Secretary v. secretary

Arne Duncan criticizes Betsy DeVos on civil rights, says she hasn’t asked for his advice

PHOTO: Chuck Kennedy/The White House

When Arne Duncan became U.S. Secretary of Education, he asked predecessors of both parties for advice. That’s why he’s disappointed that he hasn’t gotten a similar call from the new secretary, Betsy DeVos.

“I reached out to everybody, not as a courtesy but because I had so much to learn — whether it was Secretary Riley who happened to serve a Democratic president or whether it was Secretary Spellings or Rod Paige,” both of the George W. Bush administration, Duncan said. “You’re going to agree on some things and disagree on others, but at the end of the day you’re all there for the same reason, theoretically.”

“What I learned from them was invaluable,” he said.

Duncan has become a sharp critic of DeVos’s tenure to date, especially the education department’s decision to rescind guidance related to transgender students and the Trump administration’s budget proposal. He’s gone so far as to tell charter leaders to refuse federal charter dollars if they came alongside large cuts to all public schools. He said that it would amount to “blood money.”

The budget has also been criticized by DeVos’s immediate predecessor, John King.

“Any rollback on rights — whether it’s special needs kids, LGBT kids, any rollback in terms of Title IX enforcement, civil rights enforcement — that’s a little mind-boggling to me, hard to understand, hard to justify,” said Duncan, who is now a managing partner at the Emerson Collective, working with young men to reduce gun violence in Chicago. (The Emerson Collective, through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, supports Chalkbeat.)

Liz Hill, the Department of Education’s press secretary, defended the department’s Office of Civil Rights and DeVos’s record in a statement.

“During the prior administration, [the Office of Civil Rights’] reputation as a fair and neutral enforcer of the nation’s civil rights laws suffered as it sacrificed timely, neutral adjudications of individual complaints in favor of data collection efforts. Under this system, too many students waited months and even years for adjudication. That will not be the case under this Administration,” Hill said. “The Secretary’s commitment to OCR’s mission is unwavering and the office will defend all students to the fullest extent possible under the law.”

Meanwhile, as secretary, DeVos has issued a number of criticisms of the Obama administration, including Duncan’s school turnaround initiative. The fact that a federal study did not find benefits of the expensive program has become a favorite talking point of DeVos.

Sniping between a former Obama administration official and a Trump cabinet head would normally be unremarkable. But Duncan’s comments are more complicated because the education reform movement — including the expansion of charter schools and efforts to hold schools and teachers responsible for student test scores — has long held a bipartisan imprimatur.

Duncan, in particular, has received praised from the likes of Republicans Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Lamar Alexander. (Many conservatives, though, soured on his approach, arguing that he engaged in federal overreach by incentivizing states to adopt the Common Core standards, among other moves.)

And Duncan, like DeVos, has supported the growth of charter schools. His signature initiative, Race to the Top, pushed states to lift or eliminate caps on charter schools. DeVos’s home state of Michigan, for instance, passed a 2010 law that expanded charters and allowed for the creation of two fully virtual schools in order to compete for federal money.

Duncan tried to distinguish his position on charter schools from DeVos’s.

“When you just focus on proliferation or growth rather than on quality, you absolutely hurt the movement,” he said. “I am not a supporter of charters; I’m a supporter of high-quality charters.”

Some say that Duncan’s policies haven’t always led to that — like in Michigan, where critics say the charter sector has lacked oversight and produced chaos. Last year, John King described the performance of Michigan charter schools as “uneven.”

Does Duncan have any regrets about his role in expanding charters?

No, Duncan said, pointing to a speech he gave in 2013 to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools where he reiterated his support for the charter movement but challenged its leaders to be “more vocal and to step out on charter schools that weren’t succeeding, bad charter schools.”

When DeVos spoke to same group earlier this year, she issued a different challenge, encouraging charter leaders not to see themselves as the best solution, but to focus on school choice more broadly. She remained mum on to what extent charters should be held accountable for their academic performance.

Duncan says he believes there should be four overarching national goals for education: to expand “high-quality” pre-kindergarten; continue to improve high school graduation rates; ensure graduates are ready for college and careers; and “lead the world in college completion rates.”

“I haven’t heard one sentence from this administration about any of those goals; it’s lot of small-ball stuff,” he said.

In response, Hill pointed to DeVos’s priorities. “The Secretary is championing a robust agenda to reduce the federal role in education, expand school choice and empower parents,” she said, along with making changes to the Higher Education Act and federal student aid to “better serve students and taxpayers.”

However, DeVos may soon have one thing in common with Duncan: The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, demanded Duncan resign in 2014. Earlier this year, NEA issued a letter to DeVos listing a number of concerns. If she does not address them by Sept. 1, the group will call on her to resign, too.

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”

Roll call!

What states told Chalkbeat about how they will monitor their chronic absenteeism data

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

Now that students’ rates of chronic absenteeism are being used to judge schools in most states, there will be new incentives to manipulate this data. So Chalkbeat asked the 10 state departments of education whose approved ESSA plans use chronic absenteeism how they plan to guard against that. Nine got back to us. Here’s what they said.

Arizona

As with all school attendance data our School Finance and accounting department have certain controls in place to make sure reporting is accurate – since state funding for schools is based in AZ on average daily attendance it is very important.

As for our newly approved ESSA plan, the Department is meeting with various stakeholders to determine ways to improve reporting of attendance and absenteeism. Our goal is of course to try to reach students that are frequently absent and hopefully help get them back in the classroom.

— Dan Godzich, Arizona Department of Education

Connecticut

Connecticut has been collecting and reporting chronic absenteeism data for many years. The data collection system has many in-built edits checks to ensure data quality.

Here are some examples:

  • Attendance must be submitted for all students who are enrolled in the district.
  • Every student with perfect attendance is flagged for district review.
  • Any school that has an increase or decrease of chronic absenteeism rates of more than five percent is flagged for district review and response to [Connecticut State Department of Education].

In addition to edit checks, districts are provided with numerous attendance reports to review their data prior to finalization. Ultimately, the superintendent is required to certify that their data are accurate. Staff also monitor the data during the collection process and reach out to districts when there are anomalies.

Our accountability system is not intended to be a “gotcha.” It’s much more a resource to inform improvement. From the state perspective, we are not looking to name/shame people but partner with them and bring the requisite support to collectively problem-solve with them, which would give districts much less of a reason to cheat or manipulate the data.

— Laura Stefon, Connecticut State Department of Education

Delaware

Delaware school districts and charter schools have been collecting and reporting data regarding attendance as well as absences for many years, so this is not necessarily a new data point in our system. The Department is reviewing current processes around absenteeism and chronic absenteeism, and will work with districts and schools to determine consistent rules for using this information in the accountability system.

— Susan Haberstroh, Delaware Department of Education

Illinois

Historically we have collected school level absence data in summary (e.g. this school had x total absences and x number of students who were chronically truant). Starting this year, 2017-18, we are collecting student-level absence data. As with most of the data we collect from districts, it’s self-reported. We will only know about the absences they report. There are audits and data quality procedures we utilize in order to make sure the data is as accurate possible, for example, a student can’t have more absences recorded than days enrolled in the school (how can you have 30 absences if you’ve only been enrolled for 20 days). In addition, several times a year staff from the Data Analysis division attend conferences and answer questions on a variety of [Illinois State Board of Education] data collection systems … Those dialogues produce suggestions directly from districts that influence changes we make to those systems to improve usability and data accuracy.

— Jackie Rodgers, Illinois State Board of Education

Maine

Maine is planning on using chronic absenteeism and looking at students who have absences of more than 10% of the school year. Student level attendance data must be submitted and “reviewed” quarterly by school districts. The “reviewed” means that they state that they have submitted attendance data to date. At the end of the school year, superintendents will be required to certify that the data is complete and accurate. In addition, one of the duties of the new ESSA Data Coordinator, a new position at the Maine DOE, will be to monitor this data. The exact procedure and policy around this is in process of being written.

— Rachel Paling, Maine Department of Education

Massachusetts

Our system collects attendance data directly from the district student information management systems on a daily basis and also receives any changes made to the student record on a daily basis. So any data manipulation would need to be done systematically and could not be done after the fact without raising flags as to why so many post-dated attendance changes were being made. That being said, it’s something we’ll monitor closely.

— Jacqueline Reis, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Oregon

Districts submit attendance data for individual students to [the Oregon Department of Education] four times a year. These data are submitted according to rules published in our data collection manuals; rules that conform to State Board adopted administrative rules and to state statute.

Once the data is loaded into ODE’s data system, ODE staff evaluate the data (such as comparing to historical trends) in order to identify unusual aggregated data, unusual shifts in aggregate trend data, and the plausibility of the individual student level data. (This is part of our usual data quality assurance process, which we use to help ensure data is as accurate as possible.) We know that accidental data submission errors do occur, so our process is designed to help find and correct these.

Once we see data with an unusual pattern we notify the affected districts and ask them to review their submitted data. In some cases districts confirm the data as accurate, in other cases they realize they’ve need to correct an (unintentional) data submission error.

We have not yet done any audits of local district data on attendance. However, the accountability office has conducted such audits on other accountability data. I would anticipate that we might do the same with assessment data submissions, should concerns arise regarding the validity of that data.

— Jon Wiens, Oregon Department of Education

New Jersey

New Jersey has collected chronic absenteeism data for many years. In the School Performance Reports, New Jersey has included chronic absenteeism data for elementary and middle schools for years, and beginning this last year, in the 2016 School Performance Reports, chronic absenteeism data was included for high schools. By publicly posting the chronic absenteeism data for each school on the [New Jersey Department of Education] website, the public is able to have conversations with schools about their data.

— David Saenz, New Jersey Department of Education

Tennessee

There are checks in place to ensure that our large-scale data collection processes are as accurate as possible. In addition to our auditing and compliance processes, which ensure districts are following proper procedures, the department also collects data separately through our assessment and evaluation process, and that provides another check. Teachers claim the students who have been present for the vast majority of instructional time for the purposes of their evaluation. If this data does not align with chronic absenteeism rates reported for the school, it would indicate something was off, and we could investigate further. Additionally, teachers and administrators have another incentive to mark attendance data correctly. If a student is marked as present but is really absent, there could be liability issues for the school. For example, if the school said a student was in class all day but got in an accident or committed a crime during that window, the school could be liable. Liability is a concern we hear from districts, so we know this is on the minds of many administrators.

— Sara Gast, Tennessee Department of Education