A Nation (and a Notion) At Risk

Editor’s Note: Diane Ravitch delivered the speech reposted below to the California School Boards Association on December 1, 2017. Would that Ravitch could deliver this (long) speech not only to the Virginia School Boards Association, but to all School Boards in our country. It is worth every minute you spend reading it.  ~ C. Wolf 

By Diane Ravitch
Public schools in California and throughout the nation are in an existential crisis. The accountability system is broken. Privatization, promoted by billionaires and the Trump administration, threatens to undermine public education. 
Trump and Betsy DeVos want to reallocate $20 Billion of federal funds for charters and vouchers. The privatizers want to eliminate school boards; they want schools to be run by corporations, whether nonprofit or for profit. The teaching profession is in deep trouble, after years of scapegoating, and the numbers entering teaching have plummeted.
The media portrays public schools as “failing,” despite the fact that test scores and graduation rates for every group, including black and Hispanic students, are at historic highs, and dropout rates are at historic lows.
Let me say from the outset that I believe that public schools, open to all, paid for by taxes, governed by democratically chosen boards, are an essential part of our democracy. Whatever threatens public schools threatens democracy. Public schools are a public good, for which we all pay, not a consumer choice.
For the past three decades, we have heard a steady drumbeat of propaganda targeting public schools and teachers. The propagandists make the false claim that our public schools are failing. They are not. It started in 1983, with a federal report called “A Nation at Risk.” 
That report said that our nation was falling behind the rest of the world because of our terrible schools, that our scores on international tests were embarrassingly low, that other nations were stealing our industries, and that we were in danger of losing our very identity as a nation. That report was written during a recession in 1982. No one thanked the public schools when the economy started booming again.
Thirty four years later, the United States leads the world in technology, economic power, cultural innovation, democratic institutions, and military might. How could we be so successful as a nation if our schools are as terrible as the critics say?
We know from Gallup polls that the public has a low opinion of public education. Why? That’s what they have heard from the national media for years. But when the same poll asks parents about their own local school, the one their own child attends, they say their own school is wonderful, the teachers are terrific, and they rate the school they know very highly.
What I will do today is try to clear the record.
To put it bluntly, American public education has been the target of a long-running propaganda campaign to paint it as failing and obsolete. This is not true.
School reform was once thoughtful and meaningful. Over the past two centuries, we have had a long history of school reformers. Most were educators who wanted to make public schools better. They wanted more funding or better trained teachers or better curriculum or better tests or desegregation. 
But today, the people who call themselves “reformers” don’t want to reform the public schools. They don’t want to make them better. Most of these reformers have never been educators, most have never actually set foot in a public school, but are nevertheless certain that they know how to redesign public education for millions of children. 
They want to privatize public schools, monetize them, and hand them over to private management. When equity investors hold annual conferences to explain how to make a profit off the public education industry, something fundamental has changed. The equity investors talk about public schools not as a democratic community institution, but as a commodity and an investment opportunity. Children are seen as products, not as unique individuals.
What is happening today is unprecedented in our history. 
Until a decade ago, schools were never closed because of low test scores. Low test scores send out a distress signal, a call for help and support and action by those who are in charge. Now it is a signal to fire the staff, close the school, and hand it over to private management.
But that is not what happens in the rest of the world.
This is what we know about the highest performing nations in the world:
They have strong and equitable school systems; they spend more money on poor kids than on rich kids. They have no charters, no vouchers; public education is a public responsibility. They have a respected education profession; no amateurs are allowed as teachers, principals, or superintendents. There is no Teach for Finland.
We know what makes good schools: Caring and involved families; experienced, dedicated teachers and administrators; a responsible school board; a curriculum that includes not only the basic skills but the arts, foreign languages, history, civics, foreign languages, and physical education; reasonable class sizes; and a community united to support its local public schools. 
We know what matters most to parents: they want their children to be healthy, safe, and happy. They want them to be well-educated; they want them to have good character and ethical behavior. They want them to have the skills and knowledge to prepare for life.
What is the purpose of public schools? 
From the beginning of their history—until recently–their purpose was to develop good citizens, to nurture good character, to prepare young men and women to sustain our democratic experiment into the future. 
Young adults who could read and inform themselves about issues, who could vote wisely for their leaders, who could lead independent lives, who could contribute to their communities, and who were able to serve on juries. These are the duties of citizens. This was the original purpose of public schools: citizenship.
Yet we have federal and state policies that focus on one thing and one thing only: test scores. Test scores have become the be-all and end-all, everywhere in the United States, thanks to No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and now, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Policymakers in Washington don’t stop to ask themselves why they want children to be tested every year from grades 3 to 8. 
No other nation does it.
Since 2002, when No Child Left Behind was signed into law, the federal government has been mindlessly engaged in a massive experiment on the nation’s public schools, trying to micromanage them by legislation written in Washington, D.C.
NCLB was George W. Bush’s signature legislation. He said that if we tested every child every year and published the results, wonderful things would happen. That’s what they did in Texas, he said, and they saw dramatic improvements. High school graduation rates went up; achievement gaps closed; and test scores soared. It was called “the Texas miracle.”
But there was no Texas miracle. 
NCLB did not perform any miracles. Instead, it set a totally unreasonable target: every student in every school was supposed to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, or their school would suffer the consequences. 
No school reached that target. It was a ridiculous target. Threats and sanctions and bonuses do not improve education. By 2011, eight years after the law went into effect, nearly half the schools in the nation were classified as failing. 
If the Obama administration had not introduced waivers from NCLB’s unreasonable target, eventually every school in the nation would be a failing school. NCLB was the Death Star of American education.
Then in 2009 came the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, which replicated NCLB instead of replacing it. Race to the Top was NCLB 2.0.
After the financial collapse of fall 2008, Congress gave Secretary Arne Duncan $5 billion in discretionary funds with which to pursue education reform. He used it to double down on the failed testing strategies of NCLB. He used the money to create a competition for the states. To be eligible, states had to agree to evaluate teachers based on their students’ test scores; they had to agree to increase the number of privately managed charter schools; they had to agree to adopt common “college and career ready” standards, which of course were the Common Core standards; they had to agree to take drastic steps to restructure or close schools with low test scores.
Because of NCLB and Race to the Top, many hundreds, perhaps thousands of public schools were closed. Many teachers and principals were fired. Many communities were disrupted, all in pursuit of the ever higher, elusive standardized test scores. 
Thousands of charter schools opened to take the place of public schools, and many of the charter schools closed, because of academic or financial problems. Some got start-up funding and never even opened. They are called “ghost schools.”
American education has gone through nearly two decades of disruption, upheaval, and turmoil.
Was it worth it?
Absolutely not.
Thanks to Congress, the tests became the purpose of schooling. I have a secret wish. I would like to see every member of Congress and every state legislator take the 8th grade math test and publish their scores. I am willing to bet that their passing rate would be far below that of the 8th graders.
NCLB and RTTT caused teaching to the test; cheating; demoralized teachers; school closures; narrowing of the curriculum; cuts to the arts and physical education; and transfer of public money to private management. The beneficiaries were not children but a new industry of consultants and entrepreneurs. 
Thanks to RTTT, almost every state adopted the Common Core standards even though they were never field tested anywhere. Most states endorsed the Common Core before the ink was dry. No one knew if they would increase achievement gaps or narrow them. 
The tests created for the Common Core set passing marks so absurdly high that most students did not pass the tests. And why are we racing to the top? School is not a basketball game or a foot race. 
The promise of American public education is equality of educational opportunity, not a market-based system where a few win, and everyone else loses.
Race to the Top compelled states to judge teachers by student test scores. This method rewarded those who taught in affluent districts and punished those who taught the neediest students. 
The American Statistical Association warned in 2014 that this was a seriously flawed method and should not be used to evaluate teacher quality. It did not identify the best or the worst teachers. The main effect of this method was to shame and demoralize teachers. 
When the Los Angeles Times created and published its own ratings of teachers in LAUSD, a fifth-grade teacher who was publicly shamed and rated mediocre, committed suicide. His name was Rigoberto Ruelas. I will not forget him.
Many states, including California, now have serious teacher shortages. According to the Learning Policy Institute at Stanford, ¾ of the districts in CA are reporting teacher shortages, and the situation is getting worse. 
The shortages are largest in districts serving the neediest children, and worst in special education, mathematics, and science. Teachers are leaving, and the supply of new teachers has shrunk. 
When NCLB was signed in 2002, there were 77,000 people preparing to be teachers in California. By 2014, that number had fallen to only 19,000. You can have an education system staffed by teachers with substandard or emergency credentials, but it won’t be what is best for students.
Daniel Koretz of Harvard University, one of the nation’s most eminent testing experts, recently published a book called “The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.” He says that NCLB failed. Rising test scores became meaningless because test prep inflated test scores without improving education.
You can never close the achievement gap with standardized tests. 
Standardized tests are normed on a bell curve. Bell curves have a top half and a bottom half. The kids from affluent homes cluster in the top half; the kids from poverty, the kids with disabilities, the kids whose native language is not English, dominate the bottom half. 
The bell curve never closes. The bell curve and standardized testing are designed to favor the haves and punish the have-nots.
And let me explain why California is having so much trouble establishing a decent accountability system. The passing mark on standardized tests is completely arbitrary. It not objective; it is not scientific. 
You can set the passing mark so that everyone passes; you can set it so that everyone fails. You can set it so that any percentage you want succeeds of fails. There is no science here. It is human judgment, nothing more.
As long as you rely on standardized tests, there will be achievement gaps. It is baked into the scoring of the tests.
Common Core tests are given in the spring. The results are returned in the summer or fall, when the students no longer have the same teacher. The teachers are not allowed to see what students got right or wrong. The tests have no diagnostic value. None whatever.
From an education point of view, the tests should be offered in September, and the results returned within days or weeks, so that teachers could learn what students know and don’t know. Unless the tests have diagnostic value, they have no value. 
Would you go to a doctor who gave you tests and reported the results three months later, but didn’t tell you anything about your condition? All she could say was how you rank in comparison to other patients who took the same tests. It is as if she said you are doing better or worse than 75% of people your age but I’m not prescribing anything for what ails you. Pointless!
Now, you know I am adamantly opposed to privatization. California is overrun with privatized schools. California has more charter schools and students in privately managed charter schools than any other state in the nation.
It is not because these schools are better than public schools, but because they have the most powerful, best funded lobby in the state. Any legislator who defies the California Charter Schools Association endangers his or her future.
Last spring, a California-based organization called “In the Public Interest” released a report titled Spending Blind, about the state’s lavish spending on charter facilities. It said that the state has spent $2.5 billion on charter school buildings in the past 15 years. 
Three-quarters of the state’s charter schools perform worse than nearby public schools with similar demographics. Many were built in districts that didn’t need them, many engage in discriminatory practices. 
More money for charters means less money for traditional public schools. Every dollar that goes to a charter school is a dollar taken away from public schools. 
Can California afford two separate school systems, one that welcomes all students, and another system that chooses its students and doesn’t get better results?
No matter what they call themselves, charter schools are not public schools. 
Two federal appeals courts have ruled that charter schools are not “state actors.” They are contractors. Public schools are state actors. 
The National Labor Relations Board said that charter schools are not public schools and therefore exempt from state labor laws that cover public schools. 
The charter lobby sought those rulings. They are public when it’s time to get public money but not-public when it comes to state laws. That’s what they want.
California has students enrolled in online charter schools, which are a complete sham. 
The biggest of them, CAVA, hides behind non-profit fronts, but it is run by a for-profit corporation. It collects millions in profits from taxpayers and produces abysmal results. 
CAVA is part of the K12 Inc. chain, which is listed as on the New York Stock Exchange. It was founded by junk bond king Michael Milken. Its executives are paid millions. It has terrible test scores, terrible graduation rates. Why is this permitted? 
Governor Brown vetoed legislation to ban for-profit charter schools.
California has storefront charters, many of which require that students show up only once every 20 days to meet a teacher. Students are given paper packets of work to take home and complete. Some of these storefront charters have a graduation rate under 10%. Some even have a graduation rate of 0%. Students as early as 7th grade can enroll in these storefront “learning centers.” 
What a waste of learning time!
The leader of two charter schools in Livermore misappropriated millions of dollars.
The leader of the American Indian Charter Schools in Oakland replaced almost every Native American student with Asian-American students, and transferred nearly $4 million to his personal bank accounts. He is currently under federal indictment for mail fraud and money laundering.
California has 10 charter schools owned and managed by a mysterious Turkish imam who lives in the Poconos in Pennsylvania and is currently embroiled in a bitter political dispute with the Turkish government. Most of its board members and teachers are Turkish, brought here on visas. Are they qualified to teach the fundamentals of citizenship to American students?
The leader of the charter school called “The Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists” bought a building, leased it to her charter for $19,000 a month, paid herself a salary of $223,000 a year, and skimmed millions of dollars from taxpayers. 
She required a teacher to fly to Nigeria to marry her brother so he could acquire American citizenship; the teacher refused and was fired; she received a settlement of half a million dollars for wrongful termination. 
The founder paid the state $16,000, and the school was closed in 2016, a rare instance of a wee bit of accountability. Just last May, the founder and her son were indicted for embezzlement and money laundering. The California Charter Schools Association backed up the founder in each of her appeals. Folks, you can’t make this stuff up.
The founders of Ivy Academia charter schools in the San Fernando Valley were convicted of embezzlement in 2013. The California Charter Schools Association supported them on the grounds that charter schools are not “state actors” and are not subject to the same laws as real public schools.
The founder of the Celerity Group charter chain of seven schools in Southern California receives a salary of nearly half a million dollars a year. She buys designer clothes, enjoys dining at fine restaurants, hires limousines, all on the schools’ credit card. One meal at the Arroyo Chop House in Pasadena cost nearly $1,000, charged to the charter schools’ credit card. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security raided Celerity’s offices. Do taxpayers know that they are underwriting her elegant lifestyle?
California allows small rural districts to authorize charters in districts far away from them. The small districts get a handsome management fee, and no one supervises the storefront charters that they authorize. The so-called “satellite charter industry” enrolls 150,000 students in so-called independent study centers. 
Nearly 20% of the state’s charters operate as satellites, producing millions in revenue for private operators. These are sham schools with rock-bottom graduation rates. Do taxpayers want to squander their money on profit-making activities that benefit the sponsors and the industry, but not the students?
Want to read about it? Google “Charters and Consequences” by Carol Burris, CEO of the Network for Public Education.
The superintendent of a small rural district, Mountain Empire Unified School District, pled guilty to felony conflict of interest after creating more than a dozen charters in other districts, then signing contracts with those charters for his private consulting business. 
The superintendent received a kickback for every charter he created in another district without their knowledge, his little district collected up to $500,000 a year from the charters, and he personally collected five percent of the revenue from each of the charters. 
Some of those charters then paid his consulting firm as much as $100,000 for back-office services.
Friends, this is public money, collected from taxpayers. Is this right? Something is wrong with state law in California.
San Diego County has 120 charter schools. 20% of the students in the county are in charter schools. Over one-third of the county’s charters are “independent learning centers,” which means the student rarely if ever meets a teacher or another student. 
At a school called Charter High School, only 1/3 of the students graduated. At the Diego Valley charter, only 11% of the cohort graduated. In Los Angeles, one-quarter of the students in the nation’s second largest district attend charters. No new money is appropriated for charters. 
The charters cost LAUSD half a billion dollars in lost revenue over the past decade. How can the district, which is responsible for the majority of students, improve its offerings, reduce its class sizes, and pay teachers more when it is constantly losing revenue to charters?
As you know, charters may be approved by the local school district. If they are turned down, they can appeal to the county board of education. If they are turned down, they can appeal to the state board. How many of your districts have charter schools that your board did not approve, want, or need? If you say, “None,” I say, “Wait. They are on their way.”
The legislature has regularly passed laws for charter accountability, laws to require charter boards to hold public meetings, but the California Charter School Association has vigorously lobbied to block any accountability. 
Governor Brown has vetoed legislation that would increase accountability for charters. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos must love California, the blue state that gives her almost everything she wants.
Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, was a member of the California State Board of Education. He is also a generous donor to the California Charter Schools Association. 
He gave millions to the campaign to give charter advocates control of the Los Angeles school board. He has said publicly that school boards are obsolete. He believes that schools should be run by large corporations.
I disagree. I think democracy is superior to the corporate model. 
I think that the public has a right to choose its leaders. I think that public education should be democratically controlled, not for the benefit of corporations, but for the benefit of students and society. I think you, the elected board, know your community and your students far better than any faceless corporation.
Earlier this year, the NAACP issued a blistering critique of the charter industry. It called for a moratorium on new charters until new laws are in place for accountability. The NAACP offered these recommendations:
First, There should be more equitable and adequate funding for schools serving children of color. The current school finance system is extremely unfair and inequitable.
Second, more money should go to schools where the needs are greatest. Invest in low-performing schools so that students have fully qualified educators, early childhood education, health and mental services, extended learning time, and social supports.
Third, only local school districts should be allowed to authorize charters, based on their needs.
Fourth, eliminate for-profit charter schools and for-profit charter management companies that control nonprofit charters. Not a single dollar of federal, state or local money should go to for-profit charters or for-profit managers.
​Do not expect charters to reduce the achievement gaps between children who are rich and poor, between children from different racial and ethnic groups. Betsy DeVos’ home state of Michigan is overrun with charter schools, both for profit and nonprofit. DeVos has used her fortune to block any accountability for charters. In that sense, California and Michigan are similar. 
Lots of charters, no accountability. In 2003, Michigan was right in the middle of the 50 states on national tests. By 2013, Michigan had fallen to the bottom in reading and mathematics. All that choice, and no results. Like California, Michigan has been overrun with charter school scandals, frauds, and embezzlement.
You serve as school board members because you want to help schools. You want them to be better than they are now. They won’t get better if they have less money.
Here are my suggestions:
Children start life with different advantages and disadvantages. Leveling the playing field is an obligation of society. Schools can help but they can’t do it alone. There is an achievement gap on the first day of school. It starts in the home, where children are exposed to different opportunities and vocabulary and learning experiences.
Here are numbers that really make a difference. Pre-natal care: UN-March of Dimes: 131/184, tied with Somalia
High-quality Early childhood education: The Economist: 34 out of 45. These are the causes of low scores.
Of the 30 richest nations, the US ranks 29th in income equality and wealth equality. We are #1 in child poverty. Hal the children in public schools qualify for free or reduced price lunches. They are poor.
Reduce class sizes, especially in the early grades, especially for children who are having learning problems. Children who are falling behind need small classes, even individual tutors.
Every school should have a full and rich curriculum, including the arts and physical education, history and literature, science and mathematics and foreign languages.
Medical care for children whose parents can’t afford it. Health clinic, school nurse.
Wraparound services: parent education, school psychologist, social workers, librarians; after-school programs, summer programs (summer learning loss).
Charters should be authorized only by local school districts, to meet their needs. If alternative schools are needed, they should be part of the district. They should serve children who are not making it in public schools; students who are dropouts; those who have tuned out and need extra motivation. Charters should be for the weakest students, not the strongest. They should boast of how many children they have saved, not about their test scores. And know that charters are the gateway drug to school choice; there are already calls for vouchers in California, which would further deplete the coffers of public schools.
Do whatever you can to reduce racial segregation.
Strengthen the profession: teachers should have at least a full year of professional education and practice teaching; principals should be master teachers, who can help their teachers; superintendents should be experienced educators who understand teaching and learning.
Support teachers, so they don’t leave. Give them mentors and opportunities for professional growth.
Use tests diagnostically, not as carrots or sticks. Standardized tests should be used sparingly, preferably on a sampling basis. Most tests should be written by teachers, who know what they taught.
Teachers should be evaluated based on their performance in the classroom, by their peers and their supervisors, not by test scores.
Schools that are struggling should get timely help, not closing. Maybe they need smaller classes for children who can’t read; maybe they need extra social workers; maybe they need more bilingual instructors.
The purpose of education is not to race to higher test scores, but to prepare children for the duties and responsibilities of citizenship. What matters most is that students learn to think about the consequences of their actions, learn to treat others with respect, learn how to live and work in a world of rapid change, and gain the knowledge and skills they need to function in the world. What matters most cannot be assessed by a standardized test.
Public education is a public trust.
Protecting our public schools against privatization and saving them for future generations of American children is the civil rights issue of our time.
Use your efforts, your influence, your responsibility to strengthen and improve public schools. Fight for laws to curb the misuse of public money. Fight for laws to prohibit profiting from children and public schools. 
Elect public officials who will support public schools and oppose privatization. Do not support candidates who do not support our public schools, doors open to all, accountable and transparent.
Stand up for your community, your students, your teachers, and our democracy.

Friday Education News Roundup




In many ways 2017 seemed like a never-ending stream of bad news and attacks on public education. However, advocates kept up the good fight and the movement for education justice saw growth and increased capacity. Thanks to our grantee partners and allies working tirelessly in communities across the country, we’d like to share some good news! In no particular order, here are the top 10 policy wins our grantee partners helped secure. These victories give us hope for 2018 and reinforce the idea that positive change in public education starts at the grassroots.Read more >


A Louisiana teacher questioned whether the superintendent should receive a raise. Then, she was ushered out of a school board meeting and handcuffed. The dramatic arrest on Monday — which was caught on video — has drawn outrage in the U.S. and beyond.



Several months ago, the Huffington Post set out to create a database of every private school in the country that receives taxpayer funding. They also tracked the religious affiliation of each school and looked at how many taught from these evangelical Christian textbooks. What they found was disturbing.


In a nation that can afford to give businesses a $2.6 trillion tax cut and spend at least $4 trillion on endless wars in the Middle East, we can’t seem to be able to guarantee students that their classrooms will be heated nor promise teachers that they can depend on decent wages and reasonable working conditions.


New Mexico’s education chief is being blasted for linking the growth of charter schools to the controversial 19th century belief of American expansion known as Manifest Destiny. Even after he apologized to American Indian leaders, criticism of his remarks has persisted.

If you were to ask Governor Scott about education spending in the state, he would likely cite a half billion dollar increase in K-12 spending in 2016. But he would likely not mention the one billion dollars he cut in his first years in office.

Making Middle Schools Matter: Poverty is not Destiny

Editor’s Note: More’s the pity that these remarks are as relevant today as they were in 2011 when [now former] Secretary Education, Arne Duncan, spoke at the National Forum’s Annual Schools to Watch Conference. There are no easy solutions to improving middle school reform. When -- and if -- the members of the City of Richmond Public Schools (RPS) Board, Richmond City Council, the members of the Education Compact and Virginia Department of Education are serious about improving our schools, they should tackle Middle School reform. Until our middle schools are made right, all the high-minded hopes for improving Richmond’s public schools is just talk, talk, talk ... 
~ Carol A.O. Wolf


"Great schools, great principals, and great teachers matter. The good news is that poverty is not destiny in the classroom.
The bad news is that we still have a long way to go before every child is provided a world-class education. The sobering, painful truth is that, too often, our P-12 education system is failing to live up to the essential American promise of equal opportunity in the middle grades.
~ Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education
 in the Obama Administration

I’m pleased to be here this evening for a couple of reasons. Schools to Watch is doing absolutely invaluable work in the middle grades. You are helping to lead the field in middle grade reform—and as a nation, we do far too little to celebrate success in education.
At the same time, I am glad to have this opportunity to speak this evening because the subject of middle grade reform is vitally important—even if it is little understood and often overlooked.
As you know, the middle grade years have sometimes been called the "Bermuda Triangle" of K-12 education. It's a time where students sink or swim, and sail into choppy waters with few pedagogical stars by which to navigate. Scholars in the field have described the history of middle grades reform as marked by "continual tinkering and persistent dissatisfaction."

It doesn’t have to be that way.
Today, groundbreaking research by Robert Balfanz at John Hopkins University, and by EDSource and Michael Kirst at Stanford University, is illuminating how middle grade educators can both boost academic achievement and reduce dropout rates. And many of those effective practices have been embraced by the nearly 100 Schools to Watch award winners honored here tonight.
Educators now widely recognize the middle grade years, from the ages of 10 to 15, as a special, critical period of adolescent development.
Just as high-quality early childhood programs are vital to readying young children for elementary school, high-quality middle grade schooling is equally essential to readying young adolescents for high school, college, and careers. 
In high-poverty schools in particular, the middle grades can either put students on a path to college and careers—or it can steer them to dropping out and the unemployment line.
And just as is the case in preschool, early intervention is easier—and more cost-effective than waiting until high school.
It is no secret that parents and educators alike know the middle grade years as a period of immense change and considerable turmoil. 
Yet the middle grades also present the last, best opportunity for educators to reach all students—and not just those who persist and thrive in high school. Early adolescence is the wonder years and the worry years. 
It’s a time of great promise and of great peril.  
Fortunately, educators and school leaders know a lot more today about guiding young adolescents through the middle grades than they did just a few years ago. As former first lady Laura Bush says, "we know now from research that a lot of kids that drop out in high school really drop out in middle school—they just leave in high school."
Robert Balfanz's research, for example, shows that it is possible to identify about 75 percent of future dropouts in large, high-poverty urban schools before they enter high school. Think about how critically important that early identification is.
The three warning flags in middle school are poor attendance, withdrawing from or posting poor grades in English Language Arts and Math, and racking up a record of misbehavior and suspensions.  In fact, in high-poverty neighborhoods, Balfanz found that half or more of middle grade students were missing at least a month of schooling.
These three warning flags underscore the vital importance of a simple yet often neglected idea that Schools to Watch has embraced:
High-poverty middle schools should be setting up early warning systems to monitor the telltale warning signs and indicators for dropping out. Early warnings are a call to action.
Middle grade educators should identify students at risk of dropping out—and intervene early. In sixth grade, most students at high-risk for dropping out are struggling in only a single academic subject or behavioral area—unlike in high school, where students who drop out typically have multiple academic and behavioral problems.
Now, as important as early warning systems are, they are only part of the answer for what works and doesn't work to advance student learning in the middle grades.
Frankly, I think middle grade educators have spent too much of their time in recent years in age-old debates about the best-suited grade configurations and organizational models of teachers and classroom instruction for young adolescents. But they have spent too little of their time identifying and promoting practices that improve academic outcomes for young adolescents. 
Several years ago, Steven Mertens, a middle grades expert at the University of Illinois, described the research in this field as being "woefully behind in producing the types of scientific, rigorous studies necessary to measure the effectiveness of the middle school philosophy in improving the educational settings, practices, and programs for young adolescents."
The most critical gap, Mertens said, was the scarcity "of good, reliable research studies that have been able to demonstrate . . . [a] link between the components of the middle school philosophy and any type of teaching or learning outcome." At best, Mertens could only identify "a handful of rigorous and generalizable studies linking [program] components" to student achievement.
Since Mertens wrote those words in 2006, educators for the first time have high-quality, large-scale studies of what works and what doesn't work to improve student outcomes in the middle grades—particularly the 2010 "Gaining Ground" study by EdSource, Michael Kirst, and the American Institutes for Research.
So, yes, the middle grades are emerging from the fog of the Bermuda Triangle. And I'm pleased to say that they are emerging full-steam with bipartisan support and interest. I was delighted to see Laura Bush recently announce that the Bush Institute was launching a comprehensive, research-based program to accelerate middle school achievement and readiness for high school.
The "Gaining Ground" report that I referred to a moment ago is the largest study of its kind. EdSource and Stanford University researchers analyzed data and test scores from more than 200,000 students at 303 middle grade schools in California for the 2008-09 school year. They also surveyed the principal at each school, more than 3,700 ELA and math teachers in grades six thru eight, and over 150 district superintendents.
The principal finding of the Gaining Ground study is that a relentless and “intense school-wide focus on improving academic outcomes most distinguishes higher-[performing] from lower-performing middle grades schools.”  
What did higher-performing middle schools do to boost student achievement? Principals and teachers made it both a personal and a shared mission to get every student ready for high school and beyond. They set measurable goals for student progress on standards-based tests—and they tightly aligned standards to curriculum and instruction.
Principals met frequently with teachers to review data on student performance. And teachers mined formative and benchmark assessments for areas where they could improve their instruction and identify students that needed additional support and early intervention.
At the higher-performing schools, teachers worked to accelerate learning for all students. But they gave special attention to students who were two or more years behind grade level, and to the assessment and placement needs of ELL students. At-risk students, for example, got extra instructional time during the school day and school year.
As you might expect, teachers collaborated frequently at these schools to discuss curriculum, improve instruction, and target students for help.
Yet higher-performing schools were also highly structured and purposeful. They had strong principals who set firm disciplinary policies. Their school leaders had no tolerance for bullying, drugs, and weapons on campus, and set clear performance standards for the behavior, academics, and participation of students who wished to remain enrolled at the school.
Finally, the higher-performing schools were institutions where the adults were accountable. 
They took responsibility for improved student outcomes. Principals reported being evaluated by the superintendent based, in part, on student success. At higher-performing, high-poverty schools, the evaluation of teachers was also based, in part, on student progress and achievement data, along with multiple indicators of performance.
What is most striking about the higher-performing middle schools was that they saw data and the frequent use of assessments as a blessing, not as a burden.
Teachers regularly used data and formative assessments to improve their instruction. And teaching to the standards was not a drill-and-kill exercise but a way to provide a rich and rigorous curriculum. 
These schools don't just preach—they practice the cycle of continuous improvement.
Despite claims that standards-based instruction in math and ELA narrows the curriculum, the EdSource study found that higher-performing middle schools actually had a higher proportion of students "in extracurricular activities and electives, including the arts and exploratory courses and mini-courses." That finding comes straight out of the "Middle Grades Playbook" action kit for superintendents and principals that EdSource released yesterday.
I have talked about the EdSource study at length for a couple of reasons. First, it provides a rich, evidence-based guide to improving student achievement in the middle grades.
Second, EdSource's findings are entirely consistent with the policies and incentives the Obama administration has created in Race to the Top and our blueprint to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
They affirm the value of our State Longitudinal Data System grants as well, which support state and district efforts to develop data systems needed to monitor student progress and establish early warning indicators.
One final but little-noticed finding of the Gaining Ground study is important not only to middle grade reform but the broader debate taking place in the nation about the power of great schools.
Like countless studies before it, the Gaining Ground study shows that the skills of students in September when they walk in the classroom door is heavily influenced by socioeconomic background. But the study also found enormous variation in student performance and growth over the course of the school year, even among schools with similar student populations.
School and district practices can have a big impact on student outcomes, regardless of student background. 
And Robert Balfanz reached the same conclusion in his research on middle grade students in Philadelphia. In schools with similar student bodies, some Philadelphia schools had three times as many students making gap-closing gains as other schools.
Great schools, great principals, and great teachers matter. The good news is that poverty is not destiny in the classroom.
The bad news is that we still have a long way to go before every child is provided a world-class education. The sobering, painful truth is that, too often, our P-12 education system is failing to live up to the essential American promise of equal opportunity in the middle grades.
Compared to the performance of their peers in high-performing nations, American students do pretty well in elementary school. But the performance of 15-year old students in the U.S. is mediocre.
In America, as students accrue more schooling and move through the middle grades, they actually fall further behind their peers in high-performing countries. That is totally unacceptable. 
And it is an urgent national problem. 
Other nations are out-educating us, plain and simple. And in today's knowledge economy, the country that out-educates us will out-compete us too.
So in my time left, I want to talk about some of the challenges that I see ahead for middle grades educators as they seek to advance and accelerate student learning.
As this Schools to Watch conference shows, middle grades reform efforts are now finding a lot of common ground. There is a growing recognition today that middle school improvement efforts must be propelled and evaluated based on outcomes, not inputs.
At the same time, middle grades reform is a tough balancing act. To accelerate learning, the middle grades must be rigorous but relevant, engaging but exacting, and content-rich but crafted for early adolescent learners.
I congratulate all the STW award winning schools represented here today because you are demonstrating how to achieve that demanding balancing act every day. You are pursuing the evidence-based practices that boost learning outcomes for young adolescents. ...
Many of you have worked long and hard to develop a building-wide commitment to continuous data analysis and instructional improvement. You're developing and implementing early warning indicator systems, using real-time data to target student interventions.
STW's $6 million Invest in Innovation grant from our i3 program supports cutting-edge work. STW is seeking to dramatically improve student achievement in 18 persistently low-performing schools in the middle grades in California, Illinois, and North Carolina. This i3 program could reach 18,000 students in urban and rural schools. Success will be measured by multiple indicators, including test scores, course grades, course-taking behavior, student attendance, and suspensions and expulsions.
In addition to helping these schools develop an early indicators intervention system, STW will also provide a mentor school, a trained coach to work with the school leadership, and a principal coach.
In a number of respects, STW's innovative model is similar to that of Shanghai's, the highest-performing education system in the world on the last PISA assessment. Shanghai educators also pair up high-performing schools with low-performing schools and have expert teachers and mentors assist their peers.
I love the idea that STW is trying to replicate success, scale-up turnaround work, and make success the norm.
A number of aspects of middle grade reform are starting to filter down to the district level as well. In Chicago, we established an early warning indicators system district-wide for ninth graders. But several aspects of the early warning system radiated back to the middle grades.
Once we started running our early indicators system and tracking graduation data, we found that up to a third of entering high school freshmen were overage—and many students had given little thought to matching their interests to high school offerings.
So we established Achievement Academies in about 10 high schools modeled after the John Hopkins Talent Development model. Roughly 125 students per academy had their own set of teachers, counselors, and administrators in their neighborhood high schools.
We also created and instituted a career exploration inventory that 6th and 7th graders took, so they could be more purposeful about selecting from the city's 120 high schools and 200 high school programs. And we established a five-week Freshman Connection program for rising ninth graders that matched students to their new high school and gave the students a chance to explore high school options.
Students who needed to attend summer school before high school, students with disabilities, and students in alternative education settings were all included in the Freshman Connection program. In the morning, students attended academic classes. In the afternoons, they went on field trips, did cultural activities, and visited colleges. Each year, about 18,000 of the 33,000 entering freshmen in the city attended the Freshman Connection.
These were all important first steps. But we also ran into obstacles in our efforts to make the middle grades more rigorous in Chicago.
Nationwide, fewer than one in four middle school teachers have received specialized training to teach at the middle school level before they begin their careers, even though 46 states plus the District of Columbia offer some form of middle grades licensure. Too often, middle school teachers are prepared for general ed placement, rather than focusing on content knowledge. That shortfall in content-specific training made it much tougher to offer Algebra in eighth grade in Chicago.
As a result, we worked closely with foundations and universities to enable teachers to get the math and science endorsements they would need, so middle grade students would have teachers with subject knowledge. Before long, the Board passed a policy that middle grade science and math openings had to be filled by teachers with an endorsement.
Looking back, I also feel that we fell short of creating universally safe middle schools in Chicago. To be honest, this is a problem that continues to haunt me. The level of violence that our children had to live with in their communities was staggering.
And I don't believe that middle grade school leaders and reformers have devoted enough of their attention to minimizing crime and bullying—and maximizing students' sense of safety.
One of the most disturbing reports to cross my desk in recent months was the annual School Survey on Crime and Safety.
It shows that middle schools report higher rates of violent crime, serious violent crime, student threats of physical attacks with or without a weapon, bullying, and sexual harassment than even high schools. In fact, in most cases, the risk of violent crime is substantially higher in middle school—and sometimes double the risk that students face in high school. Middle schools are every bit as dangerous if not more so than high schools, even when figures are limited to violent incidents reported to the police.
Tragically, a subset of middle schools is extremely violent. In the 2007-08 school year, 40 percent of middle schools recorded 20 or more violent incidents reported to the police. That is a devastating statistic.
The middle grades are clearly no longer the age of innocence—and the mission of middle grade school leaders and educators to create safe schools must take on new urgency. I hope that you will leave here today with a renewed sense of urgency—both to make the middle grades safe, and to dramatically accelerate achievement for all young adolescents.
But I hope, too, that you will leave here with a tremendous sense of hope and possibility, despite the collective challenges we face.
Every day, great teachers and school leaders are working in your schools with the knowledge that they are making a difference in the lives of their students, even in the face of difficult circumstances.
You are tackling the tough problems of chronically underperforming schools. You are helping your peers improve.
That commitment, that collaboration, and that courage is finally giving the middle grade years the attention they have long deserved.
Thank you and congratulations again to your award winners.

Here’s what they told the Richmond Times-Dispatch before they were elected ...

NOW, it is up to us to hold them accountable.







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