Movers and Shakers

Meet the Colorado education researcher you can actually understand

PHOTO: Creative Commons
Residents in the Munger Elementary School neighborhood will receive hundreds of books over the next three years to build better reading skills in youngsters.

Have you ever wandered into a thicket of education research terminology and wished you had a translator? Someone who could put “effect size” and “causal inference” into perspective? Or just English?

Kevin Welner’s your man.

On Monday, the Boulder professor was recognized with the 2017 American Educational Research Association’s Outstanding Public Communication of Education Research Award.

Welner, who has been featured in the Washington Post and on NPR, shared a few tips with Chalkbeat.

Education research can be complicated and mind-numbing. What’s your secret to communicating so the general public can understand it?

My personal “secret” is just a lot of editing and rewriting, sharing drafts with friends and colleagues and seeking to squeeze out the academese.

But more important is the secret underlying the National Education Policy Center, which I direct and which is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education: We have a ready pool of hundreds of top researchers from around the country.

So if we need someone who can make sense of a research study with methods that are mind-numbingly complicated, we can quickly reach out to any of a dozen brilliant minds, all trained to fully understand those methods. If we need an expert who knows all the research on early-childhood education, class-size reduction or charter schools, we can do the same. We then work with those experts to engage in the editing process I noted above for myself – all geared toward ensuring that the published version is useful for academics as well as the general public.

What advice would you give to other academics and policy wonks ?

In the graduate programs where we receive our Ph.D. training, we learn almost nothing (or literally nothing) about how to communicate our research to a broader audience. Instead, our training focuses on preparing researchers to add to the scholarly knowledge base. We do that through academic journals, books, conferences, etc.

We designed the National Education Policy Center to help close that gap — to facilitate communications between the scholarly conversation and the conversation that everyone else is having, often about the same issues.

My advice to researchers would be to embrace opportunities to speak to a larger audience, even if it means stepping out of our comfort zones. The truth is that we’ve already found an enormous readiness to do so. Notwithstanding our training, and even the incentive systems that reward university-based researchers for more traditional work, we have seen a strong interest in this work, generally known as “public scholarship.”

You’ve critiqued influential news organizations, including U.S. News and World Report about their rankings of the nation’s best high schools. Why is it important to raise public questions about such things?

At best, each of us can only have real expertise in a very small number of areas. When a medical doctor or auto mechanic tells me something based on their expertise, I’m largely at their mercy. I often don’t know enough to even ask the right questions, let alone to have a B.S. detector for their answers.

What I and my colleagues at the National Education Policy Center have tried to do in the area of education research is to show the broader public a fuller picture. The U.S. News work I did, regarding high school rankings, is a good example. The rankings were undermined by technical problems, sloppiness, and fundamental problems involving choices about how and what to include in their measurement formulas. How would a parent who sees those rankings otherwise know about these weaknesses?

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

the search

As chancellor search continues, Weingarten dismisses Orlando schools chief as ‘Joel Klein type’

PHOTO: Dr. Barbara Jenkins 2013 Award Video/YouTube
Barbara Jenkins has been floated as a possible candidate for New York City Schools Chancellor.

After several months of searching for a new leader for the nation’s largest school system, Barbara Jenkins, the superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Florida, emerged this week as a contender for the job.

City Hall is still courting the Orlando schools chief, according to a source. But there are several big reasons why Jenkins might not be New York City’s next school’s chancellor — as well as some unusual behind-the-scenes discussion that could help draft Jenkins or other out-of-state superintendents.

One is that Jenkins has voiced concerns about taking the job, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the search. Some said she signaled weeks ago that she was not interested.

Another is that she may not have the union support that has proven valuable to Mayor Bill de Blasio. She definitely doesn’t have the support of Randi Weingarten, the influential leader of the American Federation of Teachers.

Weingarten told Chalkbeat this week that she was “surprised” to hear Jenkins’ name surface, and compared her to leaders of the so-called education reform movement who have had contentious relationships with teacher unions.

I think that Barbara Jenkins is much more in line with the Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee types than she is in line with the Carmen Fariña types,” Weingarten said, comparing the polarizing former schools chiefs of New York City and Washington, D.C. to the city’s current schools chancellor.

Fariña, who has held the top job since 2014 and announced she was stepping down in December, was brought in partly to undo Klein’s policies and has taken a friendly stance toward the city’s United Federation of Teachers. (UFT President Michael Mulgrew declined to talk about discussions he has had with City Hall about Fariña’s successor.)

A third potential issue: compensation. Jenkins made $310,000 in 2017, according to the Orlando Sentinel, while Fariña’s salary is roughly $235,000. A move could mean Jenkins, who is in her late 50s, would have to forfeit some of her future pension, after spending years in the same district, and contend with the high cost of living in New York City.

Those factors could be a problem for many potential candidates, says Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for New York City, which serves as the business community’s lobbying group. That’s given rise to conversations about whether the chancellor’s compensation could be supplemented — perhaps by a third party, such as an individual who is interested in education. (The Partnership for New York City is not working to find additional funds, she said.)

“It’s understandable that it would be difficult to attract somebody to the city because of our high costs,” Wylde said. “Perhaps that’s something we ought to be trying to address.”

Still, Jenkins generally fits within the profile de Blasio has sketched out for the next schools chief. She has years of experience running a school system with over 200,000 students, and the district has earned praise under her leadership. If chosen, she would be the first black woman to lead New York City’s school system.

Jenkins and Mayor Bill de Blasio declined to comment.

Patrick Wall contributed reporting.