Tag Archives: equity

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.

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We Don’t Know What the Superintendency Looks Like, and That’s a Problem.

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

We’ve talked a lot this week about the teacher pipeline. My colleagues have dug into issues like innate inequities in teacher hiring and the retention of high-performing teachers. There’s absolutely work to be done to ensure districts recruit, train, and retain high-quality educators, and we’re able to ground these efforts in demographic data, with insight into teacher and principal demographics from the Department of Education’s National Center on Education Statistics’ Schools and Staffing Survey. As we make efforts to diversify and expand our teacher pipeline, it’s valuable to know what our current teacher workforce looks like, especially on a state-by-state level.

First graders answer questions for a project about bees. Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

What we don’t have though, is reliable, state-level data on school superintendent demographics. While we look to improve teacher pipelines, we should not ignore leadership pipelines. And if we don’t know what our existing superintendent pool looks like, it can be challenging to determine how or even if that network could be expanded.

The American Association of School Administrators prints an annual Salary and Benefits Study, which includes survey data capturing school leader demographics. Unfortunately, the survey’s 15 percent response rate prevents it from being truly representative. While we can make broad estimates about the country’s 13,674 districts and their respective leaders based on national figures, there is not, to my knowledge, a publicly available data set of state-level superintendent demographics across race and gender. Anyone know of such a set? I’d love to talk: kirsten.schmitz@bellwethereducation.org.

These roles are powerful, and representation matters. If we can’t analyze broad trends in school leadership at the state level, we miss opportunities to highlight states with diverse administrators, as well as those which may benefit from targeted outreach and recommendations. The same questions we ask about educator diversity — like “is our teacher workforce representative of our student population?” — can be applied to superintendents. We could further answer equity questions around wage gaps, mentoring, and access to leadership opportunities. And finally, as several of the nation’s largest school districts scramble to appoint new superintendents from a finite applicant pool, this field landscaping work becomes especially valuable.

We can and should work to improve our teacher pipeline. But we should also strive to know more about our school leaders. Knowing where we stand is the baseline first step, and it shouldn’t be this challenging to get there.

The Black Teacher Pipeline Is Clogged by Decades of Discrimination. Here’s How to Fix It.

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

For too long, schools have subliminally communicated an insidious message to black students: careers in education are not for you. As student diversity grows, only 20 percent of teachers nationally are of color, and numbers of black educators are swiftly declining in large urban school districts. When students of color graduate from college, less than 20% of them hold degrees in education. Honestly, I’m not surprised: Why would an educated, successful black person choose to enter a profession that has demonstrated systematic racism toward them for more than sixty years?

It hasn’t always been this way. Before the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, black teachers taught black students in black schools. There were tens of thousands of black teachers and principals, particularly across the South. But when schools were integrated, a large portion of black educators lost their jobs (an issue which made it to the Supreme Court with Brooks v. Moberly in 1959). As schools became less segregated for children, the teaching profession became more so. This was no accident: school districts systematically excluded black teachers, firing them en masse after integration, setting them up for failure in newly-integrated schools, and, over time, hiring them at slower rates than their white peers.

While this history is little-known, it’s not shocking. The same racism that drove slavery and Jim Crow dictated that it would be impossible for black teachers to preside over classrooms that included white students. The thought of a black adult facilitating any child’s learning was, well, unthinkable.

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

Having a teacher of color as a classroom leader matters for all kids. It’s important that the education workforce looks like our nation’s student body, and recent research shows having a same-race teacher improves academic outcomes for black students. Moreover, all students report feeling more academically motivated, more supported, and more cared for by their teachers of color than by their white teachers.

Attracting black teachers is no simple task. Here are three ways states and districts might begin turning the tide against decades of discrimination and bias:

1. Codify equitable and inclusive hiring practices

Early in my own teaching career, I taught in a small, rural school district. At a meeting for new teachers, I asked the superintendent if she might connect me with other teachers of color in the district, as I had noticed that I was the only one at my school. She laughed uncomfortably, explaining “that people like that” didn’t apply for jobs in the district. Her response haunted me: she didn’t seem concerned by the dearth of diverse educators, and if there were a problem, it certainly wasn’t the district’s fault. Though there were a significant number of students of color in the schools she led, there was no ownership of the fact that teachers of color clearly found the district undesirable, and there was no urgency or sense of responsibility to change that situation.

The good news is that when districts make efforts to reduce discrimination and bias in their hiring practices, it works. A teacher desegregation court order enforced in Louisiana in 2010 not only reduced the “representation gap” between black students and black teachers, but also improved academic outcomes for black students.

It doesn’t have to take a court order to see results like these. Instead of lamenting the fact that black teachers don’t apply in their districts, or simply wishing that their teaching ranks were more diverse, districts could codify equitable and inclusive hiring practices that emphasize a bias toward teacher diversity. When possible, districts should commit to filling open teaching positions with qualified teachers of color until the racial composition of teachers mirrors the racial composition of students.

2. Remove the barriers to teaching that disproportionately affect people of color

For equitable and inclusive hiring practices to work, of course, districts need to have diverse teaching applicants. The problem is that barriers to entering the teaching profession disproportionately affect people of color. College is becoming increasingly expensive, and that burden rests more heavily on the shoulders of black and brown students than on their white peers. Further compounding the problem, teacher licensure exams are unfairly biased against potential teachers of color.

States might address this problem in a couple of ways — first, by offering full tuition reimbursement or student loan repayment for teachers of color who commit to teaching long-term. States might also consider approving more non-traditional routes to certification, like streamlining the pathway to teaching for paraeducators and other school-level, non-certified staff.

Suburban and rural districts, which are less likely to employ teachers of color and more likely to face overall teaching shortages, might consider more drastic measures, like teacher residencies to prepare diverse candidates, pay advances for recent college graduates, commuter subsidies, and leadership roles that recognize and leverage a teacher of color’s expertise.

3, Craft a new narrative around teaching for students of color

I don’t recall having a single same-race teacher before I went to college, and until then, I never considered the teaching profession as a potential career option. My childhood experiences told me that teachers aren’t black. Presumably, this is the case for many students of color.

Commonly mentioned strategies to ameliorate that problem are programs like Educators Rising, which seek to increase the number of “home-grown” teachers by inspiring and developing a passion for teaching at a young age. But for this effort to most effectively engage students of color, teachers of color must be working in schools and in these programs.

There are a myriad of reasons that students of color don’t go on to be teachers. The fact that they never had a teacher of color simply should not be one.

States and districts have an opportunity to craft a new narrative for the students of color they serve: that teaching is a profession not only open to them, but ideal for them. Education professions offer unparalleled opportunities to positively impact children, and for teachers of color, those opportunities are even more robust. By pairing an emphasis on community service and potential impact with fair hiring practices and financial incentives, states and districts might be able to turn the tide on decades of exclusionary practices toward teachers of color.

The pipeline for black teachers is dangerously narrow, clogged with decades of discrimination, bias, and apathy. That pipeline can and must be fixed, though, or states and districts risk negating their progress toward closing achievement gaps and improving learning and life outcomes for all students. Failing to attract teachers of color fails all children.

High School Sucks for Many Queer Youth — I Was Lucky

photograph of author Jeremy Knight in high school

photo courtesy of the author

The common narrative is that for many queer-identified people, high school is a time of awkwardness, isolation, or fear. As young queer people come into their own identities and expressions, they navigate building supporting friendships while being true to themselves, and may even experience taunting or violence.

But during those years which most of my queer friends bemoan, I actually flourished.

Sure, coming out is difficult, and it’s particularly difficult as a black man. There were very few public examples of queer identity, same-sex love, and men bucking traditional forms of masculinity, especially ones that included men of Caribbean descent like myself.

But as I came out during my sophomore year in high school, I actually found solace in school. Antithetical to the schoolyard bullying that many face, all of my teachers, administrators, and peers loved me for who I was. Business went on as usual — I still got parts in our theater productions, kept all my friends, managed to date, and was even elected student body president. All without issue. And, importantly, all while getting a rigorous education.

I owe a lot of that to my environment — I spent my middle and high school years in a pretty racially mixed, middle-class suburb outside of Atlanta after spending my early years in a black, working class community in the city. My mother moved us to the suburbs because the schools I was zoned for were notoriously dangerous and had poor academics. Even in elementary school, I had instances with teachers questioning my academic ability.

Had I stayed in the schools I was zoned for in Atlanta, my story would likely be very different. It’s hard for me to imagine getting the same emotional and academic support.

I owe a lot to my high school teachers and administrators. They created a school environment that felt safe, inclusive, joyful, and deeply rooted in strong academics. It was this environment that encouraged me to think about pursuing a career in education. When I got to college, I began taking a few education courses and joined Students for Education Reform, a student organizing group advocating for better K-12 schools, and realized policy and advocacy could be an avenue to make large-scale changes that affect more than one school building. After graduating, I led and supported successful campaigns to raise teacher pay in North Carolina, elect a school board member in Los Angeles, and get better supports for English language learners in Massachusetts.

This passion started because I wanted to help design a school that was as supportive and enriching as my school in the suburbs — but for kids in neighborhoods like mine in Atlanta. I want a world where black kids can be challenged, supported, and realize their limitless potential in a loving school community — no matter what identities, interests, or experiences they bring into the classroom. I’m encouraged by the progress major urban districts have made this past decade, and look forward to the next generation of young, queer school advocates who will continue to lead with equity and intersectionality in mind.

Pay Gaps in Education are Bad. Pensions Make Them Worse.

Education, as a field, isn’t supposed to have pay gaps. In the vast majority of school districts, salaries are determined by uniform salary schedules based on educators’ years of experience and educational attainment. This policy should, at least in theory, guard against gender- or race-based salary inequities.

Sadly, pay gaps persist. In a new report, we studied Illinois’ educator data and found that women, regardless of experience level, earn markedly lower salaries than their male peers. As shown in the graph below, gender-based salary gaps begin in educators’ first year and increase until an educator reaches her 30th year of service.

As we show in the paper, these gaps also persist into retirement. For example, a teacher first becomes eligible for a pension after working for ten years in Illinois. At that point in their career, women’s average salary is $8,000 less than their male colleagues. This salary gap translates in a $2,100 disparity in annual pension benefits. And that pension inequity continues to grow each year. After working 30 years, a common retirement age, male educators get an average pension that is $8,000 more valuable than the average pension women receive. That is $8,000 less per year. After 10 years in retirement, men will have amassed an additional $80,000 in retirement benefits.

In short, salary schedules fail to sufficiently guard the education field against large and persistent gaps in salary and retirement benefits.

To learn more about gender-and race-based inequities in salaries and pensions, read the full report, here.