. . . so the WaPost reports Tuesday. Eduwonk says the real issue is what is happening to black kids in districts that are not as well-functioning as Fairfax and Montgomery.

One thing I would like to see is a class breakdown of the scores. The Post reports that almost half of Montgomery county African-American students qualify for free or reduced lunch. But that does not answer the key question, which is how many of the kids earning the passing AP scores come from the group of low-income minority students. More passing scores should be applauded; more passing scores from low-income students is even more impressive.


Jim Ryan, at UVA law school, is one of the smartest education law professors around. His analysis of today’s decision is worth reading. Jim’s basic point is that Kennedy’s opinion will allow K-12 schools to use race-conscious measures, in much the same way that Justice Powell’s decision in Bakke set guidelines for affirmative action at the higher education level. Given Kennedy’s historic opposition to any use of race by the government, I am pleasantly surprised that, even while striking down these plans, he explained how schools might use race to vindicate the spirit of Brown.

Jack Balkin also has some thoughtful comments on this issue.

Sara Mead, formerly of Ed Sector and now at my old stomping grounds The New America Foundation, is one of the most thoughtful and honest writers in a field that is too polarized for its own good. So when she writes something it is worth reading. Her latest report, released today, criticizes the Florida McKay voucher program for special education students.

Money Quote:

But many of the most important policy questions about McKay—in particular, what influence it has on student achievement—are virtually impossible to answer, because the state collects very little information from schools and students participating in the program. Students utilizing Florida’s other school choice options—including charter or magnet school students and those receiving corporate tax credit vouchers—must take the same state assessments that are used to measure student performance and hold
schools accountable within the public school system. But McKay students are not required to take such assessments, and, as a result, we cannot know whether McKay students perform better, worse, or the same as special education students in public schools.

It is a really big deal if a voucher program does not lead to improved student outcomes using traditional academic testing measures. This is true now more than ever. Once upon a time, vouchers were defended on religious freedom grounds. But the modern voucher movement has staked its claim on racial justice. The racial justice claim for vouchers has always required evidence that private schools were more effective than public ones at teaching academic skills.

To this end, voucher supporters have cited James Coleman’s High School Achievement: Public, Catholic, and Private Schools; Andrew Greeley’s Catholic High Schools and Minority Students, John Chubb and Terry Moe’s, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, and William Howell & Paul Peterson, The Education Gap: Vouchers and Urban Schools. This research has caused people like Whitney Tilson to argue that “every multi-year study ever done shows much higher gains by children receiving vouchers.”

This was the heart of the argument that voucher defenders made to the Supreme Court in the Zelman case upholding the Cleveland voucher program. They said that voucher plans would provide better academic outcomes for black and low-income children, thereby vindicating Brown v. Board of Education.

The lawyers, led by Clint Bolick, offered a litany of statistics documenting the dire educational prospects for low-income minority children in inner-city school districts. In Cleveland at the time, fewer than 10% of ninth graders passed a basic proficiency test, two-thirds dropped out or failed out before graduating, and those who graduated could not compete academically with students from other Ohio schools. Bolick then cited studies—including the ones I mentioned above–showing that private schools, including religious schools, achieve better academic results with similar students.

Just last week the DC voucher plan took a hit when first year scores showed no improvement over public schools (big caveat: you cannot, in my view, judge a program based on one year of test scores). Leo Casey and I both argued that if test scores are going to count for public schools, voucher defenders cannot claim an exemption. But the McKay plan is even worse, because the kids are not even being evaluated using the same tests.

If the progressive elements of the pro-voucher community do not stand up here and demand real accountability for this program, the movement simply cannot remain credible.

I am interested in seeing how the latest results of D.C.’s high profile voucher plan get spun. According to the Washington Post (I have not yet read the report itself, so keep that in mind), test scores have not gone up. One valid response: this is the first year of the evaluation. You might not expect to see improvement right away, especially given that when students change schools they typically struggle in the first year. So let’s wait and see; it is too early to call this a failure.

But I want to address the other argument that loomed large in the Post and the New York Times stories on this report. Some voucher supporters are arguing that because parents are satisfied with the program that is enough to vindicate the experiment.

Wait a minute. Let’s get very clear on what metrics we are going to use to evaluate vouchers, or any educational reform for that matter.

The dominant view in education policy–enshrined in No Child Left Behind–is that schools will be judged by how students do on reading, math, and science tests. A public school that would otherwise be labeled failing does not get a pass, no matter how satisfied the parents say they are. So if parental satisfaction measures are sufficient to justify a voucher program with mediocre test score results, they should be good enough for a public school. Which would mean re-writing NCLB, among other accountability laws.

Having said that, let’s look on the bright side. Perhaps the debate over how to measure the success of a voucher program will ultimately have an positive impact on how we evaluate educational reforms generally.

I for one like that schools are increasingly paying attention to reading, math and science scores, and I support increased accountability. But ultimately I would like us to look at a broader range of data.

Voucher proponents are correct, parental satisfaction should count–but for all schools, not just voucher schools. But let’s not stop there. There are other important things that thoughtful educators try to teach. For example, many of us are trying to foster resilience, creativity, perseverance, empathy, caring, and courage. But I haven’t figured out a way to measure whether we’ve succeeded. These things are as hard to assess as they are essential to teach.

But we don’t have a choice. We have to start figuring out ways of measuring and proving that students have learned these things. The data-driven world is here to stay in education. The challenge, I believe, for educators today is to figure out how to capture, and measure, some of things that we know matter, but aren’t currently assessed.

I want to take a second to promote the work of Venture Philanthropy Partners, who fund a number of groups in the DC Region, including See Forever and Maya Angelou. Fundraising is hard business, but these folks really get it. They listen to the non-profits they work with, they are in it for the long haul, and they care. They just announced a new fund, and this is their promo video.

Bob Herbert’s latest describes how fewer and fewer teens have jobs. The teen employment rate is at its lowest point in 60 years, and it is especially bleak for black teens.

There is a temptation in the education community to see this issue as separate from school reform. But that is a mistake.

For teens from the most depressed communities, like those I worked with as a public defender in DC and now at Maya Angelou, one of the real challenges with convincing them to take advantage of school is getting them to see the relevance of all of this to their future. It is hard to communicate what it is like to grow up in a community where so many people are unemployed–and where even the employed people have jobs that are so uninteresting and poorly paid that it is hard to convince anyone to aspire to them. Moreover, kids who have no money really want a chance to earn a little, legally, during the evenings and the weekends. When that isn’t possible it pushes them further to the margins and drains them of hope. Kids are not dumb, and all the “you can make it” chanting in the world, while important, runs against the hard reality of what they see in front of them. Bottom line: Until school reformers start to see some of the connections between our efforts in the classroom and the challenges faced by the communities surrounding our schools, we will never realize our full potential.

Leo Casey over at EdWize has a thoughtful response to my recent post regarding the responsibility that the African-American community has for demanding better school systems. (For more on how this conversation got started, see Kevin and Sara’s posts at The Quick and the Ed.)

But as I read this and his other post on the topic of fixing broken bureaucracy, I realized that he does not fully understand the nature of the problem in Washington, D.C. (and I expect in at least some other places, but D.C. is what I know best). The problem Casey is focused on is corruption and patronage. But while these are problems, this misses the real issue. The biggest problem in D.C., if you accept the Washington Post’s analysis, is inaction and incompetence.

–It is a brand new school opening, but 3 years later the media production room still doesn’t work, because a critical piece of equipment fell into a bureaucratic chasm.

–It is employee records stuffed in cardboard boxes–and the system is five years behind in processing the contents of the boxes.

–It is a system that lacks an accurate list of its 55,000 students, although it pays $900,000 to a consultant each year to count.

–It is a principal who lured a great math teacher from a charter school, but the paperwork took so long downtown that the teacher went elsewhere.

–It is a supervisor trying to figure out why the system pays so much for trash collection, finally locating the employee deep in the bowels of the bureaucracy, and realizing that the person did not know how to operate the computer on their desk.

–It is a new superintendent finding that personnel records were lost because a motorized filing system had been broken for years, trapping hundreds of records behind a wall. And then learning that people had known about the problem and done nothing.

I agree with Casey that the solution is not dismantling all bureaucracy (nor is it to turn all schools into charters, which are also susceptible to the problems we are discussing). We will always have government-run schools (I don’t think the term is pejorative, by the way), and we need government to work. Poor and working people need it especially. So we need a bureaucracy that works.

But in getting the bureaucracy to work, I don’t think the race and class issues I raise are 20 years out of date. Maybe what I have to say is limited to D.C., which is a majority black city. But I continue to contend that at least in D.C., if a mostly-white system were doing to lower-class black children what our current system is doing, the African-American community would be outraged and this would be a major civil rights issue. That the system has been allowed to under-serve our neediest children for so long is in part because our community still struggles with how to respond when those doing the disserving look like us.