On the Agenda

Four things to watch for at New Schools Venture Fund Summit, this week’s big education reform confab

PHOTO: Katherine Taylor

Education conferences are often carefully orchestrated affairs involving panel discussions in which the participants more or less agree. Rarely do they make headlines.

But last year’s summit put on by the New Schools Venture Fund — a “venture philanthropy” that supports education reform causes, including charter schools — was an exception.

Its emphasis on social justice, with one attendee describing the event as reminiscent of a Black Lives Matter rally, sparked a heated debate about the role of race and politics in education, as below-the-surface tensions within that movement went public. The election of Donald Trump and his appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary have only served to exacerbate the strains.

This year’s conference, which includes a few big names, including former Secretary of Education John King, will feature some discussion of these debates, as well as a heavy focus on education technology.

Chalkbeat will be attending this year, and here’s what we’ll be looking for:

Can right and left get along?

The debate about last year’s summit was sparked by a blog post from the Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio. He described a “leftward lurch” that was going to “push conservatives out of education reform,” as epitomized by the conference’s focus on social-justice issues. This led to a flurry of blog posts, internal debates, and open letters about political divides and racial diversity within the ed reform movement.

Some on both sides of the debate worried that long-running bipartisan support for charter schools and teacher accountability initiatives — recall Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney both praising President Obama’s education agenda — would be weakened.

In a nod to this issue, this year’s summit’s closing session is titled “Why Can’t We Be Friends?: Disagreements, Tradeoffs and Common Ground,” and features panelists with diverse ideological perspectives, including Shavar Jeffries of Democrats for Education Reform and Matt Ladner of the Charles Koch Institute.

How do people talk about DeVos and Trump?

Since the last summit, U.S. politics has been turned upside down — a new president and secretary of education are promoting school choice, but not the brand that’s generally popular at New Schools.

Some charter supporters worry that DeVos and Trump will make the topic politically toxic and are much more skeptical of private school vouchers, DeVos’s signature issue. Although the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools initially praised Trump’s proposed budget — which directs more money to charter schools, but cuts from the education budget — a number of charter leaders criticized it in an op-ed in USA Today, as did DFER.

“We want to join with all those who are fighting to defend public education as an essential pillar of our democracy,” the charter leaders wrote.

Notably, there’s not much about Trump, DeVos, or private school vouchers on the NSVF agenda, suggesting that the conference may steer clear of the topic — at least officially. We’re sure it will be a frequent topic of conversation at receptions and hotel bars after the official programming.

A “big bet” on ed tech — but where’s the evidence?

The agenda does include a heavy focus on education technology and “personalized learning,” or the idea that technology can be used to tailor teaching to specific students’ needs. Sessions include “How to Personalize Learning with Rigor and High Expectations,” and “Is Ed Tech the Great Equalizer? Designing Products for Equity,” among several others.

Even the description of the one panel on the new federal education law starts by saying, “The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) brings tremendous opportunities for innovation and personalized learning.”

This emphasis dovetails with a recent report from NSVF calling on philanthropists to make a “big bet” on technology-based innovation in schools. Indeed, two of the biggest sponsors of the event — The Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — are key supporters of edtech. (The Gates Foundation is also a funder of Chalkbeat’s.)

That attention raises an obvious question: What’s the evidence that such an approach is likely to pay off for students? The research base on personalized learning is fairly thin, particularly when looking beyond standardized test scores. Supporters can point to some evidence of success, but critics can also point to a lack of impact in other instances, and an overall lack of studies on the topic.

We’ll be watching to see what studies are cited at panels promoting personalized learning. If they aren’t, we’ll be asking where the optimism about a generally unproven strategy stems from.

How is the charter school movement evolving?

One session, “Charters: Bigger, Better or Different?” points to three separate visions for the charter school movement: a focus on growth (expand quickly) vs. quality (be really good) vs. variety (offer families a number of different options). This panel features the heads of three charter networks, including KIPP.

In fact, the conference will be attended by many of the leaders of the highest-profile charter school networks. And the charter world is as big, numbers-wise, as it’s ever been. That means new pressures and lots of ideas about how the sector should evolve.

Should charters grow more, or less, quickly? Should the sector focus on creating different educational options for families to choose from? Should no-excuses charter schools change their approach to discipline? Will anyone discuss much-maligned virtual charters, which have posted abysmal test scores, leading even many charter advocates to call for them to be more tightly regulated?

There may well be tension between the different goals, so we’ll be paying attention to what different panelists have to say on the topic — and what approach charter leaders believe should be emphasized.

school choice word choice

The ‘V’ word: Why school choice advocates avoid the term ‘vouchers’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students, parents and activists against vouchers fill a committee room at the Tennessee State Capitol.

A new poll by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children is meant to illustrate Americans’ support for school choice. But it also offers some insight about how advocates choose how to talk about hot-button education issues.

What caught our eye was something buried in the polling memo: Voters said they narrowly opposed school vouchers, 47 to 49 percent, even though similar approaches like “education saving accounts” and “scholarship tax credits” garnered much more support.

These findings help explain why advocates of programs that allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition often avoid the word “voucher.” The website of National School Week, for instance, doesn’t feature the term, referring instead to “opportunity scholarships.” (Notably, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led AFC before joining the cabinet, herself has been less shy about saying “vouchers.)

The debate on how to brand “school choice” — or to critics, “privatization” — has been long running, and Republican pollsters have advised advocates to avoid the word “voucher.”

This phenomenon may help explain the national rise of tax credit programs, which function like vouchers but usually go by a different name and have a distinct funding source. It also makes it quite difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on the policy, as small tweaks in how a question is worded can lead to very different results.

The recent AFC poll points to substantial support for “school choice,” with 63 percent of respondents supporting that concept. That’s in response to a question with very favorable wording — defining school choice as giving a parent the ability to “send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”

Still, support for school choice dropped several percentage points from last year. That’s consistent with a poll from August that found support for charter schools was falling, too.

Showing how wording can matter, a 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers asked parents their view of “shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers.” The vast majority were skeptical.

When school vouchers have been put up for a vote, they’ve almost always lost, including in DeVos’s home state of Michigan. Supporters and critics may get another shot this year in Arizona, where the fate of a recently passed voucher program will be on the ballot in November, barring a successful lawsuit by voucher advocates.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.