Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! We’re Matt Barnum and Sarah Darville, Chalkbeat’s national team. Our goal is to help you make sense of the messy, fascinating, often controversial efforts to improve education for poor students across the country. If someone forwarded this to you, the link to subscribe is here.
The big story
When the school year started last fall, Los Angeles had filled all but 12 of its teaching positions. The situation was very different in Chicago, which had more than 100 times as many vacancies — leaving nearly 6 percent of classrooms missing a teacher.
We collected data on teacher vacancies in the country’s 15 biggest school districts to help answer the question of how much teacher shortages should trouble policymakers. Our new story features that data, which shows that vacancy rates ranged widely but usually hovered around 1 percent to start the school year.
This matters: Research has found that students who start the year without a permanent teacher have lower student achievement as a result.
So what to do? Researchers and advocates generally say the problem can be addressed through a combination of short-term policies — like improving hiring policies that make it difficult to get into the classroom quickly — and long-term reforms, such as improving pay and working conditions to make teaching a more attractive job. Matt discussed the story with Randi Weingarten and Linda Darling-Hammond on NPR’s On Point this morning.
Local stories to watch
- A big funding increase for Colorado schools might make it onto the ballot this year. This comes after a similar measure failed badly at the polls in 2013 in a state that spends less on education than many others.
- Michigan’s method for rating schools: a dashboard with a variety of metrics — a contrast to some states that are giving school overall letter grades. That includes Indiana, which is putting significant weight on test scores under a proposed grading system.
- Who will lead the country’s largest district? The search for New York City’s school chancellor could be challenging. There is no obvious internal candidate, and the system’s next leader may have limited ability to implement their own big-picture changes.
We interrupt your regularly scheduled national update with this announcement: Chalkbeat is looking for math teachers to show the world what teaching really takes. This March, we’re launching the first-ever Great American Teach-Off at the SXSW EDU conference. Interested? Enter here.
Matt’s research roundup
- Charter schools can come with a significant price tag. It’s a common complaint: charter schools hurt districts by “draining” resources. We looked at new research that tries to quantify that effect, showing that in one urban district in North Carolina, the expansion of charters meant districts had $500 to $700 less to spend on services for each student. That’s because when a district loses students, it can’t immediately shed certain costs, like building maintenance. Keep in mind: over the long term, districts may be able to reduce spending in a way that shrinks the charters’ impact.
- Smaller classes get big results. A new study examines California’s effort to reduce class sizes starting in the late 1990s. Conventional wisdom has held that this was a failure because it forced districts to hire new teachers who were less effective. But the latest study finds substantial benefits, in part because the smaller classes drew more affluent students from private schools. The presence of those students seemed to benefit other kids.
- School district boundaries are still no match for housing segregation. A new piece on these boundaries in Vox cites research showing that they often entrench segregation in schools. That’s true, but it’s worth noting that those studies indicate that district lines more often reduce segregation — though not enough to achieve integration.
Names to note
New senators Tina Smith of Minnesota and Doug Jones of Alabama will join the Senate’s education committee. Alice Johnson Cain of Teach Plus announced she is running for the Maryland State House. Greg Brock will shift from executive director to CEO of the American Federation for Children, while John Schilling will shift from COO to president. Michael O’Connor is the new school board president for Indianapolis Public Schools. He works for an Indianapolis-based company that funds education reform-aligned initiatives in the city (and is also a Chalkbeat funder). Byron Sanders is the new head of the Dallas education nonprofit Big Thought.
The portfolio push
We recently published a series on the efforts to advance a specific strategy for improving a city’s schools known as the “portfolio model.” We’re continuing to follow it here.
- Some portfolio advocates see an enrollment system that includes all public schools as key to the model. What happens when schools work around it? One charter school in New Orleans tried, and was just reprimanded for enrolling students outside of the district’s “OneApp.”
- New research takes a look at one key aspect of the portfolio model: the creation of new schools with freedom from certain district regulations. It finds that students attending new schools in Los Angeles initially saw substantial drops in test scores, but they bounced back and eventually did better than students in other schools. But it also suggests the new schools can hurt students at the district’s longstanding schools — bad news if the goal is to help an entire district improve.
What we’re reading
- The lesson from Baltimore’s unheated classrooms: Invest in school facilities. Washington Post
- Chicago Teachers Union head Karen Lewis laughed off a brief, and premature, publication of her obituary. Chicago Tribune
- A homeschooling group doesn’t want federal money for homeschoolers, fearing it will lead to more regulation. Talking Points Memo
- Los Angeles’s schools chief is resigning for health reasons, meaning that the two largest school districts in the country are both searching for new leaders. L.A. Times
- Louisiana is rethinking its rules for holding students back a grade. Hechinger Report
- Remember the story of D.C. high school students who graduated despite huge absence rates? Local education officials were warned but didn’t investigate. Washington Post
- “In California, the state doesn’t collect data on teacher demand or shortages.” East Bay Times
- A new teacher evaluation system might be behind an assistant principal hiring spree in Washington state. Seattle Times
- Half of the country’s young children rely on the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program, which is set to run out of funding in March. The 74