Reckoning

The day after: Hard questions as education reform wakes up to Trump’s America

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post

On Wednesday, Elisa Villanueva Beard, the chief executive of Teach For America, started her day by comforting her crying son as he asked if his grandmother would be sent back to Mexico, where she was born. De’Shawn Wright, the chief of staff at Newark Public Schools, texted his friend Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator and former Newark mayor, seeking reassurance. Booker’s message, according to Wright: “You’ve gotta be a prisoner of hope.”

Then, like so many Americans stunned by Donald Trump’s upset, they went to work — where, in their cases, as leaders of the so-called education reform movement, the reckoning continued.

Trump’s victory not only unsettles the future role of the federal government in American schools (he has said he wants to eliminate or severely cut the U.S. Department of Education). It is also raising wrenching questions for leaders who have devoted their working lives to improving schools in poor communities.

Some of those questions are immediate. Among the 7,000-plus teachers who teach in poor schools across the country through Teach For America today, 146 are undocumented and facing the prospect of losing legal protections should Trump follow through on his promise to overturn DACA. In the state-run Newark schools district ruled by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a top Trump advisor, Wright started his morning Wednesday fielding reports of immigrant students showing up to school terrified they would be deported.

Other questions are deeper and still developing. Here are four I heard from multiple education reform leaders in conversations Wednesday.

Which children should the education reform movement serve?

Several education leaders I talked to were struck by the wave of white working-class voters, including many rural and rust-belt Americans without college degrees, supporting Trump. By focusing their efforts primarily on improving schools for black and Latino students living in urban communities, has the education reform movement missed another group facing economic challenges and in need of better educational opportunity?

Reformers “largely overlooked a crisis that’s been hiding in plain sight for years,” Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, wrote almost a year ago, in a piece that was getting recirculated Wednesday among reformers. He went on:

“There are about twice as many non-Hispanic whites as blacks living below 150 percent of the poverty line in the U.S. It’s a fair bet that their kids aren’t doing very well in school – and that they see Donald Trump as “my guy.”

“This election is showing us how unheard and unsupported so many different people feel. Like vastly different people,” said Villanueva Beard. “This morning, I was thinking, what is the implication of this for me and for us a community generally? Where have we missed it? What voices are not at the table helping to push our thinking and reach a broader coalition of people who are all seeking liberty and justice?”

Like many education reform organizations, Teach For America primarily works in urban communities. Though it does have some rural offices, almost all of those serve students of color. The one exception is Teach For America’s office in Eastern Kentucky, called Teach For America Appalachia, where 40 teachers this year entered classrooms in one of the country’s highest-poverty congressional districts — 29 percent of people lived below the federal poverty line, according to 2015 census estimates, and more than 95 percent of people are white.

“We’re in rural Appalachia,” Villanueva Beard said. “But we need to really consider, are we doing enough there?”

What does education reform have to offer rural communities?

If education reformers turn their attention to rural and rust-belt communities, what can they offer them?

While some activists have focused their energies on solutions for rural schools, they are disconnected from the school reform movement that has been ascendant the last 30 years. And mainstream reform policies — policies like higher academic standards and tougher consequences for poor performance, combined with school choice and new influxes of mission-driven teachers — don’t necessarily translate into rural environments.

“It’s probably easier to say, hey, who wants to go teach in New Orleans? It’s probably harder to say hey, who wants to teach in Youngstown, Ohio?” said Pondiscio.

Still, some pointed to small-scale efforts that suggest mainstream reformers can successfully extend their work to different contexts. Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute think tank, pointed to a charter school he visited this Monday in poverty-stricken Portsmouth, Ohio, that is authorized by Fordham. The school’s autonomy from traditional school district governance, a trait charter school supporters say allows for improvements, also seemed to be working at that school, Petrilli said.

One difference: Unlike most urban charter schools, located in the heart of Hillary Clinton’s support, in Portsmouth, Petrilli saw “Trump signs everywhere. No Clinton signs to be found in the town.”

The executive director of Teach For America’s Appalachian region, Josh Sparks, said he believes that TFA’s model of building change advocates by exposing young people to high-poverty schools firsthand can work in Appalachia.

“I’m really excited for the future,” said Sparks. “I’m really hopeful that our communities will come together and realize that we are the ones that have to be the change that we want in our region.”

How should education reform reckon with race?

Questions about which communities education reformers should serve come at a time when the group is divided on the role of race in their work. As the Black Lives Matter movement took off, some reformers increasingly adopted the language of anti-racism as a core component of their education work. Others, meanwhile, urged reformers to drop that mantle, which they saw as unnecessarily divisive.

The election of a candidate endorsed by white supremacists only accelerates this debate.

For those who have chosen to talk more directly about their desire to end racism, the election strengthened their determination. “It is undeniable that deep divisions along racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines played an important role in this election cycle, and I am more convinced than ever that the work we are doing – both internally and externally – to dismantle systemic inequity is critical to our success as an organization and as a nation,” said Jonas Chartock, chief executive of Leading Educators, a reform group focused on supporting teachers in leadership roles.

Pondiscio, meanwhile, who has led the other side of the argument, also found fuel for his position in the election results. If Trump’s victory shows many voters felt alienated by Black Lives Matter-style anti-racism, then connecting education reform to that stance could erode potential support. “As far as I can tell, we have a broadly distributed performance problem in American education,” Pondiscio told me today. “So to the degree to which we have allowed charters, choice, and ed reform more broadly to be an urban thing, I think that has been a miscalculation.” (Pondiscio made a similar argument last month, here.)

Everyone I spoke with — including Pondiscio — emphasized that extending their work to serve poor white students should not threaten service of poor black and Latino students.

“We’re not going to back down from our commitment to the kids in communities that we serve now given the massive disparities and generations of that,” Villanueva Beard said. “I’m thinking of it more as an and… There are real implications, I get it, and choices, when you have limited resources and limited capacity. I think that’s the next question. But I won’t even contemplate the or.”

“This does not have to be a zero-sum game,” echoed Shavar Jeffries, president of the advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform. “The same standards and accountability, the same need for high-quality teaching, the same need for great school leadership, the same need for adequate resources — all these young people need it.”

Will Trump voters support education reform?

As political allegiances shift, education leaders wondered who they can expect to support them going forward.

Jeffries, of Democrats for Education Reform, told me about an unexpected encounter last week while in Memphis, Tennessee. Most of his trip to Memphis was spent meeting with education reform’s traditional constituents: African-American parents who are part of the parent group Memphis Lift. But then he met another Memphis area parent by chance — his Uber driver, a white woman.

When Jeffries told her he was in town to work on school improvement, he said, “She just went on. She went on about her kids.” They hadn’t had high-quality teachers, they weren’t prepared for good jobs, and now they couldn’t find work. “She was like, yeah I’m so happy to hear somebody’s trying to do something to make the schools better. And I was like…what we’re fighting for is exactly what your child needs.”

Jeffries said today he is convinced that same commonality between struggling people of all races can ultimately create a new coalition behind school reform.

“At some point, [Trump supporters are] going to say, actually, I want to figure out how it is that I get some economic viability for myself and my family,” he said. “And if they’re going to engage in that conversation, they’re going to have to at some point reckon with the fact that they’re going to have to get skills for the global economy. And that should lead them naturally back to education reform.”

Ethan Gray, chief executive of the advocacy group Education Cities, pointed to a skit that recently aired on Saturday Night Live, where a white working class man joined as a contestant on a satirical Black Jeopardy! show — and found he had a lot in common with his competitors.

“There’s obviously some shared grievances,” Gray said, “if we could just get to talking to each other about them.”

Tough talk

State ed officials rip into ‘insulting’ SUNY charter proposal and ‘outrageous’ Success Academy chair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa

The state’s top two education officials did not pull punches at a panel Wednesday that touched on everything from last weekend’s racist violence in Charlottesville to recent charter school debates.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia took an uncharacteristically combative position against SUNY’s proposal to let some charter schools certify their own teachers — arguing it would denigrate the teaching profession and is not in the best interest of children.

“I could go into a fast food restaurant and get more training than that,” Elia said about the proposal, which would require 30 hours of classroom instruction for prospective teachers. “Think about what you would do. Would you put your children there?”

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa denounced Success Academy’s board chair, Daniel Loeb, whose racially inflammatory comment about state Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins drew headlines, and pointedly referred to New York City officials’ reluctance to talk about school segregation.

Wednesday’s conversation was sprawling, but its discussion of race and education had a particular urgency against the national backdrop of Charlottesville — and the president’s reluctance to denounce neo-Nazis and white supremacists in its aftermath.

The following are some of the most charged moments of the panel, held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and hosted by City & State:

Segregation — “you’ve got to name it”

In response to a question about New York City’s diversity plan, which was widely criticized for not using the word “segregation,” Rosa suggested the city should have gone further.

“We committed to, as a department and as a Board of Regents, [the] notion of naming it,” Rosa said, referring to the state’s draft integration statement, which referred to New York schools as the most segregated in the country. “You’ve got to name it.”

Elia chimed in too, tying integration to the recent events in Charlottesville.

“I would say the last six days have pointed out to all of us that, clearly, this is something that must be on the agenda,” Elia said.

Dan Loeb — “absolutely outrageous”

Loeb ignited a firestorm over the past week with a Facebook post that said people like Stewart-Cousins, an African-American New York State Senator he called loyal to unions, have caused “more damage to people of color than anyone who has ever donned a hood” — an apparent reference to the Ku Klux Klan. (He has since taken down the post and apologized.)

Rosa strongly condemned the comments in the same breath as she denounced the violence in Charlottesville, and said children of color at Success Academy would be “better served” without Loeb leading the board.

“I am outraged on every single level,” she said. “Comparing the level of commitment of an African-American woman that has given her time and her commitment and dedication, to compare her to the KKK. That is so absolutely outrageous.”

Elia seemed to pick up on another part of Loeb’s statement, which referred to “union thugs and bosses.”

“For anyone to think that we can be called thugs,” Elia said. “People [do] not realize the importance of having a quality teacher in front of every child.”

SUNY proposal — “insulting”

SUNY Charter Schools Institute released a proposal in July that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers. The certification would require at least 30 hours of classroom instruction and 100 hours of teaching experience under the supervision of an experienced teacher.

But as the requirements currently stand, both Elia — who compared the training to that of fast food workers — and Rosa took aim.

“No other profession, not the lawyers who are sitting in that SUNY Institute, would accept that in their own field. So if you don’t accept it for your very own child, and you don’t accept it for your very own profession, then you know what? Don’t compromise my profession. I think it’s insulting,” Rosa said.

Joseph Belluck, the head of SUNY’s charter school committee, said earlier this month that the committee is considering revising those requirements before the draft comes to the board for a vote. But he fired back after Rosa and Elia bashed the proposal on Wednesday.

“Commissioner Elia and Chancellor Rosa are proponents of the status quo,” Belluck said in an emailed statement. They have “no substantive comments on our proposal — just slinging arrows. Today, they even denigrated the thousands of fast food workers who they evidently hold in low esteem.”

try try again

Feds to Colorado: You must count students who opt out of standardized tests

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s policy of not penalizing schools that fail to meet federal requirements for student participation in state tests isn’t going over well with the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Education told state officials in a letter Friday that the policy is not acceptable. Colorado faces losing millions in federal funding if it doesn’t change course.

Federal officials flagged the opt-out policy in a response to the state’s plan to comply with the nation’s new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The federal government’s feedback to states is being closely watched for signs of how the department, under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, enforces a law that was meant to shift more decision-making away from the federal government and back to states.

“It didn’t come as a surprise,” Pat Chapman, the Colorado Department of Education’s executive director of federal programs, said of the feedback. “There’s a need to reconcile state board, state legislature and federal requirements and policies.”

In 2015, Colorado became a national epicenter for the testing opt-out movement, with thousands of students refusing to take state-required tests they didn’t see as valuable.

The State Board of Education, reasoning that it wasn’t fair to punish schools for something not in their control, adopted a policy forbidding the state education department from lowering schools’ quality ratings or otherwise punishing them for high refusal rates.

Previously, schools and districts could have seen their quality ratings lowered if they failed to annually test 95 percent of students in math and English. Schools that receive the state’s lowest quality ratings for five consecutive years face state intervention.

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes is expected to brief the state board at its regularly scheduled meeting this week on possible responses. The state has until Aug. 24 to submit a revised state plan or ask for an extension.

State board Chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said Monday she doesn’t expect the board to take any formal action on rethinking the board’s policy this week. She declined to elaborate further.

“The board should have an opportunity to talk about this before I publicly comment,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican who championed the policy, also held back Monday.

“I’m not sure what all the options available are,” he said. “We’ll wait and see what the staff’s analysis is and go from there.”

The state’s unique opt-out policy wasn’t the federal government’s only criticism.

The U.S. Department of Education also raised concern about the state’s long-term academic goals, using an average of test scores to determine school quality and monitoring how well students are learning English as a second language.

The federal department is asking the state to resubmit long-term academic goals for particular student groups, including different ethnic groups and students with disabilities.

In the current version of the plan, all student groups are expected to have the same average test score in six years, which is slightly higher than the state’s current average. The goals seem confusing and unattainable. For example, students with disabilities would need to make unprecedented progress, while Asian students would need to lose academic ground in order for the state to meet its targets.

As part of its plan, Colorado also proposed rating schools based on averages from English and math test scores, not how many students met grade-level proficiency as it did in the past.

While the use of average test scores was applauded by some, it isn’t flying with the federal education department. It wants Colorado to better explain how using average scores relates to measuring whether students are at grade level.

Moreover, U.S. officials want an assurance from Colorado that students who are far above grade-level won’t “overcompensate” for students who are not proficient. In other words, the department wants to make sure high-performers aren’t masking serious problems.

Dale Chu, vice president of policy and operations for America Succeeds, a nonprofit of business leaders that support education reform, helped a coalition of education groups review state plans independently of U.S. education department. The group, the Collaborative For Student Success, was critical of Colorado’s switch to using an average of test scores.

“There’s no sense of proficiency,” he said. “There has to be some sort of sense that kids are coming out school being able to read and compute and be on a successful path.”

Finally, the U.S. education department is also seeking more clarity on how the state is tracking the progress of students learning English as a second language. It said the state needs to provide a clear timeline on when it can provide specific goals and more detail about how the state will use data to determine school quality.

Chapman said the state education department did not have the data available to provide the federal government the information it needed. However, that’s changing and he expects that portion of the plan to be accepted.

The Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. The law required states to develop plans to outline how it would use federal dollars to improve schools, teacher quality and boost language proficiency for students learning English as a second language.

Pushback from the U.S. education department to states has been more stern than many education policy observers expected given DeVos’s support of school choice and local control.

Chapman said the federal department has been helpful.

“They’re asked to uphold the letter of the law, he said. “I do think they’re approaching it in anyway that they’re being helpful to states to write a plan that’s consistent with statue.”