Category Archives: Politics of Education

What’s Next in School District Reform? Five Leaders Share Their Visions

Across the span of three decades, several large, urban districts, including those profiled on our site EightCities.org, pursued reform strategies centered on autonomy, accountability, and family choice. In recent years, some of these districts rolled back their signature reforms or shifted their focus due to leadership change or backlash. Other districts are building off of past models to develop new district improvement strategies. And now, all of these districts are grappling with the challenge of serving students and families during a global pandemic.

The school systems profiled at EightCities.org all have different contexts, successes, and challenges, which we captured in our original 2018 site — now updated for 2020. To mark the site’s relaunch, we reached out to five prominent education leaders and asked each of them:

  • What is the outlook for innovative, ambitious district-wide reform strategies in 2020 and beyond? 
  • What are the biggest lessons state and local leaders should learn from the districts now facing headwinds in pursuit of these strategies?
  • What should education leaders do to advance reforms in partnership with families and community stakeholders?

Their responses range from calls for activism, to community and employer engagement, to renewed focus on curriculum and instruction. While the advice is varied, it’s clear that no education reform strategy is ever finished — it must adapt to build on successes and address new challenges.

Howard Fuller

Former Professor, Marquette University; Former Superintendent, Milwaukee Public Schools

The search for the “new best practice” or the critical “proof point” continues in the struggle for education reform in the United States. New theories and reworked old theories about what must be done abound. In fact, many “reformers” no longer want to use the term “education reform” to characterize their efforts. Some of us continue to make the mistake of committing to new institutional practices as opposed to being committed to the needs and interests of our children. This commitment to method as opposed to purpose has put many “reformers” on the road to becoming the new status quo.

One thing that is sorely needed to have any hope of breaking this pattern is to incorporate the ideas and suggestions of the people being affected into the process prior to the real decisions being made. We must take seriously the notion of giving “power to the people.” Too many of us “reformers” still think the way to bring about lasting change is to get a lot of so-called smart people in a room to make all the key decisions and then inform the parents and students about those decisions as a way to keep them “engaged.” Continue reading

Performative Action Isn’t Enough. It’s Time for Real Change in Hanover County Schools

Michael Johnson is an intern with Bellwether’s Policy & Evaluation team.

On Tuesday, July 14th, the school board of Hanover County, Virginia narrowly ruled (4-3) in favor of changing the names of two schools named after confederate leaders: Lee Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School.

As someone who grew up in and attended Hanover County Public Schools, removing those names has long been overdue. Located less than 30 minutes from the former capital of the confederacy, Hanover County has repeatedly blocked community members’ efforts to change the two school names in the past, most recently in 2018.

But while the mobilization to replace symbols of white supremacy is imperative, it’s only a prerequisite. In the absence of structural change, renaming fails to redress the structures which reproduce oppression and generate harm for Black and brown communities

Growing up in Hanover County, racism was another day of the week, an inevitable truth which seemed too ingrained to change. My mother knows this first hand. Born in 1960, she was among the first class to integrate Hanover County Public Schools during the 1969-1970 school year, 15 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

photo courtesy the author

I know this first hand as well. Beyond the school names commemorating confederate leaders, racism manifested through the microaggressions of my white peers telling me “you are smart for a Black person” or “you sound white.” It manifested more overtly when being called the N-word by a group of white students once on my way to the bathroom, another time after Prom, and yet again when students etched racial epithets on the building of my high school. The most recent examples include KKK recruitment flyers being found in the yards of Hanover County residents in February and an open rally of nearly a dozen Klan members in July. An Instagram page created in June, @BlackatHanoverCPS, documents ongoing racial hatred filling the halls of our schools. 

These are not isolated events: they are indicative of the endemic racism deeply rooted in the community, symbolized by the former school names. 

However, unlike the names — which were removed virtually overnight following the School Board vote — behaviors, beliefs, and systems are not as easily changed. Similar to the district’s staunch opposition to integration during my mother’s time, the Hanover County School Board and Board of Supervisors continue to illustrate this resistance to change.  Continue reading

Will Newark Schools Continue to Beat the Odds Under Local Control?

As a suburban Jersey girl growing up in the 1970s and early 80s, I knew two things about Newark. It was a city with a fine medical university where I had extensive dental work done, and it had a reputation for terrible schools run, at times, by corrupt leadership. Little did I know then that the city where I literally got my smile would one day have education results worth smiling about.

When Bellwether profiled Newark in 2018 for our Eight Cities project, it was because of the city’s approach to school reform and the remarkable gains in student achievement that came as a result. That story ended with a homegrown Superintendent — Roger León — taking the reins of the district as the state promised their return to local control. As of last week, the process of fully returning Newark schools to control of a locally-elected school board is complete. Now that Newarkers have full control over their schools, they have a new challenge: sustaining and building on the success of recent reforms.

Late last week, MarGrady Research confirmed Newark students continue to outperform peers attending similar schools within the state. Researchers define “beat-the-odds” schools as those that produce better state testing results than other schools in New Jersey with similar racial and socioeconomic characteristics. Compared to demographically similar students in urban schools in New Jersey, Newark students beat-the-odds, or exceed expectation, on their exam achievement outcomes.

Echoing similar results three years ago, Newark continues to lead other cities in the percentage of students enrolled in “beat-the-odds” schools. And it’s not even close: Thirty-five percent of Newark students attend beat-the-odds schools; Boston students are second at 20%. Furthermore, nearly 40% of Newark’s African-American students attend beat-the-odds schools – more than double the rate of Boston, where only 19% of African-American students have that opportunity.

One factor which cannot be understated in driving this success is Newark’s implementation of a universal enrollment system. This system allows parents to choose from a diverse set of high-quality public schools, both traditional and charter. Both sectors provide schools where Newark students can succeed: the MarGrady study found 16% of students in traditional district schools were enrolled in beat-the-odds schools. This is about twice the average rate of all 50 cities studied.

Continue reading

It’s Time For a National Teachers’ Strike

Schools closed in March in order to give federal and state governments the time to implement a public health response to COVID-19. They have failed miserably to do so. With case counts exceeding three million and deaths approaching 150,000, the United States is unique in the world for its near-total abdication of responsibility for its people in the midst of the worst global pandemic in a century. And now, in the face of rising case numbers, uncontrolled community transmission, and a culture growing increasingly numb to six-figure death rates, people are clamoring for school buildings to reopen

This is an absurd proposition. No teacher should risk their life because the government refuses to address a solvable problem.

Arlington County (VA) signage during COVID-19 outbreak — photo via dmbosstone on Flickr

School districts’ plans for the fall are a mix of in-person, hybrid, and online learning plans —- with heated debate about which approach is best. But this debate is fundamentally misplaced: We do not have a learning problem, we have a public health problem. Schools were closed because the world confronted a lethal and highly transmissible virus with no vaccine and few effective treatments, and that problem still exists.

There was a time, back in March, when doctors and nurses across the country were forced to treat patients without adequate PPE. They protested and they complained, but the few who flat-out refused found themselves out of jobs. What would have happened if they’d all refused? How quickly would the federal government have marshalled its resources and authority to manufacture and distribute all needed PPE if medical professionals decided that without it, they would strike?

Teachers (and other school-based staff) are now facing that same question. What would happen if they simply refused to go into school buildings until the federal government created a school reopening plan aligned with CDC guidance? What if teachers only offered virtual schooling until districts committed to allowing public health experts to guide reopening decisions? Even regions where the virus appears to be “under control” for the moment are always at risk of outbreaks in a country with porous borders. Take Hawaii, for example: It is the most remote population center in the world and it cannot get its infection rates to 0. This is a national problem in need of a national response.

Schools can still plan for instruction using imperfect remote learning models, and teachers will still do their much-needed jobs. But it is time for a national teachers’ strike against in-person programming. No teacher should go back into a school building anywhere in the country until the federal government adopts a meaningful public health plan to address the real problem that we’re all facing: the unchecked spread of a deadly virus.

Post-Espinoza, It’s Time to Embrace More Pluralism

The majority opinion in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue from Chief Justice Roberts could not be more clear: “A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” With this ruling, “Blaine Amendments” in state constitutions were essentially repealed. It’s an unequivocal victory for school choice advocates on the question of who can operate a school with public funding, decidedly in favor of a pluralistic approach.

Research shows that areas with more religious individuals are correlated with greater upward mobility. But the option for some students to attend religious schools is no panacea. As Espinoza forces state policy to become more agnostic on the question of who operates schools, policymakers will have to grapple with how to balance the autonomy of multiple school providers – public and non-public alike – with policies that protect the rights of families and ensure that public funding for education produces adequately educated citizens.

Schools from McKinley and Cibola Counties in NM gathered at the Cathedral for a Mass celebrated by Bishop James Wall.

Catholic school mass via Flickr user dioceseofgallup

The first question policymakers need to address is that of access: which families have access to which schools through public funding? All students – regardless of where they live – ought to have equal admissions access to publicly funded schools, whether they are operated by a public school district or a religious organization. This principle should be applied to voucher-type programs and public schools alike. Schools across all sectors have a nasty history of excluding poor and Black students, whether through attendance boundaries created to protect affluent white “public” schools or “segregation academies” in the private sector.. Public and private schools alike should embrace the principle that any student is welcome to apply for a fair shot at enrollment, regardless of where they lay down their head at night.

Second, just as families deserve fair access to publicly-funded schools, they should also not be forced to enroll their children at schools they view as harmful. Accordingly, policymakers must ensure that religious schools are not the only option available to families. No family should be effectively required to enroll their child at a school that violates their family’s religious beliefs. This is of greatest concern in rural areas, where the geographic density of students may not support multiple school operators. States could consider population density minimums or market share caps for private school operators to receive public subsidy in a given area.  Continue reading