Future of Schools

Vouchers could transform Memphis, and one network of schools

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
A group of Jubilee School students work on a craft during a summer reading program at La Salle School, one of the Memphis schools expected to accept tuition vouchers if the state legislature approves a program.

Before the Achievement School District, before Tennessee allowed charter schools, before Memphis became “Teacher Town,” there were the Catholic Diocese of Memphis’ Jubilee Schools.

The network of schools launched in 1999 with a mission to educate poor students in Memphis, regardless of their religion. The mission made the Jubilee Schools different from Catholic school networks in other cities, which had been closing schools at unprecedented rates. It also placed the schools at the forefront of a movement toward school choice in Memphis that was on the verge of accelerating.

“Jubilee Schools were a really significant first wave of reform in the education setting in Memphis,” said David Hill, director of academic operations for the Catholic Diocese of Memphis.

Now, the schools are among the leading advocates for a new controversial form of school choice in Tennessee: vouchers, which would let low-income families zoned to low-performing schools use public funds to pay for private schools. Lawmakers have left voucher legislation on the table in each of the last two years, but sources including lobbyists, researchers at Vanderbilt University, and a Democratic opponent of the program, say vouchers are likely to get the okay next year.

Although its impossible to be sure of what next year’s legislation would look like, the introduction of vouchers could dramatically change the Jubilee Schools’ financial picture. And it would further complicate the web of school options that parents in Memphis already have. Right now parents that would be offered vouchers can already send their students to schools run by the Achievement School District (many of which are charter schools), charter schools outside of the ASD, or the Shelby County Schools.

Jubilee Schools could stand to gain more than $2 million from vouchers if they managed to fill all their classroom space, meaning that Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District would receive less. If vouchers become a Memphis reality, other players in school choice will have to react.

“We’d have to step up our game and make sure we have schools where parents want to send their kids,” Chris Barbic, the head of the statewide Achievement School District, said of the post-voucher educational landscape.

The voucher debate in Tennessee

The bill that made it through the State Senate this year would have made vouchers available only to students zoned to the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee. Almost all of those students live in Memphis, although that might change when the state releases a new list of priority schools later this month.  The vouchers would either have covered tuition at a private school or let families apply the amount that the state and district together spend per student toward the tuition. And the number of vouchers covered would have grown from 5,000 in the program’s first year to 20,000 two years later.

Until now, opposition from two groups have stopped similar bills that have cropped up the in Tennessee Senate since 2011.

On one side, there are those who say the voucher legislation is not expansive enough, and should include a greater breadth of Tennessee children. In 2013, Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown, was at the forefront of a push for an expansive voucher program that would impact students across the state, not just in the bottom 5 percent of schools. This year, he supported the legislation limited to low-income families. Gov. Bill Haslam has insisted he will only sign voucher legislation targeted at low-income students.

The other group argues that voucher bills would deplete the budgets of already cash-strapped schools. Democratic representatives and the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, have been among the most vocal proponents of that argument.

“When we talk about Tennessee now being behind Mississippi in funding per child, it just seems silly to talk about vouchers,” said Alexei Smirnov, the managing editor of TEA’s magazine.

Barbara Cooper, a Democrat representative from Memphis, echoed concerns about the allocation of school funding at a recent community meeting in Frayser.  Families living in Frayser, a neighborhood already dominated by the Achievement School District, would qualify for vouchers under last year’s proposed legislation.

“I think we need to be careful about that,” Cooper said. “ It’s helping [schools] that are rich already.”

Around the country, uncertain results

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia already offer voucher programs. Some of those states only offer vouchers to students who receive special education, but seven extend vouchers to students attending academically-struggling schools and from low-income families. Indiana’s legislation allows even families making up to $62,000 year to use vouchers.

Researchers haven’t reached consensus on the impact of vouchers.  In the 2012-2013 school year, students in voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland performed worse on average than their peers in public schools on statewide assessments, and in Louisiana, seven private schools had such low test scores they were prohibited from further accepting vouchers. Other studies have found that voucher programs have improved public schools and increased the likelihood of high school graduation.

Sometimes, more choices does not equal good choices. In Milwaukee, home of the oldest voucher program in the United States, a crop of financially mismanaged and low-achieving private schools popped up after legislation was passed in 1992.

Tennessee’s proposed legislation troubleshoots such pop-up schools by requiring that schools be fully accredited by the state department of education or an agency approved by the department of education at least two years before they can accept voucher payments. The accreditation process takes at least two years, said Claire Smrekar, a researcher at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education.

Most students who use vouchers in states with programs that extend beyond special education go to previously-established religious schools. In Indiana and Washington, D.C., more than half of these schools are Catholic, although in North Carolina, the most popular school with parents using vouchers is Islamic.

What vouchers could do in Memphis

While Memphis’ Jubilee Schools has spots for 500 students, it’s not clear how many poor students would take advantage of those seats. It is clear they could never educate all of the city’s poor students. Many other independent schools are not interested in accepting vouchers. This spring, researchers from Vanderbilt University did a study of private schools in the Memphis area. After interviews with more than 50 heads of schools, they found most of the private schools either could not or did not want to accept vouchers.

That might encourage legislators redrafting the bill for the next session to ease up requirements for private schools accepting vouchers, said Smrekar, who led the study. Or, of the 20,000 students who would eventually get vouchers, many — maybe even the vast majority —  might not find a private school that would accept them.

The reasons private schools might not accept vouchers range from financial to ideological. Private schools could not charge more than the voucher amount, just a fraction of what some schools charge. Annual tuition for students in grades 9-12 at Lausanne Collegiate School, for example, is $20, 610.

Additionally, many schools are neither set up nor feel a calling to take students who might have fallen several grade levels behind and get them up to speed, Smrekar said. And many more don’t want the government regulation that would come with government funding.

But since the Jubilee Schools already accept Title 1 funding from the federal government, and offer free and reduced lunch, they’re used to government oversight, administrators say.  Students also already take nationally-normed standardized tests twice a year, another stipulation in last year’s proposed voucher bill.

“They’re ready,” said Carra Powell, a lobbyist for Tennessee Federation for Children, and  parent of two in Jubilee Schools and one recent graduate. “As soon as the voucher bill is passed, we’re rolling them in.”

But it’s not clear how great the demand for vouchers in Memphis is. Although choice has expanded significantly in Shelby County in the past decade, with 41 charter schools in operation, few, if any of those charter schools have waiting lists, and many parents still opt to go to their neighborhood school. And a new study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education shows that school choice doesn’t necessarily equate to increased access to better schools because of barriers like transportation and parents lacking or misunderstanding information schools provide.

Inside Jubilee

Administrators and teachers at Jubilee Schools think they have a lot to offer families currently in public schools.

Catholicism is a central part of the education offered at the Jubilee Schools, and the diocese prides itself on offering a faith-based education, said David Hill, the academic director for the dioceses and a former charter school principal.  A crucifix hangs in every classroom, and students attend mass weekly.

Of the more than 1,000 students who attend Jubilee Schools, most practice a religion other than Catholicism. Most of the teachers aren’t Catholic either, nor is Hill. The diocese’s goal is for students –92 percent of whom are black or Hispanic,  with virtually all of them receiving need-based scholarships–have been in Jubilee Schools since at least third grade to average in the top third on a nationally normed standardized test, the Iowa Assessments, by the sixth grade. More than three-quarters of Jubilee students met or exceeded their expected achievement growth on the Iowa Assessment in English and math, as determined by the Riverside Publishing Company’s Estimated Growth Report for the Iowa Assessment Core Composite during the 2012-13 school year, Hill said.

Erika Hansen helps a third grade student work on a craft at a reading program at De La Salle Elementary.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Erika Hansen helps a third grade student work on a craft at a reading program at De La Salle Elementary.

The schools collaborate with the University of Memphis to make sure that growth can happen. This summer, after noting a problem endemic to all schools, students losing knowledge during the summer months, the schools and the University of Memphis decided to hold a summer reading program at De La Salle Elementary School in Midtown. Each day, about sixty third-and-fourth graders from eight of the Jubilee Schools come to De La Salle for breakfast, lunch, and reading activities. Teachers include some from Jubilee Schools, some from other schools in the diocese, and University of Memphis doctoral students. The students are broken into groups of around eight students, depending on their reading level.

On a recent Monday, the program went to Booksellers, a bookstore in East Memphis. Some of the students had never bought a book before, said program coordinator Erika Hansen. By that Wednesday, the students were reading about Ancient Egypt and making jewelry Ancient Egyptians might have worn. (“We’re rich Egyptians,” a third grader explained.)

“It’s really about instilling a love of learning,” Hansen said.

Carra Powell says she’s experienced the schools’ ability to bring kids to grade level firsthand. Before her divorce, her children had gone to a private Montessori School in Mississippi, but as a single mother, she couldn’t afford to keep them there. Her oldest daughter seemed to do fine in the public schools. But her son, who started at the local elementary school in kindergarten, still couldn’t read by the second grade. Powell is quick to say that she does not want to bash the public schools. But, she said, they weren’t working for her son, and she didn’t know what to do.

Some of her friends were Catholic, and recommended she look into Jubilee Schools. Powell went to visit St. John, a Jubilee School in Orange Mound. She said she walked in and talked to the principal, and started to cry. To Powell, now a lobbyist for the Tennessee Federation for Children working on voucher legislation, the Jubilee Schools seemed a godsend.

Carra Powell, a Jubilee parent
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Carra Powell, a Jubilee parent

She said the school was able to get Nicholas up to grade level by working with him on reading in a small group four times a week. He also participated in a book group with the principal after school. In a single school year, his reading test scores improved by 60 percent.

And the small size of the school allowed teachers to provide her daughter, who was above grade level in math and reading, with an individualized curriculum. Her daughter recently graduated from St. John, and is attending St. Agnes, another Catholic school, on a merit scholarship. Powell’s son, an eighth grader, is never without a book. “He reads himself to sleep,” she said.

Powell said that her work as a lobbyist is infused by her children’s experiences.  “I want other people to be able to access these schools,” she said.

Civics lesson

Water fountains, a march, and dreams: Brooklyn kindergartners learn about the civil rights movement ahead of MLK day

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Kindergartners at New American Academy Charter School in Canarsie learned about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. by staging a peaceful march in the school hallway.

A dozen kindergartners held picket signs and marched down their third floor hallway, chanting about Martin Luther King Jr., “He was great, and he was good. He taught peace and brotherhood.”

Stopping in front of the nearest water fountain, one student taped to the wall a sign that, in child’s penmanship, read “White Only.”

“Did people get punished for drinking out of the wrong water fountain?” asked their teacher, Diamond Mays.

“Yes,” several of the children, all of whom are black, responded.

How, Mays asked, did black people who couldn’t use certain water fountains feel, especially on a hot day?

“Sad!”

“Frustrated!”

This scene on Thursday was one of several exercises the kindergartners at New American Academy Charter School in Canarsie participated in ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Each year, the school commemorates the day with lessons or activities tailored to each grade.

Since the students are so young, teachers have mostly focused on King’s promotion of peace and his legacy, rather than the more violent aspects of the American civil rights movement, said Fatima Toure, a kindergarten teacher at the school. It’s part of the school’s model to promote King’s vision and ideology, which is what “we want for our students,” said Lisa Parquette, the school’s headmaster.

The activities at New American are one slice of what schools across the city are doing to teach their students about King ahead of the national holiday, which marks when the civil rights leader would have turned 90. Brooklyn’s PS 261 participated in an annual march to Borough Hall. P.S. 770 in Brooklyn will hold a volunteering event Monday to commemorate the holiday, which children have off from school.

Toure said the activities also appeal to students’ natural curiosity. “They seem more curious as to, you know, why it was happening because I believe they just heard about Martin Luther King, but they didn’t really understand what he did,” Toure said. “They would ask questions about why African Americans have to sit in the back of the bus, why was everything separated, why were there colored signs in certain places.”

Since kindergartners do better with visuals, school leaders chose the march and water fountain activity so they could actually see slices of what life was like before and during the civil rights movement, Toure said.

Over the past week, kindergarten classes reviewed a few readings about King. With a teacher’s help, they wrote about the ideas King pioneered that left an impact on their daily lives.

A guest speaker visited students on Tuesday and answered questions about segregation and King’s biography.

They learned key terms like segregation and Jim Crow and helped make their “protest” signs featuring facts about the civil rights movement.

“Jim Crow laws legalized racial segregation,” one kindergartener read proudly from her sign before their march.

After the march, the students returned to their classroom to share their dreams (with inspiration from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech). Several of the children, a little confused by the lesson, wished that black and white people could use the same water fountains, and their teacher gently reminded them that this was already the case. One girl hoped to “get more big and grow up.”

Then it was Nathan’s turn.

“My dream is white and black people can come together,” he said.

where's the research

Summit Learning declined to be studied, then cited collaboration with Harvard researchers anyway

English teacher Adelaide Giornelli works with ninth grade students on computers at Shasta charter public high school, part of the Summit public school system. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

Summit Learning, a fast-growing “personalized learning” system, touts a partnership with Harvard researchers even though Summit actually turned down their proposal to study the model.

The online platform is backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy and is now being used in 380 schools across the U.S.

The program “is based on collaborations with nationally acclaimed learning scientists, researchers and academics from institutions including the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research,” Summit’s website says. “Summit’s research-backed approach leads to better student outcomes.” Schools have used that seeming endorsement to back up their decision to adopt the model.

In fact, though, there is no academic research on whether Summit’s specific model is effective. And while Summit helped fund a study proposal crafted by Harvard researchers, it ultimately turned them down.

“They didn’t tell us explicitly why,” said Tom Kane, a Harvard education professor and faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research. “All I can say is that the work that we did for Summit involved planning an evaluation; we have not measured impacts on student outcomes.”

Summit’s founder Diane Tavenner said the organization had a number of reasons for not moving forward with the proposed study, including its potential to burden teachers and to limit the platform’s ability to change or grow. Their general approach is backed by other research, she said, and their track record as a charter network.

As to the mention of the Harvard center on Summit’s website, Tavenner said the organization had learned a lot from the process of developing a potential study. Tavenner said that, after Chalkbeat began reporting this story, she offered to change the website’s language, but said Kane had not asked her to do so.

More broadly, Tavenner says she is skeptical of the usefulness of large-scale research of the sort the Harvard team proposed, saying the conclusions might be of interest to journalists and philanthropists, not schools.

“I’m not willing to give up what’s best for kids for those two audiences,” Tavenner told Chalkbeat last month.

It’s a notable stance for Summit, given its ambitious claims and the platform’s wide reach.

As “personalized learning” becomes a more popular idea among those trying to improve America’s schools, Summit’s platform has been adopted for free by schools across the country. That’s thanks largely to the backing of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropy poised to receive Zuckerberg’s billions. Summit’s model has drawn praise from parents and teachers in some schools, but proven controversial in others.

Regardless, CZI’s support means Summit could continue to grow rapidly — which has some observers wondering when its backers will show that what it’s offering is particularly effective.

“I do think that there is an obligation to provide credible evidence to schools when you’re trying to convince them to adopt things,” said John Pane, a researcher at the RAND Corporation who has extensively studied personalized learning initiatives.

Summit spreads, but research talks with Harvard team fizzle

Summit’s claims about a Harvard collaboration have their roots in conversations that began in  late 2016.

Zuckerberg’s wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, took a fateful tour of a school in the Summit Public Schools charter network two years earlier. The network soon began working with a Facebook engineering team to build out its technology.

Summit’s model has a number of components: a curriculum in core subjects for grades four through 12; weeks scheduled for students to deeply examine a topic of interest; long-term mentors for students; and a technology platform, which serves as the approach’s organizing structure. The goal is to better engage students and to give them more control over what and how they learn, Summit says.

By the 2016-17 school year, Summit had rolled out its program to more than 100 schools outside its own network. That’s also about when Summit started talks with Harvard professors Marty West and Kane.

An ideal study might have randomly assigned schools or students to use the learning platform, creating two groups that could be compared. That was a non-starter for Tavenner, as it would limit schools’ access to the platform. If 250 schools were assigned to use it, and another 250 expressed interest but were not, for example, that would be bad for students, she said last month while discussing the organization’s approach to research.

“Am I really going to say to 250 people, ‘You know what, we’re not going to actually help you, even though we actually could right now?’” she said.

Kane says they came up with a few alternatives: comparing students using Summit to others not using it in the same school or comparing schools that had adopted Summit to similar schools that hadn’t. They suggested tracking test scores as well as suspensions and attendance, measuring the effectiveness of the support offered to teachers, and using surveys to measure concepts important to Summit, like whether students felt in control of their schoolwork.

But Summit passed on an evaluation. “After many conversations with Harvard and the exploration of multiple options, we came to recognize that external research would need to meet certain baseline criteria in order for us to uphold in good faith our partnership with schools, students, and parents,” Tavenner said.

Metrics were a particular concern. “Standardized tests are not good measures of the cognitive skills,” a Summit spokesperson said, saying the organization had developed better alternatives. “Attendance and discipline are not measures of habits of success, full stop.” Tavenner said she feared that a study could stop Summit from being able to make changes to the program or that it might stop participating schools from adding new grades. (Kane and West say their plan wouldn’t have limited growth or changes.)

Tavenner told Chalkbeat that research of the kind the Harvard team was offering isn’t needed to validate their approach. Summit is based on decades of research on ideas like project-based learning, she said, citing the organization’s report titled “The Science of Summit.”

Dan Willingham, a University of Virginia educational psychologist, said that’s useful, but not the same as knowing whether a specific program helps students.

“You take a noticeable step down in confidence when something is not research-based but rather research-inspired,” he said, while noting that many education initiatives lack hard evidence of success. “There’s a hell of a lot going on in education that’s not being evaluated.”

What about Summit’s original charter network, now 11 schools? Summit cites internal data showing its graduates have success being accepted to college. But outside research is limited. A 2017 study by the Stanford-based group CREDO found that attending Summit led to modest declines in students’ reading scores and had no clear effect in math, though it looked at only a small portion of the network’s students.

The Summit charter schools are also part of an ongoing study of economically integrated charter schools, and a few were included in two widely cited RAND studies looking at personalized learning, though they didn’t report any Summit-specific information. California’s notoriously limited education data access has stymied more research, Tavenner said.

What does philanthropy owe the public?

Today, Summit’s learning platform has far outpaced its charter network. About 380 schools, with over 72,000 students, use the platform; the national charter network KIPP, by comparison, runs 224 schools serving around 100,000 students.

Summit now gets its engineering help from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, not Facebook. That philanthropic partnership has fueled its growth: While CZI has not disclosed how much it’s given to Summit, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation — through which CZI funnels much of its education giving — lists grants to Summit totalling over $70 million in 2016 and 2017.

Summit has also netted $2.3 million for the platform from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2016, and another $10 million in 2017. (CZI, the Gates Foundation, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation are all funders of Chalkbeat.)

Some major foundations regularly invest in research to better understand whether their gifts are doing good, noted Sarah Reckhow, a Michigan State professor who studies education philanthropy. In a number of instances, that research comes to unfavorable conclusions, like a Gates-funded study on its teacher evaluation initiative or a Walton Family Foundation-backed evaluation of charter schools’ propensity to screen out students with disabilities. (A Gates spokesperson said that part of its $10 million to Summit was set aside for “measurement and evaluation.”)

Reckhow said she hasn’t yet seen that same inclination from CZI. And she worries that school districts might be less likely to carefully examine programs that are offered free of charge, like Summit.

“If you reduce that barrier, you’re making it potentially more likely to adopt something without as much scrutiny as they otherwise might do,” she said. “That increases the obligation of Summit and CZI to evaluate the work.”

CZI spokesperson Dakarai Aarons said the organization is committed to research and to Summit, and pointed to a number of schools and districts that saw academic improvements after introducing Summit’s platform. “As the program grows, we look forward to expanded research to help measure its long-term impact,” he said.

Tavenner said Summit is exploring other options to prove its approach is working, including talking to researchers who study continuous improvement. “We can’t just keep saying no to [randomized studies],” she said. “We’ve got to have another way, but I don’t have another way yet.”

Researchers Kane and West, for their part, say Summit’s concerns about evaluating its evolving model should also raise questions about Summit’s swift spread.

“The evaluation we proposed would have assessed the impact of the model at that point in time, even if the model continued to evolve,” they wrote in an email. “When a model is still changing so radically that a point in time estimate is irrelevant, it is too early to be operating in hundreds of schools.”

“Unfortunately, Summit is closer to the rule than the exception,” they said.