national newsletter

Lessons we’re taking into 2019

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter — and to 2019! Matt Barnum, Sarah Darville, and Francisco Vara-Orta here, working to help you make sense of efforts to improve education across the country. We’d love to know your new year’s resolution.


The big story

As the new year begins, many people are making resolutions and taking stock of what’s working and what isn’t in their lives. But because we’re Chalkbeat, we’re thinking about the research that shapes (or should shape) how classrooms and schools operate. Here’s a bit of what we learned in 2018.

What worked:

  • Addressing the effects of child poverty. Research has repeatedly linked anti-poverty programs like food stamps and in-school lunches to better academic outcomes.
  • Giving struggling students extra learning time. In particular, a “vacation academy” for struggling students in Massachusetts boosted test scores and lowered suspension rates.
  • Performance pay for teachers. Challenging conventional wisdom and some past research, a major federal study found that higher pay for higher-rated teachers kept those teachers in the classroom and boosted student achievement.

And what didn’t:

  • Holding students back a grade. That actually seems to cause a sharp increase in dropout rates, particularly for kids held back in middle school.
  • Tougher teacher evaluations. One major study found that these failed to boost student achievement, while another showed that they deterred would-be teachers from entering the profession.
  • Cutting school spending. Research suggests this harms student learning and graduation rates, and may be one of the causes of disappointing scores on national tests over the past decade.

Read our full list here.


Local stories to watch

  • Some teachers in Detroit have seen massive raises. Under the old teachers contract, teachers who transferred to schools in Detroit found themselves at the bottom of the pay scale. When that changed — in a bid to make the city more attractive to experienced teachers — a few Detroit educators saw raises of 30, 40, or even 50 percent.
  • What’s the right way to cut school suspensions? Memphis students say bus passes and more time to talk to teachers would help — and so would their parents making a living wage.
  • In Colorado, a new enrollment system raises questions about how to make school choice fair. Charter advocates cried foul when it took more clicks to see charter schools than district schools using Jefferson County’s new system. District officials are now promising change.
  • Michigan is poised to send money for schools toward road fixes instead. Republicans who passed the legislation say it won’t hurt schools, but educators and district leaders aren’t convinced.

Research round-up

  • Charter schools discourage some students from applying. A new national “mystery shopper” study comes to that conclusion, offering one potential reason charters serve fewer students with disabilities. The researchers sent email inquiries to charters across the country. When the request mentioned that the student required special education services, charters — unlike district schools of choice — were less likely to respond to their questions about applying. Both district and charter schools were less likely to respond to those who indicated their student had behavior problems.
  • More evidence that performance pay helps schools. A recent paper shows that, in Tennessee, bonuses designed to help keep top teachers in struggling schools were effective. Those teachers were more likely to remain in the classroom, and student test scores rose as a result.
  • Holding students back backfires (again).New research shows another harmful effect of being retained: it seems to make students more likely to be convicted of violent crime as adults. The study, which focuses on Louisiana, compares students who were held back in eighth grade to those who just avoided retention. Adult conviction rates for violent crime rose by 1 percentage point as a result of retention — which is a fairly large effect, since such convictions are quite rate.

DeVos watch

After two years of speculation, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos axed the guidelines issued by the Obama administration that directed districts to reduce racial disparities in how they discipline students.

Here’s what it means.

One former Justice Department official called DeVos’s action a “terrible mistake.” The Washington Post’s editorial board described the federal school safety commission she chaired as “going after black children instead of the NRA.” Others lauded her decision, including the Wall Street Journal editorial board. Some school districts, from Cleveland to Erie, Pennsylvania, say they are staying the course.


The portfolio push

All eyes on Indianapolis: The City Fund, the well-funded nonprofit, paid for six Baton Rouge school board members to visit Indianapolis, The Advocate reported. Indianapolis’s largest district has added charter schools and given some district schools more autonomy in recent years, making it a poster child for advocates of the “portfolio model.”

This comes after John Arnold, whose foundation has backed The City Fund, contributed to the election campaigns of some of the Baton Rouge board members. Baton Rouge was not one of the seven cities that the City Fund disclosed investing in last month.

The City Fund is also backing efforts in St. Louis, specifically a group known as the Opportunity Trust, which according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is creating a website to help families navigate different school options, including charters.


Names to note

Tennessee has a new interim state education chief, Lyle Ailshie, who will serve until governor-elect Bill Lee appoints someone to the post.

In Maine, Brunswick assistant superintendent Pender Makin is governor-elect Janet Mills’ pick to head the state department of education.

Carolyn Stanford Taylor has been tapped to be Wisconsin’s schools superintendent by her predecessor Tony Evers, who will be sworn in as governor next week. She will be the state’s first black schools chief.


What we’re reading

  • Advocates for virtual charter schools are going after groups pushing for tougher accountability rules with a new strategy: filing complaints about conflicts of interest with state officials. Las Vegas Review-Journal
  • Teachers and other public school staff are more likely to quit than at any point since 2001, as jobs in the private sector offer higher pay and larger raises. Wall Street Journal
  • Lewis Ferebee, the pick to be D.C.’s next school chancellor, is facing scrutiny over his handling of sexual abuse case in Indianapolis. Washington Post
  • Why Los Angeles teachers might go on strike — soon. LAist

(Photo: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)