Category Archives: Education Policy

All I Want for Christmas Is for People to Stop Using the Phrase “Education Reform”

In a recent opinion piece at The 74, Robin Lake casts off the label of educator reformer, arguing that “to imply that they are some monolithic group of reformers is ridiculous.” I agree, not so much because education reform has lost its meaning but because it never had a single definition in the first place. At the heart of reform is an acknowledgement that the educational system isn’t serving all kids well, but agreeing that the system could be improved is far from agreeing on how to get there.

definition of educationTo some people “education reform” is about holding schools and districts accountable for student outcomes, which can be viewed as either a means of ensuring that society doesn’t overlook subgroups of students, or as a top-down approach that fails to account for vast differences in school and community resources. To others education reform is shorthand for increasing school choice, or requiring students to meet specific academic standards to be promoted or graduate from high school, or revising school discipline practices that disproportionately impact students of color. Each of these ideas has supporters and detractors, and I suspect that many people who are comfortable with one type of reform vehemently disagree with another.

To take a specific example, consider teacher evaluation reform. One challenge in debating this particular education reform is that there are multiple ways teacher evaluation could change outcomes: one way is by providing feedback and targeted support to educators; another is the identification and removal of low-performing teachers. So even when “education reform” types favor a policy, they might have very different views on the mechanisms through which that policy achieves its goals. In the case of teacher evaluation reform, the dueling mechanisms created trade-offs in evaluation design, as described by my Bellwether colleagues here. (As they note, in redesigning evaluation systems, states tended to focus on the reliability and validity of high-stakes measures and the need for professional development plans for low performing teachers, devoting less attention to building the capacity of school leaders to provide meaningful feedback to all teachers.)

I personally agree with those who argue that teacher evaluation should be used to improve teacher practice, and I have written previously about what that might look like and about the research on evaluation’s role in developing teachers. In a more nuanced conversation, we might acknowledge that there are numerous outcomes we care about, and that even if a given policy or practice is effective at achieving one outcome — say, higher student achievement — it might have unintended consequences on other outcomes, such as school climate or teacher retention.

Instead of broadly labeling people as “education reformers,” we need to clearly define the type of reform we’re discussing, as well as the specific mechanisms through which that reform achieves its intended goals. Doing so provides the basis for laying out the pros and cons of not just the overall idea, but of the policy details that transform an idea into action. Such specificity may help us avoid the straw man arguments that have so often characterized education policy debates.

Integration, Choice, and Power: An Interview with Mohammed Choudhury

School integration is making headlines again. On one extreme is Jefferson County, Alabama, where white parents sought to secede from the racially diverse district and create a new, segregated one. On the other, New York City sought to redesign the admissions criteria for selective schools to be more inclusive.

Some of the most exciting school integration work is taking place in San Antonio, Texas. While integration and choice are often pitted against one another, as we wrote recently, the San Antonio model is based on a blend of intentional integration and school choice. The 74 Million recently profiled the effort, and we sat down with Mohammed Choudhury, the effort’s chief architect, to better understand his approach.

The conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Kaitlin Pennington: The conventional wisdom is that the integration efforts of the 1980s and early ‘90s were failed experiments. How do you respond to this common perception?

Photo courtesy of Mohammed Choudhury

Mohammed Choudhury: Right off the bat, it’s not true that integration did not work. Integration did work and was working. Were there problems with implementation? Sure. However, in the aggregate, it was working at scale and we gave it up to maintain the power structures of this country.

I would encourage folks to read and study that era more closely. You can pick up “Why Busing Failed” by Matthew Delmont. He did a fantastic job of outlining the narrative that was crafted about integration not working or it turning into busing problems, when the reality is that kids have been bused for a long time. When it became about kids with different skin colors coming to schools with better resources and access to opportunities, all of a sudden busing became a problem. It was a manufactured crisis of sorts to placate racism.

The period of meaningful integration was the only time in our country when we’ve significantly narrowed the achievement gap based on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. But then the courts backed away from integration enforcement and the gap widened again. So integration not working is a funny statement in my opinion. It seems to me that folks are just trying to be comfortable with rationalizing and maintaining the legacy of “separate but equal” in our country.

Max Marchitello: The problem of generating sufficient political will and courage seems central to addressing segregation. How have you succeeded in building that political will in San Antonio, not just within the school board, but in the community?

Choudhury: Political will-wise, I always say you have to talk about it. You have to confront it. I start talking about the data and why socioeconomic diversity and integration is a powerful academic strategy that has benefits for all kids. I always start with the fact that segregation is bad. It is unhealthy, economically and in the literal sense. It does not work and it has not worked. I lean forward with that; I don’t try to sneak it in or anything.

From there, you assess your conditions and the initiatives that you’re running in order to make decisions. Are you running school choice efforts? Do you have the power to reimagine and draw attendance boundaries? Are you entrusted to review and uphold them? And then ultimately you design and control for integration. For example, one way we are pursuing integration in San Antonio is by creating “diverse by design” school models. These allocate 50 percent of the seats for Title I students and the other 50 percent for non-Title I kids while also ensuring that our most historically disadvantaged communities receive priority access by looking beyond the Title I measure to assess need and the persistent effects of poverty. Through this approach, you can achieve meaningful levels of racial integration as well.

Pennington: In the past, court rulings forced districts to integrate, and now most of those have lapsed. So how does this work evolve? How does it scale? What’s the next phase? Continue reading

Straight Talk for City Leaders on Unified Enrollment: A Q&A with Shannon Fitzgerald

In many cities across the country, school application and enrollment processes are built like high-stakes obstacle courses, where families with the most time and resources at their disposal tend to come out on top. A unified enrollment system is one way that cities with broad school choice have tried to level the playing field, and make enrollment processes less burdensome and more equitable for families. In cities like D.C., Denver, and New Orleans that have unified enrollment systems, families submit a single application and rank the charter and district schools of their choice. Then each student is matched to a single school via an enrollment algorithm.

These systems can decrease inequities by making enrollment processes for families easier to accomplish and harder to “game,” maximizing students’ likelihood of getting into their top choice schools. Unified enrollment can also decrease budget instability for schools caused by unexpected enrollment changes in the beginning of the year. For city leaders, data from unified enrollment systems can reveal important lessons about family demand for specific schools or programs. But that does not mean there are no risks, speed bumps, or potential problems. There is a lot that has to happen behind the scenes to create an enrollment system that meets families’ needs and avoids unintended consequences.

Shannon Fitzgerald knows what it takes to implement a lasting unified enrollment system. She was one of the first in the country to do it as the Director of Choice and Enrollment for Denver Public Schools from 2008-2013. Now, as an enrollment systems consultant, she works with other cities and districts who are interested in reforming their enrollment systems. I talked with her recently about the lessons she’s learned along the way and her advice for city leaders.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you define a unified enrollment system? What differentiates unified enrollment from other enrollment approaches?

I think about enrollment systems as a spectrum. On one end, you have “wild west” systems. Nothing is coordinated: families have to go all over the place and apply to each school individually, and there are different deadlines. You have students enrolled in multiple schools — who knows where they will show up in September? On the other end, you have truly unified enrollment systems like Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans. They include all public schools in the city, district and charter; they have common tools, a common timeline, and a common application; and every student gets matched to a single school of their choice. In between those two ends of the spectrum are about 50,000 different variations.

Continue reading

How Can Governments Make Change? Go Wide or Go Deep.

Imagine a child who has experienced homelessness and who has had to change schools multiple times due to moving between foster homes, shelters, and the street. Oftentimes a young person like this becomes involved with multiple government agencies, like the Department of Child Welfare, the Department of Juvenile Justice, or the Department of Health, because the work that each of these agencies does tends to be narrowly focused on a solving a specific set of problems. Some agencies aim to keep children safe from abuse and neglect, others seek to rehabilitate youth who have committed crimes, and yet others try to prevent and treat illness and disease.

While each sector can implement its own solutions that may work some of the time for some young people, sustainable social change requires government agencies to collaborate.

But at which level of government (e.g., local, county, state, or federal) should we direct our efforts? The answer lies in the type of change we hope to create. Continue reading

More, Better, Faster: Q&A with the Bellwether Team Behind Eight Cities

Last week, we released Eight Cities, a multimedia website designed to show current and future superintendents, school board members, and state education leaders that it’s possible to go beyond incremental academic improvement even in the largest or most politically charged environments.

The site is visually stunning, and takes a unique story-driven approach to covering education reform in places where leaders are getting more kids into better schools faster than other urban areas. The bulk of the writing and research was done by Bellwether’s own Lynne Graziano, Jason Weeby, and Tanya Paperny. Given the project’s unique approach, I chatted with them to share more about the process of creating Eight Cities.

What was the motivation behind doing this project, and why now?

Jason Weeby: Over the past two decades, multiple cities have been implementing similar strategies to improve their schools. CRPE calls it the “portfolio strategy,” David Osborne calls them “21st century school systems,” and the Texas Education Agency calls them “systems of great schools.” Whatever you call it, the various strategies have common beliefs and pillars, namely that schools should be the unit of change, they need certain freedoms to serve their students, and they should be held accountable for whether their students are learning.

In a lot of the cities where this has been put into practice, student achievement has increased and achievement gaps between low-income students and students of color and their wealthier, whiter counterparts are closing. This project aimed to verify the academic improvements and understand how the strategy evolved by talking to the people who were closest to it. Our goal is to share lessons with current and future superintendents and board members who are interested in the approach that these eight cities took.

You focus on eight big urban districts, all of which have had a flurry of controversy tangled up in their reform and modernization efforts. Why did you choose to explore these cities specifically?

Lynne Graziano: We looked for cities that had several components in place or in the works, things like universal enrollment, a variety of school types with some degree of choice for families, and/or a talent strategy for teachers and school leaders. We also selected cities where research identified strong student achievement gains during the years we studied. While most system leaders would tell you there is more work to be done, we wanted to share stories of dramatic gains made in communities where student gains were previously rare.

JW: Put simply, we were looking for cities that had implemented a citywide improvement strategy based on the beliefs and practices we laid out in our introduction and which have seen more than incremental gains.

This is a really fancy website. Why didn’t you just write a report? Continue reading