Friday, October 14, 2011

Top 10 Censored Education Stories of the Decade (Again)

In honor of the one-year anniversary of Modern School, I am reposting some of my favorite articles from the past year. The following was also one of your favorites, as it has remained in the “Popular Posts” sidebar since soon after it was published. Nevertheless, I thought the article was important enough to put it up again for the benefit of those who may have missed it the first time around.

The Top 10 Censored Education Stories of the Decade
Rachel Norton posted the following list of top ed news stories of the decade. While I would agree that these were important education stories, they are all well known to most of the public. Yet each also has a hidden story behind it that has been ignored by the media. I’ve included Norton’s original list (in black). After each of her synopses I’ve added the hidden story behind it (in red).

10.  The rise of autism: In 2001, the incidence of autism was thought to be one case for every 160 people, which even then was much higher than in previous decades. Today, the accepted incidence is more like one case for every 100 people. Though the increased incidence is as much a public health issue as an educational one, I’ve included the phenomenon on this list because the increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism has had a profound impact on schools. From an educational perspective, autism is a perfect storm–children with autism have expensive needs, but respond well to intervention. No one really knows how much treatment is appropriate according to the framework set by special education laws.

While it is certainly shocking and significant to parents and educators that autism rates are going up, what has been virtually ignored by the media are the reasons for the increase. Autism rates increase dramatically among older parents. A ten-year increase in maternal age, for example, increases the risk of autism by 38%. Unlike Down syndrome, both older fathers and older mothers have a higher risk. Therefore, one likely reason for the increase in autism is the fact that many parents are waiting longer before having kids. 

Increasing rates of Autism are also due in part to how it is identified and diagnosed. Autism can now be detected and diagnosed much more accurately and sometimes earlier than in the past. Further, the definition of Autism Spectrum Disorder, which includes Asperger’s Syndrome, is broader and includes more patients than earlier definitions. 

Lastly, perhaps an equally important autism story this decade is the overwhelming and compelling evidence that there is NO link between vaccines and autism. Children’s vaccines are no longer allowed to contain any mercury and even those vaccines that still do contain mercury as a preservative (e.g., influenza vaccines) contain too little to cause a neurological effect. Further, while the number of autism diagnoses was going up over the past ten years, the amount of mercury in vaccines was declining. What has fueled the anti-vaccine hysteria is the fact that autism typically manifests in children between the ages of one and two years, precisely when they are getting many of their vaccines. Thus, coincidentally, many autism diagnoses happen right after a child has been vaccinated, creating the impression of cause and effect.

9.  Still waiting for technology to revolutionize education: At the beginning of the decade, most people would have predicted that schools would be using computers and technology in ways that enhanced student achievement and learning. Today, at the end of a decade that has seen an enormous expansion in the use of technology in everyday life, schools are still using computers in much the same way that they were at the start of the decade. More classrooms have computers; more schools have computer labs; but curriculum development has not kept pace with the interconnected, social nature of today’s Internet. Even as students text, access YouTube and update Facebook on their mobile phones, their classroom computers block access to most of those same services.  Teaching students to be smart consumers of sometimes unreliable Internet data and careful stewards of their personal information is of paramount importance for the next decade, but it’s not clear that schools are up to the task.

The hidden story here is that schools are spending bucket loads of their dwindling budgets on computers, software and other technology, while they fire teachers, librarians, nurses, custodians and secretaries and eliminate staff development days, and see a continuing achievement gap. Technology, like teacher quality, privatization, tenure and unions, is just another red herring that allows us to overlook the overwhelming cause of low student achievement: poverty. Bring families out of poverty and we’ll see dramatic improvements in student achievement, with or without fancy technology.

However, if we do want to see technology used in creative and clever ways to enhance learning, then teachers need to be provided more professional development opportunities to learn the technology, play with it and create innovative uses for it. This, sadly, is not happening, nor is it likely to happen with declining education budgets. One example of a creative use of technology is a series of experiments I designed for high school students to study the effects of drugs on nematodes using digital microscopy and software from the NIH to track their movements. It is a real world scientific experiment that not only teaches about the nervous system and cells, but has students collecting and analyzing their own original data. However, to develop this curriculum I spent three summers collaborating with scientists at UCSF and had to obtain all my own funding, without any support from my school, district or the state. 

8. Curriculum wars continue:  A bunch of Intelligent Design believers got elected to the Kansas State Board of Education, and suddenly we’re all debating Darwin again. Then Texas–one of the biggest textbook markets in the country, whose size gives it the power to shape curriculum choices far beyond its borders–decides that American History as traditionally taught is biased. So schoolchildren across the country will now learn, among other things, “about the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.”  If anything, these skirmishes should remind us all to pay attention to the compositions of our state Boards of Education–they are powerful enough to create quite a kerfuffle if captured by extremists of any stripe.

The truth is that some of us never stopped debating Darwin. I have taught biology for fourteen years and I have had students challenge me on it every single year, even in liberal San Francisco. The fact is that only 16% of Americans believe in secular evolution, (the idea that humans evolved from other life forms without any divine intervention). It should be no surprise that some of the overwhelming majority of doubters would fight for their version of reality to be portrayed in school textbooks. Also, many of the backers of Intelligent Design, and other creationist schemes, have substantial financial backing to pay for political campaigns (including school boards) and advertisements. The Discovery Institute, for example, has an annual budget of $5 million, most of which is used to promote Intelligent Design schemes.

Like the adage that history is written by the victors, the textbook industry is controlled by the biggest, most powerful publishing houses, each of which has a stake in perpetuating the American Dream mythology and the conflation of capitalism and democracy. Therefore, textbooks, especially history books, will always downplay, manipulate and censor the history of unions and working people, extol the virtues of capitalism, and glorify the histories of the rich and powerful, regardless of who is on the school boards. 

7.  After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans rebuilds its schools from scratch:  Prior to Katrina, New Orleans’ schools were considered to be among the worst in the nation–64 percent were deemed academically unacceptable by the state of Louisana, and the graduation rate was about 50 percent. The devastation and displacement of thousands of students in the wake of the disaster created an opportunity for reformers and policymakers, who quickly replaced schools that had been destroyed with a new network of charter schools. The district was rechristened the “Recovery School District,” and dollars flowed in, both from the Federal government and private sources. Recent college graduates, eager to make a difference, also came in droves to teach in the “new” New Orleans public schools.  Results? Initially, very promising–test scores posted by New Orleans have risen dramatically in the five years since the storm. A decade from now, will New Orleans be one of the nation’s highest-achieving school systems?  That kind of sustained improvement will depend on sustained effort and sustained investment. 

Arne Duncan said that Katrina was the best thing that could have happened to the New Orleans schools. What he meant was that disasters are fantastic ways to rally popular support for otherwise unpopular ideas, in this case, a massive scheme to convert the entire district to charter schools and destroy the unions. 71% of New Orleans children are now attending charter schools, the highest rate in the nation. All employees, including teachers and custodians, were fired and forced to reapply, and all union contracts were canceled. Many of the unionized teachers were replaced by Teach For America interns.

It would be tempting to attribute New Orleans’ improved test scores to these charter schools, but it would be inaccurate. First, large numbers of New Orleans residents still have not returned. Many of these were low income from  the Lower Ninth Ward, where only 3,600 residents have returned (out of the 19,000 who lived there prior to Katrina). Overall, New Orleans has become much more affluent. For example,  there are 66% fewer poor African American women living in New Orleans today than a decade ago. Rents have gone up by 39%. And, as we all know, it’s the class, not the school, that matters most in terms of academic achievement

6. Geoffrey Canada and his Harlem Children’s Zone inspire reform movement: Adopting the motto “whatever it takes,” the charismatic and energetic Canada set out to fight poverty and low academic achievement in a 97-square-block zone in Harlem. Private donations and accolades poured in, and Mr. Canada’s ambitious (and breathtakingly expensive) project was chronicled in a well-reviewed book (“Whatever It Takes,” written by journalist Paul Tough). The Zone’s two charter schools initially showed positive results, but more recent studies have illustrated just how hard it is to break the interconnected cycles of poverty and low achievement.  

First, it should be emphasized that two-thirds of Canada’s funding came from private donations, making his project a virtual private school and unsustainable or reproducible on a large scale. Second, despite his emphasis on hard work, Canada attributes his own academic success (despite growing up poor) to his avid reading. Ample studies show a strong correlation between reading, especially in early childhood, and later academic success. Yet low income families tend to read less to their young children and expose them to fewer new vocabulary words than middle class and wealthy families. This creates an achievement gap before kids have even started kindergarten that tends to increase as children get older, a problem that cannot be surmounted simply through hard work, accountability, or testing.

Canada, to his credit, acknowledges the strong impact that poverty has on academic achievement, and has sought to mitigate these effects with health care, adult classes for expecting parents, after school programs and other social supports. What he fails to realize or address (nor can he) is that the effects of poverty cannot be reversed through superficial means that occur only part-time (e.g., at school). The students and their families have spent much or all of their lives in poverty. Students continue to be poor when they go home. They start school with a disadvantage in terms of literacy and school readiness. Many lower income students have long histories academic failure and come to school with low self-efficacy. Poor kids are more likely to be born premature, with low birth weights, and to suffer malnutrition, lead poisoning or iron deficiency anemia, each of which can impair cognitive development or lead to learning disabilities. All of the best teaching and support services combined cannot overcome all of these problems for all low income students.

5. Landmark desegregation cases reshape student assignment policies:  In 2007, the Supreme Court decided two major school busing cases (Meredith vs. Jefferson County Board of Education and People Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District No.1 et. al), striking down any school assignment plan using race as a tie-breaker. The 5-4 decision said student assignment policies could be “race-conscious” but could not take an individual student’s race into account. Many school desegregation advocates fear that the Court’s decision will intensify rapidly resegregating schools and worsen educational inequities between low- and high-income communities.

The hidden stories here are that charter schools are speeding up the re-segregation process, despite these court rulings and that class matters even more than race. The argument for desegregation in Brown vs Board of Education was that separate was inherently unequal; therefore, stop segregating. However, even when schools were desegregated by race, they were still heavily segregated by class, with higher income schools having higher graduation rates and sending more kids to four year universities. Wealthier parents tend to live in wealthier neighborhoods, thus concentrating their wealth in a few schools. When their kids aren’t automatically assigned to the desired school, they are more likely than lower income parents to have the time, connections and understanding of the system to fight for their kids’ placement in their desired schools. When they can’t get into the desired public schools (or when there are no desired public schools) they have the wealth to send their kids to elite private schools.

4. Charter movement reaches a peak:   Though the first charter schools opened in the early 1990s, the charter school movement matured in the last decade, with the number of charter schools doubling since 2000 (there are now about 5,000 charter schools open nationwide). Initially, charters were seen as laboratories for promising practices, but they have since been hailed by some reformers as high-quality alternatives to traditional public schools (in New Orleans, discussed in #7 above, two-thirds of the Recovery School District’s schools have been reopened as charters). Others, notably education scholar Diane Ravitch, who wrote the 2010 book ”The Death and Life of the American School System,” the charter debate is really a distraction from a serious conversation about how to fix our educational system, which is and will continue to be dominated by traditional public schools.  Finally, early claims about the stellar academic progress of students in charter schools (as compared to their counterparts in traditional schools), may have been overblown. Several studies released in 2009 and 2010 found that charters, on average, perform no better than traditional public schools.

There are several hidden stories here. First, the charter movement, which initially found its support among Christian fundamentalists who wanted “family values” schools, has become a multi-billion dollar industry dominated by large private education corporations, like Green Dot, Wall Street investors and billionaire cheerleaders like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton Foundation. It should be emphasized that this is the primary impetus for the proliferation of charter schools and all the bogus claims about their potential. Over the past decade, the number of for-profit Education Management Organizations (EMOs) running charter schools has gone up seven-fold. Non-profit charter schools often subcontract out management of their schools to for-profit EMOs.

A second underreported story is that not only do charter schools perform no better than traditional public schools, and often much worse, but they also tend to be far more segregated and have a tendency to push out students who they think may lower their test scores, like special education students. For example, nearly 80% of Latino and 70% of black charter school students are in schools that are over 90% minority, nearly double the rate in traditional public schools. In 2007, public school enrollment was 47% white, 22% black, 21% Hispanic and 3% Asian. Private, religious school enrollment was 73% white, 9% black, 12% Hispanic, 3% Asian, while private, secular school enrollment was: 69% white, 11% black, 9% Hispanic, and 6% Asian. Poor students make up 40% of public schools, but only 17% of private religious and 10% of private secular schools.

3. Mayoral control is tempting, but not a magic bullet:  The trend toward big-city mayors assuming control of their city’s school system actually began in the 1990s, when  mayors in Boston and then Chicago took over their city’s schools. New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg took over his city’s schools in 2002, followed a few years later by Adrian Fenty in Washington, D.C. In 2006, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was prevented by a judge’s ruling from assuming more power over the Los Angeles Unified School District. Assuming control of failing school districts is tempting for Mayors, who think that controlling school board and Superintendent appointments is a great way to ensure accountability and stability in school leadership. But does mayoral control actually improve schools? Researchers say there is no compelling evidence of a connection between rising achievement and mayoral control.

The hidden story here is that mayoral control is simply a way to eliminate oversight, accountability and democracy. It takes away the power of parents, teachers and community members and focuses it into the hands of a benign (or not so benign) dictator who, more likely than not, uses that power to hand over public schools to private ed profiteers and charter schools. It allows billionaire mayors like New York’s Bloomberg to install inexperienced rich cronies as schools chief (e.g., Cathie Black, Joel Klein) or Daley to install the equally inexperienced and wealthy Duncan in Chicago. 

2. Race to the Top: With the creation of the $4.3 billion Race to the Top competition, President Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan dramatically increased the Federal role in education. Is that a good thing? The four options for states to use to turn around failing schools are not supported by any particular research, and the huge jackpot being dangled by the U.S. Department of Education won’t necessarily go where it’s needed the most — instead, it will go to the states that best parrot Washington’s new party line.

In California, for example, the state had to adopt the national content standards known as Common Core Standards, in order to be in the running for RTTT funds. This will cost $1.6 billion in new textbooks (a windfall to the ed publishing industry), yet the RTTT grant for California (had they succeeded) was only worth $700 million. RTTT also requires states to ease restrictions and quotas on new charter schools, which makes it easier for private, for-profit charter schools and EMOs to gain access to public education funds.

1. No Child Left Behind: I don’t think you can underestimate the impact this law had on schools over the past decade. NCLB was one of President George W. Bush’s signature policy achievements, but it was also backed by powerful Democrats in Congress, including the late Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California. The law drastically expanded the use of standardized tests and set up the unachievable goal of making all students proficient by 2014. Schools that failed to meet growth targets (Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP) for all students and specific subgroups (like members of minority groups and students with disabilities) were subject to sanctions, which became more severe each passing year. The one good thing the law accomplished was to focus attention on the achievement gap, and put schools on notice that they should pay attention to the achievement of all students. But the law’s sanctions and targets were unnecessarily punitive and unrealistic, and led to a narrower focus on basic skills rather than critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.

NCLB (re-christened as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, its original name) has been up for reauthorization since last year, but little progress has been made (the Obama Administration says reauthorization will be a top priority for 2011).  Until that reauthorization happens, all of NCLB technically remains in effect, though it’s unclear whether its most toxic provisions will actually be enforced.

There are two big under-reported stories here. First, NCLB was designed so that its goals could never be attained. Virtually every school in California is expected to be failing by 2014, the year all students are supposed to be proficient under NCLB. The reason is that if any subgroup of students (e.g., special education, immigrant, ESL, low income, etc.) at a school fails to improve sufficiently, the entire school is deemed a failure under NCLB. 

The second story is that NCLB, like RTTT, is big business and has the potential to become even bigger, especially if schools continue to fail. The tests bring in big bucks for the test publishers, while the pressure for schools to improve increases spending on new curricula, professional development and restructuring plans. Many of the curriculum suppliers had close ties with President Bush and some even helped to write NCLB. Barnett Alexander “Sandy” Kress, for example, was a lobbyist for McGraw-Hill and a key architect of NCLB. Harold McGraw, Jr., of McGraw-Hill, sat on the board of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, while his son, Harold McGraw III, was a member of the George W. Bush transition team. Kress also represented Ignite! Learning, a company headed by Neil Bush, and K12 Inc., owned by Bill Bennett, Reagan’s Education Secretary. 

While there are certainly huge profits to be made by selling tests, textbooks and curriculum, there may be even greater potential profits ahead for charter school companies and EMOs. After four years of failure, schools must replace all their teachers, implement new curricula, appoint outside experts, or convert to a charter school. With states like California expecting nearly 100% failure by 2014, this could open up a backdoor route for the complete privatization of the k12 education system.


  1. This is great and I plan to steal, each one could be it's own post...

  2. Steal to your heart's content, Chris.