Future of Schools

This Colorado conservative is taking a bigger role in expanding school choice across the nation

Michael Fields addresses a crowd at the Colorado Capitol. (Photo courtesy Americans For Prosperity)

For the past two years as Colorado state director of the conservative political group Americans For Prosperity, Michael Fields has advocated at the statehouse and the ballot box for free-market policies, including expanding charter schools.

Now, Fields is taking on a larger role with the organization, which grew out of the Tea Party movement and is backed by the billionaire Koch brothers.

Fields’s new role helping Americans For Prosperity push school choice nationwide comes as the nation is having a renewed conversation about the issue. President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, have pitched a federal school choice program, which could provide vouchers to some students to use for private school tuition.

We asked Fields, a Teach for America alum who taught in the Denver suburb of Aurora, about his thoughts on the plan and what’s next for charter schools in Colorado and across the nation.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell us about your new gig.

What we’re doing is engaging in long-term policy battles nationwide. Often AFP would work on a single ballot issue, or campaign. Rarely are we — or anyone — educating people about those broader issues.

For example, one of the issues we’re working on is educating people on education savings accounts, which were just created in Arizona and Nevada. Here in Colorado, we’re going to be doing a campaign on school choice in general. Support for school choice is pretty high: Can we get that higher? Some people still don’t know that charter schools are public schools — that you don’t have to pay tuition to attend.

We’re really focusing on broad policies, not fighting for a specific issue. We’re trying to change people’s opinion over the longer term.

Why now?

For a good amount of time, conservatives have had control over governors’ mansions and state legislatures. They’ve begun to pass policies that we would say are good. But they’re under attack all the time. People are uneducated about them. These big reforms have passed, and we need to get to a point where we’ve educated people enough where we don’t have to have big battles. We’re a long-term policy place. We’re not about partisan politics. So we need to be more coordinated on educating people on the issues we care about.

You say you’re nonpartisan, but when was the last time Americans for Prosperity supported a Democrat, or a Democratic idea?

We support conservative policies.

Here in Colorado, we’d thank all the Democrats who voted for the charter school funding equalization bill. And if you follow us, you know we hold Republicans accountable.

There are a lot of conservative Democrats in Southern states that support conservative policies. So we’ll give them a shout-out. I don’t know if that’s helpful to their career. But we’ll work with them. We want policy majorities regardless of the party.

Why is education reform important to AFP?

Education is the starting block for the rest of society. And right now, we’re creating a two-tiered society. Some people get a great education, they’re lined up for a job. But there is a whole group of people who have the deck stacked against them. It’s harder than it’s ever been to get from the bottom to the top in America.

Details on a federal choice program are still scarce. But what do you think of the Trump administration’s plans so far?

It will be interesting to see what comes out of it. They’re emphasizing that states should be driving this. Most of these issues will happen at the state level. And states are the best avenue to define what the education system looks like.

DeVos was criticized for comments she made regarding states creating voucher programs that could discriminate against some students, especially gay and transgender students, and students with special needs. What did you make of her comments and the backlash?

I think the backlash wasn’t that surprising. Look, there are certain federal standards around discrimination that are going to be upheld regardless. There is certain discrimination that shouldn’t happen. Anytime you’re taking federal money, that changes the ballgame.

There are two major philosophies in school choice: market-based and quality. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a strong proponent of the market-based approach, with little regulation over what schools open or close. Education reformers in Denver have argued that they have a role in ensuring quality schools are opened and bad ones are shut down. Which philosophy is yours more closely aligned to?

It’s both. You do need options, but you need quality control. You just can’t let anything go. That’s where school accountability comes in. If a charter school is not doing its job, it should be shut down, just like a district-run school should. Every year a kid is not getting a good education, he’s falling behind.

One of the critiques of school choice is that with competition there are ultimately winners and losers. What do you say to kids who go to a new school and it didn’t work?

The thing I’m concerned about is having one option that isn’t working. So if you’re in a district that is blocking charters, that isn’t open to anything else, and all you can do is send your child to a failing school, I think that’s the worst-case scenario. Competition means that there are going to be some losers. But they should be shut down and the kids should be moved to better options as quickly as possible.

What do you say to people who argue that charter schools aren’t held to the same standards?

I’m on the board of a charter school. I know we’re taking the same tests. We have to follow open-record laws. We have to do the civil rights paperwork. It is a public school that must meet the same standards. If you’re involved in a charter school, you know that. We also have additional challenges. For example, we have to manage our own money — we don’t have a district to float us money. We have to put out a good product to get kids to show up, to get parents to show up.

While charter schools are increasingly serving black and Latino students, charter schools are increasingly segregated. What should school choice advocates be thinking about regarding integration?

Part of it is that neighborhoods are this way — segregated. Whatever that neighborhood looks like, that school is going to look like. I grew up in Chicago. Every neighborhood was different.

For my family, diversity was very important. So, we were sent to a school that was like our family was — very diverse. (Fields is biracial.)

The school I’m on the board at is one-third white, one-third black and one-third Latino. A slight majority are low-income. Choice allows that diversity. And I think that it encourages diversity even more because you’re able to get out of your neighborhood.

But that doesn’t always play out that way. Here in Colorado, our charter schools are slightly more segregated than district-run schools.

It’s a societal question. I don’t think this is something can be fixed by the school system alone.

What do you see for the future of charter schools here in Colorado?

One thing is looking at exclusive charting authority — especially now that we have equal funding. We have districts, especially districts that are low-performing, that are trying to block charter schools from developing there. I think you’re going to have more push back against charters. And charters are going to have to go through the appeal process with the State Board of Education.

I think accountability will continue to be a piece on both the charter schools and the district side. Are we making sure that both district and charter schools are being held to the same standard?

What about charter school policy nationwide?

One of things I’m learning with this new role is just how diverse charter school policies are. Kentucky just started charter schools. Colorado’s had them for almost 25 years. It really varies state-to-state. That’s why I don’t think one federal choice program is the best thing for everybody. Different states are at different stages.

Future of Schools

For Indianapolis principals hoping to improve, one program says practice makes perfect

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A kindergarten student reaches for crayons during a lesson at Global Prep Academy.

Mariama Carson has spent 20 years as an educator, first as a teacher and now as principal of Global Prep Academy. But in all that time, she never found training that prepared her as well as what she learned over two weeks last summer.

Carson, along with 23 other Indianapolis school leaders, was chosen to be a fellow in a principal training program through the Relay Graduate School of Education. Almost immediately, she noticed a big difference from previous coaching she’d had: They practiced everything.

How do you teach kids the right way to walk in the hallway? They practiced it. How do you let a teacher know she’s struggling? They practiced it. What are the precise words to use in an evaluation? More practice.

“The commitment to practice is what has been so different,” Carson said. “Whatever we learn in Relay … it’s not just something someone has told you about. You’ve practiced it. You’ve lived it.”

Relay, a six-year-old New York-based organization, was founded by a cadre of leaders from high-performing charter school networks. Practice, role-playing and applied learning are at the center of their work with educators, which for five years has included a year-long principal fellowship.

In the 2016-17 school year, Relay trained about 400 school leaders in the United States. Fellows from Indianapolis were chosen and sponsored by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit. Joe White, who directs The Mind Trust’s school support initiatives, said he was happy with the response during the last round of applications. The next cohort, whose members will be announced this month, will be larger and contain more Indianapolis Public School educators, as well as charter school principals, he said.

The Mind Trust wants to make the training “available to as many new operators as possible to continue expanding this work across the city,” White said. “We think that this is the way that we create sustainable schools that will provide high-quality results and outcomes for kids for a very long time.”

Two principals in the midst of the program told Chalkbeat that the fellowship is already changing the culture and efficiency of their schools. The principals spent the fellowship’s two-week summer training session in Denver learning how to best collect and analyze student data, give feedback to teachers and create a school building that runs smoothly.

“The practice and critical feedback we got was unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” said Mariama Carson, a principal at Global Prep Academy, which is housed in the IPS Riverside 44 building. “Usually as a principal, you don’t get that kind of feedback.”

But Relay, which also has teacher training programs, has its share of critics. Kenneth Zeichner, a researcher and professor at the University of Washington, analyzed non-university-affiliated teacher training programs, including Relay’s. Although he hasn’t looked into the principal program specifically, he said he is troubled that the teacher training curriculum emphasizes using test scores to gauge results at the expense of a more well-rounded assessment of students, who many times are coming from families living in poverty.

He also worries Relay as a whole is too focused on fast growth, rather than on proving its methods work. There have been no independent studies done on whether Relay produces better teachers than other alternative or university programs, Zeichner said, although one is underway.

“My concern about Relay is not that they exist,” Zeichner said. “If you’re going to measure the quality of a teacher education program — of any program — the independent vetting, or review, of claims about evidence (is) a baseline minimum condition.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Carson and Bakari Posey, principal at IPS School 43. The two just completed their second of several training sessions, which will continue through the rest of the school year.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What made you want to be part of the fellowship?

Carson: The job of a principal is so lonely. To have the opportunity to work with high-quality, hard-working principals across the country is always inviting.

Posey: I wanted to make sure that I was able to appropriately and efficiently and effectively develop the people on our team. That’s what really drew me in. It’s shaped my thinking and sharpened my lens as a leader and what I’m looking for in classrooms.

What have you learned so far that you’re implementing in your school?

Carson: It’s been transformative in how our building is run just on the cultural side. Relay has really helped us understand that especially with adult learners, you have to start with the “why.” And then we model, and the teachers (in my school) play the position as students. We go into full acting mode, and then the teachers execute that practice. For two weeks before the kids even showed up, that’s what our teachers were doing. Normally, I’d hand my teachers a packet of procedures and expectations, but we never practiced.

Posey: We’ve started to implement already … around coaching teachers — how we give that feedback and give teachers bite-sized action steps to work on instead of making a list of 12 things to do at once. If you do one thing better every single day, then you get better overall. Something else that’s big for me is student work exemplars — actually having an example of excellence for student work that the teacher creates and uses to guide feedback. Overall it’s just kind of helped to organize my thinking as a school leader and really kind of give you a little bit of a road map towards student growth and overall school success. It’s the best professional development I’ve ever been a part of.

How have teachers back in your schools responded to the changes you have introduced, including suggestions on improving instruction, evaluations, etc.?

Carson: Teachers have been responding well, and they’re getting used to this culture, a culture of practice. Even in our feedback sessions where we’re coaching teachers, it’s “OK, execute the lesson — I’ll be the student, you be the teacher.”

Posey: They’ve been receptive. It’s not coming from a place of “gotcha” or I’m trying to make you look really bad. It’s really coming from a place of really getting better for our students to really give them the best, which is what they deserve.

gates keeper

Gates Foundation to move away from teacher evals, shifting attention to ‘networks’ of public schools

PHOTO: Department for International Development/Russell Watkins

Its massive education funding efforts have helped spread small high schools, charter schools, and efforts to overhaul teacher evaluations. Now, the Gates Foundation is going in a new direction.

In a speech Thursday, Bill Gates said the foundation is about to launch a new, locally driven effort to help existing public schools improve.

The idea is to fund “networks” that help public schools improve by scrutinizing student achievement data and getting schools to share their best ideas, he said. Of the $1.7 billion the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will spend on U.S. education over the next five years, more than 60 percent will go to these networks — dwarfing the amount to be spent on charter schools, about 15 percent.

Gates said that’s both because he wants to go where other philanthropy isn’t and because the foundation’s strategy is to affect as many students as possible. (Only 5 percent of U.S. public-school students attended a charter school in 2014.)

“In general, philanthropic dollars there … on charters is fairly high. We will be a bit different. Because of our scale, we feel that we need to put the vast majority of our money into these networks of public schools,” Gates said. (“We love charters,” he quickly added.)

The Gates Foundation is a supporter of Chalkbeat.

The strategy appears to be a nationwide expansion of the work Bob Hughes, the Gates Foundation’s K-12 education chief, did in New York City as the longtime head of an organization called New Visions for Public Schools. New Visions started several dozen district and charter schools but also created tools for schools to check on student progress that were later adopted by New York City itself.

Gates offered other examples: Chicago’s Network for College Success, which works with about 15 high schools; the LIFT Network in Tennessee, which includes 12 school districts; and the CORE Districts in California. The foundation plans to fund 20 to 30 such networks, Gates said.

Also notable is where Gates said the philanthropy will no longer be sending money: toward efforts to encourage new teacher evaluation systems, which in some states have faced fierce political resistance in recent years.

The foundation’s new work to support school networks will be driven by local ideas about how to create the best schools, Gates said.

“The challenge is that, even that piece when it’s done very well, the teacher in the classroom — that is not enough to get the full result we want,” Gates said. “And this is something that I’m sure has been obvious to all of you. But it’s really the entire school, where the leadership, the development, the overall culture, the analysis of what’s going on with the kids — it’s that school level where you have to get everything coming together.”

The final quarter of that $1.7 billion will go toward research into how kinds of technology could improve student learning and ways to improve math instruction and career preparation.