Reckoning

The day after: Hard questions as education reform wakes up to Trump’s America

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post

On Wednesday, Elisa Villanueva Beard, the chief executive of Teach For America, started her day by comforting her crying son as he asked if his grandmother would be sent back to Mexico, where she was born. De’Shawn Wright, the chief of staff at Newark Public Schools, texted his friend Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator and former Newark mayor, seeking reassurance. Booker’s message, according to Wright: “You’ve gotta be a prisoner of hope.”

Then, like so many Americans stunned by Donald Trump’s upset, they went to work — where, in their cases, as leaders of the so-called education reform movement, the reckoning continued.

Trump’s victory not only unsettles the future role of the federal government in American schools (he has said he wants to eliminate or severely cut the U.S. Department of Education). It is also raising wrenching questions for leaders who have devoted their working lives to improving schools in poor communities.

Some of those questions are immediate. Among the 7,000-plus teachers who teach in poor schools across the country through Teach For America today, 146 are undocumented and facing the prospect of losing legal protections should Trump follow through on his promise to overturn DACA. In the state-run Newark schools district ruled by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a top Trump advisor, Wright started his morning Wednesday fielding reports of immigrant students showing up to school terrified they would be deported.

Other questions are deeper and still developing. Here are four I heard from multiple education reform leaders in conversations Wednesday.

Which children should the education reform movement serve?

Several education leaders I talked to were struck by the wave of white working-class voters, including many rural and rust-belt Americans without college degrees, supporting Trump. By focusing their efforts primarily on improving schools for black and Latino students living in urban communities, has the education reform movement missed another group facing economic challenges and in need of better educational opportunity?

Reformers “largely overlooked a crisis that’s been hiding in plain sight for years,” Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, wrote almost a year ago, in a piece that was getting recirculated Wednesday among reformers. He went on:

“There are about twice as many non-Hispanic whites as blacks living below 150 percent of the poverty line in the U.S. It’s a fair bet that their kids aren’t doing very well in school – and that they see Donald Trump as “my guy.”

“This election is showing us how unheard and unsupported so many different people feel. Like vastly different people,” said Villanueva Beard. “This morning, I was thinking, what is the implication of this for me and for us a community generally? Where have we missed it? What voices are not at the table helping to push our thinking and reach a broader coalition of people who are all seeking liberty and justice?”

Like many education reform organizations, Teach For America primarily works in urban communities. Though it does have some rural offices, almost all of those serve students of color. The one exception is Teach For America’s office in Eastern Kentucky, called Teach For America Appalachia, where 40 teachers this year entered classrooms in one of the country’s highest-poverty congressional districts — 29 percent of people lived below the federal poverty line, according to 2015 census estimates, and more than 95 percent of people are white.

“We’re in rural Appalachia,” Villanueva Beard said. “But we need to really consider, are we doing enough there?”

What does education reform have to offer rural communities?

If education reformers turn their attention to rural and rust-belt communities, what can they offer them?

While some activists have focused their energies on solutions for rural schools, they are disconnected from the school reform movement that has been ascendant the last 30 years. And mainstream reform policies — policies like higher academic standards and tougher consequences for poor performance, combined with school choice and new influxes of mission-driven teachers — don’t necessarily translate into rural environments.

“It’s probably easier to say, hey, who wants to go teach in New Orleans? It’s probably harder to say hey, who wants to teach in Youngstown, Ohio?” said Pondiscio.

Still, some pointed to small-scale efforts that suggest mainstream reformers can successfully extend their work to different contexts. Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute think tank, pointed to a charter school he visited this Monday in poverty-stricken Portsmouth, Ohio, that is authorized by Fordham. The school’s autonomy from traditional school district governance, a trait charter school supporters say allows for improvements, also seemed to be working at that school, Petrilli said.

One difference: Unlike most urban charter schools, located in the heart of Hillary Clinton’s support, in Portsmouth, Petrilli saw “Trump signs everywhere. No Clinton signs to be found in the town.”

The executive director of Teach For America’s Appalachian region, Josh Sparks, said he believes that TFA’s model of building change advocates by exposing young people to high-poverty schools firsthand can work in Appalachia.

“I’m really excited for the future,” said Sparks. “I’m really hopeful that our communities will come together and realize that we are the ones that have to be the change that we want in our region.”

How should education reform reckon with race?

Questions about which communities education reformers should serve come at a time when the group is divided on the role of race in their work. As the Black Lives Matter movement took off, some reformers increasingly adopted the language of anti-racism as a core component of their education work. Others, meanwhile, urged reformers to drop that mantle, which they saw as unnecessarily divisive.

The election of a candidate endorsed by white supremacists only accelerates this debate.

For those who have chosen to talk more directly about their desire to end racism, the election strengthened their determination. “It is undeniable that deep divisions along racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines played an important role in this election cycle, and I am more convinced than ever that the work we are doing – both internally and externally – to dismantle systemic inequity is critical to our success as an organization and as a nation,” said Jonas Chartock, chief executive of Leading Educators, a reform group focused on supporting teachers in leadership roles.

Pondiscio, meanwhile, who has led the other side of the argument, also found fuel for his position in the election results. If Trump’s victory shows many voters felt alienated by Black Lives Matter-style anti-racism, then connecting education reform to that stance could erode potential support. “As far as I can tell, we have a broadly distributed performance problem in American education,” Pondiscio told me today. “So to the degree to which we have allowed charters, choice, and ed reform more broadly to be an urban thing, I think that has been a miscalculation.” (Pondiscio made a similar argument last month, here.)

Everyone I spoke with — including Pondiscio — emphasized that extending their work to serve poor white students should not threaten service of poor black and Latino students.

“We’re not going to back down from our commitment to the kids in communities that we serve now given the massive disparities and generations of that,” Villanueva Beard said. “I’m thinking of it more as an and… There are real implications, I get it, and choices, when you have limited resources and limited capacity. I think that’s the next question. But I won’t even contemplate the or.”

“This does not have to be a zero-sum game,” echoed Shavar Jeffries, president of the advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform. “The same standards and accountability, the same need for high-quality teaching, the same need for great school leadership, the same need for adequate resources — all these young people need it.”

Will Trump voters support education reform?

As political allegiances shift, education leaders wondered who they can expect to support them going forward.

Jeffries, of Democrats for Education Reform, told me about an unexpected encounter last week while in Memphis, Tennessee. Most of his trip to Memphis was spent meeting with education reform’s traditional constituents: African-American parents who are part of the parent group Memphis Lift. But then he met another Memphis area parent by chance — his Uber driver, a white woman.

When Jeffries told her he was in town to work on school improvement, he said, “She just went on. She went on about her kids.” They hadn’t had high-quality teachers, they weren’t prepared for good jobs, and now they couldn’t find work. “She was like, yeah I’m so happy to hear somebody’s trying to do something to make the schools better. And I was like…what we’re fighting for is exactly what your child needs.”

Jeffries said today he is convinced that same commonality between struggling people of all races can ultimately create a new coalition behind school reform.

“At some point, [Trump supporters are] going to say, actually, I want to figure out how it is that I get some economic viability for myself and my family,” he said. “And if they’re going to engage in that conversation, they’re going to have to at some point reckon with the fact that they’re going to have to get skills for the global economy. And that should lead them naturally back to education reform.”

Ethan Gray, chief executive of the advocacy group Education Cities, pointed to a skit that recently aired on Saturday Night Live, where a white working class man joined as a contestant on a satirical Black Jeopardy! show — and found he had a lot in common with his competitors.

“There’s obviously some shared grievances,” Gray said, “if we could just get to talking to each other about them.”

fact-finding mission

Signal Mountain leaders look to Shelby County as model for school district secession

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

A cluster of towns that broke off from Shelby County Schools to create their own school systems in 2014 is about to host visitors from another Tennessee town looking into the viability of leaving Hamilton County Schools.

A committee from Signal Mountain, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, is scheduled next week to visit with leaders from Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown. Along with Lakeland, the six towns have just completed a third year of operating their own school systems, just outside of Memphis.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from the Chattanooga-based district. The community has three of Hamilton County’s higher-performing schools, as well as fewer poor and minority students. Its Town Council created the committee in January to look into the feasibility of creating a separate district, which would siphon off both students and revenue from Hamilton County Schools.

As part of their visit, the seven-member panel will hold open meetings with municipality leaders at Arlington High School. Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley and Councilwoman Amy Speek are scheduled to join the sessions.

“We felt it was valuable for us to meet with board members and school officials to gain insight on how the process went, what they learned, what they might do differently,” said committee chairman John Friedl.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he added.

The visit will come days after Shelby County’s secessions were spotlighted in a national report on the trend of wealthier and whiter communities to splinter off from larger school systems that are poorer and more diverse. The report was crafted by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group that focuses on school funding and equity. The report also listed Signal Mountain among nine towns across the nation that are actively pursuing pullouts.

The town of Red Bank, which is just east of Signal Mountain, also recently announced it will investigate launching a separate district.

If Signal Mountain residents vote eventually to create their own school system, they would use the same Tennessee law that allowed municipality voters in Shelby County to exit Tennessee’s largest district. The law, which EdBuild calls one of the most permissive in the nation, allows a town with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

Signal Mountain leaders will focus next week on lessons learned by leaders in Shelby County.

After breaking off in 2014, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching new school systems. That includes funding, staffing and facilities. “We all started out with a central office staff of one, … and we had to build from there,” Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper said during a 2015 presentation to state lawmakers.

The Shelby County breakaway also ended up in court over charges that the exit was racially motivated. But a federal judge eventually dismissed that lawsuit by Shelby County Schools.

The Signal Mountain exploration also has been met with some community resistance. A group called Stay with HCSD is advocating staying with Hamilton County Schools.

You can view the full schedule of Signal Mountain leaders’ visit below:

essa watch

Growth plus proficiency? Why states are turning to a hybrid strategy for judging schools (and why some experts say they shouldn’t)

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A compromise in a long-running debate over how to evaluate schools is gaining traction as states rewrite their accountability systems. But experts say it could come with familiar drawbacks — especially in fairly accounting for the challenges poor students face.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools were judged by the share of students deemed proficient in math and reading. The new federal education law, ESSA, gives states new flexibility to consider students’ academic growth, too.

This is an approach that some advocates and researchers have long pushed for, saying that is a better way to judge schools that serve students who start far below proficiency.

But some states are proposing measuring academic growth through a hybrid approach that combines both growth and proficiency. (That’s in addition to using proficiency metrics where they are required.) A Chalkbeat review of ESSA plans found that a number of places plan to use a hybrid metric to help decide which of their schools are struggling the most, including Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C.

The idea has a high-profile supporter: The Education Trust, a civil rights and education group now headed by former U.S. Education Secretary John King. But a number of researchers say the approach risks unfairly penalizing high-poverty schools and maintaining some of the widely perceived flaws of No Child Left Behind.

These questions have emerged because ESSA, the new federal education law, requires states to use academic and other measures to identify 5 percent of their schools as struggling. States have the option to include “academic progress” in their accountability systems, and many are doing so.

This is a welcome trend, says Andrew Ho of Harvard, who has written a book on the different ways to measure student progress. Systems that use proficiency percentages alone, rather than accounting for growth, “are a disaster both for measurement and for usefulness,” Ho said. “They are extremely coarse and dangerously misleading.”

Under a growth-to-proficiency model, Student A would be considered on track to proficiency by grade 6 based on the growth from grades 3 to 4, but students B and C would not. (Image: Ho’s “A Practitioner’s Guide to Growth Models”)

States that propose using this hybrid measure — commonly called “growth to proficiency” or “growth to standard” — have offered varying degrees of specificity in their plans about how they will calculate it. The basic idea is to measure whether students will meet or maintain proficiency within a set period of time, assuming they continue to grow at the same rate. Schools are credited for students deemed on track to meet the standard in the not-too-distant future, even if the students aren’t there yet.

This tends to rewards schools that serve students who are already near, at, or above the proficiency standard, meaning that schools with a large number of students in poverty will likely get lower scores on average.

It also worries researchers wary of re-creating systems that incentivize schools to focus on students near the proficiency bar, as opposed to those far below or above it. That phenomenon has been observed in some research on accountability systems focused on proficiency.

“As an accountability metric, growth-to-proficiency is a terrible idea for the same reason that achievement-level metrics are a bad idea — it is just about poverty,” said Cory Koedel, an economist at the University of Missouri who has studied school accountability. He has argued that policymakers should try to ensure ratings are not correlated with measures of poverty.

Researchers tend to say that the strongest basis for sorting out the best and worst schools (at least as measured by test scores) is to rely on sophisticated value-added calculations. Those models control for where students start, as well as demographic factors like poverty.

“If there are going to be high stakes — and I don’t suggest that there should be — then the more technically rigorous value-added models become the best way to approach teacher- and school-level accountability,” said Ho.

A large share of states are planning to use a value-added measure or similar approach as part of their accountability systems, in several cases alongside the growth-to-proficiency measure.

Some research has found that these complex statistical models can be an accurate gauge of how teachers and schools affect students’ test scores, though it remains the subject of significant academic debate.

But The Education Trust, which has long backed test-based accountability, is skeptical of these growth models, saying that they water down expectations for disadvantaged students and don’t measure whether students will eventually reach proficiency.

“Comparisons to peers won’t reveal whether that student will one day meet grade-level standards,” the group’s Midwest chapter stated in a report on Michigan’s ESSA state plan. “This risks setting lower expectations for students of color and low-income students, and does not incentivize schools to accelerate learning for historically underserved student groups.”

In an email Natasha Ushomirsky, EdTrust’s policy director, said the group supports measures like growth to proficiency over value-added models “because a) they do a better job of communicating expectations for raising student achievement, and b) they can be used to understand whether schools are accelerating learning for historically underserved students, and prompt them to do so.”

Of the value-added approach, Ushomirsky said, “A lower-scoring student is likely to be compared only to other lower-scoring students, while a higher-scoring student is compared to other higher-scoring students. This means that the same … score may represent very different amounts of progress for these two students.”

Marty West, a professor at Harvard, says the most prudent approach is to report proficiency data transparently, but to use value-added growth to identify struggling schools for accountability purposes.

“There are just too many unintended consequences from using [proficiency] or any hybrid approach as the basis of your performance evaluation system,” he said.

“The most obvious is making educators less interested in teaching in [high-poverty] schools because they know they have an uphill battle with respect to any accountability rating — and that’s the last thing we want.”

This story has been updated to include additional information from Education Trust.