the Network for Public Education captures the spirit of the commentators:

The policies of the US Department of Education [under Duncan’s (and Obama’s) watch] have inflicted immeasurable harm on American public education. The blind faith in standardized testing as the most meaningful measure of students, teachers, principals, and schools has distorted the true meaning of education and demoralized educators. Punitive policies have created teacher shortages across the nation, as well as a precipitous decline in the number of people preparing to become teachers. The Race to the Top preference for privately managed charter schools over public schools has encouraged privatization of a vitally important public responsibility.

As I stated in the conclusion to the introductory remarks on this website: Public education has always been central to the continued health of our democracy and our way of life. So-called reformers have foisted a set of initiatives on our schools based on an outmoded management philosophy and a flawed analysis of what it takes to improve education. These policies ignore history, research, and experience, which is why our best schools and districts have studiously avoided them. The reformers’ proposals not only thwart the measures actually needed to improve our schools but their initiatives threaten to put the whole enterprise of public education at risk. We need an immediate course correction to follow the lead of our most successful schools and districts in creating effective learning communities at each school and, finally, building the educational profession that this country deserves.

Recent Developments

9/1/2016  A new report by the US Department of Education finds teacher incentive schemes ineffective.

7/30/2016 On-line Algebra students fare worse than those taught by a face-to-face teacher.

7/30/2016 Larry Cuban questions whether the hype on blending learning is accurate.

BBS Companion Articles

The Big Picture
Have High-Stakes Testing and Privatization Been Effective?
Why Conventional School “Reforms” Have Failed
Charter Schools Are Not the Key to Improving Public Education

Reference Notes

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. London: Routledge.

Major Problems with Teach for America (TFA)
Blanchard, O. (2013, Sep 23). I Quit Teach for America. The Atlantic.

Rubinstein, G. (2015, Sep 19). Category Archives: Teach for America.

Gerst, A. (2015, Jun 2). How I Would Fix Teach for America.

Davis, O. (2013, Aug 2). Teach for America Apostates: A Primer of Alumni Resistance. See also Brewer, J., & Matsui, S. (2015, Aug 3). Teach for America Counter-Narratives: Two Alumni Books Frame the Discourse. and Brewer, T. J., & deMarrais, K. (eds.). (2015). Teach for America Counter-Narratives: Black Studies and Critical Thinking. New York: Peter Lang Publishing; and Schaefer, P. (2015, Sept 11). After 25 Years, Teach for America Results Are Consistently Underwhelming.

Katz, D. (2015, Dec 18). Advice for My Students: Don’t “Teach for America.”

Sawchuk, S. (2016, Jan 20). At 25, Teach for America Enters a Period of Change. Education Week.

Decker, P. (2001–2004). National Evaluation of Teach for America 2001–2004. Mathematic Policy Research.

Vasquez Heilig, J. (2015, Mar 10). Do You Have Five Minutes to Understand Whether Teach for America Is Effective?

Veltri, B. (2015, Jun 3). Inside Information and Reflections from a Former TFA Instructor.

Osgood, K. (2016, Feb 10). The Dangers of Teach for America Indoctrination.

Ravitch, D. (2016, Apr 23). Truth for America Podcast Episode 5.

Schneider, M. (2015, Jul 28). Teach for America Seeks Help Promoting Itself on Capitol Hill.

How About Merit Pay?
Moran, M. (2010, Sep 21). Teacher Performance Pay Alone Does Not Raise Test Scores. Vanderbilt News. See also Lavigne, A. L., & Good, T. L. (2014). Teacher and Student Evaluation: Moving Beyond the Failure of School Reform. New York: Routledge.

Tucker, M. (2016, Apr 14). How to Get a First-Rate Teacher in Front of Every Student.

Natale, C., Gaddis, L., Bassett, K., & McKnight, K. (2013). Creating Sustainable Teacher Career Pathways: A 21st Century Imperative. National Network of State Teachers of the Year and Center for Educator Learning and Effectiveness at Pearson

Is Test-Based Retention Effective?
The Center for Media and Democracy. Alec Exposed. See also Berger, E. 2016, Jan 25). Arizona: Strangled by an Organized Minority.

Xia, N., & Glennie, E. (January 2005). Grade Retention: A Flawed Education Strategy. Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University. See also Stipek, D., & Lombardo, M. (2014, May 20). Holding Kids Back Doesn’t Help Them. Education Week.

Berliner, D., & Glass, G., et. al. (2014). 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Sparks, S. D. (2015, May 13). Should 3rd Grade Be the Pivot Point for Early Reading? Education Week.

Heitin, L. (2015, Jun 12). Can Most Kindergarteners Really Tackle ‘Emergent-Reader’ Texts? Most Coaches Say Yes.

Yopp, H. (2015). Resource Guide to the Foundational Skills of the California Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. California Department of Education.

Ehri, L. C. (2013, Sep 26). Orthographic Mapping in the Reading of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning. Scientific Studies of Reading 18 (1).

Chiles, N. (2015, May 28). As Mississippi Delivers Bad News to 5,600 Third Graders, Stressed-Out Parents Say There Must Be a Better Way.

Is Technology Innovation Key to School Improvement?
Strauss, V. (2015, Oct 31). Study on Online Charter Schools: “It Is Literally as if the Kid Did Not Go to School for an Entire Year.” The Washington Post.

Moe, M. T., Hanson, M. P., Jiang, L., & Pampoulov, L. (2012, Jul 4). American Revolution 2.0: How Education Innovation Is Going to Revitalize America and Transform the U.S. Economy. GSV Asset Management.

Lepore, J. (2014, Jun 23). The Disruption Machine: What the Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong. The New Yorker.

Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education.

Ellison, K. (2015, Oct 15). Free Online Content Helps Teachers Meet Common Core Demands.

Common Sense Media.


CAST. (2011, Feb 1). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines–Version 2.0. Universal Design for Living. See also CAST. (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines–Version 2.0: Research Evidence. Universal Design for Living.

Gupta, P. (2015, Dec 31). 100 Popular (from 2015) Web 2.0 Tools for Teachers and Educators to Explore. EdTech Review.


The Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

Play to Learn: 100 Great Sites on Gamification.

Toppo, G. (2015). The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Herold, B. (2015, May 6). Frontiers of Digital Learning Probed by Researchers. Education Week.

Thompson, J. (2015, Sep 1). Can Digital Games Improve Our Schools?

Clark, R. E., Yates, K., Early, S., & Moulton, K. (2009). An Analysis of the Failure of Electronic Media and Discovery-based learning: Evidence for the Performance Benefits of Guided Training Methods. In Silber, K. H., & Foshay, R. (eds.) Handbook of Training and Improving Workplace Performance, Volume I: Instructional Design and Training Delivery. New York: John Wiley and Sons. See also Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist.


Strauss, V. (2015, Jun 21). Blended Learning: The Great New Thing or the Great New Hype. The Washington Post. See also Corcoran, B. & Madda, M. J. (2015, Aug 8). Blended Learning and Flipping the Classroom: You’re Doing It Wrong. and Dobo, N. (2015, Feb 10). What Mistakes Did They Make? Lessons from Blended Learning’s Early Adopters. and Zhao, Y. (2015, Dec 6). ”Never Send a Human to Do a Machine’s Job”: Five Big Mistakes in Education Technology and How to Fix Them.

OECD. (2015). Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection. PISA, OECD Publishing. For an erudite discussion of this dilemma, see Cuban, L. (2016, Jan 19). Technology Integration in Districts and Schools: Next Project (Part 1). and Cuban, L. (2016, Jan 22). New Project in Technology Integration in Schools and Classrooms (Part 2).

Glass, G. V. (2015, Oct 14). Outrageous “Class” Sizes at a Virtual Charter School. See also Miron, G., & Urschel, J. L. (2012, Jul). Understanding and Improving Full-Time Virtual Schools.

Pazhouh, R., Lake, R., & Miller, L. (2015, Oct). The Policy Framework for Online Charter Schools. The Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Samuelsohn, D. (2015, Sep 23). Virtual Schools Are Booming: Who’s Paying Attention?;

Stober, D. (2015, Oct 16). Massive Open Online Courses Haven’t Lived Up to the Hopes and the Hype, Professors Say.

Summing Up: The Failure of Conventional Reform
Ravitch, D. (2012, May 25). What Is Campbell’s Law?

American Federation of Teachers. (2015, May 13). Survey Shows Need for National Focus on Workplace Stress.

Bryant, B. (2015, Jul 30). We Won’t Get Great Teachers by Treating Them Badly.

Phillips, O. (2015, Mar 30). Revolving Door of Teachers Costs Schools Billions Every Year.

Bangert, D. (2015, Aug 3). Ed Reform’s Next Trick? Teacher Shortage.

Klein, R. (2015, Aug 8). A Memo to States: This Is How You Create a Teacher Shortage.

Gilbert, F. (2016, Mar 1). Here’s the Real Reason Teachers Are Quitting (It’s Not Just the Money).

Harris, G., & Rich, M. (2016, Oct 3). Arne Duncan, Education Secretary, to Step Down in December. The New York Times.

Amrein-Beardsley, A. (2015, Oct 3). U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan Resigning in December.

Why Conventional School “Reforms” Have Failed: Charter Schools Are Not the Key to Improving Public Education

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Why Conventional School “Reforms” Have Failed
Charter Schools Are Not the Key to Improving Public Education

by Bill Honig

The reform movement has failed to produce results overall, and reputable evaluations have shown that individual reform measures also proved to be ineffective. Turnaround schools, charter schools, merit pay, or test-based school and teacher accountability have had either nonexistent or trivial effects. In his book Visible Learning, John Hattie writes that even when reforms produced small gains, they fall far below the improvements brought about by validated initiatives. In this article, I examine the failure of one of the major initiatives of the reform movement: the expansion of charter schools.

Charters Do Not Perform Better Than Their Public School Counterparts

Charter schools have not been the panacea that reformers have been promising the nation for decades. The lack of accountability for charters has allowed significant corruption, diversion of public funds, and a high tolerance for low performance. Charters educate about six percent of US students. Some are excellent such as the Aspire, Summit, and High-Tech High networks. Coupled with the best public schools, they are beacons of best practice for everyone. However, many charter schools are educational disasters. The worst are plagued by self-dealing, embezzlement, or undue political influence that allows them to engineer preferential sweetheart deals. Many exposés of charters have been written detailing hundreds of millions of dollars in waste, fraud, and mismanagement. Most states allow charters or charter organizations, whether they are nonprofit or profit making, to operate with minimal accountability and transparency.

According to the well-regarded Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) research group from Stanford, only about one-quarter of charter schools score better in reading and math than their public school counterparts. Of course, reading and math test results are not the be-all and end-all of school quality. Even so, one-quarter of charters score worse, and the remainders’ performance is no different from non-charter public schools. Specifically, the study 2 found virtually no difference in overall test scores between charters and public schools with comparable students. In another finding, about 31% of charter schools did statistically worse in math than their local public school counterparts; only 29% did better. The findings were even less impressive in reading: 19% of charters did worse; just 25% did better.

Other major evaluations identified similar outcomes—some of our best schools are charters; they are also some of our worst. Most perform similarly to their district’s non-charter public schools. Comparable findings were reported by strong charter advocates, and a report focusing on New York City schools found no difference between public schools and charters. In 2015, CREDO evaluated charter schools in Texas and found on the whole they did worse than the public schools with matched students. For an extensive review of the research on charter school performance, see Charter Schools in Perspective: A Guide to Research and Charter Schools: A Survey of Research on Their Characteristics and Effectiveness.

In 2015, CREDO published a follow-up to the national study. It found that charters in urban districts scored slightly higher than their non-charter public school cousins, but the effects sizes were tiny—0.05 of a standard deviation (SD) in reading and 0.04 in math—many multiples less than the alternative, more effective initiatives successful districts have undertaken. Nonetheless, CREDO did hype the results by reporting them as equivalent to 45 days of extra instruction in math and 28 days in reading and by labeling the results “significant,” which in statistical terms just means “not by chance.”

Comparable results were found in 2015 by University of California, Berkeley scholar Bruce Fuller and his team in a large sample of 66,000 Los Angeles District students from charter and traditional public schools. Essentially, there are two types of charters in LA—startups and conversions. Startups, or schools that started from scratch and are independent from the district, are found in more low-income areas. Conversions of neighborhood schools to semi-charter status, and their relief from some district rules, are found mostly in higher-scale neighborhoods. Conversion school students entered with higher scores and made somewhat more progress than their public school counterparts. After adjusting for entry scores and socioeconomics, the report found statistically insignificant or small advantages for elementary and high school. They did find moderate advantages for middle schools, especially among startups.

The report states: “The benefits of attending a charter middle school appear to be consistent across subgroups and moderate in magnitude, especially for students in startups. Most other charter advantages remain small in magnitude or statistically insignificant. We detected no achievement differences between pupils attending charter versus TPS high schools.”

Other studies have shown charters demonstrating no effect in suburban areas or producing lower scores. Writing in TheNew York Times, Susan Dynarski summarized the research: “This pattern—small but positive results in some low-income city neighborhoods, zero to negative results in relatively affluent suburbs—holds in lottery studies in Massachusetts as well as in a national study of charter schools funded by the Education Department.”

To put those findings in perspective, as I explained in the companion article Have High-Stakes Testing and Privatization Been Effective? a full standard deviation difference in test performance translates to one or two years of additional instruction, or many multiples of the charter advantage identified by CREDO. In his book Visible Learning for Teachers, John Hattie lists many strategies that actually produce that elevated effect size and generate improvements several times those found by CREDO and by Russ Whitehurst of the conservative Brookings Institute.

Many independent researchers claim that charter schools always benefit in performance comparisons with their public school counterparts due to “selective advantage” from more motivated parents and “better peer support” from students who receive support from those more motivated parents.

In addition, according to Stephanie Simon in an exposé in Reuters entitled “Special Report: Class Struggle—How Charter Schools Get Students They Want,” many charters driven by competition to produce high test scores adopt practices to screen out potentially low-performing students by assessing such measures as parental support, motivation, disciplinary history, and academic performance. Simon found charters using such strategies as:

  • Applications that are made available just a few hours a year.
  • Lengthy application forms, often printed only in English, that require student and parent essays, report cards, test scores, disciplinary records, teacher recommendations and medical records.
  • Demands that students present Social Security cards and birth certificates for their applications to be considered, even though such documents cannot be required under federal law.
  • Mandatory family interviews.
  • Assessment exams.
  • Academic prerequisites.
  • Requirements that applicants document any disabilities or special needs. The US Department of Education considers this practice illegal on the college level but has not addressed the issue for K–12 schools.

Many charters, backed by state law, specialize in serving low-income and minority children. Some of the best-known charter networks, such as KIPP, Yes Prep, Green Dot, and Success Academy, use simple application forms that ask little more than name, grade, and contact information, and actively seek out disadvantaged families. Most for-profit charter school chains also keep applications brief. But stand-alone charters, which account for more than half the total in the United States, make up their own admissions policies. Regulations are often vague, oversight is often laxand principals can get quite creative.

Confirmation of the Reuter’s report is provided by a North Carolina study that found the student population of the state’s charter schools was substantially less diverse than their public school cousins. Further, many charters put pressure on low performers to leave and never backfill the vacancies, resulting in an arbitrarily high-performing student body, addressed below. Thus, researchers argue that charters should be significantly outperforming their counterparts, and the fact that they do not demonstrates a major flaw in the charters as a “viable alternative” to public schools.

In response, a few researchers have compared the performance of students who are accepted in charter school lotteries to that of students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds who are not selected. But extrapolating the results to all charters is not warranted because only the most popular and, presumably, highest-performing schools have lotteries. Further, these studies still do not adjust for the difference in student bodies between charter schools that select their students and nonselective public schools that the rejected charter applicants attend.

A fascinating online debate about the pros and cons of charters took place between a hedge fund “reform” advocate, Dimitri Mehlhorn, and Mark Weber whose has a blog called Jersey Jazzman. Jazzman effectively dismissed many of Mehlhorn’s contentions, echoing the arguments I have been making in this article. However, one of Mehlhorn’s most vulnerable main points was not rebutted. He asserted that even though the results of charter evaluations have shown tiny effects, no one has produced better alternatives. He reasons, therefore, that small increases are better than the status quo and that these increases eventually will add up. Given Hattie’s and others’ research, that claim is patently erroneous. The Build-and-Support strategy is based on highly successful alternatives to charter school expansion. These alternatives will be fully explored in the series of companion articles How Top Performers Build-and-Support.

What the CREDO evaluation of urban schools found, which is very useful, is the existence of a significant number of high-performing charters in some urban districts and a comparable number doing terribly in other urban districts. Charters and non-charter public schools should look to the best charters and the best public schools along with their supportive structures. A charter approach should not be hyped as the only way to improve public education.

Similarly, on closer examination the much heralded success of widespread charter expansion in districts such as New Orleans and Washington, DC, turns out to be tenuous and accompanied by severe collateral damage, including resegregation and community disruption. On segregation, a 2016 National Education Policy Center report by William Mathis and Kevin Weiner, Do Choice Policies Segregate Schools? answers yes. For a full examination of the negative results of charters in these districts, see the companion article Have High-Stakes Testing and Privatization Been Effective? and the research cited there.

Charter School Stats

During the past 15 years, 2,500 charter schools have either failed or been closed —impacting 288,000 children. In 2015, there were about 6,500 operating charter schools so the number of failures represents a large amount of disruption when compared to the total number.

Richard Whitmire, a strong supporter of charter schools, estimates that about 1,200 of the existing 6,500 charter schools, or less than one-fifth, are high performers. For the health of the reform movement, Whitmire recommends that about 1,000 failed charters be shut down immediately. For facts and figures on the charter school movement in the United States documented by a pro-charter group, see The State of the Charter School Movement.

Dishonest Success Stories: The Refusal to Backfill

Many of the overhyped charter success stories turn out to be based on charter schools that enroll fewer English-language learners (ELLs) and fewer students with disabilities or learning differences than public schools. For example, in Arizona, the successful schools touted by reformers actually enroll much richer and easier-to-educate children.

This, of course, makes any comparison invalid. More telling are the many documented examples of charters that push low-performing students out and then do not backfill the openings when they leave. Their public school cousins must take all comers. Many charters claim they have the same attrition rates as public schools, but annual attrition rates are not the right metric. Even if charters and non-charters have the same annual attrition rate, if the public school must fill all the vacant slots, but the charter does not, the charters’ student body will be increasingly high performing.

The schools in these faux success stories start with, say, 100 students and then, owing mainly to academic pressure, a few grades later only have 30. At this point the schools claim high scores and elevated graduation rates or college attendance for the refined, smaller group. An opinion piece in TheWall Street Journal exposed this practice explaining that charters do it to keep test scores arbitrarily high. In a similar vein, critiques by Horace Meister on Diane Ravitch’s blog and Leo Casey on the highly respected Albert Shanker Institute blog provide ample evidence of this practice at the highly promoted Success Academy charter schools in New York City—demonstrating that claims of tremendous success are not borne out by the facts. As is the case with test-driven teacher evaluation schemes, more opinion leaders and politicians are speaking out against these questionable practices. Even charter school advocates, such as Dimitri Mehlhorn, propose requiring charter schools to backfill.

Thus, some charter advocates argue that since charters function as ostensible public schools they should be required to backfill; others argue that schools such as science magnet schools should be allowed to be selective. But, in any case, there should be no false advertising about educational outcomes. Charters that do not backfill should not be allowed to proclaim their effectiveness in raising test scores. If they want to compare test results, their students’ performance should be measured against a similar rarified group in the public schools—if the original charter cohort is only 50% of its original numbers, then those students should be compared to the top 50% of its public school counterparts. Since many charters at present do no better than public schools, the results would not be impressive. As an example, magnet schools in Los Angeles, which also benefit from parental choice and involvement and draw from the entire district, significantly outperform charter schools—even after gifted magnets are removed.

The Problematic “No Excuses” Approach

There are also many examples of charter schools trumpeting the results of a “no excuses” approach, which delivers narrow, test-driven instruction at the expense of deeper learning. Many students subjected to this harsh, boot camp regime flounder as they move on to other educational settings. See “Are @KIPP Charter Schools Pathological?,” Julian Vasquez Heilig’s critique of the much ballyhooed KIPP schools (some of which are excellent but most mediocre). Vasquez’s comments appear in a review of Jim Horn’s 2016 book about KIPP, Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys Through “No Excuses” Teaching.

Jamaal Bowman, principal of the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action in the Bronx (New York City), laments:

Consider KIPP’s first graduating class. Ranked fifth in NYC in mathematics in the 8th grade, but only 21% graduated college. Why? Because KIPP test prepped the kids to death and the kids never built their character or learned to manage their own freedom. KIPP and many charters standardize and try to control everything from how kids walk through the halls to how they ask to go to the bathroom. But teaching and learning is organic; it is human. When are we going to ask ourselves why must poor communities of color be treated like this, whereas middle class and upper class parents would NEVER go for this treatment!

On the other hand, see KIPP’s research on the performance of their first cohorts of eighth- grade KIPP graduates. Their research found a 44% four-year college graduation rate (compared to the 29% national average) and an additional 5% who graduated from two-year institutions. This is a commendable record. Whether these statistics hold after the large scale-up of KIPP schools remains to be seen.

Jacqueline Ancess is a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, whose research focuses on urban school reform, performance assessment, small schools, and accountability. In a post on Diane Ravitch’s blog, she describes the supposed success of some of the highly flogged charter schools:

Some charters are continually referred to as “successful” without any identification of criteria for a successful school or a successful charter school. Some charters may produce standardized test scores that are higher than “peer” schools, but when examined are not scores that indicate that students are strong readers. Success Academy Charters are regularly referred to as successful, yet their 2014 8th grade graduation rate was 44 percent! What is successful about a 44 percent graduation rate? Despite claims of high scores on NY State tests, not one Success Academy Charter school student has made the cut score for admission to NYC’s specialized high schools.

Approximately 80 percent of KIPP students who go to college do NOT graduate. What is successful about that? These test scores are Pyrrhic victories. Furthermore, let’s drop the erroneous idea the charters were supposed to be centers of innovative practice which would be adopted by other schools–there was plenty of innovation before charters and no excuses discipline policies and kindergarten suspension practices are hardly innovative or the kinds of policies and practices we want to scale up in traditional schools!

Recently, Success Academy has been the subject of media attention for its abusive teaching practices. On Diane Ravitch’s blog, a former Success Academy teacher describes why she resigned in the post “A Success Academy Teacher Quits and Explains Why.” An article in The New York Times describes how an “honored” teacher tore up a first grader’s paper in front of the class and berated the student as not being good enough. The sickening incident was captured in a short video posted online with the article. Stories about the incident generated calls for Success Academy schools to be shut down. Eva Moscowitz, the outspoken leader of Success Academy (and shamefully many of her supporters), attempted to dismiss the occurrence as a one-time lapse by the teacher. Yet even stalwart advocates of conventional school reform disagreed with this defense and pointed out that the practice was encouraged by Success Academy schools.

Another critic of the “no excuses” approach is the ex-dean of students of a New Orleans charter school. He found it extremely degrading to students. Another disgusted teacher writes two posts about a “no excuses” charter school: Part 1 and Part 2. For a distressing description of a school day in a “no excuses” Brooklyn charter, see Emily Talmadge’s essay. As a further example, see the comments posted by Emily Kaplan on the Curmudgucation blog. Kaplan was a teacher in a highly touted charter school in Boston. She resigned due to the school’s authoritarian, test-prep culture. After describing the dehumanizing and test-prep orientation of instruction, Emily Kaplan asserts:

The school is one of several Boston area “no excuses” charters that receive major accolades (and many hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and prizes) for their high scores on state standardized tests. Supporters and leaders of these schools claim that the high scores extracted using these methods prove that the schools are “closing the achievement gap.” Look, they say, pointing to the score reports: poor black kids in Boston are outperforming rich white kids in Newton and Brookline and Wellesley.

And, indeed, this data is compelling. Its very existence teaches a powerful lesson that this country needs to hear: children of color from low-income homes can outperform wealthy white children on standardized tests, which are the metrics that we as a society have decided mean …well, something.

The problem is that standardized test scores mean very little. On the only tests that do mean a tremendous amount for these students—the SSATs—students at the school I taught at perform abysmally. Subsequently, these same middle schoolers who often dramatically outperform their wealthy white peers on these tests are not accepted in large numbers to the most selective high schools (and most of those who do struggle socially and emotionally when thrust into student bodies that aren’t upwards of 98 percent students of color); struggle to succeed academically in high school (81 percent earn high school grade-point averages below 3.0 in the first semester); and certainly do not thrive after high school, graduating from college at very low rates and, among those who don’t go to college, failing in large numbers to secure full-time employment.

For a student’s perspective on the deficiencies of “no excuses” schools, see “Control Experiment.”

Beyond the Viral Video: Inside Educators’ Emotional Debate about “No Excuses” Discipline is a very thoughtful paper by Elizabeth Green. In it, she discusses the pros and cons and underlying philosophy of the no-excuse movement. Green explains the genesis of the approach, including supporters’ belief in the primary importance of student behavior in creating classroom effectiveness. This led to intolerance for even the most minor infractions.

Green also delineates three major arguments against the approach—the establishment of order at the expense of deeper learning, the psychological harm done to students even if they test well, and the problem of strict discipline as a form of racist control. Those favoring no-excuse approaches counter that it is antiracist to insist on strict behavior if that is what it takes to provide low-income and minority children a good education, that negative consequences for breaking even minor behavioral norms actually help students, and that the best no-excuse charter schools are adapting to embed strict discipline in an overall warm, supportive atmosphere.

Green sides with those arguing against harsher version of “no excuses”:

Ultimately, I think that critics inside “no excuses” schools are right that the “no excuses” approach to teaching needs radical overhaul. The behavior first, learning second formula prescribed by broken-windows theory—and for that matter, by most American schools—can successfully build compliant, attentive students, at least in the short term. But it cannot produce students who think creatively, reason independently, and analyze critically.

She also believes it is possible for no-excuse charters to change for the better. Responding to the problematic nature of the approach, many charter schools are rethinking their commitment. These schools are attempting to embed strict discipline in a loving and supportive atmosphere and avoid privileging control over deeper learning—discipline yes, abuse no.

The theory behind the no-excuse philosophy is also forcefully challenged by Paul Tough in his 2016 book, Helping Students Succeed: What Works and Why and his article in the Atlantic “How Kids Learn Resilience.” Tough asserts that frequent punishment doesn’t work in helping the most severely traumatized students, but engagement in a welcoming atmosphere does.

Finally, Sarah Garland reports on a charter school network in North Philadelphia, Mastery Charter Schools, which is abandoning the no-excuse approach. According to Garland’s interview with Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Charter Schools:

Gordon worried that Mastery was in danger of confirming what many critics often charge about charter schools: That while many of them may do a good job of preparing kids to do well on standardized tests and get into college, their students founder once they arrive on campus. That the mostly white leaders of urban charter networks are, at best, out of touch with the mostly black and Hispanic communities they serve, or, at worst, guilty of a paternalistic racism that undermines their mission of uplift.

My own experience teaching in inner-city schools supports the idea that classroom control is important but should never become abusive, a barrier to deep learning, or an excuse for a non-nurturing classroom.

Undoubtedly, there are parents and teachers who are satisfied with their charter school, but we must examine the outlandish marketing and political claims that continue to describe charters as the best way to improve public education.

Debunking the Theory: Public Schools Are Not Inherently Unproductive

Originally, charters were seen as a positive alternative to public schools. They enabled energetic and like-minded teachers, parents, and educators to organize around common goals and run their own school. These schools would draw students from a broad geographic area thereby combating some of the ills of housing segregation. This was in keeping with the very successful magnet schools that operated in most urban school districts and offered parents more choices. The original idea was for charter schools to cooperate with the best non-charter public schools in order to become high-performing models for others to emulate. This had broad support. Regrettably, a more negative philosophy began to take hold and drive the charter school movement—the belief that most public schools cannot perform and should be replaced by charters or even for-profit franchisers.

This negative view has its foundation in an ideology that is hostile to government institutions. Charter school advocates view those institutions, including public schools, as inherently unproductive and resistant to change. They believe that only private-like entities such as charter schools, freed from bureaucratic constraints and responding to market forces, will produce high performance. They pursued reform under the banner of “charters, choice, and competition.”

The theory was so seductive that large numbers of academics, opinion leaders, wealthy businesspeople, foundations, and politicians became its passionate defenders. These folks believe that untouched by market forces, public institutions become paralyzed—captured by interest groups, unions, and bureaucrats who are all resistant to improvement. Thus, low-performing public schools had to be replaced by private, market-driven entities under the guise of choice and competition. In their view, only charters had the autonomy and freedom from regulations to become world-class schools. For many “reformers,” trying to improve low-performing schools was not possible or was too difficult; it was much easier to just close a low performer and replace it with a charter school.

A half century ago, Milton Friedman advocated public choice in education. His ideas were subsequently popularized by Terry Moe and John Chubb. Their work has become the intellectual argument for charter school expansion embraced by a small group of extremely wealthy businesspeople and accepted as fact by Republicans and Democrats alike. As a result, in many states Republican and Democratic governors are starving or closing public schools and increasing funds for charters.

Many charter proponents want to go further. They want to close all or a significant number of public schools and replace them with charters. This would be accomplished either through direct closure or indirectly by diverting substantial funds from public to charter schools. This occurred in New Orleans, Newark, and Washington, DC. See the companion article Have High-Stakes Testing and Privatization Been Effective? for a description of the meager results of such efforts.

Billionaire Eli Broad’s foundation is advocating converting one-half of Los Angeles schools to charters, and Broad himself is raising $500 million for the project, although he has since backed off his original plan and now wants to spend those funds on expansion of charters, magnet schools, and high-performing public schools. For a trenchant critique of Broad’s proposal, see John Thompson’s analysis “Dare Anyone Say No to Eli Broad?”

Across the country, some mayors of large cities have aggressively pushed for charter school expansion. Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 53 schools in Chicago—mostly in low-income minority neighborhoods. Although this was ostensibly done for financial reasons (while providing over $100 million to a private university to build a football stadium supported by his wealthy donors), he called for 60 additional charters with many using the same buildings as the schools targeted for closure. Emanuel was following the strategy of New York mayor Bloomberg and superintendent Klein who supported charter expansion while closing non-charter public schools. Many of these actions were promoted by billionaire hedge fund managers, business acolytes, and the charter school industry, which wielded enormous influence through political donations and PR campaigns.

The current mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, is under incessant attack by these same groups for daring to attempt to use scarce funds to improve the regular public schools. They want him to use the funds to support charter expansion. To compound de Blasio’s troubles, New York governor Andrew Cuomo is supporting major charter school expansion and cutting funds for regular schools, refusing to provide New York City with court-ordered funding.For an excellent account of these events, see Alan Singer’s article “Despite Big Problems Charters Attract Hedge Fund Support and Presidential Candidates Hungry for Dollars.” Democratic governor Dannel Malloy of Connecticut also has been heavily influenced by charter school advocates to the detriment of public schools.

There is only one problem with the “public sphere can’t deliver” creed—the theory that privatization increases performance does not hold up. In the broader context, the same ideas brought us financial deregulation and the resulting financial meltdown, brutal private prisons, and widespread corporate pollution. It also ignores examples of stellar public performance. Consider the remarkable contributions of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local fire departments, or DARPA, the defense department think tank that has one of the most incredible records of innovation in human history. DARPA developed the Internet, nanotechnology, cloud computing, the research behind Siri, digital libraries, and autonomous vehicles. The Entrepreneurial State by Marianna Mazzucato extols the value of government entrepreneurship.

In their recent article “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools,” Christopher and Sarah Lubienski debunk the “public choice theory” that has been used to justify dismantling public schools and replacing them with charters. The Lubienskis reviewed vast student databases and found, to their own surprise, that public schools outperformed private schools and charters when comparable students were matched. Of course, this was contrary to received opinion and what was predicted by public choice theory. These findings are consistent with the research I have cited above.

The Lubienskis offered several reasons why this was so. Certain societal enterprise is of a public nature and better performed by a public institution that is staffed by dedicated professionals committed to broader social purposes, and subject to democratic control. Market forces and parental choice actually constrain instructional innovation because of charters’ need to attract students based on average test scores and the resulting narrowing of the curriculum and inordinate time devoted to test prep. Many charter schools overspent on marketing and high-priced CEOs, and the idea that public schools could not innovate without competitive external pressure turned out to be false. Paul Horton also wrote a perceptive essay on why market-driven reform does not produce improved educational outcomes as did Kern Alexander, who stressed the lack of useful information parents receive before they choose a school and debunked “efficient market” theories used to justify charters and vouchers. Andy Rotherham, a major supporter of reform initiatives, wrote an article arguing that market forces often cause detrimental choices. Diane Ravitch summarized findings from extensive research that show private firms taking over public functions often cause harm by putting profits above service. Moreover, widespread charter expansion often results in considerable resegregation.

Finally, one of the main justifications for charters has been that they are responding to market forces and parental choices. This turns out to be largely fallacious. It is not free market forces that are in effect, but government policies that favor privately managed charters over publicly run schools by closing neighborhood schools and replacing them with a charter. It is not even true that charters relieved of government regulation will be more efficient and spend less on administration. According to a summary of the research by Gary Miron, one the leading scholars on charter schools, they spend more. Nor do charters give more bang for the buck. A study in New Mexico found that the state spends more on charters without the charters outperforming their public school counterparts.

Further, what choice do parents really have if their local school is closed or neglected? Even if they are satisfied with their local school or would prefer its revitalization rather than applying to a charter, the only real choice parents are given is the uncertain chance to enroll their child in a charter school.

Minimal Accountability for Fraud, Mismanagement, or Low Performance

Despite the fact that most for-profit charters perform abysmally, for-profit charter operators who made substantial political contributions have enjoyed political support in many states. One example is Ohio, where for many years charter owners successfully lobbied the legislature and Governor Kasich against any effective financial transparency and performance accountability. As a result, a shocking amount of fraud, mismanagement, and self-dealing has taken place. William Phillis, a retired deputy commissioner of education in Ohio, offered his critique on Diane Ravitch’s blog. To turn things around, others have proposed 10 ideas for correcting the rampant corruption of Ohio’s Wild West era.

In late 2015, a reasonable accountability measure supported by the governor was finally passed, but closure of the large numbers of existing low-performing charters still remained problematic. An article in the mainstream Columbus Dispatch castigated charter lobbyist’s attempts to water down the accountability provisions.

In a telling postscript to the disastrous performance by Ohio charter schools, just before he resigned as US secretary of education Arne Duncan awarded charters in Ohio a whopping $71 million. So much for rewarding schools for high performance.

Florida’s experience with charters did not fare better. According to one report:

One person who has paid close attention to the spread of charter schools in Florida is Sue Legg. As a public school teacher, college professor and an administrator of state school assessment contracts at the University of Florida for over 30 years, Legg has had a ringside seat to the Florida charter school circus. In a series of reports produced for the Florida chapter of the League of Women Voters, Legg revealed the many ways charter schools in Florida spread political corruption and financial opportunism while doing little to improve the academic performance of their students.

Her year-long 2014 study, conducted in 28 Florida counties, found a 20 percent closure rate for charters due to financial problems or poor academic performance—a closure rate that has now increased to over 40 percent. The charter schools studied generally did not perform better than public schools, and tended to be more racially segregated. A significant number of these charters operated for-profit and operated in church related facilities.

The failure of Florida’s charter schools has been well documented. The Sun Sentinel published an excellent exposé, and an investigation by the Miami Herald found that the state lost $70 million on charters that were forced to close. The lost capital came from public education funds. John Romano wrote a devastating article in the Tampa Bay Times about the double-dealing in the legislature related to many Florida charter schools.

In 2014, a comparable yearlong investigation of Michigan’s charter schools by the Detroit Free Press decried the charters’ failure to be transparent, accountable, or demonstrably better than Michigan’s public schools. Reporters concluded that Michigan charters, of which 80% were for-profit, got worse results than traditional public schools, drained $1 billion a year from their public counterparts, and were never held accountable for waste, fraud, abuse, or poor outcomes. The Chicago Sun-Times reported similar results for charter schools in Illinois. Finally, The Salt Lake Tribune castigated charter school fraud and low performance by some well-connected charter operators. The editorial begins:

A handful of private companies have banked more than $68 million from Utah taxpayers over the past three years. The money is delivered through no-bid contracts by people who don’t work for government, but the companies are often connected to political officials.

Another ploy used by a growing number of charter schools and franchises is to acquire multiple sponsors to avoid any real accountability or to hop to another authorizer to avoid closure or strong accountability.

There is the instructive example of stalwart “reformer” Kevin Huffman. He was commissioner of education in Tennessee from 2011 to 2015. To his credit, Huffman tried to close the worst school in the state—a virtual school operated by K–12, Inc., a for-profit company working nationwide. Through political donations and extensive lobbying, K–12, Inc., was able to fend off any attempts to hold it accountable. Sadly, most virtual schools, including K–12, Inc., have been nothing short of an educational disaster. In California, the San Jose Mercury News also exposed the disastrous record of K–12 virtual schools in the state and how they exploited California’s charter and charitable laws.

In 2015, the Center for Media and Democracy issued a report castigating the federal government for a lack of oversight and financial accountability. The report claimed that millions of dollars in expenditures went to ghost schools that never opened. State accountability boards had been captured by the charter industry, which refused to collect performance and financial probity data under the guise of “flexibility.”

Finally, at the local level, although charters claim they are public institutions, many resist transparency and complaint procedures leaving disgruntled parents with nowhere to go to register problems.

Many charter advocates have understood that fraud, low performance, and lack of effective accountability could kill the charter school movement and have supported corrective action. Some states, such as California, have enacted a much more rigorous charter accountability system. In addition, under the leadership of Jed Wallace the California Charter School Association has been advocating for stricter accountability for low-performing charters and for questionable financial practices. It has also sponsored legislation to restrict for-profit charters in the state.

However, the California Charter School Association and other charter advocates have been extremely aggressive in promoting charter expansion, limiting the ability of local boards of education to deny charter formations when deemed harmful, and supporting pro-charter legislators and board members. For a discussion of the problematical charter situation in California, see “Failing the Test,” a series of articles on Capital & Main, and a blog post about the frustrations a local district encountered in opposing the creation of a franchise-sponsored charter.

Charters Drain Funds from Non-Charter Public Schools

Many charters, even if performing adequately, drain substantial resources from neighborhood public schools or serve as a vehicle for massive privatization schemes. The end result has been a two-tiered and more racially segregated educational system. This was the experience in Newark and some of the other heavily privatized districts such as Denver, Milwaukee, Washington, DC, and New Orleans. In these districts, performance gaps between low-income and minority students and their more privileged peers increased sharply.

Charters drain funds from public school districts in several important ways. First, at the state and national levels funds for public schools have been reduced while funds for charters have been increased. For example, in Indiana from 2009 to 2013, public school funding was cut by over $3 billion, charter funding was increased by $539 million, vouchers by $248 million, and virtual schools by $143 million. Students who attend public schools account for about 94% of Indiana students, yet they took a huge hit, while the other seven percent gained over $900 million.

Second, charters and their more pernicious cousin, vouchers, attract many students who were previously attending private schools paid for by their parents. Public school budgets must then be charged for these additional students.

Third, local districts can reach a tipping point if too many charters are created in their boundaries since districts have fixed costs and at some point must make drastic cuts in services to adjust. This is precisely what happened in Detroit. Schools are akin to a public utility, and it has long been recognized that it is extremely inefficient to create competing organizations to deliver services such as electricity or public transportation.

Moreover, too often public school funds get diverted from instruction to pay for dubious expenses ranging from a charter’s high-priced CEO to extensive marketing, real estate manipulations, and a significant amount of fraud and embezzlement in the absence of effective accountability.

Finally, there are numerous examples of highly successful public schools jeopardized or forced to close by the unnecessary creation or co-location of a charter. For example, a stellar school in North Carolina was closed for lack of financial support after a charter was created to compete with it.

In Massachusetts, a local board succumbed to pressure and created a charter high school to compete with Brockton High School, one of the most successful turnaround high schools in the country. The recently elected Republican governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, has proposed a hefty expansion of charter schools that will require diverting funds from public schools. His proposals created a severe backlash in Boston. Why anyone would jeopardize the fantastic success of education in Massachusetts, one of world’s top performers, by dismantling the Build-and-Support strategy is beyond comprehension—a triumph of a discredited ideology over reality.

Charters and Crony Capitalism Create Sweetheart Deals

Finally, the combined lobbying power of corporations and charters leads to questionable sweetheart deals—bonds for real estate where the public picks up the tab for land acquisition and construction that are ultimately owned by the charter’s sponsor, not the public. The taxpayers also pay for high-priced fees and the interest on these bonds. The accumulated debt owed by public funds is substantial. According to Bruce Baker:

Charter school operators use public tax dollars to buy land and facilities that were originally purchased with other public dollars … and at the end of it all, the assets are in private hands! Even more ludicrous is that the second purchase incurred numerous fees and administrative expenses, and the debt associated with that second purchase likely came with a relatively high interest rate because—well—revenue bonds paid for by charter school lease payments are risky. Or so the rating agencies say.

In a major 2015 report by Bruce Baker and Gary Miron, The Business of Charter Schooling: Understanding the Policies That Charter Operators Use for Financial Benefit,the authors chronicle the multiple ways charter organizations siphon taxpayer funds without any benefit to students or the public. A summary of the report lists four major conclusions:

  1. A substantial share of public expenditure intended for the delivery of direct educational services to children is being extracted inadvertently or intentionally for personal or business financial gain, creating substantial inefficiencies;
  2. Public assets are being unnecessarily transferred to private hands, at public expense, risking the future provision of “public” education;
  3. Charter school operators are growing highly endogenous, self-serving private entities built on funds derived from lucrative management fees and rent extraction, which further compromise the future provision of “public” education; and
  4. Current disclosure requirements make it unlikely that any related legal violations, ethical concerns, or merely bad policies and practices are not realized until clever investigative reporting, whistleblowers, or litigation brings them to light.

As Jeff Bryant, one reviewer of the report, commented:

In one of the more bizarre schemes the authors examine, charter operators will use third-party corporations to purchase buildings and land from the public school district itself, so taxpayer dollars are used to purchase property from the public. Thus, the public ends up paying twice for the school, and the property becomes an asset of a private corporation. In other examples, charter operators will set up leasing agreements and lucrative management fees between multiple entities that end up extracting resources, which might otherwise be dedicated to direct services for children.

Another example of questionable practice is the phony formula Texas uses to reimburse charters. Through legislative manipulation, the state now pays large charters and charter chains about $1,000 more per child than comparable public schools due to the way it classifies the charters. An article by John Savage in the Texas Observer states: “If school districts ‘were funded like charters,’ public schools would cost the state more than $4.7 billion a year extra.” Finally, there is the obvious point that the vast sums being spent on charters could have been devoted to helping the 94% of students attending public schools.

Charter Schools Should Be Nonprofit, Accountable, and Fully Transparent

The horrible record of for-profit virtual schools shows what happens when we allow profit making to drive an educational institution. These schools ignored quality to increase the bottom line and were an educational disaster for the students they pledged to serve. For this reason, some states and nations allow only nonprofit charters. If this became standard practice, many questionable financial and political dealings would be avoided. Unfortunately, the number of for-profit management charter organizations and fronts for business interests is growing, with an increasing impact in some states. Clearly, charters are no longer grassroots, mom-and-pop organizations. Ominously, the for-profit charter school sector has run into major problems, and failures are occurring across the nation. For a list of such disasters, see “These Charter Schools Tried to Turn Public Education Into Big Business. They Failed.”

In any case, given the large amount of fraud and their lack of success, charters should be required to share the facts about their operation. Charter advocates like to say they are “public schools,” but many then resist transparency and accountability provisions. And finally, we need to stop the “crony capitalism” that allows huge profits for private entities underwritten by the public purse such as social impact bonds and real estate purchases for charters funded by public dollars.

Is Replacing Neighborhood Schools with Charters Worth the Risk?

The question of charter expansion becomes critical when a neighborhood school is slated for closure to be replaced by a charter. The trade-off should be framed as follows: based on the evidence, closing a public school for a charter will improve performance about one-fourth of the time and will make it worse about one-fourth of the time. Thus, the one-in-four chance of an improved school must be weighed against the massive dislocations local school closures cause families, students (e.g., long bus rides or walking through alien turf), and communities. In addition, the very real chance of worsening school performance one-quarter of the time must be factored in. Further, widespread charter expansion can reach a financial tipping point crippling the school district’s ability to improve the remaining open public schools. One underreported consequence of charter expansion is that the remaining schools must rely increasingly on late placements and substitutes, which substantially harms student performance. So even if some students are able to attend a successful charter school, many more are stranded in the remaining starved public ones. The experience in Newark exemplifies this tragedy:

What parent would agree to a policy that benefits one of her children but seriously damages one or two of her other kids? The Prize [a recently published book about Newark] does an invaluable service in helping to explain how true believers in top-down reform may or may not have benefitted many of the 30 percent of students headed for charters. They did so, however, by harming the schools serving the majority of poor children. They created even more intense concentrations of children from extreme poverty and trauma; they took failing schools and made them worse.

Stated that way, the widely advocated policy prescription of replacing low-performing schools with charters looks horribly off the mark. Of course, if there are stringent controls to assure that only the better performing charters (determined by legitimate measures and practices) can replace a low-performing public school, then the odds of increased student achievement improve. Whether the increased benefit to the individual student who qualifies for a high-performing charter justifies the larger number of students who are left behind and neglected is a tough question each community must address.

An Unsustainable Business Model

A last point. Many charters rely on younger teachers with no union protections, work them extremely hard, impose stultifying working conditions, and as a consequence suffer from large turnover and burnout. Many reformers falsely believe that most veteran teachers are incompetent or over the hill and can profitably be replaced by energetic neophytes. Even if it were true, which it is not, the odds of long-term success are questionable for replacement strategies that rely on low-cost neophytes with high turnover. In an insightful article, Andy Hargreaves argues that England has followed this questionable model (which he defines as a “business capital model”) to its detriment; to its benefit, Scotland has followed a longer-term Build-and-Support model.

Summing Up the Many Problems with Charter Schools

An exhaustive summary of the research supporting these many criticisms of charters is found in a report by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) that eviscerates the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools 2014 document Separating Fact & Fiction: What You Need to Know About Charter Schools. This NEPC document attempted to rebut what the Charter School Alliance labeled as 21 myths underlying objections to charter schools, but as delineated in the NEPC report the alliance document’s arguments could not stand scrutiny and were invalidated by the vast majority of research studies. NEPC awarded the document its annual Bunkum Award for shoddy research.

On his blog Cloaking Inequity, Julian Vasquez Heilig also has compiled an extensive list of the most powerful research that identifies the perils of charter schools and summarizes the findings.

The public is becoming increasingly aware of and concerned about the problems with charter schools. To quote from a 2016 survey:

Voters overwhelmingly favor charter school reform proposals. Large majorities of voters back proposals to strengthen transparency and accountability, teacher training and qualifications, implement anti-fraud measures, ensure high-need students are served and making sure neighborhood public schools are not adversely affected.

Charters, contrary to reform promises, are not destined to become the holy grail of school improvement. They should return to their original useful mission of working in partnership with public schools to become community lighthouse schools. As an example, see the article about Uncommon Schools by Richard Whitmire. The best charters have pioneered innovations such as videotaping teacher lessons for purposes of discussion, strong principal instructional leadership, and greater school site flexibility. But we must reject for-profit chains siphoning off substantial public funds for high-priced CEOs and charters serving as fronts for lucrative real estate deals. We must also reject ideological charters that are used as stalking horses to replace public education, and we must insist that charter school leaders eschew their role in wholesale privatization plans. This is the main argument of A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, an insightful book written by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter. See also Charters: The Illusion of Change, an informative 13-minute film in the same vein, and Arthur Camins’s eloquent plea, warning policymakers to be wary of “choice” arguments.

Recent Developments

10/15/2016 Sky-high attrition rates for Boston’s charter high-schools.

10/15/2016 From Diane Ravitch’s blog. Parent Group: A Charter School is Ruining Our Neighborhood School.

9/14/2016 A compilation of articles demonstrating the problems with charter schools.

9/14/2016 The sad story of how one wealthy family made massive political donations to block charter accountability in Michigan

9/14/2016 KIPP charter schools found that large numbers of their graduates were not doing well in college and too many were failing to graduate. KIPP made significant changes to improve subsequent college performance which bore fruit–better tracking from eighth grade, transparency about college graduation rates, support mechanisms in college, and changes in curriculum and instruction.

9/1/2016 Private prisons have been a disaster–cutting costs causes shoddy management and hardship to prisoners.

9/1/2016  Another example of financial irregularities closing a charter school causing disruption–this time in Livermore, California. and the Pennsylvania auditor questioning suspect charter school lease payments. For a comprehensive view of the problems caused by regulatory gaps in California, see the article by Carol Burris, which is the first of four articles about charter problems in California.

9/1/2016 Julian Heilig comments on the resolutions against widespread charter expansion passed by the national NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives, a group of 50 advocacy organizations, and provides ten important comments about the charter school debate, all consistent with the above article.

9/1/2016 Los Angeles Unified magnet schools (non-charter choice public schools) continue to outscore charters in the latest 2016 state test results. (Some of the magnets are gifted schools but even when they are removed magnets still significantly out-perform charters)

9/1/2016 National Labor Relations Board finds that charter schools are not public schools.

8/4/2016 A California report finds that at least one out of five charter schools in the state actively exclude low-performing students.

8/4/2016 Texas study finds no effect on test scores and earnings of charter school students lower than their public school counterparts.

7/30/2016 Another study, this time from Michigan, showing that proliferation of charter schools has harmed the remaining public schools.; and an interview Jeff Bryant with an author:

Bryant’s quote from the interview: “We saw very significant and large impacts of charter penetration on district fund balances for different thresholds, whether there were 15, 20 or 25 percent of the students going to charter schools. That was really striking. At every one of those thresholds, the higher the charter penetration, the higher the adverse impact on district finances. They’re big jumps, and they’re all very significant statistically. What’s clear is that when the percentage gets up to the neighborhood of 20 percent or so, these are sizeable adverse impacts on district finances.”

7/30/2016 Further evidence of the disastrous performance of virtual schools, this time from Georgia.

7/30/2016 Some more articles about the lower performance of charter schools compared to the public school counterparts. Duval County, Florida; Georgia; Detroit; and Denver

7/30/2016 Jeff Bryant refers to a New York Times article about dire results when public services such as prisons are contracted out to private equity firms and lists similar problems with equity supported charter schools. A recent article in the New York Times looked at the “dire effects” when private equity firms gain some control over public services like emergency care and firefighting. The reporter should have added education to the list.

7/30/2016 William Mathis and Tina Trujillo have edited a massive compilation of the research demonstrating the severe problems with market-based reforms, Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms; Lessons for ESSA (2016) The book has twenty-eight chapters in five sections.

  • The Foundations of Market-Based Reforms;
  • Test-Based Sanctions: What the Evidence Says
  • False Promises
  • Effective and Equitable Reforms
  • Lessons for the Every Student Succeeds Act

The research and examples in the book are further support for many of the claims and research provided in this website.

7/30/2016 Mercedes Schneider’s book on the failures of the schools choice movement is now available in paperback. School Choice; The End of Public Education (2016)

To quote from an announcement of the book: Proponents of market-driven education reform view vouchers and charters as superior to local-board-run, community-based public schools. However, the author of this timely volume argues that there is no clear research supporting this view. In fact, she claims there is increasing evidence of charter mismanagement–with public funding all-too-often being squandered while public schools are being closed or consolidated. Tracing the origins of vouchers and charters in the United States, this book examines the push to ”globally compete” with education systems in countries such as China and Finland. It documents issues important to the school choice debate, including the impoverishment of public schools to support privatized schools, the abandonment of long-held principles of public education, questionable disciplinary practices, and community disruption. School Choice: The End of Public Education? is essential reading for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the past and future of public education in America. This book makes a similar case for the problems of schools choice as my article above.

7/30/2016. Further support for the failure of for-profit educational efforts has just been thoroughly documented in Samuel Abrams 2016 book, Education and the Commercial Mindset. He tells the instructive story of Edison, founded on the belief that public schools were so inefficient that applying the best business practices would save enough money to allow both high profits and high performance if private companies managed them. Chris Whittle, the super-salesman of ChannelOne fame (in return for TV’s schools agreed to have their students watch a slickly produced news show with commercials–Channel One eventually went belly-up due to negative evaluations and educator resistance), convinced foundations and the investment community to sink hundreds of millions of dollars in such a private management scheme. In the 1990’s the company took off with a bang, hired high-profile executives, and secured contracts to manage schools in such places as Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Contrary to promises the company produced no better and, in many cases, worse results than comparable public schools, alienated the communities they were in, narrowed the curriculum for test preparation, and couldn’t even keep order in many of their schools. Losses forced the company  to keep borrowing to stay alive. This did not stop Edison from providing top salaries and perks for its executives and spending large amounts on advertising and marketing. Edison eventually lost all but a few of its management contracts. By 2013 after being taken private, the remnant which had been reduced to a shell was sold for a pittance. Investors along the way lost most of their investment. The book also describes a similar fate for other Educational Management Organizations (EMOs) especially the on-line virtual academies referred to above in the Article. He also gives chapter and verse on the rise and fall of for-profit schools in Sweden as mentioned above.

Abrams argues that such a demise was inevitable. He quotes economic researchers who claim that  privatizing some services are easily monitored such as school busing or constructing buildings. Other services, however, where there is a mismatch of information or clout, run into difficulty in assuring quality service. Clients or contracting government entities in privatized prisons, elderly homes, or especially schools don’t have the power of correction or expertise to tell if the private company is cutting corners to increase returns or executive pay or if the service such as education students are receiving is worthwhile.

Abrams also provides a chapter on the non-profit Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) especially KIPP schools. As stated above, he finds that some are very good and others are spotty. He contends that even the best cannot be scaled because they rely on large foundation support, teachers who are unsustainably over-worked (and leave at much higher rates than the public school counterparts), and students and parents who are willing to endure a harsh “no excuses” management style. He also confirms the point I raised that CMOs can control who they accept,  many don’t backfill when underperforming students drop-out leaving a smaller, higher achieving remnant, benefit from a more committed student body and their parents which makes comparisons difficult, and since they live or die by test-scores narrow the curriculum and spend inordinate amounts of time on test-preparation which harms children later in high-school and college.

Finally, he shows how Finland took a different path. They raised teacher pay, improved teacher training and autonomy, used sampling strategies for test assessment instead of wide-spread testing, and provided a broad liberal arts education. Unlike Sweden, whose PISA results declined substantially after adopting privatization measures, Finland improved from mediocre results to become one of the top countries in the PISA assessments.

7/30/2016 In the culmination of the shoddy story of the on-line, for-profit virtual school K-12’s fraudulent behavior exposed by the San Jose Mercury, Kamela Harris, California’s Attorney General, cracked down on the outfit for multiple frauds including falsified records and overstating student performance and secured a $168.5 million settlement with the beleaguered company.

10/15/2016 More evidence of problems with Ohio’s charter schools.

7/30/2016 Senator Sherrod Brown from Ohio weighed in on Ohio’s failure to police its charter school sector.

7/30/2016 Finally, after being completely shut out of qualifying for New York’s elite high schools for two years, a few Success Academy graduates (of a rarified cohort due to high attrition rates) get accepted.

BBS Companion Articles

The Big Picture
Have High-Stakes Testing and Privatization Been Effective?
How Top Performers Build-and-Support
Ground Efforts in Unassailable Research
Provide Engaging Broad-Based Liberal Arts Curriculum
Provide High-Quality Instruction
Build Teams and Focus on Continuous Improvement
Provide Adequate School Funding
Lessons Learned from Successful Districts
Exemplary Models of Build-and-Support

Reference Notes

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. London: Routledge.

Charters Do Not Perform Better Than Their Public School Counterparts
ProPublica. (2014). Evaluating Charter Schools. See also Center for Popular Democracy. (2015, Apr). The Tip of the Iceberg: Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud, and Abuse.

Center for Research on Education Outcomes. (2015). National Charter School Study. Stanford University.

Miron, G., Mathis, W. J., & Welner, K. G. (2015, Feb 23). Separating Fact & Fiction: What You Need to Know About Charter Schools. See also Maul, A. (2015, Apr 27). Urban Charter School Study 2015.

Finn, C. E., Jr., & Manno, B. V. (2015, Summer). A Progress Report on Charter Schools. National Affairs, 24. Hertog Foundation.

Rubinstein, G. (2015, Oct 5). Do Charter Schools Outperform Public Schools in New York City?

Center for Research on Educational Outcomes. (2015, Jul 22). Charter School Performance in Texas.

In Perspective. Charter Schools in Perspective: A Guide to Research.

Epple, M., Romano, R., & Zimmer, R. (2015, Jun). Charter Schools: A Survey of Research on Their Characteristics and Effectiveness. National Bureau of Economic Research.

Center for Research on Education Outcomes. (2015). National Charter School Study. Stanford University.

Jeong Shin, H., Fuller, B., & Dauter, L. (2015, Dec 2). Differing Effects from Diverse Charter Schools: Uneven Student Selection and Achievement Growth in Los Angeles. See also a review of the report by Blume, H. (2015, Dec 21). Students at Charters Start Off Higher Academically by Some Also Learn Faster, Study Finds. Los Angeles Times.

Dynarski, S. (2015, Nov 20). Urban Charter Schools Often Succeed. Suburban Ones Often Don’t. The New York Times.

Hattie, J. (2011). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. London: Routledge

Whitehurst, G. J. (2009, Oct.). Don’t Forget Curriculum. Brookings.

Simon, S. (2013, Feb 15). Special Report: Class Struggle: How Charter Schools Get Students They Want.

Forest, D. (2016, Jan 6). Charter Schools in NC Less Diverse Than Traditional Schools, Report Shows. The News & Observer.

Ravitch, D. (2015, Dec 3). John Thompson: The Failed Claims for Market-Driven Reforms.

Weber, M. (2015, Nov 11). Charter Schools, An Exchange: Part VI (Final).

National Education Policy Center. (2016, Mar 31). Do Choice Policies Segregate Schools?

Charter School Stats
Persson, J. (2015, Sep 22). CMD Publishes Full List of Closed Charter Schools (with Interactive Map). PR Watch: The Center for Media and Democracy.

Whitmire, R. (2015, Oct 2). 5 Ways to Stop Bad Charters from Derailing Education Reform.

Mead, S., Mitchel, A. L., & Rotherham, A. J. (2015, Sep 10). The State of the Charter School Movement. Bellwether Education Partners.

Dishonest Success Stories: The Refusal to Backfill
Glass, G. V. (2016, Feb 17). They Recruit, They Skim, They Flunk Out the Weak … They Are Arizona’s Top Charter Schools.

Lyles, P., & Clark, D. (2015, Feb 2). Keeping Precious Charter-School Seats Filled. The Wall Street Journal. See also Brown, E. (2015, Apr 10). New York City Charters Leave Thousands of Seats Unfilled Despite Exploding Demand, Study Finds. The Washington Post.

Meister, H. (2015, Dec 17). The Myth of Charter School “Success”: Hillary Was Right.

Casey, L. (2016, Feb 18). Student Attrition and ”Backfilling” at Success Academy Charter Schools: What Student Enrollment Patterns Tell Us.

Strauss, V. (2015, Nov 8). Hillary Clinton: Most Charter Schools “Don’t Take the Hardest-to-Teach Kids, or, If They Do, They Don’t Keep Them.” The Washington Post.

Weber, M. (2015, Nov 11). Charter Schools, An Exchange: Part VI (Final).

Warhaftig, A. (2015, Oct 12). Why Is It So Hard to Believe Good News About Public Schools?

The Problematic “No Excuses” Approach
Vasquez Heilig, J. (2015, Nov 3). Review of Journeys: Are @KIPP Charter Schools Pathological? See also Rubinstein, G (2016, Jan 22). Whatever Happened to KIPP?

Horn, J. (2016). Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys Through “No Excuses” Teaching. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Naison, M. (2015, Feb 24). Bronx Principal Jamaal Bowman Debunks Common Charter School Myths.

KIPP. (2013). The Promise of College Completion: 2013 Alumni Data Update.

Ravitch, D. (2015, Dec 3). Jacqueline Ancess: What Counts as “Success” for a Charter School?

Ravitch, D. (2016, Jan 19). A Success Academy Teacher Quits and Explains Why.

Taylor, K. (2016, Feb 12). At Success Academy School, a Stumble in Math and a Teacher’s Anger on Video. The New York Times.,

Singer, A. (2016, Feb 15). Success Academy’s War Against Children.

Biddle, R. (2016, Feb 16). Success Academy Merits No Defense.

griff519. (2014, Mar 24). Colonizing the Black Natives: Reflections from a Former NOLA Charter School Dean of Students.

Vasquez Heilig, J. (2016, Jan 26). Horror Inside: A No Excuses Charter School #SCW.

Vasquez Heilig, J. (2016, Jan 7). Horror Inside Pt. 2: Charter Teacher Turns Whistleblower #SCW.

Talmage, E (2015, Sep 28). Teach Like a Champion … Or Like a Robot?

Kaplan, E. (2015, Nov 15). No Excuse: An Argument Against Deceptive Metrics and School Success.

Berkshire, J. (2015, Dec 7). Control Experiment.

Disare, M. (2016, Mar 7). “No Excuses” No More? Charter Schools Rethink Discipline After Focus on Tough Consequences.

Tough, P. (2016). Helping Students Succeed: What Works and Why. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Tough, P. (2016, Jun). How Kids Learn Resilience. The Atlantic.

Garland, S. (2016, Mar 27). The End of “No Excuses” Education Reform? A Philadelphia Charter School CEO Leads the Way as More Schools Question the Get-Tough School Model.

Debunking the Theory: Public Schools Are Not Inherently Unproductive
Greene, P. (2015, Oct 11). The Social Justice Argument.

Blume, H. (2015, Sep 21). Backers Want Half of LAUSD Students in Charter Schools in Eight Years, Report Says. Los Angeles Times.

Ravitch, D. (2015, Oct 9). John Thompson: Dare Anyone Say No to Eli Broad?

Bryant, J. (2015, Oct 2). Education “Reformers” Wage a Misdirected War on Mayor De Blasio.

Singer, A. (2015, Oct 1). Despite Big Problems Charters Attract Hedge Fund Support and Presidential Candidates Hungry for Dollars.

Ravitch, D. (2016, Feb 24). Connecticut: Gov. Malloy Appoints Charter Operator to State Board of Education.

Mazzucato, M. (2015). The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths. New York: PublicAffairs|Perseus Group.

Lubienski, C. A., & Lubienski, S. T. (2013, Dec 9). The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools. Stanford School Innovation Review.

Horton, P. (2015). The Irrationality of the Market “Reform” of Education.

Alexander, K. (2012, Fall). Asymmetric Information Parental Choice, Vouchers, Charter Schools and Stigliz.

Rotherham, A. J. (2015, Oct 6). Public Goals, Private Ownership. U.S. News & World Report.

Ravitch, D. (2016, Jan 29). The Perils of Privatization.

Siegel-Hawley, G., & Frankenberg, E. (2016, Jan). Review of The Integration Anomaly: Comparing the Effect of K-12 Education Delivery Models on Segregation in Schools.

Baker, B. D. (2015, Nov 10). Pondering Chartering: False Markets & Liberty as Substitutes for Equity?

Ravitch, D. (2016, Jan 21). Miron: Charter Schools’ Administrative Costs More than Public Schools.

Lee, M. (2016, Jan 18). Report: New Mexico Charter Schools Cost More, Perform Same. Albuquerque Journal.

Minimal Accountability for Fraud, Mismanagement, or Low Performance
Ravitch, D. (2015, Jul 6). Ohio: The One Reform That Is Forbidden. See also Gross, A. (2015, Aug 24). Under John Kasich, Ohio’s Charter Schools Became a “National Joke.” Mother Jones.

Smith, D. (2015, Nov 9). Takata and Volkswagen. Hmm, What If Charters Were Also Subject to Recalls? For a perceptive article questioning the rationale underpinning choice, see Bryant, J. (2016, Jan 28). The School Choice We Have vs. The Choice We Want.

Ravitch, D. (2015, Dec 11). Ohio: Charters Are a “Parasitic Industry.”

Smith, D. (2015, Aug 17). Dollars, Details, and the Devil: Top 10 Needed Charter School Reforms.

Dyer, S. (2015, Oct 9). A Great Day for Ohio’s Kids.

Editorial: Charter Schools’ Purpose Forgotten. (2016, May 26). The Columbus Dispatch.

Bryant, J. (2015, Oct 11). The Ugly Charter School Scandal Arne Duncan is Leaving Behind. See also objections to the grant in Dyer, S. (2015, Dec 8). Charters Fixing Youngstown? Data Say “Not So Fast.”

Bryant, J. (2015, Aug 9). The Big Jeb Bush Charter School Lie: Why His Florida Education Miracle Is Hogwash.

Yi, K., & Shipley, A. (2014, Jun). Florida’s Charter Schools Unsupervised: Taxpayers, Students Lose When School Operators Exploit Weak Laws. SunSentinel. and See also Guerrieri, C. (2015, Sep 3). Florida Hits a Milestone, Over Three Hundred Charter Schools Have Failed. and Schneider, M. (2015, Oct 7). Paramount Charter School: A Chaotic “Free for All” That Cannot Be Immediately Shut Down.

Fineout, G., Spencer, T., & Veiga, C. (2015, Dec 13). Florida Gave About $70 Million to Charter Schools That Later Closed; State Recouped Little. Miami Herald. See also Editorial: Taxpayers Assume Risk, Little Gain for Charter Schools. (2015, Dec 24). Tampa Bay Times.

Romano, J. (2016, Feb 13). The Topsy-Turvy Tale of Charter Schools and Whom They Really Serve. Tampa Bay Times.

Ravitch, D. (2014, Jun 23). Detroit Free Press Investigation: Michigan Charters Get Poor Results, Have No Accountability.

Mihalapoulos, D. (2015, Dec 16). The Watchdogs: Charter Firm Suspected of Cheating Federal Grant Program. Chicago Sun-Times.

Editorial: Charter School Profiteers. (2016, May 25). The Salt Lake Tribune.

Doyle, D. (2014, Oct 15). Authorizer Hopping: Motivations, Causes, and Ways to Stop It. National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Huffman, K. (2015, Dec 6). An Ed Commissioner’s Confession: How I Tried (and Failed) to Close the Worst School in Tennessee.

Strauss, V. (2015, Oct 31). Study on Online Charter Schools: “It is Literally as If the Kid Did Not Go to School for an Entire Year.” The Washington Post.

Calefati, J. (2016, Apr 17). California Virtual Academies: Is Online Charter School Network Cashing in on Failure? The Mercury News., ion/ci_29777973/is-california-online-school-cashing-failure?source=pkg

Bryant, J. (2015, Oct 21). New Report: Federal Funds for Charter Schools Go into a “Black Hole.” For the original report, see also PRWatch. (2015, Oct 21). Charter School Black Hole: CMD Special Investigation Reveals Huge Info Gap on Charter Spending.

Cohen, D. (2016, Feb 29). Are Publicly Funded Charter Schools Accountable to Parents and Taxpayers? Apparently Not.

California Charter Schools Association. Accountability.

Capital & Main. (2016, Jun). Failing the Test: Charter Schools, Privatization, and the Future of Public Education in Los Angeles and California.

Ravitch, D. (2016, May 30). California: The Charter Game Is Rigged.

Charters Drain Funds from Non-Charter Public Schools
DeArmond, M., Denice, P., Gross, B., Hernandez, J., Jochim, A., & Lake, R. (2015, Oct). Measuring Up: Educational Improvement and Opportunity in 50 Cities. See also Strauss, V. (2015, Oct 19). What Are Bill and Melinda Gates Talking About? The Washington Post.

Ravitch, D. (2015, Oct 20). Indiana: Less Money, More Chaos.

Schneider, M. (2016, Mar 17). Charter Co-location: Where Parasite Is Meant to Kill its Host.

Fitzsimon, C. (2016, Feb 17). The Canary in the School Privatization Coal Mine.

Dillon, S. (2010, Sep 27). 4,100 Students Prove “Small Is Better” Rule Wrong. The New York Times. See also Edushyster2012. (2016, Feb 24). What’s the Point?

Gurley, G. (2016, Apr 7). The Great Diversion: Charter Schools May or May Not Improve Student Outcomes–But They Divert Funds from Other Public Schools.

Charters and Crony Capitalism Create Sweetheart Deals
Baker, B. D. (2015, Dec 10). Picture Post Week: Subprime Chartering. See also In the Public Interest. (2015, Dec 9). A Guide to Evaluating Pay for Success Programs and Social Impact Bonds.

Baker, B. D., & Miron, G. (2015, Dec 10). The Business of Charter Schooling: Understanding the Policies That Charter Operators Use for Financial Benefit. National Education Policy Center.

Bryant, J. (2015, Dec 10). New Report Shines a Light Into the Charter School Black Box.

Savage, J. (2015, Dec 7). New Report Challenges Claim Charters Do More with Less. The Texas Observer.

Sasso, G. M. (2016, Jan 7). To the 1 Percent Pouring Millions Into Charter Schools: How About Improving the Schools That the Vast Majority of Students Actually Attend?

Charter Schools Should Be Nonprofit, Accountable, and Fully Transparent
Strauss, V. (2015, Oct 31). Study on Online Charter Schools: It is Literally as if the Kid Did Not Go to School for an Entire Year. The Washington Post.

Baker, B. D. (2015, Dec 7). Picture Post Week: Follow up On Who’s Running America’s Charter Schools. See also Baker, B. D. (2015, Jul 22). Pondering Chartering: Who’s Actually Running America’s Charter Schools?

Huseman, J. (2015, Dec 17). These Charter Schools Tried to Turn Public Education Into Big Business. They Failed.

Is Replacing Neighborhood Schools with Charters Worth the Risk?
Vasquez Heilig, J. (2015, Dec 14). Ghastly Impact of Closing Schools on Students and Communities. See also Cohen, R. M. (2016, Apr 11). School Closures: A Blunt Instrument: Shuttering “Failed Schools” Can Have Painful Consequences for Children and Neighborhoods.

Thompson, J. (2015, Oct 10). Will Reformers Learn a Lesson From Newark?: Dale Russakoff’s “The Prize” Could Help.

An Unsustainable Business Model
Torres, A. C. (2015, Oct 20). How Teacher Turnover, Burnout Can Impact “No-Excuses” Charter Schools. Journalist’s Resource.

Mehta, J. (2014, July 16). Five Inconvenient Truths for Reformers.

Hargreaves, A. (2016, Feb 20). Why England is in the “Guard’s Van” of School Reform.

Miron, G., Mathis, W. J., & Welner, K. G. (2015, Feb 23). Review of Separating Fact & Fiction.

Vasquez Heilig, J. (2015, Nov 20). Charters and Access: Here Is Evidence.

ü62.1 Education Opportunity Network. (2016, Mar 3). The Positive Aura of Charter Schools is Wearing Thin.

Summing Up the Many Problems with Charter Schools
GBA Strategies. (2015, Feb 18). Charter School Reform Poll Memo.

Whitmire, R. (2016, Feb 28). Richard Whitmire: Dogs and Cats, Working Together. New York Daily News.

Kahlenberg, R. D., & Potter, H. (2014). A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. New York: Teacher’s College Press. See also The Century Foundation. Richard D. Kahlenberg. and The Century Foundation. Halley Potter.

Teachers Democracy Project. Charters: The Illusion of Change.

Camins, A. (2015, Jun 24). Democrats: There Are Better Choices Than School Choice to Improve Education.

Why Conventional School “Reforms” Have Failed: Teacher and School Evaluations Are Based on Test Scores

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Why Conventional School “Reforms” Have Failed
Teacher and School Evaluations Are Based on Test Scores

by Bill Honig

The reform movement has failed to produce results overall, and reputable evaluations have shown that individual reform measures also proved to be ineffective. Turnaround schools, charter schools, merit pay, or test-based school and teacher accountability have had either nonexistent or trivial effects. In his book Visible Learning, John Hattie writes that even when reforms produced small gains, they fall far below the improvements brought about by validated initiatives. In this article, I examine the failure of one of the major initiatives of the reform movement: high-stakes teacher and school evaluations based on student test scores.

Firing Teachers Based on Students’ Test Scores Is Not the Answer

A major problem with the “reform” strategy is its tremendous overemphasis on removing incompetent teachers based on students’ test performance and enshrining mass firings as a key objective in school improvement efforts. For those who are seeking a “simple” way to improve educational outcomes, this approach has broad superficial appeal. Up until the repeal of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in late 2015, test-based accountability of teachers was a key component of the Obama administration’s educational policy and the price for relief—in the form of waivers—from arbitrary federal requirements. ESSA eliminates a national teacher evaluation system based on standardized tests scores and the federal government’s ability to grant waivers.

Incompetent teachers should be let go if, and only if, credible and fair methods are used. But personnel changes must be part of a broader push for instructional improvements and efforts to raise the performance of all staff—measures that produce much higher effects on student achievement. For examples of these more positive measures, see the Aspen Institute March 2016 report Evaluation and Support Systems: A Roadmap for Improvement.

Up until several years ago, the reform agenda had primarily relied on test-driven, high-stakes accountability systems to punish or reward schools—a questionable enough approach, as discussed later in this article. A recent shift compounded the error when districts and states began to use the tests to also evaluate teachers and administrators and mete out punishment, termination, or rewards.

Often accompanied by hostile, anti-teacher rhetoric, teacher evaluation systems based on test scores became a central plank in the reform movement. That is why some “reformers” have virulently campaigned against teachers’ unions and due process (tenure) rights for teachers. They see these protections (which should be streamlined when they become too cumbersome) preventing the unfettered ability to eliminate incompetent teachers and frustrating what in their minds is the most viable strategy to improve schools—firing bad teachers and pressuring the rest to improve.

As an aside, the article “Tenure: How Due Process Protects Teachers and Students” explains tenure in the context of due process rights and provides a cogent rationale for fair process protections during dismissal proceedings. Also, see Dana Goldstein’s excellent book The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, which provides a gut wrenching picture of historical harm and arbitrary treatment teachers received before these due process rights were secured.

Many reformers as well as their political and media supporters frame the current debate about educational direction as a clash between themselves—the only ones who are trying to improve schools—and lazy or incompetent teachers and their unions. They contend that those who attempt to block their reform efforts are just trying to protect teacher prerogatives. This is why many policymakers and pundits take a confrontational rather than a cooperative stance. But educators’ opposition to the reform platform is much broader and goes much deeper than this all-too-common specious analysis. It is not that teachers (and their representatives) do not want to improve performance or that they do not see the need for schools to get better at what they are doing. Almost every professional wants that. What teachers and most district and school administrators object to is the path reformers have laid out toward accomplishing that goal. They view reformers’ Test-and-Punish reform initiatives as ill advised and ineffective at best and detrimental at worst. And they are correct.

Teacher Quality: Putting the Issue in Perspective

Contrary to the reform movement’s superficial and overheated rhetoric, the quality of teachers, while significant, is not the only important influence on student performance. According to various research studies, it accounts for only about 10% of student achievement. Bashing and blaming teachers is not a new trick. As recounted in Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars, this destructive ploy has emerged several times in our history, driven by “moral panic.” It is unjust to single out teachers as the primary cause of underperforming students and schools and, at the same time, fail to address more influential factors.

As one example, family and social dysfunction is on the rise and has had a devastating effect on educational performance. This is particularly true among working-class families. Robert Putnam’s important new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, reveals the alarming growth in recent decades of social pathology among white working-class families. During the same period, professional families have stayed much more stable. Socioeconomic levels continue to significantly outrank all other influences on student performance.

Of course, it is easier to blame teachers for not reversing the damage done by wage stagnation and the dramatic decrease in blue-collar jobs in this country over the past decades rather than tackle these larger problems directly. In the US, we have seen rising levels of inequality, the increase of single-parent families, a steady climb in drug use, and the dearth of supportive services. Reformers’ penchant for blaming teachers and school administrators for low school performance conveniently absolves other societal institutions and actors of their responsibility for ameliorating injurious socioeconomic trends. Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the most respected commentators on how best to improve schools, offers an alternative view. She has called for “reciprocal accountability,” which requires that all major stakeholders share the responsibility for school performance improvement, not just teachers who are so easily scapegoated.

Julie Rummel provides a poignant much-needed teacher’s perspective of the harsh reality encountered in many of our schools. She moved from a dysfunctional poverty-stricken school where she was labeled a “mediocre” teacher to a more upscale campus where she was regarded as great. She essentially made no changes in how she taught or connected with her students.

In a new infographic, Kevin Welner of the National Center for Education Policy reinforces the unfairness of expecting schools to reverse the deleterious effects of poverty by themselves.

Finally, A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, an organization devoted to addressing these broader issues, just relaunched its efforts following the enactment of the federal ESSA legislation.

Isabel Sawhill and Edward Rodrigue list three measures that had a major effect on whether an individual would remain in poverty. They found that graduating from high school, being in a family with at least one full-time worker, and being at least 21 and married before having children correlated closely with economic success. They describe this as “the success sequence.” According to these researchers, only 2.4% of those Americans who follow the success sequence will live below the poverty line, while over 70% enjoy at least middle-class incomes, defined as at least 300% of that poverty measure. For those who do not meet the three criteria, 79% will live in poverty. Only one of these measures is directly school related—graduation rates. Having an adult with a full-time job depends on successful job creation efforts.

According to Isabel Sawhill, “If we want to reduce poverty, one of the simplest, fastest and cheapest things we could do would be to make sure that as few people as possible become parents before they actually want to.” Here is an example of what could be done to substantially lower teen pregnancy and thus improve educational performance. From 2009 to mid-2015 a dramatically successful program in Colorado slashed the teen pregnancy and abortion rates by nearly 50% by providing free long-term birth control devices such as IUDs for teenagers. The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation initially funded the program, but when the grant ended in 2015, the Republican-controlled legislature killed a bill to support this successful effort. Private donations saved the program for a year.

Tests Are Not Reliable Measures of Teacher Performance

Considering in-school issues, the technical ability of current student tests to accurately identify high- and low-performing teachers is woefully inadequate. In the past few years, a compelling body of research has emerged that demonstrates the dangers of test-based teacher evaluations. Three major research institutes—American Education Research Association (AERA), the National Academy of Education, and the American Statistical Association (ASA)—have forcefully warned against employing these measures for teacher evaluations. The AERA issued standards for teacher evaluation measures, which virtually no existing instruments meet.

Currently, Value-Added Measures (VAMs) is a popular tool. It claims to assess growth by aggregating individual scores adjusted for socioeconomic measures. Like other tools in widespread use, it is not accurate enough for evaluating teachers. A seminal critique of the growing use of test scores and value-added measures was written by Linda Darling-Hammond, Audrey Amrein-Beardsley from Arizona State University, Edward Haertel from Stanford, and Jesse Rothstein from University of California, Berkeley. Their research revealed how inexact the measures were, and they present case studies of egregious misidentification—when excellent teachers have been misidentified as low performing and unfairly dismissed. In Teacher and Student Evaluation: Moving Beyond the Failure of School Reform, Alyson Lavigne and Thomas Good provide a comprehensive analysis of the history of teacher evaluations. Their analysis also found the present strategies to be defective. Further, Rick Stigins in his 2014 book, Defensible Teacher Evaluation: Student Growth through Classroom Assessment, reviews the major deficiencies in current high-stakes, test-driven teacher evaluation.

In March 2015, the respected publication Educational Researcher devoted an entire issue to critiques of the most common VAMs, plus some supporting statements with caveats. For a list of the top 15 research articles that discredit the use of test scores and VAM approaches, see Amrein-Beardsley’s VAMboozled website. The site includes a recommended reading list and lists 86 articles that have raised major technical concerns about VAM. For an exhaustive list, more information, and research articles that discredit the use of test scores and VAM approaches, see briefing paper Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers and the article “Studies Highlight Complexities of Using Value-Added Measures.” Both make a compelling case against test-driven teacher evaluation. Professor Edward Haertel from Stanford has written a particularly persuasive admonition against this practice, as has Leo Casey in his article published in the esteemed, peer-reviewed journal Teachers College Record titled “The Will to Quantify: The “Bottom Line” in the Market Model of Education Reform.”

Two reports published in 2016 underscore the serious limitations of VAM. The first describes how VAM use failed in the Houston Independent School District (HISD); the second, produced by REL at WestEd, discusses how deficient VAM is in predicting teacher quality.

For further reading on the limits of VAM as a measure of teacher quality, see also “A Reanalysis of the Effects of Teacher Replacement Using Value-Added Modeling” by Stuart S. Yeh, Beardley’s blog post “The (Relentess) Will to Quantify,” and a critique of New York’s plan to use VAM methods to evaluate teachers. Finally, the Melbourne Graduate School of Education website has a compelling video lecture on why test score evaluation does not work.

Evaluations Based on Test Scores Misidentify Teachers

These well-respected researchers make the following points. The section “Standardized Tests Are Not the Best Measures of School or Teacher Quality” in companion article Reformers Target the Wrong Levers of Improvement made the case that such scores fail to accurately measure deeper and broader learning.

As importantly, student tests were never designed to be used for teacher evaluation and suffer from high levels of misidentification, or noise. Studies have shown that if we use current tests, a teacher who is ranked at the 50th percentile could be anywhere from the 85th percentile to the 15th. A significant number of teachers bounce from top to bottom, or vice versa from year to year. A recent report from the US Department of Education found very high misidentifications—even with three years of data per teacher. One-fourth of the teachers identified as “low performers needing remediation” were actually at the mid-range of performance, and one-fourth of teachers who were deemed “average” were actually in need of professional development and support. That level of imprecision should be unacceptable for any respected profession.

A team of renowned researchers set out to demonstrate the absurdity of using student tests to determine teacher effectiveness. They found that changes in the height of students, which is obviously independent of teacher influence, was nearly as predictive of teacher effectiveness as test scores.

Examples of Test-Based Evaluations That Fail Exemplary Teachers

As a result of districts using these suspect measures, there have been numerous cases of top-flight teachers receiving negative scores and of teachers who were identified one year as “stellar” receiving a low rating the next. In some cases this occurred because a teacher voluntarily agreed to take a more difficult class. Then the teacher suffered by comparison with the easier class (s)he taught in the previous years.

The telling case of Pascale Mauclair clearly demonstrates how dangerous it can be to use such dubious evaluation measures. She agreed to teach a harder-to-educate class and did a superb job, but instead of getting congratulated she was identified by the press as “One of the Worst Teachers in the City.” A study conducted by Darling-Hammond and her colleagues also documented tragic cases of misidentification.

Finally, some teachers are taking the issue to court claiming the current evaluation procedures are so arbitrary that they are fatally flawed. An example is Sheri Lederman’s case before the New York courts. Each year she works with students who achieve double the average student proficiency rates in the state, but since her students scored so high in previous years, she did not meet the state’s ill-conceived standard requiring growth from year to year. As a result, Lederman received a low rating. The trial court held the existing system was “arbitrary and capricious” as it applied to her, and voided the rankings based on test scores.

Consequently, when such growth measures are used, results can be extremely arbitrary at the upper ends. My favorite example is the ludicrous case of Carolyn Abbott, an exemplary teacher of gifted students in New York City. Her students made huge gains each year, invariably scoring at the highest levels. In one year, her previous gifted class scored at the 98th percentile and, based on that high performance, her predicted next year’s score became the 97th percentile. The actual score landed at the 89th percentile. Many of her gifted students saw no reason to try hard on the state test since they were doing much more advanced work. On other tests that had consequences for students, they scored in the highest ranks. Even though Abbott was doing an exemplary job, the newspapers dubbed her the “Worst 8th Grade Teacher in the City.” The real story was the complete opposite.

I have some important feedback for the news media in this country: Shame on you for rushing to publish teacher rankings when you know, or should know, that these lists are bogus and prone to error. Even the more thoughtful advocates of VAMs caution against their use for high-stakes personnel decisions.

Other Flaws in Test-Based Evaluation Systems

As previously mentioned, test scores and even evaluations by principals tend to track the socioeconomic status of the student population. So schools in low-income areas have a significantly higher number of low evaluations and fewer high evaluations—a clearly unjust situation and a surefire detriment to attracting our best teachers to these areas in need.

In addition, no one yet has solved the problem that most teachers are not math and reading teachers. Thus, they do not teach the math and reading content tested on the new PARCC and SBAC assessments, yet they are still held accountable based on those test scores. As a result, many teachers are now suing after receiving low evaluations based on the test performance of students they never taught. Another major defect in the measures being used for evaluation is that different assessment instruments yield widely dissimilar results. This is further confirmation of the inaccuracy and inadequacy of these measures.

Further, individual evaluations do not take into account school context, which has a large influence on teacher performance. The students of two similarly talented teachers will score differently if one group of students is in a school led by an effective principal with working teams, a good school climate, and active engagement of students and parents while the other is in a dysfunctional school with none of these attributes.

Finally, yearly decisions about which students get assigned to which teachers can tremendously skew a teacher’s evaluation. Nonrandom assignment of students vitiates a key requirement of valid teacher evaluation systems, subjecting teachers to potential principal favoritism and pressure from parents. Newer VAMs that are being used more and more were supposedly designed to correct this, but apparently they have not. Conversely, one of the best predictors of student achievement is whether teachers are assigned to teach classes in their areas of expertise or classes that match their skill set. Ironically, when districts use the information from test-based evaluations as a proxy for mis-assignment and then reassign teachers to subjects aligned with their preparation and experience, students enjoy a much greater boost to performance than performance improvements resulting from firings using value-added teacher accountability. Perhaps the best use of high-stakes testing is holding administrators accountable for proper assignment of teachers, instead of serving as the unsound basis for teacher evaluation.

Test-Based Evaluations Do Not Measure Good Teaching and Harm the Profession

Do evaluations based in large part on math and reading test scores actually measure “good teaching”? A 2014 report by well-regarded researchers Martin Polikoff and Andrew Porter says no. They looked at six districts nationwide and found that measures of students’ opportunity to learn (OTL) the content specified in standards and measures of instructional quality, both of which have been found to be highly predictive of student learning, showed weak or zero correlation with the VAM tests being used to evaluate teachers.

The upshot of all this research is that not only is test-based teacher evaluation unfair to the limited number of teachers who can benefit from professional support, but the arbitrary threat issued to all teachers impairs their performance and discourages them from remaining in the profession. The Test-and-Punish approach has also had a damaging effect on efforts to recruit new talent. Defective evaluation schemes have many negative consequences, including teachers avoiding hard-to-teach children and resisting collaborative team-building efforts. The demeaning rhetoric about widespread teacher incompetence is another key factor contributing to growing teacher demoralization. For more on this topic, see the companion article Reformers Allowed Their Rhetoric to Be Hijacked.

The op-ed piece “Standardized Tests Don’t Help Us Evaluate Teachers” is an in-the-trenches summary by a Los Angeles Unified attorney who helped create teacher evaluations and now finds them defective. In The Teacher Wars, Dana Goldstein offers an excellent account of the disastrous consequences of personnel decisions tied to student test scores. For an excellent summary of why test scores should not be used for consequential evaluations, see David Berliner’s piece.

Finally, a 2016 extensive report on teacher evaluation policies by Thomas Toch recommends using evaluative information primarily for program and teacher improvement. This shifts the major purpose of evaluations from rooting out the lowest performers to policies aimed at lifting the whole staff.

The business community has been moving away from ranking schemes for decades, recognizing that such evaluations are superficial, work against team building, cause lower performance, and discourage risk taking by employees. In a clear case of hypocrisy, many business leaders have no compunction about recommending such discarded measures for schools.

Fortunately, many school districts and states have been withdrawing from or minimizing the use of mandatory test-based teacher evaluations leading to dismissal proceedings. Many others are using teacher evaluations as just one of many data sets that provide useful information and feedback to teachers and faculties about where to concentrate improvement efforts. Three examples are Tulsa, the state of Michigan, and Houston. State Action to Advance Teacher Evaluation, a comprehensive report by the Southern Regional Education Board, and the California blueprint, Greatness by Design, advocate using evaluations to feedback useful information for teacher improvement.

One of the most prominent architects of teacher evaluation, Charlotte Danielson, whose rubrics are in widespread use, has castigated the present way evaluations are being conducted and used. Even New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who was a strong advocate for test-based high-stakes teacher evaluation, has backtracked, and the New York Regents have halted required state test-based teacher evaluations for four years. Many educational leaders such as New York’s Nassau County superintendents had warned against this practice. Some political leaders , such as Hillary Clinton, are also beginning to speak out about the dangers of test-based teacher evaluation. Finally, a court in New Mexico found that using VAM scores based on tests is too imprecise to be used to attach consequences to the results.

Bill Gates, one of the strongest proponents of teacher evaluation strategies, has issued warnings about their overuse:

Too many school systems are using teacher evaluations as merely a tool for personnel decisions, not helping teachers get better. . . . Many systems today are about hiring and firing, not a tool for learning.

In response, to this growing resistance to test-based teacher evaluation, the recent reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), now named the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), ignores test-based teacher evaluation.

A More Effective Approach to Teacher Evaluation

Preliminarily, advocates of high-stakes teacher evaluation have a misguided view of “teacher quality.” They think it is a static individual attribute that—after the first few years—can’t really change. A more sophisticated viewpoint sees teacher quality as dynamic, which does and should grow over time. Esther Quintero, a management expert, supports this point of view. Writing for the Albert Shanker Institute blog, Quintero explains:

In the US, a number of unstated but common assumptions about “teacher quality” suffuse the entire school improvement conversation. As researchers have noted . . . instructional effectiveness is implicitly viewed as an attribute of individuals, a quality that exists in a sort of vacuum (or independent of the context of teachers’ work), and which, as a result, teachers can carry with them, across and between schools. Effectiveness also is often perceived as fairly stable: teachers learn their craft within the first few years in the classroom and then plateau, but, at the end of the day, some teachers have what it takes and others just don’t. So, the general assumption is that a “good teacher” will be effective under any conditions, and the quality of a given school is determined by how many individual “good teachers” it has acquired.

In British Columbia, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore, none of these assumptions seems to be at work. Teacher effectiveness is not something fixed that individual teachers do or don’t possess. Rather, effectiveness is both a quality and an aspiration of schools: Schools ought to be organized and resourced so that teachers continuously and collaboratively improve. In these high performance systems, the whole (school effectiveness) is greater than the sum of its parts (individual teacher effectiveness) because, as Susan Moore Johnson argues:

Whatever level of human capital schools acquire through hiring can subsequently be developed through activities such as grade-level or subject-based teams of teachers, faculty committees, professional development, coaching, evaluation, and informal interactions. As teachers join together to solve problems and learn from one another, the school’s instructional capacity becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

The Learning Policy Institute published a report by Kini and Podolsky, Does Teaching Experience Increase Teacher Effectiveness? A Review of the Research, which debunked the idea that teachers don’t continue to become more effective after the first three-year learning spurt. Obviously, well-constructed professional learning will enhance the normal growth process.

It is important to dismiss incompetent teachers if their dismissal is done fairly and is part of an overall effort that gives teachers the support and time they need to improve before they are dismissed. With the right resources and approach, many low-performing teachers become good teachers. Our most successful districts do not ignore struggling teachers. They use effective assessments that include feedback, peer participation and review, and support. They have organized schools to be learning institutions in which all staff can continuously improve. These districts are also careful when making initial hiring decisions and granting tenure. Ironically, districts that follow these more supportive evaluation strategies often end up with higher dismissal rates than those following the pure Test-and-Punish approach. See the policy brief Evaluation, Accountability, and Professional Development in an Opportunity Culture, which outlines proven, more positive approaches to teacher evaluation.

Lavigne and Good have surveyed the best research and practices in the field. In their 2015 book, Improving Teachers Through Observation and Feedback, they offer powerful suggestions for correctly conducting evaluation in the service of improved performance. Their proposals markedly differ from what most districts are currently doing. In fact, Lavigne and Good emphasize useful feedback and cooperative effort, as opposed to formal evaluations. Information from a teacher’s student tests can help that teacher improve instruction when valid methods, measures, and strategies are employed, and checked for accuracy. Again, student test data should not be used in personnel decisions but as part of a broad-scale effort to collect evidence that will help teachers and schools improve. The current emphasis on narrowly conceived test-based, high-stakes teacher evaluation is unfair and ineffective.

A major report by the Network for Public Education, Teachers Talk Back: Educators on the Impact of Teacher Evaluation, reinforces the view that test-based teacher evaluation is harmful and evaluations should instead focus on improving instruction as some states such as California have done.

Does Dismissing Incompetent Teachers Improve Student Outcomes?

This is the most crucial question for those who support Test-and-Punish. First, after a decade of intensive effort to pursue teacher evaluation schemes, the results have been negligible. Rick Hess reports on a study conducted by Matt Kraft and Allison Gilmour. According to Hess:

[The authors] look at teacher evaluation results in 19 states that have adopted new evaluation systems since 2009. Unfortunately, all that time, money, and passion haven’t delivered much. Kraft and Gilmour note that, after all is said and done, the share of teachers identified as effective in those 19 states inched down from more than 99% to a little over 97% in 2015.

Second, the fact is that fixating on just the three to five percent sliver of teachers who are not performing, even if the evaluation process were fair and accurate, affects only a small fraction of teachers with limited payoff. In a school of 20 teachers, eliminating one incompetent teacher will help one class of students but does nothing for the other 19 classes. However, making test-based evaluations and dismissals a major policy component drags 19 other teachers into the vortex of legally justified yet burdensome and what are often superficial evaluation schemes.

When compared to schoolwide initiatives aimed at improving the entire staff and unleashing their potential as a coordinated team, the effect sizes of firing a failing teacher on overall student performance are small. Contrary to recent reform rhetoric, even if three to five percent of incompetent teachers were dismissed tomorrow, student gains would be minimal. There are much more productive strategies to improve student performance.

Recently, a media frenzy erupted over a research report that claimed a huge benefit from firing the worst teachers. This report sensationalized the effect of replacing a poor teacher with an average teacher by stating that the lifetime earning benefits of a given class would increase by $266,000. Diane Ravitch has questioned the methodology used in the research report. Even if the research were valid and findings accurate, the boost in earnings is quite trivial. As the report itself states, the figure amounts to about a discounted $7,000 per student per lifetime, or less than $200 per year. Put another way, the reported effect sizes are tiny compared to the payoff from other improvement strategies. Finally, the report admits that correlations are low at 0.5, which means that large numbers of teachers are identified as lacking who aren’t, and similar numbers are identified as proficient who are actually struggling.

Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) was a major study sponsored by the Gates Foundation. It found that the measures of teacher effectiveness did predict student performance in mathematics, although, again, effect sizes were small. Significant technical issues were raised about the methodology of this study as well. Critics have asked: Were random assignments fully carried out? Did the teachers of hard-to-educate students participate in sufficient numbers to validate the results? Were all the data reported? Is the report based on the flawed assumption that test scores, principal evaluations, and student surveys predicted the same thing?

However, the most damning objection to using the MET report to support high-stakes testing for personnel decisions comes from the report itself. It cautions against such use, saying the researchers did not determine or even consider if evaluation for high-stakes personnel decisions might well negate their findings. The report makes the conjecture that teaching to the test, narrowing curriculum, gaming the system, and failing to cooperate with other teachers competing for bonuses could very well lower student performance. Finally, and critically, this report does not present any evidence that identifying who is a high- or low-quality teacher resulted in improving instruction.

As demonstrated by the extensive research cited above, there is thin to nonexistent evidence suggesting that a reform strategy focused on firing incompetent teachers produces any significant gains in student achievement. Further, policymakers’ misplaced emphasis on the few suspected lowest performers comes with a huge cost. Frequently, all teachers regardless of their demonstrated capabilities are evaluated by expensive, hugely complicated, and time-consuming procedures. These evaluations gravitate toward a checklist mentality of individual items, which trivializes teaching instead of seeing it through a more complex and accurate lens. In addition to the previously mentioned Teacher and Student Evaluation: Moving Beyond the Failure of School Reform (Lavigne and Good, 2014) and The Teacher Wars (Goldstein, 2014), a video produced by WestEd provides an excellent summary of the best research and principles of effective professional evaluation systems.

Can Evaluations by Principals Fix the Problems of Test-Based Accountability?

Relying on principals’ classroom observations cannot obviate the deficiencies of using test scores to evaluate teachers. Evaluations of teachers by principals are heavily influenced by the socioeconomic levels of their students. According to Alisha Kirby:

As the components of teacher evaluations remain under debate among policymakers, a new study suggests the results of classroom observation may hinge more on the students’ capabilities than the teacher’s.

Analysis from the American Institutes for Research and the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education found that students’ behavior and prior academic achievement weighs heavily on teacher performance and can skew the results of an evaluation.

“When information about teacher performance does not reflect a teacher’s practice, but rather the students to whom the teacher is assigned, such systems are at risk of misidentifying and mislabeling teacher performance,” reported Rachel Garrett of the American Institutes for Research and Matthew Steinberg from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

Two papers reached the same conclusions. One paper is Leading via Teacher Evaluation: The Case of the Missing Clothes? The other one is Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

Further, most principals are not adequately prepared to conduct accurate teacher evaluations. Many now find themselves spending an inordinate amount of time conducting formal classroom observations with extensive item checklists in hand. They are visiting each classroom several times a year rather than spending the time needed for schoolwide efforts that will improve curriculum and instruction. It is a case of evaluation run amok. Lavigne and Good provide a chilling example of this pathology. Under Tennessee’s byzantine and excessive teacher evaluation system, principals must visit each teacher’s classroom four to six times a year. In a school of 20 teachers, that means spending between 176 and 260 hours per year on observation, not assistance. Some research even suggests that classroom observations for purposes of evaluation actually reduce performance.

A pilot report from Chicago found small effects when principals used an evaluation strategy that included two observations of reading teachers per year. The results of the evaluations were used for teacher and school improvement, not harsh consequences. A key finding was that extensive training of principals in observation techniques and how to use the evaluations in program improvement made a large difference. Finally, many walkthroughs by principals miss the essence of good teaching and instead concentrate on trivia, according to Peter DeWitt.

A Narrow Focus on Dismissing Teachers Detracts from Effective Improvement Measures

Crucially, such a narrow policy focus on dismissing a few teachers often leads to a failure to address other vital in-school measures, which significantly influence the performance of all teachers and the achievement of students. For example, large numbers of teachers leave inner-city schools each year. Teacher churn and the resulting heavy use of substitutes are a major reason for low student performance. Excellent teachers are leaving the profession due to the stress of teaching in low-income urban schools and dreadful working conditions. This problem overshadows the damage done by a few underperforming teachers.

Several researchers have recommended policies aimed at encouraging the retention of our best teachers. The New Teacher Project (TNTP) published a report in 2013 entitled The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America’s Urban Schools. The report laments that most districts do not have policies to encourage the highest-performing 20% of teachers to stay, and as a result the districts suffer high attrition rates. Top teachers want collegiality, being part of effective teams, better working conditions, somebody paying attention to them, and career paths that allow them to keep teaching but take on additional responsibility helping other teachers or solving school performance problems and earn more money. Districts that solely concentrate on firing incompetent teachers miss this much larger and more productive target.

It is also important to recognize that the quality of the curriculum and instructional materials is just about as important as teacher quality. For more about the importance of curriculum and educational resources, see the companion article Provide High-Quality Instruction.

In addition, the level of school funding matters. Yes, money does make a difference. Recent reports by moderate and conservative institutions refute reformers’ often expressed claim that expenditure levels are not a key component of quality. The reports find that increased funding results in improved student performance, and conversely, cutting school budgets depresses outcomes. Similar results were found in Indiana after the state drastically cut educational support. The companion article Provide Adequate School Funding covers the role of funding in its discussion of district/state support for improving schools.

For a review of the literature that has revealed funding matters, see Does Money Matter in Education? Unfortunately, the “money doesn’t matter philosophy” and political antipathy to public education in this country have substantially hampered school funding. Most states are spending below their 2008 expenditures, and some are cutting even more.

Equally important is site and district leadership, particularly as they relate to building systems that connect teaching, curriculum, and instruction; to continuously improving these elements; and to improving the school climate by increasing the degree of engagement of teachers, students, and parents and community. A recent report by Thomas Kane from Harvard found teacher perception of the school being a good place to work improved performance. In math, the amount of professional development and teacher feedback also helped. Principal leadership accounts for about one-quarter of in-school measures of student performance, teacher quality about one-third.

For a perceptive two-part series on how to best train principals to lead and a description of efforts currently under way in four states, see the Marc Tucker’s blog posts “Organizations in Which Teachers Can Do Their Best Work,” Part 1 and Part 2. For a comprehensive report on principal training, see The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning and the standards for school leadership approved by the National Policy Board for Educational Administration in 2015.

There are other essential components of effective improvement efforts: provision of social support and medical services, ongoing professional development and team building for all teachers, and the use of just-in-time assessment systems and valid data on each student’s progress to inform instruction.

Reform measures that emphasize terminating incompetent teachers based on questionable methods not only lower teachers’ morale and efficacy, but inevitably lead to conflict with staff who understand the underlying flaws in the strategy. The evidence is clear—conflict between key stakeholders tends to sabotage the cooperative efforts needed to achieve effective reform. As many have said, “You can’t fire your way to educational greatness.”

Targeting the Lowest-Performing Schools with Closure and Other Drastic Measures Is Usually Ineffective

When it comes to evaluating schools, high-stakes accountability based on tests has been just as ineffective and just as problematic in terms of unintended consequences. Concentrating on five percent of low-testing schools and responding to their performance with drastic measures—closures, mass firings, or conversion to charters—has produced negligible results. Such reform measures do, however, severely impact those schools, their students, and the surrounding communities. This is even more concerning given that many of the affected schools were unfairly misidentified. They were actually progressing equal to or better than the remaining schools in the district. The failure of school turnaround policies has been documented by a number of respected sources. According to the National Education Policy Center’s description of a meta-analysis by Tina Trujillo of University of California, Berkeley and Michelle Renée of Brown’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Trujillo and Renée stated that school turnaround policies are “more likely to cause upheaval than to help.” See also pages 96–97 of the previously cited Teacher and Student Evaluation: Moving Beyond the Failure of School Reform, and for an overall study of turnaround strategies, see Emerging State Turnaround Strategies, a report prepared by the Education Commission of the States.

States that used tests to grade schools have found major problems with accuracy, and many have reversed the policy. For a critique of Florida’s 15-year failed effort to get school grades right, see “School Scandals Reveal Problem with Grading Schools.” For a broader, balanced critique of Florida’s reform initiatives, see the Shanker Institute’s policy brief. Many have questioned whether the state reform formula and direction were actually the driving force behind the early gains. Instead, they point to the efforts made by excellent local superintendents who stressed the Build-and-Support approach. Florida’s gains have since stalled following school-funding cutbacks, massive charter expansion, and stringent accountability measures. There are reports showing that segregation and in-school deficiencies considerably outweigh school-to-school comparisons in predicting achievement gaps.

This research demonstrates that, as of yet, the knowledge base for identifying failing schools is not sufficiently developed to allow for fair assessments. As a result, many local sites are labeled as failures simply because they have large numbers of poor and/or students of color. In addition, there is no clear research-based consensus regarding the best ways to intervene in low-performing schools. For example, recent evaluations of the federal School Improvement Grants program aimed at the lowest-underperforming schools found a slight overall improvement, but one-third of the grantees actually had falling scores. The feds are currently providing a bit more flexibility to applicants under the program, admitting that their previous prescriptions were off base. Moreover, even if reform efforts were fair and successful, focusing on the few schools at the bottom ignores the vast majority of children. As Michael Fullan, one of the most respected leaders of the Build-and-Support approach, has pointed out, policies aimed at improving all schools have far better results. Edward Fiske and Helen Ladd made a similar point in an op-ed about successful low-income districts in London. The districts that flourished pursued a districtwide strategic improvement plan as opposed to targeting the lowest performers, used broad accountability systems that went beyond test scores, and provided support for low-income students.

Recent Developments

9/14/2016 Where school turnarounds have been successful they have been embedded in over-all district efforts to improve and have avoided a punishment approach. A new report by the Center for American Progress has found seven important issues for successful school turnarounds:

Grant districts, and ultimately the state, the authority to intervene in failing schools.

Provide significant resources to support planning and restructuring and leverage competitive grants.

Treat the district as the unit of change and hold them accountable for school improvement.

Create transparent tiers of intervention and support combined with ongoing capacity building and sharing best practices.

Promote stakeholder engagement.

Create pipeline programs for developing and supporting effective turnaround school leaders.

Embed evaluation and evidence-based building activities in school implementation

7/30/2016 Audrey Amerain-Beardsley reviewed an excellent piece from twenty years ago by Ed Haertel on the deficiencies of test-based evaluations of teachers. She details six major points Haertel makes, all consistent with the article above.

7/30/2016 Another researcher debunks the value of value added measures for teacher evaluation. Another district eliminated VAMS for teacher evaluation.

BBS Companion Articles

Why Conventional School “Reforms” Have Failed
Reformers Target the Wrong Levers of Improvement
How Top Performers Build-and-Support
Provide High-Quality Instruction
Provide Adequate School Funding

Reference Notes

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. London: Routledge.

Firing Teachers Based on Students’ Test Scores Is Not the Answer
Aspen Institute. (2016, Mar). Evaluation and Support Systems: A Roadmap for Improvement.  See also Brown, C., Partelow L., & Konoske-Graf, A. (2016, Mar 16). Educator Evaluation: A Case Study of Massachusetts’ Approach.  Humphrey, D., Koppich, J., & Tiffany-Morales, J. (2016, Mar). Replacing Teacher Evaluation Systems with Systems of Professional Growth: Lessons from Three California School Districts and Their Teachers’ Unions.  Taylor Kerchner, C (2016, Mar 21). Five Lessons for Creating Effective Teacher Evaluations.

Kahlenberg, R. D. (2015, Summer). Tenure: How Due Process Protects Teachers and Students. American Educator.

Goldstein, D. (2014). The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. New York: Doubleday.

Teacher Quality: Putting the Issue in Perspective
Haertel, E. H. (2013). Reliability and Validity of Inferences About Teachers Based on Student Test Scores. Educational Testing Service.

Putnam, R. D. (2015). Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. New York: Simon & Schuster. For other works on the same topic, see Morsy, L., & Rothstein, R. (2015, Jun 10). Five Social Disadvantages That Depress Student Performance: Why Schools Alone Can’t Close Achievement Gaps. Economic Policy Institute. Berliner, D. C. (2013). Effects of Inequality and Poverty vs. Teachers and Schooling on America’s Youth. See also Summers, L. H., & Balls, E. (2015, Jan). Report on the Committee for Inclusive Prosperity.

Rich, M., Cox, A., & Bloch, M. (2016, Apr 29). Money, Race, and Success: How Your School District Compares. The New York Times.

Darling-Hammond, L., Wilhoit, G., & Pittenger, L. (2014, Oct 16). Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm. Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.

Glass, Gene. V. (2016, Apr 5). Take All the Credit? You’ll Get All the Blame.

Strauss, V. (2016, Mar). No, Great Schools Can’t Close Achievement Gaps All by Themselves. The Washington Post.

A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education.

Sawhill, I. V., & Rodrigue, E. (2015, Nov 18). An Agenda for Reducing Poverty and Improving Opportunity. Brookings.

Kerwin McCrimmon, K. (2015, Aug 27). Private Money Saves Colorado IUD Program as Fight Continues for Public Funding. Kaiser Health News. See also Tavernise, S. (2015, Jul 5). Colorado’s Effort Against Teenage Pregnancies Is a Startling Success. The New York Times.

Tests Are Not Reliable Measures of Teacher Performance
American Education Research Association and National Academy of Education. Getting Teacher Evaluation Right: A Brief for Policymakers.

American Statistical Association. (2014, Apr 8). ASA Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment. OpEd News.

American Education Research Association. (2015, Nov). AERA Statement of Use of Value-Added Models (VAM) for the Evaluation of Educators and Educator Preparation Programs. Educational Researcher.

Darling-Hammond, L., Amrein-Beardsley, A., Haertel, E., & Rothstein, J. (2012, Mar 15). Evaluating Teacher Evaluation: We Know About Value-Added Models and Other Methods. Phi Delta Kappan.

Lavigne, A. L., & Good, T. L. (2013). Teacher and Student Evaluation: Moving Beyond the Failure of School Reform. New York: Routledge.

Stigins, R. J. (2014). Defensible Teacher Evaluation: Student Growth Through Classroom Assessment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Ballou, D., & Springer, M. G. (2015). Using Student Test Scores to Measure Teacher Performance: Some Problems in the Design and Implementation of Evaluation Systems. Educational Researcher.

Amrein-Beardsley, A. (n.d.). Top 15 Research Articles About VAMS.

Amrein-Beardsley, A. (n.d.). All Recommended Articles About VAMS.

Shavelson, R. J., Linn, R. L., Baker, E. L., et al. (2010, Aug 27). Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers. Economic Policy Institute.

Yettick, H. (2014, May 13). Studies Highlight Complexities of Using Value-Added Measures. Education Week.

Haertel, E. H. (2013). Reliability and Validity of Inferences About Teachers Based on Student Test Scores. Educational Testing Service.

Casey, L. M. (2013). The Will to Quantify: The “Bottom Line” in the Market Model of Education Reform. Teachers College Record.

Amrein-Beardsley A., Collins, C., Holloway-Libell, J., & Paufler, N. (2016, Jan 5). Everything is Bigger (and Badder) in Texas: Houston’s Teacher Value-Added System. Teacher’s College Record.

Lash, A., Makkonen, R., Tran, L., & Huang, M. (2016, Jan). Analysis of the Stability of Teacher-Level Growth Scores from The Student Growth Percentile Model. WestEd.

Yeh, S. (2013). A Reanalysis of the Effects of Teacher Replacement Using Value-Added Modeling. Teachers College Record.

Amrein-Beardsley, A. (2015, Apr 30). The (Relentless) Will to Quantify.

Anrig, G. (2015, Mar 25). Value Subtracted: Gov. Cuomo’s Plot to Tie Teacher Evaluations to Test Scores Won’t Help Our Public Schools. Slate.

Berliner, D. C. (2015, Aug 11). Teacher Evaluation and Standardized Tests: A Policy Fiasco. Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

Evaluations Based on Test Scores Misidentify Teachers
Schochet, P. Z., &. Chiang, H. S. (2010, Jul). Technical Methods Report: Error Rates in Measuring Teacher and School Performance Based on Student Test Score Gains. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

Bitler, M. P., Corcoran, S. P., Domina, T., & Penner, E. K. (2014, Spring). Teacher Effects on Student Achievement and Height: A Cautionary Tale. The Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness.

Examples of Test-Based Evaluations That Fail Exemplary Teachers
Hirsch, M. (2012, Mar 1). The True Story of Pascale Mauclair. New Politics.

Darling-Hammond, L., Amrein-Beardsley, A., Haertel, E., & Rothstein, J. (2012, Mar 15). Evaluating Teacher Evaluation. Phi Delta Kappan.

Ravitch, D. (2015, Aug 7). Bruce Lederman Explains the Challenge to New York State Teacher Evaluation System.

Harris, E.A. (2016, May 10). Court Vacates Long Island Teacher’s Evaluation Tied to Student Test Scores. The New York Times.

Pallas, A. (2012, May 16). Meet the “Worst” 8th Grade Math Teacher in NYC. The Washington Post.

Other Flaws in Test-Based Evaluation Systems
Whitehurst, G. J., Chingos, M. M., & Lindquist, K. M. (Winter 2015). Getting Classroom Observations Right. EducationNext. See also Kirby A. (2016, Jan 21). Study Finds Flaws in Teacher Performance Observations.

Amrein-Beardsley, A. (2015, Oct 8). Teacher Evaluation Systems “At Issue” Across U. S. Courts.

Paufler, N. A., & Amrein-Beardsley, A. A. (2013, Jul 25). The Random Assignment of Students into Elementary Classrooms: Implications for Value-Added Analyses and Interpretations. American Educational Research Journal.

Condie, S., Lefgren, L., & Sims, D. (2014, Jun). Teacher Heterogeneity, Value-Added and Education Policy. Economics of Education Review.

Test-Based Evaluations Do Not Measure Good Teaching and Harm the Profession
Polikoff, M. S., & Porter, A. C. (2014, May). Instructional Alignment as a Measure of Teaching Quality. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. See also Barshay, J. (2014, May 13). Researchers Give Failing Marks to National Effort to Measure Good Teaching. and Ravitch, D. (2016, Mar 16). John Thompson: The Utter Failure of Standardized Teacher Evaluation.

Johnson, S. M. (2015, Jul 29). Four Unintended Consequences of Using Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers. The Washington Post.

Kirby, A. (2015, Aug 27). High-Stakes Teacher Evaluations May Not Help. See also Bryant, Jeff (2016, April) We Won’t Improve Education by Making Teachers Hate Their Jobs.

Kwalwasser, H. (2015, Sep 15). Standardized Tests Don’t Help Us Evaluate Teachers. Los Angeles Times.

Goldstein, D. (2014). The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. New York: Doubleday.

Amrein-Beardsley, A. (2015. Dec 29). VAMboozled!: Why Standardized Tests Should Not Be Used to Evaluate Teachers (and Teacher Education Programs).

Toch, T. (2016, May). Grading the Graders: A Report on Teacher Evaluation Reform in Public Education. Center on the Future of American Education.

Feintzeig, R. (2015, Apr 21). The Trouble with Grading Employees. The Wall Street Journal. See also Korkki, P. (2015, Jul 11). Why Employee Ranking Can Backfire. The New York Times.

Ravitch, J. (2015, Oct 21). John Thompson: The Gates Plan Failed in Tulsa, Now What?

Kirby, A. (2015, Nov 9). Michigan Bill Rolls Back Test Scores in Teacher Evaluations.

Amrein-Beardsley, A. (2015, Nov 9). Houston Board Candidates Respond to Their Teacher Evaluation System.

Gandha, T. (2016, Feb). State Actions to Advance Teacher Evaluation. Southern Regional Education Board.

Tom Torlakson’s Task Force. (2012, Sep). Greatness by Design; Supporting Outstanding Teaching to Sustain a Golden State.

Danielson, C. (2016, Apr 18). Charlotte Danielson on Rethinking Teacher Evaluation. Education Week.

Taylor, K. (2015, Nov 25). Cuomo, in Shift, Is Said to Back Reducing Test Scores’ Role in Teacher Reviews. The New York Times.

Disare, M. (2015, Dec 14). In Big Shift, Regents Vote to Exclude State Tests from Teacher Evals Until 2019.

Tyrrell, J. (2015, Nov 21). Nassau Superintendents: End Teacher Evals Tied to Test Scores. Newsday.

Layton, L. (2015, Nov 16). Clinton Says “No Evidence” That Teachers Can Be Judged by Student Test Scores. The Washington Post.

Ravitch, D. (2015, Dec 17). John Thompson: The Beginning of the End of VAM?

Sawchuk, S. (2013, Apr 4). Bill Gates: Don’t Overuse Tests in Teachers’ Evaluations. See also Layton, L. (2015, Oct 7). Improving U.S. schools Tougher than Global Health, Gates Says. The Washington Post.

A More Effective Approach to Teacher Evaluation
Quintero, E (2016, Feb 23). Beyond Teacher Quality.

Johnson, S. M. (2015, Jun 25). Will Value-Added Reinforce the Walls of the Egg-Crate School?

Kini, T., & Podolsky, A. (2016). Does Teaching Experience Increase Teacher Effectiveness? A Review of the Research. Learning Policy Institute.

Public Impact. (2015). Evaluation, Accountability, and Professional Development in an Opportunity Culture. Opportunity Culture.

Lavigne, A. L., & Good, T. L. (2015). Improving Teachers Through Observation and Feedback: Beyond State and Federal Mandates. New York: Routledge.

Network for Public Education. (2016). Teachers Talk Back: Educators on the Impact of Teacher Evaluation.

Does Dismissing Incompetent Teachers Improve Student Outcomes?
Kraft, M.A., & Gilmour, A.F. (2016, Feb). Revisiting the Widget Effect: Teacher Evaluation Reforms and the Distribution of Teacher Effectiveness. Brown University.

Hess, R. (2016, Mar 8). When Fancy New Teacher-Evaluation Systems Don’t Make a Difference.

Lowrey, A. (2012, Jan 6). Big Study Links Good Teachers to Lasting Gain. The New York Times.

Ravitch, D. (2014, Aug 11). The Holes in the Chetty et al VAM Study as Seen by the American Statistical Association.

Rothstein, J., & Mathis, W. J. (2013, Jan 31). Review of Two Culminating Reports from the MET Project. National Education Policy Center.

DeWitt, P. (2015, May 11). 3 Reasons Why Your Observations May Be a Waste of Time.

WestEd. (2015, Sep). Video: Making Meaningful Use of Teacher Effectiveness Data.

Can Evaluations by Principals Fix the Problems of Test-Based Accountability
Kirby, A. (2016, Jan 21). Study Finds Flaws in Teacher Performance Observations.

Hallinger, P., Heck, R. H., & Murphy, J. (2013, Jul 30). Leading via Teacher Evaluation: The Case of the Missing Clothes? Educational Researcher.

American Educational Research Association. (2016, Mar). Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. See also Di Carlo. M. (2015, Feb 25). Student Sorting and Teacher Classroom Observations. and Garret, R., & Steinberg, M. P. (2015, May 21). Examining Teacher Effectiveness Using Classroom Observation Scores.

Lavigne, A. L., & Good, T. L. (2015). Improving Teaching Through Observation and Feedback: Beyond State and Federal Mandates. New York: Routledge.

Devaney, L. (2016, Jan 19). Classroom Observations May Hurt Teachers More Than They Help, Study Says. eSchool News.

DiCarlo, M. (2015, Dec 4). Evidence from a Teacher Evaluation Pilot Program in Chicago.

DeWitt, P. (2016, Apr 19). The Myth of Walkthroughs: 8 Unobserved Practices in Classrooms.

A Narrow Focus on Dismissing Teachers Detracts from Effective Improvement Measures
American Education Research Association and National Academy of Education. Getting Teacher Evaluation Right: A Brief for Policymakers.

Thompson, J. (2015, Sep 10). The Rhino in the Room: Time to End Disruptive Reform.

The New Teacher Project. (2013, Jul 30). The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America’s Urban Schools.

Knudson, J. (2013, Sep). You’ll Never Be Better Than Your Teachers: The Garden Grove Approach to Human Capital Development. See also Tucker, M. (2016, Apr). How to Get a First-Rate Teacher in Front of Every Student.

Sawhill, I. V. (2015, Sep 8). Does Money Matter? See also Jackson, C. K., Johnson, R. C., & Persico, C. (2015, Fall). Boosting Educational Attainment and Adult Earnings.

Ravitch, D. (2015, Oct 20). Indiana: Less Money, More Chaos.

Baker, B. (2012). Revisiting That Age Old Question: Does Money Matter in Education? See also Baker, B. (2016). Does Money Matter in Education? Second Edition. and Spielberg, B. (2015, Oct 20). The Truth About School Funding.

Leachman, M., Albares, N., Masterson, K., & Wallace, M. (2016, Jan 25). Most States Have Cut School Funding, and Some Continue Cutting.

Kane, T. J., Owens, A. M., Marinell, W. H., Thal, D. R. C., & Staiger, D. O. (2016, Feb). Teaching Higher: Educators’ Perspectives on Common Core Implementation. See also Hull, S. J. (2015, Oct 14). Principals Matter—And They Need the Right Start. and Center for Education Policy Research. (2014–16). Teaching Higher: Educator’s Perspectives on Common Core Implementation.

Tucker, M. (2015, Aug 13). Organizations in Which Teachers Can Do Their Best Work: Part I.

Tucker, M. (2015, Aug 20). Organizations in Which Teachers Can Do Their Best Work: Part II.

The Wallace Foundation. (2013, Jan). The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning.

Superville, D. R. (2015, Oct 23). New Professional Standards for School Leaders Are Approved.

Targeting the Lowest-Performing Schools with Closure and Other Drastic Measures Is Usually Ineffective
Miller, T. D., & Brown, C. (2015, Mar 31). Dramatic Action, Dramatic Improvement. Center for American Progress. See also Burris, C. (2015, Sep 4). School Closures: A National Look at a Failed Strategy. and American Institutes for Research and Mathematica Policy Research. (May 2015). Evaluation Brief: State Capacity to Support School Turnaround. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

Trujillo, T., & Renée, M. (2012, Oct 1). Democratic School Turnarounds: Pursuing Equity and Learning from Evidence. National Education Policy Center.

Aragon, S., & Workman, E. (2015, Oct). Emerging State Turnaround Strategies. Education Commission of the States. See also Felton, E. (2015, Oct 19). Are Turnaround Districts the Answer for America’s Worst Schools?

Ehrenhalt, A. (2013, Oct). School Scandals Reveal the Problem with Grading Schools. Governing.

Di Carlo, M. (2015, Jun). The Evidence on the “Florida Formula” for Education Reform. Albert Shanker Institute.

Sparks, S. D. (2015, Oct 6). Studies Probe How Schools Widen Achievement Gaps. Education Week.

Klein, A. (2014, Sep 15). New Turnaround Options Detailed in Draft SIG Guidance. Education Week.

Fullan, M. (2011, Nov 17). Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform.

Fiske, E. B., & Ladd, H. F. (2016, Feb 13). Learning from London About School Improvement. The News & Observer.

The Big Picture: The School Improvement Debate

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The Big Picture
The School Improvement Debate

by Bill Honig

In late 2015, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaces the Bush-sponsored No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, and other reform efforts. The new bill greatly diminishes the federal role in education and, for the most part, shifts the responsibility for devising policies that will improve educational performance to states and local districts. We find ourselves presented with two main options—a Test-and-Punish approach or a Build-and-Support approach.

The former, which until recently has been widely accepted as the conventional wisdom, is supported by those who believe in the power of radical structural change and incentives. These self-designated “reformers” advocate test-based evaluations of teachers and schools and onerous consequences tied to those test scores. Their policies are driven by a belief in market-based competition, in which low-performing public schools are systematically replaced through charter school expansion or vouchers. An integral part of their strategy is the elimination of teacher protections.

The latter, more positive Build-and-Support approach has been used by our most successful districts and states. It places instruction at the center of improvement efforts; aims to engage all educators, students, and parents; and builds support structures to create effective school teams and continuous improvement.

What Are the Tenets of Conventional School Reform?

Conventional “reformers” assume that schools will not improve by themselves and, therefore, will require external pressure in the form of high-stakes accountability based on standardized reading and mathematics test scores. Reform advocates assert that the best way to improve student performance is to fire the lowest-performing three–five percent of teachers; reward the superstars; encourage competition and disruption by expanding charter schools and choice; and close neighborhood schools with the lowest scores, replace their staffs, or convert them into charter schools. In fact, many reformers promote wholesale privatization of public education by replacing public schools with charters or with private schools funded by vouchers. For a decade since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), these proposals have been put into practice on every level—nationally, in most states, and in many districts. Until the recent repeal of NCLB, they have been significantly expanded by the Obama administration.

Has Conventional School Reform Worked?

Even by reformers’ own standards of using reading and math tests as a measure of success, the Test-and-Punish or “choice, charters, and competition” policies have failed to produce results. National test scores have stalled since 2009, and our students continue to substantially underperform those in other countries. More troubling is the significant collateral damage of the reform agenda and the harm it has caused schools, teachers, and students: narrowing the curriculum, devoting inordinate time to testing and test preparation, encouraging superficial rather than deeper learning, gaming the system and cheating, discouraging cooperation among teachers, diminishing and diverting public school funding, and, finally, creating a disastrous drop in morale among teachers and the diminished appeal of teaching as a profession. Tragically, these misguided reforms have diverted attention from the Build-and-Support initiatives that actually do yield increases in performance.

Opposition to the Test-and-Punish agenda has intensified as more people have become aware of its defects, and this disapproval was the primary force supporting the repeal of the “reform” orientation of NCLB and the Obama administration’s embellishments.

In late 2015, President Obama himself warned of the dangers of over-testing and the diversion from deep learning caused by our national obsession with test scores and testing. Several states are finding it difficult to attract and keep good teachers and are facing a backlash from parents, teachers, and advocates. As a result, they are retreating from the harshest reform measures and most dubious practices, including the overreliance on test-based teacher evaluation. In addition, a substantial number of parents have joined the “opt-out movement” and are keeping their children from taking standardized tests.

Build-and-Support: A Better Way

Thankfully, support for an alternative and more positive strategy has begun to emerge—one that is aimed at engaging educators in improvement efforts. The Build-and-Support approach is informed by the best educational and management scholarship, irrefutable evidence, and the practices adopted by the most successful schools and districts in this country and abroad. In this country there are many examples of effective Build-and-Support models such as the state of Massachusetts, which has become a world-class performer, and the Long Beach Unified School District in California, which has been designated as one of the three best districts in the country and among the top 20 on the planet.

In these and other exemplary models, the main drivers of raising student performance are engaging teachers by appealing to their professionalism and improving instruction and teaching. In these jurisdictions, policies and practices center on implementing a rigorous and liberal arts instructional program as envisioned by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)—an instructional program aimed at not only job preparation, but also citizenship, and helping students reach their potential. Implementation efforts build on and improve current practice and endeavor to deepen learning for each child.

Crucially, successful states have given local schools and districts the leeway and resources to accomplish these improvement goals and in the past few years have substantially increased school funding. In implementing a Build-and-Support approach, they stress the importance of fostering the capacity of teachers, schools, and districts to improve school performance and student outcomes. They emphasize better working conditions, respect for teachers, the value of teacher engagement and school-site team building, and the use of just-in-time data about each student’s progress to continually improve school performance. They don’t just concentrate on low-performing schools or teachers but attempt to raise the performance of all. They encourage parent and community involvement and support the social services necessary to help students in need. Policies also encourage divorcing accountability from high-stakes testing measures. Instead, they use test scores to inform collaboration and continuous improvement efforts in mutually productive discussions. At the same time, these states and districts have avoided the more damaging initiatives proposed by conventional school reformers.

Build-and-Support initiatives challenge the validity and efficacy of the reigning “get tough on teachers and schools” dogma and the belief in the power of “market-based competition, choice, and incentives” that have been promulgated by the federal government and a multitude of states and school districts through ill-advised yet generously funded initiatives. Unfortunately, while there is a growing shift away from the conventional “reform” agenda, these increasingly discredited proposals continue to be supported by far too many political and opinion leaders, wealthy individuals, editorial boards, think tanks, and well-funded organizations. This must change.

Public education has always been central to the continued health of our democracy and our way of life. Conventional reformers have foisted a set of initiatives on our schools based on an outmoded management philosophy and a flawed analysis of what it takes to improve education. These policies ignore history, research, and experience, which is why our best schools and districts have studiously avoided them. Not only do misguided reform proposals thwart the measures actually needed to improve our schools but their initiatives threaten to put the whole enterprise of public education at risk. We need an immediate course correction to follow the lead of our most successful schools and districts in creating effective learning communities at each school and, finally, building the educational profession that this country deserves.

Reference Note

Bryant, J. (2016, Jan 11). We’re Onto the Phony Education Reformers.

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Bill Honig

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An Educator’s Life: The Backstory

by Bill Honig

Bill Honig has been a practicing educator for more than 45 years. Originally trained as an attorney, he discovered his true passion was in elementary education. Honig has taught in the inner-city schools of San Francisco, served as a local superintendent in Marin County, and was appointed to the State Board of Education by California governor Jerry Brown during his first term. In 1983, Honig was elected California state superintendent of public instruction, a position he held for 10 years. In 1995, he founded the Consortium on Reaching Excellence (CORE), which has worked with teachers and coaches in reading and math nationwide for the past 20 years. Currently, Honig serves as Vice-Chair of the California Instructional Quality Commission, which develops curricular frameworks and reviews educational resources for the State Board of Education. He continues to collaborate with researchers, thought leaders, and practitioners to implement evidence-based approaches that offer an alternative to conventional educational reform.


Building Better Schools is the result of a seventy-year romance with education—first as a student and then in a variety of roles in education: teacher, administrator, policymaker, elected official, professor, and educational entrepreneur. My perspective and beliefs about what we should and should not be doing to improve our schools have been forged from experiences and study during this long career. This is the backstory of my journey as an educator. My hope is that it offers some idea of how my intellectual and emotional education influenced the positions I present on this site.

I hadn’t reflected too much about my history with education until early 2015, when I was invited by Rabbi Lee Bycel to be interviewed during a Saturday forum on educational issues at Temple Beth Shalom in Napa, California. Rabbi Bycel is a fascinating individual. He has served as dean of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, led several local congregations, taught Jewish studies at the University of San Francisco, and acted as a senior moderator at the Aspen Institute. Midway through my interview, he asked a very provocative question (as rabbis are wont to do): “What in your background and experience led you to what you believe?” That question got me thinking.


I loved school from the start. I attended a public elementary school in the 1940s, Pacific Heights in San Francisco, until the fourth grade. I don’t remember much about it except that I liked the experience and will never forget the songs we sang together during those last years of World War II such as America the Beautiful, which never failed to bring tears to my eyes. I also remember collecting aluminum foil for the war effort, rationing, John Wayne in the movie Flying Tigers, and stamps commemorating Norman Rockwell’s paintings Four Freedoms that were inspired by Roosevelt’s State of the Union address—a very patriotic time to be a kid.

Our family atmosphere was warm. My parents had me when they were in their mid-twenties. I was the first child in our extended family and received boundless attention until the arrival of twin sisters when I was three. I was also very close to my uncle, Jack Davis, a no-nonsense mentor who had a large influence on my upbringing. My father was the head of the largest West Coast advertising agency, Honig-Cooper, with clients like Wells Fargo, Levi-Strauss, Clorox, and the Italian Swiss Colony winery. He would come home from work, and in true “Mad Men” style, have two martinis or scotches (wine came later) with my mom. My twin sisters and I would sit with them and then we’d all eat dinner. Dinner conversation was lively.

From my youngest days I became a voracious consumer of culture—starting with low- and medium-brow offerings and gradually shifting to include more intellectually and emotionally demanding works. (I still enjoy detective, police, and spy novels, films and television, and most action films.)

At home, 78 rpm records were always playing in the evenings: Billie Holliday and Lester Young, Sarah Vaughan, the Nat King Cole Trio, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Chris Connor, Anita O’Day, June Christy, Peggy Lee, the Andrews Sisters, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and early Doris Day. It was the era of the Great American Songbook both in pop, swing, and jazz, with hundreds of songs composed by such extraordinary artists as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, and Hoagy Carmichael. The music was magnificent and the lyrics clever and unforgettable: In olden days a glimpse of stocking, was looked on as something shocking, now heaven knows, anything goes from Cole Porter’s Anything Goes; Peggy Lee, accompanied by George Shearing’s group, singing Mr. Harris plutocrat, wants to give my face a pat, if a Harris pat means a Paris hat, olé—another Porter lyric from Kiss Me, Kate; or the lyrics of Johnny Mercer’s beautiful song “I Remember You”—When my life is through, and the angels ask me to recall, the thrill of it all, then I will tell them I remember you.

If the music, lyrics, and artists combine in just the right way, the song becomes cherished. When Billie Holliday sings “Summertime,” “The Man I Love,” “This Year’s Kisses,” or “You Go to My Head” (You go to my head and you linger like a haunting refrain and I find you spinning round in my brain, like the bubbles in a glass of champagne) in her inimitable style and phrasing backed up by such incredible musicians as Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, and Roy Eldridge, you get a rare moment of genius. I still listen to her singing these songs, and they never become stale—a true test of a classic.

In the late 1940s, Latin music became influential and the Andrews Sisters singing “Rum and Coca Cola” was my first memory of getting hooked on a Latin clave beat. We also listened to early Carmen Miranda before Hollywood got hold of her. She was the most popular singer in Brazil, and I still remember when I first heard the infectious samba rhythm of “Mama Eu Quero,” “Tico Tico,” or “South American Way.” (If you are interested, listen to the radio cuts on the Brazilian Bombshell album, not the movie versions.) I had a similar experience watching the Disney movie The Three Caballeros, chock-full of Brazilian and Mexican music. I saw it nine times.

Music has had a major impact on my life. I was enchanted by songs at an early age and enthralled by their power to transport me. My parents told me one of my first words was muki. I had a radio in my room and, when I was no more than five, I recall waking up one Sunday morning very early, turning the radio on, and searching for a station. All of a sudden I found some music I had never heard before that was so overwhelming I thought it was coming straight from heaven. My first encounter with gospel. Years later, when I was trying to gather support for an educational initiative in San Francisco, I told this story to a Hunter’s Point African-American minister. He asked me what time I tuned in to the station. I said four-thirty in the morning in SF. “Oh,” he said, “that program was from Kansas City.” I asked him how he knew. He laughed and said at that time there were gospel radio shows from all over the country and he and his family and the entire black community listened to them constantly. I just got lucky.

Next, my mom bought me an album from the musical Oklahoma! and eventually took me to see the performance. After that, I listened to and attended many of the Broadway shows or waited for the movie versions. This experience of encountering a new type of music, which immediately entranced me, continued throughout my life. Jazz and pop, gospel, show tunes, Latin rhythms, soul, blues, R & B, rock and roll, folk, classical, country, bluegrass, African, fado, and world music all captivated me at various times. Hearing an initial powerful example of a new genre would begin an enthusiastic investigation of the field. I currently have more than 1,500 favorite songs on my iPad split between these categories.

The best of popular culture has always been an important part of my life. As a young child most of my playmates listened to the radio serials and comedy shows—Jack Armstrong, Captain Marvel, The Lone Ranger, Gangbusters, The Green Hornet, The Shadow, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Fibber McGee and Molly, Burns and Allen, Fred Allen, Amos and Andy, and Red Skelton. We went to the movies every week and would catch a double bill. We read every comic book we could get our hands on—actually comics are linguistically complex and helped my reading tremendously. At eight years old, when we got wind of a move to ban comic books, we started planning to go on strike.

Eventually, along with music I became a lifelong movie, TV, and gaming buff. We played a multitude of board games such as Monopoly and Rich Uncle, checkers and chess, and children’s card games, which perfected our math skills. We built structures with Tinker Toys (the predecessor to Legos and Minecraft), houses with Lincoln Logs, and motorized constructions with Erector sets. We conducted experiments with chemistry sets. Later on in high school, our group learned to play most card games: bridge, gin rummy, poker, blackjack, canasta, hearts, spades, 10-9-8, pinochle, and solitaire. We spent an inordinate amount of time playing cards. Later, I played Go in law school with a friend who was studying physics. Euchre came just recently, courtesy of my wife Catherine’s Canadian family.

I was also keen on brainteasers like the ones Martin Gardner presented for decades in Scientific American. My dad first introduced them to me by posing the classic policemen-and-criminal problem with three nickels and three pennies: How do you get three policemen and three criminals across a river with only one boat that holds only two people and never leave more criminals than policemen on shore or in the boat? Another brainteaser was the puzzle of the traveler who asks two sisters standing at a fork in the road which road goes to the village he is seeking. One sister always lies; the other always tells the truth. The traveler doesn’t know which sister is which and only has one question he can ask. What should that question be? (If you can’t figure these out, here is where you can find the answers and 48 more puzzles.)

Did a lifelong immersion in popular culture help prepare me to be an educator, or was I just indulging in pleasurable entertainment? I don’t know the answer to that question. Of course, during my life I have greatly enjoyed music, radio and television, movies, games, newspapers, magazines, plays, and books and have invested a considerable amount of time and energy on these pursuits. Yet, once I separate the inspiring and interesting from the squalid chaff, I think my cultural engagement educated me. Encountering popular cultures most well-crafted and enriching masterpieces made me feel part of the larger society experiencing shared attitudes about humor and life. Later on, the experiences of the best culture in my early years and the next decades would enlarge my world, teach me a great deal about human values and ideals, and allow me to bring a fuller perspective as a teacher with stories and examples to enhance the subjects taught in school. Added to a broad liberal arts curriculum, this knowledge would help students understand how the world works and what values are important. Most importantly, the best contemporary and classical culture has the potential to encourage children to broaden their horizons, become well-rounded participants in society, and lead richer lives.

Elementary School and High School Years

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, I attended a well-respected private school from fifth to eighth grades, Town School for Boys. It had excellent teachers and a strong curriculum. The school developed my natural curiosity about the world and inspired a love of learning—an enthusiasm that has stayed with me since. I particularly remember one teacher, Mr. Mulholland, who made history come alive and instilled in me a lifelong passion for history.

One of my favorite school events took place just before the Christmas holidays. Every year our headmaster, Mr. Rich, authored a new play, assigned each eighth-grade student a role, and dispensed with classes for two weeks so that students could learn their parts and rehearse. Then they staged the play for parents and other classes. That experience remains a standout memory—unlikely to occur in schools today given the prevailing test-crazed atmosphere.

It was also in the seventh and eighth grades that I became an avid reader. Following Mr. Mulholand’s suggestion, my friends and I started reading every piece of G.A. Henty historical fiction we could get our hands on. These works were perfect for enriching the history we were studying. Henty’s books were out of print so we scoured local used-book stores, and when we found one it was eagerly passed around. I also read novels like Gone with the Wind and Tales of the South Pacific, the classic science fiction writers —Heinlein, van Vogt, and Bradbury—and contemporary novels and non-fiction such as Annapurna, about the ascent of that mountain, and The Rains of Ranchipur, a post-partition adventure set in India.

Next, I went to a public high school, the renowned Lowell, in the early 1950s. Among its many famous graduates is Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. There, I also received a top-notch liberal arts education in math, English and literature, history, science, and the humanities and continued to read at home and during the summer. On a backpacking trip in the Sierras when I was 15, I read James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan. The book was about an Irish-Catholic boy growing up in Chicago just before the Depression whose life peaks at the end of grammar school. It was an eye-opening read for an adolescent. My parents were members of the Limited Editions Club, which delivered a beautifully printed and illustrated classic book each month. These books lined our living room and added to the mystique of reading.

One example of the power of a book or movie to influence our lives took place during my high school years. I happened to glance at an old book in the school library that looked interesting and read it. It was Paul de Kruif’s classic Microbe Hunters, written in 1927. It read like a fascinating detective novel with each chapter recounting the story of a particular disease and the efforts made to overcome it. By the time I finished it, I decided I wanted to become a doctor. Later, in talking to some scientist friends I discovered that hundreds of people were motivated to become microbiologists by reading that book.

A similar thing happened to my grandson, Gavin. I am currently vice-chair of the California Instructional Quality Commission, which develops curricular frameworks and recommends educational materials for adoption. I asked the members of our Science Framework Committee to recommend the most engaging science books they had read. They recommended The Disappearing Spoon about the elements and the periodic table; The Alchemy of Air, a fascinating tale about the two Germans who discovered how to obtain nitrogen (an essential ingredient in fertilizer) from the air and thereby double the population Earth could support; Darwin’s Armada, which tells the story of four young naturalists in England: Darwin, Hooker, Huxley, and Wallace—and their travels as young men that led to their ideas about evolution and their subsequent struggles to win over the scientific communities and the public; and Night Comes to the Cretaceous about the controversy over what killed the dinosaurs. One vacation I read all four titles and then handed the books to Gavin, a sophomore in high school. He read and liked them. Now he wants to pursue a career in science or medicine. But for me, in high school, I made the fateful choice not to follow my interest in science but to pursue a path in the humanities.

University Life

After high school I spent two undergraduate years at Stanford, which provided a terrific general education course of study including the famous course The History of Western Civilization, which was one of my favorites. As an aside, years later my mother, who never attended college because her parents didn’t think it was important for women to acquire a college education, found the textbook from the course among some of my old things, read it, developed an ardent interest in learning, and became an avid art collector.

I had several close friends at University of California, Berkeley, and I transferred there for my remaining two undergraduate years. I was one of its last general curriculum majors (history, political science, and economics), graduating with a baccalaureate in 1958. The general curriculum major allowed me to choose many courses in different areas of interest and either take or audit courses taught by the best professors at the school. Many of these superstars made a lasting impression on me, directing the course of my life, reinforcing my love of learning, and sparking an enduring interest in history, literature, science, and the humanities.

A standout in my memory was Professor Sontag, who taught a course in the intellectual history of Europe in the nineteenth century and another in the diplomatic history of Europe during the same period. I took both. Sontag was a mesmerizing lecturer and his classes were always jam-packed with many auditors—girls in saddle shoes and boys in khakis and button-down shirts. The students were spellbound during his classes and absolute silence prevailed. I also audited a class on the South by Kenneth Stampp, who had just written The Peculiar Institution, a widely respected book about slavery that helped prepare us for the Civil Rights movement that would arise in the next decade.

We were diligent about doing our course work and studied every weeknight for three hours. I normally did my assignments in Bancroft Library, which was surrounded by walls of interesting book collections. As a senior, I remember fantasizing about spending the next two years just reading books in that library. That didn’t happen.

Although we were called the Silent Generation for our lack of engagement compared to students of the Sixties, we did benefit from a rich educational program and developed intellectual habits and attitudes that helped mold our lives. To put this time frame in perspective, I was viewed as the fraternity “intellectual” because I read Time magazine.

The 1950s witnessed the creation of several serious dramatic presentations on television such as Playhouse 90, a weekly hour-and-a-half show that produced 133 plays like Requiem for a Heavyweight and The Miracle Worker; the Westinghouse Studio One, which produced 12 Angry Men; and the US Steel Hour, which presented Bang the Drum Slowly. All of these were subsequently made into wonderful movies.

The television production of Bang the Drum Slowly featured Paul Newman, and the movie starred Michael Moriarty as the sophisticated baseball pitcher from New York and Robert De Niro, in one of his first roles, as his roommate, the country bumpkin catcher. The film revolves around a quintessential American theme—how unbridled individualism degenerates into cliques and cripples team performance. In the movie, a major-league baseball team is hobbled by factions and strife, which dissolve when the team coalesces around the catcher who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Team members eventually pull together and win the pennant. One of my favorites. The story is a fitting metaphor for the magic moment when a competent teacher turns a group of disparate students into a well-functioning class. The same magic occurs when a talented principal boosts performance by transforming a group of individual teachers into a collaborative, effective team.

It was also during the fifties that I discovered classical music. My dad had always been dismissive of the genre and, reflecting his indifference, I was resistant. In college, I even got into an argument when someone who offered me a ride on a ski trip insisted on playing the classical radio station during the entire journey. But I was a fan without knowing it. I had always liked Christmas carols and was a huge fan of the Disney movie Fantasia. We were studying War and Peace in one of my college courses and the professor played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture to deepen our emotional connection to the novel. Another “Aha!” experience. During that year, I saw a movie about Beethoven’s life that played the Moonlight Sonata as the background music. The music so entranced me that I bought a sheet music copy and taught myself to play it on the fraternity piano (badly), note by note, over the course of a year.

At the same time, my close friend, Mel Marx, was taking a music course and played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for me. I went skiing the next day and couldn’t get the piece out of my mind. Berkeley had a terrific music library and I started educating myself on the classics—listening and buying Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, Mahler, Vivaldi, Borodin, Dvorák, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Khachaturian, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Albéniz, Sor, Falla, Rodrigo, Liszt, Chopin, Handel, Debussy, Berlioz, Bartók, and a raft of individual pieces. The power of the original classical versions of popular music adaptations became readily apparent when I was watching a skating production on television and I first heard Borodin’s actual piece from the Polovtsian Dances, the original source of the then currently popular song “Stranger in Paradise” from the musical Kismet. Quite a difference.

This transformation of attitude toward classical music was a good lesson, teaching me to be open to the potential delight of new experiences with profound educational implications. By holding on to their more limited experience, many children and adults don’t realize what they are missing. Appealing to people’s natural curiosity and hunger for new experiences helps. Sometimes a person becomes smitten right away, as I did with gospel or samba; other times people aren’t ready and need more time to build the scaffolding needed to appreciate the genre, which is what happened to me with classical music. Later on when I studied piano, I learned that much of pop and jazz builds on Bach’s progressions, so the eventual appeal of classical music shouldn’t have been that surprising.

My love of Shakespeare is another example of a late-blooming interest. I didn’t connect with his work in high school or college. It wasn’t until I started watching the Bard’s history plays presented on BBC in An Age of Kings that the veil lifted. It was the power and beauty of the language and the skill of the actors that moved me. Shakespeare needs to be heard, not just read. These encounters taught me that an important part of the job of an educator (and parent) is to be a cultural ambassador—to offer youngsters a good sampling of both classic and contemporary experiences to broaden their horizons and enrich their lives.

Just recently, I witnessed the power of that idea. My wife Catherine and I annually attend the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Several years ago, we watched Tartuffe by the seventeenth century playwright Molière. About a third of the audience was comprised of local high school students. They gave the play a standing ovation and brought tears to my eyes. I thought how amazed Molière would be to witness this enthusiastic reaction to his work, censured in his own time as subversive, by youngsters in a foreign culture 330 years later.

The Law and Politics

After a stint in the Army Medical Service Corps in San Antonio in 1959, working for my father’s advertising firm (the Mad Men atmosphere didn’t take—much to the consternation of my family), and a year selling background music, I enrolled in Boalt Law School at UC Berkeley, earning a Doctor of Jurisprudence in Law in 1963. I enjoyed law school immensely, the political and legal discussions, the way the professors approached legal problems, and especially the case method. The case method was a completely new way of thinking for most of us, which took a while to grasp. Rather than having a rule or principle and judging a new case by that rule, the case method looks at the fact situations in a given case and compares the facts and the rulings in previous similar cases to determine which cases are the most relevant. The principles and the law are then built up from studying important cases. It sounds easy but it isn’t.

During my law school years, I developed a deep interest in the English language. Words fascinated me. In that era, even educated Westerners spoke more colloquially than their Eastern brethren whose language was more erudite. I could understand most advanced vocabulary but found it difficult to produce precise language. I studied the self-help book, Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, and purchased an SAT vocabulary manual with more than 1,000 compelling words. I recognized most of them, but I studied them in a unique way. I would cover up the word, read the definition, and try to produce the right word for the thought. Believe it or not, I looked forward to my daily sessions.

I also read several books on the origins of the English language such as The History of the English Language by Albert Baugh (for a more recent effort see Bill Bryson’s Our Mother Tongue). I eventually bought the Oxford English Dictionary, which includes the etymology for every entry word, and I became entranced by Roget’s Thesaurus.

There are more than 650,000 words in the English language, compared to about 125,000 in French or German. The original Anglo-Saxon tongue became embellished by the language of indigenous Scots known as the Picts and the Welsh; then the Danes invaded and left their mark. Next came the Norman Conquest and the pervasive influence of French (40% of English words are spelled exactly the same as their French counterparts, though they may have different meanings). French is a Latin-based language, but the original Latin was used only by the educated classes. Many everyday words were invented for new purposes using Latin word forms. For example, verdict comes from the Latin words for “speak” and “truth,” which is what a jury should do. Shakespeare created hundreds of new words. Subsequently, as England became a world power, words from across the globe were added to the English lexicon.

The upshot of such a rich vocabulary is that there are many words for the same concept with nuanced differences. Love, cherish, adore, like, delight in, enjoy, and appreciate are related in meaning yet not interchangeable as they convey slightly different meanings and emotional valence. My enthusiasm for the topic was a great boon to my future educational career.

After law school, I clerked for one year for California Supreme Court Justice Mathew Tobriner. He significantly brushed up my writing skills and taught me a great deal about the law. What I most remember about that year was that every day during the morning coffee break, we clerks would engage in intense discussions about law, politics, and every other topic under the sun.

Through Justice Tobriner’s connections with then Governor Pat Brown (Jerry Brown’s father), I worked for two years in state government as a young staff member in the Program and Policy office. Fortuitously, my responsibilities covered education at a time when there was a heated debate about how to help low-income students (which is still occurring), and I was able to read many articles and books about education that were being published. It was a great staff job, since we could propose legislative and administrative initiatives and discuss them with Governor Brown and his staff. As young upstarts we had the power of access and putting issues on the table—much to the dismay of many of the department heads.

I had always displayed a political side stemming from my parents’ liberal, Jewish world-view, gathering around the radio to listen to President Roosevelt, following the 1948 Truman campaign, and taking part in extensive family dinner conversations about issues of the day. I first became aware of my democratic impulses in sixth grade when we studied the Gracchi in Roman history. The brothers sided with the plebeians against the patricians and I found myself rooting for the Gracchi. (I later discovered the story was much more complicated than that.) At the age of eleven, I was the only Truman supporter in my class at Town School.

My father was an early supporter of the new State of Israel and a major investor in Ramparts, a muckraking magazine with a decidedly Leftist bent. He gave a large contribution to Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. It was McCarthy’s strong showing in the New Hampshire primary as an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War that helped convince Lyndon Johnson not to run for a second term. Some years after that, my dad was proud to see his name when The New York Times published President Nixon’s enemies list.

Beginning in my college years, I volunteered to ring doorbells and help bring voters to the polls for several Democratic candidates including John Kennedy when he ran for president in 1960. In law school there were always heated political debates, and I joined the school’s Democratic Club. In one of our projects, we sent teams of African-American and white couples to try to rent apartments and discovered widespread housing discrimination. We compiled the results in a report that we sent to local newspapers, which got us into hot water with the school administration.

In 1964 while clerking for Justice Tobriner, I volunteered for Willie Brown’s second attempt to become a California State Assemblyman. Three of us knocked on doors every night for six weeks distributing literature and getting commitments—Willie Brown, Rudy Nothenberg, who became Willie Brown’s chief administrative officer when he was mayor of San Francisco, and me. Brown got elected and eventually went on to become speaker of the California State Assembly and mayor of San Francisco.

From the Cauldron of the Sixties into the Classroom

After working two years in a commercial law firm in the mid 1960s, which again didn’t take, I decided to leave the practice of law and re-enter the policy world. I spent three years in a social policy, consulting firm, the Organization for Social and Technical Innovation, working in the areas of education, housing, and community development. I worked on community education projects in several cities, investigated the politics of public housing development in Miami, conducted elections for the poverty program that provided for democratically elected local boards in Denver, and unsuccessfully wrote proposals for funding. I then decided to become an elementary school teacher (to the further consternation of my family).

Several strands led to that decision. During my law firm years, I had been part of a volunteer program of the Constitutional Rights Foundation. It trained young attorneys to teach junior high school students about the law. When I spoke to the kids, I was mesmerized by the experience. I had always been fascinated by children, but teaching was exhilarating.

What finally sealed my decision to change careers was a major intellectual conversion stemming from an internal clash between the growing counterculture movement of the Sixties and my liberal arts foundations. My friends and I were just turning 30, living conventional lives, and intrigued by the break-the-mold lifestyle that was becoming so pervasive. I initially succumbed to the counterculture movement (it was, after all, 1967 in San Francisco and “The Summer of Love”). The movement had two aspects—the anti-Vietnam war and civil-rights protest movements and the counterculture explosion. I was part of the anti-Vietnam and civil rights efforts and marched with my kids in the SF demonstrations against the war. But I also got involved in the cultural strand. I lived just down the street from the Golden Gate Park Panhandle, and most of the rock bands played there on weekends. We all went. I also joined humanistic and mystical encounter groups, visited Esalen, studied eastern philosophy, and practiced Yoga.

Returning to My Roots

My excitement for the counterculture movement (except for its music) came to a screeching halt several years later. In 1968, I had a major epiphany. I was walking in Golden Gate Park looking at all the hippies and the incredible parade of costumes. That’s when it hit me that we were all acting like children—self-absorbed, abdicating our adult responsibilities, and tearing down a culture that should have been put to use as a powerful force for human betterment. My liberal arts education was re-asserting itself. Driven by this insight, I became extremely interested in issues of culture and morality. I started reading about the historical development of ethics and morals, studying the writings of St. Augustine and Harold Nicolson’s book Good Behavior: Being a Study of Certain Types of Civility.

Next, I went back to school at UC Berkeley to audit some courses on the subject and fortuitously walked by a class where I heard the professor talking about moral development. I snuck in and found that the class was studying Laurence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. The course seemed just what I was looking for, and I audited it through the end of the term. We also studied Jane Loevinger’s work, which added an emotional component to Kohlberg’s purely intellectual approach.

These theoreticians proposed that children and adolescents go through stages of moral development—from impulse control by external power (e.g., the physical presence of a teacher); then by self-interest (reward and punishment; you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours); next by commitment to parental, religious, or community standards out of love and respect; then the adolescent breaking away and committing to a personal choice of ethics or being born-again; then tolerating people who believe differently (a very American value); and finally, seeing the other in yourself. Very few people manage to reach this last level. I wanted to be part of the societal effort to raise the next generation and help them reach these higher levels of moral development.

At the time, the reigning philosophy was that removing cultural restraints was the only way to be free. The authors I was reading thought differently. They revived the message from my liberal arts upbringing that freedom also depended on not being a slave to base impulses. By developing the moral strength and habits to live by higher ideals one could enjoy a richer life. As one of the major civilizing (in the best sense of the word) and acculturating institutions, schools had a major role to play in this lofty mission.

The incredible television series Civilisation by Kenneth Clark was another major influence on my belief in the power of culture to enhance society. It traced the interplay of art, architecture, and philosophy from the Dark Ages to the present. Just as I was not initially interested in classical music, I was not much of an art buff in high school or college. I’m ashamed to say that when my fraternity friends and I were touring Europe after graduating from college, two of us ditched the Van Gogh Museum to play basketball with some locals. Returning to Paris, I did fall under the spell of the Impressionists, especially Monet. Reading Irving Stone’s Lust for Life, a fictionalized biography of Van Gogh, ignited an interest in that master artist, and art and artists in general. Clark’s series completed my conversion.

During the late sixties, I also was involved in the creation of a primary “free school.” I enrolled my daughter Carolyn for their first summer and even wrote a corny poem to commemorate her going to school—Today my daughter’s off to school, to learn about the Golden Rule . . . The organizers were long on enthusiasm and short on management talent. The school folded after one year.

When these various strands coalesced, I was hooked on an intellectual, emotional, and moral level. I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to teach. I enjoyed children, was profoundly interested in the subjects taught in elementary school, enjoyed the art of teaching, and thought education was an essential public good vital to the health of our society and our democracy. A natural fit.

Learning to Teach

Luckily, a federal program called Teacher Corps took applicants from all walks of life and trained them to be elementary teachers. I was married and had two children at the time, and the program paid a stipend. Then, after a summer training in 1969, working in a neighborhood recreational department, and an internship in schools accompanied by a year’s worth of further college preparation, I received a Master of Education degree from San Francisco State University in 1971. That same year I was placed in a special-education classroom in the low-income area of Hunter’s Point in San Francisco. I was a full teacher.

The education I received at San Francisco State School of Education was first-rate. We took background courses in linguistics and the history of education as well as “how and what to teach” courses such as phonics, children’s literature, writing, science, history, mechanical arts, physical education, fine arts, and humanities. One of my professors, Joe Moray, taught a superb course that was a forerunner to the current thinking on how best to teach math to elementary students. Portentously, Dan Lortie’s masterful book, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study, provided a topic for my Master’s thesis—how teachers are isolated in classrooms and deprived of real collaboration and team effort. I was struck by the difference between what Lortie reported and my own experience in law, government, and a stint I did in a consulting firm where we always talked with each other about our projects—what we were doing, had done, and whether it was working.

One drawback of SF State’s graduate program was the continuing influence of the open education philosophy and the extreme progressive educational beliefs that had taken hold in the previous decade. Books like A. S. Neill’s Summerhill, John Holt’s How Children Fail, George Leonard’s Education and Ecstasy, and Charles Silberman’s Crisis in Black and White proposed an extremely romantic view of schooling that was still influential. We were pumped up to believe we had all the answers and that the schools were too hidebound and repressive. Reality soon disabused us of this arrogance.

One of my supervising teachers, Patricia Bingham, taught sixth grade in an inner-city, all-black school. Her teaching completely changed my mind about the relative merits of progressive versus traditional education. She personified everything we were warned against. She was a no-nonsense, strict teacher who actually taught an organized curriculum. Her students were well-behaved, read at grade level, could write, and enjoyed school. Later, as a teacher in upper-elementary school, I witnessed firsthand the damage done by a decade of the lax, non-focused educational philosophy which had gained wide acceptance in the 1960s. Many of my entering fourth-grade students couldn’t read or do math. Nobody had bothered to teach them. As soon as they were taught an organized program they caught up and did fine.

During that year, one of the fellows I played basketball with (not Arne Duncan) was an elementary school teacher. He and five other teachers received permission to start a teacher-run school on the top floor of Pacific Heights School (which I had attended as a child) called Rooftop. He invited me to visit and I was quite impressed with their dedication and teamwork and thought I would like a similar opportunity.

There was one final element in preparing me to teach—an appreciation and ability to connect with those of differing backgrounds. I grew up in an upper-middle-class family in a somewhat diverse neighborhood. During World War II, African-Americans from the South and immigrants from the Philippines moved into the area to work in the city’s shipyards. Their children attended my elementary school. When I was a little older, I spent a summer at Boy Scout camp with kids from all different walks of life and got along fine (after a few initial physical skirmishes). I had also attended other camps in Northern California during my childhood summers (my parents sent me to the first one when I was only five). The staff and owners were culturally from the rural north of the state, which had originally been populated by pioneers from the Northeast and still displayed characteristics of that culture. They took pride in their work, were down-to-earth, pragmatic, and lacked pretension—good role models for a youth. Later, my work in a warehouse, resort hotel, and three years in the social consulting firm with diverse employees added to my experience, as did my military service and political activities. But the largest contribution resulted from the close friendships I developed in Teacher Corps with my fellow students—first-generation college grads from Hispanic and Asian immigrant families, African-Americans, and working-class whites.

My first year teaching was rough. I took over the class of eight emotionally disabled boys in January. I was the fourth teacher they had had that year. They had scared the other three off. When I first arrived, they fought with each other constantly throughout the day. I wasn’t trained for a special-education class, but it was clear the kids had major problems controlling impulses (a classic sign of the emotionally disabled child). I took them climbing on Mt. Tamalpais—they complained when it got hard. We played football—they had never learned the rules. I took them camping in the Sierras—none had ever been to the mountains. The principal was glad to get them off campus. When we made camp, I told the kids that we would be there for two days and knew they would try to sneak into the food the first night. I warned them that if they did, they would go hungry the next day since we only had enough food for set meals. Sure enough, that’s what happened. I guess they learned a good life lesson.

Around the campfire on the trip, these kids opened up about their likes and dislikes of schools. They were astute observers of teachers. Contrary to the reigning educational assumptions and even though they all had behavioral problems, the teachers they praised were the strict and demanding ones who respected them enough to insist on learning.

There was a fantastic teacher at the school, Lorraine Roberts, and we developed a plan to have each boy spend some time in a regular classroom to see if he could handle it. Our experiment worked, and half the class qualified for regular education the next year. (We now call that practice mainstreaming, highly encouraged by current federal and state policy.)

The following year, I became a fifth-grade teacher at an elementary school in Hunter’s Point. It was sink or swim, but I started to catch on, and the kids did reasonably well by the end of the year. I was elected chair of the school-site Teacher’s Council (I was new and didn’t know any better—no one else wanted the extra work). I was always the activist, and a group of us came up with the idea of a twice-a-week afternoon program where each teacher would offer a specialty class that students could choose based on their interests. It was the reformers versus the diehards. We lost the vote 13 to 12.

At the end of that year, a new school was started by some activist parents. They received permission from the SF Board of Education for a second community school, appropriately called Second Community. The organizers were looking for teachers. I was excited by the prospect because they wanted the teachers to form a strong team like the one I had observed at Rooftop and addressed in my Master’s thesis, so I applied and was accepted.

I taught there for five years and was lead teacher and acting principal for a while. Second Community was a small school with an extremely diverse student body. We had six excellent teachers, and I believe we delivered a highly successful program. I team taught with an extraordinary teacher, Linda Adams, in a combined Grades 4–6 class. We provided a strong language, literature, writing, history, science, arts, music, and physical education program. We had classroom libraries of hundreds of books and a vibrant independent reading program. One of the parents from low-income housing in Hunter’s Point called me to ask what we were doing in the school since she had caught her daughter reading under the covers with a flashlight at two in the morning. I told her she should thank her lucky stars.

The daughter actually was the brightest student I ever taught, and I learned an important lesson from her. She was caught in the classic dilemma that extremely intelligent minority children face as they become aware of the broader world and their potential place in it. This created tension with her African-American peer group. She loved reading books and learning and made fantastic progress during the two years in my class, but as she got older she was reluctant to overtly show much enthusiasm for school. I hope the positive educational experiences bolstered her during adolescence when the conflict between the two worlds became more acute.

In the independent reading program, I provided a twenty-minute reading time each day. I would spend the period conducting individual conferences about the book each student was reading and the student’s overall reading interests. They had to sample each of the major literary genres and read books appropriate to their reading level. Students also made presentations to the class on books they enjoyed, and many student selections stemmed from the excitement caused by these talks.

To my delight, in subsequent years my daughter Carolyn developed a lifelong interest in children’s literature, worked in several bookstores specializing in children’s books, and has reinforced my belief in the importance of the neighborhood book retailer. Our family can always count on Carolyn to select the most engaging books for her nieces and nephews.

There were two particular events at Second Community that helped inform my educational approach. For our history book, we used The Story of Our Country, a narrative history of the US. It had a chapter on the Industrial Revolution in America in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The chapter began with a photo of a 10-year-old worker standing in front of a factory looking miserable. I commented that 100 years ago, instead of being in school, any one of my students could have been that child. The image made quite an impression about how the world had changed—a much more powerful teaching tool than any lecture. In another instance, just before Christmas I read O. Henry’s classic short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” It is about a husband and wife, very poor but deeply in love. Each one sells the most cherished possession (her hair and his watch) to buy something special (he a circlet for her hair and she a gold chain for his watch) for their beloved mate. Just reading the story, without any analysis or discussion, was enough to convey the powerful message of love and sacrifice. Sometimes, that’s enough.

Because I taught a Grades 4–6 combination class, I was forced to differentiate instruction to some degree. Actually, that proved to be beneficial. We had some whole class activities, and there was some individual work with students. But a good portion of instruction occurred with small groups working on similar areas. Small-group instruction is very efficient. I made weekly assignments that all group members could work on together or individually, as long as they stayed reasonably quiet while I would concentrate on working with one of the groups. In these small groups, I could introduce content, ask questions, explain material, check for understanding, and generally offer strong support for each child’s learning. Some students went from second-grade math to eighth-grade math in the two or three years I had them under this system.

I had recently divorced from my first wife, after eleven years of marriage. (Judy and I are still friends and take our respective families and grandkids to Alisal Ranch every year.) I thought it would be a good idea to enroll our son Steven in my class so he could experience his father at work firsthand. I picked him up each day from his mom’s house. It worked out well for two years even though I had to be super-strict with him to avoid any charges of favoritism. He caught up in reading and math and was engaged in the program. In the two years he was in my class, we only had one disagreement. On the last day of sixth grade, we went early and worked together to clean the classroom. He hadn’t slept well the night before and when the class began our activity for the day was clean-up. Steven felt he had already done his share, but I couldn’t excuse him. He eventually cooled off.

I particularly enjoyed teaching fifth graders. Most of them were intensely curious and passionate about learning, were beginning to understand more abstract ideas, became enthused about any subject presented in a reasonably intriguing way and wanted to know more. To me, they were the true intellectuals of the world. I suspect my fondness for that age youngster also arose from the strong presence of a fifth-grade outlook in my own nature. Invariably, I find similar sentiments about the beauty of that age child from almost every teacher who has taught fifth grade.

Once, I relayed this opinion to a prominent anthropologist. He said there was a plausible explanation for fifth graders’ delight in learning and their ability to absorb so much knowledge. He hypothesized that when humans lived in small bands and tribes, a child who turned ten needed to become a full-fledged member of the group quickly. That meant rapidly mastering large amounts of complex cultural information and techniques. What traits would greatly assist such prodigious and speedy acquisition of knowledge? The ability to think in abstract terms, boundless curiosity, and a hunger for learning. That sounds like almost every fifth grader I’ve ever met, and it explains why those traits were evolutionarily beneficial for that age. Maybe his explanation was a “just so” story, but it resonated with me.

Interestingly, at Second Community, we essentially ignored the annual national tests, did not narrow the curriculum under the mistaken assumption that concentrating on the tested subjects would lead to high scores, and devoted minimal time to test prep. Yet, our students always scored well on these tests and ranked first in the city in both reading and math for the last two years I taught there.

The tests did come in handy in one instance. For a long time, we had no principal and I was the lead teacher responsible for administrative tasks. Eventually, we were assigned a principal who felt she had to establish her authority. One day she came to my class during our independent reading period, called me in, and told me that I must stop the independent reading and “teach something” during that period. (As I’ve described, I was using that time to conference with each child—a very powerful strategy.) I basically told her that the program was working, our test scores were sky-high, and I was willing to open a discussion with her about best teaching practices if it turned out that my students stopped performing well. I never heard another word from her on that subject. That experience made me very alert to the dangers of arbitrary exercise of power by administrators who don’t really understand instruction, but feel they must exercise control.

School Politics and State Policy

At Second Community I was also our school’s union representative and school strike captain during the citywide teacher’s strike in the early 1970s. In the aftermath of the strike, four women and I challenged the existing union president, Jim Ballard, in the election of union officers. Our issue was that the union was neglecting the areas of curriculum and instruction. I used my organizational knowledge from the political campaigns I had worked on, and we called every teacher in the district. Each of us came within six votes of winning.

In 1975, my last year of teaching at Second Community, I was appointed to the State Board of Education by then Governor Jerry Brown. I had met Jerry Brown several years before when we both clerked for California Supreme Court Justice Mathew Tobriner, and we had stayed in touch. I was the first person ever appointed to the State Board who was an active classroom teacher.

On the Board, the new Democratic members joined forces with the more conservative holdovers to focus on re-establishing a strong liberal arts curriculum. We had some success: we were able to convince the UC system to raise course requirements for entry. We also rejected a California history textbook, written by the well-respected Kevin Starr, because the publisher had “dumbed down” Starr’s normally scintillating prose and engaging storytelling to a point where the text was unacceptable.

After the board meeting in which we rejected Starr’s California’s history book, I got a call from a Sacramento reporter asking what all the fuss was about. I had the flu and, unusual for me, didn’t want to talk much. I asked him to just read the recently rejected book and compare the passages to the one previously adopted. Two days later, a front-page article displayed a side-by-side comparison of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in both books. The differences were striking. The earlier book told an engrossing story with lively language and personalities; the more recent book was insipid and uninspiring. For the most part, however, we were met with resistance or indifference from most educational leaders.

Governor Brown’s first appointment to the State Board of Education was Michael Kirst, a Stanford professor in the School of Education. He took me under his wing. Guided by his tutelage, I added the most important educational magazines, research journals, and books to my reading lists.

I left the classroom in the mid 1970s to focus on professional development efforts. I had read and got to know Milbrey McLaughlin from Stanford, who with Paul Berman had written a groundbreaking article on why so many educational reforms were ineffective. To them, the secret was to get teacher buy-in by deeply involving them in implementation efforts and adjusting the reforms to school conditions. I wanted to help in that project and devoted two years to the endeavor through a foundation grant.

During that period I continued my exploration of moral and ethical issues. I read Emile Durkheim, one of the world’s most prominent sociologists. He underscored the important shift that humans make from purely self-centered or narcissistic orientations to becoming members of a community. I also read books like Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, Henry Fairlie’s The Seven Deadly Sins Today, and some books by conservative theorists such as Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community. Especially important were Isaiah Berlin’s writings; Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, which contrasted the conflict between the spreading free-spirit attitudes of the culture to the bourgeois values necessary for successful enterprise; and Carl Schorske’s Fin de Siecle Vienna, an exploration of the political and social disintegration of turn-of-the century Vienna that were driven by many of the intellectual currents we suffer from today. It became apparent that the counterculture was an updated manifestation of the romantic rebellion against Enlightenment ideas—a revolt that enshrined individual freedom over social and communal ethical norms.

Berlin said it best. In his 1958 essay, Two Concepts of Liberty, he posited two aspects of freedom—both important. The first he termed negative freedom or freedom from interference, which underscores the need to break away from the stultifying effects of parental, cultural and community expectations, and constraints for the full flowering of each individual’s uniqueness. The second aspect he described as positive freedom, or freedom to choose. It is the freedom of each individual to commit to the standards of a community or a set of ethical or religious principles to develop self-mastery and a better life.

Becoming a District Superintendent and On-the-Job Learning

I decided to apply for an administrative position in education. Michael Kirst, by then president of the State Board, gave me a good piece of advice. I wanted to work in the area of curriculum and instruction and asked him whether I should apply for a curriculum position such as an assistant superintendent in a larger district or a full superintendent in a smaller district. He counseled me to pursue the smaller district’s superintendent’s job because it would introduce me to all aspects of administration.

So I applied to become the superintendent for the Reed School District, a small but well-off community in southern Marin County. There were over fifty applicants (it was a highly-sought-after position). My administrative educational résumé was paper thin—only a short time as acting principal, two years in professional development, and a legal background. Surprisingly, the local board picked me because I was the only candidate who stressed the importance of a broad-based curriculum and the liberal arts.

Reed possessed an exceptional teaching and administrative staff but was drifting and did not offer a district-wide curriculum. More than 1,000 students were on the waiting list of the local private school. The district had suffered through a period of turmoil when it had been a leader in experimental progressive ideas, causing a profound split in the community. The superintendent, who was retiring, was hired to calm the waters. The board was looking for a more active educational leader.

The principals and assistant principals were very strong, and working together with the teachers we re-established a district-wide curriculum, provided resources for professional development, and focused on improving instruction. Reed was small enough so that I could meet with teachers on a continuing basis. Our efforts paid off. Performance improved, our middle-grade math team won third place in the state, and the private school wait list shrank significantly. Three of my administrators eventually became superintendents in prestigious districts

Two particular innovations stand out from that time. Our middle-grade math program needed revision. Two of our best middle-grade math teachers, husband and wife, were going to leave to take more lucrative jobs with the Bank of America. I offered them a summer stipend to revise the seventh- and eighth-grade math program, and then an additional stipend to work with the math department to implement the revisions. This became the model for the popular statewide Mentor Teacher program that was established several years later and that eventually included five percent of all California’s teachers when I became state superintendent.

Another innovation was the way we used the findings of our annual testing program. The testing company could compile a classroom growth score based on each individual student’s previous year’s results. One well-respected third-grade teacher had fallen short for three years in annual math growth. Instead of instituting a formal high-stakes consequence procedure, we sat down with him informally, as professionals, to try to ascertain why the student performance was lagging. He quickly solved the dilemma when he realized that he was leaving out a third of the course. The following year, he did fine.

We also negotiated an evaluation initiative with our teacher’s union. If a teacher received a negative evaluation (not using test scores), any salary increases were put in escrow for one year. A panel of teachers would develop a mutually accepted improvement plan together with the teacher who needed help. If no improvement occurred, the raises were forfeited. This happened with a few teachers. Some improved; others didn’t and were counseled out.

Three years on the job taught me a great deal. The experience solidified my belief in the importance of a strong instructional program based on the liberal arts, the essential competency and dedication of front-line educators, and the value of engaging them in improvement efforts. Two decades later, I attended a reunion for the Reed teaching staff, many of whom were then in their seventies. These were very bright, dedicated people, and true to their nature, after retirement, remained committed to improving the world. One by one they recounted the fascinating efforts they had become involved in —from volunteering to build water delivery systems in Mexico to environmental projects in the US.

As State Board members we tried to convince the then State Superintendent, Wilson Riles, to take up the cause of a strong liberal arts education. After agreeing to push the program, he and his staff demurred. The policy was viewed by too many educators as “elitist” and not what minority students needed, although Riles believed that the first-rate liberal arts education he received at a predominantly African-American high school in St. Louis served him well. I had run Riles’s San Francisco district office during his successful 1970 primary against Max Rafferty, who was the darling of the conservatives. So I felt very disappointed when Riles and his staff didn’t follow through.

Running for Office

In 1981, Wilson Riles decided he would run for US Senate in the 1982 election instead of attempting a fourth term as state superintendent. So I decided to take the plunge and run for his office. The California state superintendent of public instruction is one of the few state superintendents who is elected. The position didn’t have much direct authority over schools or districts, but it did have the power of convening educators, developing consensus, and using the office as a bully pulpit. I didn’t think I had much of a chance, but I wanted to use the campaign to raise the issue of reinstating a strong liberal arts curriculum for all students.

I campaigned for about a year, garnering support for strengthening curriculum and standards from the business community and a broad bipartisan coalition. My wife at the time, Nancy, was an important part of the campaign, organizing many of the fundraising activities. My son Michael (I have four children), who now runs the Honig Winery, was in college at the time. He took leave to run the L.A. office and drive me on Southern California trips. Another son, Jonathan, then only seven but eager to participate, helped at campaign events although he got off to a shaky start. While I was speaking at a shopping center event in Alameda County, Nancy gave him the job of putting bumper stickers on the cars in the parking lot. He misunderstood and plastered them on every car’s windshield, which led to a frantic removal effort after the event.

I delivered one of my first campaign speeches at the Concordia Club in San Francisco. It focused on the role of history and civics in the survival of our democracy. The program officer of the Commonwealth Club, Judy Johnson, was a close friend of Nancy. She arranged a speaking slot for me before that prestigious group. I gave similar talks in Los Angeles.

Riles then decided to give up his senatorial quest and instead run for a fourth term. I thought hard about dropping out, but in the end thought that advocating for a stronger curriculum focus in the campaign would be beneficial even if I had few prospects of winning. I also felt that quitting would be abandoning those supporters who wanted someone to make the argument for higher standards and the liberal arts. In the end, we kept many of my supporters and actually received several key endorsements from the editorial boards of major newspapers who saw me as a change agent and Riles as more status quo.

Reporters and educators were harder to convince. I visited every major newspaper in the state and talked to their education and political reporters as well as their editorial staffs. Editors such as Peter Schrag with the McClatchy newspapers were supportive. But to my frustration, all but two reporters weren’t interested in the educational issues that I was passionate about, including the importance of a demanding liberal arts education for all students. They were just interested in the mechanics of the campaign. The exceptions were a reporter from the Santa Barbara paper who grasped our message that we were expecting too little of our students. That reporter wrote a perceptive article on those issues that treated my positions fairly. Luckily, the other reporter who was sympathetic to the points being raised was David Savage from the L.A. Times. He wrote a series of articles explaining what was at stake.

In that period many educators thought that history, science, humanities, and literature for all students was “elitist.” I disagreed and made the argument that every youngster needed a shot at an enriched life and would benefit and be engaged if instruction based on a liberal arts philosophy was done properly. During the campaign I was speaking to a group of district superintendents about this issue. Their basic response was that these ideas were not part of the current educational thinking but if I won, they would be supportive. And they were.

After more than a year’s worth of campaigning, the Field Poll came out three months before the election showing I had a whopping three percent of the vote. Campaign contributions dried up, and the press wrote me off. Luckily, I met Clint Reilly, an astute political consultant. He interviewed me for three days to see if I was sincere. My previous encounters with consultants were distressing. One fellow counseled me that we take a poll, find out what issues polled well, and run the campaign around those ideas. I demurred, saying I had my own strong educational convictions and was running to make an educational point. I knew what I wanted to say, but needed help in determining how best to say it. Another consultant planned to use a cookie-cutter approach focused on going after the Puerto Rican vote (he hadn’t even modified the New York template). Clint was real, and after listening to me he came up with the slogan: Traditional education works.

Clint counseled that unless I put $400,000 (it would now take ten times that amount) into three weeks of TV spots, I couldn’t stop Riles from getting 50%, which would win the nonpartisan primary. Even if Riles was held to below that mark, without the investment I would not capture second place to get in the runoff. I was broke, having spent everything I had on the past year’s effort. He argued that if I was serious and willing to take the risk, I should take out a second mortgage on our house and pay for the spots, and I would get in the runoff. I didn’t know whether his suggestion was just a ploy for him to receive the fees on the TV expenditures or was his honest appraisal of my chances. You get crazy in a campaign, but I decided to trust Clint. I talked it over with Nancy and we agreed to take the gamble.

In the end, we ran the spots with me at a blackboard teaching children math and showing homework assignments on the board using our slogan. We held Wilson to 41%. I received 26% and went on to win the general election by 800,000 votes, 56% to 44%.

Even while running for office, I didn’t turn away from my interest in cultural issues. In 1981, a year before the election, I organized a study group by paying Martin Jay, a small fee to lead a class for adults. He was one of the best intellectual historians at UC Berkeley. Martin and I compiled a powerful reading list including Carl Schorske’s Fin de Siecle Vienna, Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, and essays by Isaiah Berlin. Twenty of us studied and discussed key books on nineteenth- and twentieth-century intellectual currents and the culture wars. I religiously paused my campaigning to attend the twelve sessions of the course. Two opposing views emerged from the discussions —intellectuals as critics of society and the old Arnoldian view of educators as the purveyors of the “best that has been thought and written” to help the young reach potential. (Fifteen years later Jay wrote an article in Salmagundi, Winter/Spring 1994, entitled “Force Fields—Educating the Educators.” It described the experience of teaching adults who looked at intellectual ideas as spurs to action, not just fodder for analysis. He argued that both the critical and Arnoldian positions were being overwhelmed by philosophies derived from mass entertainment and cynical nihilism. I was so enamored of the salon concept of continuing the intellectual stimulation of college days with adults that for a while I thought about going into the salon business.

In 1980, I felt compelled to put my thoughts down in a 100-page article (as yet unpublished) entitled “The Forgotten Case for Virtue: An Essay for the 1980s.” In it, I argued for the important role that culture and cultural ideas play in educating the young and the importance of liberal arts in transmitting those values and ideas. I also addressed the prevailing objections to that position and pleaded for public support of the mission. The ideas in the piece helped inform my campaign for state superintendent.

Triumph and Travails as State Superintendent

I had the honor of serving as superintendent of public instruction for ten years. Initially, we developed a strong educational coalition around adequate funding for schools, coupled with stronger curricular expectations and capacity-building initiatives. This was not an easy sell. Believing it would harm students of color, many Democratic officials and educators were wary of what they perceived as an “elitist” program to strengthen instruction through the liberal arts. Republicans were divided. Most suburban Republican legislators had been strongly in favor of more funding for schools during the 1970s and liked the idea of increased standards. The more conservative wing of the Republican Party did not want to spend the money and was not overly enthusiastic about public education. The new governor, George Deukmejian, was part of that staunch conservative wing (which now has become so dominant that it is hard to remember that 30 years ago there were large numbers of moderate Republicans). Deukmejian was elected pledging no new taxes and less government. There was an economic downturn, the treasury was bare, and the new governor proposed only a small increase for K–12 education even though California was one of the lowest-spending states in the nation.

Initially, the political pundits gave us little chance of enacting a broad-scale reform initiative that included increased funding. They claimed we could never overcome the myriad obstacles: the governor’s veto power over any increase in school budgets, the Democrats’ and education groups’ disinterest in reforms, and the public’s skepticism of the capacity of schools to improve. (Californians ranked the schools at the bottom of all institutions, while also believing they were crucial to the health of the state.)

My idea was to build a strong coalition for improving schools led by educators and supported by key leaders and the public. The first step was to convince the various education groups that the public would support increased funding if citizens were convinced that we would dedicate ourselves to improving school performance by implementing the reforms I had run on. We agreed to a series of educational improvements such as beefing up graduation requirements, strengthening instruction, investing in professional development for teachers, improving educational leadership, and streamlining personnel procedures—together with a significant increase in expenditures. Given that my campaign was based on these very initiatives, my clear victory in the election helped forge a consensus and secure legislative support.

The new governor had only put an inadequate, smaller-than-inflation $300 million increase in his budget. We estimated that we needed $900 million to get the backing of all the educational groups for the reforms and reverse the spending decline of the schools. As predicted by the pundits, he argued that he was supportive of the reforms but would not raise taxes to provide that amount and resisted our demands.

We organized a statewide campaign to change his mind. We put together a bipartisan coalition of parents, business leaders, political donors, and community leaders in each area of the state. They wrote 500,000 letters of support. Contrary to the predicted harm to their children, minority parents were among the fiercest supporters of higher expectations and building local capacity for continuous improvement. We secured the backing of both Democratic and Republican legislators and garnered widespread editorial and TV endorsements. We held well-attended rallies—in conservative Orange County we filled a football field with more than 9,000 people. Our final coup was convincing a dozen CEOs of California’s most influential corporations to write a public letter saying they supported the reform bill even if additional taxes were required to fund it. Public opinion was running strongly in our favor and was felt by the governor and the legislature.

Deukmejian eventually agreed to provide $850 million, and the bill carried by California State Senator Gary Hart and Assemblywoman Theresa Hughes passed and was signed into law. The reforms, which increased teacher salaries, raised graduation course requirements, and provided funds for building capacity at the school level, were dubbed the “Education Excellence Movement.” Sweeping educational reform was off to a good start.

The next year, the governor’s budget did not provide for the agreed-upon increases, and we mounted another campaign with all the educational groups. PTA members stormed the legislature, and we cranked up the campaign for schools a second time. Willie Brown, who was by then speaker of the assembly, promised to obtain the increases if we could get seven suburban Republican votes—which we did. The year after that the governor and his chief of staff, Steve Merksamer, met with me and said they were tired of the conflict. They said they would ensure that schools received a growing percentage of the state budget each year if I would agree to avoid public disagreements in the political arena with the governor. I thought that was a fair offer since my desire was not to engage in political combat but concentrate on improving education. And we both stuck with the agreement for the remaining two-and-a-half years of Deukmejian’s first term.

At the meeting, I offered to let the governor take public credit for the improvement efforts and attach himself to the reform measures that were already starting to show substantial progress in student achievement and enjoy wide public backing. Unlike California, where the educators were leading the Educational Excellence Movement with support from the legislature, in other states it was the governor who was the prime mover. This was the case with Bill Clinton in Arkansas, Jim Hunt in North Carolina, Terrence Bell in Georgia, Lamar Alexander in Tennessee, and, later on, George W. Bush in Texas. That was a bridge too far for Deukmejian.

During my tenure as superintendent I continued to read the educational journals and important books, and kept current on educational research to inform our efforts. I tried to base all of our strategies on the empirical findings, my school experience, and my educational philosophy. I also read every letter sent to me by members of the public and assigned a staff member to answer each one. Early on, I began the practice of having each deputy in charge of a division produce a weekly summary of major issues and events that occurred with a list of other reports and action documents I needed to read. Every night I would take home six or seven folders filled with these documents.

I also learned about the importance of number sense. At the beginning of my tenure, staff members would often present a project with number projections they had been laboring on for weeks. When it immediately became apparent that their numbers were off by several magnitudes, I would send their proposals back. Department employees learned quickly to always check if their work made sense and not just rely on the meticulous efforts they exerted in developing the details.

I also tried to establish a climate of fairness in the department. Initially, my top deputies and I interviewed all the managers to determine their interests and talents. We tried to make the best fits in assigning positions. We also tried to be fair in management decisions.

Comprehensive School Reform

Starting with the classroom, we identified and developed strategies to improve the performance of individual teachers by defining a common core curriculum, identifying and disseminating best practices, adopting instructional materials based on those documents, providing assessments aligned with the desired curriculum, supporting principal and coach leadership around the implementation of the curriculum and instruction, building parental and community support, and fostering team and capacity building. Additionally, we developed frameworks for each discipline and then galvanized the subject matter and educational organizations to support the use of the frameworks in curriculum, staff development, and the adoption of educational materials.

For example, I did not believe that our existing History-Social Science Framework made a strong enough case for democracy, and I asked Diane Ravitch, a noted historian of education, and Charlotte Crabtree, a distinguished history professor at UCLA, to lead the History-Social Science Framework Committee to ensure that democratic ideas were well covered. They eventually produced an outstanding document, credited with being the best in the country, which is essentially still in effect today.

We invested in professional development and worked with the newly organized university subject matter projects to implement the frameworks. We improved the assessment system to include history and science and incorporate more extended answers and authentic performance-based tasks. The tests were designed to give feedback to schools on strengths and weaknesses of instruction. They were not individual tests but matrix driven, which means that each student would only take a portion of the test and the results would be combined for a school score—much like the current well-respected National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams. We developed end-of-course voluntary tests in each of the major high school courses, The Golden State Exams, which were popular with students, parents, colleges, and businesses. Finally, we developed guidelines for elementary (It’s Elementary), middle grades (Caught in the Middle), and high schools (Second to None), which served as discussion guides for faculties throughout the state.

We next looked at the school as a major leverage point and looked for ways to influence school performance such as district support and training principals. We established a statewide principal training program, the California State Leadership Academy, which trained more than one thousand principals, and a state Mentor Teacher Program in which our best teachers could qualify, receive additional pay, and help support new and existing teachers or work on curriculum and instructional improvement.

We reviewed how the state could best provide strategic support for these initiatives and built support networks throughout California in reading and literature, writing, math, science, history-social science, physical education, health, and the arts and humanities. I visited most of the teacher training institutions and the universities that housed them, asking them to be part of the statewide effort and also to recruit new teachers. We took along four great teachers on these visits who talked about how much they loved teaching and how rewarding it was (“avoid a midlife crisis, become a teacher”). We would usually have 400 students attending these campus rallies.

Schools and teachers suffer from a deficit in public approval and hunger for approbation. So we initiated a Distinguished School Program using broad criteria for identifying exemplary schools. With local business and foundation support, we scheduled lunches at large hotels around the state to honor the recipients. The winning schools would bring their team: principal, teachers, parents, a district superintendent, and board members, and 50–100 schools would be in attendance. I would hand out the certificate and flag to each team. This was one of our most popular programs, and decades later many schools would still be displaying their awards.

We also endeavored to involve parents, the business community, the universities, and organized groups interested in education. In a few years, public education went from clusters of demoralized institutions with checkered support to a much more unified enterprise with high morale and growing public backing as it became apparent we were serious about improving schools.

To engender widespread educational support for these measures and to secure advice on implementation strategies, I created several advisory groups. I met weekly with representatives of all the major educational organizations—administrators, teachers, board members, parents, the county offices of education, school employees, and so on. We jointly devised political and educational measures. I formed a Superintendent’s cabinet of 15 of the key district leaders in the state, which met monthly. Ramon Cortines, who is still active at present as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, was a member. We collaboratively decided on implementation approaches. I also created a group consisting of the assistant superintendents in charge of curriculum and instruction, which also met on a regular basis, and I met periodically with the various ethnic advisory and curriculum groups.

Increased funding, stronger instruction, and widespread educator participation were working. Our graduation rates, SAT and test scores, course takings, and numbers of advanced placement courses passed all started to climb substantially. Beginning teacher’s salaries increased from $13,500 to $18,000, and teachers and educators felt empowered. The educational community had successfully battled a sitting governor, obtained widespread public support, and could witness palpable improvements in the schools. We were riding high.

In 1985, in the midst of this confident atmosphere, with the stellar journalist William Boly I wrote Last Chance for Our Children: How You Can Help Save Our Schools (admittedly a terrible title, but who can stand up to a publisher’s marketing people?). The book was an attempt to make the case for a rigorous liberal arts education, respond to objections to the idea, give some personal history, chronicle what we were trying to do in California, and enlist public support for the effort. For those who are interested in gaining a perspective of how we were thinking about educator-led comprehensive reform in the 1980s during that more hopeful time, much of which is still relevant, you can pick up a used copy on the internet for a song (it’s out of print).

California was enjoying growing national recognition for our efforts. About that time, I attended a small two-day meeting in Aspen with some of the most respected educators in the country. Prominent conservative commentators were also present. I made the case for a common curriculum and national curricular standards. At first, there was considerable reluctance to endorse such a proposition—from conservatives such as Chester E. “Checker” Finn, who worried about a national takeover of what had always been a local institution, and from some of the educational emeriti who worried about the stultifying effect of such an approach. By the end of the second day, almost everyone came around to the importance of a general common curriculum in an era of deteriorating standards and fragmentation.

In 1986, I was re-elected state superintendent in the primary with 78% of the vote, a historic level of support for a statewide office. There was no hint of criticism of the governor in my campaign. After the election, The New York Times published an article on the educational excellence movement in California (back-to-basics, plus), said some flattering (and unflattering) things about me, quoted my book, and in general got the gist of what we were trying to accomplish. It looked as if we were going to be able to concentrate on continuing the improvement efforts, if not with outspoken gubernatorial support, at least without the governor’s opposition.

Strife and Struggle

Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way. In the fall of 1986, Governor Deukmejian was re-elected in a rematch with Tom Bradley, with a very substantial margin of 61% to 38%. He was now super-confident and had learned a thing or two after four years. He had not forgotten the educational battles of his first two years, and he and his staff were displeased with the strength of the educational community and its widespread supportive organizations. Republican Party operatives also viewed me as a potential threat since I had become highly visible and popular having created widespread and powerful community support organizations. They were worried that I planned to run for governor in 1990 (I had no interest in that office and was steadfastly firm in denying any intention of running—repeated in the Times article mentioned above). No matter. They decided to take me (and the educational community and especially the teacher unions) down a peg.

The governor’s staff was politically astute and willing to be harsh. They devised a cunning strategy. If they provoked me into fighting for adequate funds, the governor and his staff would characterize the opposition as political and personal, not educational—driven by my desire to run for higher office by needlessly picking a fight to disparage him. The media would buy the argument because in their view anybody with my level of popularity and visibility must be aiming at higher office. Republicans would rally around the flag, withdraw their support, and split the bipartisan alliance we had created. In addition, many other of my supporters, especially Republicans and the business community, would become alienated if they believed the quarrel was political, not educational. If the administration could spin our objections to the budget that way, it would provide a great opportunity to lay into me personally—an example of the politics of personal destruction that now has become so commonplace with both Republicans and Democrats. If somebody disagrees with you, you destroy his or her reputation. Many journalists tend to translate every dispute into a personal and political conflict, believe all politicians just want to advance, and are highly skeptical of the idea that a person who has accumulated strong political support would be content remaining in a lower position to finish the job. The media can be counted on to reinforce the personal and political spin.

The governor initiated this scheme in his 1987 budget proposal, which essentially froze education spending by reducing it by the exact additional amount he was forced to provide in 1983—cutbacks that would cripple the reform and improvement efforts. We had two choices—submit or fight. Opposing a sitting governor is always risky—governors have vast political resources to employ. Some of my advisors cautioned against taking the bait and feared it might be a trap. I felt we had no choice if the reforms were to survive and our schools were not to fall further behind the nation in educational spending per pupil, and was buoyed by our two previous victories.

We were warned what they were planning. Bill Cunningham was the governor’s education advisor and a good friend of my political advisor, Joe Holsinger. He tipped off Joe to their scheme and told him that the administration didn’t think they could beat us on the issues and decided on the alternative strategy of making it personal and political. Cunningham, to his credit, eventually resigned in disgust at their Machiavellian plans.

I was willing to take the risks but I wasn’t going to lead the charge again unless the educational community would be an integral part of the effort and entered the fray with their eyes wide open. They agreed, and we tried to replicate what we had done in 1983 and 1984 to form a broad bipartisan coalition supporting the schools. This time, however, the governor and his staff had become more adept at using the levers of power, and by making the issues political and personal they effectively cajoled the suburban Republican legislators and key Republican constituents into backing his cuts. They also effectively neutralized my use of the bully pulpit, so important in winning the conflicts in his first term, by also convincing the media that the disagreements were personal and political.

One of the most distressing aspects of the conflict was the realization that many of the Republican legislators I was friendly with, had appeared with in their districts, and knew strongly believed in the educational excellence movement and my emphasis on liberal arts and the importance of the transmission of culture, deserted the cause because of the politics of the situation. Politics trumped belief. One would have thought some of them would see the benefit of having a strong liberal/moderate voice for the essentially conservative idea of educational and cultural standards.

The administration started by cooking the books and then accusing me of lying about their position. Previously it had publicly agreed that a legitimate standard for adequate school funding was 40% of the state budget. In private, the administration had committed to keep raising that percentage. The governor did not want to be accused of violating that standard, but still wished to cut educational funds substantially. His staff devised what should have been a transparent gimmick. They took two billion dollars out of a 100-billion-dollar budget and placed it in what they labeled a “special account,” with no justification for that designation. Then they allocated 40% of the remaining $98 billion dollars to the schools, which effectively cut our budgets by 40% of the $2 billion that was sequestered—an $800 million cut, which was about what he was forced to spend on the reform bill in 1983. Then the governor and his staff claimed they were allocating 40% and questioned my motives in objecting.

As I had discovered in the first two years as superintendent, using the media to convey a message to the general public and opinion leaders was crucial if we had a chance of winning the argument. But the media are fickle. What was so frustrating at the time was that reporters and editors couldn’t grasp or didn’t want to grasp what the governor had done and reported the story as “he said, she said.” We even produced a visual aid to show the math. Only one editorial in the state, from the Redding Record Searchlight, had the courage to say flat out that the administration’s budget was deceitful.

During the controversy, Willie Brown, then the Democratic speaker of the assembly, invited me to speak to the whole body to clarify the issues, which had been so under-reported by the press. The Democrats were supportive, but the Republicans were united in opposition with questionable talking points. That day we definitely won the argument on the merits, but making the better case did not obviate the political nature of the dispute.

Then came the personal attacks. I was described by the administration and its key Republican supporters as opportunistic and looking for political advancement by taking on the governor. They claimed I was lying about the budget. I scrupulously tried to stick to the educational argument, but such a strategy doesn’t work too well when the other side is making personal attacks and the media is provoking the fight. Every public appearance with press in attendance would generate the question, “Are you running for governor?” and any conciliatory statement was ignored. Harmless statements were often blown up into spiteful comments. When additional funds became available several months later during the May revise, instead of allocating it to schools the governor gave it back as tax relief. I responded that the governor would become the “Goat of the Series” by neglecting an easy opportunity to fund education—an obvious baseball reference to a player who makes an error and loses the game. The papers reported that I had called the governor a goat.

Then I did something really stupid. I was convinced by the producer of the most popular talk show in Los Angeles to call in when the governor was being interviewed and ask him why he wouldn’t fund the schools. It was a tacky move, and I should have known better. The blunder set back the campaign. For you golf fans, there are no mulligans in politics. Governor Deukmejian won that year’s round, and we did not get our full funds.

That year’s confrontation started a seven-year battle with the administration and Republican operatives, which I tried to call off several times to no avail. It surely hampered my efforts to concentrate on efforts to improve education that we had begun the last two years of the governor’s first term. But they wouldn’t quit. They appointed hatchet men to the State Board under instructions to clip my wings. They kept the financial pressure on the schools until we banded together to pass Proposition 98, which mandated 40% of the state budget to K–12 or a per-pupil increase of personal income growth, whichever was greatest. Then they never got over the fact that we eliminated their ability to cut school funding.

During my initial term, I enjoyed good relations with impressive members of the State Board of Education (SBE), both Democrats and Republicans, who were extremely supportive of additional funds for education and the reforms. During the first year, the Board supported the reform bill in the legislature with the increased funding. This was much to the chagrin of the governor’s administration. The bipartisan SBE and I had always been able to reach consensus on issues. Then the governor started to appoint people who were instructed to oppose my efforts and the consensus deteriorated. When a majority of these mischief-makers had finally been appointed, the Board took me to court to reduce the superintendent’s administrative prerogatives (and eventually won before a panel of judges Deukmejian had appointed).

Before that case went to court, I sat down with the two main ringleaders on the SBE authorized by the board to negotiate with me, and we reached agreement on every issue they raised. With their permission, I recorded the session. The administration was horrified. They wanted confrontation, not settlement, and the two board members both publically reneged on what they had agreed to.

As I mentioned, I kept getting distracted from using the bully pulpit for educational reform issues because the reporters would not stop asking about my intentions to run for governor. We devised a strategy to correct the situation. When one is driving in snow or ice and starts to skid towards a cliff, the driver needs to turn with the skid, get traction, and then steer back to the road. We tried the same tactic. For a few months, I stopped saying I wasn’t running for governor (which no reporter believed anyway), started organizing some support groups, and hinted that I might run to assure adequate funding for the schools. When Prop. 98 passed, I held a press conference saying that since schools now were guaranteed adequate funding, I didn’t need to run. I now wanted to fulfill our promise to the public that if they passed Prop. 98, we would devote ourselves to improving schools. The office I held was the best place to do that. This time the media believed me.

I cavalierly responded to Dave Dawson that we shouldn’t be worried because our administration had been squeaky-clean and scrupulously played by the rules. For example, I didn’t accept campaign contributions from publishers, and I never accepted meals from them. (I did encourage publishers to contribute to the campaign to pass Prop. 98, arguing that more money for schools meant more money for textbooks.) At the Chief State School Officers meetings I was one of the only chiefs who would pay for my own lunch and dinner, which were being hosted by various education companies. In California, the state superintendent sat on the State Teachers Retirement Fund (STRS), which invested billions of dollars each year. Other elected officials would raise campaign money from large investment and real estate firms giving the appearance (or the reality) of influencing investment decisions positively or negatively. I thought that the practice was shady and would not solicit such contributions or involve myself in the decision-making process. This questionable practice was eventually restricted 20 years later in 2007 by legislation that limited the amount of contributions and limited going to work for investment firms after leaving the board.

Dawson then told me that he heard the FBI was involved. So I called the FBI chief in Sacramento to find out what was going on. He basically told me that he was invited to one of the “get Honig” group’s meetings. At the meeting they asked him to join the effort, but he found the whole effort to be bizarre. They had no evidence of actual wrongdoing but were just brainstorming how to find and pin something on me. He never went back.

The Quality Education Project (QEP)

Unfortunately for me, the group finally found something potentially damaging. When I first heard about their charge, I thought it was so groundless as to be laughable. My wife at the time, Nancy, had been instrumental in my campaigns for office and very interested in the issue of parental involvement in schools. Nancy had created a very lucrative consulting company that set doctors up in practice. After my election in 1982, she decided to close the company and devote herself to promoting parent involvement in education. She raised a goodly sum from such luminaries as David Packard and Ann Getty to create a nonprofit entity, The Quality Education Project (QEP), and took no salary as its president.

QEP became very successful at involving parents in low-income and minority areas, holding rallies, and substantially increasing participation rates for back-to-school nights and other activities. QEP developed a parent pledge to turn off the TV at night, set aside a space for homework, and read to their children. Tens of thousands of parents signed the pledge and became more active in their child’s education at home and school—a very worthwhile endeavor.

Sometime later, David Bowick, from the Oakland Unified School District, called me at home to request some help with generating community and parental support for his efforts to improve schools. Bowick was one of the superintendents I was working with to implement our educational excellence agenda. At the time of his call, Nancy was in the room and I asked her if QEP would be interested. QEP had an excellent community organizer on staff who had worked with farmworkers and seemed just what Bowick needed. Bowick said he would also invest some district funds in the project if QEP would take on the project and assign resources including the community organizer. QEP agreed.

Later on, after the project was organized, Bowick and Nancy came to me and said they needed an additional staff person to work with the local schools. They had someone in mind for the job—Linda Page, an excellent principal. I thought the effort in Oakland was important and was exactly the kind of project the federal programs should support, so I agreed that the state would hire Linda Page to work with the local effort. It was to be a three-way partnership with financial support from the district, QEP, and the state all funding the project. The contract actually said we were hiring Linda Page to “work with” QEP on the Oakland project. QEP did not charge the district—it was a foundation, not a consulting firm. No money went from the district or the state to QEP. Just the opposite, QEP provided funds and resources to the local partnership in Oakland. That is how our work with QEP began.

The Oakland project was so successful it spread to other districts. The state continued to pay for Linda Page, who had done such a good job in Oakland, so that she could work in new districts. Each new district also provided funds, and QEP continued its financial and resource support. In addition, numerous other districts also initiated similar QEP projects, with excellent educators becoming involved. Cardinal Mahoney supported one for the Catholic schools in Los Angeles and became an enthusiastic supporter.

The final contract by the state with QEP was to assist Sweetwater High School District in creating a QEP parent involvement program in a high school district. Superintendent Tony Trujillo asked QEP to start a project there. QEP was reluctant because it was fully committed to other projects and had no high school expertise. Tony called me to see if the state could help and argued that we needed to explore how to involve parents in high-need high schools. So together we created another tripartite project—the district assigned some staff and resources, QEP did the same, and the state contracted for a local person to head the local project.

The project was a huge success. Through community organizing, hundreds of mothers and fathers in the Hispanic-American community attended rallies and back-to-school events—a complete turnaround from previous experience. Fathers pledged to get involved in their children’s education and support proper discipline in the school.

When I asked a meeting of my top staff what they thought about helping to fund local efforts in partnership with the districts and QEP, the only objection came from one of my deputies, Jim Smith. He counseled that any project involving my wife would open me to political potshots. I asked them directly: “Are there any legal problems?” They had checked with our legal staff, and their opinion was that since no money was going to QEP from the state or the districts since QEP was not charging the district and spending its own funds to help the local project, there were no possible legal issues. I then asked if the program would help kids. They said yes. I asked if our expenditure was authorized and consistent with the purposes of the federal program providing the funds. They said it was, so I decided to risk the political hit because of the great potential of the partnership. If I ever had any inkling that there was a potential legal issue, I wouldn’t have green-lighted the project. At the time, my legal training actually hurt me because I believed that the fact that money was flowing from QEP, not to it, meant there was no conflict of interest. Unfortunately, a significant number of people only looked at the surface, saw “wife” and “state money,” and concluded there must be wrongdoing. This became the political issue my foes were searching for.

After several years, Nancy decided that she had contributed enough non-salaried free time to QEP and was planning to revive her medical consulting firm. The QEP board, which had some influential and astute members, argued that QEP was too important and effective to abandon. It felt her leadership was essential and proposed that she receive a salary and stay the course. Nancy accepted the offer even though the salary was significantly below what she had been earning in her consulting firm.

Most observers then and subsequently could not understand how I failed to grasp the danger in continuing to work with QEP and how that connection could be so easily misconstrued and exploited. They attributed it to arrogance, to my being out of touch, or to my refusal to listen to those who tried to advise me about the political dangers. Maybe the observers were right. But in my defense, during my service as state superintendent of public instruction I made about 10,000 decisions. Once I had given careful thought and consideration to an issue, as I initially did when deciding whether to work with QEP and its district partners, I tended to treat the matter as settled. All my advisors saw no legal problem, and all but one predicted little political fallout. If there was arrogance on my part, it was more a case of my believing that we were doing something good for children and my customary willingness to fight for what I thought was right. My attitude was Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! That stance and my assessment of the legal aspects cost me dearly.

The Union, a conservative newspaper in Sacramento, started running editorials and stories about the egregious sweetheart deal I arranged for my wife. Other political forces chimed in, calling for an investigation. Nobody paid much attention. My political advisors Joe Holsinger and Richie Ross dismissed the assaults, saying, “If they attack you for helping parents and kids, they will look foolish and mean-spirited and it won’t go anywhere.” Heedless to that sentiment, the attacks continued.

Dan Walters was one of the most prominent Sacramento political reporters, with a nose for scandal. He asked for an interview and I explained what the projects were and how they were funded. Walters wrote a column saying he couldn’t see that what we were doing was wrong and the case against me was contrived. That still didn’t stop the cabal.

Spurred on by the articles in The Union, the State Board of Education called for hearings on QEP and the state contracts of support. By that time the board was made up entirely of Deukmejian appointees. Hundreds of parents attended the hearings to testify about how effective the program had been. Supporters included scores of nuns from the L.A. diocese, which had adopted the program. One of my chief antagonists on the Board was Joe Carrabino, a Catholic. Faced with the sisters’ enthusiastic praise, Carrabino did not say a word.

More hostilities emerged. If you fight for a cause for a period of time and especially if you win some important battles, you inevitably step on more and more toes. Out of the blue came another powerful adversary. Here is the backstory. The federal government sponsors a migrant education program for children of migrant workers. When I took office, the office of inspector general attached to the US Department of Education was in the process of levying a huge fine on the state because the paperwork that established the parents’ status as migrant workers was sloppy. The fine would come directly out of the next year’s allocation for the migrant students. We decided that course of action was unacceptable and went back to obtain affidavits showing that the students actually were from migrant families. We did so for almost all the enrollees. The fed’s response was that it didn’t care if the students really were qualified. The issue was that we didn’t fill out the paperwork properly, and we must deduct the funds. (The inspector general gets credit for collecting funds so there was an incentive not to resolve the issue.) We appealed, to no avail. The appeals court was like a star chamber with few basic due process protections. The next year, we lobbied Congress to establish fair rules for inspector general hearings and were successful in passing reforms. The inspector general never forgot that we had clipped his wings.

When the invented conflict over QEP erupted, the inspector general attached to the US Department of Education sent his top investigator to investigate. That gentleman testified before the State Board that the QEP program was the “most egregious case of fraud he had ever seen.” Right. Much worse than the fly-by-night for-profit sham training schools which were stealing millions of dollars from unsuspecting students every year, which were supposedly regulated by the US Department of Education.

At any rate, the continuing drumbeat from The Union, criticism from conservative spokesmen, and the Board’s hearing were not gaining traction. Most people had the same reaction as Dan Walters—there is nothing there, and the program should be praised, not vilified. Regardless, the Board sent the issue to the state Attorney General John Van de Camp, who was a Democrat. He referred it to the civil division to determine if there was merit to the complaints. For the moment, the cabal’s efforts had stalled.

Then came the election of 1990. Good news and bad news. The Duke was termed out as governor and Senator Pete Wilson was in. Wilson was at that time a moderate Republican but ran as a conservative. He and I had always had a good working relationship. During the transition, he invited me to meet with him and said he did not want personal conflict. He knew I was also being hurt by the continued controversies, and proposed that we agree to be civil even if we were on different sides of an issue. That sounded good to me. During his first year as governor, he veered to the right and decided to ask the legislature to suspend the Prop. 98 protections. The educational coalition decided to fight him on the issue, took out devastating ads, and won. True to my word, I stayed in the background during the campaign’s push for full funding.

Ominously, the 1990 election also produced a new attorney general, the very conservative Dan Lungren, who beat the San Francisco D.A. only when they counted the final absentee ballots. Many of Lungren’s supporters were the same people who were zealously going after me. They demanded he do something about the issue. At first, he didn’t think there was anything to pursue.

The Unraveling

Then, I got seriously unlucky. Will Hearst, who published the San Francisco Examiner and Sunday Chronicle, cared about improving schools and had always been a strong supporter of mine. But the Examiner was losing money and threatening to go under. As a desperate measure, Hearst hired a muckraking reporter, Phil Bronstein, to be editor and reinvigorate the paper. As a way to sell papers, Bronstein began to publish a series of sensationalized attacks on officials.

Before Bronstein arrived, I had approached the Examiner during the controversy over QEP to ask them to do a story on what the QEP actually did and what it had accomplished—something no one had covered in depth. A few papers had mentioned the QEP in passing. For example, in October 1991 there was this short piece in the Los Angeles Times:

“There’s really nothing that new about Nancy Honig’s Quality Education Project (QEP),” Michael Klentschy, associate superintendent of schools in Pasadena, said Thursday, “but it is a real fine collection of some of the best materials anybody has ever put together on how to get parents involved in the schools. Pasadena is in its third year of using QEP in kindergarten through eighth grade,” Klentschy said, “and has found the program very effective.”

But the overall story was getting lost in the scandal rhetoric. The Examiner agreed to an in-depth look at the QEP. Then Bronstein arrived, saw an opportunity for a sensationalized exposé, and assigned his most aggressive reporter to dig up dirt. Unbeknownst to me, the article about the QEP’s accomplishments was now recast to be a “hit piece” on me. The reporter approached Nancy and me with smiles and good will saying she wanted to know the real facts. Apparently, she was looking for something much more sinister.

One Saturday afternoon, I was out for a walk and headed downtown. Much to my consternation, I happened to notice the sprawling headline on the next day’s Sunday paper. I can’t remember it exactly, but it was something like Honig Commits Fraud. The paper had done a nasty piece of work. The article misreported the facts, minimized the QEP’s accomplishments, sensationalized the story, repeated the unfounded attacks made by my detractors, and never gave us a chance to comment or respond. On the plus side, it probably did help them sell some papers.

The cabal now had the pretext it needed to ramp up its campaign against me, using the piece in the San Francisco Examiner as proof that there was a legitimate legal issue. The article also provided Lungren an excuse to move forward. He transferred the case to the criminal division, where it was assigned to one of the most aggressive prosecutors.

When we found out that they were considering criminal action, I hired Jerome Falk, a prominent attorney, to present our case that there was nothing illegal about my actions. He wrote a very persuasive brief, with cogent legal and factual arguments which were ignored. You can’t rebut a primarily political case with legal ammunition.

Lungren still couldn’t bring himself to authorize an indictment against me since the case was so weak, but he was now receiving tremendous pressure from his supporters in the cabal to move forward. Jim Smith, my deputy, whose office was next to the State Board office, heard Joe Carrabino shouting at the top of his lungs on the phone, according to Smith, to either Dan Lungren or one of his chief operatives, “You’ve got to indict him. You’ve got to indict him.”

On March 26, 1992, he did. The zealous prosecutor who was assigned the case presented the proposed indictment to the grand jury. She claimed that right after I was elected, Nancy and I planned to promote the QEP so that Nancy could eventually receive a salary from state assistance. Thus, according to this fiction, we had a long-standing plan to knowingly defraud the state and divert funds for our personal benefit. None of this was true. There were no facts to support the prosecutor’s assertions, and the narrative didn’t make much sense since Nancy was already making a good salary with her consulting firm. The way our grand jury system works (needed changes are currently being debated), the potential defendant doesn’t get to present rebuttals. You depend on the prosecutor to be fair. Enough said.

The attorney general’s staff also leaked this made-up account to the press, and the papers quickly published the prosecutor’s fabricated account, with all its juicy details. Later during the trial, the case was reassigned and the new prosecutor adopted a different approach, saying that I was not a bad person, that I didn’t intend to break the law, but that conflict of interest statutes are designed to protect the public and need to be strictly enforced.

The major transgression the original prosecutor made before the grand jury was to ignore my argument made in a formal taped statement to the attorney general that no money ever went to the QEP from either the districts or the state. After the indictment, I had requested an interview with the AG. (I know now it is never recommended that a defendant do so because the prosecution can misconstrue what you say to its advantage, but at the time I thought I had nothing to hide.) I made the argument about following the money and asked how there could be a conflict if the QEP didn’t receive any funds from the state and Nancy’s salary was entirely paid out of foundation contributions she had raised.

The prosecutor played the tape before the grand jury, and several jurors asked her to respond to my assertions, which if true would invalidate the prosecution’s entire case. She promised to present evidence on the issue, which she never did. At the end of the proceedings, the jurors reminded the prosecutor that she said she would rebut my contention. She merely shrugged it off, describing it as a minor accounting matter. Prosecutors have great discretion in grand jury proceedings, but by law the one thing they can’t do is refuse to provide an answer to a juror’s question. Such refusal destroys the legal validity of the entire process. Later when we raised that issue just before trial, the presiding judge wouldn’t grant us our warranted relief, saying that the information requested was not important to the case. That reasoning was patently absurd since those facts were the essence of my defense. When we appealed the case arguing that the indictment should have been quashed, the appellate court said we didn’t raise the issue in a timely manner.

As a neutral observer (just kidding), this was the pattern that permeated the entire legal process. Everything that could go wrong did—a perfect storm. And at each juncture, those overseeing or involved in the case abdicated their responsibilities and failed to follow reasonable practice or even the law. Most had an obvious political or personal axe to grind, or they did not have the courage to do what was right. The case should never have been a criminal prosecution. At most, it was a technical civil violation, if that. It should never have come to trial, should not have been handled at trial the way it was, and should have been reversed on appeal.

The Trial and Tribulations

The trial was held in January of 1993, based on three contracts with the original principal hired for the Oakland project and one contract with the person hired for the Sweetwater project. These four contracts were signed after Nancy had started receiving a salary from the QEP. An article in the Los Angeles Times written during the trial pretty well sums up the proceedings and how most people viewed them. (Again, it includes some flattering and unflattering things about me.) Most people agreed I didn’t intend to break the law and was trying to do something for children, but the judge did not allow us to put on most of our defense including motive, background, the success of the QEP, and the political nature of the case.

The prosecution’s theory of the case was that the state contracts hiring a person to work locally benefited the QEP and made it easier for the foundation to pay Nancy’s salary. Nobody seemed to grasp the point that no money or benefit actually went to the QEP. The prosecution was faced with the problem that not one dime was actually paid to the QEP. The prosecution could have tried to contend that the benefit wasn’t monetary but an indirect benefit such as the enhancement of the QEP’s reputation. However, it didn’t prove that either and, in any event, reputational benefit is highly speculative and hard to prove, and there exists no legal justification for such a principle. Such a finding could result in the ridiculous situation in which a wife who works for Apple and donates some tablets to a state school run by the husband could put him at risk of violating the law for accepting the gift and spending funds to service the machines and get them ready for use locally, because in some small measure it could make Apple look good and redound to her benefit. A completely tenuous argument.

There was also a contention or assumption that Linda Page, the principal whom we hired and then assigned to the local projects in the first three contracts, and the local staff person in Sweetwater were actually working for the QEP organization, not with the local projects (which was also confusingly called a QEP project). In that case, the state would be giving the QEP a resource or benefit. However, the clear weight of the facts showed that both individuals spent their time locally with the district parent-involvement projects; their contracts stated that they were hired to “work with” the QEP, and that is what I thought the state had contracted for. Linda Page did do some administrative tasks for the QEP, but it paid her additional funds for that work.

Finally, there was an argument that by hiring a staff person to work in the local projects, the state saved the QEP from having to hire a person, and that was the benefit. Again, there was no proof of that conjecture. In Sweetwater, the QEP was not going to fund the project and was convinced to proceed because of the state participation.

The prosecution must prove the elements of the crime, and finding a benefit to the QEP was one of those elements. There was only a highly questionable possibility of a speculative, indirect benefit to the QEP, which the prosecution never proved. Crimes must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and that requirement applies to the elements of the crime. Further, if there are two plausible explanations of an event, the jury must apply the one favorable to the defendant. None of this was followed in the trial, and the jury received no instructions along these lines.

Another major point is that the attorney general argued and the judge instructed the jury that the case was akin to strict liability. I didn’t have to know I was doing anything wrong as long as I signed the contract. Criminal law in this country developed out of English Common Law, which over centuries retreated from strict criminal liability for unintentional acts and established the concept of mens rea. It means that a conviction requires some intent to do harm. Unfortunately, during the past decades, more and more acts are criminalized and many laws are now holding people liable without knowledge on their part, such as owning property where drugs were sold. I was not allowed to argue that I thought the people we contracted were hired to work with the local project, not the QEP, and that position was supported by the specific language of the contracts. The judge said that my understanding and intent were irrelevant.

Judge Long may have had his own issues with conflict of interest. He wanted to be an appellate judge and Attorney General Lungren, who was prosecuting the case, was one member of the three-person panel that recommends approval of advancement. Judge Long’s sister worked for the attorney general as an attorney, and the attorneys for the prosecution would meet each day in the judge’s office before trial. We tried to recuse the judge due to this conflict, but the statute only applied to wives, offspring, and parents, not siblings. It was obvious to anyone in the courtroom, and especially to the jury, which way his sympathies lay. He was so hard on our witnesses he made some of them cry, invariably ruled for the prosecution, was hostile and dismissive of our attorneys, and refused to give our key proffered instructions to the jury.

Even so, my attorneys were extremely confident that despite the judge’s rulings, the prosecution did not make their case. After the jury went out, my attorneys wrote a long victory statement. The jury had other ideas and came back with a verdict of guilty.

The judge suspended sentence while we appealed his rulings and the legal basis of the case. The statute I was convicted under was called a “wobbler.” It provided that the conviction could either be deemed a felony or a misdemeanor depending on the judge’s discretion. He said he would rule after the appeal was concluded. He fined me a substantial amount, required no jail time, but required 1,000 hours of community service. By law I had to vacate the superintendent’s office immediately.

Although I could have waited for the appeal decision, I decided to perform my community service immediately. I volunteered as a classroom aide in my local public elementary school and did other voluntary work for education. This was something I actually enjoyed and probably would have done anyway. If I lost the appeal, I wanted to be able to get on with my life.

Two years later, the appellate court refused to overturn the conviction but did reduce the fine. It dismissed in a footnote our main argument that no benefit went to the QEP or was proved in the trial and actually rewrote the facts of the case to mask the facts that supported the point (a practice that many appellate attorneys say is all too common). The court didn’t entertain our strict liability and lack of mens rea argument, the violation of the prosecutor who didn’t answer the grand jurors’ question on money flow, and a few other points. I decided enough was enough. We didn’t appeal to the California Supreme Court, even though both my appellate attorney and I were convinced the appellate court had erred.

Then for the first time in this whole sordid affair, I caught a break. After the appeal was rejected, it was time for the formal sentencing, which had been suspended pending the appeal. We expected the worst—felony convictions. My attorney at the time was a good friend of mine, Art Shartsis. When Art approached Judge Long, to get a feel for the upcoming sentencing proceeding, he was pleasantly surprised that the judge was open to making the convictions misdemeanors, accepting the community service, and ending the case. We soon found out why in open court. My late sister, Ann, had written a moving letter about how our parents had brought up her brother to be a good citizen and she pleaded for leniency. Judge Long was very close to his sister, and this letter made a huge impression. He also was moved by the fact that I had volunteered to do the community service immediately in an inner-city school without waiting for the appeal. He made the convictions misdemeanors, and the legal case was over. Later, the misdemeanors were expunged by the superior court.

Nancy paid a much heavier price. She had always been plagued by the demons of depression and was at her happiest during my campaigns for superintendent and creating the QEP and all its success. The unfairness of the trial and conviction hit her hard—both the shame and the unjust destruction of the QEP. She fled to Mexico soon after the trial, successfully replicated the QEP blueprint in that country, and returned to the US in 1998. She never could get past what had happened and eventually succumbed to the torments of depression and committed suicide in 1999.

Life after Leaving Office: The Reading Wars and the Founding of CORE

After the conviction in the trial, Henrietta Schwartz, who was dean of education at San Francisco State, took the courageous step of offering me a teaching position in the School of Education. I taught a curriculum and instruction course for two years and headed a Hewlett Foundation–funded project to involve university and school people in joint efforts at improving instruction by reaching agreement on what constituted good instruction and coverage. The project was named USSER, University/School Support for Educational Reform.

We first tackled reading, established a joint committee of professors and practitioners, and issued a well-received report. Then we addressed math. This was a time of intense conflict between traditionalists and reformers. Initially, I went to the California Math Council, but their leadership didn’t believe there was any agreed-upon content.

The next year, we tried again and put together a small group of reformers and traditionalists under the theory that there actually were large areas of consensus in K-8 math. The group included traditionalists such as Gunnar Carlsson, chair of the math department at Stanford University, and reformers such as Carne Barnett from WestEd, and Debra Coggins who did most of the writing of our eventual report. We addressed key concepts underlying arithmetic, teaching tips, and what to do about the common pitfalls students encounter in twelve major areas—from adding and subtracting through beginning algebra. What was so interesting given the raging controversies taking place was that during the discussion, you couldn’t tell who was a reformer and who was a traditionalist. Gunnar Carlsson said he never understood how complex the mathematics of arithmetic was and eventually designed a Stanford course for prospective teachers on the subject.

The final product of our efforts was A Mathematics Source Book for Elementary and Middle School Teachers, published in 1999. It was a best-seller for a decade and showed that we could resolve the math wars satisfactorily. That consensus was displayed in the Common Core State Standards issued a decade later, which married conceptual understanding with procedural fluency and applications, and also stressed math content and practices.

When Dean Schwartz retired, I decided to leave the university. I made good friends with a few people I respected in the department of education, but, on the whole, found the atmosphere stultifying, highly political, and hostile to intellectual pursuit and discussion.

I did some consulting work for a national project led by Lauren Resnick and Marc Tucker to develop standards and assessments for a group of participating states—a forerunner to the Common Core State Standards adopted 15 years later. During my last years as superintendent, I had been one of the founding members of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, served on a National Commission on Children headed by Senator Jay Rockefeller, and was a member of a national commission to develop history standards. Such opportunities had mostly vanished.

However, I was invited to comment on the proceedings of a conference held by Diane Ravitch and Chester E. “Checker” Finn. The conference findings argued that standards and assessment with consequences would force schools to change. I disagreed, asserting that without attention to building the capacity and supportive infrastructure for schools, standards and assessment wouldn’t be effective. Their position evolved into the current Test-and-Punish approach (although Diane has recanted with a vengeance), and my position became the underpinning of the Build-and-Support strategy currently followed by California and top-performing districts and nations around the world.

Early in the 1990s, I obtained a foundation grant to develop a consulting group to help districts improve instruction in reading, math, history-social science, and science. It was originally housed at WestEd, one of the major federally funded research and development centers. I tried to convince WestEd to add developing on-site capacity into their federal application for refunding, but they were hesitant because reorienting their primarily research staff to work with local schools and districts seemed too uncertain. I then got interested in the reading controversies of the time, which changed the course of my career. For the full story of the history of our struggle for good first reading teaching, see the article How the California Reading Wars Got Resolved: A Personal Story.

At the same time in 1995, I joined forces with Linda Diamond, one of the most knowledgeable people in the country on reading and one of the best trainers in the nation, and top researchers Ann Cunningham and Ruth Nathan to form the Consortium on Reading Excellence (CORE). Cunningham subsequently became a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Education, and Nathan went on to become the director of the Reading Research Lab at UC Berkeley. I had met them all while becoming schooled in reading research. We created CORE to spread the word on this balanced approach—teaching foundation skills, vocabulary, and strategies, and providing a rich literacy program.

Whole language was very strongly entrenched in our schools, and we met with quite a lot of resistance, but eventually the power of the overwhelming research findings and the obvious deleterious effects of whole language carried the day. CORE is currently finishing its twentieth year now, led by Linda Diamond. The group has worked with nearly 150,000 teachers in improving reading instruction. CORE has been renamed the Consortium on Reaching Excellence since we now also provide math assistance.

We originally emphasized the reading research and its implications for instruction but soon became primarily a reading implementation group working with school site staffs in improving literacy instruction. CORE’s publications include the popular Teaching Reading Sourcebook, Assessing Reading: Multiple Measures, Vocabulary Handbook, and the recent Word Intelligence, a supplementary vocabulary enhancement program for middle schools.

From 1995 until 2005, I was actively involved in CORE as president as we grew steadily. In the mid-2000s I took a more indirect role. Linda Diamond became CEO, and she and the staff have done a wonderful job communicating the best research on reading and math and working with on-site educators to improve instruction.

My Latest Exploits

In 2005, I drafted a paper on income inequality, which has a direct effect on educational performance. I extrapolated data from government reports since the federal documents didn’t report directly on the subject. I found that a huge amount of the income growth during the previous decade went to the top one percent, leaving little available to raise the incomes of everyone else. This analysis has now become widely known, but at the time most people were skeptical. I showed the draft to Rahm Emanuel when he was leading the charge for electing Democratic representatives, but he wasn’t much interested.

In 2009, I became dismayed at the educational policies that the Obama administration was beginning to pursue. Instead of appointing Linda Darling-Hammond, who chaired his education transition team as US Secretary of Education, the president named Arne Duncan. Darling-Hammond possesses one of the best instincts on how to improve schools in the country. Duncan had limited educational experience and a miserable track record in Chicago. As many of us predicted, he initiated the misconceived policies of Test-and-Punish, with the result that educational performance in this country has essentially stalled.

In 2010, I watched White House staffer Melody Barnes speak to Charlie Rose about how important education was to the country and how the administration’s ideas would make a huge difference. In my opinion, they were traveling down the wrong road, and I wrote the following respectful letter to plead for a course correction.

To: Melody Barnes
From: Bill Honig
Subj: Education Reform
Date: October 1, 2010

My name is Bill Honig. I am a lifelong, devoted Democrat who was a strong supporter of Democratic Congressional candidates and the President in 2008. I believe that President Obama is doing a great job for the country. I saw you on Charlie Rose and was very impressed with your obvious dedication and commitment to bettering the education of our children.

I can easily relate to your passion, because I started out as an attorney and then shifted careers and dedicated myself to education. I became an elementary teacher in the 1970s in inner-city San Francisco schools, was appointed to the California State Board of Education, and was elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction in the 1980s. We were one of the first states to develop a comprehensive approach to education reform. For the past fifteen years, I have been president of the Consortium on Reading Excellence, a company specializing in on-site implementation work in reading and math with teachers, schools, districts, and states in urban and rural areas. We have worked with districts such as Atlanta, Miami, Buffalo, Anchorage, San Bernardino, Pasadena, Yakima, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and many states. We have aided many of our schools and districts to substantially improve.

I agree with the President’s and your distress over other countries having significantly higher college and high school graduation rates and higher math, reading, and science scores, your belief that the system needs fixing, and your conviction that teachers (and teaching and learning) are central to that effort. But I’m afraid that the specifics you and the administration are emphasizing are too narrowly conceived and not comprehensive enough to get the job done. Without a course correction, I fear that several years from now you will look back to a missed opportunity to actually change American education, especially given the unprecedented level of federal funding being devoted to the effort.

I hope you take the following critique in the spirit of wanting you all to succeed. The countries that have surpassed the US have followed a different path, as have states such as Massachusetts, whose students perform on a par with world-class systems. These countries and states have also put teachers at the center of reform, but have undertaken significantly different strategies to accomplish their goals. They have emphasized teaching and learning, and the support structures to foster teamwork and continuous improvement, and have built comprehensive long-term measures to attract, train, mentor, team build, and support teachers. These crucial strategies are currently missing from the administration’s approach.

The administration has rightly emphasized the Common Core State Standards. The new language and math standards are very good, and the new assessments based on the standards are much improved (although the tendency to narrow the curriculum by just testing math and reading needs to be addressed). But your other initiatives are flawed. You have stressed and provided massive funding for expanding charter schools (about three percent of our students attend charters). Research has shown that only a quarter of charter schools do better than the regular public schools while a quarter do worse, but they do drain money from public schools and often cause significant community damage when they replace a local school.

You have mandated high-stakes evaluations of teachers for waivers based on reading and math test scores, but these tests were not designed for personnel decisions and are highly inaccurate for that purpose. Additionally, test-based evaluations result in considerable collateral damage such as narrowing the curriculum, inordinate test preparation at the expense of deeper learning, and outright gaming the system. Incompetent teachers need to be dismissed if done fairly, but this only affects five percent of teachers, and making that policy the cornerstone of your reform efforts detracts from working with the rest. Rewarding the best teachers suffers from the same inaccuracy problems and has not worked well. Creating career ladders is more effective and less disruptive, and research has not shown that monetary incentives for individual teachers has been successful.

You also emphasize turning around the lowest-performing schools. You mentioned 5,000 schools or about five percent of schools, but actually a much smaller percent qualified—around 100 in California, or just above one percent of the state’s schools. Again, the research on your turnaround strategies is problematical—many of the schools designated were making more progress than their district counterparts and most replacements have not done any better. Even if these initiatives work (a big if), they only affect a small number of students. Missing from this approach is the harder work of building the broader capacity for improvement for the vast number of schools and teachers.

Some of the more positive, comprehensive ideas that our best districts employ exist in your Blueprint for Education, but they were not given much weight in the review process for Race to the Top and are virtually neglected at the local and state levels. For example, just think of the difference it would make if you started to reward: changing entry requirements for becoming a teacher to the top third of college graduates as the Rhode Island superintendent has done on her own initiative (in the next decade more than a million teachers will enter the system) and improving their training; initiating a mentoring system for new and existing teachers; developing career ladders for the best teachers; organizing sophisticated instructional support for schools; and creating research-based principal academies to help principals lead instructional improvement.

I have had this discussion with some of the most perceptive educators in the country, including Pat Graham, former dean of the Harvard School of Education; Susan Fuhrman, dean of Teachers College; David Cohen, who has written a fascinating book on federal policy since President Johnson, showing that standards and assessment without developing the infrastructure of support has not worked; and Tony Bryk, executive of the Carnegie Foundation for Teaching and Learning, who, among other works, has studied reforms in the Chicago schools. They agree that a shift to a more comprehensive strategy emphasizing teaching and learning is crucial if the administration is to succeed.

I have attached a short paper outlining these arguments and hope you will read it. I’d like to discuss this with you. [I provided contact information] Hope this helps.

Respectfully, Bill Honig

I never even received an acknowledgement that they had received the letter.

A Ray of Sunshine: California Takes a Different Path

At that point I was extremely frustrated that the media, pundits, and almost every political leader had uncritically accepted the administration’s narrative that the best way to improve schools was by increasing pressure through high-stakes testing, competition, and market-based reforms. Fortunately, there were two politicians who didn’t—Jerry Brown and Tom Torlakson. Brown was California’s attorney general and had written Arne Duncan to object to the heavy emphasis on testing and shoddy evaluations. When he decided to run for governor of California he put Mike Kirst in charge of developing educational ideas (though the governor always had strong views on education). I knew Mike well from the time I served on the State Board of Education and as state superintendent of public instruction. I offered to help, and together we drafted an educational plan for the state (with considerable tweaking by candidate Brown). The plan was posted on Brown’s campaign website, used in his campaign speeches, and eventually became the basis for the policies enacted after he won.

Tom Torlakson ran on similar ideas, and when both he and Brown won and we had preliminary staff meetings, it was obvious that we were all on the same page. Soon after being elected, Torlakson put together a blue-ribbon task force chaired by Linda Darling-Hammond and Chris Steinhauser, superintendent of the high-performing Long Beach Unified Schools District. The task force produced Greatness by Design, which is one of the founding documents of the Build-and-Support approach, in stark contrast to the Test-and-Punish strategy.

Right after his election, Governor Brown appointed Mike Kirst to the State Board of Education as well as several other experienced educators who held views consistent with the Build-and-Support strategy. (I was also appointed but couldn’t serve due to an obscure section in the statute that I had violated. The section prevented me from ever holding a state office, which included being a member of the State Board, even though the violations were misdemeanors.) The governor abolished the secretary of education position in his office (he is always the frugal one) and subsequently relied on the State Board and its executive secretary, Sue Burr, for educational advice.

As the state educational policy unfolded, I kept working with Mike informally, and then in 2011 the State Board appointed me to the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC), which I chaired for two years and am currently vice-chair. We produced several frameworks in Math, English Language Arts and ELD, Science, and History-Social Science—critical in helping districts and schools make the transition from standards to curriculum. I co-wrote a piece on EdSource on this topic with Pam Seki, who shepherds Long Beach’s Common Core implementation efforts. The IQC also reviewed and recommended math and reading instructional materials for the state.

At the suggestion of several respected leaders in Common Core implementation such as Mike Kirst, Dave Gordon (head of the Sacramento County Office of Education) and his deputy Sue Stickel, Marshall Smith, Jennifer O’Day, Glen Thomas, Chris Steinhauser and his deputy Pam Seki, Nancy Brownell (from the CA Department of Education), and Glen Harvey and Catherine Walcott (from WestEd), we formed an informal network—the Consortium for the Implementation of the Common Core State Standards. We have been meeting once a week by telephone for the past three years. Other stalwart educators joined the group such as Linda Darling-Hammond and Milbrey McLaughlin from Stanford, Harold Levine from UC Davis, Ted Lempert from Children Now, Carrie Roberts from the CDE, Julie White from the SBE staff, Glen Price from the Glen Price Group, now chief deputy superintendent of public instruction for the state, Ilene Strauss from the State Board, and Shelly Masur from the Californians Dedicated to Education Foundation. We also involved representatives from all the major educational and government entities—districts, county education offices, teacher groups, the research community, higher education, and advocacy groups. We call this broader group together every three to four months.

We obtained some foundation funding for the network and have helped on such key issues as implementation planning, bringing support providers together, communication, technology, understanding the state mathematics and ELA/ELD frameworks, accountability, and new teacher policies. This group’s first publication was the Leadership Planning Guide California, written to assist districts and schools in addressing the implementation of Common Core.

Finally, I have tried to advocate nationally for “The California Way,” as Superintendent Torlakson has dubbed California’s approach—strong instruction envisioned by Common Core but divorced from high-stakes testing and evaluation. See for example “Bill Honig: Why California Likes the Common Core Standards,” an interview in Salon and a follow-up article, “An Alternative to Failed Education ‘Reform,’ If We Want One.”

Reference Notes

A Collection of Quant Riddles with Answers.

Smith, M., & O’Day, J. (1991). Putting the Pieces Together: Systemic School Reform.

Lindsey, R. (1986, Aug 3). California’s Back-to-Basics Reformer. The New York Times.

King, P. H. (1993, Jan 13) Bill Honig Waits to Tell His Story. Los Angeles Times.


CORE Publications.

California Department of Education. (2012, Sep 17). Greatness by Design: Supporting Outstanding Teaching to Sustain a Golden State.

Honig, B. (2014, Jan 29). Coherent and Sequenced Curriculum Key to Implementing Common Core Standards.

California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. Leadership Planning Guide: Common Core State Standards and Assessments Implementation.

Ravitch, D. (2014, Jan 7). Bill Honig: Why California Likes the Common Core Standards.

Bryant, J. (2015, Apr 14). Common Core Consequences: “What Currently Passes for Reform Has Caused Considerable Collateral Damage to Schools and Teachers.”

Bryant, J. (2015, Apr 23). An Alternative to Failed Education Reform, If We Want One.

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Why Conventional School “Reforms” Have Failed: The Reformers Target the Wrong Levers of Improvement

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Why Conventional School “Reforms” Have Failed
The Reformers Target the Wrong Levers of Improvement

by Bill Honig

The school reform movement has failed to produce results overall, and reputable evaluations have shown that individual reform measures also have proved to be ineffective. Turnaround schools, charter schools, merit pay, and test-based school or teacher accountability have had either nonexistent or trivial effects. In his book Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, John Hattie (2008) writes that even when reforms produce small gains, they fall far below the improvements brought about by validated initiatives.

Reformers have operated under an extremely unsophisticated view of the educational landscape and how best to influence it. This causes two fundamental errors. First, they target their improvement efforts on a limited and weak set of levers for change. Secondly, they undertake solutions that have either little or no basis in research or experiential support.

Reformers fundamentally misunderstand how schools and districts work. They have primarily focused their efforts on indirect structural changes and governance reforms—limiting the power of teachers’ unions and scaling back workplace protections, using threats and incentives to pressure teachers and administrators, and promoting competition by expanding charter schools. These strategies fail to appreciate the complex factors that impact school quality and the appropriate places to focus improvement efforts. Other direct and more powerful leverage points have been shown to influence educational performance more than those areas traditionally targeted by reformers.

Factors That Impact School Quality and Student Achievement

Schools are complicated. Among the factors that influence school quality and student achievement are:

  • individual teachers and all the potential influences on those teachers including the type of content they provide, their pedagogical practice, and their level of engagement
  • members of the school community who are responsible for resource allocation, team building, and developing capacity for continuous improvement—the principal, key teachers, parents, and community leaders
  • parents’ role in supporting their child’s education
  • the district—superintendent, staff, and board—which hires teachers and principals, establishes curricular guidelines and creates curriculum, adopts materials, provides professional development and other supports for schools and teachers, allocates broad resources, defines accountability, involves the community, and ideally creates a positive climate
  • the state apparatus—the governor, state school boards, and the legislature—which funds schools, adopts standards and curricular frameworks, administers special programs, sometimes reviews instructional materials, approves charter schools, establishes state accountability systems, and provides social supports for needy children
  • the federal government, which influences all these actors through the requirements of numerous federal programs such as the strict conditions that were mandated by the now-repealed No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Individual Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), or even the new more flexible Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)
  • poverty levels and range of social support systems
  • several more key stakeholders such as schools of education, textbook publishers, the research community, the blogosphere, think tanks, opinion makers, and political leaders

Any successful improvement effort must include strategies to improve the performance of each of these major stakeholders and, crucially, engage them in working toward a common goal. This requires a much more positive, comprehensive, and considered approach than the school reform community has offered thus far. An example of comprehensive policy can be found in Greatness by Design (2012), which was developed for California by Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction. He formed a prestigious commission chaired by Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the most respected school improvement researchers in the country, and Chris Steinhauser, superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District, which was designated one of the top districts in the world. The resulting policy document is a superb example of the more supportive and comprehensive strategy needed.

Another example of this more sophisticated approach is the excellent guide pertaining to professional development found in the Learning Policy Institute’s (2015) publication Maximizing the Use of New State Professional Learning Investments. An example of policy that addresses all the necessary components of reform at the district level is the Leadership Planning Guide California, which was produced by the California Consortium for the Implementation of the Common Core State StandardsThese topics are fully covered in Lessons Learned from Successful Districts.

Individual Reform Initiatives Are Based on Misguided Assumptions

Even when reformers’ Test-and-Punish and Choice, Charters, and Competition strategies are directed at weak leverage points, their individual measures must still succeed and avoid causing extensive collateral damage. Unfortunately, the specific measures in the reform playbook rely on discredited and faulty assumptions about the best ways to improve schools. This is why these individual reforms have produced limited or nonexistent results.

The rest of this article focuses on two of the faulty assumptions of the school reform movement: the belief that threats, pressure, and incentives work and the use of standardized math and reading test scores as the most important measures of student learning. For a detailed discussion of the lack of overall success of conventional reform initiatives, see Have High-Stakes Testing and Privatization Been Effective?

Threats and Pressure Are Not Effective

One major fallacy underlying the “reform” strategy is the flawed assumption that teachers and administrators do not care about improving educational performance and will not try to improve unless they are threatened or pressured by positive and negative incentives. This is often communicated in a politically seductive way: “It is unconscionable that many low-income students are failing. Schools and teachers must be held accountable.” Yet, while the sentiment is superficially appealing, pressure usually backfires.

Almost all school staffs want to do the best job possible. As professionals, they desire to perfect their performance and improve student achievement, but they do not necessarily possess the strategic or tactical know-how to accomplish those goals. Many work in extremely difficult school situations—bereft of capacity-building resources and student social supports such as health clinics, isolated from collaborating with other teachers, and lacking structures and techniques to help them grow professionally. The fear engendered by high-stakes accountability makes the situation worse by narrowing the curriculum, focusing on test preparation to the detriment of deeper learning, gaming the system, discouraging collaboration, and increasing widespread disaffection. A more productive strategy relies on a positive, engaging approach and concentrates on developing the leadership and infrastructure to bolster continuous improvement efforts of all teachers at a school.

The punitive strategy of Test-and-Punish has little evidentiary support and only meager backing from questionable research conducted by a few economists. For example, Milton Friedman and Eric Hanushek have argued that improvement will occur only if strong incentives push schools and districts to upgrade. Reformers have leaned heavily on those ideas—advocating the necessity of competition, consequences, and high-stakes evaluation.

However, the belief that positive or negative incentives work has been thoroughly discredited by a long history of findings that show such strategies do not produce improved student performance. In 2010, the National Research Council released Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education, a report edited by Michael Hout and Stewart Elliot. Hout and Elliot reviewed the research on incentives, specifically whether positive incentives such as bonuses for teachers or negative incentives such as threats of dismissal had any positive effect. They found that these policies did not produce improvements in student achievement nor bring about changes in instruction.

Fifty years ago, W. Edwards Deming warned of the negative side effects of an overreliance on evaluation strategies. Fear tends to make employees disengage, narrow their efforts, or game the system so they appear compliant. It diverts attention from and diminishes motivation to participate in developing cooperative teams and structures for continuous improvement. This ruinous situation is well known in the social sciences and articulated as Campbell’s law as explained by Diane Ravitch (2012):

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

A New York Times opinion piece by Robert Wachter (2016), a prominent physician, reinforces the point that emphasis on evaluation of teachers, or doctors, actually causes more harm than good.

Incentive Schemes Sabotage Collaboration

Specifically, reliance on incentive schemes hampers or diverts attention from collaboration—one of the main strategies for improving school performance. In fact, in The Missing Link in School Reform (2011), Carrie Leana argues that collaboration at the school site is the most powerful strategy for improving instruction. She found that instructional conversation and help from fellow teachers outweigh all other improvement initiatives. Professor Leana calls into question school reforms that pursue test-driven rewards and punishments. Since, according to Professor Leana, only about an estimated five percent of US schools are actually managed this way, the unrealized potential in expanding this approach far outweighs other strategies. Team building around powerful instruction and curriculum should be one of our major priorities. She also emphasizes that this approach requires:

  • training principals how to promote collaboration and holding them accountable for it
  • building the infrastructure to support instructional improvement and team building
  • striving to get more talented people into our schools
  • avoiding rhetoric and policies that make collaboration more difficult

Esther Quintero (2015), a management expert, has published a series of articles on the crucial importance of building social capital. In addition to being ineffective, pressure and illegitimate negative incentives lower morale and undermine positive working conditions at the school site—another key component of successful school improvement. A post by John Papay and Matthew Kraft (2015) summarized the research on the importance of a positive professional environment:

An emerging body of research now shows that the contexts in which teachers work profoundly shape teachers’ job decisions and their effectiveness. Put simply, teachers who work in supportive contexts stay in the classroom longer, and improve at faster rates, than their peers in less-supportive environments. And, what appear to matter most about the school context are not the traditional working conditions we often think of, such as modern facilities and well-equipped classrooms. Instead, aspects that are difficult to observe and measure seem to be most influential, including the quality of relationships and collaboration among staff, the responsiveness of school administrators, and the academic and behavioral expectations for students.

In conclusion, increasing accountability pressure on schools has not produced the promised results and has sabotaged the very collaboration and engagement necessary for improvement.

Standardized Tests Are Not the Best Measures of School or Teacher Quality

Another major defect in school reform thinking is the misplaced faith that a one-time annual snapshot offered by a multiple-choice test in math and language arts is the best, or even an accurate, way to gauge school or teacher performance. These widely used tests do have a legitimate role—if used sparingly. They can feed back to schools, districts, or even individual teachers identifying potential areas that need improvement or confirming that the school is on the right track. Standardized tests do give some sense of where a school or district ranks with comparable jurisdictions, and they do provide crucial sub-group information for low-income, minority, learning-disabled, or ELL students. But these expensive, ubiquitous assessments are one of the least useful measures for improving instruction and performance, and they come with huge educational costs, especially when they are tied to evaluation or reward schemes.

To begin with, testing only math and reading (and a smidgeon of science) ignores important areas of instruction—history, civics, humanities, the arts, physical education, and most of science. It also devalues other central aims of education. The result has been a considerable narrowing of instruction and a constricted view of educational purposes. For a broader perspective on educational purposes, see The Three Goals of Public Education.

Another limitation of these large-scale tests is that scores almost wholly mirror the income levels and special needs of a school’s students, which raises the question: “What is being tested?” Even within math and language arts, the end-of-year general tests currently used for school and teacher accountability usually emphasize limited, basic skills. Thus, the tests encourage teachers to neglect the deeper learning required for highly educated students, which can only be assessed by measures like essays, complex applications, and performances.

Moreover, there are much better ways to provide schools and teachers the data they need to improve instruction. Most teachers know how their students are doing. Utilizing teacher judgment of performance, enhanced by locally administered formative assessments, is a much more powerful strategy.

Essays, end-of-unit, and end-of-course tests, performances, experiments, certificates of mastery, projects, extracurricular activities, and portfolios are all more helpful than existing state or national tests. These authentic performance assessments provide a richer array of information that goes beyond content knowledge to application. They also assess important life skills such as perseverance, the ability to work in groups, communication skills, and self-monitoring. The Innovation Lab Network Performance Assessment Project at Stanford, the New Hampshire Performance Assessment Network, and the New York Performance Assessment Consortium are good sources of these types of assessments. Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleagues (2014) have written an excellent thought piece on the subject, and Stanford sponsors the Performance Assessment Resource Bank, which identifies the best K–12 performance tasks in math, English language arts, science, and history-social studies.

Regrettably, although formative, authentic assessments provide the best data to assist in improving instruction, conventional school reformers have not embraced them. There is the perception that the assessment instruments are not independent enough for high-stakes accountability. This may be due to a misplaced distrust of teachers and educators or because the assessments are viewed as too expensive, time consuming, and subject to manipulation. The new nationwide Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests, which many states gave in 2015, are an improvement from previous tests. Still, to provide a more accurate picture of student achievement, their results need to be substantially augmented by the classroom and school measures I’ve described.

More importantly, too much emphasis on tests for accountability purposes ignores other gauges of school effectiveness such as graduation rates, course taking, honors, extracurricular activities, career preparation, and student and teacher engagement. So whether or not test scores improve or lag, they only partially measure how students are doing, and they are not informative enough to sufficiently evaluate the effectiveness of schools or teachers. The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed in 2015, which replaced NCLB and Race to the Top, allows states to use a much broader array of assessment measures.

In Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph, Kristina Rizga (2015) chronicles how measuring school effectiveness by test scores alone can lead to harmful conclusions. Diane Ravitch reviewed Rizga’s book in “Solving the Mystery of the Schools” (2016) in The New York Review of Books. Ravitch comments:

Mission is a “failing school” because it has low test scores. When Rizga [the author] first entered Mission in 2009, it was one of the lowest-performing schools in the nation, as judged by standardized test scores. And yet, contrary to the test scores, 84 percent of its graduates were accepted to college, and other indicators were positive.

Rizga followed several students who had recently moved to the US and who consequently scored low on standardized tests while making substantial academic progress.

In her review, Ravitch explains:

One of the six students Rizga followed closely, an immigrant from El Salvador named Maria, asked her, “How can my school be flunking when I’m succeeding?” Maria arrived at Mission High School knowing no English. After only one year in the U.S., she had to take the same state tests as other students.

Kristina Rizga writes:

By eleventh grade she was writing long papers on complex topics like the war in Iraq and desegregation. She became addicted to winning debates in class . . . . In March 2012 Maria and her teachers celebrated her receiving acceptance letters to five colleges, including the University of California at Davis, and two prestigious scholarships.

Ravitch sums up:

Rizga devotes chapters to the students she gets to know well, who blossom, as Maria did, as a result of their interactions with dedicated Mission teachers. She also devotes chapters to teachers who devote themselves to their students with intense enthusiasm. What the teachers understand that reformers . . . do not is that human relationships are the key to reaching students with many economic and social problems.

Rizga realized that standardized test scores are not the best way to measure and promote learning. Typically, what they measure is the demographic profile of schools. Thus, schools in affluent white suburbs tend to be called “good” schools. Schools that enroll children who are learning English and children who are struggling in their personal lives have lower scores and are labeled “failing” schools. Hundreds, if not thousands, of such schools have closed in the past decade. . . .

Ravitch gives Rizga the final word:

Some of the most important things that matter in a quality education—critical thinking, intrinsic motivation, resilience, self-management, resourcefulness, and relationship skills—exist in the realms that can’t be easily measured by statistical measures and computer algorithms, but they can be detected by teachers using human judgment. America’s business-inspired obsession with prioritizing “metrics” in a complex world that deals with the development of individual minds has become the primary cause of mediocrity in American schools.

In conclusion, using test scores alone can easily misrepresent the performance of a school. Focusing on limited, basic-skills tests and attaching potential high-stakes consequences to them cause substantial harm to instruction, engagement, and student performance.

As discussed in Have High-Stakes Testing and Privatization Been Effective?, test-driven threats and incentives lead to narrowing of the curriculum, devoting inordinate time and resources to test preparation, concentrating on those students just below cut-points, gaming the system, and discouraging collaboration among teachers. This is all to the detriment of good instruction and deep, lasting student learning.

A Council of the Great City Schools (2015) report found that increases in testing time did not improve instruction but did cause significant collateral damage. For a heart-wrenching testament to the devastation done by the US obsession with test-driven education, read The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing—But You Don’t Have to Be by Anya Kamenetz (2015).

In 2015, President Obama and former secretary of education Arne Duncan issued a “mea culpa.” They cautioned against over-testing and the harm caused by too much attention to standardized tests. President Obama stated, “Learning is about so much more than filling in the right bubble,” and he called for “tests to be high-quality, a limited part of the curriculum, and just one measurement of a student’s progress.”

In a letter to Arne Duncan, Georgia state school superintendent Richard Woods aptly described our system of test-based accountability:

Our broken model of assessment is too focused on labeling our schools and teachers, and not focused enough on supporting our students. Our current status quo model is forcing our teachers to teach to the test. We need an innovative approach that uses tests to guide instruction, just as scans and tests guide medical professionals. Oftentimes, we hear teachers called professionals because they have the knowledge and skill set to reach the needs of their individual students, yet in our accountability measures we have not supported or given value to diagnostic tools and tests that teachers need to fully utilize that knowledge or those skills. We must find a balance between accountability and responsibility.

Resistance to over-testing has been gathering steam in many local districts and states and at the national level as exemplified in the spreading opt-out movement. Unfortunately, testing still looms large in the daily life of most teachers and students. Simply reducing the time devoted to the administration of standardized tests does not repair the damage caused by spending inordinate instructional time on test preparation, narrowing the curriculum, or the questionable use of test scores for high-stakes personnel decisions.

Recent Developments

7/30/2016 Consistent with the failure of pay for performance efforts in education, such schemes also are problematic for hospitals.

BBS Companion Articles

The Big Picture
The Three Goals of Public Education
Have High Stakes Testing and Privatization Been Effective?
How Top Performers Build & Support
Lessons Learned from Successful Districts

Reference Notes

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. London: Routledge.

Factors That Impact School Quality and Student Achievement
Tom Torlakson’s Task Force on Educator Excellence. (2012). Greatness by Design: Supporting Outstanding Teaching to Sustain a Golden State. California Department of Education.

Bishop, J., Darling-Hammond, L., & Jaquith, A. (2015, Nov). Maximizing the Use of New State Professional Learning Investments To Support Student, Educator, and School System Growth.

Consortium for the Implementation of the Common Core State Standards. (2013, Oct). Leadership Planning Guide California: Common Core State Standards and Assessments Implementation. California County Superintendents Educational Service Association (CCSESA).

Individual Reform Initiatives Are Based on Misguided Assumptions
Threats and Pressure Are Not Effective
Hout, M. & Elliott, S. W., eds. (2011). Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Gabor, A. (2014, Nov 15). Lessons for Education Reformers from W. Edwards Deming, America’s Leading Management Thinker.

Ravitch, D. (2012, May 25). What Is Campbell’s Law?

Wachter, R. M. (2016, Jan 16). How Measurement Fails Doctors and Teachers. The New York Times.

Incentive Schemes Sabotage Collaboration
Leana, C. R. (2011, Fall). The Missing Link in School Reform.

Quintero, E. (2015, May 21). Trust: The Foundation of Student Achievement.

Papay, J. P., & Kraft, M. A. (2015, May 28). Developing Workplaces Where Teachers Stay, Improve, and Succeed.

Standardized Tests Are Not the Best Measures of School or Teacher Quality
Tienken, C. (2015, May 7). Predictable Results.

Nehring, J. (2015, Aug 26). We Must Teach for “Range” and “Depth.”

Haq, H. (2016, Jan 20). Harvard Study Says SATs Should Be Optional. Here’s Why. The Christian Science Monitor.  In a Harvard Study, it has been shown that grades are actually a better predictor of college success than the state tests being used, or even SAT or ACT scores.

Innovation Lab Network Performance Assessment Project.

NH Performance Assessment Network.

New York Performance Standards Consortium.

Darling-Hammond, L., Wilhoit, G. & Pittenger, L. (2014). Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm. Education Policy Analysis Archives 22 (86).

Performance Assessment Resource Bank.

Rizga, K. (2015). Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph. New York: Nation Books.

Ravitch, D. (2016, Mar 24) Solving the Mystery of the Schools. The New York Review of Books.

Council of the Great City Schools. (2015). Student Testing in America’s Great City Schools: An Inventory and Preliminary Analysis.

Kamenetz, A. (2015). The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing—but You Don’t Have to Be. New York: PublicAffairs.

Serrano, R. A. (2015, Dec 17). Obama Proposes Capping Standardized Testing at 2% of Classroom Time. The Los Angeles Times. See also Emma, C. (2015, Oct. 24). Education Department: Too Much Testing, Partly Our Fault.

Downey, M. (2015, Jan 27). Georgia School Chief to Feds: Stop the “Measure, Pressure, and Punish” Approach. The Atlantic Journal Constitution.

Tucker, M. (2015, Oct 27). Too Much Testing in U.S. Schools: The Department of Education’s “Mea Culpa.”

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