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Does Black Lives Matter belong in education reform? A private debate bursts into public view

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A private debate about the role of race in the community of people who call themselves “education reformers” lept into public view this week. The (ongoing) conversation is worth reading.

Marilyn Anderson Rhames, a black journalist and educator, launched the debate with a piece in the Education Post about her experience at the NewSchools Venture Fund’s annual conference earlier this month in San Francisco. The conference (which I attended) is one of several annual gatherings of the philanthropists, school officials, and nonprofit leaders who make up the so-called “education reform movement,” dedicated to improving schools, especially for poor students. But it was the first of those where Rhames felt what she called “a sense of belonging.”

The conference, she wrote,

acknowledged that the education reform agenda cannot be called a “movement” until those most harmed by inequality are leading it. Moreover, it was the first time I have seen my White allies and funders admit their limitations and take a backseat to leaders of color. Black and Latino speakers gave voice to educational policies and politics that keep them and their low-income students stuck in subordinate roles. They energized attendees to take their seats at the table.

On Wednesday Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and who is white, wrote a piece criticizing the conference as representative of a “leftward lurch” that does not include what he called “conservative ideas.” Rhames had specifically praised the conference’s echoes of the Black Lives Matter movement, including panels and speakers on race and buttons passed out with the phrase “Stay Woke.” Pondiscio wrote about the conference:

“There were moments when I wondered, ‘Are we going to talk about anything but personal narratives and how terrible structural racism is?’” asked this attendee, a senior executive at a national education nonprofit. “When are we going to talk about education?”

Rhames replied yesterday in this post. She wrote:

If you call yourself an urban education reformer and you find yourself asking, “Are we going to talk about anything other than personal narratives and how terrible structural racism is?” then the chances of you successfully delivering educational equity to these poor children living in Chicago is zero.

These kids don’t spend a lot of their time talking about racism; they are too busy playing indoors to avoid random bullets that ring like doorbells in the ghettos that our city politicians redlined just for their kind.

I didn’t hear the left saying “fix structural racism first” before we can fix schools, as you report. I heard them saying that we cannot fix schools if the same racial hostility that permeates society also thrives within our own education reform organizations.

According to Rhames’ first piece, NewSchools Venture Fund said some conservative backers had pulled support away from the organization as it put race and class under the spotlight.

The CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, Stacey Childress, chimed in to address the description in a comment:

over the last couple of years, fewer center-right and conservative folks in education have been attending our Summit, and I’m concerned about this fact and want to work on it. Efforts to re-imagine education will take all of us, and a bi-partisan coalition will be more powerful if we can hold it together while staying true to our purposes and following the lead of Black and Latino leaders in the work.

This, this (a longer response by Childress), and this (a summary of the conference, with videos) are also worth reading.

Update (Friday, May 27): A long and still growing list of white leaders who identify as education reformers have drafted an open letter supporting NewSchools Venture Fund’s stance. The letter argues that their reform coalition “has a problem”: its leaders are disproportionately white and from backgrounds of privilege. They write:

Those of us signing this letter are some of those white leaders. We must admit the extraordinary flaws and shortsightedness in our own leadership for letting the field become so lopsidedly white through the early 2000s. In under-representing the communities that we hoped to serve, particularly people of color, in the leadership and decision-making processes of reform, we created a movement that lacked the ability to drive durable change. A movement of innovators and technocrats will never have the intellectual and moral power of a movement created by, and led by, the communities most affected by inadequate public schooling. And while there is an important role for allies to play in advancing the work of school improvement for poor students and students of color, an unrepresentative group will lack the critical insight and creativity that diversity and inclusivity bring to addressing complex problems.

The letter, published on the website of Justin Cohen, who led the group Mass Insight Education, also challenges Pondiscio’s argument that the type of conversation about race NewSchools hosted excluded conservative political views:

Believing that the people most directly affected by educational inequity should have an outsized voice regarding the potential solutions is not a political stance. A true movement for improving schools must embrace the leadership of the communities we hope to serve, and elevate—not ridicule—the ideas of the leaders of those communities. That doesn’t mean that we need to suddenly rebuke everything that Pondiscio and his anonymous sources believe, but it does mean their perspectives must live alongside the stated needs and objectives of the communities whose lives we wish to value in our work. Just as it was always a false choice between “fixing poverty” and “fixing education,” so is it a false choice between abolishing institutional racism and improving schools.

Update (Saturday, May 28): More education leaders are chiming in to this impassioned conversation.

  • Chris Stewart argues that Pondiscio’s concern about “social justice warriors” overtaking education reform is a new code for “black militants” — and a misguided response to declining conservative support for school reform.
  • Alma Marquez writes that education reform’s leaders of color are “challenged by the same assets” they bring — skin color and ethnicity.
  • NewSchools Venture Fund CEO Stacey Childress calls for a “new coalition that can cut across lines of difference” and thereby mend the “fraying bi-partisan consensus on ed reform.” (Also linked to above.)
  • Jennifer Borgioli Binis points out a common assumption of maleness when describing reform leaders, in a field that is majority female. She also argues Pondiscio’s piece left one question unanswered: “When it comes to school reform, what makes a conservative reformer different than a progressive reformer?”
  • Jay Greene answers Borgioli Binis’s question. Conservatives don’t disagree that issues of poverty, racism, and police brutality are relevant to education, he writes; they just have very different takes on those issues that could needlessly divide the ed reform coalition.
  • Kathleen Porter-Magee, Pondiscio’s colleague, says white, middle-class, conservative reformers need to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.
  • Erika Sanzi urges her colleagues not to jump so quickly to criticize Pondiscio.
  • Patrick Riccards describes his own transition from advocating to listening when a black pastor told him his problem was “you’re white.”
  • Alex Johnston says what’s really at issue is the difference between an interest-group approach to reform, and a social-movement approach.

Update (Monday, May 30):

  • In a must-read tweetstorm, Brittany Packnett, the executive director of Teach For America’s St. Louis chapter and a Black Lives Matter organizer, describes how her work on race, via culturally responsive pedagogy and related practices, makes her work in education more successful. She also connects the conservative discontent chronicled by Pondiscio to concerns of white clergy recounted by Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
  • Educator and writer Jose Vilson says white educators’ pleas for more diverse leadership “mean nothing if we’re not talking about the ways in which each of us is complicit in the complex ways we keep the machine well-oiled.”

Update (Wednesday, June 1):

  • Dan Weisberg of TNTP says conservatives need to realize that speaking out against institutional racism shouldn’t be seen as part of any one ideological agenda.
  • John Thompson argues that this discussion shows that education reform has been dominated by people blinded by their lack of understanding of what happens inside classrooms.
  • Rick Hess says reformers on the left and right can disagree in good faith about big issues, but says progressive reformers often shut down potential dialogue by invoking white privilege.
  • Derrell Bradford says many people have mistakenly reduced an important debate about the role of market-based thinking in education to a discussion of white-male anxiety. As a black man “who often wonders if I might be deprived of my freedom,” he writes, “markets” thinking and “equity” thinking are both vital.
  • Rita Rathbone, a teacher and instructional coach, says education reformers have alienated another important group: teachers and “those who would dare question their corporate reform orthodoxy.” (Added June 2.)

This piece has been updated to correct an earlier error. Pondiscio did not attend the NewSchools Venture Fund conference, though an earlier version incorrectly called him an attendee.

Newark Enrolls

Want to attend one of Newark’s coveted magnet schools? Get ready to take a test.

Newark students who hope to attend one of the district's six magnet schools will have to take a new exam in January.

Newark students will soon face a new hurdle when trying to snag seats at the city’s most popular high schools.

Next month, any student who wants into one of the city’s six magnet schools will have to take a new exam that gauges their academic prowess as well as their interest in each school’s theme.

“If you would like to go to any of those schools,” Superintendent Roger León told parents at a conference Wednesday, “you better get ready for the test to get in.”

The exam, which will be given to students on Jan. 11-12, has not yet been announced on the district’s enrollment site. In fact, the test itself is still being developed and logistical details, such as where students will take it, are still being determined, officials said.

In addition to the new test, each school will also begin interviewing applicants, León said — something only two magnet schools did last year, according to an admissions guide. It’s unclear whether the interviews will take place this admission cycle. If so, schools may have to schedule dozens or even hundreds of interviews in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, enrollment for next school year began on Dec. 3 and continues through February — giving students and schools little time to prepare for the new requirements.

“I know as much as you know right now,” one principal said. “Obviously the superintendent is revamping some items, but he hasn’t really shared the details with everyone.”

The district-run magnet schools, which have themes such as science and American history, include some of the city’s most sought-after high schools. Last year, nearly 1,800 eighth-graders listed a magnet school first on their high-school applications even though the schools had space for only 971 students.

The magnets, which vastly outperform the district’s six traditional high schools, already screen applicants. They look at grades, state test scores, attendance records, and — in the case of Arts High School — an audition or visual-art portfolio, when deciding which students to let in.

But even with those screens, some admitted students are not prepared for the rigor of work at the magnets or lack a strong interest in their programs, León said.

“The idea is to make sure that students who choose to go to these schools are going to meet whatever are the demands of that school,” he told Chalkbeat. “It’s not that your parents have the right to choose for you to go.”

Even as he moves to make magnet schools more selective, León — who became superintendent in July — also hopes to make traditional schools more appealing to top students.

On Wednesday, he also announced plans to create gifted-and-talented programs at each of the traditional high schools. To qualify, students will also take the new magnet-school exam.

León did not go into detail about what the programs will entail. But he may be drawing from his previous experience as principal of University High School, a magnet school that advertises a gifted-and-talented program on its website. Students must test into the program, which includes a “rigorous curriculum” in English, math, and another language, according to the site.

“Students are going into magnets because they think that’s where they can get their high-performing education,” he said. “Now they’ll be given a reason to not do that.”

The traditional schools will also develop specialized “academies” to train students for various careers, including engineering, teaching, and health services. Each school will partner with a higher-education institution and a professional organization to develop those programs.

Many Newark schools have tried to offer vocational programs, but often struggle to find qualified teachers and meet the stringent requirements to receive federal funding. It’s unclear how the district will help them overcome those challenges, especially if the timeline is also aggressive.

Traditional schools, for their part, seem eager for any support they can get. Angela Mincy, principal of Barringer High School, said the school created an honors program last year in an effort to retain high-achieving students.

“If I don’t create an isolated experience for them, I will lose them,” she said in an interview last month, adding that the goal is to keep attracting more and more top students. “The hope is that one day, one honors track will become two will become three.”

With their selective admissions and college-oriented courses, the city’s magnet schools have long been seen as a refuge for high-achieving students who cannot afford private school. County-run vocational schools, which also screen applicants, are another popular option along with some charter high schools — though they often have few seats left over for students who did not attend their lower-grade schools.

The district’s traditional, or “comprehensive,” high schools are viewed by many families as schools of last resort. On nearly every academic measure — attendance rates, test scores, college enrollment and completion — the traditional schools lag far behind the magnets.

In a sense, this disparity is built into the system. Magnet schools are designed to enroll academically and artistically accomplished students. Traditional schools take the rest, including almost all students who are still learning English and the majority of those with disabilities.

Other cities have begun to rethink this practice of tracking students into separate schools according to ability — at least as measured by a single test. In New York City, where a debate has raged over admissions to the district’s coveted “specialized” high schools, the mayor has proposed scrapping the schools’ entrance exam. Instead, he said, they should reserve spots for the top students from every middle school.

Some Newark parents have floated a similar plan for the city’s most exclusive magnet school, Science Park High School. Instead, Superintendent León is pursuing the opposite approach — adding new entrance exams for all magnet schools. In other cities, exam schools tend to be highly segregated by race and class, favoring families with the wherewithal to help students prepare for the exams or pay for test prep.

León said he expects the new magnet exams will measure students’ reading and math proficiency, as well as their interest in each school’s particular focus, such as science or technology.

“The whole concept that anyone and everyone can get into the magnet high schools — that’s not why they were designed,” said León, who graduated from Science High School. “You actually have to qualify to get into those schools.”

Karen Gaylord, Science Park High School’s community engagement specialist, said some teachers and  parents may grumble about the new test because they haven’t had a chance to prepare students for it. But she noted that families had become “resigned” to entrance exams when magnet schools used them in the past.

She also said many people would welcome the admissions interviews as a way for students to highlight skills and interests that aren’t reflected on their transcripts. The question, she said, is how schools will carry out these changes on such a tight timeline.

“It feels like there are so many opportunities to get this right,” she said. “I’m just not sure we’re going to get them all in this year. The clock is ticking.”

Newark Enrolls

In Newark, universal enrollment was in danger. So charters started planning a separate system.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark students arriving at a district school on the first day of class.

For much of this year, the fate of Newark’s joint district-charter enrollment system was uncertain.

So even as charter leaders negotiated changes to the shared system with the district’s new superintendent, they began quietly developing a backup plan in case it fell apart, according to a charter-sector memo obtained by Chalkbeat.

Beginning this spring, the sector began exploring a charter-only enrollment system, the October memo shows. This fall, the sector ramped up its contingency planning: It hired the district’s recently departed enrollment director to draw up plans for a charter-only system.

Ultimately, their efforts proved unnecessary — at least for now. Last month, after prodding from the superintendent, the Newark school board agreed to retain the joint enrollment system for at least another year.

Still, the behind-the-scenes planning shows how seriously some charter leaders took the threat that the five-year-old enrollment system, called Newark Enrolls, could unravel. And it illustrates their fear of returning to what many charter proponents consider the bad old days, when each charter school had to convince families to apply to it separately because no universal application form existed.

Michele Mason, executive director of the Newark Charter School Fund, an advocacy and school-support group, said the sector was simply doing it “due diligence” in case negotiations with the district over Newark Enrolls broke down. She added that the sector developed a plan for how to create a charter-only enrollment system, but did not actually build one.

“We’re trying very hard to keep one system because we believe that’s in the best interest of kids and families,” Mason said. “But things could change here in Newark, and somebody could change their mind on one system, so we were just committed to not being caught flat-footed.”

The citywide enrollment system, originally called “One Newark,” has been divisive since it launched in 2014. It upended the tradition of families registering in person at their neighborhood school or entering admissions lotteries at individual charter schools. Instead, they could list up to eight district or charter schools on a single application before being matched to one school.

Early on, the new computerized system failed to match some students with any school and sent some siblings to schools in opposite ends of the city. Meanwhile, charter critics saw it as a scheme to divert students from the district into charter schools.

In 2016, the city school board passed a resolution to dismantle the system. But the move was mainly symbolic because the district was still under state control. Then, in February, the state ended its 22-year-long takeover and handed control back to the school board. Suddenly, the future of Newark Enrolls was in doubt.

Around that time, a few board members undertook a review of the enrollment system, which included talking to charter leaders. The charter leaders were left with the impression that some board members wanted separate district and charter enrollment systems, according to the charter memo.

At that point, sector began developing “contingency plans” for a charter-only system, the memo says. The idea was that if families could not longer apply to district and charter schools through a single system, they at least would not have to apply to each charter school separately.

Charter leaders’ fears grew in late June when the district’s new board-selected superintendent, Roger León, forced out dozens of administrators and top officials — including two who oversaw enrollment, Kate Fletcher and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon. The board blocked their firing but both eventually resigned, leaving the enrollment office without a leader.

Around the time of León’s leadership shakeup, the Newark Charter School Fund hired a “research group” to study the computer program the district uses to match students with schools “so it can be replicated if needed,” according to the memo, which did not name the group.

Then tensions appeared to ease. In July, León assured charter leaders that he would protect the joint enrollment system. The two sides began negotiating the terms of an annual agreement that spells out how the system should operate.

Worried about the lack of leadership in the enrollment office and potential staff reductions, charter leaders pushed for a provision in the agreement that says the district must maintain “the quality and quantity of personnel necessary” to operate Newark Enrolls. The district accepted that change then proposed its own — an end to the practice of sending charter schools extra students to offset those who leave over the summer — which became a major sticking point. (The final agreement does not explicitly ban or allow the practice.)

Amid those talks, the charter sector hired Fletcher, the former district enrollment official, to develop a plan for “operationalizing” a charter-only enrollment system, according to the memo. That included contacting possible vendors and staffers to run the system, the memo says. (Fletcher did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

Eventually, district and charter leaders settled on the language of the agreement. At a board meeting on Nov. 12, Superintendent León made a forceful case for keeping the joint enrollment system, saying it eased the application process for parents and gave them more options. The board voted to approve it.

However, the vote was more a temporary truce than a permanent end to the battle over Newark Enrolls.

Board Member Leah Owens, who abstained from the vote, said during the meeting that the system was costly for the district to maintain and amounted to a district endorsement of charter schools. Board Member Reginald Bledsoe said he was only voting for the agreement because the district had not yet created an alternative enrollment system.

“We talked at great length with the community that we wouldn’t be moving forward with this system,” Bledsoe told the superintendent during the meeting. “When will this plan come to a halt?”