Real Reform: Caleb Rossiter's Education Blog

March 5, 2018:

A Pot and Kettle Memoir: Obama Schools Chief Slams “Lies” about Poor Children’s Progress

by Caleb S. Rossiter

In his recent memoir, How Schools Work, Arne Duncan at first seems to be joining the critics of his signature “school reform” of making administrators and teachers “accountable” for the standardized test scores, grades, and graduation rates of low-income students.  The first chapter is titled “Lies, Lies Everywhere,” and it starts with these words: “Education runs on lies.”  Duncan calls out “the big lies…the ones that schools tell to every level of government about how great their students are doing.”  The truth, he says, is that “far too few of our kids are actually prepared.”  

He’s right about that.  The College Board says that half of high school graduates are not “college-ready” in math.  The figure for African-Americans is even worse: after decades of accountability 77 percent are not ready.  Such students are likely to fail their math placement test, and have to take and pass a non-credit but full-cost high school review course.  Only then can they can move on to the basic statistics course a citizen needs to make sense of public policy.  As I’ve seen as both a high school teacher and a college professor, this is the path to dropping out, not graduating.  

Duncan says he first encountered school lies 30 years ago, when during college he tutored at his mother’s after-school program in a poor black neighborhood in Southside Chicago.  Duncan, who is white, also lived on the Southside, near his father’s job as a professor at the elite University of Chicago.  His tutee was a black high school basketball star who assumed that his “B” average guaranteed a college scholarship.  Duncan soon realized that the boy’s pathetic academic level meant he had no hope of even getting into college. 

The memoir makes it clear that schools are still at it, hiding from poor parents their children’s low effort, achievement, and readiness for college or work, which will keep them trapped in the underclass.  That’s a depressing conclusion coming from someone who presided over a generation of accountability policies as head of the Chicago schools and then as President Obama’s secretary of education.

So has Duncan come around to the views of reformer-turned-critic Diane Ravitch, who has argued in a series of books that 30 years of accountability has led to great turmoil but no systematic improvement in student outcomes in the nation’s many segregated, high-poverty schools?  Told under 2001’s bipartisan “No Child Left Behind” law that their jobs depend upon progress on standardized tests and graduation rates, administrators force teachers to distort the curriculum to bump up the scores of students who pre-tests show are close to the all-important, but actually quite minimal, “proficient” score, and enter phony passing grades that lead to fraudulent diplomas. 

Ravitch’s deeper critique of accountability is that making schools a business where the product is scores and rates undercuts the historical and proven purpose of American schooling: to prepare students to be productive citizens of a democracy and, for low-income students, to provide a bridge to the middle class.  Once the “data-driven” business model is adopted, particularly in a segregated system where outcomes vary by neighborhood, education is no longer based on children’s needs and responsibilities.  That’s because scores and rates are used to measure achievement levels of schools and teachers, rather than students....Read the full article here.

March 5, 2018:

Why I'd Make a Great Superintendent for DC Schools

(Please, let’s drop the pretentious title of “Chancellor”)   

by Caleb S. Rossiter

Why would I make a great leader for the DC schools?  Well, for one thing, you’d know right off the bat what I’d try to do.  In 2015 I used my experiences as a professor of research statistics at American University and as a math teacher in the DC schools to write a book explaining how I would achieve our core mission: to guide the students in our segregated, high-poverty schools to the productive middle-class life they deserve. 

Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews called Ain’t Nobody Be Learnin’ Nothin’: The Fraud and the Fix for High-Poverty Schools the “best account of public education in the nation’s capital I have ever read.”  To be fair, Mathews doesn’t agree with many of my proposed fixes, but at least we agree that present policy is unacceptable.  And a debate about what to change is precisely what the District of Columbia needs right now.

As the Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders predicted 50 years ago, our students live in “two societies…separate and unequal.”  I taught at the historically “Coloured” university in Cape Town, South Africa, and I can tell you that apartheid and post-apartheid have nothing on us when it comes to segregated neighborhoods.  In both places, Cape Town and DC, income as much as race defines the residential segregation that constrains students’ options.   

We can’t hide behind the empty claims of “school reformers” that ZIP code doesn’t matter.  Segregation, poverty, and lack of support and opportunity do matter, and an educational plan that ignores this fact of life is doomed to failure.  And failure is precisely what we have achieved here in DC during the school reform era, by distorting the entire curriculum to focus on the misguided task of raising average standardized test scores from atrocious to merely terrible.  Decades of research has proven that these average scores are almost entirely determined by the income and cultural identities of the groups taking them, rather than by what students have learned in school.  Our educators need to be freed of the testing mania so they can focus on building students’ confidence, creativity, perseverance, and skill levels.

See the entire article on this link: Superintendent

Mayy 11, 2015: My new book on the fraud of "school reform" in high-poverty communities, and related articles.

Here is the link to "Ain't Nobody Be Learnin' Nothin': The Fraud and the Fix for High-Poverty Schools."

The back jacket features a review by Erich Martel, a brave DC high school teacher who blew the whistle on phony graduations. Here is an article I wrote about the book, which argues that the cheating scandal that sent 11 Atlanta educators to prison is part of a nation-wide fraud of reporting that students have succeeded when they have not. Here is a column by the Washington Post's Jay Mathews about the book's take on phony grades. Here is the second of Jay's three columns on the book, this one about my claim that there is a "Sports Trap" for poor black athletes. Here is the third, where he describes (well, substitutes some unrecognizable straw men for) and disputes my fix for the fraud.

January 9, 2014: Jay Mathews' Book and the Mathematica Study: What Do We Know About the KIPP Charter Schools?

I recently read "Work Hard, Be Nice," by Jay Mathews in 2009, which reported dramatic gains on national standardized tests at the KIPP middle schools, and the Mathematica 2013 study of KIPP, which reported modest gains, on the order of one-third to one-quarter those cited in 2009, on local tests, which are not as difficult. Here is my analysis,

December 4, 2013: Why I Resigned from a Charter High School

This memorandum explores the fundamental question facing college preparatory high schools in high-poverty settings: can they be successful when so many entering students are years behind in skills and classroom effort and behavior? I resigned from a school that pretended everybody was on grade level and going to college, which led to pressure to alter failing grades and to the return to the classroom of students who had exhibited behaviors that were dangerous to other students. Jay Mathews, the Washington Post's education columnist, wrote this article about my resignation.

May 28, 2013: Fixing "No Child Left Behind" -- Impossible, so Work around it to Help Poor Kids

Congress is rewriting the “No Child Left Behind” rules that local school districts must follow to gain the ten percent of their budgets they receive from the federal budget to help them instruct low-income and special education students.  Both political parties agree that “No Child” needs major changes, and are negotiating to find common ground.  Unfortunately, the starting point for negotiations is both sides’ continued agreement with the core concepts that have failed repeatedly to improve students’ skills and futures during the 11 years of “No Child” and about 20 years of “school reform” before that:

These concepts are disconnected from the reality of improving educational outcomes for students in high-poverty schools like the one I taught at recently.  Much of what might be useful to these students is prohibited by the disastrous school reform experiment.  More...

February 25, 2013: (Expletive) no, Doc -- Ain’t Nobody Learnin’ Nothin’ Today – So What Should We Do with High-Poverty High Schools?

Only twice in the two years I spent recently teaching math at one of Washington's many all-black, high-poverty high schools, did I suspend my disciplinary rules about swearing -- because I was laughing too hard.  You have to understand, our children curse like they breathe.  Cursing is deep in the grammar of Black dialect (as it surely is in other ethnic dialects in America), and dialect pops up among high-poverty black teenagers in school, like Spanish does among Hispanic students, or English among students in a school that is trying to inculcate Hebrew.  Actually, while all my students could follow standard English, only about half of them could speak it, despite their years of being instructed in it.  Of course, nearly all the non-teaching staff spoke dialect with the students, so there was a constant flow between the two languages during the school day. Read more ...

December 5, 2012: DC Schools Give Phony Credits to Students who Failed

I recently published a piece in the Wall Street Journal about "Credit Recovery," an after-school program that gives students a passing grade for courses they have failed (usuall, failed to attend or do any work in). This approach must be a nation-wide phenomenon, since I have been deluged with emails from teachers, parents, and administrators describing how their high-poverty schools raise graduation rates with students who have not passed courses or mastered the material.