Data Wonk

Who Are Those Education Reformers?

Are conservatives or liberals pushing for charter schools?

By - Mar 27th, 2019 12:45 pm
School classroom. Image by Wokandapix on Pixabay

School classroom. Image by Wokandapix on Pixabay

The need for improvements in urban schools becomes clear from the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which every two years rates the progress of 4th and 8th graders in reading and math, among other subjects. In the most recent assessment, 26 urban districts, including Milwaukee, were over-sampled, so that statistically-valid results could be reported for each.

As the graph below shows, across the 2017 tests of math and reading in 4th and 8th grade, Milwaukee Public School students consistently scored near the bottom among the urban districts. In the graph, the blue bar shows the number of urban districts that scored better than MPS on each of the tests. Gray shows the number of districts scoring worse (Detroit and, in grade 8 reading, Cleveland), and rust shows the number that were statistically similar to MPS.

NAEP Scores: Milwaukee Compared to Other Districts

NAEP Scores: Milwaukee Compared to Other Districts

NAEP tests were first given in 2009 and reported by state. Starting in 2003, results were separately reported for several urban districts. MPS joined the urban districts reporting in 2009. It skipped testing in 2015 but rejoined in 2017. District participation is voluntary, but the number participating has been increasing. The map below shows the cities participating in 2017. (The arrows indicate that a city’s score of the 8th grade math test went up or down since 2009.)

Change in 8th grade math scores

Change in 8th grade math scores

The next four graphs show how scores for the nation, the average city, and Milwaukee have changed since then. The first shows average scores for 4th grade math.

NAEP: Grade 4 Math Average Scores

NAEP: Grade 4 Math Average Scores

The next graph shows the averages on the 8th grade math test. As with the 4th grade math, the gap between other cities and Milwaukee has widened.

NAEP Grade 8 Math

NAEP Grade 8 Math

The next two graphs show average reading scores. As with math, the most recent 4th grade score, below shows a widening gap between MPS and other districts.

NAEP Grade 4 Reading

NAEP Grade 4 Reading

Finally, the following graph shows results for the 8th grade reading. In contrast to the other tests, MPS shows a slight uptick on the most recent exams—but still well behind most other districts.

NAEP Grade 8 Reading

NAEP Grade 8 Reading

Within MPS, the two biggest gaps are between black and white students and between students qualifying for free or reduced lunch and those not qualifying, the standard measure of poverty in schools. The first gap has remained about the same since testing started in Milwaukee; the latter has widened by a statistically significant amount.

In defense of Milwaukee’s record, it should be noted that, depending on how one measures, Milwaukee often ranks at or near the bottom among urban areas in terms of poverty, especially among black children. This often leads to conclusion that there is little schools can do about the gaps until the happy day when poverty is eliminated.

If carried to its extreme, this argument makes education irrelevant (“It’s poverty, not teacher quality” as one commentator put it) to solving one of America’s gravest problems, the growth of inequality. In Milwaukee and elsewhere, some educators have recognized that a school that is perfectly satisfactory for middle class kids may not suffice for students in poverty and have taken advantage of the flexibility allowed by the charter school route to establish schools that have had greater success with this population.

Unfortunately, charter schools generate hostility from those committed to the status quo, such as teachers unions. The most common approach by those opposing educational reform is to describe it as a right-wing plot. Here is an image, reposted on the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association web site that summarizes the message:

Who really is the charter lobby: The California Charter Schools Association.

Who really is the charter lobby: The California Charter Schools Association.

“An open letter to new Teach for America Recruits” published in Milwaukee-based Rethinking Schools picks up this theme:

And please do not become a foot soldier for the corporate education reform movement. Do not partner with the very people trying to destroy public education

The magazine accompanied this with a section entitled “RESISTING TEACH FOR AMERICA.”

Diane Ravitch, formerly an advocate of choice in education and now a ubiquitous opponent writes in her blog:

With its free-market orientation, TFA has become a major political player on the right, especially on education issues, where they advance school choice and undermine teacher professionalism and unions. Their goal is to capture political power for the privatization agenda.

Last year, the Colorado Democratic convention voted to demand that Democrats for Education Reform, founded by former Journal Sentinel education reporter Joe Williams, stop using “Democrats” in its name. (How well the convention spoke for Democrats is indicated by the fact that the candidate for governor who was overwhelmingly rejected by the convention went on to win the Democratic primary and the election.)

This style of arguing, that charters should be opposed because they are supported by people we don’t like, is more common, I think, on the right than the left. Consider President Trump’s use of “socialism” to describe the “Green New Deal.” The strategy aims on shutting off any discussion on the merits of a proposal by associating it with people on the other side.

Thus, an Atlantic article condemns the highly popular Knowledge Is Power Program (or “KIPP”) charter schools as “engaged in the project of neoliberalizing public goods by introducing consumer choice as a form of subjecting the school system to a kind of market discipline.”

Is education reform dominated by Republicans and market-oriented conservatives, as the MTEA and other opponents would have it? A recent article in the journal Education Next looks at political contributions from employees of organizations receiving grants from the Gates and Walton foundations, organizations like Teach for America, KIPP, and Achieve, the force behind the Common Core academic standards.

For good measure, they also examined the presenters at the most recent conference of the Association for Education Finance and Policy (AEFP), the more charter-friendly organization for education researchers. The authors’ findings are summarized in the following graph. The percentage of contributions to Republicans are shown in red; those to Democrats in blue.

Political Contributions from Staff of Education Reform Grantees

Political Contributions from Staff of Education Reform Grantees

For good measure, the authors compare these results to several traditionally Democratic groups. Gates Foundation grantees, in particular, give a larger percentage of dollars to Democrats than do such traditionally-Democratic populations as Hollywood or public-sector unions, including the National Education Association.

Titling their article “Education reform’s deep blue hue,” the authors conclude that the danger for education reform is not that too many but too few conservatives are engaged. The claim that charter schools are a conservative plot is simply untrue.

3 thoughts on “Data Wonk: Who Are Those Education Reformers?”

  1. huk730 says:

    In Milwaukee, say “charter” and you think “union busting.” That’s called a “frame.” George Lakoff says when frames are strong “the facts bounce off.” Not much thought goes into the common sense idea in Chicago where the teachers union is organizing charter teachers not demanding an end to charter schools. The origins of the charter and choice movement in Milwaukee can be found in the black community’s profound dissatisfaction with the quality of MPS education, not right wing demagogues. The dearth of good, pedagogically-sound schools has plagued Milwaukee for decades. We need more innovation, not less. Good article, but I’m afraid its facts will bounce off the brains of the MTEA crowd.

  2. mkwagner says:

    This article does not account for the historical context. Milwaukee Public Schools have been struggling for over 50 years. That is long before there was a strong teacher’s union, our current school board and funding problems. If one were to seriously analyze the problems with MPS, you would find only one consistent factor: RACISM.
    Let’s look at the history. The charter movement began in the South, in states like Virginia, where they closed all public schools in order to subvert the Supreme Court Decisions Brown v The Topeka Board of Education. To provide for the education of white children, private schools were established. Families received state grants and tax credits to send their children to these schools. No provisions were made to educate African American children.
    That’s the South. What does that have to do with Milwaukee? Actually quite a bit. My mother use to say, “Milwaukee is the only southern hick town north of the Mason/Dixon line.” That level of racism is seem in the segregation of African Americans into the ghetto north-side and way neighborhood schools were funded. For instance, in the mid 1970s, a friend who taught in a African American school, complained that the US geography texts she had available did not include Alaska and Hawaii as states. Schools in African American neighborhoods were overcrowded, understaffed and lacked basic resources ( too many had bathrooms that didn’t work). When forced to address these overcrowded conditions, children from the inner city were bused to “white” schools. However, those children arrived 15-30 minutes after the school day began for their “white” school mates. They had separate classes, recesses, and lunch periods. They left the school after the white children had cleared the school grounds.
    Even when forced to integrate, the plan was not to equalize funding for all neighborhood schools, it was to bus African American children to the better funded “white” schools. Schools in segregated African American neighborhoods were left to fail.
    With the “great” reform of, No Child Left Behind (or as those of us in the field of education call it, No Child’s Behind Left Untested) racism continued. No where in that reform did anyone ask what do children need to succeed. Instead it was eliminate art, music and physical education so more time could be devoted to reading and math. When student scores didn’t improve, the children and the teachers were blamed. The cry went out, “We need more teachers!” And we have Teach for America that threw poorly prepared idealistic young adults in front of classrooms full of traumatized children. Then it was, we need schools that aren’t hampered by bureaucracy. So the chart school movement was re-energized. Charter schools picked and chose their students and still the minimal improvement in student scores can’t justify the money that is being poured in. Like in Virginia in the early 1960s, more and more of that charter school money is being diverted away from children with serious needs and towards families with means.
    With that all said, I do think idealistic young adults and charter schools can be a part of the solution to what ails MPS. However, until we as a community address the underlying issue of racism, Milwaukee will continue to leave children of color behind. We will pay dearly for having done so.

  3. Richard Marx says:

    If charter schools are so great, why not let a community vote on the application of an entity that wants to start a charter school since local tax dollars will be paying for a majority of the funding. Let the chartering entity sell the idea that this school will be good for the students in the community. On-line charter schools in Colorado, Ohio and Indiana are having many problems and are being investigated. The best way to understand the school charter/choice “reform” movement is to see it as conservative initiative to change the governance model from elected local school boards and give the governance of schools to a aggregation of entities that have no accountability to local tax payers.

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