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Val Strauss Dresses Up Union Propaganda As Research (Again)

The National Education Policy Center teams up with Darling-Hammond’s Learning Policy Institute to promote community schools

Washington Post reporter blogger Valerie Strauss has a new piece up on the Answer Sheet (OK, she didn’t write the piece – surprise! – but she did write the intro for it) that just so happens to mirror the teachers unions’ messaging around community schools (and takes a swipe at U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in the process – two birds, one stone!).

The bulk of the post was actually written by Julia DanielAnna Maier, and Jeannie Oakes, the co-authors of a “new study” (“new” in that it came out in June) on community schools published by the Learning Policy Institute, which Strauss admiringly notes, “was founded by the renowned Stanford University educator Linda Darling-Hammond and conducts independent, high-quality research to improve education policy and practice.”

Their essay is essentially a sales pitch for community schools that uses the example of Oakland International High School, a small (380 enrolled in 2014-15) school that primarily serves English-language learners, to illustrate the benefits of the model. However, contrary to the claims of the authors, there isn’t much evidence to support the contention that community schools are any better than charter or traditional district schools at raising student achievement.

From left: Valerie Strauss, Julia Daniel, Anna Maier, Jeannie Oakes

In their study (which isn’t actually a study, but a subjective summary of other people’s research), Daniel, Maier, and Oakes found that “across the 143 well-designed studies we examined, we found all four features key to improving student engagement and learning.” Note that they say they found the four features that they consider integral to improving student learning – those are inputs, not outputs. In addition, most of the “well-designed studies” the authors cite in their bibliography are either extremely limited in scope (assessing an individual or small group of schools) or only tangentially related to community schools.

Plus, the outcomes they cite from Oakland International are of questionable provenance. For example, while the authors claim that “careful internal tracking of the five-year graduation rate for the class of 2015 shows a 72 percent success rate,” it’s unclear exactly where that “internally tracked” five-year (I thought it was four?) graduation rate comes from. I mention this because data from Oakland Unified School District shows that nearly half of the Class of 2015 dropped out of school.

Screenshot from the Oakland Unified School District website.

They also claim that 51% of OIHS students passed the “A-G” courses required to attend California’s state universities, “compared to 24 percent of their English learner peers districtwide and 46 percent of all Oakland Unified School District students.” The only problem is that the 51% figure they cite includes both ELL and regular education students. A closer examination of the data reveals that the passing rate for ELL students was actually only 45% (and the districtwide ELL rate was 26%, not 24% as the authors claimed).

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Screenshots from the Oakland Unified School District website.

Now, guess who put up the money for this research?

It just so happens that there might be a reason why this research is so misleading: it was largely funded by the teachers unions.

As I’ve documented previously, AFT and NEA have been heavily promoting community schools as an alternative to charter schools over the past few years, in part, because they dovetail with their “poverty trumps education” argument (i.e., you can’t hold schools and teachers accountable for the achievement of low-income children) and would require a massive increase in education funding to scale out.

AFT & NEA have been heavily promoting community schools as an alternative to charters.

Although Strauss noted in her intro that Daniel, Maier, and Oakes’ study was published by the Learning Policy Institute, she neglected to mention that it was actually co-published with the National Education Policy Center, a stridently anti-reform think tank at the University of Colorado at Boulder that has received at least $1.5 million from AFT and NEA in the past five years.

From the cover page of the research brief.

The fine print in the study also reveals that this research (loosely defined) was “made possible in part by funding to NEPC from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, which has received over $1.45 million from AFT, NEA, and their affiliates since 2012.

The fine print

In fact, nearly all of the Great Lakes Center’s funding comes from the teachers unions. According to their latest IRS 990, the Center reported revenues of $371,000 in F.Y. 2015. Annual filings with the U.S. Department of Labor show that AFT and NEA unions contributed at least $300,000 to the Great Lakes Center that same year.

In sum, AFT and NEA spends a lot of money to produce (university-affiliated) faux research like this community schools study – but thanks to Valerie Strauss, they get to advertise it for free!


EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a series of periodic posts looking at the anti-reform propaganda published by Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post.

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Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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