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Dear Neighbor,
This is my second Back to School newsletter this fall, based on based on Rethinking School Accountability: the report of the Senate Sub-committee on Opportunities Under ESSA, which I chair.  You can read it online, or ask me for a hard copy.  
The first newsletter focused on the funding leg of the 3-legged stool of the 1993 Education Reform's Grand Bargain.
This one focuses on the measurement/accountability leg of the 2010 reform, adopted largely in response to federal demands.
(I wrote about the third leg (charter schools) in 2016.)
Next week, I'll report on new opportunities to end destructive practices no longer required by the federal government, and to build a system based on what we've learned from decades of education reform.
Meanwhile, consider filling out the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's survey on what you would like to see in school report cards.

As Massachusetts fell farther behind in reaching a goal of equitable school funding, the federal governmentt was increasing pressure for more state and fed control.
In 2002, the federal government passed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act. It required much more testing.  Every child was expected to be proficient by 2014. Schools that didn’t meet annual targets faced increasing sanctions,
none of them actually proven to work.

By 2009, it was clear that the federal law was crashing.  Even in Massachusetts, more than 80% of Massachusetts schools were labeled inadequate under NCLB standards, “which flies in the face of common sense,” according to former Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester.

By this time, we were in the midst of a recession, and had been cutting Chapter 70.  All the states were desperate for help.  US Education Secretary Arnie Duncan offered millions of dollars in Race to the Top (RTTT) money to states that adopted his policies.  As with NCLB, these policies also had no evidence behind them. To get RTTT money states  had to adopt common standards (meaning Common Core) and common assessments, allow more charter schools, and tie teacher evaluation to tests.  They also had to turn around “low performing” schools using 1 of 4 interventions: replace half the staff, fire the principal; close; or give the school to a private operator).
Largely to qualify for Race to the Top, Massachusetts adopted the Achievement Gap Act (AGA) of 2010.  It included:
· No new state funding
· More draconian state action in low-scoring schools
· More charter schools
· More state control

The state did get $250m over 4 years, but only half of that went to local schools. And then it stopped.

To meet the federal requirement of allowing more charter schools, the AGA doubled the cap on charter school tuition payments in districts scoring in the “lowest 10% among school districts.”  The law gave the Commissioner of Education much greater authority to intervene in “underperforming” schools, which he could designate from among the schools in the “lowest 20%” based largely on MCAS scores.  As part of the turnaround process, the AGA allowed districts and DESE to change collective bargaining contracts and displace or terminate teachers and principals more easily.

The Commissioner could also label schools “chronically underperforming” if they didn't improve. For those schools he could appoint a receiver to run the school and change district policies or the teachers’ contract.
These policies, adopted to conform to federal requirements, failed to increase scores or to reduce the achievement gap.  The charts below show scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for Massachusetts 8th graders.  To the left of the yellow line are scores after the 1993 Education Reform; to the right are scores after the 2010 Achievement Gap law.  The first chart shows the gap between students eligible and not eligible for school lunch assistance; the second shows the gap between white and black students.

“There is still an iron-law correlation in the commonwealth between socioeconomic status and academic achievement. Despite our great  successes, we’ve failed.”
-- former Education Secretary Paul Reville, 2013
Paul Reville was director of Mass. Business Alliance for Education in 1993 and Education Secretary in 2010; helped write both laws. By 2013, he recognized that education reform was not seriously affecting the achievement gap. (His prescription is to look at the non-school factors, particularly poverty, that are barriers, and address them through coordinated services.)

The next chart demonstrates Reville’s point about the iron law of correlation. On the left are the districts with the lowest MCAS scores; on the right are those with the highest scores.  The bars show the percentage of economically disadvantaged students in the district.

The media and the public assume that test scores are a measure of quality education, but they are so highly correlated with income that they don’t reflect much about school influence.
“There are easier ways to measure poverty levels than by taking time away from instruction to give standardized state assessments.”
-- Ludlow Superintendent Todd Gazda
Wrong diagnoses lead to wrong remedies

Schools are labeled based on test scores, so not surprisingly the lowest scoring schools -- labeled as low-performing -- are those that educate the most challenging students.

All level 4 ("under-performing") schools are in the 10% of districts with the highest percent of students in poverty.  All level 5 ("chronically under-performing") schools are in the 5% of districts with the highest percent of poor students.

This chart shows the populations of the three level 5 "chronically under-performing" districts compared to the state.  Remember that they are all spending far less than the state average compared to their foundation budgets.
“Labeling urban schools as failing largely on the basis of student status measures can penalize communities for being inclusive, weaken fragile real estate markets, and further concentrate poverty.”
-- Ben Forman, Research Director, Mass INC
Inaccurate labeling of schools and districts hurts districts, schools, children, and communities.

MassINC wrote a report last year about Gateway Cities education. They found that when schools are perceived as low-performing, many parents with means leave the school or community, leaving a concentration of families in poverty. This increases the proportion of children with challenges, increasing school costs. But it also can lower property values and therefore the local revenue. This occurs even in Level 3 schools and districts, which are in the “bottom 20%.”

In many schools, especially those with low-income students and English language learners, the curriculum has been narrowed to a focus on those English Language Arts and math skills tested on MCAS, leaving less time for science, social studies, arts, recess, socio-emotional learning, and applied skills.

The state-mandated interventions in Level 4 ("under-performing") or Level 5 ("chronically under-performing') schools have had very mixed results.  Often the private "partners" selected to run the schools have failed.  The results of those interventions (massive teacher turnover, loss of valued programs, unstable leadership) have frequently been disruptive, but not in a good way.

Money can help with turnarounds
Districts with Level 4 schools are spending less than the state average, compared to the requirements of their foundation budget.
Until recently, being put into turnaround came with an average of $500,000 a year in federal funding for a school. They could use it to extend the school day, increase arts classes, or offer wraparound services for children. But if they succeeded in raising test scores, the money stopped.

Springfield's Superintendent Don Warwick explained to the Foundation Budget Review Commission that, in order to keep those services after turnaround, they had to cut from other schools. He argued instead for a reliable increased increment for low-income students so services could be provided without the label.
Warwick’s proposal is the key to developing an education policy that deals with the real challenges facing our students.  Schools can’t eliminate poverty or eliminate the barriers erected by poverty to getting a good education, but they can help – if we give them the resources.
Can we do better?
The 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was adopted in response to nation-wide frustration at federal over-reach.  The law removes some of the requirements that caused adoption of harmful policies.  The next newsletter will discuss some of our new opportunities.

I'd like to hear your thoughts.  So would the Department of Elementary and Secondary EducationFill out their survey about what you'd like to see in a school report card before September 28!

Copyright © *Committee to Re-Elect Pat Jehlen, All rights reserved.

Our mailing address is:
CTE Pat Jehlen, 67 Dane St, Somerville MA 02143

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