Show of support

Denver students walk out to protest end of DACA, and to call on Congress to act

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver students chant after walking out of school on September 5, 2017 to protest Trump's decision to end DACA.

Students from more than 20 Denver schools walked out of class and converged on a downtown college campus Tuesday morning to protest President Trump’s order to end a federal program that protects young undocumented immigrants from deportation.

“What do we do when students are under attack?” organizers with microphones shouted at the crowd, which they estimated numbered 2,500 students, teachers and supporters.

“Stand up! Fight back!” the crowd chanted.

The atmosphere at the rally was less intense than at the school walkouts that occurred in the wake of Trump’s election in November, which were marked by visceral disbelief and uncertainty. Tuesday’s rally felt more like a battle cry and a call to action.

“I am here to let them know we are not disposable!” said Paul Yumbla, a teacher at DSST: College View in southwest Denver, who first applied for the protections afforded by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, when he was in college. The program, which began in 2012, is for immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

Trump has delayed the end of DACA for six months, allowing Congress time to come up with a plan to address immigration legislatively.

Two girls who said they are DACA recipients were among the students who walked out Tuesday.

Flor Canales, 16, a student at DSST: Cole High School, said she felt hurt when she heard the news that DACA would end, but said hope isn’t gone.

“I will keep going to school and I will keep fighting,” Canales said.

She said she felt supported by the crowd and by her school. She said teachers took time to talk with her last week about the news that DACA was about to end.

Ana Rios, 16, a senior at STRIVE Prep Excel, said she has been in the country for 11 years.

“I’m a little heartbroken,” Rios said. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen now.”

When she got DACA status almost a year ago, her plan had been to get a business degree to help her family start a welding business. Her brother, also a DACA recipient, wasn’t able to go to school, she said, because his school at the time didn’t support him and he didn’t find a way to afford college.

She said she now sees a difference in support for immigrant students like her.

“If it wasn’t for my school I wouldn’t be thinking about college right now,” Rios said. “They’re all about showing us there is a space for us, there are are scholarships, there are opportunities. I didn’t know there were so many people who supported us.”

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg released a statement calling Trump’s decision to end DACA “shortsighted, heartless and harmful.”

“Our DACA students and educators have tremendous capacity, potential and desire to contribute to our community,” he said. “…We know these young people, we welcome and respect them, and we will do all we can to right this wrong.”

Students from several west Denver high schools met at local parks and marched to the college campus together. At the front of the pack with a bullhorn leading chants of, “Whose streets? Our streets!” was 17-year-old Gianella Millan, a senior at the Denver Center for International Studies whose mother is a community organizer and whose father was deported several years ago.

Although Millan isn’t at risk of deportation herself, she said she’s fighting for her community.

“I know so many students with a 4.0 GPA who could have scholarships but can’t because they don’t have that nine-digit number,” she said, referring to a Social Security number.

Alexandra Payan, 16, a student at North High, said she also walked out for friends and family.

“I was lucky enough to be born here,” Payan said. “It was an advantage I didn’t know I had until I saw some of my family and friends struggling with how to go to school.”

Alondra Prado, a 16-year-old student from the Rise Up Community High School in Denver, said she was there to show support for people like her sister’s husband.

“If he can’t get his DACA renewed, it’s going to be really hard for them to pay their rent,” Prado said. “It makes a big difference.”

He couldn’t be at the rally himself because he was working, she said.

Ulises, a 15-year-old sophomore at West Leadership Academy who declined to give his last name, said he’s the first child in his family to be born in the United States. Several of his cousins have benefitted from DACA, he said, and he thinks rescinding it is unfair.

“We just come here to make our lives better,” he said.

Jorge Resendez, a high school social studies teacher at Contemporary Learning Academy, marched with a group of his students. Resendez has a work permit under DACA. He said his biggest fear is that if Congress doesn’t act, he’ll no longer be able to teach.

“Now more than ever we have to come out and push back,” he said.

As they were wrapping up, crowd organizers chanted the names of U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, both Republicans, asking DACA supporters to call them.

Gardner announced Tuesday he would join U.S. Sen Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, in backing a bipartisan bill that would shield young immigrants from deportation and give them a path to citizenship.

Coffman has proposed forcing action on a bill he introduced in January that would halt for three years the deportation of any immigrant enrolled in DACA. That effort is considered a longshot.

A school district spokeswoman said DPS “worked with students to provide activities that allow their voices to be heard on campus,” but also made efforts to ensure the students who did walk out were safe. Denver police and district security officers were on hand for the march and rally.

At North High School, sophomore Viviana Chavez watched her math class shrink from 32 students to seven as her peers left for the rally. She did her part, joining other students in a second-floor lecture hall over lunch to make pro-DACA posters for a rally later that afternoon at a nearby park.

“I am here, trying to make as many posters as I can, but I can’t afford to walk out,” she said. “America is meant for people to come here to restart their lives. That’s how our country was founded.”

Seventeen-year-old Kandrick Pacheco Fluker, a senior at Denver Center for International Studies, said he’d never walked out of school before Tuesday. But he said the current political climate left him with little choice but to use whatever power he has to fight back.

“Donald Trump isn’t a joke anymore,” Pacheco Fluker said.

“He’s scary, but we’re showing we aren’t scared.”

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.