"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, December 17, 2015

From ESEA to ESSA: The Hole Gets Deeper

Modern education reform started in 1965, when the passage of the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act signaled that policy elites had chosen the politically expedient over the morally responsible.  In doing so, the root causes of poverty and racism were buried beneath a mountain of misplaced blame labeled school accountability.  The segment below this post from The Mismeasure of Education explains what I mean.

Beginning with ESEA, unequal student achievement became the proxy for deep inequalities that go all the way back to slavery, but instead of addressing the resulting poverty that is always mirrored in test scores, Lyndon Johnson and the Congress chose to travel the low and easy political road of pretending to fix schools, which quickly turned into a blame game that got everyone outside of schools off the hook for a deep and unacknowledged societal shame that was unequaled in the Western world.

Now fifty years later nothing has changed except that American businessmen have turned five decades of inept schooling interventions into an education industry that generates major revenue streams worth billions of dollars, which effectively cut channels that direct the flow of our society's children based on the whims of capitalists without conscience.

The recent passage of the reauthorization of ESEA shows that education reform has become much like the permanent "war on terror:" never-ending, misdirected, and arrogantly uninterested in the long term outcomes.  The shame of the nation, as Kozol called our great moral failing, just got more shameful.

Background reading below from The Mismeasure of Education, which offers an explication of the educational events of the 1960s.

The Modern Testing Era Begins
         As noted earlier, education has not always been the chosen road to opportunity and upward mobility.  The case had to be made, and the solution had to be sold, and James Conant was instrumental toward establishing education as the means to that end.  Between the New Deal and the early 1960s, policy makers at the national level consciously chose to focus efforts to establish social and economic equity through increasing access to education (Kantor & Lowe, 1994), rather than the more expensive and politically unpopular route of wealth redistribution, job creation, guaranteed minimum income levels, and programs to disrupt segregated living patterns and inadequate health care provisions. Progressives in the U. S. had advocated during the 1930s for the kind of social and economic development efforts that became institutionalized in the social democracies of Western Europe and Scandinavia after World War II, and the “movement to expand government control of the market and to alter its distributional patterns seemed likely to succeed even in the United States” (p. 6).  Following World War II, however, the GI Bill, the rhetorical messaging of leaders like Conant, and successes within the labor movement had, in effect, reduced the perceived need for direct government structural intervention in social equity efforts. The NAACP’s focus, too, on school desegregation as the primary civil rights agenda added to the impetus already taking hold:
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the political space for active state intervention in the market had thus shrunken considerably. Although the Civil Rights movement sought to put full employment planning and income redistribution back on the public agenda, these policies generated little support from the middle class or from blue collar workers who received benefits mainly through the private sector. Consequently, when policy makers in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations began to formulate poverty policy, they ruled out active government intervention to create jobs and redistribute income because without widespread popular support they did not think they could win approval for such measures in Congress (p. 7).
Even though the federal strategy of increasing educational opportunities with large infusions of cash was able to buy Southern support, finally, for the desegregation of schools, it set a precedent for future generations policy elites who continue to espouse the belief that “education is the civil rights issue of our generation” (Lewin, 2012, para 5). This expression has taken on a deep sense irony in recent years, since federal education funding sets a high priority on the unlimited spread of charter schools, which have a clear segregative effect (Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, & Wang, 2010; Miron, Urschel, Mathis, & Tornquist, 2010) on public schools, even in areas where schools were intensely segregated already.     
         The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) came one year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and President Lyndon Johnson promoted ESEA as a hard-to-ignore financial incentive aimed to make palatable the non-discrimination requirements of the Civil Rights Act for Southern segregationists.  Johnson hoped that the ESEA funds offered to states and cities that agreed to desegregate would finally break the back of Southern apartheid, which had remained largely undisturbed despite the 1954 unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v Topeka Board of Education decision.  The plan was hugely successful, so much so that apartheid education largely disappeared in 17 Southern states by the late 1960s (Orfield, from Mondale & Patton, 2001). Distrustful, however, of the Southern political establishment in general and Lyndon Johnson in particular, Senator Robert Kennedy did not want to see the draining away of millions of Title I dollars before they could ever reach the malignantly and impoverished minority children for whom Title I was intended (Lagemann, 2000).  Kennedy, in fact, argued for standardized procedures and uniform data gathering, and he called for a “good faith administration effort to hold educators responsive to their constituencies and to make educational achievement the touchstone of success in judging ESEA” (Mathison, 2009, p. 6). At a Senate hearing in 1965, Kennedy went so far as to propose “some testing system that would be established [by] which the people at the local community would know periodically as to what progress had been made” (Barone, 2007, p. 4).  In advocating program evaluations for the original ESEA Title I programs, Kennedy unwittingly served to inspire the program accountability movement in education (p. 10).
Robert Kennedy’s efforts to find out if poor children were actually learning to read were complicated by new federal budgeting requirements for implementing cost-benefit analyses aimed to increase efficiency in federal spending by identifying the most successful programs.  Satisfying either aim would have been difficult for a single evaluation scheme, but satisfying both proved entirely too much.  Further complicating efforts, as Ellen Lagemann (2000) has pointed out, were state fears and resentment related to potential federal control or state embarrassment for poor results. All of these concerns were on the table as a new national assessment was being developed, field tested, and administered in 1969.  It was called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and today it is known as America’s Report Card.  More will be said about NAEP in Part IV, particularly as it relates to the use of arbitrary and unrealistic norming in order to then use the low test results for political purposes.

         Another seminal event that unwittingly contributed to the growth of the educational accountability by testing is known today as the Coleman Report (Coleman, et al, 1966). The mandate for the Coleman report came from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which required a research study be conducted within two years of passage to identify where educational resources in public educational institutions were lacking due to “race, color, religion, or national origin” (Lagemann, 2000, p. 193). Almost overnight, previous education program evaluation criteria based on resource inputs shifted to program outputs as the mandate for tracking education program effectiveness was written into federal legislation.
While everyone, including James Coleman, expected to find large differences in achievement based on large differences in resources between the 600,000 children that his study included in 4,000 black and white schools, the findings confounded expectations.  As Coleman scholar, Gerald Grant (2009) points out, Coleman found discrepancies in spending between black and white schools to be less than expected, due to infusions of cash by Southern states in hopes of maintaining the “separate but equal” apartheid systems.  But even where resource differences were large, Coleman found these disparities in black schools influenced student achievement differences much less than “who you went to school with:”
       Simply put, Coleman found that the achievement of both poor and rich children was depressed by attending a school where most children came from low-income families.  More important to the goal of achieving equal educational opportunity, he found that the achievement of poor children was raised by attending a predominantly middle-class school, while the achievement of affluent children in the school was not harmed.  This was true even if per-pupil expenditures were the same at both schools.  No research over the past forty years has overturned Coleman’s finding . . . (p. 159). 
         Coleman and his team (1966) found, too, that non-Asian minority children are more affected by social composition than are white children, and that “if a minority pupil from a home without much educational strength is put with schoolmates with strong educational backgrounds, his achievement is likely to increase” (p. 22).  Though this finding is commonly cited in analyses and interpretations of the Coleman study, the dynamics that shape this social fact are most often attributed to the social capital that accrues for various reasons when poor children go to school with middle class children.  Coleman, however, clearly introduces a race element beyond socioeconomic status that is related to the effects of oppression and demoralization that is rarely cited.  Therefore, we include this rather lengthy quote below, which if attended to by policy makers, would doubtless create an added urgency to dust off long-neglected integration plans.  Notice that Coleman remains loyal to and supportive of the charge given him under Section 402 of Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide data related to “the lack of equal educational opportunity for individuals by reason of race, color, religion or national origin . . .”, even though his investigations have led him to findings that even Coleman could not have predicted:
This analysis has concentrated on the educational opportunities offered by the schools in terms of the student body composition, facilities, curriculums, and teachers.  This emphasis, while entirely appropriate as a response to the legislation for the survey, nevertheless neglects important factors in the variability between individual pupils within the same school: this variability is roughly four times as large as the variability between schools.  For example, a pupil attitude factor, which appears to have a stronger relationship to achievement than do all the “school” factors together, is the extent to which an individual feels that he has some control over his own destiny [italics added]. . . . The responses of pupils, except for Orientals, have far less conviction than whites that they can affect their own environments and futures.  When they do, however, their achievement is higher than that of whites who lack that conviction.
         Furthermore, while this characteristic shows little relationship to most school factors, it is related, for Negroes, to the proportion of whites in the schools.  Those Negroes in schools with a higher proportion of whites have a greater sense of control.  This finding suggests that the direction such an attitude takes may be associated with the pupul’s school expererience as well as the experience in the larger community (p. 23).
Coleman found hope, then, strongly correlated with the presence of a sense of autonomy, which is more easily demonstrated, measured, and retained where racial and economic mixing prevails, rather than in racially and economically segregated environments—whether that segregation is sustained by antiquated beliefs, legal maneuvering, or by outdated school assessment practices.  And it was this “pupil attitude factor” of hope that had a greater effect on achievement than all other school effects examined in the Coleman study, which remains the largest research undertaking of its kind in U. S. educational history.
         The Coleman findings on socioeconomic status and school achievement echoed the findings of another large, longitudinal study a few years earlier, whose similar results on the topic were similarly ignored (for similar reasons, we may assume).  The federal research project in 1960, Project Talent, involved detailed questionnaires in over 1,300 high schools and a series of tests for 440,000 students that included achievement, attitudinal, interest, and aptitude tests, surveys, and questionnaires. Instruments were administered in 1960 when students were 9th graders and again in 1963 when they were seniors.  By 1973, it is clear that Washington’s elite had digested the implications of these studies, as expressed here by fiscal and monetary expert, Alice Rivlin (1973):
       The most general result of these statistical studies [the Coleman Study and the Project Talent study] has been the finding that variables reflecting the socioeconomic characteristics of students and their families explain most of the variation in test scores, and variables reflecting school characteristics or resource inputs explain very little. 

       These results should not be exaggerated—they do not prove that "schools don't matter"—but they certainly provide a basis for considerable skepticism about using test scores as measures of the output of the education industry as such. Test score changes may primarily reflect changes in the school population and the way it is mixed, rather than the productivity of school resources themselves (p. 424).
Lagemann (2000) recounts the drama surrounding the release of the Coleman Report’s initial findings in 1966, and the subsequent “firestorm” set off within the Johnson Administration, which knew that Coleman’s findings could sabotage the Administration’s strategy of using the federal purse to buy Southern support to end apartheid schooling in the South, as set forth by ESEA the year before.  Johnson knew that Republicans, already resistant to more federal spending, would seize and exploit the counterintuitive fact that spending levels were clearly not the prime factor in performance discrepancies.  Coleman’s findings, too, offered a swipe at a core component of the American secular faith in education and educational opportunity as “the chief instrument for redressing the inequalities of American life” (Kantor, 1991, p. 50). 
This lofty notion had, indeed, fed the Jeffersonian belief, later transferred to Horace Mann, that education may provide solutions to social problems that were thought to be the result of the poor’s own shortcomings.  Blaming the poor for their poverty is as traditional as our Calvinist forefathers of Puritan New England, who viewed the socioeconomically unfit as having earned their lack of status through their own moral failings (Rippa, 1996).  These shortcomings, in turn, might signal the column of the celestial tally sheet to which all souls had been added who were not part of the Elect, or God’s elite.  From this early theological base, there eventually grew the Protestant economic catechism of the Gilded Age, with ample doses thrown in of Social Darwinism, which “held that responsibility for poverty lay not with the business cycle or the existence of a capitalist reserve army of the unemployed, but with the moral failure of the poor themselves to conduct proper family economy” (Dawley, 1993, p. 27).
By the 1960s the poor’s personal flaws and the lifestyles (Kantor, 1991) they spawned were bundled within a new and encompassing concept known as the “culture of poverty,” which acknowledged structural barriers as well as the traditional blaming of the victim[i]:
First, though it acknowledged the structural sources of deprivation, the culture of poverty thesis tended to focus attention more on the personal characteristics of the poor themselves than on the economic and social conditions that shaped their lives (Aaron, 1978, p. 20). Consequently, and this is the second point, because it implied that people were poor due to their own attitudes, behaviors, and life-styles, it suggested that changing the poor rather than redistributing income or creating jobs was the best way to eliminate the problem of poverty (p. 55).  
         The third characteristic that Kantor (1991) attributes to the “culture-of-poverty thesis” was its belief that, since the economic and psychological conditions left the poor without the “will and capacity to attack the sources of their own deprivation” (p. 55), professional intervention was required, which assured a powerful role for the liberal public policy makers during the 1960s.  Such interventions, however, did not disrupt the underlying assumptions of economic order, systems of privilege, or existing power relations, as initiatives to help the poor focused more on education and training programs.  As noted earlier, these kinds of compensatory solutions could be provided without disrupting the social and economic structures that would have been challenged by job creation programs or other alterations to economic and socio-cultural patterns.  The preferred compensatory strategies adopted by liberals could “compensate for capitalism's inevitable flaws and omissions without interfering with its internal workings” (Kantor quoting Brinkley, 1991, p. 56).
         Coleman’s findings, however, were not governed by any of these assumptions.  His findings clearly suggest the need for structural alterations to the racial and socioeconomic organization of schools, while clearly pointing to the limited value of simply adding resources without structural modifications.  The initial findings of the Coleman Report, therefore, were appropriately muted by Johnson’s White House; the media, with no open controversy to sell copy and with its accepted narrative wisdom to protect, largely ignored the complete findings when they did appear late in 1966 (Coleman et al, 1966).  Both liberal and conservative policy people, then, read the Coleman Report looking for ideological ammunition, and they found it.  Conservatives centrally concerned with cutting costs and conserving the status quo cherry-picked Coleman’s findings (Alexander, 1997) to argue that “throwing money”[ii] at educational problems couldn’t fix them, while liberals used Coleman’s findings related to social capital and the importance of racial and economic mixing to argue for mandatory busing policies to achieve racial balance.  Coleman remained disappointed (Coleman, 1972) at the reception of the study, and he remained throughout his life an advocate for removing all barriers to socioeconomic integration, even as an interim measure toward achieving equity and equality (Kahlenberg, 2001). Kahlenberg (2001) cites Coleman from a rare interview in 1972, in which his claim for the significance of social capital is made unequivocal:
Coleman said that research continued to show that "a child's performance, especially a working-class child's performance, is greatly benefited by his going to a school with children who come from educationally stronger backgrounds." Coleman declared flatly: "A child's learning is a function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher" (p. 62).
         How different today’s education reform agenda might be if Coleman’s core finding had been acknowledged and taken to heart for its central truth: schools alone can never consistently close the gaps in achievement that reflect deep differences in levels of autonomy and privilege, wide disparities in opportunity, deep veins of racism, and an ongoing and deepening hope gap.  How different our schools might be if we were to take seriously what good research already tells us, or if we as a society were to fund other social science research with the potential to matter in the health of our neighborhoods and our world.  Or how differently our schools and our perception of schools might be if we were to conceive of educational improvement as one important component of a comprehensive commitment to social and economic renewal, in a way that acknowledges the wisdom expressed by Jean Anyon’s (1997) quip:  “Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door” (p. 168).
         Instead, it would seem that another, though harsher, version of corporate education reform is now aimed toward U. S. schools.  The latest testing/accountability scheme of Race to the Top continues to ignore Coleman’s core research findings on how social and economic segregation impact achievement, even as today’s corporate reformers continue to cite education[iii] as the civil rights issue of the present era.  If we are to believe, then, the mountain of scholarship[iv] that validates Coleman’s findings (Garoran & Long, 2006) as they relate to the power of shared social capital and the limited capacity of schools alone to end output gaps as measured by test scores, we must surely find ways to counter the essential irrationality that says there are “no excuses” for children and teachers segregated by race and class, who must accomplish the impossible or, else, accept the punishing and inescapable consequences.  Here we are reminded Richard Hofstadter’s (1955) warning to those who dare challenge the status quo masked as reform:
In determining whether . . . [social] ideas are accepted, truth and logic are less important criteria than suitability to the intellectual needs and preconceptions of social interests.  This is one of the great difficulties that must be faced by rational strategists of social change” (p. 204).
         Until such time that our society signals a return to common sense and humane values applied to education policymaking, we may wonder what calamities may be required to halt this generation’s “revolving, reformist administrative shell game” (Martin, Overholt, & Urban, 1976, p. 71) to preserve the status quo while proclaiming change.  During the first half of the previous century’s “orgy of tabulation” (Rugg, 1975), it took an economic depression and a world war to interrupt the virulent social-efficiency engineering project that eventually threatened democracy and human rights everywhere.   Will we, once again, choose the failed efforts and dangerous intoxicants of the past in a different guise, while ignoring the continuing retrenchment of structural inequality and social inequity that make our democratic ideals increasingly arcane and the hope that sustains us, adults and children alike, less likely with each passing school year?

[i]  William Ryan coined the phrase, “blaming the victim,” in his 1971 book of the same title, Blaming the Victim.
[ii]  Karl Alexander (1997) traces the skeptical research related to school spending to economist Eric Hanushek, longtime Fellow at the conservative think tank, the Hoover Institution: 
Hanushek's first literature review, titled "Throwing Money at Schools," covers 130 school-level and person-level analyses of basic "bread and butter" issues, including effects on student performance of pupil expenditures, class size, and teacher experience. His conclusion (1981:30): "Higher school expenditures per pupil bear no visible relationship to higher student performance." That was in 1981. Then in 1989, with more studies in hand (N = 187): "There is no strong or systematic relationship between schooling expenditures and student performance." (Hanushek 1989:47).
   Words like "strong" and "systematic" somewhat qualify the 1981 conclusion, but the impression stands, and people in high places take this work seriously. In a series of speeches in 1988, Former Secretary of Education William Bennett invoked Hanushek's work to conclude: "Money doesn't cure school problems. We've done 147 studies at the Department of Education and we cannot show a strong, positive correlation between spending more and getting better results" (cited in Baker 1991).
   Such a sweeping conclusion is very likely wrong, however. For example, a recent meta-analysis (Hedges, Laine & Greenwald 1994:11) of Hanushek's 1989 data finds "substantially positive effects" for per pupil expenditures and for teacher experience and "typically positive" effects for teacher salary, administrative inputs, and facilities.
[iii] Since his appointment in 2009, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, repeatedly claimed that “education is the civil rights issue of this generation” (http://chronicle.com/article/article-content/64567/).  In laying out his similarly focused, though more aggressively privatized, education policy agenda in June 2012, the Republican contender, Mitt Romney also called education “the civil rights issue of our era” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/24/us/politics/romney-calls-failing-schools-civil-rights-issue-of-our-era.html).  Both political parties continue to embrace charter schools as a key policy initiative, even though charters have been found to have segregative effects, even in schools systems that are intensely segregated (Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, & Wang, 2010; Miron, Urschel, Mathis, & Tornquist, 2010).
[iv] See Applications of social capital in educational literature: A critical synthesis (Dika & Kusum, 2002) Review of Educational Research, Vol. 72, No. 1 (Spring, 2002), pp. 31-60

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