Bellwether Partners, one of the nation's leading reform right-tilted thinky tanks, have created a new report big enough to deserve its own website. The Learning Landscape is an attempt to create a broad overview of the education biz right now, and while there is much to disagree with, it's a bold attempt and an impressive collection of data and stuff.
I've read this so that you don't have to, but be warned-- there are six big honking sections to this, so our journey will not be a brief one. It may not be a bridge too far, but it's definitely long enough to stretch over some Florida swampland.
Before We Start
Content aside, I will say this about the report-- somebody deserves a big bonus and a pat on the back for the layout and structure of this report. It is easily navigated, enormously readable, and actually takes advantage of some of the technological possibilities of a report on the internet instead of just taking a paper report and essentially scanning it into digital form. So kudos to whoever managed that. Now let's look at what the report actually says.
Chapter 1: Student Achievement
The fundamental problem with this chapter is the same old, same old-- we are saying "student achievement" when what we actually mean is "student scores on a narrow standardized test." The report hides the bad assumption behind this kind of language:
In recent decades, national focus has been on the performance of all students against state and federal standards as well as the relative performance of sub-groups of students based on race, gender, income, and other characteristics. Some tension exists among the levels of influence and control exerted by federal, state, and local goals, resulting in fragmented standards and measures of achievement across states.
Blah blah blah. This boils down to a series of false assumptions-- first, that the standards are a good set of guidelines for what students should achieve, and second, that tests like PARCC or NAEP are a good measure of those standards. There's no reason to believe that either of those assumptions are correct, and so we are left, once again, examining elephant toenail clippings as a proxy for determining the health of the entire jungle.
So let's keep that in mind as we soldier on through this chapter, which presents lots and lots of test data in handy chart form.
The conclusions here are mostly familiar.
Lots of students are reading and mathing below grade level. This remains unsurprising since "grade level" is generally a normed standard that means "average." It doesn't matter what you're measuring-- there will always be a whole lot of folks who come in below average, because that's how averages work.
US students don't do as well as lots of students in other nations. Bellwether loses points for not bothering to put this in context, which would show that US students have been coming in behind many other nations as long as the comparisons have been made. Bellwether earns some points for noting that when it comes to things like open-ended problem solving, US students don't do quite so poorly as they do on picking out the correct answers on bubble tests. Which skill do you think is more useful to students as individuals and us as a nation-- solving problems or bubbling in the correct answer?
Test scores--I'm sorry, "student achievement" have been steadily improving among all students but there is still a huge gap between poor students (aka "students who attend underfunded and poorly resourced schools while getting less support at home") and well-off students (aka "students who attend well-funded fully resourced schools while supported by families with hefty social capital").
Also, high school graduation rates seem to be up, and there is some variation in student achievement between regions of the country.
This is all old news, though the chapter has the virtue of charts and graphs out the wazoo, plus the use of "sidebars" which are extra background on things like NAEP that can be collapsed or expanded depending on your desire to wander down that side road. So there's data there to play with. I'd just argue that the data, well-laid-out as it is, doesn't really tell us anything useful about anything except test-taking skills.
Chapter 2: Accountability, Standards and Assessment
Here's a place where this report really fulfills its promise of a broad overview. Chapter 2 gives a succinct history of the current accountability movement, starting back with (sigh) A Nation At Risk.
This is a story viewed through a reformy lens. No Child Left Behind's accountability provisions have "shown modest effects on school performance." And the common refrain that NCLB testing programs somehow revealed troubled schools that had previously been hidden under a cloak of invisibility-- that story is here, too. But the report also notes the consequence of curriculum narrowing to meet testing demands, and criticisms of Common Core and testing are listed (though, of course, not treated as accurate parts of the true story).
We have some of the problems that common accompany these sorts of "reports." For instance, the report notes that "teachers consistently rank Common Core-aligned instructional materials as a top priority among supports and resources critical to ensuring successful implementation of the standards." That, however, is based on a piece of "research" conducted by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation. So, as reliable as research on the effects of tobacco conducted by R.J. Reynolds.
The report notes that, absent any really high quality CCSS materials, teachers are developing it locally. "Teachers are developing their own teaching materials" ranks somewhere below "sun rises in east" as news, and as I've argued before, mostly what we've learned is that it just takes a few strokes of paperwork or clicks on computer to "align" what we were going to do anyway with the Common Core.
But the report looks at the history of waivers and the current status of Common Core and Big Standardized Testing by state, and how those policies affected the disposition of failing schools, as well as considering what ESSA may bring. It's a somewhat tilted history, but in terms of a quick, brief summary of what has happened in this arena over the last thirty-one years, you could do worse.
Chapter 3: School Finance
I know. You don't want to read this chapter because it sounds boring, and you are correct. However, once again the report's authors have collected a lot of data in a smallish place. Where does the money come from? Where does it go? And how have those things changed over the past couple of decades?
This chapters is mostly numbers and charts, and the interest comes from how they're put together. Here's federal school spending charted against the GDP. Here's per-pupil spending broken down by state and by categories of spending, and corrected for different state level of costs. There's even a look at some of the lawsuits related to state education spending.
Yes, they spend a paragraph or two on things like the idea of having the funding follow the student, but that's admittedly an idea that's out there, and they do restrain themselves from outright endorsing it. And yes, the chapter includes the phrase "although charter schools are public schools" (no, they're not). But this chapter is mostly raw information.
Chapter 4: Teacher Effectiveness
Once again, we're in trouble from the very beginning because of how we define terms. Like "student achievement," the idea of "teacher effectiveness" is linked to terribly inaccurate and useless proxies. Ask a hundred parents what characteristics they look for in a great teacher for their own child, and I'll bet not one of the hundred says, "The most important thing to me is that my kid's teacher helps my kid get a good score on the PARCC."
Traditionally, federal and state policies regarding teacher employment and compensation have been structured primarily around input measures — favoring seniority and advanced credentials. But in the last several years, the conversation has shifted to focus on measuring outcomes and structuring incentives for teachers more prominently around performance. States and districts across the country have made significant changes to the way in which teachers are evaluated and to thinking and practice around how that data is used in personnel decisions regarding compensation, teacher support, tenure, and dismissal. These changes have not been without controversy, particularly related to linking high-stakes decisions for teachers directly to student test scores, and the debate is ongoing.
Well, yes. That is a remarkably understated way to put it, like saying that some folks feel that perhaps Donald Trump has a few potential weaknesses as President and there have been some debates about that. And it is perhaps equally significant that the report also refers to teachers as the "biggest economic driver" in the system. In other words, if you want the money to come rolling out, teachers are the piggy bank you must break.
There are some good charts here looking at the make-up and recent change in the teaching force (Hispanic teacher numbers are increasing, Black numbers are decreasing, and both are far too low). And-- Good lord!-- here's a chart showing that the percentage of teachers with no Bachelor's degree at all was already increasing in 2011-2012.
But now we're back to looking at increases in pay against increases in teacher effectiveness, a comparison that only makes sense if we can measure teacher effectiveness-- which we cannot do. And while the report acknowledges that back in the day, teachers needed real protection from dismissal for trivial reasons, it also suggests that nowadays all that job protection and pay scale stuff is just antiquated.
And now you know we're headed into the weeds because here comes TNTP's infamous The Widget Effect, a glossy piece of baloney that reformsters keep insisting is Really Important, even though it has no more substance or support than the average blog post.
The beef, as always, is that we should hire or fire, give raises or not, based on how effective the teacher is. School superintendents should be like the CEO of a company like Goldman Sachs or ENRON, where executives lose or keep their jobs based strictly on how good their performance is. I am not unsympathetic. As a taxpayer as well as a teacher, I actually agree with the general notion that taxpayers should have some sort of assurance that our money is being well-spent. But we do not have anything remotely resembling a useful instrument for measuring teacher excellence, certainly not the kind of excellence that taxpayers and parents have in mind when they say, "Boy, that teacher is excellent." What we do have is a system that fosters stability for the school and community, gives the teacher the protection needed to stand up to any of their thousand different masters when necessary, and provides the tools needed to get rid of bad teachers (provided administrators are willing to get off their butts and employ them).
But having driven into the weeds, we will now dig a deep hole under the weeds, crawl down into it and pull the weeds in over our heads, because this paper will now try to sell us VAM as a measure of teacher swellitude. I appreciate the paper's efforts to maintain a dispassionate, objective tone (keep thinking I should try that some day), but there is only one objective way to describe VAM, and that is as a failed statistical model designed for agriculture and discredited by every imaginable authority in the teaching and statistics field. You can go here or here, read and follow the links.
The report also notes that SLOs exist, which is probably the nicest thing that can be said about SLOs. We also mention observation and student surveys, and then move on to showing how various variations on teacher evaluation systems based on test scores have played out in the states.
The report than addresses some Fun Things To Try in the future. Maybe better professional development, since we've all pretty much come to agreement that prevailing model of traveling top down teach-the-teacher consultants isn't working for anybody (well, except the consultants).
And the report likes differentiated payment, which is a new term for merit pay, an approach that keeps requiring new terms to describe it because it doesn't actually work (though it can have the undesirable effect of making teachers competitors and destroying staff cooperation and collegiality). But reformsters like it because it reduces overall staff costs.
Then we're on to teacher training and recruitment, because as much time as we talk about finding ways to fire teachers, getting rid of teachers isn't really the problem most districts are facing. It's hard to get excited about firing someone form a teaching position when you can't even fill all the positions you have.
The report asserts that non-traditional teacher programs are just as effective as traditional programs, based on the same junk data that we've been using throughout this section. And now the report loses more credibility by citing a National Council of Teacher Quality report. NCTQ is the group that "evaluates" college programs (including some that don't actually exist) by looking at commencement programs and course catalogs. I can't think of any group in operation right now that less deserves to be taken seriously. But this report is also going to go on to seriously present the notion that we can start with students scores on a single standardized test, track those back to their teachers, and then track back to the teacher's college, thereby evaluating the college ed program. I can't believe anybody ever talks about this idea with a straight face.
And here's edTPA, the program for monetizing teacher licensure that is unproven in any way, shape or form, but which creates one more huge obstacle for non-wealthy students who want to go into teaching (though it has fostered a lucrative edTPA coaching industry).
Also, the report would like districts to recruit nationally (ignoring the value of teachers who are already connected to the community), and get into the messiness of intra-school transfers.
Oh, yeah-- and principals. School leaders are also super-important, and somebody should be building a pipeline to get more superstar administrators out there. The report itself cites the research that principals are turning over rapidly, and that many find the job super-complex, not to mention the difficulty in trying to make a school work when your board and community won't give you the resources to do it. This is one thing that the charter sector has totally figured out; that's why Eva Moskowitz makes more money running a charter system than Carmen Farina makes for running all of NYC schools, even though Moskowitz is working with a bare fraction of the students.
That's pretty much it for this section, highlighting the problem with a report that adopts a dry, academic tone. It can involve presenting things as absolutely reasonable that aren't, or suggest that various alternatives are equivalent that aren't. Some days I would just rather have people wear their biases on their sleeves so we can get right to the point of the discussion.
Chapter 5: Charter Schools
Well, sure. You knew this was coming.
There's once again a good pile of data here, looking at things like comparative laws and cities percentages of charter enrollments and breakdowns of charter students by race, as well as rates of charter increase for some areas.
Then we get into charter results, and again, I'm going to point out that "results" means "scores on narrow standardized tests" and I will argue endlessly that standardized test results mean bupkus in measuring student achievement and school quality. This report notes that "evidence on the quality of charter schools is mixed" which is putting it mildly. They use a lot of CREDO numbers, but of course the challenge here is not determining if Pat in the charter school did better than Chris did in the public school-- it's figuring out if Pat did better in the charter school than Pat would have done in the public school.
There are some interesting sidebars in this chapter, including a look at which city's charters do "better" and a look at why charters fail (based on the super-charter-loving Center for Education Reform report). But what I find most fascinating in this section is how the writers frame the entire charter sector--
The Charter School Bargain: Autonomy for Accountability
The autonomy part I can totally see. Charters have been exercising all sorts of autonomy. The list of rules and regulations and laws and ethical restraints that charters have operated free of would fill several websites. There's no doubt that charters have totally mastered the autonomy part.
But the accountability part? If that was supposed to be the deal, then we taxpayers have been totally screwed. Shall I link, once again, to the court case in which Eva Moskowitz successfully argues that the state auditor of New York has no right to see how she spent taxpayer dollars? Modern charters have actively, aggressively avoided accountability at every turn. And they are certainly not accountable to, say, a board of elected directors.
The Bellwether version of this is the free market contract model-- I open my charter with a contractual promise to achieve certain benchmarks with my students, and if I don't make those numbers, then I must face "credible consequences." The report acknowledges that for various reasons and expenses, persistently low-performing charters are being allowed to stay open.
The current solutions include automatic closure rules aimed at the schools themselves, and accountability laws aimed at the authorizers (the people who grant the charter in the first place). The latter is particularly useful because authorizers in many states make good money granting charters and zero money closing them down. States have tried a little of each. Nobody has any great successes to report back. Though the report doesn't go into this, but the current demand from absolutely everybody-- including charter fans-- that cyber charters be brought to heel may provide a model for how this could actually work. Right now, charters are mostly money factories, and the people reaping the benefits fight hard to keep the factory running.
The chapter includes a handy breakdown of different authorizing approaches-- a good primer if you're a little fuzzy on the issue. Followed by a breakdown of funding and capping practices across states. That's followed by some recommendations and "case studies" looking at particular cities. Massachusetts should raise its cap, NYC should be nicer to charters, and New Orleans did great with its "golden opportunity" of Hurricane Katrina. Didn't know there was anyone left who was willing to keep characterizing a disaster that killed almost 2,000 people and destroyed huge chunks of a city as a "golden opportunity."
Chapter 6: Philanthropy in Education
This is fascinating. Or maybe horrifying. But if you want to see where philanthropic dollars are going, and whose dollars they are, much of that is broken down in this chapter. Here's just a few tidbits.
Of the money "donated" to the K-12 edu-world, the top 25 donors gave 71% of the grants. Tops in that group is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with $210 million. That's 11.9% of the total given-- more than one dollar in every ten dropped into K-12 ed came from the Gates. The Waltons follow with $134 million. In the next tier we find W.K.Kellogg with $54 million and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation with $59 million.
The report also lists some receivers. The top grantees of 2012? Teach for America leads the pack with grants of $57 million. I'm stuck trying to figure out what they could have spent all that money on. Lobbyists? Ball caps with their logos? Recruitment beer parties with really good beer? Super-duper stationary? That's just so much money for a group that offers bare bones training and collects finders fees from the districts that hire their temps.
Anyway, that's a pretty fun list, too, even if it's back in 2012. Oh, look! There's inBloom getting $14.8 million in grant money. Too bad, guys!
So what can philanthropists shop for? Well, they can try to influence existing institutions, but they might be better off funding new, different, betterer institutions. Or they could fund new governance models. Or they could try to influence the public policy debate. Philanthropists have, of course, done all of this, including using charters, TFA, and other outfits like Broad Academy and Relay Graduate School of Education to create an alternate shadow education system for this country. And one need look no further than Bill Gates selling policy makers on Common Core to see philanthropists exercising their public policy debate muscles.
What can be gleaned from available research and data is that patterns of giving have shifted in recent decades to include more efforts to fund disruptive or innovative approaches, signaling a belief among funders that problems in K-12 education are not solely an issue of a lack of resources but also of a need to use existing resources differently. Increased reliance on data and “results-driven” philanthropic investment that create proof points for promising practices are hallmarks of some of the most prominent philanthropic efforts of late, as well as increased investment in research and advocacy efforts that can build knowledge, capacity, and political will to replicate proven models. Whether the application of “venture philanthropy” principles will have large-scale impact on public education as a whole remains to be seen, but what is clear is that funders can be strategic by clearly defining measurable objectives, building in accountability into grantmaking, and considering ways to scale impact (i.e., through research and advocacy) and sustainability.
Yes, that all sounds familiar. Well summarized, Bellwether.
This report is jam packed with data and largely free of hectoring. It's not necessarily good at distinguishing between reformster reality and everyone else's version of Planet Earth, but in terms of painting a board picture of what has happened and what is happening, it does a fair job. You just have to filter out the reformster bias. And some of this data is pretty interesting to peruse. Now, it may or may not all be accurate (see comments), but it still tells a story.
It actually reads a little bit like prospectus aimed at those very philanthropists, or maybe new baby wannabe philanthropists. That may be because the report was made "with support from" the Robertson Foundation, a private philanthropy outfit that makes "large, transformative grants" that targets "high impact grants" in environment, medical care and, of course, education, founded by hedge fund master of the universe Julian Robertson. But if you are interested in seeing what the education landscape looks like through a reformer lens, this makes a good one stop shop. And if you're a new philanthropist with money to burn, before you think too much about this, I have a bridge to sell you.