ed sec spec

What a Michelle Rhee appointment would tell us about Donald Trump’s education plans

Donald Trump’s rounds in search of an education secretary include a meeting this weekend with Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chief and StudentsFirst founder.

If she is offered and accepts the position, here are five reasonable conclusions we can draw:

1. Trump’s cabinet will contain some diversity of opinion when it comes to undocumented immigrants.

Trump campaigned on promises of ridding the country of people who came here illegally. That includes, he has said, children and young adults who immigrated illegally with their families — people who would be protected by a federal DREAM Act that fell short multiple times in recent years. Rhee came out in favor of the DREAM Act in 2011, citing her direct experience with families who would be protected by it.

“Immigration is not my area of expertise, but I know that the current policy has implications for our education system and isn’t working for kids,” she wrote in a blog post announcing her position. “No child should be forced to live in the shadows and hide their identity, nor should any teacher or mentor have to cover up the truth.”

Many educators have been hoping that the Trump administration will adjust its hard-line position to include amnesty for children brought here by their parents. If Rhee is nominated, she could open the door for the idea to at least get a hearing.

2. Trump meant it when he said he’d champion school choice.

How much is Trump planning to follow through on his campaign promises? In education, one big vow he made was to use federal funds to encourage states to make school choice available to all poor students, including through publicly operated charter schools and vouchers that allow families to take public funding to private schools.

Rhee famously broke with Democratic party dogma three years ago after announcing support for vouchers, so she’s a true believer. If she comes out of her meeting with Trump wanting to serve in his administration, we can assume he convinced her that he plans to move forward with his promises to embrace charter schools and vouchers.

That said, among voucher supporters, Rhee is relatively mild. In a 2012 interview with Education Week, she said she only favors vouchers for low-income students with no high-quality public school options. “This is not about choice for choice’s sake,” she said. Trump’s proposal would offer vouchers to poor families only, but his vice president, Mike Pence, has supported publicly funded private school vouchers for both low- and middle-income families.

3. As for ending Common Core — not so much.

The conservative movement that helped elect Trump cheered when he claimed on the campaign trail that he would end the Common Core standards. The standards are also opposed from the left, by teachers and parents fed up with the tests that standards bring and the test companies that publish them.

Rhee, though, falls with the Obama education reform mainline on this issue: She has strongly supported the Common Core as a path to improving schools for poor children and a way to prepare students for the global economy.

Avoiding the issue in a Trump administration would be relatively easy, complaints from a conservative base aside: Trump did promise to “end” Common Core on the campaign trail. But you can’t repeal something the federal government never actually passed.

4. Urban will still dominate rural — at least when it comes to the education secretary’s most direct experience.

Trump’s support came largely from rural voters, some of whom said the Obama administration hadn’t been attentive to their needs. Indeed, on education, the administration’s leaders did come almost entirely from cities — from Obama’s first education secretary, Arne Duncan, who had led the Chicago public schools, to the current education secretary, John King, who led charter schools in Boston and New York City.

Rhee also grew up in the education world serving big cities. She started in Baltimore, as a Teach For America corps member, then went on to work on urban teacher contract issues by founding The New Teacher Project (now called TNTP), and finally made her national reputation reshaping the public school district in Washington, D.C.

But Rhee has a long relationship with red states, too. StudentsFirst, the advocacy group she founded after leaving D.C., lobbied for laws curtailing seniority protections for teachers. Before it merged with another advocacy group last year, StudentsFirst gained the most traction in states such as Tennessee and Indiana where elected officials were less sympathetic to the concerns of teachers unions.

5. The education reform community Rhee helped to shape will face a new division: how to deal with Trump.

The education reform world as we currently know it arguably settled into place in 2009, when Barack Obama took office and eventually picked one side over the other in a heated debate over the future of public education.

Michelle Rhee was then the fierce chancellor of the D.C. public schools who spent her time firing principals and appearing on national magazine covers with a symbolic broom. In other words, she was the extreme edge of the side Obama picked when he chose Arne Duncan of Chicago as his education secretary and Duncan chose to go all out, if in a friendlier-than-Rhee way, for teacher evaluations and charter schools.

If Trump picks Rhee as his education secretary and she accepts, it could reshape the landscape of the education world again, shifting former allies to opposite sides. Already, we know that some hardcore reformers have come out strongly against any of their own accepting a role in a Trump administration. If Rhee joins the administration, her old friends will have to decide whether to follow that line of thinking and oppose her — or work with her.

 

 

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School, who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”

under study

No longer at the bottom: These 20 schools are Tennessee’s model for turnaround

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Whitehaven Elementary School students work on a robotics project. The Memphis school has moved off of the state's list of lowest-performing schools.

When Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment this week of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, she cited a small number of schools as the exception.

Twenty have improved enough in the last five years to move off of the state’s list of “priority schools” that are in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

Of those, the State Department of Education has conducted case studies of 10 former priority schools in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Hardeman County:

  • Chickasaw Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Douglass K-8, Shelby County Schools
  • Ford Road Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Gra-Mar Middle, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Hamilton Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Treadwell Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Schools
  • Whiteville Elementary, Hardeman County Schools
  • City University Boys Preparatory High, Shelby County Schools
  • Springdale Elementary, Shelby County Schools

The first six are part of state-supported innovation zones in Memphis and Nashville. Two schools — in Chattanooga and Hardeman County — have received federal school improvement grants. The last two did not receive federal or state interventions but were studied because their scores improved at a faster rate than 85 percent of schools in 2015.

Ten other former priority schools, all in Shelby County Schools in Memphis, have improved with only local or philanthropic support. The state plans to examine these closer in the coming months:

  • Alcy Elementary
  • Cherokee Elementary, Innovation Zone
  • Hickory Ridge Middle
  • Manassas High
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering High (charter school)
  • Memphis School of Excellence High (charter school)
  • Oakhaven Middle
  • South Park Elementary
  • Whitehaven Elementary
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A classroom at Ford Road Elementary in Memphis, which is among those that have exited the state’s list of lowest performing schools.

McQueen told lawmakers Tuesday that it’s “a little embarrassing” that only 16 percent of priority schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists that identify 126 failing schools.

The case studies, in part, have informed the school improvement component of Tennessee’s new plan for its schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“… We have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools,” McQueen said in a statement Wednesday.

Tennessee’s proposed new plan for turnaround work would gives more authority to local districts to make their own improvements before the state-run Achievement School District steps in.

One ASD school — Brick Church in Nashville — also has moved off of the state’s priority list, but was excluded from the state’s analysis because there were not enough years of test data to compare since its takeover by the state-run district.

“What we can’t do as a state is support — in terms of funding and time — district interventions that don’t work,” McQueen said. “We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need.”

Chalkbeat reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.