Category Archives: Equity

Preparing for Dynamic Systems of Schools

While traditional school districts are characterized by a relatively unchanging stock of schools, performance-based systems with effective parental choice mechanisms and rigorous school oversight are defining the changes taking place in places like New Orleans, DC, and Denver. These systems have one unique common denominator: dynamism, a central concept in modern economics that explains how new, superior ideas replace obsolete ones to keep a sector competitive.

The process happens through the entry and exit of firms and the expansion and contraction of jobs in a given market. As low-performing firms cease to operate, their human, financial, and physical capital are reallocated to new entrants or expanding incumbents offering better services or products.

Too little dynamism and underperformers continue to provide subpar services and consume valuable resources that could be used by better organizations. Too much dynamism creates economic instability and discourages entrepreneurs from launching new ventures and investors from funding them.

Dynamism, however, rarely comes up in discussions about education policy despite a growing number of urban education systems closing chronically underperforming schools and opening new, high-potential schools as a mechanism for continuous systemic improvement.

New Orleans’ system of schools has operated in this reality since Hurricane Katrina. And others like Denver and DC are implementing their own versions of dynamic, performance-based systems. To illustrate, below is a graph of charter school dynamism in DC between 2007 and 2018.

But it’s a novel study on Newark’s schools that provide the field’s best research on a dynamic system in action. Continue reading

An End to “Must-place” Teachers in LAUSD? Almost.

Last month, a quarter of Los Angeles public schools gained new power over selecting teachers to fill vacancies when the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board of Education unanimously adopted a resolution to establish mutual consent hiring. In most districts, teachers are employees of the district, not the school where they work. What that means is that they can be displaced — losing their position at their school — while still remaining employed by the district. A teacher can be displaced for many reasons, like declining enrollment, changing instructional needs, or generalized dissatisfaction with the teacher’s performance. In many districts, a teacher can remain “displaced” with full salary and benefits indefinitely.

But this is starting to change. Districts are beginning to adopt policies that recognize that teachers who are unable to find new placements after a year should not continue to stay on as fully-paid employees.

Los Angeles’ mutual consent hiring policy requires both teacher and school to agree to a teacher’s placement. This means the districts can no longer place teachers unilaterally or require schools to select from the displaced pool rather than making new hires. As of right now, the policy only covers one quarter of LAUSD schools. The remaining three quarters are still obligated to fill vacancies with displaced teachers, a group which includes those who have been unplaced for more than a year (commonly referred to as the “must-place” teachers).

Nick Melvoin championed this policy as the LAUSD school board vice president. Nick was also a witness in Reed v. State of California, a 2010 California constitutional case that aimed to protect students in underperforming schools from catastrophic teacher layoffs. I worked on Reed as part of the legal team that represented the students, including students at the school where Nick taught. Reed was a precursor to its more famous sibling, Vergara v. State of California, a case that led to a California Supreme Court ruling about the need for establishing “inevitability” when linking an education policy aimed at teachers to a constitutional harm to students.

In the Q&A below, I talk with Nick about what this new policy means for LAUSD’s students and teachers. Conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Eight years ago, you and I first met while I was representing students suing LAUSD over disproportionate teacher layoffs in their schools. That included many of the same schools that are now insulated from receiving “must-place” teachers under this new policy — including the school where you taught! That case ultimately settled without clarifying the state’s reverse-seniority layoff laws. Did that experience inform this effort to create a new practice of mutual consent hiring?

Absolutely. Just because litigation isn’t successful, that doesn’t mean that we’ll stop trying. There are two reasons that this policy makes sense. The first and most important one is the impact that this has on children. When I arrived as a teacher at Markham Middle School, I saw a rotating parade of substitutes and learned what that had done to my kids. Some of them didn’t have a history teacher until October, and until then, they were failing interim assessments… History isn’t something you can intuit — someone has to teach you! The administration was going down the list of hundreds of “must-place” teachers, and each one who showed up would leave after a few days. They weren’t the right fit for the school and they didn’t want to be there, but this would go on for months before the school could secure a permanent teacher.

The second reason is that I care about treating teachers as adults and as professionals. I came to the district fresh out of Harvard University, and my classmates were going on to Wall Street and consulting firms. I thought teaching was the most important job in the world, but when I arrived, I was treated like a cog in a machine. Mutual consent is about treating our teachers well and respecting them as professionals who do the most important jobs in the world.

I think that this new policy opens up a new channel for conversation and helps us to move closer to our goal of ensuring that all students in the District have great teachers. Continue reading

Three Lessons From an Out Classroom Teacher

Justin Borroto in the classroom

photo courtesy of the author

When I became a teacher, it had been over five years since I first came out. In that time, I didn’t worry much about my sexuality. My friends and family overwhelmingly accepted me, my college campus made me feel safe, and the progressive nonprofit where I worked celebrated the ways that I was unique and different. But as I walked into a high school classroom as a teacher, all the scary feelings I once felt as a high school student came creeping back in. Would being gay hurt my relationships with students or their families? I resolved that I wouldn’t lead with the fact that I was gay, but I wouldn’t lie about it either.

It turns out that I didn’t need to worry. Throughout my teaching experience, I have had the opportunity to share my authentic self with students and facilitate conversations around sexuality and gender. I’ve shown my queer students how to love themselves and their peers how to be good allies. And on top of continuing to work as a classroom teacher, I’ve had the privilege of serving as my school’s LGBTQ Liaison, a position unique to DC Public School (DCPS).

Here are three lessons I’ve learned from my time in the classroom and as LGBTQ liaison:

High school is not how I remember it

As a closeted queer kid in high school almost 10 years ago, the idea of being out was scary. There were very few out students and absolutely no out teachers.

Things are getting better. While a 2015 survey conducted by GLSEN revealed that 60% of LGBTQ students reported frequently hearing words like “fag” or “dyke,” that number is down from 80% in 2001. So don’t get me wrong, discrimination hasn’t completely stopped, but I’m pleasantly surprised each time I watch a student be themselves boldly and unapologetically. LGBT students at my school are generally encouraged to be themselves, so much that our Prom King this year was openly gay.

Having an employer that protects your students’ and your own sexual orientation and gender identity is a blessing Continue reading

Violence Prevention Efforts Hit Close to Home for Me and My Students

I — like many Americans — have been engaging in a daily routine of relief every afternoon that the news does not report another school shooting.

But the violence in low-income, urban areas where I’ve lived and worked are also on my mind. I was a teacher in South Central Los Angeles, where my students risked their safety simply by walking to school. I’m from Chicago, a city notorious worldwide for its rate of violent crime (when I lived in London and mentioned I’m from Chicago, a typical response was, “Isn’t that the murder capital of America?”). And a prior student from St. Louis, Reh’yen — a black, male teenager, one of my all-time favorite students — was shot and killed a few months ago, an incident I am still grappling with.

“Violence in Chicago: Realities + Root Causes” panel brought young civic leaders and Cook County State’s Attorney @SAKimFoxx to the stage to share personal stories and real solutions. #ABetterChicago – at Venue SIX10

Panel photo via @_abetterchicago on Twitter

And yet, data presented at a recent conference — A Better Chicago’s annual Education Summit — was still shocking to me: In a survey of six hundred African American students in Chicago, one third reported seeing a dead body not related to a funeral. How can we possibly expect kids to focus (let alone flourish) in school when this kind of violence is an inescapable reality? And how can we accept that there is only 1 social worker per 1,200 students in Chicago Public Schools?

Weeks later I continue to be taken aback by the raw, simple, and necessary words of the panelists who spoke on the topic of violence at the Summit. Continue reading

Do Incarcerated Youth Have Equal Access to Education? Let’s Look at the Data.

Although we regularly assess student learning and evaluate the effectiveness of teachers in traditional schools, there is almost no hard data on the quality of education in the schools that serve students held in juvenile justice facilities. These facilities tend to only collect data focused on safety and security. What kind of education do these students receive?

Based on the first year of available data from the U.S. Civil Rights Data Collection, we conducted a national analysis to answer some simple questions:

  1. How many youth are enrolled in juvenile justice schools across the U.S.?
  2. To what degree do they have access to math and science courses (the only courses on which we have data)?
  3. How often do they enroll in these courses?

What we encountered on the way – before even answering the latter two questions – was troubling.

At the start of our analysis, we needed to set up a rudimentary fact base. How many juvenile justice schools are there in each state, and how many kids are enrolled in each? Basic questions, it would seem. Thankfully, the U.S. Department of Education collects public school enrollment nationally. In the 2013-14 data set, the first one made available, they decided to include juvenile justice schools in their definition of “public.” After adding up the number of students in juvenile justice schools for each state, we found that the number was suspiciously low. For example, Arkansas reported only six students enrolled in one juvenile justice school – in the entire state. South Carolina reported no juvenile justice schools at all.

We found it hard to believe that only six students were incarcerated in all of Arkansas, so we compared the enrollment data to another data set – the number of incarcerated youth in each state for the year 2013. If all was well in the world of data quality and educational access, we would expect the data sets to somewhat align, meaning the number of enrolled youth would account for about 100% of incarcerated youth. That, in turn, would give us a fairly accurate picture of educational opportunity for incarcerated youth in each state.

However, we found that in the majority of states, the enrollment numbers of juvenile justice schools didn’t remotely match up with the number of incarcerated youth for the same time frame. In only 18 states did the number of enrolled students somewhat account for the number of youth in placement (that is account for 70% – 130% of youth). In the other states, that alignment ranged from 0% (South Carolina) to 940% (Delaware). 940% means that way, way more youth were reported enrolled in juvenile justice schools than actually incarcerated. What seems mathematically impossible is more likely the result of schools being mislabeled as serving incarcerated youth or schools reporting cumulative enrollment (how many kids enrolled in a year) instead of snapshot enrollment (how many kids were attending school on one day).

Without accurate data, it’s hard to make state-by-state comparisons about access to education in these facilities. Good data matters. Without it, we don’t know whether the thousands of kids who are reported as incarcerated, but not enrolled in a school, are actually getting an education. They deserve better.

Check out our other findings in the full slide deck, Measuring Educational Opportunity in Juvenile Justice Schools.

Alexander Brand was an intern at Bellwether in the spring of 2018.