Reckoning

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

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
Dalton Walker, 13, holds a Trump sign the Colorado RepublicanÊElection Night party at the DoubleTree Hilton in the Denver Tech Center.

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.”

shift

Memphis school leaders don’t plan to release comprehensive footprint analysis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks Tuesday night during a school board work session for Shelby County Schools.

Since last spring, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and other top officials with Shelby County Schools have promised a comprehensive footprint analysis to serve as a baseline for guiding future recommendations on school closures.

The idea was to change the piecemeal approach to closing Memphis schools by releasing a thorough examination of data being used to right-size a district with shrinking enrollment and too many school buildings, many of them outdated and expensive to maintain, while also looking at academic performance.

But this week, Hopson said he does not plan to release that full analysis this fall, as he had said earlier. Rather, he’ll make recommendations incrementally based on the data that’s been collected during the last year.

The game plan marks a shift in strategy as leaders of Tennessee’s largest school district begin to roll out proposals to close, build and consolidate schools.

During a work session with school board members on Tuesday night, Hopson called his proposal to consolidate five schools into three new buildings the “first phase” of the footprint analysis.

“The data suggests that we have roughly 15 to 18 schools we should close over the next five years. I will continue to make those recommendations in a responsible and data-driven way,” Hopson said.

The superintendent said after the meeting that this and any subsequent recommendations are the analysis that he’s been promising.

“All we said we’re going to do is get the data and make decisions based on data,” he told reporters. “We’re going to use our enrollment, school performance and the condition of the building.”

Hopson’s statement is a departure from months-long discussions about the footprint analysis in which he and top district officials pointed to the release of its full analysis this fall.

In June, in response to a Chalkbeat story identifying 25 schools at risk of closure based on an analysis of publicly available data, the district issued a statement that said Hopson “will be presenting a comprehensive plan in the fall.” Here is the full statement:

“Shelby County Schools has set ambitious goals for its students and schools through its Destination 2025 priorities, and it has made significant progress towards those goals over the past few years. To continue supporting our students and schools, SCS has initiated an ambitious footprint analysis that will offer the right number of high-quality seats in every neighborhood, better focus resources and attain efficiency by operating the right number of schools. As previously stated, Superintendent Hopson will be presenting a comprehensive plan in the fall that will include a full communications and community engagement effort to ensure that we collaborate with all aspects of our community to benefit our students. Any other reference of potential school closures is speculation and not based on the result of the District’s efforts.”

On Tuesday night, Hopson told reporters: “Chalkbeat did a great article a while back laying out the data. The data was there in terms of how under-enrolled the school was, what’s the school’s performance and things of that nature. So, we’re just looking at that data.” (Chalkbeat’s story identified schools at risk, not proposed for closure.)

Other news organizations also reported statements earlier this year about the district’s plan to unveil a comprehensive plan.

Hopson and several school board members say they’re concerned that releasing the district’s own comprehensive analysis that points to the closure of schools down the road might disrupt those schools prematurely.

“What we know is that if you say this school is slated to close four years from now, you’re going to have a tough time getting teachers, parents leave in droves, and things could change,” Hopson told the school board.

The district has a recent precedent for concern. Last spring, when the board voted to close Northside High School at the end of the 2016-17 school year, all but four of the school’s teachers requested transfers and only 36 students remained enrolled in advance of the planned closure. Faced with a potential mass exodus before Northside’s final year of operation, the board reconsidered its decision and voted to shutter the school in June.

School board member Stephanie Love
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Stephanie Love

School board member Stephanie Love acknowledged that Hopson’s plan to release the analysis gradually is a shift, but one that she supports.

“You can’t put all of this out here, especially if you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said, referring to potential academic gains at low-performing schools and new housing developments that could impact enrollment.

It’s uncertain, however, whether Hopson’s gradual rollout will satisfy county commissioners, who hold the purse strings for schools, including construction projects. Without a comprehensive snapshot of the district’s footprint, some elected officials question whether they can embrace Hopson’s recommendations.

“Analysis shows you where you’re at right now,” said Commissioner Terry Roland. “And (Hopson) also needs a plan on what he’s to do going forward. It’s going to have to be a comprehensive plan in order for us to release funds.”

Commissioner David Reaves said the comprehensive plan doesn’t have to include a list of schools to close, but should give the public an idea of “where do the schools need to be positioned” in the face of declining enrollment.

“We’re going to have to ask how does this fit in the bigger picture,” Reaves said. “We need to see this from a strategic viewpoint.”

Others said an incremental approach is thoughtful and gives the superintendent room to change plans to fit changing circumstances.

Commissioner Walter Bailey, who chairs the panel’s education committee, said he has full confidence in the district’s internal analysis.

“I’m not one to second guess the approach they are taking,” Bailey said. “They’ve got all the information. So I have to rely on their study and their reports that cause them to initiate the effort.”

The school board is scheduled to vote next Tuesday on parts of the first phase of Hopson’s recommendations, with a final vote planned for January or February following public meetings on the proposal.

Teamwork

Who will be advising Indiana’s next state superintendent? Not the charter advocates some expected

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick

Indiana’s next state superintendent Jennifer McCormick today announced the team of 17 educators and policymakers who will help her prepare to take office in early January — and not one of them is a major player in Indiana’s charter school or voucher scene.

That matters because for much of McCormick’s campaign, critics charged that she would be no different from her Republican predecessors who pushed sweeping changes in the state, shifting resources away from traditional district schools toward charter schools and vouchers for private school tuition.

READ: Find more on this year's races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.
READ: Find more on this year’s races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.

McCormick insisted throughout her campaign that she’s not like Tony Bennett, the controversial former Republican superintendent, but those claims were largely dismissed by the state’s staunchest advocates for traditional public schools.

Perhaps until now.

“I am excited and honored to work with such a dynamic and diverse group,” McCormick, said in a statement as she announced her transition team. “The team’s commitment to Hoosier students will drive critical decision-making which will ultimately impact Indiana’s education system and ensure Indiana has one of the best Departments of Education in the nation.”

McCormick’s team includes one Republican lawmaker, several public school administrators, two university professors and a testing expert. Also on the list are community and business leaders as well as educators who work in preschools and with special needs children, among others.

The Institute for Quality Education, a school choice advocacy group that strongly backed McCormick’s campaign, will not have any direct representation on the team.

McCormick’s victory over incumbent Democrat Glenda Ritz was a surprise to many on Election Night. The Yorktown superintendent’s campaign focused on her strengths as an educator and leader following a decades-long career as teacher, principal and administrator.

But she has offered few insights about how she will govern, especially since her policy positions are fairly moderate.

While she’s likely to get along better with Republican lawmakers than Ritz, who spent much of the last four years clashing with the GOP, she’s expressed concerns about some major Republican-led initiatives over the past few years, most notably taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools that divert money from public schools.

The transition team is her first major act as superintendent-elect, offering Hoosiers their first look at her most important priorities.

Notably missing from the list is anyone from Indianapolis Public Schools — a detail that one school advocate called “unfortunate.”

“What Indianapolis has done is a national model, and so not to have that represented on the transition team seems like an omission,” said David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, a pro-charter school Indianapolis-based nonprofit. “IPS right now is also not just at the forefront of the state, but really at the forefront nationally in its work to create innovation network schools, and districts around Indiana would benefit from that perspective.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she had been looking forward to seeing who McCormick would pick to assist her since the two talked last week.

“My first reaction was, ‘Wow, this is a really mixed bag of people,’” Meredith said. “I’m glad that she is being really thoughtful in her selections.”

Here’s the full team:

  • Brad Balch: Professor and Dean Emeritus, Indiana State University, Department of Educational Leadership
  • Todd Bess: Executive Director, Indiana Association of School Principals
  • Wes Bruce: Education and assessment consultant who has spent many years with the Indiana Department of Education
  • Jeff Butts: President-Elect, Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, current superintendent of Wayne Township.
  • Rep. Tony Cook: State Representative, Indiana House of Representatives – District 32, vice chairman of the House Education Committee
  • Denny Costerison: Executive Director, Indiana Association of School Business Officials
  • Scot Croner: Superintendent, Blackford County Schools
  • Steve Edwards (Transition Team Chair): Retired Superintendent and Education Consultant, Administrator Assistance
  • Nancy Holsapple: Executive Director, Old National Trail Special Services Inter-Local
  • David Holt: Chief Financial Officer, MSD Warren Township
  • Lee Ann Kwiatkowski: Member, State Board of Education, assistant superintendent of Warren Township
  • Micah Maxwell: Executive Director, Boys & Girls Club of Muncie
  • Hardy Murphy: Executive Director, Indiana Urban Schools Association and Clinical Professor of Education, IUPUI, IU School of Education
  • Kathryn Raasch: Principal, Wayne Township Preschool
  • Terry Spradlin: Director of Community and Governmental Relations, Education Networks of America
  • Lisa Tanselle: General Counsel, Indiana School Boards Association
  • Kelly Wittman: Executive Principal, Max S. Hayes Career & Technical High School, a public school in Cleveland, Ohio.