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I write about Israel-Palestine issues only occasionally, because the onslaught of e-mails and comments calling me a self-hating Jew can be emotionally overwhelming. It’s also difficult to weather the respectful but strident disagreement from some friends and members of my family, who consider me insufficiently pro-Israel because I support the international community moving with deliberate speed to pressure the Netanyahu administration to end the occupation and create a viable Palestinian state. (This position, I might add, is a relatively centrist one common among Jewish Israeli writers and activists; many well intentioned folks further to the left support a “single-state solution” that would soon make Jews a minority within Israel.)
This debate can get nasty. So I am somewhat in awe of my colleague* Peter Beinart, who seems to be made of stronger stuff than I am. I can only imagine what Beinart has experienced over the past few weeks, as the New York Times published his op-ed in favor of what he terms “Zionist BDS”—a boycott movement targeting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank; the Daily Beast launched Open Zion, Beinart’s new group blog featuring voices who oppose the occupation; and Times Books published his bracing new polemic, The Crisis of Zionism.
Beinart attends an Orthodox synagogue and sends his children to Jewish day school. Even the most cursory reading of his work reveals his critique of Israeli policy is motivated not by antipathy toward the Jewish state, but by an unwavering commitment to liberal Zionism: the belief that Israel should protect minority rights and conduct itself according to Jewish social justice values. Indeed, Beinart has been criticized from the left for opposing the occupation too much because it threatens Israel’s liberal, democratic character, and not being outraged enough about the displacement and subsequent statelessness of Palestinians. I disagree with this critique; Beinart writes unflinchingly about the massacres of Palestinian Arabs that accompanied Israel’s founding. His identification with Fadel Jaber, a Palestinian father unjustly arrested for “stealing water,” frames the entire book, and The Crisis of Zionism concludes with a call for liberal Jews to ally themselves with the Palestinian nonviolence movement. But it’s worth noting Beinart is hearing pushback from all sides.
The Crisis of Zionism is a fundamentally moderate book, in which Beinart grapples seriously with Israel’s security situation. He notes that the majority of former heads of the Israeli army and Mossad, as well as a respected Israeli military historian, all believe an independent Palestine to Israel’s east would not pose an existential security threat to the Jewish state, and that continuing the occupation presents a grave risk to Israel’s safety, democracy and international reputation.
Nevertheless, Beinart has been called a “self-hating Jew” by public relations guru Ronn Torossian, an American Jewish philanthropist. In an interview with Tablet magazine, Beinart’s former New Republic boss, Martin Peretz, accused Beinart of being “narcissistic” and “a very vain man” for writing in a heartfelt way about the leftward drift of his views on Israel; in the same Tablet article, The New Republic’s longtime literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, accused Beinart of writing The Crisis of Zionism in a rush and for cynical reasons, only because his 2010 New York Review of Books essay on “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” (to grapple with the occupation) was “a hit.”
Most frustratingly, a host of hostile reviewers of Beinart’s book seemed unable to consider his argument on its merits. Their biases clearly left them ill disposed to absorb the array of historical facts, demographic statistics and contemporary, insider reporting Beinart musters up to support his observation that in 2012, the ever-expanding occupation is the cause of the continuing conflict, not the result of it—and that since the death of Yitzhak Rabin, a succession of Israeli administrations have failed to negotiate with the Palestinians in good faith.
These contentions are far less controversial in Israel than they are in the United States, which is why Beinart’s book is pitched toward us, American Jews. Though the majority of American Jews are progressive Democrats who support the creation of a Palestinian state, the most influential American Jewish philanthropists, activists and lobbyists hold more conservative politics aligned with Israel’s right-wing Likud party, and they actively work to prevent American presidents from acting as honest brokers to end the occupation.
While most American Jews identify with liberal, labor Zionism—kibbutzim, gender equality and the social safety net—the Netanyahu government and many of its American supporters subscribe to revisionist Zionism, an ideology that celebrates military expansion and the oppression of Palestinian Arabs as the paths toward rebuilding Jewish pride and even masculine virility in the wake of the Holocaust.
Beinart accurately diagnoses the central challenge for the twenty-first century international Jewish community: how to come to terms with “the shift from Jewish powerlessness to Jewish power.” In other words, if Jews do not learn to wield our newfound military, political and economic strength ethically—showing the same concern for Palestinian and Arab-Israeli minority rights that we hope gentiles will show for Jews—then we, as a people, have failed to learn the painful lessons of Jewish history.
What I found most revelatory about The Crisis of Zionism was the way in which Beinart appeals not just to Jewish political liberalism, but also to our faith. The holy books of Judaism are filled with portents about what happens when Jews abuse power, Beinart notes. After Persia’s Jews toppled Haman, the anti-Semitic royal advisor, they slaughtered 75,000 people in retribution; our texts recount that both the Babylonian and Roman destructions of Jewish empires came in the aftermath of Jewish moral decadence. “Our tradition insists that physical collapse was preceded by ethical collapse,” Beinart writes.
I don’t agree with everything in The Crisis of Zionism. As a writer who focuses mostly on how to improve public education, I cannot support Beinart’s argument that American Jewish liberals should revive their children’s attachment to Judaism and to Israel by enrolling them in private Jewish day school. Most American Jews are commited to the communitarian elements of secular, public education, and rightfully so: We know from a growing body of research on “peer effects” that all children learn more when college-educated parents (like the majority of American Jews) send their own children to diverse public schools, instead of opting out of a system that needs their support to thrive. Nor is it necessary for Jews to attend day school in order to absorb arguments in favor of marrying within the faith or raising children as Jews; I attended public school and certainly hope to raise any future children of mine in a Jewish home.
But I am grateful for this book. Younger American Jewish writers like myself, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, Spencer Ackerman and Kiera Feldman have been writing for six years about our increasing alarm regarding the Israeli occupation, only to be derided as the “juice box mafia” by our elders. Beinart is a lot harder to belittle. He is the former editor of The New Republic—a magazine not exactly known for progressive foreign policy positions—and an observant Jew who once supported the Iraq war. He has demonstrated an admirable ability to rethink his opinions in the face of evidence, and as a member of Generation X, he serves as an ideal interlocutor between younger Jews and our Baby Boomer parents, many of whom continue to see Israel through the rose-colored glasses of their own youth, when the Jewish state was far less established and more threatened by its neighbors than it is today.
If the Jewish establishment will not be moved by the anguish of Palestinians, nor by the protests of Jewish young people, perhaps it will heed this warning from the Book of Jeremiah, which Beinart so aptly quotes: “If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow; and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt: Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever.”
* Beinart and I are both affiliated with the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC.
In her groundbreaking 1988 essay “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,” the elementary school teacher cum theorist Lisa Delpit dismantled some of the pieties of progressive education. Deliberately unstructured teaching strategies like “whole language,” “open classrooms,” and “process, not product” were putting poor, non-white children at an even greater disadvantage in school and beyond, Delpit argued. Instead, she suggested teachers should explicitly “decode” white, middle-class culture for their low-income students, teaching them Standard English almost as if it were a foreign language, for example, and introducing math concepts through problems with cultural resonance for disadvantaged kids, such as calculating the probability that the police will stop-and-frisk a black male, as compared to a white male.
In the years since the publication of “Silenced Dialogue” and the 1995 book it inspired, Other People’s Children, the standards-and-accountability school reform movement rose to prominence. Its focus on closing the achievement gap through skills building echoed many of Delpit’s commitments, but she found herself troubled by the movement’s discontents. Many low-income schools canceled field trips and classes in the arts, sciences and social studies, for example, in order to focus on raising math and reading standardized test scores. Now Delpit is responding in a new book, “Multiplication is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children. (The title quote comes from an African-American boy who, bored and discouraged by the difficulty of his math assignment, proclaimed the subject out-of-reach for kids like himself.) “I am angry that the conversation about educating our children has become so restricted,” Delpit writes in the introduction. “What has happened to the societal desire to instill character? To develop creativity? To cultivate courage and kindness?”
Here, in an interview with The Nation, Delpit discusses the intelligence of poor children, how she would reform Teach for America, and why college professors should be as focused on closing the achievement gap as K-12 educators are. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
In your new book, you write that since Other People’s Children, some of your ideas have been misinterpreted and used to argue in support of a drill-and-kill type pedagogy. But if skills are important, what’s wrong with a “basic skills” curriculum?
One cannot divorce the teaching of basic skills from the demands of critical thinking; having kids question what is in newspaper articles, even question what is in textbooks. One of the things I talk about in Multiplication is that I once visited with some students who were at an Afrocentric school. I asked them what the difference was between their school and regular public schools. These middle-schoolers told me they couldn’t just accept what was in books, they could argue any point if they gave sufficient and clear arguments supporting their position. That, I believe, is what we need to aim for, that children bring their minds to school and not just their ability to regurgitate facts.
You are critical of researchers who focus on the deficits low-income children bring from home into the classroom; for example, there is the frequently cited finding that poor children hear only 3 million words annually at home, compared to the 11 million words children of white-collar professionals hear. These findings are considered uncontroversial. Why do you find this research problematic?
I happened to be in a room a few years ago with a researcher—a very good researcher—who had looked at similar kinds of work and had come to a similar kind of conclusion. While we were in the meeting, I made a list of words I knew many 3- and 4-year-old low-income, African-Americans kids would know—like “po po” [slang for “police”]—but it was unlikely she would know. I gave them to her, and she looked at me like, are these really words? It dawned on me then that one of the problems is that if you don’t know the culture, you may not know what words kids do know. Granted, they may not be words that would be validated in school, but it may be the case that children’s vocabularies are greater than we anticipate.
It is definitely true that children of non-college-educated parents are likely to have less school-based vocabulary. The issue is what do we do about it. Many researchers, in their attempt to get rid of the achievement gap, have said, Well, what we need to do is to make sure that the preschool and kindergarten teachers help kids learn a lot more vocabulary. But what they kept finding was there was a washout later on. It was hard to find a program you could put in preschool that would continue to have an effect in fourth or fifth grade. The point is, you can’t stop in preschool or kindergarten, because it’s not like the college-educated parents with cultural capital are stopping their education of their children at home. Schools have to continue intensive development.
[Some educators believe disadvantaged children] shouldn’t go on field trips and do music because they have to do basic skills. That is said without understanding that it is through all those experiences that kids develop the knowledge and background information kids of college-educated parents already have. You can’t just sit in the classroom and teach basic skills and assume kids are going to be developing the rich knowledge they need in order to read complex texts later on.
I love the example you write about and just mentioned, of the 5-year old girl who, when she sees a police car drive by her classroom, says she isn’t going to let the “po po” mess with her.
The problem is that it’s not viewed as intelligent but as evidence of deprivation. It should be looked at as the intelligence of a child learning from his or her environment in the same way a child from a college-educated family would.
You are critical of Teach for America, writing that too many of the program’s recruits are white, that they don’t stay in the classroom long enough to perfect their teaching skills, and that they are too often ignorant of the social contexts in which they teach. How would you reform TFA?
There’s a model from the 1970s called the Teacher Corps, which is one we need to look at again. They actually had teachers living with families in a community. We may not be able to do it as deeply as they did, but we certainly can have new teachers visiting houses of worship, community organizations, and spending time in afterschool and daycare programs so people can get a deeper knowledge of who it is they’re teaching.
In the last part of the book, you describe why college can be an alienating experience for disadvantaged kids. What is your advice to colleges that want to increase the graduation rates of their low-income, non-white students?
I would love to see some professional development in which university professors spend time looking at how to diversify whatever they’re teaching to include other cultures. One of the activities I sometimes bring audiences is, I ask them to think about an explorer, a famous writer and a famous mathematician. Then I go back and ask them to write down a famous Chinese explorer, a famous African mathematician and down the line. What you end up with is the first list is usually all white and male, and the second list has no answers in it.
You frequently reference your daughter’s educational experience. She attended nine schools in ten years in the search for a good fit. Is there something about education you learned through motherhood that you didn’t know before?
Everything! There is something very different about trying to move any system yourself, with your own child. I was blessed with a child who was not school-sensitive. She was also a kid who would have been diagnosed with ADHD. Just yesterday I was speaking with a teacher who said she had three kids who just looked blank all the time when she was talking with them. I knew that was something my child would do. In the early grades, every teacher would say to her, “Earth to Maya!”
Some kids are bright kids, but whatever’s going on in their mind is so interesting compared to what you’re doing, it may appear they have totally blanked out. That is something I was able to assess more readily by having understood how Maya’s mind works.
Educators and policy-makers from twenty-three nations gathered in New York this week for the second International Summit on the Teaching Profession, hosted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The purpose of the summit was to identify effective reforms for improving teacher quality. Notably, the research paper released in conjuntion with the event showed that compared to the United States, other nations put little faith in student test scores as a measure of teacher quality; the phrase "value-added," for example, never appears in the 103-page report. Instead, top-scoring nations like Finland and China have focused on improving training before teachers enter the classroom, and on making education a more attractive career choice by providing teachers with opportunities to participate in curriculum writing, group lesson planning and other professional activities alongside other adults.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten attended the summit. Here are her reflections on what the United States can learn from international education reform efforts, which she also had the opportunity to observe firsthand on a recent trip to Shanghai, Japan and Singapore. The interview has been consensed and edited for clarity.
“Cooperation” and “trust” were big buzzwords at the summit. Everyone talked about teachers working together, and with administrators, to actively improve instruction and curriculum. Do you think American reform efforts do enough to collaborate with teachers?
What is similar is the focus on how to ensure teachers are the best they can be, and how teacher evaluation has to be more than a snapshot, more than a principal coming in once a year. A lot of countries have focused on career ladders, student learning and teacher peer review, and those are elements of reform proposals that we and our managers have made [in some American schools]. Take Singapore. They have a teacher evaluation system that does include student learning measures. What is really different is that, except maybe for Chile, testing is not the centerpiece of these other nations’ accountability systems for teachers. Instead, testing is the centerpiece of an accountability system around children. In other nations, kids see tests as consequential. In the United States, teachers see student tests as consequential, but the kids don’t see it.
What do you hope Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his staff will take away from the summit, having heard that very few other nations are pursuing teacher reform strategies that are as test-driven as the kinds of reforms the Obama administration incentivized through Race to the Top?
I just hope they listen. I never doubt—and I know this will be controversial—but I never doubt their wish and hope and aspiration for transforming America’s educational system to ensure that there is both excellence and equity for all children. I don’t doubt them for a second. But it’s about the hows. The president is a very smart guy and he focuses on evidence. Here you have a lot of evidence about what works in other places.
America always pivots between collective responsibility and the idea that the individual can pull himself up by his bootstraps. What you see is that in education, you have to understand this notion of systems rather than individuals. Creating teacher capacity, teacher efficacy and climates of trust are what enable all kids, rather than just some kids, to learn. If you want equity, you have to have a system that focuses on it.
There was a real consensus at the summit. When nations were reporting their plans, you heard the buzzwords of collaboration and trust, of retain, recruit, support. You didn’t hear market solutions, competition, things like that.
One remarkable difference between teacher reform in the United States and teacher reform elsewhere is that American reformers like Joel Klein often speak about tearing down the barriers to becoming a teacher, while in other nations, it’s actually quite difficult to get into the classroom. In Shanghai and Finland, for example, all teachers must student-teach in the classroom of a mentor teacher for a full academic year. Why is the American debate on teacher preparation so different than the debate abroad?
I have great respect for [Teach for America founder] Wendy Kopp, but we unfortunately think about teaching sometimes as temporary work, or this is our public service work for a few years, as opposed to this being a serious profession. Nobody thinks about this for doctors or lawyers or architects. The disrespect comes in the idea that anybody can do it. At the same time, in Singapore and Japan there are a lot of entry points into teaching, but you still have to really be prepared. You can get your degree in almost anything, but then, if you haven’t gotten your degree in education, you have to be trained. It’s a much higher bar. They don’t just throw people the keys and say, “Okay, do it.”
What did you learn on your recent trip to Asia?
Teachers who work really hard there were much more focused on the art and craft of teaching than they were on all the things that, in the United States, teachers focus on. They’re not as much surrogate moms and dads and guidance counselors, but they are really more instructionally focused. There is a climate in these countries that education really matters, and kids and parents buy into that. That’s a real difference that one sees when you’re in Finland and when you’re in Asia. Teachers are to be respected.
In every previous American budget crisis, teachers have had to do more with less. Most of the time teachers are lionized for that. But this is the first time that during a budget crisis, with 300,000 fewer teachers, teachers were actually vilified for the mere fact that they were teaching during this period of time. And you never see that in any of these other countries. Even countries where you have some real debate about educational philosophies, there’s not the blaming and shaming of teachers that you have here.
In Singapore, very few people opt out of public education, very few people send their kids to private schools. There is a real sense of systemic responsibility, as opposed to asking individual teachers to take full responsibility.
You visited a high school in Shanghai that had undergone something akin to what we call a “turnaround” in American education reform.
Yes. They really focus on fixing schools, not closing them. We spent an afternoon in Shanghai at one of the toughest neighborhood schools that has turned around. The principal had his teachers speak far more than he himself spoke about the kinds of practices they do. Teacher engagement and adult relationships are really important. Teachers were very engaged in students’ lives and in the students’ success, and the school did provide a panoply of other services, like access to health care and counseling. It was the closest thing I saw to what we plan to do in our West Virginia project, or something like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. Those “wraparound services” we talk about all the time were as much a part of the strategy as instruction.
How were Asian instructional practices different?
In Singapore, the schools were fairly well funded, and what you saw was really a very interesting way to teach math. I’m such a stereotypical female learner in that I love social studies and love literature, and I always struggled with math and science. In Singapore they spent a lot of time with young kids teaching math spatially, so kids would see forms and would actually try to conclude which was larger or smaller by looking at diagrams.
And they were using technology in a very interactive way. They were using whiteboards, laptops, and some of the kids had tablet whiteboards with them. Teachers had technology in every classroom, but they were using it in a way where it wasn’t just a shiny object. The teacher was the center of the lesson; the technology wasn’t driving the lesson.
In Japan, we saw a school that appeared to be in a fairly middle-class prefecture, as well as a school that was in a poorer prefecture. In the high school that was in the poor prefecture, you didn’t see whiteboards, you saw blackboards. You saw more traditional ways of teachers teaching. But you still saw tremendous engagement and kids really focused on learning.
Many American education experts are fascinated by Japanese “lesson study,” in which teams of teachers work together to create lesson plans and test them in the classroom. Did you observe that?
Yes. [Japanese educators] were really honest about how they spend a lot of time with each other, trying to figure out how to teach. They’re proud of the time they spend collaborating. It's part of the work of getting better, and they build collaborative time into the schedule.
At the summit, did you get the chance to ask your international colleagues what they thought of New York City releasing teacher value-added scores to the media?
My colleagues are as horrified by it as Bill Gates was. People who want schooling to get better understand what a counterproductive mistake this is. I fought, as you may recall, using this value-add data as a basis for evaluation or for any kind of tenure decision. It was a big, big fight up in Albany. And I fought against it because we knew value-added was based on a series of assumptions and not ready for primetime. But back then, we didn’t realize the error rates could be as high as 50 percent!
None of the other countries use test scores to evaluate teachers. They use portfolios, demonstration lessons, peer processes. There are multiple ways of trying to assess, “Have I taught it and have kids learned it?” But very few countries are as fixated on student testing having a consequential effect on teachers’ lives. Student testing is very consequential for students.
So how do we shift the education reform conversation in the United States to better reflect the best international practices?
I think the first thing we have to do is move off the test fixaton. Top-down, test-driven accountability as a salvation has not proven to work. People will say, “Oh, she’s anti-accountability.” But I’m for making sure teachers can really teach and for multiple measures to assess teachers, like peer review, self-reflection, administrative review and assessment of student learning. But right now there are a disproportionate number of points [in many teacher evaluation systems] allocated to test scores.
The president gets a lot of credit for saying in his State of the Union, “Let’s not teach to the test.” NAEP [the National Assessment of Educational Progress] scores from the last decade had a better rate of growth than in this decade, and that says a lot about the effects of top-down, test-based accountability. We have to get away from that concept. I think if there’s a reset button where we get away from that, we can unleash creativity. We can unleash the Common Core, we can work on teacher quality through what we know works: cooperative environments. Then I think we’ll have a different conversation in America.
Judging by the applause lines at GOP campaign stops and debates this winter, a significant segment of the Republican electorate understands public education not as a crucial civic institution, nor as a potential path from poverty to the middle class, nor even as a means of individual betterment. Instead, this coalition of religious conservatives and extreme tax-cutters prefers to vilify public schools—and actually, pretty much any traditional educational institution, including liberal arts colleges—as potential corruptors of the nation’s youth; as unwanted interlocutors in that most sacred relationship: the one between a child and her parent.
It is a curious thing, because with some 90 percent of American children enrolled in public schools, there must be significant overlap between the consumers of public education and the approximately one-third of Americans who describe themselves as Tea Party–type conservatives. Never mind: It is clear that in the American political economy, there is nothing unusual about a voter hating and resenting a government program even while relying heavily upon it.
Rick Santorum’s presidential bid looks increasingly quixotic as we head toward Super Tuesday. He clearly represents only a minority of the Republican base. But what his surge made clear is that there was appeal in appointing a sort of national standard-bearer for the culture war against mainstream education, perhaps because anti-government voters could look up to Santorum, a homeschooling father of seven, as a man who actually lives their values. Disdain for schools has been everywhere in Santorum’s rhetoric, from his ad nauseam boasting about his own family’s homeschooling; to his assertion that government-run public schools are "anachronistic;" to his complaints about comprehensive sex education; to his counterfactual claim that President Obama is “a snob” who opposes vocational training and wants all Americans to be “indoctrinated” by liberal college professors.
In his now-infamous February 24 anti-college rant, Santorum likened parents to God, and children to unformed souls in some idyllic Eden—souls who must be prevented from biting the apple of wicked, corrupting knowledge. “I understand why [President Obama] wants you to go to college,” Santorum said. “He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.”
In order for parents to have unfettered access to their children’s minds, government must get out of the way. During the February 22 GOP debate in Arizona, Santorum advocated shutting down not only the federal Department of Education but perhaps state departments of education too. “I think the state governments should start to get out of the education business,” he said, “and put it back to the…local [level] and into the community.”
At the same debate, Ron Paul declared, “Once the government takes over the schools, especially at the federal level, then there’s no right position, and you have to argue which prayer, are you allowed to pray?” Newt Gingrich has praised President Obama’s support for charter schools, and once toured the country alongside Mike Bloomberg and Al Sharpton to advocate for national school reform. But in Arizona he promised to “dramatically shrink the federal Department of Education down to doing nothing but research, return all the power…back to the states.”
Mitt Romney alone defended No Child Left Behind, and the idea of federal school improvement efforts more broadly.
Twelve years ago, George W. Bush and John McCain both ran for president as aggressive, accountability-driven school reformers. McCain revised the act in 2008. So it is worth considering what has changed politically to leave Romney out in the cold on these issues among the serious GOP contenders, and pausing to remember just how reactionary the other candidates’ proposals were.
Prior to the civil rights movement, the federal government indeed did very little to provide oversight of American schools, just as Santorum et al. propose today. The ethos of local control dates back to the colonial era, when schools were run by villages, churches and ad-hoc neighborhood organizations. The rise of the Common Schools movement in the 1830s guaranteed most children an elementary education and led to the opening of thousands of new schools, but did little to regulate them.
The problem with localism was that it left millions of poor, non-white and special-needs children drastically underserved and undereducated. As late as the mid-1970s, for example, only one in every five disabled kids was enrolled in public school. So the federal government stepped in with new regulations and funding intended to flow directly from Washington to the neediest children. There were three policy landmarks: The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed de jure school segregation; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which provided hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding for the education of poor children; and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975, which established a federal funding stream for special education.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter created the Department of Education to coordinate Washington’s new role. Today the DOE has an annual budget of some $70 billion, most of it filtered through ESEA and IDEA.
The idea of dismantling this civil rights apparatus is not new. After the backlash against school busing, Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980 promising to shutter the DOE. But he was met in Washington by bipartisan panic about the Soviets and Japanese out-educating the United States, especially in math and science. To satisfy national security hawks, Reagan appointed a national commission to research American schools; the result of its work was the “Nation at Risk” report of 1983, which declared the American education system failing and inaugurated the standards-and-accountability school reform movement.
All of this culminated in 2001 with the passage of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. Rick Santorum voted for NCLB. During his 2006 Senate campaign, Santorum even bragged to a special education advocacy group that he supported $7 billion in new health and education funding—exactly the type of federal spending he opposes today. But none of this made Santorum unusual in the Bush-era Republican Party. Bush’s claim of “compassionate conservatism” was built in large part on the argument that school choice and accountability could be levers for social mobility. Republicans in Congress—led by John Boehner, then chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce—lined up behind Bush, at first reluctantly but then with increasing fervor. Some became true believers in the idea that standardized testing mandates could substitute for a full-bodied anti-poverty agenda, and would make American workers more competitive in the global marketplace.
All that was before the Great Recession, before budget shortfalls swept the states, and before the rise of the Tea Party, with its animus toward almost all government social programs. Throughout the 1990s, Christian Right activists like Michele Bachmann had argued that public schools were dens of iniquity, where kids were indoctrinated to use condoms, respect religious diversity and question American moral superiority. In 2010, the Tea Party swept some of these culture warriors into office, and their electoral success profoundly influenced the GOP presidential field. The new class of Republican freshmen pressured their Congressional elders to reject bipartisan education reform, with its squishy promise to improve the lot of the poor, and instead use austerity as an excuse to reverse federal education mandates, returning power to states and school districts where local “values” could triumph.
Ideological fervor is often tamed in the byways of the Capitol. Since closing the DOE and denying the nation’s schools billions of dollars of promised funding would be politically unpopular and logistically disastrous, instead House Republicans have advanced a spate of proposals that would allow local school administrators to redirect ESEA and IDEA funds away from poor and disabled children and toward the general student population. This is a severe attack on the federal government’s already limited ability to enforce fairness for populations that desperately need supplemental educational services.
At the state level, a priority of the education culture warriors is to halt the adoption of the new national Common Core curriculum standards in math and English; the South Carolina legislature is considering a bill that would do so. Another priority is providing homeschooling parents with tax credits, and lowering the age of compulsory schooling from 18 to 16—despite evidence that raising the compulsory schooling age, a policy President Obama proposed in his State of the Union address, actually leads to higher lifetime earnings.
Republican governors like Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels continue to subscribe to broader, Bush-type education reforms. Charter schools and private school vouchers remain popular throughout the party, and if Romney finally clinches the GOP nomination and faces off against Obama, perhaps the center will hold in education policy; the two men have fairly similar approaches to the issue. But then again, there is pressure from the left, as well: from parents wary of too much standardized testing, from teachers’ unions weary of shouldering all the blame when poor children don’t succeed and from pedagogical progressives who want to empower local educators to create curricula, instead of relying on state or national standards.
There are few mainstream Democrats standing up for these ideas, because they do not comport with President Obama’s agenda. Strangely, it is Newt Gingrich who articulates this critique of federal school reform. “We bought this notion that you could have Carnegie units and you could have state standards and you could have a curriculum. Everybody—every child is unique,” he said in Arizona. “Every teacher is unique. Teaching is a missionary vocation. When you bureaucratize it, you kill it. We need a fundamental rethinking from the ground up.”
The New York Times and WNYC are preparing to publish online the “value-added” ratings of 12,000 New York City teachers—an estimation of each teacher’s impact on his or her students’ standardized test scores in math or English.
Value-added, a tool developed by economists, is highly controversial, and the Times and WNYC acknowledge the measure is volatile. (To read about how value-added scores are calculated in New York, click here.) For math teachers, the margin of error in estimating a teacher’s impact on students’ test scores could be up to thirty-five points on a 100-point test; for English teachers, the margin of error could be up to fifty-three points. A state court ruled against the United Federation of Teachers’ attempt to prevent the city from releasing the data to news agencies.
In 2010, the Los Angeles Times created an online database of value-added scores, searchable by teacher name. Ever since, the question of whether to publicly release such reports has split the standards-and-accountability school reform movement. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and federal Secretary of Education Arne Duncan support publication with names attached. But yesterday, Bill Gates wrote a Times op-ed arguing that although value-added is a useful tool when combined with more holistic evaluation methods, such as classroom observation, he opposes releasing individual teachers’ value-added scores to the public, calling publication a “shaming” device. Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp is also on the record opposing publication.
For what it’s worth, I agree with Gates and Kopp: value-added is a promising tool, but must be further refined and deployed with extreme caution. My friends at GothamSchools, the best indepdendent news source for the New York City public schools, have decided not to publish the data reports with names attached, citing value added’s high volatility from year to year, as well as questions about the reliability of New York’s standardized tests, on which the value-added scores are based. The GothamSchools team also points out that teachers who earn high value-added ratings may be teaching to the test.
Stephen Lazar, a Brooklyn public school English and social studies teacher, has published a list of what value-added can’t measure:
They don’t tell you that last year I taught 100% of our juniors who are special education students and/or English Language Learners, even though I only taught 50% of our juniors. They also don’t tell you I requested these most challenging students.
They don’t tell you that I spent six weeks in the middle of the year teaching my students how to do college-level research. I estimate this costs my students an average of 5-10 points on the Regents.
They don’t tell you that when you ask my students who are now in college why they are succeeding when most of their urban public school peers are dropping out, they name that research project as one of their top three reasons nearly every time.
They don’t tell you which of my students had a home and a healthy meal the night before the test.
Lazar’s whole list is worth a read, and reminds you just how difficult—and difficult to measure—a teacher’s work is.
The Occupy movement is planning a March 1 national action around educational inequality, and if protestors are looking for inspirational reading, they should head over to Harper’s and devour Christopher Beha’s gonzo account of enrolling at the Jersey City campus of the University of Phoenix.
The for-profit college serves half a million students online and at 200 real-world campuses across the country. It earned $4.5 billion last year, the majority of it from federal student loans. Supporters of Phoenix’s business model argue that if the United States is to live up to President Obama’s ambitious goal of every American completing at least one year of post-high school education or training by 2020, massive, private companies like Phoenix will have to be involved. But as Beha demonstrates in his devastating piece, the “education” Phoenix provides does little to improve the life outcomes or professional options of its students, about three-fifths of whom drop out within a year of enrolling, saddled with student debt and with no degree to show for it. Introductory Phoenix courses, with names like “Foundations of University Studies,” are stultifyingly content-free—except for the fact that they seek to further inoculate students with the ideology of “college for all.”
I am going to quote Beha’s piece at length, because this section is stunningly on-point:
Four straight hours in any classroom will get tedious, but four hours in a classroom engaged in the recursive process of discussing motivation, goal-setting, and the other skills needed to survive four hours in the classroom is particularly numbing. The students in GEN 195 could have been forgiven for coming to believe about college what they had likely already felt about high school, which is that it was a thing to be endured, not incidentally but essentially, that endurance was the quality being tested and cultivated. And to some extent, they would be right. Even more than critical thinking or time management, what the white-collar economy requires from most workers is the ability to spend the bulk of their waking hours completing tasks of no inherent importance or interest to them, to show up every day, and to not complain overmuch about it. Most of my classmates were working full-time, tending to families at home, doing their coursework where they could, and once a week going to class from six to ten at night. Entirely absent from those classes was any sense that learning could be exciting, or even valuable for its own sake, and absent this sense only the strongest-willed could stick with such a schedule for four years.
The strain became clear in our third week, when we went over the midterm exam. The test was multiple choice, open-book, untimed, and fair. Dr. Price had gone to great lengths to emphasize this last point. “I get student evaluations after each class, and the one thing everyone says is that the tests may be tough, but they’re fair.” She went so far as to print out these student evaluations and pass them around the room while we reviewed. It was an oddly defensive gesture, especially since she’d had nothing to do with the design of the exam, which would be taken that year by tens of thousands of GEN 195 students taught by thousands of facilitators in forty states.
The test was made available on the course’s website after the end of our second class and was due before the beginning of our third. Beforehand, we were given a study guide that listed the exact pages in the reading from which the questions would be taken. Typical questions included: “College is important today because: a) New technologies are changing the workplace; b) It provides earning power; c) It prepares citizens for leadership roles; d) All of the above.” As soon as we submitted the exam it was graded and the score was posted back to us.
The results were demoralizing.
Indeed, most of Beha’s classmates lacked the basic reading comprehension skills to pass the exam. What these adults need is less an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, and more a crash course in basic literacy. Alternatively, they could learn a skilled trade. As I noted in my 2011 Nation feature on the future of vocational education, about two-thirds of the jobs that will be created in the American economy between now and 2018 will require some education beyond high school, such as an occupational certificate, but will not require a college degree. Many of these “mid-skill” jobs provide a good, middle-class income: think aircract mechanics, dental hygenists, and electricians. Yet most Phoenix programs provide no hands-on technical training.
The for-profit education industry has a powerful lobbying arm in Washington and in statehouses around the country. Unlike public community colleges and state universities, for-profits spend a significant portion of their revenues marketing themselves to young people in subway cars, on billboards, and with catchy TV advertisements like this one:
The Obama administration has taken some preliminary steps to rein-in this sector, but has caved on certain crucial reforms; for-profits should be required to keep public records of their graduation rates, loan default rates, their students’ employment outcomes, and other measures of success. But the federal and state governments should also rein-in tuition increases at public colleges and do a better job of educating high school students about why those schools are often a smarter bet. Raising the quality of the K-12 education system would also help solve the problem, by ensuring that fewer students graduate high school without the skills they need to complete more rigorous college-level coursework.
Future site of the Teachers’ Village development in downtown Newark, New Jersey
Yesterday Newark Mayor Cory Booker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and several private developers and investors—including Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein—converged on a vacant lot in Newark’s historic downtown for the groundbreaking of Teachers’ Village.
The mixed-use development, a project six years in the making, will include expanded space for three existing public charter schools and a private pre-school; 200 moderately priced apartments reserved for Newark public, charter, and private school educators; and space for retail establishments, including restaurants and possibly a supermarket. The project’s designer is the Newark-born architect Richard Meier, best known for the Getty Center in Los Angeles and, locally, the all-glass luxury condominium building at 1 Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.
The $150 million, eight-building project was largely publically financed, with support from federal, state and city governments. Its progress is evidence of Booker and Christie’s continuing cooperation, across party lines, on a school reform agenda focused on the expansion of the charter school sector. New Jersey civil rights organizations and teachers’ unions have criticized the state’s charter schools for serving a lower proportion of special-needs and English-language learner students than traditional public schools, and have cautioned against the risk of neighborhood schools turning into warehouses for the least-advantaged children. Politically, the Teachers’ Village concept could help Booker and Christie neutralize such critics by placing school reform in the broader context of urban revitalization supported by education advocates from across the ideological spectrum.
The project’s lead developer, RBH Group president Ron Beit, said clustering housing for teachers from charter, public and private schools would encourage “socializing and the exchange of ideas.… It’s like an artists’ enclave or a technology cluster for businesses, but here it’s for teachers.” Rents have been calculated to fit teachers’ budgets, at about $700 for a studio apartment, $1,100 for a one-bedroom, and $1,400 for a two-bedroom.
While those prices may seem like a bargain just twelve miles from New York City, they are actually typical for downtown Newark, which still has many abandoned buildings and few retail options serving middle-class consumers. Teachers are attractive tenants compared to the neighborhood’s current, mostly low-income residents; they are educated and middle-class, and a survey of Newark teachers conducted by RBH Group found enthusiasm for housing options with shorter commute times and proximity to restaurants, movie theaters, bars, museums and shopping. If developers can lure hundreds of teachers to downtown Newark, there’s reason to believe higher-quality retail options—and with them higher rents and bigger profit margins—will follow.
But given central Newark’s continued struggle to revive, are teachers ready to move to the neighborhood? The RBH Group survey found that currently, just 19 percent of Newark teachers live in the city proper; 29 percent live in the New Jersey suburbs; 19 percent live in New York City; and 10 percent live in Jersey City. As in many American cities, the uneven quality of Newark’s public schools may be keeping teachers from enrolling their own children in the district. The best way to convince Newark teachers and other middle-class professionals to live in the city might be to focus less on building teacher-specific housing and more on overall school improvement efforts across the city, in both charter and traditional public schools.
Newark is not the first city to experiment with workforce housing for teachers, and to combine such projects with a standards-and-accountability school reform agenda. Baltimore’s Miller Court includes forty teacher apartments, 70 percent of which are rented by Teach for America recruits. In Los Angeles, the Glassell Park complex combines a district pre-school with affordable housing for teachers and other community members.
Another model is an attempt to increase parents’ involvement with their children’s education by co-locating schools with housing reserved for low-income families. Using a mix of public and philanthropic dollars, the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society runs four full-service children’s centers within public housing projects in the neighborhoods of Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy and Brownsville. The centers include pre-schools and family support services, and the Society partners with city social service agencies to identify which children living in public housing are most in-need of early academic enrichment.
Of course, this type of project lacks the potential profit-making upsides of market-rate housing for middle-class teachers.
In general, I was underwhelmed by the education sections of President Obama’s State of the Union address, which were long on platitudes and short on honest talk about the difficulties of implementing school reform.
Most notably, the president made an odd and surprising proposal to make dropping out of high school illegal before the age of 18:
We also know that when students aren’t allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. So tonight, I call on every State to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.
Obama has, thankfully, done more than his predecessor to focus attention on underperforming high schools. George W. Bush’s signature education bill, No Child Left Behind, put most of its emphasis on fourth and eighth grade test scores in just two subjects, reading and math, while Obama’s school turnaround programs include support for so-called “dropout factories,” high schools with a graduation rate of less than 60 percent. The administration has focused, however, on fostering management reform in those schools, by turning them over to charter-school chains or replacing their principals and teaching staffs. It seems to me, however—and to many innovative high school educators—that one can’t really address the drop-out crisis without making school much more engaging for low-income teenagers, whether or not they show an inclination toward making it to and through a four-year college. This means dealing head-on with curriculum, not just tinkering with how teachers are hired and fired, and by whom.
So before we make dropping out of high school a crime for either students or the schools that let them go, we might try offering teenagers high-quality, relevant vocational education, through programs that link students to employers in their area. I profiled a few great models in this article, all of which demonstrate that “career and technical education” can coexist with a college-preparatory curriculum for all students. And though it can be politically difficult to talk about the life outcomes of students who are unlikely to graduate college, it is crucial that we do so. According to research from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, about a third of the American jobs created between now and 2018 will require an occupational certificate, but not a four-year college degree. President Obama knows this, which is why he spoke tonight about turning community colleges into “community career centers.” The truth is, high schools should also be offering career and technical education programs that ready students for the job market.
Then there was the section of the speech on teachers. Obama said:
Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.
I applaud the president’s effort to support accountability for teachers while dialing down the sometimes nasty rhetoric about the profession. (See: Chris Christie.) Obama was clearly tipping his hat to the teachers’ unions when he said schools should “stop teaching to the test;” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten responded with a series of enthusiastic tweets and a press release.
But here’s the rub: what Obama didn’t say is that he supports using student test scores to judge which teachers are effective. His administration has tied significant financial incentives to that priority, so states and districts are scrambling to create many more standardized tests to evaluate each and every teacher, including teachers of nontraditional subjects such as art, music and physical education, as well as teachers in the early grades, right down to kindergarten.
Many teachers’ unions have agreed in principle to these reforms, but the devil is in the details. Does President Obama believe multiple choice tests are the best kind of assessments, or will his Department of Education finally publish detailed guidelines that help states develop more sophisticated assessments? It can be difficult to balance test-based accountability with the sort of “creative, passionate” teaching the president says he supports, especially if teachers are so worried about raising test scores that they teach-to-the-test or—as we’ve unfortunately seen around the country—cheat, or are pressured by administrators to do so. In fact, in an acknowledgment of this problem, the Department of Education announced last week that it will host a symposium on best practices to root out adult cheating in public schools.
It’s also worth noting what the president did not say. He never mentioned No Child Left Behind and did not call on Congress to reauthorize the embattled legislation. This was also the first time President Obama failed to mention early childhood education in a State of the Union address, an interesting omission given David Brooks’s late interest in the topic, a perennial progressive favorite. Of course, widely expanding access to quality day care and pre-K would require a massive increase in state and federal education spending, which certainly won’t happen in the current political climate.
Update: For more on the economic research behind Obama's proposal on raising the age of compulsory schooling, click here.
Last month, economists at Harvard and Columbia released the largest-ever study of teachers’ “value-added” ratings—a controversial mathematical technique that measures a teacher’s effectiveness by looking at the change in his students’ standardized test scores from one year to the next, while controlling for student demographic traits like poverty and race.
Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff analyzed the test scores and family tax returns of 2.5 million Americans over a twenty-year period, from 1989 to 2009. The team concluded that students who have teachers with high value-added ratings are more likely to attend college and earn higher incomes, and are less likely to become pregnant teens.
In a rare instance of edu-wonk consensus, both friends and skeptics of standardized tests are praising the study as reliable and groundbreaking. Indeed, these findings raise several interesting questions about how to evaluate and pay teachers—one of the most controversial topics in American urban politics. In his annual State of the City speech last Wednesday, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg cited the new research as he promised annual bonuses of up to $20,000 for teachers rated “highly effective,” based partially on value-added measures and partially on principals’ judgments. In a move that befuddled many casual observers of the education debate, the New York City teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, immediately opposed the proposal.
If we now know teacher effectiveness has a real, measurable impact on both student academic achievement and life outcomes like teen pregnancy, why aren’t teachers’ unions supporting plans to pay teachers with high value-added ratings more money? Pundits like Nick Kristof and the Daily News editorial page have jumped in to claim that the new research justifies merit pay plans like Bloomberg’s, and the one instituted by former chancellor Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC.
The policy implications of the Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff paper are, however, far from clear. As the researchers note in their conclusion, their study was conducted in a low-stakes setting, one in which student test scores were used neither to evaluate nor pay teachers. In a little-noticed footnote (#64) on page 50, the economists write:
even in the low-stakes regime we study, some teachers in the upper tail of the VA [value-added] distribution have test score impacts consistent with test manipulation. If such behavior becomes more prevalent when VA is actually used to evaluate teachers, the predictive content of VA as a measure of true teacher quality could be compromised. [Emphasis added.]
The importance of this caveat cannot be overstated. As I’ve written in the past, there is evidence of increased teaching-to-the-test, curriculum-narrowing and outright cheating nationwide since the implementation of No Child Left Behind, which put an unprecedented focus on the test scores of disadvantaged children.
Despite these concerns about testing, the United Federation of Teachers has agreed in principle to a new evaluation system that depends in part on value-added; a similar system, after all, is already in place for determining whether teachers earn tenure. Negotiations between the union and the city are stalled not because, in the words of the Daily News, the union has “placed protecting the jobs of incompetents over the future financial well-being of children,” but because the union would like teachers who receive an “unsatisfactory” rating under the new system to have the right to file an appeal to a neutral arbitrator. Currently, the city Department of Education determines whether to hear appeals of teacher evaluations, and it rejects 99.5 percent of the appeals filed.
Given the widespread, non-ideological worries about the reliability of standardized test scores when they are used in high-stakes ways, it makes good sense for reform-minded teachers’ unions to embrace value-added as one measure of teacher effectiveness, while simultaneously pushing for teachers’ rights to a fair-minded appeals process. What’s more, just because we know that teachers with high value-added ratings are better for children, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should pay such teachers more for good evaluation scores alone. Why not use value-added to help identify the most effective teachers, but then require these professionals to mentor their peers in order to earn higher pay? That’s the sort of teacher “career ladder” that has been so successful in high-performing nations like South Korea and Finland, and that would guarantee that excellent teachers aren’t just reaching twenty-five students per year but are truly sharing their expertise in a way that transforms entire schools and districts.
Last month, economists at Harvard and Columbia released the largest-ever study of teachers’ “value-added” ratings—a controversial mathematical technique that measures a teacher's effectiveness by looking at the change in his students' standardized test scores from one year to the next, while controlling for student demographic traits poverty and race.
Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff analyzed the test scores and family tax returns of 2.5 million Americans over a 20-year period, from 1989 to 2009. The team concluded that students who have teachers with high value-added ratings are more likely to attend college and earn higher incomes, and are less likely to become pregnant teens.
In a rare instance of edu-wonk consensus, both friends and critics of standardized tests are praising the study as reliable and groundbreaking. Indeed, these findings raise several interesting questions about how to evaluate and pay teachers—one of the most controversial topics in American urban politics. In his annual state-of-the-city speech last Wednesday, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg cited the new research as he promised annual bonuses of up to $20,000 for teachers rated “highly-effective,” based partially on value-added measures and partially on principals’ judgments. In a move that befuddled many casual observers of the education debate, the New York City teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, immediately opposed the proposal.
If we now know teacher effectiveness has a real, measurable impact on both student academic achievement and life outcomes like teen pregnancy, why aren’t teachers’ unions supporting plans to pay teachers with high value-added ratings more money? Pundits like Nick Kristof and the Daily News editorial page have jumped in to claim the new research justifies merit pay plans like Bloomberg’s, and the one instituted by former chancellor Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C.
The policy implications of the Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff paper are, however, far from clear. As the researchers note in their conclusion, their study was conducted in a low-stakes setting, one in which student test scores were used neither to evaluate nor pay teachers. In a little-noted footnote (#64) on page 50, the economists write:
even in the low-stakes regime we study, some teachers in the upper tail of the VA [value-added] distribution have test score impacts consistent with test manipulation. If such behavior becomes more prevalent when VA is actually used to evaluate teachers, the predictive content of VA as a measure of true teacher quality could be compromised.
The importance of this caveat cannot be overstated. As I’ve written in the past, there is evidence of increased teaching-to-the-test, curriculum-narrowing, and outright cheating nationwide since the implementation of No Child Left Behind, which put an unprecedented focus on the test scores of disadvantaged children.
Despite these concerns about testing, the United Federation of Teachers has agreed in principal to a new evaluation system that depends in part on value-added; a similar system, after all, is already in place for determining whether teachers earn tenure. Negotiations between the union and the city are stalled not because, in the words of the Daily News, the union has “placed protecting the jobs of incompetents over the future financial well-being of children,” but because the union would like teachers who receive an “unsatisfactory” rating under the new system to have the right to file an appeal to a neutral arbitrator. Currently, the city Department of Education determines whether to hear appeals of teacher evaluations, and it rejects 99.5 percent of the appeals filed.
Given the widespread, non-ideological worries about the reliability of standardized test scores when they are used in high-stakes ways, it makes good sense for reform-minded teachers’ unions to embrace value-added as one measure of teacher effectiveness, while simultaneously pushing for teachers’ rights to a fair-minded appeals process. What’s more, just because we know that teachers with high value-added ratings are better for children, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should pay such teachers more for good evaluation scores alone. Why not use value-added to help identify the most effective teachers, but then require these professionals to mentor their peers in order to earn higher pay? That’s the sort of teacher “career ladder” that has been so successful in high-performing nations like South Korea and Finland, and that would guarantee that excellent teachers aren’t just reaching 25 students per year, but are truly sharing their expertise in a way that transforms entire schools and districts.