the future of advocacy

For Betsy DeVos and her former advocacy group, the future of education means ‘personalization,’ including virtual schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

When Betsy DeVos returned to the advocacy group she used to lead last week, she told attendees to push for systems where students could attend any kind of school.

Traditional, charter, religious, and virtual schools should be options for students, the education secretary argued, as should “an educational setting yet to be developed.”

“Our current framework is a closed system that relies on one-size-fits-all solutions,” DeVos said. “We need an open system that envelops choices and embraces the future.”

This vision was clear throughout the American Federation for Children summit: that schools need to be reinvented with an emphasis on technology. And throughout the gathering, exclusively online schools were a key part of that vision — even though some supporters acknowledge existing virtual schools have not produced strong academic outcomes to date.

Advocates say that online schools have the potential to harness “personalized learning,” a term that generally means using technology to provide an education tailored to each student’s needs.

“The end game … is personalized learning,” said Kevin Chavous, a board member and executive counsel at AFC, in response to a question about virtual schools. “We are going to get to this place where as opposed to every child being shepherded into a schoolhouse where they sit in a classroom and where a teacher stands and delivers, and then they regurgitate back … those days are not going to be the future.”

This belief in personalized learning dovetails with the focus at another recent conference of education reformers, the New Schools Venture Fund summit. But AFC’s emphasis on exclusively virtual schools appears distinct, and comes as online charter schools have endured a wave of negative press and research studies.

In addition to advocating for school vouchers, DeVos has also long backed virtual schools, a small but swiftly growing sector of schools.

For-profit virtual school companies are tightly connected to AFC. The two largest such groups, K12 and Connections Academy, were among the chief sponsors of the conference. Chavous is K12 board member, and John Kirtley of AFC praised the company, saying, “They’re doing great things in digital learning.”

And although the research evidence for blended or personalized learning models is mixed, the handful of studies of fully virtual schools point to a clearer verdict: students in such schools perform dramatically worse on standardized tests relative to similar students in traditional schools, according to a study of thousands of virtual charter school students in 18 states.

Advocates acknowledged that the research to date has shown that cyber-charter schools have produced dismal test score results, but said that they are good fits for some students and are improving over time.

Chavous did not dispute the negative research findings, but suggested that students who remained in virtual schools for several years saw academic gains. (The widely cited national study of online charter schools did not examine this question, but did show that about 75 percent of students had left their online school within four years.)

K12 as an organization has challenged the recent research, saying it does not sufficiently control for differences between students in virtual schools and those in brick and mortar ones, a point some outside researchers say is a real limitation of existing studies.

Robert Enlow of the group EdChoice described the research on virtual schools as “not great, at the moment,” but pointed out that studies rely on test scores, a limited measure in his view. (EdChoice is a funder of Chalkbeat.) Enlow said that he had seen evidence that online schools could improve life outcomes for students in a presentation from K12.

The results from research and negative press have led some charter school advocacy groups to argue for stricter regulation of online charter schools. EdChoice and AFC did not join this push and K12 rejected the recommendations out of hand.

“The device of making a school virtual — I think we need to preserve the tool,” said Derrell Bradford of the 50-state Campaign for Achievement Now, or 50CAN, which was part of the statement calling for tighter oversight. “At some point, someone’s going to figure out a way to do virtual well.”

Graph from the National Education Policy Center.

Charter appeals

Siding with local district, Tennessee State Board denies two Memphis charter appeals

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
B. Fielding Rolston, chairman of Tennessee State Board of Education

Tennessee’s education policymaking body is switching course this year to side with the state’s largest school district in denying two charter school applicants.

On Friday, the nine-member Tennessee State Board of Education unanimously rejected the appeals of two charters that sought to open all-girls schools in Memphis next fall. The charter applicants will now have to wait until next year and reapply with Shelby County Schools, which had rejected their applications this year, if they so choose.

The decision on Friday stands in contrast to the state board’s dramatic overruling of the local board last year that resulted in the first charter school authorization by the panel in Memphis. That essentially added another state-run district in the city, and the State Board of Education joins just one other state in the nation to also operate as a school district.

The board acted in accordance this year with recommendation from Sara Morrison, the executive director of the State Board of Education, in the denial of appeals by The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders.

The vote comes a month after the Shelby County Schools board turned down their applications,  along with nine others. After a charter applicant is denied by the local school district, they can appeal to the State Board of Education and be re-reviewed by a six person committee.

Morrison told board members that both charter applicants failed to meet requirements in their plans for school finances (Her analysis specified that one of the schools relied too heavily on philanthropic donations).

She added that the applications did not fully meet standards in the other two categories measured: operations and academics.

Board members accepted her recommendations on Friday without questions.

Overhaul Efforts

The entire staffs at two troubled New York City high schools must reapply for their jobs

Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke in 2015 with Automotive High School Principal Caterina Lafergola, who later left the school. Automotive is one of eight schools where teachers have had to reapply for their jobs in recent years.Now, teachers at two more schools will have to do the same. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

In a bid to jumpstart stalled turnaround efforts, the entire staffs at two troubled high schools will have to reapply for their jobs — an aggressive intervention that in the past has resulted in major staff shake-ups.

The teachers, guidance counselors, social workers and paraprofessionals at Flushing High School in Queens and DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx will have to re-interview for their positions beginning next spring, education department officials said Thursday, the same day that staffers learned of the plan. Meanwhile, Flushing Principal Tyee Chin, who has clashed bitterly with teachers there, has been ousted; his replacement will take over Friday, officials said. (DeWitt Clinton’s principal will stay on.)

Both schools are part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature “Renewal” program for low-performing schools, but have struggled to hit their improvement targets. They are also under state pressure to make significant gains or face consequences, leading to speculation that the rehiring is meant partly to buy the city more time before the state intervenes. (Last year, Flushing was the only school out of two-dozen on a state list of low-achieving city schools not to meet its turnaround goals.)

“Having a strong leader and the right team of teachers is essential to a successful school,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement, “and this re-staffing process is the necessary next step in the work to turnaround these schools.”

The staffing change stems from an agreement between the de Blasio administration and the city teachers union, who have agreed to the same process for eight other schools since 2014. Among the six schools that went through the process last year, nearly half of the staff members left — either because they were not rehired or they chose not to reapply.

As part of the deal, hiring decisions will be made by committees at each school comprised of the principals and an equal number of union and city appointees. Unlike when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to overhaul bottom-ranked schools by replacing their principals and at least half of their teachers, these committees can choose to hire as many or as few of the current teachers as they choose.

In the past, the city has placed teachers who were not retained through the rehiring process in other schools — a move that drew criticism for overriding principals’ authority to choose their own staffs. City officials would not provide details about the arrangement for Flushing or Clinton other than to say that the education department would help teachers who left the schools find new placements.

The education department “will work with each teacher to ensure they have a year-long position at a school next year,” spokesman Michael Aciman said in an email.

Both high schools have already endured a destabilizing amount of turnover: Since 2013, more than half the teachers at both schools have left, according to the teachers union. And Flushing’s incoming principal, Ignazio Accardi, an official in the department’s Renewal office, is the sixth in six years.

The school’s outgoing principal, Tyee Chin, had a brief and troubled tenure.

Last year — his first on the job — he wrote a letter to his staff describing a toxic environment that he called “the Hunger Games for principals,” where he said some teachers keep up a “war cry” for a new leader. Meanwhile, the teachers union lodged a discrimination complaint against Chin with a state board, alleging that he threatened to press “racism and harassment” charges against the school’s union representative simply for carrying out her duties, said United Federation of Teachers Vice President of High Schools Janella Hinds.

“Principal Chin came in with an attitude that wasn’t collaborative or supportive,” Hinds said. “We’re dealing with a school community that has had a long list of principals who were not collaborative.”

In an email, Chin disputed the union representative’s allegations and said many staffers did not want him to leave.

“Only a small number of teachers were unhappy with my leadership because they were held to a higher expectations [sic] and or were investigated for inappropriate actions,” he said. “I have received many emails from staff telling me they are very sorry and that it was a pleasure having me as their principal.”

Chin’s departure comes after DeWitt Clinton’s previous principal, Santiago Taveras, who also sparred with teachers, was removed last year after city investigators found he had changed student grades. He was replaced by Pierre Orbe, who will remain in his position.

The education department will host recruitment events during the spring and summer to bring in teacher applicants, who will be screened by the schools’ staffing committees, officials said.

However, it may be difficult to find seasoned teachers willing to take on such tough assignments.

When the teachers at Brooklyn’s long-struggling Automotive High School were forced to reapply for their jobs in 2015, the majority left. Many of their replacements were rookies, said then-principal Caterina Lafergola.

“Many of the schools that are going through the rehiring have a stigma attached to them,” she said last year. “It’s very hard to recruit strong candidates.”

Not long after, Lafergola left the school, too.

Update: This story has been updated to include a response from the outgoing principal of Flushing High School, Tyee Chin.