First Person

A former superintendent wonders: What’s missing from the discussion about the portfolio model?

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Sharif El-Mekki, the principal of a Mastery Charter School campus in Philadelphia. We walked the hallways and talked about how to infuse social justice, social-emotional learning, and other priorities into the everyday life of the school.

As we popped into classrooms, it struck me that the teachers all seemed to share a vision for what students should be learning and how they should be learning it. The instruction that I saw was not just excellent but also consistent. The rest of our discussion focused on how specific practices in use at Mastery might be adopted successfully by traditional high schools.

When I returned home that afternoon, I came across the Chalkbeat series on portfolio schools. I appreciated the comprehensiveness of Chalkbeat’s reporting. But having just spent some time visiting classrooms and talking with El-Mekki about what was actually happening inside classrooms, I couldn’t help but notice that the articles were devoid of any reference to teaching and learning.

As I wrote not long ago, the school reforms of the last two decades have pursued mainly structural solutions to instructional problems. To be clear, I think that structural changes — having to do with school governance, parental choice, data collection, accountability systems, and so on — can be important and valuable. But they aren’t valuable in and of themselves. Rather, they’re valuable only insofar as we put them into the service of a larger vision of what we want schools to achieve, for whom, and how.

That’s why, for example, my conversation with El-Mekki didn’t veer toward the structures that enable and hinder his school’s success (although I’m sure he could go on and on about them). Rather, he wanted to talk about the knowledge and skills his students need and the ways he works with teachers and staff to support their development. As he knows, that’s where the discussion should begin. That’s what gives context and meaning to any subsequent conversation about structural reforms in education.

When I was superintendent in Stamford, Connecticut, a very diverse system of about 15,500 students, we embarked on a major effort to de-track the middle and high schools. For generations, the system had placed black and Latino students in low-level classes and white students in honors and advanced courses. We urgently needed to make a structural change, and we did by eliminating lower level courses and changing the student assignment process.

These changes were necessary, but not sufficient. We also had to invest heavily in improving what students were learning in the classroom. Science became more hands-on, we established core texts in English and increased teacher content knowledge in mathematics. The structural changes were a catalyst for transformation, but the everyday student experience in the presence of a well-prepared teacher and rich content is what actually improved outcomes.

The core challenge we’re trying to solve in American public education is to graduate all kids with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions required to navigate an increasingly complex world on their own terms. In pursuit of this goal, it might be helpful to pursue the sorts of managerial tactics and decisions associated with portfolio districts: closing low-performing schools, expanding high-performing ones, and letting parents choose any school in the system. Then again, it might turn out that these tactics aren’t helpful at all, or that they’re helpful in some places and harmful in others. (After 15 years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, reformers should know better than to assert that they know the one best way to reengineer troubled school systems.)

But I know from experience that we need to focus on the substance of what goes on in schools, not just the formal structures in which those schools operate.

The other element of great schools and systems that feels missing from the portfolio approach, as described in Chalkbeat, is attention to adult learning. Advocates for structural reform often chant simplistic slogans like “Children first,” and “Let’s focus on student needs, not adult interests.” But it’s disingenuous at best (pernicious is more like it) to suggest that 3.7 million teachers and hundreds of thousands of administrators are willfully choosing to disregard students’ needs — as though they know how to educate all children to high levels but don’t want to do so.

Likewise, it’s unhelpful for supporters of portfolio schools to make one-sided attacks on the unions, ignoring the essential protections they’ve given to generations of teachers, including the women and people of color who have made up the bulk of the teaching workforce throughout our history. It’s high time to put aside the dichotomous notion that schools must serve either the interests of adults or the needs of kids. In fact, leaders of all kinds of successful organizations know that productivity increases and clients are better served when adult workers are happy and engaged.

I’ve seen schools across the country show that when teachers are paid well, treated with respect, given opportunities to collaborate, encouraged to develop new knowledge and skills, held accountable for results, asked to teach a rich curriculum, and given the resources they need to do so, great things happen for kids — whether those teachers work in a charter school, traditional public school, or a private or parochial school.

Finally, I have to take issue with a comparison made by Ethan Gray, the head of Education Cities — which helps support the growth of the portfolio school model around the country — who likens the role of the organizations in his group to that of the quarterback of a football team. Those organizations have a catalyzing effect on local school systems, he says, handing off and passing resources to those who can move the ball forward. But the analogy rings hollow to me.

As a lifelong New York Giants fan, I’m aware that a few players, like Eli Manning, manage to have long and healthy tenures in that position (his remarkable streak of continuous games as the team’s starting quarterback just ended at 210). But most quarterbacks are here today and gone tomorrow. That’s why I always tell new school superintendents that they should think of themselves as a temporary steward of the community’s values. While one can push, cajole, inspire, and fight to transform systems in support of kids, the community will exist long after the superintendent has moved on.

Perhaps the portfolio approach can be a catalyst for useful changes in K-12 education. My advice to the leaders of that movement would be to be a little more humble, a lot more willing to adapt themselves to the values and wishes of community members, much less eager to prescribe structural solutions (e.g., parental choice and school closures) for complex problems, and much more mindful of the need to ground school improvement in the everyday work of teaching and learning.

Joshua Starr is the CEO of PDK International, an association for educators. He was previously the superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Maryland and Stamford, Connecticut. He tweets @JoshuaPStarr.

First Person

I’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.

Teacher Laurel Payne, student Aurora Thomas and teacher Elisha Gallegos work on an art project at the state capitol on April 9, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

I’ve spent the last 40 years watching the state I love divest in its future. The cuts to education budgets just kept coming. Oklahoma City Public Schools, where I spent the last 10 years working with teachers, had to cut over $30 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Over time, students, teachers, and parents, at times including myself, became complacent. We all did what we could. For me, that meant working with the students and teachers in the most disenfranchised areas of my city.

In the past 18 months, that has also meant working at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit promoting civics education across Oklahoma. We help students deploy “action civics.” Over the course of a semester, students debate what they would change if they were in charge of their school, city, or state, and select one issue to address as a class, which may involve lobbying elected officials or building a coalition.

Their progress has been incredible. But when teachers across the state decided to walk out of their schools and head to the State Capitol to demand additional funding for education, action civics came to life in a huge way. And in addition to galvanizing our teachers, I watched this moment in Oklahoma transform young people.

My takeaway? Over the long term, this walkout will hopefully lead to more funding for our schools. But it will definitely lead to a more engaged youth population in Oklahoma.

These past two weeks have sparked a fire that will not let up anytime soon. With actual schools closed, the Oklahoma State Capitol became a laboratory rich with civic experimentation. Students from Edmond Memorial High School wanted elected officials to personally witness what students and teachers continue to accomplish, and when the walkout started, the students started a “Classroom at the Capitol.” Over 40 students held AP English Literature on the Capitol lawn. Their message: the state might not invest in their classrooms, but classes would go on.

In the first few days of the walkout, the legislature refused to take action. Many wondered if their voices were being heard. That’s when Gabrielle Davis, a senior at Edmond Memorial, worked to rally students to the Capitol for a massive demonstration.

“I want the legislators to put faces to the decisions they’re making,” Gabrielle said.

By Wednesday, the “Classroom at the Capitol” had grown to over 2,000 students. The students were taking effective action: speaking knowledgeably on the funding crisis, with a passion and idealism that only young people can possess.

As students’ numbers grew, so did their confidence. By Wednesday afternoon, I watched as the state Capitol buzzed with students not only protesting, but getting into the nitty-gritty of political change by learning the names and faces of their elected officials.

By Thursday and Friday, students and teachers were no longer operating independently. The collaboration which makes classroom learning most effective was happening in the halls of the Capitol. When students identified the representative holding up a revenue bill, they walked through the line to find students from his home district to lead the charge.

Last Monday, with the walkout still ongoing, the students I saw were armed with talking points and legislative office numbers. After another student rally, they ran off to the offices of their elected officials.

Two students, Bella and Sophie, accompanied by Bella’s mom, made their way to the fourth floor. The girls stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. State Senator Stephanie Bice was in a meeting. They stepped out to decide their next move and decided to write personal notes to their state senators. With letters written, edited, and delivered, Bella and Sophie were beaming.

“That feels so good,” Sophie said.

A week of direct civic action had turned protesters into savvy advocates.

Until this walkout, most of the participating students had never met their elected officials. But that’s quickly changing. Students have worked collaboratively to demystify the legislative process, understand the policy goals articulated by organizing groups, and advocate for revenue measures that would support a more equitable education system.

Jayke, a student from Choctaw, reflected on this reality. “These last few days at the Capitol I have learned more about life and how to stand up for what I believe.”

That’s no small thing. Over those 14 days, I listened to students use their voices to express their experiences. Many also spoke on behalf of students who were not there. They spoke for the 60 percent of Oklahoma public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They rallied for the students at each of their schools who do not have enough food to eat.

Through this conflict, our students are learning the importance, and the mechanics, of political participation. Our young people are becoming powerful in a way that will outlast this funding crisis. It’s everything a civics educator could hope for.

Amy Curran is the Oklahoma site director for Generation Citizen, an education nonprofit.

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.