a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

Gun Sense

A Colorado advocate for arming teachers thinks a new federal proposal is misplaced

Jerry Walker, a high school principal from Oklahoma, fires his handgun on a gun range during a training session at Flatrock Training Center. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Should the federal government make money available for schools to arm teachers, it would be up to each district in Colorado to decide whether to take advantage.

“As a general rule, this would be a local control issue,” said Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat and the chair of the State Board of Education.

And at least one local advocate for arming teachers said Colorado doesn’t need federal policy for local districts to do what they think is right.

“Nobody is out there asking the federal government to buy me a gun,” said Laura Carno, who brought the FASTER training program, which is intended to prepare school personnel to respond to active shooter situations, to Colorado and supports allowing trained teachers to have firearms in school.

The New York Times on Wednesday reported that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was considering making federal money available for schools to buy firearms for teachers and train them to use them.

This would be a major departure from current policy. The school safety bill that Congress passed in March explicitly prohibited using the money for firearms.

According to the New York Times, the federal Department of Education is looking at using the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grant program, which contains no direct ban on using the money for weapons. The report cites “multiple people with knowledge of the plan.” The program’s stated purpose is to “provide all students with access to a well-rounded education, improve school conditions for student learning, and improve the use of technology in order to improve the academic achievement and digital literacy for all students.”

Large portions of the education community quickly condemned the idea, and an unnamed Trump administration official disputed the report on Thursday in comments to CNN. The official suggested that DeVos wants Congress to weigh in.

The official response from the Department of Education was vague and left the door open.

Liz Hill, a DOE spokesperson, told CNN that “the department is constantly considering and evaluating policy issues, particularly issues related to school safety. The secretary nor the department issues opinions on hypothetical scenarios.”

The Colorado Department of Education gets about $10.5 million each year in Title IV grant money and distributes it to school districts based on a formula. A department spokesperson said the state doesn’t have discretion over how districts use the money, so long as they comply with federal regulations.

It’s not clear yet whether those federal regulations will be interpreted or expanded to allow for the purchase of firearms.

Schroeder said she doesn’t anticipate the state board taking a position on something over which it doesn’t have discretion, but if it did, it would likely be a split vote. She declined to offer a personal opinion on the idea but referred to a tense discussion earlier this year as the state board approved standards for health and physical education.

Republican board members wanted the standards to include a reference to the benefits of gun ownership, though they ultimately ceded to their Democratic colleagues, who opposed the reference, without forcing a vote.

Schroeder said she doesn’t think a lot of districts would want to use grant money to buy firearms for teachers. She said that arming security guards or hiring more school resource officers would be more popular, though much more expensive and not envisioned in the proposal described by the New York Times.

Carno said the FASTER training, which originated in Ohio after the Sandy Hook shooting, has proved popular, and she’ll have offered four classes by the end of 2018. But she doesn’t like the suggestions that have come out of the Trump administration, including one earlier this year that teachers be offered bonuses for carrying weapons or this more recent idea of using federal money to pay for firearms.

The educators who go through training are generally people who already own and carry concealed weapons in their personal lives. They want to own their own weapon that fits their needs, and they don’t want extra money to carry their weapon in the classroom, she said.

Carno said grants to offset the cost of training programs would be useful, though she’d prefer that money to come from the state rather than the federal government. Tuition for the three-day FASTER training course costs $1,000, and the group raises money privately to cover the cost for many participants.

More broadly, she doesn’t think this is a situation where the federal government should be setting policy.

“I don’t want the federal government making curriculum decisions nationwide,” she said. “I don’t want them making policy about firearms in schools nationwide.”

Many Colorado school districts strongly oppose arming teachers and have supported student walkouts in protest of gun violence. Others have made the decision to arm staff members.

No one tracks how many Colorado school districts allow teachers to carry weapons. Earlier this year, The Denver Post found at least 30 school districts and charter schools that were willing to state publicly that they did so. Many of them are small, rural districts in communities where gun ownership is common and law enforcement is far away. There are no state standards for training teachers on using weapons.

The Peyton district in El Paso County is the most recent to take up the question of arming teachers, with a vote expected in September.

While Carno doesn’t think the ideas that have come out of the Trump administration are quite right, she does think they’ve shifted the conversation toward more guns in schools.

“Previously, the national conversation was about gun control rather than stopping bad guys,” she said.

 

color blind

The feds are discouraging districts from using race to integrate schools. A new study points to a potential downside

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
(Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The Trump administration recently made waves by removing Obama-era guidance that offered ways for school districts to consider students’ race in order to diversify and integrate schools. The rollback could have harmful consequences for students, according to a new study.

The paper offers a test case of the rule, and it suggests that move — at least if it affects any districts’ policies — could hurt academic outcomes, including college enrollment, by making racial segregation worse, although the study only focuses on a single district.

“There’s a general sense that student outcomes are going down in these schools that are more racially segregated from these race-neutral admissions,” said Jason Cook, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the study.

The paper, which has not been formally peer reviewed, focuses on an anonymous urban school district that, after a federal investigation in the early 2000s, was forced to end race-conscious admissions to its coveted magnet middle schools. To maintain some diversity in its student body, the district ran separate lotteries for black and non-black (largely white) students. After the federal mandate, though, the district put all students in one lottery, and in turn the schools became notably more segregated — rising from about 77 percent to 85 percent black.

After the policy from 2003 to 2007, the research finds that the spike in segregation corresponded to a decrease in college enrollment for black students by a couple percentage points. There was also an indication of modest declines in test scores in sixth grade and in high school graduation rates, though these results weren’t statistically significant for black students. There was no clear impact on 10th-grade test scores.

These effects aren’t huge, but neither was the increase in segregation, and the results generally point in a negative direction.

Separately, the paper shows that in general magnet schools in that district were less effective when they were made up of predominantly black students, perhaps because they have a higher concentration of struggling students and recruit lower-quality teachers.

The paper also shows that as schools became more predominantly black, more of their white students left, creating a vicious cycle that intensified segregation. “Racial segregation is self-perpetuating,” concludes Cook.

The district in question did not attempt to use race-neutral measures, like poverty status, to promote integration. Research, though, has shown that such approaches are less effective for achieving racial integration than considering race directly.

There is one particularly important caveat to the results, though: The policy change meant that more black students had access to in-demand, high-performing magnet schools. That is, in changing the lottery to stop what amounted to preferences for non-black students, the shift increased segregation but it also meant that a small number of black students had access to top schools they otherwise might not have.

That remains a key point of contention in other cities debating integration. In Hartford, Connecticut, for instance, a longstanding court decision has prioritized the creation of integrated magnets — done in part by giving white students from the suburbs preference in admissions to magnet schools in the city. After a local newspaper series looked into this practice, critics said the system was effectively shutting out local students from the best schools; supporters contended that the rules are necessary to prevent resegregation of those schools.

The latest study can’t answer knotty philosophical questions about how to divvy up seats in coveted schools, but it does suggest each side has a point — admissions rules do, by definition, keep some kids out, but removing those rules can lead to unintended consequences, including making those schools less effective.

Rucker Johnson, a professor at the University of California Berkeley who has studied school segregation and is writing a book on the topic, pointed out that the latest study has limits. “That particular paper is focused on one specific district, so even if it’s done really well, you still would want to consider whether [it applies in] other districts,” he said.

But Johnson said the findings are largely consistent with past research including his own, which focused on school desegregation efforts in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. “For African-Americans we saw significant impacts,” he said. “High school graduation rates increased, college attendance and college completion rates increased, the type of colleges they attended were more selective, …[there were] increases in earnings, reductions in annual incidence of poverty.”

More recent research has shown that the resegregation of districts led to dips in high school graduation rates among black and Hispanic students. A school integration program on the San Francisco Peninsula caused jumps in test scores and college enrollment (though also arrest rates for non-violent crimes).

In recent decades, as court-mandated integration orders have ended, race-based segregation has gotten worse or held steady, depending on how it’s measured; income-based stratification has consistently worsened. The recent move by the Trump administration is not legally binding, and only a small number of districts have voluntary race-conscious integration policies in place.

Johnson, for his part, fears that defeatism has overtaken the urgency to integrate schools. Some people, Johnson said, have the mindset that “we can’t socially engineer integration.”

“The reality is we did socially engineer segregation,” he said. “It would be natural to understand that we might have to re-engineer that through some intentional policy.”