national newsletter

All eyes on L.A.

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! Matt Barnum, Sarah Darville, and Francisco Vara-Orta here, working to help you make sense of efforts to improve education across the country.

The big story

Educators in the country’s second-largest school district are poised to strike, in a high-stakes move that could reverberate far beyond Los Angeles.

At issue are traditional union demands like higher pay and lower class sizes. But teachers and their union say they also want changes to the district’s management approach and its relationship with charter schools, even if those concerns aren’t the focus of their bargaining.

“They have the floor,” one L.A. observer said, referring to the city’s teachers union. “They are trying to advocate for all the things they care about.”

Earlier this week, five L.A. teachers told us they were most worried about smaller class sizes and getting more school nurses and counselors into their schools. Money was on their minds, too. “We’re not going to attract all these bright, energetic young teachers to our classrooms if our salaries aren’t competitive with what a graduate could get in the private sector,” one explained. “I see a drain of money leaving our district and going to unregulated charter schools — which is not to say all charter schools are bad,” another said.

The union is also taking aim at the “portfolio model” of school reform, a concept deeply intertwined with the charter school movement. We explore this aspect of the debate, and collect some signs that the district is moving toward such a model, here. (The district says it’s not.)

As for the strike itself: The union now says it’s set to start next Monday, though negotiations are continuing today.

Local stories to watch

  • Bad news for Lewis Ferebee’s legacy in Indianapolis. Most high schools in the system he ran saw their graduation rates fall in 2018. Several previous years of rising graduation rates had been a source of pride for outgoing superintendent Ferebee, who is awaiting confirmation to lead Washington, D.C., public schools.
  • Denver’s approach to struggling schools is shifting. Instead of replacing them, it’s putting them on improvement plans — something charter school advocates don’t like but has won support from parents whose children have been affected by school closures.

Research round-up

A major new study on restorative justice points to trade-offs. Restorative practices, designed as an alternative to exclusionary discipline like suspensions, have gained popularity but haven’t been the subject of much research until now. In a new study, two dozen Pittsburgh schools were randomly assigned to adopt the policies. Researchers found that, as hoped, restorative justice schools had steeper drops in suspension rates than comparison schools, especially among black students. Teachers also reported safer school environments.

But the schools that added restorative justice also saw small declines in math test scores, particularly among black students, and students said their teachers struggled more to manage their classrooms. “I’m concerned, but not concerned enough to throw [restorative practices] away,” one researcher said.

Students in places favoring Trump may have faced more post-election bullying. A new study of Virginia middle school students finds that public schools in areas that supported Trump saw bigger increases in student reports of bullying, including teasing based on students’ race or ethnicity, between 2015 and 2015. Overall, 17 percent of students in areas that voted for Clinton reported being bullied, compared to 20 percent of students in areas that voted for Trump. Prior to the election there was no difference. The paper can’t prove cause and effect, but it does provide some evidence for the theory that racist rhetoric from Donald Trump as a presidential candidate contributed to bullying.

DeVos watch

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos hasn’t scheduled any public events this week. Last week, she underwent surgery after breaking a bone in a bike accident. Her birthday was also Tuesday.

Meanwhile, educators and district leaders are still responding to news DeVos made before the holidays, when she rescinded Obama-era guidance on school discipline. “I absolutely think conflating the sort of tragedies of school safety with rolling back discipline guidelines can be really dangerous,” Minnesota’s new state commissioner of education said in a recent interview.

Names to note

Daniela Garcia, a former Michigan state representative, is among several new hires announced by the U.S. Department of Education this week. Garcia will serve as director of outreach.

Alex Kelly, who was vice president of advocacy at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, is the new chief of staff at the Florida Department of Education.

EdSource has an exit interview with retiring California board of education president Michael Kirst.

Callie Kozlak has been named associate superintendent for policy and government relations at the Arizona Department of Education.

What we’re reading

  • In South Carolina, many charter schools’ demographics look very different from their surrounding districts, prompting segregation concerns. Post and Courier
  • The Gates Foundation is giving out $10 million in new grants to train teachers to use curriculums seen as high quality. Education Week
  • Measuring student poverty in schools has become more difficult, which means it’s getting harder to target extra money for kids in need. U.S. News