Is the Charter School “Experiment” Truly Over?

Last week, President Donald Trump declared “mission accomplished” when it comes to charter schools and school choice, noting that the experiment is now over and charters have clearly won the day.

While one might be able to make such a claim in New Orleans, New York City, Chicago, or DC, are we really ready to declare victory across the nation? I look at the school district that gave me my high school diploma — in Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia — and wonder what charters would mean in a community like that, if charters even existed in a community like that.

With so few communities experiencing charter schools — and with most of those that have being limited to our large, urban cities — can we really declare the experiment over? Is it done when we simply have too few test subjects to render a full and complete decision?

These are some of the questions I explore on the latest edition of #TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network. Give it a listen. You won’t be disappointed.

A Coalition of the Willing

As the new Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos possesses an incredible – and rare – opportunity to truly transform public education. Returning decisionmaking to states and localities. Empowering parents to get more involved in decisionmaking. New ways to better use existing federal dollars. The bully pulpit. All are valuable tools in reshaping the next generation of K-12 education.

If we have learned anything from education policy transformations, it is that the best of intents will fail if those idea come via fiat instead of through collaboration. How many times have we seen the latest and greatest of policies never fulfill their potential because educators, parents, or both weren’t part of the process that brought proposal to policy?

Real, lasting reform demands a coalition of the willing. It requires all corners to come together and buy into the goal – improving student learning and boosting student success – and work together to achieve it. And while it is impossible to have all sides agree on all details, at least if it is meaningful change, all sides are working as they best can to achieve, not undermine, that ultimate goal.

We can often forget that in education and education reform. The coalition of the willing is forgotten in the pursuit of being the smartest person in the room, and then assuming all will just follow. We fail to see that by not having teachers buy into the process, and instead have them see improvement as something happening to them, it becomes near impossible for them to embrace the change, own the change, and ultimately be responsible for the improved outcomes on the other side.

Sure, one can tinker in operational issues without having the teachers’ involvement, but it is impossible to have real impact on the teaching and learning in the classroom without having educators – and parents – at the table helping plot the course to a shared destination.

Despite all of the vitriol and all of the negativity directed at her in recent months, DeVos now has an opportunity to assemble that coalition of the willing. While many may be concerned by her laser-like focus on school choice, few can question DeVos’ lifelong commitment to provide better, stronger opportunities to kids, particularly for students in need. And few can question her embrace of parents in educational decisionmaking. That provides something to build on.

If we can all agree on that ultimate goal: a strong education for all kids – regardless of race, family income, or zip code – maybe, just maybe, we can agree to try to work together on how we get there.

The next move belongs to the new Education Secretary. She has the opportunity to reach out and bring together a coalition that, while unsure, is willing to try. DeVos has the chance to extend an olive branch and work with parents and teachers to plot that new course. And they have a chance to accept it.

In the process, DeVos has the ability to both empower teachers and better involve families. She has the ability to truly transform teaching and learning for all, instead of just tinkering around the edges.

The big question now is whether the EdSec will take that chance. It is incredibly easy to talk to one’s friends on agreed upon issues. Impact only comes by engaging with your perceived opponents to find some common ground to make the positive changes that could impact generations of learners.

 

The New PDK Poll is Here, the New #PDKPoll is Here!

Last week, the good folks at PDK released the results of the 48th Annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. So what do we think?

The most interesting number each year is how we grade public schools. In 1974, 48% of Americans gave their local schools an A or B grade. Today … 48% are still giving As and Bs to their local schools. The grade for our nation’s schools as a whole doesn’t fair nearly as well, with only 24% giving As and Bs to the nation, but that’s on par with grades over the past three or so decades. (Good thing ESSA is handing over authority from the federal to the localities, huh?)

On the purpose of education, 45% of those surveyed say the purpose is to prepare students academically, 26% say its to prepare students to be good citizens, and 25% say its to prepare students for work. So despite recent-year pushbacks, it seems school ensuring all kids are “college and career ready” is winning the day.

When evaluating the public schools, parents offer a significantly higher opinion on what’s happening than non-parents. Whether its providing factual evidence (47-37), preparing students to work well in groups (43-33), or enhancing critical thinking (36-28), those adults closer to the learners in the classroom are far more likely to say local public schools are doing extremely or very well.

When it comes to learning standards, only 7% think standards are too high, while 43% say current standards are too low. Interestingly, “too low” scores high with urban residents, adults in households earning more than $100,000 a year, and Republicans/conservatives.

Those surveyed still see “lack of financial support” the top problem facing local public schools, coming in at 19%. That’s more than double “lack of discipline” or “concerns about quality,” and almost three times the number who worry about the “quality of teachers.”

Continuing on the money trend, there were a few head scratchers. Of those who were confident higher taxes will help schools improve, nearly 30% said they oppose raising such taxes. And of those not confident higher taxes can result in school improvement, more than a third (35%) said they would support increased property taxes for the purpose. And if those taxes are raised, 34% of all those surveyed want to see it go to teachers.

When presented with an “either/or” decision on ideas to improve the schools, those surveyed:

  • Overwhelming supported more career-technical or skill based classes (68%) over more honors classes (20%)
  • Leaned toward raising teacher salaries (50%) over hiring more teachers (40%), even though smaller classes beat larger classes 51-40
  • Emphasizing more “traditional teaching” and using more technology battled to a draw, 43 all

The full survey results, found here, are definitely worth the read. Of particular interest for all should be a deep dive into thoughts on parent/school communications.

What does this all tell us? The public’s perceptions of public schools, both locally and nationally, aren’t as bad as many have made them out to be in recent years. Like our collective test scores on NAEP and international benchmarks, it seems our views — good or bad — about the schools have largely stagnated. Even with all of the ugliness in recent years about Common Core and testing, things are pretty much holding constant.

More importantly, we see those closer to the classroom — the parents — have more positive views on what is happening. And those parents are eager and hungry for additional information and greater interaction with their public schools.

While there is a lot to parse here, and many will cherrypick those data points that prove their own beliefs (or disprove the thoughts of those they rail against), the PDK poll provides an important foundation for discussion on where we are, where we are headed, and where we want to be.

(Full disclosure, Eduflack served, proudly, as a member of the PDK Poll Advisory Board this year.) 

The Values of #TeachStrong, Seen in Places Like Indiana

Improvement, however, must not breed complacency. How do we ensure that all of Indiana’s schools — particularly those in high-need communities — have the teacher pipeline to meet the needs of the 21st century? How do we make sure that every child in the Hoosier state has strong teachers leading their classrooms, from the earliest learning days up through high school graduation.

– Eduflack writing on TeachStrong and the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship, in the South Bend (Indiana) Tribune

 

#EdReform Orthodoxy

Many in the education reform community have been engaged in quite a debate on what reform is, who is involved, and how we should respond to one another. Eduflack wrote about this some last month, but not nearly as eloquently as others.

Over at Education Week this week, the esteemed Rick Hess took his electronic pen to the issue, noting that from his perch, education reform is the new education school. Hess makes a number of keen observations, including:

  1. Orthodoxy reigns without being formally demanded or commanded
  2. Open disagreement about values is deemed unpleasant and unnecessary
  3. Inconvenient critiques are seen as a failure to “get it”
  4. Faddism reigns
  5. Race, poverty, and privilege are the “right” way to think about school improvement

In reflecting on his our disillusion with the education school community, Hess concludes:

Yep. It all feels eerily familiar. That is a huge problem for reformers. It has undermined the healthy competition of ideas. It has weakened the ability to sustain bipartisan cooperation. It has rendered the space less hospitable to young minds who may not share the current orthodoxy. I hope that school reformers will find ways to address this. After all, at the turn of the century, the “reform” community offered an alternative to the ed school orthodoxy. I don’t know where today’s disenchanted reformers might look for refuge.

I wish it wasn’t the case, but as someone who once was on the front lines in the education reform fights, I can say that his five key observations are right on the money. And for the future of education and school improvement, that’s just a cryin’ shame.

 

 

The Possibilities of TeachNY

Earlier this month, the TeachNY Advisory Council issued an important report on how New York State can transform teacher education, ensuring a pipeline of strong, dedicated teachers for generations to come.

Over at the Albany Times-Union, Arthur Levine — a member of the advisory council former president of Teachers College Columbia University, and current president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation — offers some inspiration for how the Empire State can more this report from recommendation to action.

As Levine writes:

There is compelling evidence that the recommendations will work. States like Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and New Jersey have already adopted some of the key recommendations from the TeachNY report. They have created the strong statewide partnerships necessary to transform teacher education. They have established bipartisan coalitions, led by governors and consisting of legislators, state higher education and K-12 system heads, universities, school districts, unions and other stakeholders to drive change, provide mutual support, assure accountability and enable third party-evidence based assessment.

These states have created a number of model teacher education programs of the type called for by the TeachNY report. They are characterized by four common features: high admissions standards, rigorous academic curricula, intense clinical experiences in the schools and three years of mentoring for beginning teachers.

In each case, the result has been a strong pipeline for recruiting, preparing and supporting excellent beginning teachers for hard-to-staff subjects in high-need schools. Be these urban or rural classrooms, these schools are now getting the effective science and math teachers they now need.

Give it a read!

 

Reforming Education Reform

Earlier this week, the Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio wrote of “The Left’s drive to push conservatives out of education reform.” As Pondiscio notes:

Like the proverbial frog in a pot, education reformers on the political right find themselves coming to a slow boil in the cauldron of social justice activism. At meetings like New Schools Venture Fund and Pahara (a leadership development program run by the Aspen Institute), conservative reformers report feeling unwelcome, uncomfortable, and cowed into silence. There is an unmistakable and increasingly aggressive orthodoxy in mainstream education reform thought regarding issues of race, class, and gender. And it does not include conservative ideas.

The gauntlet has been thrown down. In response, Justin Cohen and a number of self-described white education reform leaders offered in an open letter:

We must admit the extraordinary flaws and shortsightedness in our own leadership for letting the field become so lopsidedly white through the early 2000s. In under-representing the communities that we hoped to serve, particularly people of color, in the leadership and decision-making processes of reform, we created a movement that lacked the ability to drive durable change.

As a recovering “white education reform leader,” I’ve actually spent a far amount of time thinking about these very issues over the past three or four years. On the specific issue, Pondiscio is correct in one important regard. Education reform is stronger when it has all political views and all ideological perspectives on the team. For every one of the anonymous conservatives he quotes in his piece, there also needs to be reformers coming from the Democrats for Education Reform side and the social justice community.

But the point Cohen makes, and it is a point that was first and strongly stoked by Leading Educators’ Jonas Chartock on his Facebook page soon after the Pondiscio piece was published, is that education reform needs to be about far more than the market-driven solutions Pondiscio writes about. It can’t be about conservatives and the wealthy funders supporting the “cause” feeling uncomfortable. It needs to be about the kids and communities that are yearning for such a solution.

During my reform days, I described this as the hearts versus minds phenomenon. Too many ed reformers are focused on the latter, believing that if one dazzles with facts and figures, and shows strong enough Excel spreadsheets of data to those resisting, that reform will happen. The data-driven, market-focused approach to reform leaves many focused on the operational and systemic sides of school improvement. We argue about school structure, and why a school should be chartered and how it should be stripped of the teachers’ unions. We call for stronger teacher evaluation tied to student test scores. We use the term equity mainly when tied to the concept of school funding, largely when it comes to comparing traditional public schools to charters. We try to position ourselves as the smartest people in the room, believing that if we use enough of that data, even the strongest of opponents will have to come to his or her senses and see our way is the only way.

But school improvement isn’t that simple, and it certainly isn’t that clean. Ultimately, the theory of change is about very real children, families, and communities, and not about columns and rows in a spreadsheet. It’s about taking financial resources from already under-resources public schools to give them to charters who had previously promised to deliver a better education for fewer dollars. It’s about attacking teachers unions, while trying to enlist parents who themselves are in labor unions and trying to convince good teachers to go to the very schools we’ve labeled as failing and hopeless. And its about believing stronger numbers and market-driven solutions can wipe away generations of institutional racism and inequities, even when we may use the term “urban” students because we are uncomfortable talking specifically about Black and brown kids.

In acknowledging their own shortcomings, Cohen et al (and I’d throw Eduflack on that list as well), admit that, as reformers, we have failed the families and communities we have purported to be fighting for. While reform has helped provide safer learning environments for many kids, and has provided greater educational opportunities for those involved, it at best mitigates some of the social obstacles so many face today. To believe that improved school opportunities for some addresses the problems of poverty and racism for far more is a line of thinking that none of us can actual subscribe to.

When I was leading a state-based education reform organization, I worked hard with the leaders of local churches to ensure their voices were heard in the legislative debate. One weekend, on the Saturday before Easter, I was in the basement of a particular church, talking to a group of pastors. As we were talking about next steps, the Bishop present turned to me and said, “You know what your problem is, you’re white.” And he was absolutely correct. No matter all that I knew, no matter how much data I came armed with,  no matter how convincing and eloquent I might be, it was far easier for me to talk it than it was to live it. I would never experience what the parents and kids I was advocating for experience on a daily basis.

After that gathering, the pastors asked what I wanted from them. I went in prepared to tell them I needed their help to advocate for my agenda. But after having spent that morning listening to their concerns, my response was quite different. I told them something like, “It would be presumptuous of me to tell you what is best for your congregants. So I’m not going to do that. I would just ask that you get involved. Have your voices heard. While I’d love for those voices to agree with me, it is far more important that you be a part of this process.”

And they were. In united voice, a voice last heard in the state during the fair housing debates a few decades prior, those pastors and their congregants made clear what was the best path for education in the state. And change happened as a result.

My proudest moment from that time was being witness to those pastors and the leadership they displayed.

Looking back on that time, I wish I had done more to demonstrate the equity and understanding I often preached. I wish I had been stronger, particularly about how we built our movement. I wish I had focused more on the people and the hearts of the community, and less on the data and trying to be the smartest in the room. And I wish I could pretend that racism and poverty were something that could be eliminated by a bill signing or an ad campaign.

Chartock, Cohen, and others have engaged in an important discussion, and one that needs to continue. Until the reform community is clear on WHY it is advocating reform, what it hopes to achieve, and who it serves, we can bring the true change we are seeking. I applaud them for publicly stating what many of us have been telling ourselves for years.

Now what can I do?