XQ's education

XQ is taking over TV to make the case that high school hasn’t changed in 100 years. But is that true?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The XQ bus in Memphis, Tennessee.

Education policy rarely makes national television. But on Friday night, a special focused on redesigning America’s high schools — and featuring Tom Hanks, Jennifer Hudson, and Common — will be taking over the airwaves of ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX.

The broadcast, “XQ Super School Live,” is an extension of XQ, a project of the Emerson Collective, the organization founded by Laurene Powell Jobs. (The Emerson Collective is a funder of Chalkbeat through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.) In the last year, XQ has awarded $100 million to innovative schools across the country, including some with a heavy emphasis on technology.

The goal: to call attention to how high school “has remained frozen in time” and to support promising alternatives.

“For the past 100 years America’s high schools have remained virtually unchanged, yet the world around us has transformed dramatically,” intones the familiar voice of Samuel L. Jackson in a video promoting the TV event.

It’s a view U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos shares. “Far too many schools have been stuck in a mode that is basically approaching things that have been done very similarly to 100 years ago, and the world today is much different,” DeVos recently said while visiting a Florida charter school.

But is it true? Is it really the case that high schools haven’t seen major change over the last century?

Chalkbeat asked several education historians for their take. They said no, schools have changed — in some respects significantly — over the last several decades.

However, XQ has a point in saying that the basic setup of schooling has remained largely intact, they said.

“The ‘grammar’ of high schooling has stayed fairly static,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. “Kids take seven or eight subjects, the major subjects have stayed fairly static, [students] move from room to room, school begins around 7 or 8 and ends around 3.”

I can understand why in a lot of ways, in terms of structure, it feels like high schools haven’t changed,” said Ansley Erickson, an assistant professor of history and education at Columbia University Teachers College. But, she said, there has been a massive transformation of high school from an institution for a chosen few into a mass institution for virtually all teenagers in the country.

“To say that high school hasn’t changed might potentially miss that major transformation,” Erickson said.

Zimmerman largely agreed.

“If by this claim [XQ] is asserting that high schools today share some fundamental elements with high schools 100 years ago, I’m with them,” he said. “But that’s very different from saying nothing has changed.”

Like Erickson, he pointed to the “birth of mass high school” as a major change. “It’s not until the 1930 that the majority of adolescents attended high schools, and it’s not until the 1950s that the majority graduate from one,” Zimmerman said.

He also pointed to several ways the content and structure of American high school has changed, and sometimes changed back: the development and decline of vocational tracks; an increased emphasis on “life skills” followed by a greater focus on academics post-Sputnik; the diversification of high school offerings (into what some have called the ”shopping mall” high school) followed by the rise of small high schools.

Jack Schneider, a professor at the College of the Holy Cross, was more scathing in his assessment of XQ’s assertion.

“Ahistorical claims about outmoded schools are designed to persuade us that public education is run by incompetents,” he told Chalkbeat in an email. “If that’s the case, maybe disruption is the cost we need to bear in pursuit of progress. But the truth is that the schools have been constantly evolving over time, in ways large and small.”

In an op-ed for the Boston Globe, Schneider elaborated on what has changed:

“A century ago, teachers were largely untrained and oversaw very large classes in which rote memorization was the rule. Students brought their own books from home and the curriculum varied from school to school. Courses like zoology and technical drawing were common and classical languages still maintained a strong foothold. Students of color, when educated, were largely denied equal access, and special education did not exist. It was a different world.”

In recent years, America’s graduation rates have been rising and dropout rates have been falling. National test scores have generally been flat, overall, for high schoolers. (There remains significant debate about the causes of those trends, including the impact of changing student demographics and graduation standards.)

History aside, the key policy question today is whether high schools would benefit from the kind of dramatic rethinking XQ is encouraging.

The underlying assumption of XQ is that the relatively static nature of some aspects of high school suggests the answer is yes. But the fact that these methods have been persistent could also mean just the opposite.

“There are other moments when people have said we need to reconceptualize high school,” said Erickson. “This is not the first one of these.”

This story has been updated to clarify the name of the College of the Holy Cross. 

bus breakdown

Facing his first crisis, Carranza fired a top official. But can he fix New York City’s yellow bus system?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza rode a school bus to P.S. 377 in Ozone Park, Queens, on the first day of the 2018-2019 school year.

Just days after responding to the city’s school bus crisis by firing a top official and reassigning another, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza put his staff on notice that when things go wrong they better act quickly — or he will find someone who will.

“When things don’t go right I expect a sense of urgency to serve our community,” Carranza said in an interview with Chalkbeat Monday. “And if we can’t make it happen, then we’ll make sure that there are people in place that will make it happen. It’s really that simple.”

Problems with the city’s school bus services are not unusual, especially at the start of the school year. But since the start of classes, the city’s school transportation hotline has seen a 17 percent increase in calls over the same period last year. And revelations about drivers who were not properly vetted, buses arriving late, students trapped on hours-long routes crisscrossing the city, or buses simply not arriving at all have dominated the opening weeks of Carranza’s first full school year, splashing across the front page of the Daily News.

Last week, after deeming the situation “unacceptable,” Carranza fired Eric Goldstein, the CEO of school support services responsible for transportation, school food, and the public school sports league. Carranza also reassigned Elizabeth Rose, who had been CEO of school operations and a top deputy under former Chancellor Carmen Fariña, to focus solely on transportation contracts.

Carranza said Monday that a broader shakeup to the $1.2 billion-per-year bus system, which serves roughly 150,000 students, two-thirds of whom have disabilities, could be coming.

“As we understand more fully how [the Office of Pupil Transportation] in particular operates, I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t some more changes,” he said. Leading that effort will be Kevin Moran, a former borough field support director who will now serve as a senior advisor to Carranza on transportation — while the city searches for a permanent leader.

The busing problems are the first significant test of Carranza’s leadership during a crisis since taking the helm of the nation’s largest school system last April. So far, Carranza’s response has echoed his reaction to much larger issues such as school segregation — that he’s interested in systemic fixes and doesn’t want to excuse the issue just because it has bedeviled past chancellors. Under changes made by Carranza’s administration, school bus drivers will undergo the same background checks and have investigations handled by the same education department unit as other schools staffers.

But so far, his response to the crisis has drawn mixed reactions from some advocates, observers, and education department insiders.

Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, said busing issues often linger through much of the school year. In the past, the education department has reacted defensively, fixing bus issues in individual cases when advocacy groups get involved but rarely pledging to overhaul the system, she said.

“We get a lot of students at this time of year who have not been to school yet because they don’t have a bus,” Moroff said. “It’s exciting to hear the chancellor say, ‘it’s unacceptable and we’re going to do something about it.’”

But overhauling the bus system will be a massive undertaking, partly owing to the technical complexity of ferrying students to schools with different schedules, shifting rosters of students necessitating new routes — but also because the system is dependent on a rough-and-tumble web of private bus companies. (Goldstein, the support services CEO who Carranza fired, reportedly faced down the CEO of a bus company who confronted him with a loaded pistol during contract negotiations in 2010.)

Eric Nadelstern, a top education department deputy during the Bloomberg administration, said Carranza may be underestimating the bus system’s complexity and the value of keeping leaders with deep knowledge of it.

“Goldstein at the very least understood where the pitfalls were,” Nadelstern said, adding that removing a leader in the middle of a crisis may prove unwise. “I don’t think there’s anyone else in the system who has that knowledge or capacity.”

The Bloomberg administration attempted an overhaul of the bus system in 2007, hiring private consultants in an attempt to make it more efficient. That effort turned out to be a flop, the New York Times reported, “leaving shivering students waiting for buses in the cold and thousands of parents hollering about disrupted routines.” Klein eventually apologized but largely defended the reorganization at the time, saying, “I never think that the pain is worth it. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s any good time to make these changes.”

Others, including one current education department administrator who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they worried that Carranza wanted to show he was taking charge of the situation by making heads roll without immediately addressing the underlying problems.

But while Carranza admitted he does not yet have a full explanation of why the school bus system has repeatedly fallen short, he said he is committed to a longer-term solution.

“My understanding is this goes back at least decades,” Carranza told Chalkbeat. “There are some systemic issues that I don’t want to put a band-aid on, I want to actually find the root cause and fix.”

inner circle

With Earth, Wind and Fire tune, Chicago’s first chief equity officer announces new job

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
Earth, Wind and Fire in 1982

It’s little surprise that the public announcement of Chicago’s first chief equity officer, Maurice Swinney, came over Twitter. Last Friday, he announced his new job with a video of the iconic disco band Earth, Wind, and Fire performing the tune that made Sept. 21 famous.

Like his boss, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson, Swinney comes from the ranks of spirited Chicago principals and has an affinity for the social media platform. Swinney, the principal of Tilden Career Academy in Fuller Park on the South Side, now moves up the ranks to a cabinet-level job, and will head the four-person Equity Office with a $1 million budget.  

Jackson told Chalkbeat over the summer that the equity chief’s primary focus in year one would be how to narrow gaps in test scores and academic achievement between black and Latino students on one hand and their white and Asian peers on the other.

Priorities would include diversifying the district’s workforce, ensuring resources are distributed equitably across the district, and supporting efforts to award more contracts to minority- and woman-owned businesses. But the schools chief also emphasized then that it was too early to chart a course for the new equity office before filling the job.

Read more: Chicago forges ahead with a teacher experiment

Before moving to Chicago in 2012 to lead Tilden, Swinney was an associate principal at St. Amand High School, a majority-white school in Ascension Parish, Louisiana.

The choice signals growing attention from Chicago Public Schools’ central office on the issue of neighborhood schools. Last week, the district announced that neighborhood schools would get first priority in a new investment: expanding International Baccalaureate programs.

Tilden, whose student population is mostly black and Latino, is a struggling neighborhood school that illustrates many of the inequities so pervasive in the school system. It has fewer than 300 students in a building built for 2,000. Slightly more than half of its students graduate, compared with the district’s five-year rate of 78 percent. One in three enrolls in college.

Swinney’s appointment comes at a time when neighborhood schools are being squeezed by school choice, with students increasingly leaving their ZIP codes to attend schools across the city. Tilden is among a group of high schools that face additional pressure, with declining enrollment and newer charters and other options nearby.

Plans to open a South Loop high school are just the latest threat. Chicago’s Board of Education is set to vote on a boundary proposal Wednesday that would lop off attendance in its northern zone.  

On Friday, Jackson sent a letter announcing Swinney’s promotion to district staff. The letter touted “historic gains” at the school district but acknowledged “that an opportunity gap persists for some students,” that demands the district examine itself to identify and root out inequity “whether in resources, staffing, academic supports, social and emotional supports, or access to high-quality programs.”

She noted that Swinney, who has led Tilden since 2012, has been recognized for his emphasis on social emotional learning and postsecondary success by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s To And Through Project, which focuses on ensuring students enroll in and finish college.

Jackson’s letter to staff stressed that, beyond the new equity office, every educator in the city shares “a collective responsibility” to build a diverse workforce for the district and increase equity in resource allocation for all students and schools.