Thursday February 9, 2023
FEATURE: An Honest Discussion - Education | ANALYSIS: Laying it on the Line
FEATURE: An Honest Discussion - Education
The words “civility” and “debate” are in need of serious repair. Civility is too often reduced to acting properly in the public square. We certainly need improvement in this area, but for many, civility has also come to mean ignoring the hard conversations that can, quite frankly, become emotionally charged. “Debate” is a near-lost art form. The idea that we would actively engage with those we disagree was once at the cornerstone of college learning, high school debate teams, and cloakroom discussions on Capitol Hill. Today, debate has given way to nonstop partisan “debates” on FOX, MSNBC, and other partisan venues dedicated to selling an ideology as opposed to seriously discussing ideas.
This series is about recovering civility through the debate format. Our first topic is Education, and we will play out this discussion over several issues.
We’ve kept the lengths short so that ideas, and not rhetoric, rule the day. We link sources so that people can judge for themselves the accuracy of the debate. And the goal is to move beyond ideology to reach a place where competing viewpoints can engage honestly, learn from one another, and lead to a healthier debate in which each party learns from the other and creates a better vocabulary for discussion. One focused on problem-solving, and not ideology.
An Introduction to the Debaters
Shaun Kenney is vice president for American Life League, and a former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and is presently a graduate student in philosophy at the Catholic University of America.
Martin Davis is the founder of F2S and a middle school history teacher. He is previously opinion editor of the Free Lance-Star newspaper in Fredericksburg and has reported nationally on education issues for Philanthropy, National Journal, and The Christian Science Monitor among other publications. Before a career in journalism, he taught history at the University of South Carolina and at Benedict College. He holds a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, an M.A. from the University of Chicago, and was a doctoral student at the University of South Carolina.
Starting Round - Shaun Kenney
School choice isn’t the bogeyman most leftists believe it to be. In fact, the numbers on school choice are clear: 72% of Americans support giving parents the decision making power on where to send their own children. 68% of Democrats and 82% of Republicans support giving parents a wider choice rather than government-issued public education. The US Department of Education’s own statistics show that despite pushing billions of dollars into a failing education system, our students place a mere 25th in reading and 37th in math.
Who consistently placed first in every category? China.
Public education spending has increased dramatically over the last 30 years, increasing most dramatically under Republican administrations versus their Democratic opposition. Yet while the investment per pupil has increased over 50%, the return on investment has been flatlined at best and even declined post-pandemic. Administrative bloat in public education has risen an outrageous 702% since 1950.
Yet the purpose of an education, observed Will Durant, is to transmit civilizational values. Parents, not educators, are the primary instructors of their children. When former Governor Terry McAuliffe spoke the quiet part out loud, the gaffe only served to confirm what millions of center-right parents feared regarding the institutions which surround us. Sure, they may pay lip service to an open public square, but when push comes to shove? One set of values will dominate over the other, at the risk of being called haters, bigots, or intolerant for the sin of raising questions.
Besides, is competition a bad thing? Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) which would only take a fraction of per-pupil spending, creating the win-win-win that parents, public schools, and independent schools are all looking for. What’s wrong with that?
Soviet-era approaches to 21st century environments aren’t serving our students. In a free society, parents – and parents alone – have the right to pass on their values. Government doesn’t get a vote in that debate.
Rebuttal - Martin Davis
American public schools are better than many give them credit for - it’s the way we talk about them that’s profoundly broken. People generally love their local public schools. But when asked about public education in general, we turn on the very system that creates the schools in our communities.
How can it be that we love our local public schools, but are suspicious of education more generally?
Because our debates are filled with politically charged language and oversimplifications of an enormously complex problem.
Consider the misuse of PISA scores above to shame schools. PISA’s own developers state that the test is not meant to rank countries, though that’s how the test scores are used by conservatives in particular to drive the narrative of “failed” education. And that’s just one of many problems with using PISA data.
Complaints about spending are also grossly distorted. Simple statements like spending on educational administration has jumped 702%, while “return on investment” has flatlined or worse ignores several problems. First, administrative spending is up in large measure because of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 - a Republican law that gained bipartisan support that has become a disaster (I’ll have more to say about this later).
It also suggests we are misspending money that should go to students. However, educational spending isn’t at all uniform. In Virginia, spending per pupil ranges from just over $8,000 to almost $20,000, according to the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. And there’s little connection between dollars and academic achievement. Some public schools excel with fewer dollars, others flop with big dollars.
The role of parents has also been weaponized by conservatives to attack education. Spend any time with teachers, and they aren’t interested in separating themselves from parents. In fact, teachers’ greatest concern is how to constructively engage parents in public education. And the National Education Association, which conservatives despise, has long worked to improve parental involvement.
And then there’s the issue of “choice.” In fact, school choice programs are no more effective than traditional public schools in delivering “results.” Recent NAEP data, in fact, shows charter school students underperforming public school students.
So let’s stop the ideological posturing. Education is about developing the common good, not bowing to the fears of ideologues left and right.
First Question - Martin Davis
Test data has become a flash-point in education. Ideological battles not only distort testing data and what it means, but provides a grossly distorted understanding of its role. Let’s move beyond ideology by first talking about testing. What are its value, and its shortcomings?
ANALYSIS: Laying It on the Line
by Martin Davis
Since before the pandemic, Fredericksburg City Schools have faced withering criticism for their poor performance on standardized exams. The frustration is understandable. But too many expressing frustration offer nothing by way of solutions.
One Fredericksburg citizen went so far as to tell me a fishing buddy of his could turn the schools around in two years because he was a businessman. Count me skeptical.
The fact is, turning around any large institution, whether it be a school district or a private business, requires vision, buy-in from stakeholders, and transparency. It also takes bold leadership.
Fredericksburg has that leader. Marci Catlett’s vision and sheer gumption were on display Monday night at the school board meeting, and in an interview with FS2 on Tuesday.
Since becoming superintendent in 2019, Catlett has focused her work on creating accountability in a system that had seen little over the previous decade.
Soon after taking the reins, however, she was confronted with COVID, which challenged every school system across the nation and had a significant negative impact on student achievement. While wrestling with that challenge, however, Catlett was working behind the scenes to craft a vision the school district could get behind.
That vision was at the center of Monday’s presentation, pointing to six Priority Areas:
Preparation - A retreat for administrators prior to the fall, comprehensive needs assessment, and inclusive scheduling for special ed students
Staffing - A complete evaluation of the scope and skills of staff
Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment - Partnering with VDOE to take advantage of special programs that aid academic growth, setting instructional expectations
Monitoring - Complete review of academics, audit of federal grants
Strategic Planning for 2023-24 - Building on this year’s work, the system will create a plan for next year that focuses on improving CTE opportunities, increasing the number of advanced academic courses, creating a mission and visioning work group, and examining retention and recruitment policies.
That these six areas touch on every aspect of the city’s school system speaks to the depths of the problems it faces. However, for the first time in many years Catlett has framed the areas that need attention and set for a vision for how to correct what ails the schools.
This process has not been informed by just Catlett and her leadership team. Rather, it’s incorporated the work and insights of a growing group of community leaders invested in the schools’ success.
The city has had no shortage of critics, but what Catlett is showing is that their voices are greatly overshadowed by those who want to get involved and make the schools better.
“People are just hungry to do something,” Catlett told F2S. “They want to know how they can get in and read to kids, or if they don’t have the time, they want to write a check …, there are churches that want to start afterschool programs, people who want to reach out and help a kid.”
The most visible evidence of this community is found at the Superintendent Roundtables launched this year that combine discussing where the schools are going, with collecting ideas and the names of those in the group who want to get involved.
The roundtables have proven wildly popular. The first one in the fall featured about eight or nine tables with five participants each. The most recent one in February featured 15 tables with eight participants at each.
“It’s just growing now,” Catlett said. “People want to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
People, it turns out, are getting an earful of the bad and the ugly from Catlett.
At the school board, Catlett presented a series of slides that came clean about where the schools are at.
At each of the four schools, Catlett’s crew has identified what is working, and what isn’t:
Beyond this, there are plans in place for addressing the shortcomings.
But Catlett’s efforts go beyond putting her schools on the spot. She’s putting herself and her leadership team on the line by not only showing how poorly each school did on the last SOL, but projecting where they’re heading. And Catlett is optimistic.
To understand why, consider the following graph for Walker-Grant Middle School.
The bar graph to the left above each subject area indicates the pass/fail rate on 2022’s SOL exams. In all but science, the failure rate was at or above 50%. Unacceptable by any standard.
This fall, the district gave the Virginia Growth Assessment exams as a way to measure how students this year are doing relative to 2021-22.
Unfortunately, the VGA tests have proven useless, because the state education department under the direction of Aimee Guidera and Jill Balow have yet to establish cut scores for the VGA exam. In other words, the district may know a student scored a 214, but without cut scores, they have no way of knowing if that’s a passing or failing grade.
By failing to set cut scores, “The state pulled the rug out from under us,” said Deputy Superintendent Matt Eberhardt, “so we had to step back and do our own assessment.”
The bars on the right above each subject area represent that assessment.
The administration went to the teachers and asked which students were on track to pass (green), which ones weren’t meeting the standard (red), and which ones were on the fence (yellow).
Eberhardt points out that across the board, the district is seeing a sharp drop from last year in the number of students failing.
The question is, how many of the students on the fence will actually pass the exam?
If most do, this year’s scores should be markedly better. And if they don’t, the story could actually be worse.
When asked if putting this information out there, knowing it could backfire, worried her, Catlett replied: We’re “rallying folks around the truth. We’re ok about this level of transparency…. We’re taking ownership of it.”
Laying It on the Line
There is nothing simple about education reform, especially with school districts that have struggled with achievement.
Jay Mathews, education reporter for the Washington Post, has been watching districts struggle for more than 30 years to overcome lagging scores. He, better, than most, knows there are no magic bullets, that reform takes time and money, and that results are often uneven.
But he also knows that success doesn’t come unless schools demand it of students and teachers. “We don't understand the potential of low-income students,” he told NPR in 2013.
And one can’t demand success until one’s honest about failure and change the discussion about success. And then build the support to make it possible.
“We’re action oriented,” Catlett tells F2S.
Her progress this year certainly reveals that.
As for the test results, we’ll see. Don’t be surprised if the results are better than last year.
And don’t be shocked if the critics mentioned at the beginning of this piece continue to scream it isn’t enough.
That’s what critics who don’t understand education do. Complain, and demand change, but offer few solutions.
Leaders lay it all on the line, demand the best of those around them, and don’t run from the challenge.
Make no mistake. With Monday’s board meeting, Catlett shone a bright light on the schools’ situation; stated that based on teachers’ assessments there’s reason to believe things are getting better; and left herself open to a lot of criticism if students on the fence don’t turn the corner this year.
It’s time for the critics to be silenced. Catlett has laid everything on the line - including her reputation - and she’s created a venue for critics to help solve the problem instead of simply casting stones.
We’ll see where the SOL scores ultimately fall. If students do indeed make progress, don’t be surprised. If scores are disappointing, don’t complain. The groundwork has been laid to turn this district around.
Catlett has laid it all on the line. And the city’s leaders are buying in.
My money’s on Catlett.
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"School choice isn’t the bogeyman most leftists believe it to be."
A provocative opening sentence from Mr. Kenney. An alternative might be: "School choice is more complex than many believe." We only have one chance to make a first impression.