keeping tabs

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.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”