ed policy

In a tumultuous presidential campaign season, a rare spotlight on education issues

Teachers College at Columbia University President Susan Fuhrman, left, led a question-and-answer session with Christopher Edley, Jr., a senior policy advisor to Hillary Clinton. (Photo by Christina Veiga)

A senior policy advisor to the Hillary Clinton campaign channeled the Democratic presidential candidate at an intimate question-and-answer session on Thursday hosted by Teachers College at Columbia University.

Christopher Edley, Jr. — a former U.C. Berkeley School of Law dean and expert in civil rights and education policy — talked about charter schools, early childhood education, and how to better serve English Language Learners.

He also hinted at a different kind of accountability era under a Clinton administration.

“She believes that there’s been, over the last 20 years, too much attention to trying to hold students and teachers accountable — and not enough emphasis on holding accountable the people who hold ultimate responsibility for the investments and for policy design,” Edley said, drawing applause.

The Donald Trump campaign did not respond to an invitation to join the forum, according to Teachers College.

Here are some other highlights from Edley’s remarks.

On charter schools:

Clinton supports charters, “but there are very important caveats,” Edley said.

“She believes we should … get back to one of the principal purposes of charters, which was to innovate and then export successful innovations to the rest of the public school system. We just haven’t done that,” he said. “Let’s be much more intentional about exporting the successes, and about closing down the charters that are not performing up to expectations.”

Edley didn’t express a position on the NAACP’s proposed moratorium on charter school expansion — something the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York Post all editorialized against this week.

Charter school supporters have battled New York City and the state over the right to expand. At the end of September, 25,000 people rallied in Brooklyn, calling for the state to lift its charter school cap.

In June, the pro-charter group Families for Excellent Schools released a report arguing New York City could co-locate more charters inside traditional public school buildings. City officials disputed the report, saying it didn’t take into consideration the types of spaces available within schools, or future growth projections.

On early education:

Clinton “knows the research” when it comes to early childhood education, and has called for a doubling of spending on federal Early Head Start and Head Start programs, Edley said.

“We don’t, by any means, have a comprehensive system at either the federal level or the state level. It’s a crazy quilt of initiatives — some evidence-based, some only intuition-based,” Edley said. “One of the things I know she wants to do as president is help draw forward a consensus, a national consensus, about how to make our investment in early childhood … more systemic.”

He said home visit programs for new mothers — where social workers and health professionals check in and provide guidance — could get a boost under a Clinton administration.

Early childhood education in New York City has been in the national spotlight. Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city launched free universal preschool. The program has proven popular with parents and earned high marks on quality measures.

On English Language Learners:

Edley said policy reform for how English Language Learners are taught would be “one of the top five assignments for the new secretary of education” under a Hillary Clinton administration.

“She is very frustrated, and indeed, angry, about the lack of progress in narrowing the achievement disparities and attainment disparities between English Language Learners and others,” Edley said.

In New York City, more than 142,000 students — about 13 percent of the student body — are English learners. Only 41 percent of the city’s ELL students graduate in four years and 22 percent drop out, according to the most recent city stats.

On state exams, 4 percent of ELL students were proficient in reading last year; in math, 13 percent were proficient.

“There is no consensus on how to replace the current framework for holding schools and districts and states accountable for narrowing these disparities. There’s no consensus even among, let’s say, the Latino civil rights groups, about what they would advocate as a wholesale reform structure,” Edley said. “So, as president, she would like to be a part of brokering that new consensus about a more ambitious and effective English Language Learner strategy.”

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those parameters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.