Cause for concern

U.S. education chief knocks ‘uneven’ Michigan charter schools but urges caution in school closings

PHOTO: EWA/Katherine Taylor
Former U.S. Secretary of Education John King.

The Obama administration’s top education official urged Michigan school leaders to think through the consequences of closing potentially dozens of struggling schools in Detroit and across the state.

“The key question is: What are they being replaced with?” asked U.S. Secretary of Education John King in a Wednesday interview with Chalkbeat. “What are the opportunities that will be available to students instead?”

The secretary says Michigan has a poor track record for improving schools — and such poor supervision over charter schools that the privately-run, publicly funded schools do not offer a strong alternative to district schools.

“I worry a lot about the charter sector in Michigan, which has very uneven performance,” King said. “There are a lot of schools that are doing poorly and charter authorizers do not seem to be taking the necessary actions to either improve performance or close those underperforming charters.”

So as Michigan considers shuttering low-performing schools — and as Gov. Rick Snyder sorts through dueling opinions about whether a new Detroit schools law requires his office to close every school in the city that’s posted at least three years of low test scores — King called on state officials to improve struggling schools, rather than just close them.

“Frankly, the track record for Michigan on school improvement to date is not great,” he said. “The key question is: Will the state put in place quality opportunities for students, whether that involves closure as a step or not?”

Chalkbeat spoke with King as he prepares to visit the Detroit area on Friday to highlight a program at Warren’s Proper Tooling manufacturing plant that gives high school apprentices on-the-job experience.

He’s also planning to visit a high school in Flint to discuss school-based health programs in the wake of the water crisis there.

But while he’s in town, King said he plans to ask questions about the state of schools in Detroit.

“One of the reasons I wanted to come to Detroit … is to get a better understanding from folks locally of what the challenges are,” he said. “Certainly it appears that inadequate resources have been invested in many of the schools.”

King said he couldn’t comment on the federal civil rights lawsuit that was filed last month against Snyder and state education officials alleging that the poor state of Detroit’s district and charter schools amounts to a violation of children’s constitutional rights.

But he said the Obama administration supports “the principle that all students in a community deserve an education that prepares them for college and careers,” and noted that he doesn’t think Detroit children are getting that.

“I certainly worry when I see the academic outcomes,” he said. “There are many students who are not getting the preparation for college and careers that they need. I don’t think anyone can look at the academic outcomes in Detroit and not be worried about students and the future of the city.”

King’s comments about charter schools are bound to be controversial among advocates for the privately managed schools. Michigan charter-school supporters routinely point to charter school test scores, which on average are slightly higher than district schools in Detroit.

They note that charter schools do close for poor performance, including five that were shut down last year, and that the new Detroit schools law, which could force the closure of both district and charter schools in the city, also includes tougher requirements for charter school authorizers.

But King said he doesn’t think Michigan has same high standards for charter schools as states like Massachusetts, which he says do a better job of ensuring that the schools “deliver results in exchange for greater autonomy.”

“There are individual [Michigan] charter schools that do seem to be performing well,” he said. “But on the whole, I don’t think the sector had been adequately monitored and adequate steps have not been taken to ensure that charter schools are consistently a better option.”

As he prepared to visit both Detroit and Flint, King drew parallels between Detroit’s schools crises and the problems in Flint, where toxic lead levels that were in the city’s water for more than a year could lead to serious medical, mental, and cognitive impairments in as many as 27,000 children and their parents.

“Ultimately the challenges in Detroit and Flint are both part of deeper problems, in which I think government has not served its citizens as well as it should and hasn’t prioritized equitable outcomes for all communities,” he said. “How the Flint situation came to be and the slow response I think reflects a lack of concern for folks in Flint and it certainly is connected to a long history of issues around race and class.”

Allowing Detroit’s schools to become “under resourced,” he said, is part of the same issue.

“The specifics are different,” he said. “But there is a connection in terms of how invested is the state government in ensuring opportunities and civil rights for all citizens.”

In Flint, he said, “inadequate attention has been paid to protecting the people of Flint in terms of the water quality and inadequate attention has been paid to the children of Detroit in terms of ensuring quality educational opportunities.”

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”