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About Those “Failing-Government” Schools

February 5, 2020

In promoting US ed sec Betsy DeVos’ pet project of private school vouchers during his February 04, 2020, State of the Union address, President Donald Trump used a far-right, DeVosian description of America’s public schools as “failing government schools.”

Never mind that Trump heads the government and that DeVos heads those “government schools.” What is needed, according to DeVos-via-Trump, is a private-school escape.

DeVos 2

Betsy DeVos

I just want to note for the record that I agree with Trump and DeVos about “failing” and “government” in connection to America’s public schools, but, being an English teacher, I will add one wee mark of punctuation to their phrase, clarifying it as such:

Failing-government schools.

For decades, the government (federal and state) has been failing America’s public schools.

That little hyphen says it all.

First came the Texas miracle under then-governor George W. Bush, which was no miracle at all, it turns out:

Scores on the Texas test rose, but SAT scores for prospective college students dropped. Researchers discovered that the Texas tests designed by Pearson primarily measured test-taking ability.

Bush’s “Texas miracle” testing push was precursor to test-and-punish No Child Left Behind (NCLB):

Bush’s education adviser Sandy Kress, a Democratic lawyer from Dallas with some school board experience, convinced him that the “soft bigotry of low expectations” was holding back minority students in failing schools. His solution: if Texas made all schools give the same tests, the state could direct resources where they would do the most good, and eventually African-American and Hispanic kids would catch up to the white kids. It was a great theory, and initially the scores rose.

Bush called it the “Texas Miracle.” And once the Texas governor ascended to the Oval Office, Kress lobbied Sen. Ted Kennedy to add bipartisan legitimacy to the plan as Bush’s top Democratic supporter for the No Child Left Behind law, which promised to spread the Texas Miracle to the other 49 states. The law projected victory by 2014 in getting all students to “meet or exceed the state’s proficient level of academic achievement on the state assessments.”

The April 10, 2015, Education Week offers this summary of NCLB:

Under the NCLB law, states must test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. And they must report the results, for both the student population as a whole and for particular “subgroups” of students, including English-learners and students in special education, racial minorities, and children from low-income families.

States were required to bring all students to the “proficient level” on state tests by the 2013-14 school year, although each state got to decide, individually, just what “proficiency” should look like, and which tests to use. (In early 2015, the deadline had passed, but no states had gotten all 100 percent of its students over the proficiency bar.)

Under the law, schools are kept on track toward their goals through a mechanism known as “adequate yearly progress” or AYP. If a school misses its state’s annual achievement targets for two years or more, either for all students or for a particular subgroup, it is identified as not “making AYP” and is subject to a cascade of increasingly serious sanctions:

  • A school that misses AYP two years in a row has to allow students to transfer to a better-performing public school in the same district.
  • If a school misses AYP for three years in a row, it must offer free tutoring.
  • Schools that continue to miss achievement targets could face state intervention. States can choose to shut these schools down, turn them into charter schools, take them over, or use another, significant turnaround strategy.
  • What’s more, schools that don’t make AYP have to set aside a portion of their federal Title I dollars for tutoring and school choice. Schools at the point of having to offer school choice must hold back 10 percent of their Title I money.

The law also requires states to ensure their teachers are “highly qualified,” which generally means that they have a bachelor’s degree in the subject they are teaching and state certification. Beginning with the 2002-03 school year, all new teachers hired with federal Title I money had to be highly qualified. By the end of the 2005-06 school year, all school paraprofessionals hired with Title I money must have completed at least two years of college, obtained an associate’s degree or higher, or passed an evaluation to demonstrate knowledge and teaching ability. States are also supposed to ensure that “highly qualified’ teachers are evenly distributed among schools with high concentrations of poverty and wealthier schools.

NCLB was built upon the Texas miracle, a testing lie.

The year of NCLB perfection, 2014, came and went, and no “100 proficiency in reading and math” for any state– a wholly unrealistic goal from the outset. But in 2001, 2014 seemed so far away, so who cares about the upset this unrealistic goal could wreak on America’s public schools?

By 2007, the year that NCLB was supposed to be reauthorized, Congress wouldn’t touch it.

That led us to the Obama administration, US ed sec Arne Duncan, and NCLB waivers:

By 2010, it was clear that many schools were not going to meet NCLB’s achievement targets. As of that year, 38 percent of schools were failing to make adequate yearly progress, up from 29 percent in 2006. In 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as part of his campaign to get Congress to rewrite the law, issued dire warnings that 82 percent of schools would be labeled “failing” that year. The numbers didn’t turn out to be quite that high, but several states did see failure rates of more than 50 percent. In Congress, meanwhile, lawmakers saw the need for a rewrite, but were unable to bring a bill across the finish line. So that year, the Obama administration offered states a reprieve from many of the law’s mandates through a series of waivers. …

The waivers, which are now in place in 42 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, allow states to get out from under many of the mandates of the NCLB law in exchange for embracing certain education redesign priorities. …

In exchange, states had to agree to set standards aimed at preparing students for higher education and the workforce. Waiver states could either choose the Common Core State Standards, or get their higher education institutions to certify that their standards are rigorous enough. They also must put in place assessments aligned to those standards. And they have to institute teacher-evaluation systems that take into account student progress on state standardized tests, as well as single out 15 percent of schools for turnaround efforts or more targeted interventions.

NCLB waivers were connected to yet another unproven. educational disruption: The Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Sure, according to Duncan’s NCLB waivers, states did not have to choose CCSS. The problem was that most state governors had already chosen CCSS even before CCSS had been written— another “failed-government” decision that seriously impacted the American public school classroom.

Via the Obama-Duncan Race to the Top consortium assessment money lure, in 2010, most states jumped onto the PARCC/Smarter Balanced, CCSS-assessment bandwagon.

By 2014-15, the very governors who once pushed CCSS down the American public education throat jumped CCSS ship.

In 2020, most states are still saddled with CCSS and have expended great resources on curriculum, professional development, and– in failed-government, post-NCLB fashion– test prep, and testing, and retesting.

In 2015, NCLB became the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). And the testing continues.

We test and grade schools, districts, and teachers, all based on student test scores.

No testing company advertises its tests as suited to measure schools, districts, and teachers. There’s a reason for that: Using student test results to measure schools, districts, and teachers is not a valid use of student test scores.

This is the biggest way in which the government has failed American public education: The government has made student test scores the end-all, be-all, defining factor of student value, of school value, of district value, and of teacher value.

And all of this testing wreckage spun into being from a Texas miracle that was a lie.

Now, I have not even gone into depth on the defunding of education, and on teacher-bashing, and on the ever-increasing responsibility foisted upon schools to confront issues plaguing families and communities, and on the sad fact that the supposed US education secretary is hostile to public education, but I must close this post because it is a school night, and like most teachers, I put in more hours each day than I am paid for, which makes me tighter on free time.

The government is failing American public education.

Failing-government schools.

The hyphen says it all.

getschooled test


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Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

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Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

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  1. speduktr permalink

    The hyphen didn’t help me. I see Failing: Government schools. Just changing the word order–government failing schools–makes the message clear for me. Government has been failing public schools for decades now with one failed initiative after another. I am not an English teacher, so help me here, please.

  2. Mercedes, I’m glad that someone besides me was offended by that phrase. It motivated me to write my first original piece in a while. Thanks

  3. Failing-government schools. Superb, Mercedes, as always from you!

    The Deformers and Disrupters also misinterpret the apostrophe in the phrase “America’s failing public schools.” They think that this phrase means

    “the failing public schools in America” (the apostrophe to indicate possession)

    when it actually means

    America is failing [her] public schools. (the apostrophe to indicate a contraction of the verb is)

    • speduktr permalink

      That’s the way I would interpret that phrase. If it is a sentence then ‘s would have to be a contraction of is. As long as it is a phrase, “America’s failing public/government schools,” that is a possessive. Plus the deformers substitution of the word government for public probably confused the issue for me even more. If we put public back in even with a hyphen, I would read it as those failing public schools. Again I am not an English teacher, but I seriously doubt any of mine would have liked that sentence. This discussion is silly and distacts and detracts from the main point of the whole post. With my nitpicking, you would find it hard to believe that I actually agree with Mercedes. I do apologize. I can’t help myself.

      • speduktr permalink

        cx; distracts I knew that word looked strange!

      • Bob’s failing.
        America’s failing failing public schools.

        In both cases, a contract of “is.” That’s the point I made, I think.

      • Ah, sorry. You were agreeing with my reading. But “failing public schools” is, as Mercedes points out, redundant–technically, a contronym, like “cleaves” or “sanctions”

      • speduktr permalink

        Contronym. I learned a new word! Now let’s see if I can remember it. See, I told you I am not an English teacher.

      • I love Mercedes’s noticing that the phrase “failing public schools” is ambiguous. LMAO! Reminds me of when Randall Jarrell was invited to speak on the topic of “The Obscurity of Modern Poetry.” He was delighted, he said, because he had suffered from this obscurity all his life.

      • speduktr permalink


  4. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    Great post. NCLB was “bipartisan” and so is ESSA. ESSA encourages profit seeking from private investors, who will participate in “Pay for Success” contracts also known as “Social Impact Bonds.” The governmental officials who passed these laws were not interested in hearing about recommendations from teachers who have to live with these two laws, or the earlier versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The federal journey into “accountability measures” has been wrong for a long time. Now the latest trick is to encourage private investors to make money by providing “govment” services. First this then and

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Mercedes Schneider to Betsy DeVos: How the Federal Government Failed America’s Public Schools | Diane Ravitch's blog
  2. Open Letter to Joe Biden: Ed Sec “That Has Been in Public Schools” is Not Enough | deutsch29

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