guest perspective

I’m an education reformer, and Betsy DeVos is going to kill our coalition. Here’s a game plan.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / jeweledlion

At her Senate confirmation hearing this week, Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos failed to answer basic questions about civil rights, measuring student growth, and children with disabilities.

Her answers also validated what left-leaning education reformers have suspected for months: DeVos embraces school choice as an education panacea, while grasping little else about federal education policy. That philosophy will likely lead her to prioritize some of the least promising, and most divisive, components of the education reform agenda.

When that happens, she and Donald Trump will kill the bipartisan education reform coalition.

Having participated in that coalition for 15 years, as a nonprofit president and member of President Obama’s 2008 education policy committee, I will be disappointed, though not surprised, to see it dissolve.

The coalition was surprisingly durable. By the early 1990s it was attracting centrists frustrated with their political parties and enthusiastic about results. At the time, the right blamed weak school performance on things like “family values” and resisted sweeping changes on the basis of respecting local control. The left blamed poverty and was similarly resistant to change, based on an allergy to holding schools accountable for their results. For most of the years since I entered the workforce, the reform coalition was an ideal home for a technocratic public school graduate who realized that the system had worked for him, but not for kids with less privilege.

DeVos, however, is no technocrat. The glue of the reform coalition has been an orientation toward results and accountability. DeVos has shown that her real commitment is to an ideological position, dominated by a faith in markets and the economic theories of conservative economists like Milton Friedman.

The nomination of DeVos signals that our country’s Republican leadership will abandon the technocratic agenda in favor of an ideological one. DeVos’s own history indicates that her department of education will prioritize federal funding for private religious schools, a laissez-faire approach to school accountability, and a hands-off approach to the enforcement of federal civil rights laws. Those priorities would shrink the federal government’s role in safeguarding equity and increase the flow of federal dollars to unaccountable private entities. I don’t think low-income families should take that deal, and frankly, neither should tax-averse conservatives.

In the meantime, DeVos’s nomination should be a wake-up call to the left-leaners of the reform coalition. We’re about to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, where pushing away from DeVos’s education policy agenda could mean getting subsumed by the traditionalist agenda of our own party. That agenda still hews to the positions of management interests and labor leaders, and not closely enough to the needs of vulnerable families.

To avoid that trap, left-leaning reformers like me need to build a legitimate reform agenda of our own — one that can both improve students’ lives and garner motivated, popular support in the coming years. I think that agenda must consider four things:

First, we must put the perspectives of the families and children of our most vulnerable communities at the center of our work. If we can’t explain to a mother why a policy will make her child’s life better, it’s not a good enough policy. To the extent that families view other issues as critical – like healthcare, poverty, civil rights, and jobs – we should be allies in those fights.

Second, we need to hold the line on accountability, academic standards, and making teaching one of the most valued professions in the country. Year after year, research finds that these three factors are the foundational elements of successful education systems. While standards and accountability have been central to reform since the 1990s, both are now under assault. The third leg of this stool also is a political nightmare, since reformers and traditionalists disagree about how to elevate teaching. That doesn’t mean we can give up.

All of that means that the third thing progressives need to do is spend more time talking to teachers. Teachers, and their unions, have been some of the most outspoken critics of reform. Some of that pushback has been political. Much of it, though, is a genuine response to feeling like the teaching profession has become unmoored from joy and creativity. Great teaching cannot flourish while our country’s teachers are miserable. That’s bad for children, and we need to help fix it.

Finally, reformers on the left must continue to support ideas that get results, even when other progressives push back. For example, huge segments of the left despise charter schools, but there are amazing charter schools that get stunning results under adverse circumstances. Those results are worth defending.

Whatever happens to the reform coalition, the Trump-DeVos regime will cause a significant realignment in education politics. If the coalition does survive, it’s likely to limp along in a diminished form.

The realignment will offer challenges and opportunities to everyone with a stake in improving public schools for all children. If reformers on the left want to be key voices in these debates, we’ll have to focus less on accommodating DeVos’s views and more on building power for our own coalition. Students will need it.

Justin C. Cohen is a writer who focuses on the intersection of education and social justice. Before that, he was president of Mass Insight Education and a senior adviser to the chancellor of the DC Public Schools.

color blind

The feds are discouraging districts from using race to integrate schools. A new study points to a potential downside

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
(Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The Trump administration recently made waves by removing Obama-era guidance that offered ways for school districts to consider students’ race in order to diversify and integrate schools. The rollback could have harmful consequences for students, according to a new study.

The paper offers a test case of the rule, and it suggests that move — at least if it affects any districts’ policies — could hurt academic outcomes, including college enrollment, by making racial segregation worse, although the study only focuses on a single district.

“There’s a general sense that student outcomes are going down in these schools that are more racially segregated from these race-neutral admissions,” said Jason Cook, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the study.

The paper, which has not been formally peer reviewed, focuses on an anonymous urban school district that, after a federal investigation in the early 2000s, was forced to end race-conscious admissions to its coveted magnet middle schools. To maintain some diversity in its student body, the district ran separate lotteries for black and non-black (largely white) students. After the federal mandate, though, the district put all students in one lottery, and in turn the schools became notably more segregated — rising from about 77 percent to 85 percent black.

After the policy from 2003 to 2007, the research finds that the spike in segregation corresponded to a decrease in college enrollment for black students by a couple percentage points. There was also an indication of modest declines in test scores in sixth grade and in high school graduation rates, though these results weren’t statistically significant for black students. There was no clear impact on 10th-grade test scores.

These effects aren’t huge, but neither was the increase in segregation, and the results generally point in a negative direction.

Separately, the paper shows that in general magnet schools in that district were less effective when they were made up of predominantly black students, perhaps because they have a higher concentration of struggling students and recruit lower-quality teachers.

The paper also shows that as schools became more predominantly black, more of their white students left, creating a vicious cycle that intensified segregation. “Racial segregation is self-perpetuating,” concludes Cook.

The district in question did not attempt to use race-neutral measures, like poverty status, to promote integration. Research, though, has shown that such approaches are less effective for achieving racial integration than considering race directly.

There is one particularly important caveat to the results, though: The policy change meant that more black students had access to in-demand, high-performing magnet schools. That is, in changing the lottery to stop what amounted to preferences for non-black students, the shift increased segregation but it also meant that a small number of black students had access to top schools they otherwise might not have.

That remains a key point of contention in other cities debating integration. In Hartford, Connecticut, for instance, a longstanding court decision has prioritized the creation of integrated magnets — done in part by giving white students from the suburbs preference in admissions to magnet schools in the city. After a local newspaper series looked into this practice, critics said the system was effectively shutting out local students from the best schools; supporters contended that the rules are necessary to prevent resegregation of those schools.

The latest study can’t answer knotty philosophical questions about how to divvy up seats in coveted schools, but it does suggest each side has a point — admissions rules do, by definition, keep some kids out, but removing those rules can lead to unintended consequences, including making those schools less effective.

Rucker Johnson, a professor at the University of California Berkeley who has studied school segregation and is writing a book on the topic, pointed out that the latest study has limits. “That particular paper is focused on one specific district, so even if it’s done really well, you still would want to consider whether [it applies in] other districts,” he said.

But Johnson said the findings are largely consistent with past research including his own, which focused on school desegregation efforts in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. “For African-Americans we saw significant impacts,” he said. “High school graduation rates increased, college attendance and college completion rates increased, the type of colleges they attended were more selective, …[there were] increases in earnings, reductions in annual incidence of poverty.”

More recent research has shown that the resegregation of districts led to dips in high school graduation rates among black and Hispanic students. A school integration program on the San Francisco Peninsula caused jumps in test scores and college enrollment (though also arrest rates for non-violent crimes).

In recent decades, as court-mandated integration orders have ended, race-based segregation has gotten worse or held steady, depending on how it’s measured; income-based stratification has consistently worsened. The recent move by the Trump administration is not legally binding, and only a small number of districts have voluntary race-conscious integration policies in place.

Johnson, for his part, fears that defeatism has overtaken the urgency to integrate schools. Some people, Johnson said, have the mindset that “we can’t socially engineer integration.”

“The reality is we did socially engineer segregation,” he said. “It would be natural to understand that we might have to re-engineer that through some intentional policy.”

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.