D.C. Schools: A Portrait of “Corporate Education Reform” Failure

21 Oct

This summer the National Academy of Sciences produced a lengthy report for the city of Washington D.C. documenting the effects of their 2007 Public Education Reform Amendment Act (PERAA).[1] It describes a system that has adopted the “corporate education reform” approach to improving public education. The report is a powerful set of data and observations that damn this genre of reform.

What is “Corporate Education Reform”?

In 1995, Louis Gerstner, CEO of IBM, attended the National Governor’s Association meeting and made an impassioned speech about the crisis in education and the critical and immediate need for national standards in education. As Mercedes Schneider explained in her book Common Core Dilemma, this was not a well timed call to arms. Liz Chaney had just finished destroying Bill Clinton’s national history standards, which made the subject of national education standards radioactive.

Gerstner wasn’t deterred. He hosted the 1996 National Governor’s Association conference at the IBM conference facility in Palisades, New York. This conference with the exception of 1 Asian man was an all white, all male conference made up of 49 CEO’s and 40 governors.[2] There were no educators involved.

The main outcome of this conference was the Governors established their own non-profit and non-governmental corporation called Achieve Inc. Achieve was tasked with promoting and writing national education standards. Gerstner was named Achieve’s chairman. Achieve Inc. subsequently supervised the writing of both the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. While Bill Gates’ Council of Chief State School Officers owns the copyright for Common Core, Louis Gerstner’s Achieve Inc. owns the copyright for the Next Generation Science Standards. In Dilemma, Mercedes Schneider summed it up, “No need to meaningfully involve teachers in changes that Achieve, Inc. had already decided needed to be instituted.”[3]

Former Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, is the first person I noticed calling this education reform movement led by super-wealthy business men with no education experience or training “corporate education reform.” It seems an appropriate appellation and as the D.C. schools report shows it is also misguided and damaging.

Key tenants of “corporate education” reform are: (1) Eliminate direct democracy (no elected school boards) (2) Evaluate teachers based on value added measures derived from standardized testing (3) privatize public education by promoting the charter school movement (4) make teaching a non-professional endeavor (5) use testing data to label public schools in poor and minority neighborhoods failures (6) use draconian turn-around models which require firing all the administration and at least 50% of a school’s staff (7) replace “failed” public schools with charter schools (8) destroy teachers unions and blame teachers and their unions for “failing” schools (9) promote standards based education and testing (10) apply merit pay schemes. This list could easily be extended.

Eliminate Local Control and Privatize

In 1995 and 1996, Bill Clinton in concert with Newt Gingrich and the Republican controlled house established charter schools in Washington D. C. and undermined the power of the elected school board. Of course the excuse was “failing” schools but that was not true. The schools might have needed some improved professional leadership, but it was the communities that were failing not the schools.

It is like the educator and commentator from Pennsylvania, Steven Singer, writes:

“Poverty is skyrocketing. It’s been on the rise for at least three decades, but since the economy collapsed in 2008, the ranks of the poor have swollen like an untreated wound left to fester and rot. …Claiming that education alone can resolve this problem is like saying all a starving person really needs is a fork and spoon. But that won’t help if he has nothing to eat!”

It is true poverty damaged students are not performing well on standards based tests, however, the Science Academy report shows that white students in the more affluent neighborhoods of D.C. are scoring above the national average. Schools in failing neighborhoods are being blamed for the fact that 73 percent of the students in D.C. live in unsafe impoverished neighborhoods.

Democracy time line

This chart from the report shows the attack on democratic processes in D.C. from finally getting democratic control over their schools in 1968 to complete loss of parental control with the passage of Public Education Reform Amendment Act. D.C. joined the other “corporate reform” cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York in establishing the mayor as czar of education significantly diminishing the effect parents and teachers have on education policy.

By 1995, D.C. schools were charging down the path of “corporate education reform” when Bill Clinton signed the D.C. school reform act introducing charter schools and establishing the charter school board. The growth of charter school privatization movement is startling with charter schools enrolling nearly 50% of D.C. students in 2015. From the report:

“… by 2014, the percentage was 44 percent. PCSB [Public Charter School Board] reports that there are approximately 100 individual charter schools, governed by 61 chartering organizations, which function as school districts, or local education agencies (LEAs). D.C. has one of the largest percentages of a city’s students enrolled in charters nationwide, and D.C. is viewed as a leader by proponents of charter schools.” Pg 31

With almost 50% of the D.C. students in charter schools governance in certain aspect of education is not possible. Originally, charter schools were supposed to be laboratories that were freed from the more stringent rules for public schools so they could try new ideas. However, when 50% of the students are in charter schools, parents, educators and administrators have no way of monitoring education practices or spending. D.C. functionally has 62 school districts. One for all the public schools and one for each of the 61 charter school management organizations that operate in private. As the report says:

“There are no standardized formats or definitions in charter schools’ budgets or audits, though the PCSB [Public Charter School Board] is making progress in this area. The adequacy study also commented on the difficulty of ascertaining charter facility costs. In addition, the charter management organizations’ accounts are not open to the public, and there have been cases of mismanagement.” (Page 72)

“Because each charter school is an independent local education agency, the charter sector did not (and does not) have any overarching strategy to improve teacher quality (or any other factor in education).” (Page 79)

This lack of accountability is costing the public schools money and at the same time there is no way to know how the charter schools are spending money especially when it comes to special education and second language learners. The structure of education in D.C. is failing special education students. From the report:

“In another DCPS [D.C. Public Schools] official’s view, the problem is that a charter school will receive all the required supplementary special education funds for a student while DCPS is still expected to provide supplements that a student requires, such as dedicated aides or home or hospital services. This official also noted that DCPS has no authority to address problems in charter schools: it can only report noncompliance to PCSB [Public Charter Schools Board] and to OSSE [Office of the State Superintendant of Education].” (Page 129)

“The U.S. Department of Education has recently reported that that D.C. is among the worst school systems in the nation in providing appropriate educational opportunities for students with disabilities, and it has the worst record of any state in the country for meeting federal special education goals.” (Page 131)

“Another city official we interviewed commented that “there is no monitoring arm for how LEAs [Local Education Agencies] serve the ELL [English Language Learners] population.” For example, this person noted, the city provides $4,200 in funds in addition to the $11,000 allocated under the uniform per student funding formula (an additional $6,000 is provided for each special education student), but there is no structure for monitoring what LEAs [Local Education Agency] do with these funds or determining whether they are addressing students’ basic needs. At the same time, charter schools have no consistent source of technical assistance or other resources, such as professional development, to help ensure that they are providing what English-language learners need. As a city official noted, “there is no way for people to know if they are doing it right.”’ (Page 133)

One of the largest problems created by the lack of cohesiveness between the charter schools and the public schools system is that students are being lost. These lost students become what Dr. Mark Naison has labeled “the Disposables.” Dr. Naison writes:

“They are the more than 90 million Americans of working age who are not in the labor force and do not have regular jobs.

“They are the millions of teenagers who dropped out or were pushed out of school in cities like Detroit and Memphis and New Orleans and Los Angeles and Chicago and have disappeared from view because the divisions between charter schools and public schools have made it impossible to develop a coherent strategy to make sure no child is lost.”

The report notes the D.C. schools have a “crisis in absenteeism” and a terrible graduation rate.

“D.C.’s public schools have had among the worst on-time graduation rates in the country. For the class of 2014, the overall rate was 61 percent, compared with the national average of 81 percent (Chandler, 2014d). For DCPS schools, the graduation rate was 58 percent—up 2 percentage points from the previous year; for the charter schools, it was 69 percent—down almost 7 points.” (Page 154)

“Nationally, for 2012-2013, the overall rate increased from 78 to 81 percent; for blacks it increased from 66 to 68 percent, and for Hispanic students it increased from 71 to 76 percent.” (Page 189)

The report also contained this nugget suggesting that charter school gains in test performance over time do not match public schools.

“The EDCORE analyses by sector also showed that, although both DCPS [D.C. Public Schools] and charter students showed improvement, the magnitude of the gains were higher for DCPS students in every year.” (Page 177)

Mayoral Control and VAM Evaluation

A central tenant of “corporate education reform” is to limit democratic processes by ending elected local school boards. Democracy is always more difficult to administer than authoritarian control from a centralized power like a mayor. Of course this means that parents and teachers will not have much of a voice (if any) in how their local school; is run, what it teaches or what its policies are. In 2007, the city of Washington D.C. completed its embrace of “corporate education reform” when the Mayor Renty assumed total control of all public schools. The report observes:

“The specific strategies that Fenty and the chancellor he appointed, Michelle Rhee, chose were prominent on the national reform agenda: an emphasis on improving human capital using recruitment, evaluation, and compensation of educators; data-driven decision making; more uniform standards across schools; and greater school-level accountability through the use of student testing and other indicators.” (Page 40)

Fenty chose a person with five weeks of Teach for America training and three years’ experience teaching first grade to be chancellor. It was an odd choice, but she was connected to the lawyer, Joel Klein, who Michael Bloomberg had selected to run New York’s schools. Mayoral control seems to always value political considerations over professional competence when selecting public school leaders. For example, in Chicago, Daly chose Duncan and in Los Angeles, Villaraigosa chose Deasy; neither man had significant professional credentials or experience in education.

The agenda chosen was straight out of the “corporate education reform” playbook. They blamed teachers and principals for poor testing and graduation results, they instituted teacher evaluations base in large part on growth models known as value added measures and they introduced merit pay for teachers and principals. Survival in the Rhee-Fenty schools would depend foremost on high stakes testing.

Education reporter, John Merrow, summed up Rhee’s tenure of just over three years running D.C.’s schools:

“Ms. Rhee made her school principals sign written guarantees of test score increases. It was “Produce or Else” for teachers too. In her new system, up to 50% of a teacher’s rating was based on test scores, allowing her to fire teachers who didn’t measure up, regardless of tenure. To date, nearly 600 teachers have been fired, most because of poor performance ratings. She also cut freely elsewhere–closing more than two-dozen schools and firing 15% of her central office staff and 90 principals.”

“For teachers, DCPS has become a revolving door. Half of all newly hired teachers (both rookies and experienced teachers) leave within two years; by contrast, the national average is understood to be between three and five years. Veterans haven’t stuck around either. After just two years of Rhee’s reforms, 33% of all teachers on the payroll departed; after 4 years, 52% left.”

For more than 100 years, political leaders have every few years proposed merit pay as a way to motivate good performance. This idea does not have a great track record in most industries, because it undermines unity of purpose. In education, it has been a total failure laced with fraud, but this does not stop “corporate education reformers” from insisting on merit pay. Rhee’s merit pay scheme, which pays bonuses of up to $25,000, led to a cheating scandal. Merrow’s report continued:

“Some of the bloom came off the rose in March 2011 when USA Today reported on a rash of ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures on standardized tests and the Chancellor’s reluctance to investigate. With subsequent tightened test security, Rhee’s dramatic test scores gains have all but disappeared. Consider Aiton Elementary: The year before Ms. Rhee arrived, 18% of Aiton students scored proficient in math and 31% in reading. Scores soared to nearly 60% on her watch, but by 2012 both reading and math scores had plunged more than 40 percentile points.”

After two decades of adopting the “corporate education reform” agenda, the D.C. schools are damaged. Curriculum has been narrowed by hyper-focus on high stakes testing, which only accurately identifies economic conditions in the neighborhood. With just 25% of students attending their local community school and many community schools closed these once pillars of community support have been toppled. Parents have no effective place to bring grievances and experienced professional educators have been pushed out in favor of new hires, many of whom are unqualified Teach for America replacements on temporary contracts.

All this disruption and still the outcomes from the D.C. schools are some of the worst in the nation. They still have an attendance crisis and a graduation crisis. Their scores on NAEP [National Assessment of Education Progress] testing is still at the bottom of the nation. The problem is not the schools or even the misguided “corporate education reform.” The problem is rampant and unaddressed poverty in the neighborhoods of our nation’s capital. The problem has never been our public schools; it has always been poverty.

  • “National Research Council. (2015). An Evaluation of the Public Schools of the District of Columbia: Reform in a Changing Landscape. Committee for the Five-Year (2009-2013) Summative Evaluation of the District of Columbia’s Public Schools. Board on Testing and Assessment, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.”
  • Schneider, Mercedes. Common Core Dilemma “Who Owns Our Schools?” Teacher’s College Press, New York and London, ©2015 by Teacher’s College, Columbia University.
  • Ibid.

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