Solving the Mystery of the Schools

Cory Booker, then mayor of Newark, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg with eleventh-grade math students at the KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy, a charter school, September 2010
Gary He for Facebook
Cory Booker, then mayor of Newark, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg with eleventh-grade math students at the KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy, a charter school, September 2010

In recent years, American public education has been swamped by bad ideas and policies. Our national leaders, most of whom were educated at elite universities and should know better, have turned our most important domestic duty into a quest for higher scores on standardized tests. While it is true that students must do well on standardized tests to enter universities, few of the better universities judge students’ knowledge and ability solely by such flimsy measures. Thus it is puzzling why public officials have made test scores the purpose of education.

The heavy reliance on standardized tests in schools began with the passage of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001. The law mandated that every child in every school would take standardized tests in reading and math from grades three through eight and would achieve “proficiency” by the year 2014. No excuses. Even children who could not read English and children with significant cognitive handicaps would be expected to reach “proficiency.” Every state was left to define “proficiency” as it wished.

The punishments for not achieving higher test scores every year were increasingly onerous. A school that fell behind in the first year would be required to hire tutors. In the second year, it would have to offer its students the choice to move to a different school. By the end of five years, if it was not on track to achieve 100 percent proficiency, the school might be handed over to a private manager, turned into a charter school, taken over by the state, or closed. In fact, there was no evidence that any of these sanctions would lead to better schools or higher test scores, but no matter.

With these sanctions in mind, schools made intense efforts to prepare children to take the all-important tests. In some places, like Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and El Paso, Texas, teachers, principals, and superintendents cheated, changing the scores to save their jobs or their schools. Schools across the nation spent more time and money on preparing materials to help students pass tests and reduced the time for the arts, science, history, physical education, and even recess. Some states, such as New York and Illinois, manipulated the passing scores on the tests by lowering the definition of proficiency needed in order to demonstrate progress.

After Bush left office and was replaced by Barack Obama, the obsession with testing grew even more intense. Congress gave Secretary of Education Arne Duncan $5 billion in economic stimulus funds to encourage education reforms. Duncan released a plan in 2009 called Race to the Top, pledging that American students would be “racing to the top” of the international tables of comparative scores if they followed his policies.

In order to be eligible to compete for a share of that money at a time of deep economic distress, states had to adopt Duncan’s strategies. They had to expand the number of privately managed charter schools in the state; they had to agree to adopt “college-and-career-ready standards” (which were the not-yet-completed Common Core State Standards). They had to agree, moreover, to evaluate teachers in relation to the rise or fall of the test scores of their students; and they had to agree to “turn around” schools with low test scores by firing the principal, or firing all or half of the staff, or doing something equally drastic.

The standardized tests immediately became more important than ever. Some states introduced standardized testing as early as kindergarten to begin getting children ready for the big standardized tests that would consume their time in school from grades three through eight. The competition among the states was keen; everyone needed more money. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia changed their laws to make themselves eligible for Race to the Top funding; only eighteen states and D.C. won the money.

Duncan endorsed the premise of the No Child Left Behind Act that standardized tests are the best measure of student achievement; but he was upset that the fifty states each had its own standards and tests. Thus when several Washington-based groups (the National Governors Association, Achieve, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Student Achievement Partners) began work on national standards, Duncan cheered them on. Federal law bars any federal official from seeking to influence or control curriculum or instruction, and Duncan drew a fine line between his outspoken advocacy for the Common Core standards and his funding of Race to the Top. However, he did allocate $360 million to two consortiums of testing experts to prepare new tests for the Common Core State Standards.

As it happened, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent at least $200 million to pay for the writing and distribution of the standards. It also awarded millions of dollars to practically every influential national education organization to encourage them to support the standards, including the two major teachers’ unions, think tanks on the right and left, and civil rights organizations. Advocates for the standards claimed that they would make America globally competitive and would close the gaping test score gaps between white and Asian students on one hand, and African-American and Latino students on the other.

They didn’t know that this was true because the standards had been just written and never tried out, but they dutifully carried this message to the mass media and the public. Before long, a public backlash developed against both the Common Core standards and testing, in large measure because they were imposed with minimal public awareness, consultation, and engagement.*

Educators were overwhelmed in a short period of time by the mandates raining down on them from the state and federal governments. Early childhood experts complained that the Common Core standards were too academic for young children and that they squelched play and socialization. Kindergartners are expected to learn to read; experts say that it doesn’t matter when children start reading, whether at four, five, six, even seven. The five-year-olds are also supposed to master the conventions of capitalization and punctuation, even though many are just beginning to learn how to hold a pencil.

The standards created unnecessary controversy by setting an artificial division between the percentage of time students read either literature or “informational text.” In fourth grade, students are supposed to spend 50 percent of instructional time reading literature and 50 percent on informational text. By twelfth grade, only 30 percent of student readings should consist of literature, and the remaining 70 percent of informational text. No other nation in the world, to my knowledge, tells teachers what proportion of their reading assignments should be literature or nonfiction.

Independent researchers contended that the standards were two grade levels above the capacity of the students for whom they were written. No efforts were made to field-test the standards in order to see how they worked in real classrooms with real students and to learn whether they would disproportionately affect the test scores of students who were already at the bottom. The tests were designed with an absurdly high passing score, and in every state, a majority of students failed to meet the test-makers’ definition of “proficiency.”

In New York State, 220,000 students refused to take the state tests in 2015. This is called “opting out” of the test. A survey conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents sixty-eight urban districts, reported that the average student takes 112 standardized tests from pre-kindergarten to the end of high school, most of which are mandated by the federal government. The new online tests for the Common Core require children in grades three to eight to sit for fifteen to twenty hours over a two-week period to measure their reading and math skills. National opinion polls showed that a majority of parents thought there was too much testing in schools.

In response to such expressions of parental opposition, the Obama administration announced in late October that it was taking action to reduce the burden of standardized testing. Secretary Duncan issued a statement saying that testing was consuming too much instructional time and “causing undue stress for students and educators.” The one concrete proposal in the Obama “Testing Action Plan” was advice to states and districts to limit tests to no more than 2 percent of class time. Since most schools are in session 180 days a year for at least six hours a day, the limit translates to twenty-one hours of testing time. In other words, the 2 percent “limit” merely confirmed the status quo, while giving the appearance that the administration was making genuine changes. Nothing in the administration’s plan allowed states to drop the failed practice of evaluating the quality of teachers by the test scores of their students.

In early December, Congress passed and President Obama signed a new federal law, replacing Bush’s No Child Left Behind. It is called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which is another way of saying “no child left behind” (why Congress feels the need to put an unrealistic prediction into the title of legislation is baffling). Like NCLB, the new law requires annual testing of students in grades three to eight in reading and mathematics, but it turns this responsibility over to the states. ESSA prohibits future secretaries of education from meddling in states’ decisions and contracts the federal role in education. It also eliminates federal punishments for schools and teachers with low test scores, leaving those decisions to the states. What is not abandoned is the core belief that standardized testing and accountability are the right levers to improve education.

The best metaphor for education reform today is Dr. Seuss’s children’s book Yertle the Turtle. Yertle, the master turtle, forced all the other turtles to pile themselves into a very high stack so that he could survey his kingdom. From where Yertle sat, perched on top, everything looked grand and glorious. Those on the bottom were not experiencing anything but pain and frustration. When the pile collapsed, Yertle was brought back to earth and got his comeuppance. This will likely be the fate of the politicians, economists, and business leaders who decided to reform the nation’s schools, at a distance, without consulting working educators.

And thus we have two new books—Dale Russakoff’s The Prize and Kristina Rizga’s Mission High—that give readers the view from the top and the view from the bottom. They are both excellent. By sheer coincidence, the authors each spent four years embedded in the stories they report. Each learned different but not conflicting lessons.

Russakoff’s The Prize is a gripping story about a plan hatched by Mayor Cory Booker of Newark and newly elected Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey to turn Newark into a national model of education reform. Central to this hoped-for miraculous transformation was a gift of $100 million by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, matched by donations of another $100 million by other philanthropists who wanted to take part in a great adventure.

Russakoff was for many years a political reporter at The Washington Post, and she writes with wonderful clarity about a complex story that above all concerns politics—Newark politics, New Jersey politics, the politics of extracting large sums of money from very rich donors, the politics of rich white people imposing change on a suspicious African-American community. This is not to say that Russakoff neglects education, but the focal points of her story are the struggle for control of Newark’s $1 billion budget (“the prize”) and the struggle between would-be reformers like Cory Booker and the people of Newark, who wanted some say in what happened to their children.

Newark is the largest city in New Jersey, but one of the poorest. Its population contracted after the riots of the 1960s, and turned from majority-white to majority-black. Enrollment in its public schools dropped dramatically, as Russakoff shows. In 1967, there were about 77,000 students; currently, there are about 30,000, with another 13,000 in charter schools. More than 70 percent of families are headed by a single parent; 42 percent of children live below the poverty level; and the median income for families with children is less than $30,000. Newark’s public schools had abysmal test scores and graduation rates and were generally considered a failure, despite high annual expenditures.

Newark had one major attraction for the reformers. Its schools have been under state control since 1995. The governor had total control of the district, its budget, and its leadership. The district had been taken over by the state because of poor academic performance and pervasive corruption. But in the next fifteen years, the state had not gotten better results than the regime it displaced. Newark’s mayor since 2006, Cory Booker, wanted to uproot the school system and start over.

Booker had been raised in the nearly all-white suburb of Harrington Park, New Jersey, and had graduated from Stanford, Oxford, and Yale. He was a frequent guest on national television shows, and he moved easily among the rich, the powerful, and the famous. Russakoff describes a ride that Booker took with Governor-Elect Christie through Newark one night in December 2009, when they agreed to create a plan for a radical transformation of the Newark public schools. The confidential draft of the plan that Booker sent to Christie proposed turning Newark into “the charter school capital of the nation,” weakening seniority and tenure, recruiting new teachers and principals from outside Newark, and building “sophisticated data and accountability systems.”

In July 2010, Booker attended an invitation-only meeting in Sun Valley, where he mingled with fabulously wealthy hedge fund managers and high-tech entrepreneurs. There he met Mark Zuckerberg. Booker knew that venture philanthropists were looking for a “proof point,” a city where they could demonstrate the success of their business-style school reforms. He persuaded Zuckerberg that Newark was that city. Booker believed that a great education would set every child on the road out of poverty, and he also believed that it would be impossible to do this in the Newark public schools because of their bureaucracy and systems of tenure and seniority. That’s why he wanted to spend money turning the city into an all-charter district, without unions, where like-minded reformers could impose the correct reforms, like judging teachers by test scores, firing teachers at will, and hiring whomever they wanted.

That September, Zuckerberg, Booker, and Christie announced the gift of $100 million on The Oprah Winfrey Show, to tumultuous applause. When Winfrey asked Zuckerberg why Newark, he responded, “I believe in these guys…. We’re setting up a $100 million challenge grant so that Mayor Booker and Governor Christie can have the flexibility they need to…turn Newark into a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.”

As Russakoff points out, “What Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg set out to achieve in Newark had not been accomplished in modern times—turning a failing urban school district into one of universally high achievement.” Like other reformers, Booker earnestly believed: “We know what works.” Zuckerberg’s money would give him the chance to prove it. But while the media saw Booker as the “rock star mayor,” he faced a growing budget deficit and soaring violent crime when he returned from his frequent fund-raising travels.

Inevitably there was a popular backlash against Booker, who was perceived by many locals as spending too much time with his famous and rich white allies. The anti-Booker figure was Ras Baraka, son of the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka. Ras, a teacher and principal at Central High School, went to a black university, not the Ivy League.

In one of the classes Russakoff visited at Central, a young English teacher wrote a word on the whiteboard and invited students to write “whatever came to mind.” When he wrote the word “hope,” some of the responses were recorded by Russakoff:

Fourteen-year-old Tyler read his poem to the class:

We hope to live,
Live long enough to have kids
We hope to make it home every day
We hope we’re not the next target to get sprayed….
We hope never to end up in Newark’s dead pool
I hope, you hope, we all hope.

A boy named Mark wrote, “My mother has hope that I won’t fall victim to the streets./I hope that hope finds me.”

Khalif: “I hope to make it to an older age than I am.”

Nick: “Living in Newark taught me to hope to get home safe.”

Tariq: “Hope—that’s one thing I don’t have.”

After Booker and Christie accepted the gift from Zuckerberg, they began the search for matching funds and for a superintendent who shared their ideas about “reform.” It took them nearly a year before they found Cami Anderson, who had all the right qualifications. Although she was white and blond, she had grown up in a multiracial home; her domestic partner was African-American, as was her child; she had worked for Teach for America; and she was a rising star under Chancellor Joel Klein in the New York City Department of Education. Booker and Christie were particularly impressed with her toughness, a quality that was necessary in the job ahead of her.

Russakoff describes Anderson’s struggle to take control of the school district and impose reforms that outsiders loved and locals did not. The locals perceived her as an agent of the white philanthropists who had put up the money. She never won their confidence. In a city of deep poverty, she was making close to $300,000 a year, and she hired pricey consultants. Newark had a powerless elected school board, and locals insulted Anderson at school board meetings. She stopped attending them.

Christie persuaded the Democratic legislature to weaken tenure but not seniority rules. Anderson’s biggest accomplishment was negotiating a new contract with the teachers, which included performance pay and a new teacher evaluation system, as well as $31 million in back pay for teachers.

The most difficult time of Anderson’s tenure came when she imposed a reorganization of the school system that wiped out neighborhood schools and reassigned students across the district. The residents’ outrage boiled over as their children were assigned to distant schools instead of the one across the street. One father of five, accustomed to walking them to school every day, was furious when his children were assigned to five different schools in three different wards.

Students at Mission High School in San Francisco on the day of a forum for students citywide to discuss racial inequality and police brutality, December 2014. Organized by Mission High’s black student union and the NAACP, the panel included Michael Brown Sr., whose son was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, that summer.
Hannah Albarazi/Bay City News Service
Students at Mission High School in San Francisco on the day of a forum for students citywide to discuss racial inequality and police brutality, December 2014. Organized by Mission High’s black student union and the NAACP, the panel included Michael Brown Sr., whose son was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, that summer.

By the end of the story, Cory Booker has been elected to the US Senate; Chris Christie is running for president. Ras Baraka has been elected mayor, after using Cami Anderson’s reforms as his major campaign issue, and Anderson has resigned. There are now more charter schools in Newark. None of the reformers gave much thought to the majority of children who are not in charter schools, and not all of the charter schools are successful.

Mark Weber, an experienced teacher and graduate student at Rutgers, criticized Russakoff’s book for “creating a false picture of the reality of schooling in Newark.” Weber challenges her claim that Newark’s public school system “suffers from budgetary bloat.” He shows that charter schools spend more money on administration than public schools; he also disputes her belief that charter schools have more social workers than public schools. He commends Russakoff, however, for recognizing that the charter schools in Newark enroll a different, more advantaged student population than public schools, making test scores comparisons between them invalid.

The only one who seems to have learned from the experience is Mark Zuckerberg, who watched as his $100 million was drained away by consultants, labor costs, and new charter schools. The Newark experiment did not produce a “proof point” or a replicable national model. He must have recognized a cautionary tale about the importance of working with local residents and not treating them and their children as objects to be moved around heedlessly by outsiders. Russakoff writes that Zuckerberg and his wife, the pediatrician Priscilla Chan, determined to concentrate their future philanthropy on schools with comprehensive community-based social, medical, and mental services for children, beginning before kindergarten.

Unfortunately, Zuckerberg and Chan did not learn as much as Russakoff believed. They recently announced that they would celebrate the birth of their daughter Max by pledging 99 percent of their Facebook stock (worth about $45 billion) to a new limited liability corporation, with “personalized learning” as one of its goals. In the world of education jargon, “personalized learning” means computerized instruction, every child learning on a computer that recognizes and responds to the child’s strengths and weaknesses. This is actually impersonalized, machine-based instruction, and the research to date shows that it is not helpful to children.

The most valuable education emerges from live interactions between teachers and students, not from the algorithms built into computers to deliver scripted lessons. As a pediatrician who has worked in poor communities, and a graduate of Quincy High School in Massachusetts, Priscilla Chan should know better. Perhaps she will persuade her husband to redirect their fortune to the goals described by Russakoff.

Kristina Rizga is a journalist who covered education for Mother Jones (and has returned to its staff). After writing about education for several years, she decided to embed herself in a struggling school over a long period of time so that she could understand the issues better. The school that gave her permission to be a “fly on the wall” was Mission High School in San Francisco. It has 950 students with passports from more than forty different countries. Latino, African-American, and Asian-American students make up the majority of the students; 75 percent are poor, and nearly 40 percent are learning English.

Mission is a “failing school” because it has low test scores. When Rizga 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.

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 US, she had to take the same state tests as other students:

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.

But she received low scores on the standardized tests mandated by law, because of her weak English skills. Rizga saw Maria’s remarkable intellectual, social, and emotional development during her four years as an observer at Mission High. She often failed standardized tests, which seldom reflected her ability or potential. Eventually, as her familiarity with English improved, she scored well enough on the college entrance examinations to gain admission to a good college.

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 like Booker, Christie, and Anderson do not is that human relationships are the key to reaching students with many economic and social problems.

In contrast to Newark, Mission is a good example of bottom-up reform, where teachers work together and lead the changes that benefit the students. The principal of Mission, Eric Guthertz, has twenty-eight years of experience in urban schools. He encourages his teachers not to “teach to the test,” but to use a rich curriculum, hands-on projects, field trips, art and music classes, elective courses, and student clubs. In view of the diversity of the students, Guthertz believes in the value of such clubs as well as after-school programs, and extracurricular activities that teach important skills, like getting along with students from different cultures.

And yet Mission High School was said to be failing.

What Rizga learned is worth sharing. For one, she discovered that “there are too many politicians, powerful bureaucrats, management and business experts, economists, and philanthropists making decisions about the best solutions for schools.” In short, the people in charge don’t know nearly as much about schooling as the students and teachers they are trying to “fix.”

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. Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, closed fifty schools in a single day, despite the protests of parents, students, and teachers. Rizga writes:

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.

Rizga used to believe that education reform happens when struggling schools adopt models based on the experience and “best practices” of similar schools with high test scores or of other nations whose test scores are high. But she saw “firsthand how copying and pasting blueprints from other places doesn’t work.” Every school has a “unique ecosystem” and all children have individual personalities, interests, and needs.

Her advice should have been taken by Booker, Christie, Anderson, Zuckerberg, and the other Newark reformers:

Educational reforms won’t succeed unless there is greater inclusion of the voices of students and teachers and the use of more complex, school-based markers [instead of standardized tests] that can give us a much deeper insight into what quality education means and how sustainable change can happen in all struggling schools.

The authors of these two books demonstrate that grand ideas cannot be imposed on people without their assent. Money and power are not sufficient to improve schools. Genuine improvement happens when students, teachers, principals, parents, and the local community collaborate for the benefit of the children. But a further lesson matters even more: improving education is not sufficient to “save” all children from lives of poverty and violence. As a society, we should be ashamed that so many children are immersed in poverty and violence every day of their lives.

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    More information about the history of the controversial Common Core standards and tests is contained in Mercedes Schneider’s Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools? (Teachers College Press, 2015).