June 16, 2016

Too Many States Are Celebrating a “Better than Nothing” Education for Incarcerated Students

Alabama made news this week with their announcement about a possible and massive new jail-based education program for incarcerated 17-21 year olds. Administered by Athens City Schools, this program would offer students access to high school content provided by the for-profit online content service Grade Results.

laptop-1176606_1920But Grade Results is not an accredited education provider. They cannot legally award high school credits or diplomas. They also cannot offer students transferable college credits. But by coordinating the virtual program through the district and classifying students as enrolled in a district school, those students can earn high school credits and be awarded an official Athens City Schools diploma from an accredited school upon completion — as if they had actually attended the physical school.  Even though they didn’t.

Sound bogus to you? It is. Continue reading


June 9, 2016

Detroit Schools Bill Passes, Misses Huge Opportunity

Deflated balloon

Image via Pando.com

The Michigan legislature passed a bill last night that provides $617 million in debt relief and restructuring for Detroit Public Schools; calls for the creation of an A-F school grading system; prevents “authorizer shopping;” allows DPS to hire non-certified teachers; and includes penalties for teachers who engage in sickouts. Here’s a good Washington Post overview and two Detroit News write-up’s. The bill summary is here.

Notably, the Detroit Education Commission (see below), was not included in the bill. Instead of being a big step forward for Detroit, it’s a huge missed opportunity.

Here are my quick reactions:

  • Without the DEC to bring order to Detroit’s chaotic education landscape, the current bill falls WAY short of what’s necessary to improve options for all of the city’s families. While imperfect, the DEC was a good first step in modernizing Detroit’s education governance model. Detroit could have joined the ranks of DC, Denver, and New Orleans as cities taking proactive steps to manage their dynamic city-wide systems of schools. Instead, the idea of the DEC has been reduced to a toothless advisory council that produces one report per year on facilities, siting, and transportation. It’ll be part of the new DPS.
  • Read between the lines and you’ll see the empowerment of the State School Reform/Redesign Office (SRO), which was created when Michigan competed for Race to the Top funds but lay dormant while the precarious Education Achievement Authority (EAA) ran under-performing schools instead. The SRO will lead the A-F grading system and intervene when DPS  and authorizers fail to act on chronically under-performing schools. This is important because it signals a shift in power from the state board of education, the state superintendent, and the EAA to an office under the direct control of the governor — a good thing when difficult decisions have to be made quickly.
  • The politics behind the passage of this bill are ugly. I’m not on the ground in Michigan and I’m more interested in policy design and implementation, so I’m not going to get too far into it. But it seems like the bill — which had widespread bipartisan support, including Michigan’s republican governor, Detroit’s democratic mayor, and the Detroit Caucus — should have trumped the one bankrolled by two far-right special interest groups that put ideology over compromise and pragmatism.
  • Governor Snyder helped get the current bill passed by showing lawmakers how much a DPS bankruptcy would cost the state (and their home districts) should legislation fall apart, but one has to wonder why he didn’t take a more commanding posture to get his version of the bill passed by members of his own party.
  • Standing up an A-F grading system for Detroit schools and eventually the entire state is a good thing if designed well.
  • Preventing authorizing shopping is good, but the provision was used as a low-stakes bargaining chip for the far-right charter lobby. It could have been part of a more comprehensive charter law improvement bill that’s been discussed, but deprioritized in favor of this one.
  • The provisions around hiring non-certified teachers and penalizing teachers engaging in sickouts just seems like a stick-in-the-eye for Detroit democrats. Nothing more.

So what’s next? The difficult work of getting an accountability infrastructure in place and setting up a new district in Detroit will begin immediately. And I wouldn’t put it past Mayor Mike Duggan to keep pushing for the DEC or something like it when the timing is right. In the meantime, Detroit’s leaders should be thinking about what they can do on their own to rein in their charter sector’s authorizer environment and make sure the new DPS doesn’t look like the old DPS.

Follow me on Twitter @jasonweeby


June 8, 2016

How the Innovation Paradox Rocked My World

Innovation-Student Achievement Relationship Plot

Credit: Jason Weeby

When my colleagues Kelly Robson and George Mu and I began a project to measure innovation in a city’s education sector, we knew it was going to be challenging. Innovation isn’t a single thing; you can’t just go out and count innovation. Instead, it’s a combination of many factors, some of which matter more than others.

So we created a composite indicator, a macroeconomic tool that is formed when individual indicators are compiled into a single index, based on an underlying model of the multi-dimensional concept that is being measured. Composite indicators are commonly referred to as indices. They measure concepts like competitiveness, sustainability, and opportunity. We call ours the U.S. Education Innovation Index.

Some of the categories that we included are novel like District Deviation and Dynamism (topics for other posts). Others are more predictable, like innovation-friendly policies and the level of funding available for innovation-specific activities.

However, one category continues to disorient me. It isn’t unusual. I read about it every day. It’s something one would fully expect to see in a measure of a city’s education sector, yet it requires an explanation to anyone who has interrogated our methodology: Student Achievement.

How we ultimately decided to measure student achievement was the product of hours of discussion and analysis. At first, we considered it an output of innovation. “Makes sense,” I thought. If you turn up the dial on innovation activities, new solutions emerge, and then student achievement goes up.

I was content with our tidy framework of inputs and outputs until Julia Freeland Fisher, director of education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and Matt Candler, founder and CEO of 4.0 Schools, introduced me to the innovation paradox and blew up my well-laid plans.

What I was missing was the relationship between success and the motivation to innovate.

Innovation, especially disruptive innovation, is more likely to happen in cities where student achievement is low. In theory, poor or declining student achievement is likely to embolden entrepreneurs and catalyze innovation. In cities where student achievement is perennially low, policymakers and education officials may feel pressure to try new tactics or adopt new policies or methodologies, and thus embrace innovative ideas.

I sketched out what the relationship might look like on a graph above. It’s not as cool looking as Candler’s sketches, but shows the time lag between the implementation of innovation activities and how they should increase student achievement.

The paradox emerges in stage two where innovation activities decline as student achievement remains high. In cities where schools are consistently performing at a high level or are improving steadily, officials may be hesitant or reluctant to change anything out of fear of reversing a positive academic trajectory. Continue reading


June 3, 2016

What Should An “Empowering Girls of Color” Initiative Look Like?

Improving education for low-performing groups of students shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. DC Public Schools (DCPS) have drawn attention (some of it negative) for their Empowering Males of Color initiative, which includes a new all-boys high school. But girls of color need specialized supports, too, in DCPS and nationwide. The graduation rate for black girls in DCPS is 20 percentage points lower than that of white students.

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Photo by Noah Scialom

What should a high-quality support system for girls of color look like? DCPS shouldn’t open an all-girls high school across the street from the boys’ school and call it a day. Here are some focus areas for DCPS and other school systems to consider:

  • Support girls of color in STEM and CTE. Black girls are less likely to take AP courses in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects, and less likely than white men or white women to graduate college with a degree in a STEM field. In recent NAEP Technology and Engineering Literacy results, girls beating boys by three points made headlines, but black and Hispanic girls still lagged behind white boys and girls by 20-30 points. Schools should encourage girls to take advanced courses in STEM subjects and enroll in career and technical education (CTE) programs linked to high-earning careers in traditionally male-dominated fields.
  • Confront racial and gender bias in school discipline. Racial gaps in school discipline impact all students of color, but boys and girls experience it differently. In DC schools (including charter schools) in 2011-12, 13% of black girls received out-of-school suspensions vs. 1% of white girls and 2% of white boys. While good data on discipline causes are scarce, researchers suggest that girls of color are more likely to be punished harshly for minor behavioral issues, such as dress code violations. More data on discipline by race and gender are needed, as are better school policies and resources to show educators how to respond to behavioral challenges fairly.
  • Enhance pregnancy prevention and support for teen parents. Teen pregnancy and parenting are cited as key factors among 38% of black girls and 36% of Hispanic girls who leave school. In DC, efforts to reduce teen pregnancy have been very successful, and the number of teen births fell by 20% from 2009 to 2012. DC is already doing more than many jurisdictions to prevent pregnancy and keep teen parents in schools: comprehensive sex education is the norm, condoms are available in all high schools from the school nurse and student volunteers, educational programs aimed at supporting teen parents are available in DCPS high schools, and the DC Department of Human Services sponsors pregnancy prevention education in afterschool programs.
  • Acknowledge other family responsibilities. Girls are more likely than boys to be responsible for caring for younger siblings or other family members. This kind of care is not as well-documented as teen pregnancy, but it can be just as stressful. DC has the most expensive childcare in the country, and struggling working parents have to rely more on informal care, like teen sisters. Policymakers should expand the availability of high-quality affordable child care, and school leaders should allow for more flexible attendance/scheduling policies, transportation assistance, and other educational supports for girls who need to get their siblings to school or help siblings with homework.
  • Target bullying and sexual harassment that disproportionately affects girls. Girls cannot learn successfully if they feel unsafe. A national survey by AAUW found that 56% of girls in grades 7-12 experienced some kind of sexual harassment in the 2010-11 school year. And girls from low-income families were more likely to stay home from school in response to harassment. Girls also experience bullying in ways that may be less visible: girls are more likely to be the victims of cyber-bullying and relational bullying (where someone is ostracized or gossiped about, rather than being directly confronted). School policies on bullying and sexual harassment should address these different experiences, and educators should be trained to recognize signs of distress and trauma in girls.
  • Break out the data. One of the most basic things all states can do is publish easily accessible “cross-tabs” of key achievement metrics, so communities can see how boys and girls are performing across racial/ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Separate data on gender, socioeconomic status, and race/ethnicity tend to be more accessible, but going deeper, to look at black students by gender or gender groups broken out by socioeconomic status, is not common or consistent even though state data systems would support it.

Schools should intervene to help students who are struggling most, and in most school systems, that means supporting boys of color; initiatives like Empowering Males of Color could be a good start. But girls of color need unique supports, too. If schools go the route of gender-differentiated strategies to close racial achievement gaps, they should articulate plans for both boys and girls. This is not a meaningless gesture to give the appearance of fairness, it’s about recognizing that intersections of race and gender and lots of other factors can affect students in different ways and demanding strategies that are responsive to students’ experiences. This can have real positive effects on student learning — just don’t leave girls out of the picture.


June 2, 2016

The Failed Logic in Removing Student Growth and Achievement from Teacher Evaluation Systems

During the 2016 legislative session, several states’ bills attacked the use of student growth as part of teachers’ evaluations. While many of those bills failed to make it over the finish line, a few became law. In particular, bills in Oklahoma and Hawaii officially remove student growth requirements.

Photo Credit: EngageNY

Photo Credit: EngageNY

The reason each of these states dropped requirements is different, but the justifications echo rhetoric from education leaders across the nation who have flip-flopped on including student growth in teachers’ evaluation. According to Oklahoma bill sponsors, now that student growth and achievement is optional, more emphasis can be placed on teacher professional development. And in Hawaii, bill supporters are hopeful that the change in the teacher evaluation system will help address the state’s teacher shortage.

Bill sponsors and supporters in Oklahoma and Hawaii have a point. There is no doubt that emphasis on improving teacher professional development is direly needed in many states and districts. And areas affected by teacher shortages (note: this is not a national issue, but rather a targeted one) need policy changes to address the shortages. However, there is no evidence that removing student growth and achievement from teacher evaluation systems is the solution to these problems. Continue reading