Who Is In Charge

What four more years means for education

President Obama’s victory on Tuesday gives him a chance to build on the education policies he has pushed since 2009 and ensures that the federal government’s role in education will not diminish over the next four years.

Photo by Scout Tufankjian for Obama for America, courtesy <em>The Hechinger Report</em>.

In his victory speech, he promised to expand “access to the best schools and best teachers” and spoke broadly about hope for America’s future, particularly for children, but did not offer specific policy ideas.

“It’s clear the Obama administration will continue to make education a priority,” said Jeffrey Henig, a political scientist at Teachers College, Columbia University. “It’s been a winner issue for them even though teachers unions and some elements of the parent community are unhappy about some aspects.”

Obama steered the conversation to education whenever possible throughout the campaign – even during the final presidential debate focused on foreign policy. In particular, he touted his success in passing Race to the Top, a competitive grant program that incentivized 46 states to initiate education reforms. He also hinted about what his second-term priorities will be.

The need to invest more money in education, from early childcare to colleges and universities, was an overarching theme of the president’s campaign. Obama repeated several times that he wants to create 2 million slots in community colleges for job training and recruit 100,000 math and science teachers.

“I want to build on what we’ve done with Race to the Top, but really focus on [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math],” he told the Des Moines Register. “And part of that is helping states to hire teachers with the highest standards and training in these subjects so we can start making sure that our kids are catching up to some of the other industrialized world.”

Karen White, political director at the National Education Association (NEA), the country’s largest teachers union, said she expects to see Obama focus on early education and college affordability during his second term.

Despite disagreeing with some of Obama’s central policies, such as tying teacher evaluations to test scores, both the NEA and the other national teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, threw their support behind the President and urged members to volunteer for his campaign. While there may be lingering disagreements over specific reforms, White was confident that there would be cooperation between the unions and the White House.

“We’ve had a great relationship with the administration,” she said. “We don’t have any reason to believe that won’t happen going forward.”

Obama’s first term was focused on increasing accountability for teachers and principals based on how their students perform academically. Henig predicts that in the second term, the administration will look to improving how that academic performance is measured, including designing new assessments. This will undoubtedly be driven by competitive grants.

“Race to the Top represented, in my mind, not just an education program but a philosophy about how you wield influence from Washington, D.C.,” Henig said. “They’ll still use the money to leverage change because – I think – they think they made a bigger impact with that than [No Child Left Behind] did.”

While Obama has consistently sought a large influence for the White House in the country’s public schools, Romney spent the campaign arguing that education policies were best left to states and local school districts. The stark contrast between Romney and Obama over the federal government’s role in education suggests the era of bipartisan agreement on education policy—begun a decade ago with the passage of No Child Left Behind—has waned, and that Obama may have less success with his education agenda in his second term.

In his first term, education was one of the few areas where Obama found some common ground with Republicans. He supported traditionally Republican ideas like charter schools and merit pay, for example. But he was also unable to pass a new version of the federal education act, which is long overdue for reauthorization, and Republicans blocked an Obama bill that would have reduced teacher layoffs.

“If you work your way through the rhetoric and fuzzy language on both sides … what appeared to be a new bipartisan approach to education a la No Child Left Behind is proving to be more easily unraveled than people expected,” Henig said. “It’ll be a lot harder to make non-incremental changes in education policy.”

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: