national newsletter

A testing backlash, from unusual suspects

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! Sarah Darville, Matt Barnum, and Francisco Vara-Orta here, working to help you make sense of efforts to improve education. Did someone forward this to you? You can sign up here.


The big story

Matt here: I spent part of last week in Seattle, where I was surrounded by people who have spent a lot of time thinking about how to improve schools. Their preferred tactics have been things like overhauling admissions systems, supporting charter schools, and boosting new “personalized learning” techniques.

I also heard something surprising: a lot of concerns about schools’ focus on testing.

“I think too much time, attention, and resources have been devoted to accountability systems that don’t produce outcomes for students that historically struggled,” said Lewis Ferebee, the head of Indianapolis Public Schools — one of many making similar points.

Yesterday, I also heard former Camden superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard argue in a speech at MIT that educators should in some instances actually welcome test scores declining. He said he’s seen test prep crowd out other important parts of schooling, and that he’s now convinced that the costs outweigh the benefits. “Altogether, the pursuit of better life outcomes for kids might just necessitate a depression in state test scores,” he said.

You can read his full speech here, which doesn’t advocate for ditching tests but scaling back their use. It’s a remarkable change in perspective someone who spent years advocating for policies based on those scores, then scrapped a public rating system based largely on test scores in Camden.

Of course, concerns about testing aren’t totally new among this crowd, where plenty of people still believe in tusing those tests to improve schools. But the prevalence of the criticism prompted a pointed response from Sandy Kress, an architect of No Child Left Behind, at the Seattle event. “I was worried, frankly, about the conversation earlier today,” he said.

Read our full story here.


Local stories to watch

  • Amazon is coming to New York City, and that could matter for schools. Overcrowding in Queens schools is already a problem, and it’s possible that the influx could exacerbate the city’s homelessness problem, too.
  • Can a more diverse charter school help students feel at ease in college? In Austin, the fast-growing charter network IDEA is planning to find out with a school designed to mirror the school district’s demographics.
  • Four schools in Tennessee’s turnaround district closed this week because it was too cold outside. That’s because the heating systems weren’t working, highlighting the consequences of aging facilities — a problem locally and nationally.
  • We now know more about why a prominent Chicago charter leader left his post. Noble leader Michael Milkie resigned due to “inappropriate behavior” with female alumni, according to a letter sent by the network’s current president. The network of 18 schools that Milkie co-founded has drawn national attention for its success getting students into college and its strict approach to discipline.
  • Newark will keep its joint charter–district enrollment system — for now. That’s notable because the approach has drawn significant criticism, including from members of the city’s newly empowered school board. The system seems to be popular with parents, though, and the district superintendent actually says he wants to go further by adding private schools to the system too.

Research round-up

  • More school security guards doesn’t mean fewer major safety threats, according to a new study. The analysis focuses on North Carolina middle schools that hired additional school resource officers through a state program that subsidized their hiring. There was no evidence that this investment made schools safer, as measured by disciplinary incidents including assaults, bomb threats, and weapons possession. The results raise questions about this common tactic for tightening security in response to concerns about school shootings.
  • High expectations pay off. Specifically, a new study shows that a teacher’s belief that a student is likely to complete college actually increases their odds of doing so. Interestingly, teachers tend to be overly optimistic about students’ college chances — but that optimism appears to be beneficial. And yet white teachers are less optimistic about black students, lining up with other evidence that students of color benefit from having teachers of color.

DeVos watch

Not going anywhere: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s press secretary says she has no plans to resign, despite rumors kicked up by a blog post from Fordham Institute president Mike Petrilli.

That means dealing with a Democratic House: “DeVos and her team are likely to shift from trying to build momentum for a school choice program to raising their right hands and swearing under oath,” according to Education Week. That means DeVos is even less likely to get her favored policies passed by Congress, and that she’s more likely to face scrutiny from Democrats in the House who now have subpoena power. DeVos recently said that she “look[s] forward to working with” Bobby Scott, a Democrat who will chair the House education committee.


Names to note

Not too early to think about 2020? Joe Biden and Oprah Winfrey make appearances in this Education Week roundup of potential Democratic presidential candidates’ positions on education.

Indianapolis teachers union chief Rhondalyn Cornett was ousted after $100,000 of allegedly improper spending.

Kathy Hoffman, an educator and Democrat, narrowly prevailed in the race to become Arizona’s next school superintendent, which was too close to call on election night.

Tony Thurmond has taken the lead over Marshall Tuck in the expensive race for California schools superintendent, which remains too close to call as vote counting continues.

Paula White is the new head of Educators for Excellence-New York.


What we’re reading

  • Voters say they support public schools. Many are also reluctant to raise taxes to spend more on public education. New York Times
  • The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is spending $1 million to try to help teachers understand the science of learning. Education Week
  • School voucher advocates in Arizona say they aren’t deterred by voters’ rejection of a ballot initiative that would have expanded eligibility. Arizona Republic
  • Colorado’s new governor has drawn criticism for picking charter supporters for education transition team. KDVR
  • Virginia teachers are planning a protest in January over school funding, and it could shut down schools. Education Week
  • A photo of high school students giving a Nazi salute during prom festivities this year underscores concerns that the Holocaust isn’t being taught well enough in schools. Vox
  • The association that governs Louisiana’s high school sports won’t allow Central American students to play because most lack required paperwork, even if they’re here legally. Hechinger Report