races to run schools

Education is on the ballot in 2017 — here’s what to watch for and why it matters

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Education is on the ballot on Tuesday. It’s an off-year election, but that means school board and mayoral contests are especially likely to be on the ballot — in other words, in many places voters are electing the politicians who most directly control schools. There are also two big governors’ seats up for grabs.

Here’s why the vote on Tuesday matters and what the results could mean for schools:

We know from research (and experience) that elections matter for education policy.

In politics, education policy doesn’t always get the attention that Chalkbeat readers and reporters may think it deserves, particularly at the federal level. But that doesn’t mean that who gets elected doesn’t matter for schools — far from it.

Two recent research studies confirm as much. One analysis of North Carolina school board elections found that electing a Democratic school board members led to substantially reduced school segregation. Another recent study found that Democratic state governors meant more money were distributed to schools with more students of color (though they didn’t lead to higher or lower test scores).

It’s also clear that different candidates and parties have substantial policy differences on education issues.

This comes as the complexion of school board races have changed in many places — long sleepy affairs with little outside money, in many districts, national interests on both sides of the debate are racking up big spending totals.

Colorado school board races have national import (and spending)

Nowhere is the new breed of school board elections more apparent than in Colorado, where there are a number of fierce battles for the future of some of the state’s largest school districts.

In Denver, four seats on the board are up for grabs — just enough for critics of the current direction to grab control and reverse course if they sweep the available seats. The city has embraced the expansion of charter schools, as well as tough accountability measures for performance, including closing schools; it’s an approach that some want to take nationwide. Critics have said it’s akin to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s free-market vision of school choice — a charge school board members, and DeVos herself, reject. Substantial money is pouring in, as well as lots of controversy for mailers those dollars are paying for.

Meanwhile, in Douglas County, an affluent district between Denver and Colorado Springs, unions are battling a different brand of school choice advocates. Here, Republican-backed candidates support private school vouchers of the sort championed by DeVos. The district’s voucher program has been tied up with a lawsuit; the Colorado Supreme Court originally ruled the program unconstitutional in 2015, but was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider in light of a recent decision that was more favorable to sending public money to religious schools. It could even pave the way for a Supreme Court case that blocks state provisions barring voucher programs.

But skeptics of vouchers running for school board say they would withdraw the district from the program, effectively killing it and the case that could set a broader precedent. That’s one reason the race has also drawn national attention.

Governors’ races in New Jersey and Virginia could have education implications

In Virginia, a bitter race pits Democratic Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam against Republican Ed Gillespie, and education has been a significant issue. Gillespie has vowed to expand charter schools in a state where there are only eight, and hopes to create a voucher-style program known as education savings accounts; Northam opposes these moves and has focused on greater investment in teachers and early childhood education. Polls are relatively tight in this closely watched race.

That’s not the case in New Jersey, where Democrat Phil Murphy is expected to prevail over his Republican opponent Kim Guadagno and succeed Gov. Chris Christie, who is barred by term limits from seeking re-election. Christie has been a champion of the state’s charter sector, which has expanded rapidly under his watch, including in Newark. Murphy has been cooler to charters than Christie or Guadagno, though says he doesn’t oppose them.

Also notable in the Garden State: the largest local teachers union is going all out to oust the state senate president, Steve Sweeney, who is a Democrat. The union rarely backs Republicans, but in this case is spending millions of dollars to support a pro-Trump candidate over the senate leader who has tangled with the union on issues including pensions and school funding. This has infuriated state Democrats. It’s a high-risk play — which some say may backfire, particularly if Sweeney wins — designed to show the strength of the union.

Mayoral and school board elections across the country mean control of schools is at stake in many districts

There will be dozens of mayoral elections and hundreds of school board races on Tuesday. Here’s a sampling of them.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to cruise to reelection this week; as the head of the largest school system in the country, he’s instituted sweeping changes, including implementing universal pre-kindergarten. Meanwhile, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh faces a challenge from one of city’s top charter critics — a key opponent of last year’s failed effort to expand charters statewide — but Walsh is on a path to prevail.

In New Orleans, the mayor doesn’t hold formal sway in schools, but that hasn’t stopped the issue from playing a role in the election, in a city where nearly all students attend charter schools. One candidate, LaToya Cantrell, co-founded a charter school, and her opponent has criticized the school’s academic record.

Mayoral elections will also happen in big cities including Atlanta, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Minneapolis, and St. Paul. While the mayors in most of these cities do not control the schools, whoever runs the city will surely influence them.

Meanwhile, there are a number of school board races in some big districts across the country, including Atlanta, Bridgeport, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Columbus (Ohio), Houston, Pittsburgh, St. Paul, and Seattle. The direction of their schools boards matters for large numbers of children: Together, these districts educate over 600,000 students.

Want more Chalkbeat? Sign up for our new weekly national newsletter here.

Q&A

How one Memphis leader works to stop both ends of the school-to-prison pipeline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Michael Spearman supervises Shelby County Schools' 24 behavior specialists to get to the "why" behind student misconduct.

Michael Spearman knows firsthand the consequences of harshly punishing students for misbehavior, as opposed to figuring out the underlying cause.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Michael Spearman currently works at the detention center at Regional One Health when inmates need treatment. He also serves as a “crisis intervention officer” to respond to mentally ill people who come in contact with police.

In addition to his day job as lead behavior specialist for Shelby County Schools, he has spent more than two decades as an officer and detective with the Memphis Police Department. If the school system can’t address a student’s behavior, those students are more likely to enter the justice system as teens or adults. This reality for many students, especially students of color, is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Now that the Memphis school system has been able to add back behavior specialists and other personnel meant to meet students’ emotional needs, Spearman says there’s hope to disrupt the pipeline.

His team of about two dozen behavior specialists, in addition to meeting with students who have been suspended to get to the “why” behind their misbehavior, are working with school staff on classroom management, creating and using meaningful alternatives to out-of-school suspension, and reducing time students are out of school.

This year, behavior specialists will initiate small “restorative circles” at 15 schools. People connected to the student — for example a teacher or another school staffer, a pastor, a family member — gather to talk about the student’s behavior and determine next steps. Too often, advocates say, schools skip over alternatives to out-of-school suspensions, which contribute to students losing motivation to study or open the opportunity to get involved in petty or violent crime.

Chalkbeat sat down with Spearman to talk about strategies that have resulted in students changing their behavior. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How do you see your roles interplaying with each other? How does each job impact the other?

In the Memphis Police Department, I’ve always worked in roles where I dealt with youth and the community. When I first graduated from the academy, I patrolled all of the public housing projects in Memphis, and provided community activities and services for the youth in the housing developments. I was one of the lead community officers where I oversaw the Boy Scouts, coached in the Police Athletic League, and was one the lead mentors.

From that, I really realized I had a passion for education. Working in public housing, my shift was from 4 p.m. to midnight. So, I decided to apply to be a substitute teacher. I knew I wanted to go into education, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. Would I have to leave the police department? Could I stay? I started substitute teaching at both Bellevue Middle and Vance Middle schools and got my teaching certification.

From there, I was blessed to work as an officer at Bellevue and Vance schools. Being in that role introduced me to education and the processes as far as academics and behavior. I served as a mentor, counselor, anything an officer could be in the building. My thing was building relationships with parents, with the staff, and students.

I was then tapped to serve with the FBI with the Internet Crimes Against Children unit — we arrested producers of child pornography, sex offenders. I took some courses through the FBI about behavior triggers of sexual molesters and interviewed criminals or people with behavior issues. That’s when I saw my career coming full circle.

Meaning, you saw those behavior triggers in students you had worked with?

"When you have those issues festering within your mental system and you never go to get any help, as I say, what’s in you comes out."Michael Spearman

Right. When I was with the FBI, I said, “Wow, this has something to do with the educational piece.” After the FBI, I came back to the Memphis Police Department and worked with the sex crimes unit for children 13 and under who had been abused.

I was interviewing based on their behaviors and triggers — why they do what they do. That’s when I started noticing the defendants were becoming younger. And there were some defendants I knew from working in the schools. That solidified why I’m doing what I’m doing, understanding why things happen, and that I wanted to make a difference.

Tell me about your previous role at Cypress Middle School as a family engagement specialist.

I worked with the principal to build the culture of the school. We wanted to decrease chronic absenteeism, decrease tardiness, decrease out-of-school suspensions, utilize in-school suspension more, and assist teachers with strategies in classroom management. And my favorite role, I was also athletic director.

I loved every day at Cypress Middle. It was a little different because I grew up in South Memphis and I was at a North Memphis school. But as police officers, we know how to adapt to different situations; we’re trained to adapt. We’re also trained to observe and not have tunnel vision.

The first thing I wanted to do is find the parents and get parent participation back. I always think about myself and how would I want to be treated. If you know how you want to be treated, that’s how you should want the next person to be treated. Once we get the parents involved in the school, then we can get the community back involved. We went from probably eight parents coming to the parent-teacher organization meetings to about 50. (The school closed in 2014.)

Want to learn more about the school-to-prison pipeline and those working to stop it?

    • Randy McPherson, student support manager of behavior and student leadership for Shelby County Schools; Rod Peterson, principal of Oakhaven Middle School; and LeTicia Taylor, licensed restorative practices trainer will discuss restorative justice and conflict resolution at a panel event is hosted by Stand for Children in partnership with Campaign Nonviolence Memphis, Pax Christi Memphis, Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, and the National Civil Rights Museum.
    • When: 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18
    • Where: National Civil Rights Museum, 450 Mulberry Street
      Memphis, TN 38103
    • RSVP here: https://ckbe.at/2pmrSlf

We would walk the neighborhood twice a month with teachers on Saturdays and have cookouts or other events to let parents know we were a part of the community. We would talk about the academic programs, tutoring, and character education we had going on at the school.

We had sponsors who would donate prizes for students with good attendance records and getting to school on time. Those same sponsors would send volunteers who would help us make phone calls to parents to let them know what was going on. We had a computer lab for parents working on their GED, and we worked with a city agency to help with job placement.

You’ve mentioned “triggers” several times. Can you elaborate on what those are and what works to minimize those?

When I say triggers, for me it’s about what ticks them off, what makes them angry. I’m going to use this word “checking” in Memphis that means somebody is talking about what you look like or things of that sort. And then you have a lot of family issues in the African-American community. When you look at broken homes, we don’t have a lot of fathers in the home. So, that’s a major trigger.

I’ve seen those triggers on every level of law enforcement. You have some who have been violated by their parents or a family member at young age and they never told anybody. So, when you have those issues festering within your mental system and you never go to get any help, as I say, what’s in you comes out. A lot of it comes out incorrectly and people have issues that the outcome is prison time.

On the education side, I would just take the time to sit down with students who had been suspended a lot or “frequent flyers” as we call them and talk with parents or guardians or someone they are close to in the household. I also made household visits. I love speaking with parents face-to-face when they’re home from work to hear what’s going on and figure out how to help the student. That’s anything from helping out with the student’s character to how to get the student to school on time.

On the law enforcement side, the only thing you could do is talk about the what if. If you could relive that incident, how would you handle it? We come back with what you should have done on how to interact, communicate, and cope.

How do schools contribute to that problem?

"Once you build relationships with those students, they will not only respect the school but they also will turn and respect themselves."Michael Spearman

I believe now the school district is doing a great job and trying to decrease and stop the school-to-prison pipeline. The district has systems in place now where you have advocates in the schools, you have your behavior specialists, you have in-school suspension, you have your professional school counselors. And you have outside organizations that are working in the schools now. We have the adults in the building who can identify you and pull you to the side on a mentor-mentee basis to talk about problems before a suspension or expulsion is issued.

I know from being a part of this system and trying to make it better for our African-American males, the district is doing a tremendous job to reduce to the school-to-prison pipeline.

The more resources we have for the employees the better it works out for the school district and the relationships we build with the students — because, always remember, relationship-building is the most important piece of the school day. If someone out of all those resources can build that solid relationship with the student who has been defiant and fighting, that one person in the building can relate and talk to the student about what’s going on. Once you build relationships with those students, they will not only respect the school but they also will turn and respect themselves. You see the fruits of your labor when that child who was acting up on Monday comes in on Wednesday and gets to school on time, in uniform, and goes and sits in that teacher’s class who’s probably been referring him 10 to 12 times.

You have to keep asking about their academics too. Because now they’ll know their mentor is going to ask them about what they learned, they’ll be more attentive.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
“Progressive discipline” chart behavior specialists are helping schools implement.

state testing

Teacher shortage blamed as Illinois SAT scores fall, PARCC test scores flatten

PHOTO: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
SAT scores of Illinois high school juniors fell slightly this year, while scores for elementary and middle school students flatlined.

Preliminary results of statewide exams show fewer Illinois juniors meeting or exceeding expectations on the SAT college entrance exam this year than in 2017, when the test was implemented statewide.

At the same time, scores for elementary and middle-school students have flatlined, according to data presented at the Illinois State Board of Education on Wednesday.

State officials partly blamed a crippling teacher shortage. The state board spent a big chunk of a two-day fall retreat discussing the findings of a new report called Teach Illinois, which makes recommendations on how to grapple with shortages faced by Chicago as well as rural districts.

Board member Susie Morrison, who’s from Carlinville and is a former principal and state deputy superintendent, also expressed concerns about unequal access to challenging courses across districts.

“I think we need to have a conversation about what we can do to support local schools and districts,” she said. “This flatline of data is not particularly good news for us.”

Rae Clementz, the state’s director of assessments and accountability who presented the test score data Wednesday, said it is only the second year that the state has administered the SAT. She cautioned the board about reading too much into the 2018 results.

The state began administering the SAT to all 11th-grade public school students in the 2016-2017 school year. Illinois’ benchmark score is 540 on English Language Arts and 540 on math, which is higher than college readiness standard set by the College Board, which administers the SAT, of 480 and 530, respectively.

She said the state board has focused on widening access to advanced coursework and test preparation. Starting this school year, the state will begin to administer the pre-SAT standardized test, the PSAT, to all ninth- and 10th-graders.

On the SAT, 36.8 percent of students met or exceeded baseline scores in English and language arts. Broken down by ethnicity, 13.8 percent of black students, 22.2 percent of Hispanic students, and 48.6 percent of white students met state standards represented by the baseline. In comparison, only 1.4 percent of English language learners and 7.5 percent of special education students met the standards.

Scores were lower in math: 34.2 percent of students statewide met or exceeded baseline scores (see chart).

Narrowing the gap in test scores among subgroups, such as English language learners compared with the general student population, is an important measure of how well schools are doing in educating all children, including those who live in poverty or aren’t native English speakers.

Clementz also presented statewide results on the PARCC, a national assessment that is used to gauge if children are learning on grade level, and the Illinois Science Achievement Test. On the PARCC, student achievement across the board generally remained flat. Some wide gaps in scores that had been observed by race closed slightly.

Across four years of data, gaps in test scores for English language arts narrowed more than gaps in math. The PARCC assessment is administered to all third- to eighth-grade students in the state.

Slightly more than half, or 52.6 percent, of Illinois students met or exceeded state standards on the state science test. Only students in fifth and eighth grades, plus high school first-year biology students, take those tests.

Last year, the state adopted a new funding model that takes into account factors such as student poverty and community wealth. It allocates funds to districts under a formula intended to compensate for wide variations in property tax revenues, which fund schools. Some communities have that wealth and others don’t. It’s too early to know how that funding formula overhaul will impact scores.

The state released test scores on the heels of Chicago posting small gains in graduation rates and on a national exam used to rate its schools.

District- and school-level test score data will be released in the state school report card in late October.