Much of the initial response to Robert’s new book, "How The Other Half Learns," has focused on the winnowing effects of Success Academy’s enrollment process, which ensures that the children of only the most committed parents enroll and persist. But that’s just the start of the story. You have to look at what parent buy-in actually buys: a school culture that drives student achievement, and which can only be achieved when parents are active participants, not unwilling conscripts.
How personalized learning enthusiasts can ensure they aren’t lowering the bar for the kids who are behind
Much of the initial response to my new book about Success Academy has focused on the role parent self-selection plays in the charter school network’s astonishing—and astonishingly consistent—results. Given that I wrote an essay about the critical role parents play for the Wall Street Journal, I can’t complain about that takeaway. But there’s more to the story, and it’s incorrect to attribute Success Academy’s outcomes merely to the families it serves. It’s equally important to look at what parent buy-in actually buys: a coherent, energetic, and unusually consistent school culture that drives student achievement, and which can only be achieved when parents are active participants, not unwilling conscripts
The clearest insight into Success Academy’s culture and performance predates the network’s founding. In 2002, Nobel Prize–winning economist George A. Akerlof and his colleague Rachel E. Kranton published a paper titled “Identity and Schooling: Some Lessons for the Economics of Education” in the Journal of Economic Literature. They observed that schools not only impart skills; they also impart an image of ideal students, their characteristics, and their behaviors. “School rituals—pep rallies, homeroom announcements, assemblies—and day-to-day interactions in classrooms, hallways, and gymnasiums reveal the nature of this ideal. Teachers, administrators, and coaches praise and reward some students, while they disapprove of and punish others. These features and occasions define what we call a school’s social category and its ideal student. Students with backgrounds similar to this category readily identify with the school. Others, however, do not fit in easily,” they wrote.
Akerlof and Kranton’s point, which reaches full flower at Success Academy, is that you have to establish and promote a culture of achievement and inspire a critical mass of students to embrace it. “If you’re able to get a majority of the students to buy into it, it becomes self-perpetuating, because young people like to fit in,” explains Patrick Wolf, an education policy professor at the University of Arkansas, who introduced me to Akerlof and Kranton’s work. “Even if a student is not oriented toward valuing achievement, if they enter a school in which that’s the dominant culture, they will accommodate themselves to it.”
Success Academy’s culture is unusually clear and consistent. It offers an unmistakable vision of who students are expected to be and why it matters. Ensuring that a child’s parents are on board and equally committed at home magnifies the effect. And it stands in sharp relief to the neighborhood schools that their students would otherwise attend, where staff are more likely to be advised to “choose your battles wisely” rather than to “sweat the small stuff.”
If you accept the idea that school culture can be a significant driver of student outcomes, even the primary one, it leads to an uncomfortable conundrum for education policymakers. The ability to “control for culture” is baked into the opportunities afforded the children of affluent Americans. If you are reasonably well-off and want your child to go to school surrounded by peers who take school seriously, behave well in class, care about their grades, put forth significant effort, and have parents who are as engaged and invested as you are, you have your choice of private or public schools in higher-income zip codes that offer gifted programs and Advanced Placement classes. It is challenging but not insurmountably difficult to steer your child into a productive learning environment alongside equally motivated peers who embrace an academic identity. Most pertinently, your right to self-select and pursue an excellent education for your child is unquestioned and unremarkable.
If you are a similarly-minded parent, but without the means to pay your way out of a chaotic or poor-performing neighborhood school, your options are limited. Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz understands better than most the connections between school culture, parental buy-in, and student outcomes.
You can take a cynical view of this, and many do, believing Moskowitz “creams” parents to make herself look good and to shame neighborhood schools and the teachers union. Or a more generous one: Moskowitz alone among major ed reform figure understands that school culture is essential, must be established, nurtured, and zealously protected—and nothing is more deleterious to those efforts than families who are less than fully committed. I embedded in Success Academy to see for myself and make up my own mind based on what I saw, not on what critics or cheerleaders insist. Even though Success makes some instructional and curricular decisions that I might not make, on the whole what I saw was a school culture that appeared to be working well for the majority of children. It’s worth dwelling on how it feels and the signals it sends to children.
To put it mildly, the historic relationship between low-income children of color and schools in the United States has not been a good one. If you are black or brown and poor, particularly in a large city, school is the place where, as often as not, you learn the low regard in which you are held. The message you often receive is that you are not very capable and not much is demanded of you. The relationship between communities of color and schools has been characterized by some combination of low expectations, failure, and coercion, often tinged with racism, either tacit or overt. We have warehoused generations of children of color in our schools, given them little, and asked for even less in return.
What I was saw at Success Academy—what felt different, powerful, and potentially enduring—was a consistent pattern of high expectations, warmth, and encouragement. Tough love, to be sure, but focused on specific and measurable outcomes. The engagement of the teachers I spent a year observing was personal, authentic, and intense. Whether they could articulate it or not, the children under their care surely sense the investment their teachers have in them and in their success. Frustrated by my inability to name this quality, let alone quantify it, I started referring to it offhandedly as the “GAS Factor.” GAS stands for (forgive the indelicacy) “give a shit.” It describes the signals communicated to children by their school that there are adults in their life outside their immediate family who are invested in them, view them as capable, and expect much from them and for them.
Educators and scholars often fret about whether schools pay sufficient attention to developing students’ civic engagement. It is seldom observed that schools are not where children go to learn civic engagement, but to experience it, to feel the effects of the civic engagement in their community. This is the “hidden curriculum,” the unwritten, unofficial, and often-unintended lessons, values, and perspectives that students absorb. If you are a child, you see it in the interest teachers take in you and the signals that your education is important and leads to some meaningful end. You are not just in school marking time and filling a seat. School matters. You matter. Your teachers aren’t punching a clock and cashing their paychecks. They give a shit. By extension—since teachers act on behalf of the state and society, which authorizes and administers the vast majority of our schools—so does your country.
Empathy is part of the GAS factor, but only a part. Highly effective teachers care deeply about their students, but so do a lot of highly ineffective teachers. “They won’t care what you know until they know that you care” goes an expression repeated endlessly to new teachers. The advice, like so much about education, is offered in earnest. But it is easy for this kindly bromide to mutate into low expectations, even condescension. How can we expect a child to pass algebra when he’s hungry? How can I ask this teenager to do her homework when her mother works nights and she’s responsible for her younger siblings? Why should we expect children to read and understand Shakespeare when it’s so far removed from their lives, interests, and personal experience? How can I expect this student to behave like the other kids, given the trauma he’s endured at home and in this neighborhood? The brand of tough love practiced at Success may not be for everyone, but it is authentic and effective. When you are surrounded by adults who are clearly invested in your success, who do not assume your inevitable failure or condescend because they perceive you as less than or other, who do not dwell on your deficits or perceive you as oppressed or a victim, you are pointed in a different direction in life.
But why standardized tests? Why not art, music, writing, or a student’s personal passions? Why must a reading or math exam be the referendum for a child’s relationship with their school? It needn’t be, of course, and I have written elsewhere at length about the deleterious effects of testing and test prep. But in this context, there is something powerful about an objective measure of achievement. It is one thing when your mother or teacher expresses pride in your accomplishments. It is quite another when the State of New York tells you that your performance equals or exceeds anyone’s in the state.
Consider for a moment how this experience must feel to a low-income child of color at Success Academy, surrounded by adults who seem deeply invested in him and his test scores. You get pushed and encouraged with “attack strategies,” positive reinforcement, and, yes, a megadose of test prep. There are phone calls from your teacher, often nightly; handwritten notes of encouragement from your principal or your teacher from last year; and pep rallies, prizes, and effort parties. No attempt is made to suggest that the bar is low and the test is easy. Quite the opposite. The bar is high. You are given a challenging task by supportive adults, pushed, prodded, cajoled for months, and told, “You can do this!”
And then you actually do it.
Even more powerfully, you are part of a school community where nearly all your friends do just as well you, and all your friends’ parents value education every bit as much as your own do. It’s not possible to overstate the astonishing normalizing power of this school culture or the degree to which it is at odds with the school experience of the majority of low-income children of color in the United States of America of a place called a school. One cannot be blithe about it, or cynical.
It is nearly inconceivable that a school could create or sustain this kind of school culture—or any well-articulated and coherent culture—in the absence of parents making a clear-eyed decision to sign up for it and vote with their feet. If school culture and parental buy-in is what differentiates successful schools from less successful schools, if we prevent low-income black and brown parents, and only those parents, from self-selecting into productive school cultures that fit their desired “social category and ideal,” we are functionally imposing mediocrity on those families—and only those families. If we want to start unwinding and correcting the chronic and persistent underperformance of schools serving low-SES Americans, let’s start there.
This essay is adapted from How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, And The Battle Over School Choice (Avery, 2019, $27, 384 pages), by Robert Pondiscio, where portions of it originally appeared.
What if you were told that elementary schools in the United States are teaching children to be poor readers? Last month, Emily Hanford did exactly that with the release of her radio documentary “At a Loss for Words: How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers.” A follow up to her award-winning exposé on the science of reading, it goes a step further by calling attention to an inconvenient truth that something is rotten in the world of reading instruction.
In her fifty-three-minute tour de force, Hanford argues that teachers continue to be kept in the dark on reading science, and leads listeners towards a Matrix-like reveal of how bad teaching practices and classroom materials remain deeply embedded in our schools. The documentary opens with a moving account of Molly Woodworth, an otherwise successful student who struggled to read as a kid. Woodworth learned to hide and cope with her predicament, but her difficulties as a child led to a resolve to make sure her own children wouldn’t suffer the same hardships. It was a shock then when Woodworth—while volunteering in her daughter’s kindergarten classroom—observed how children were being taught to read:
The teacher said, “If you don’t know the word, just look at this picture up here,” Woodworth recalled. “There was a fox and a bear in the picture. And the word was bear, and she said, ‘Look at the first letter. It’s a “b.” Is it fox or bear?’”
Woodworth was stunned. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, those are my strategies.’ Those are the things I taught myself to look like a good reader, not the things that good readers do,” she said. “These kids were being taught my dirty little secrets.”
The teacher was following the curriculum, and in all likelihood meant well and was unaware and unschooled in how the strategies she was using were disproven and debunked decades ago. According to Hanford, this flawed approach is driving the way many children are being taught to read across the country. She’s probably right, but there’s no way to know for sure, given the anemic amount of data available on instructional materials.
Nevertheless, I decided to try a little experiment—albeit a highly unscientific one—with regard to my own daughter, who will be entering kindergarten next year. Here in Colorado, full-day kindergarten recently became tuition free. The move coincided with some recent scouting of local public schools, and a couple of weeks ago I toured what is considered one of the best in the area. As my colleague Robert Pondiscio wrote, “If you are a well-off parent who wants a safe, structured, academically rigorous school, and you wish your child to attend school alongside the children of like-minded parents, it is not insurmountably difficult to get it.” This school categorically fit the bill.
Upon arrival, I was told how project-based learning is a focus across the school. I was shown a music room chock full of guitars and keyboards, as well as a Chinese classroom where the teacher shared her passion for the language, cuisine, and culture. I also had a chance to observe each of the school’s kindergarten classrooms, where students were busy swiping away on iPads or otherwise working at small group activities. A feeling of joy, care, and purpose was palpable. At first blush, the school lived up to its sterling reputation, but a moment of truth was to be delivered when one of the kindergarten teachers asked if I had any questions. My response: “How do you teach reading?”
The teacher smiled and proudly explained how she used guided reading and leveled books—an instructional method highlighted by Hanford that causes problems for children learning how to read—to “meet the needs of each child.” She proceeded to invoke Lucy Calkins, an author whose methods have been largely invalidated, followed soon thereafter with those two dreaded words: “balanced literacy,” an anodyne-sounding approach that belies its complicity in preventing kids from becoming skilled readers. All of this was ostensibly in service of addressing the multiple “learning styles” of children. Another parent on the tour with me liked what he heard and nodded affirmingly. I was crestfallen.
However, as I looked around the room full of the progeny of affluent and well-educated families, and considered what I had just heard alongside Hanford’s outstanding reporting, it occurred to me that almost all of the students at that school were part of the 40 percent whom researchers estimate will learn to read no matter how they’re taught. To wit, in an endeavor that risks exposing me as a total nerd, I’ve almost finished taking my four-year-old through Zig Engelmann’s Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, the abbreviated version of an acclaimed evidence-based reading program. My daughter is flourishing and reading fluently. But for her and many of the children I saw that day, their success at reading will be in spite of the instruction they receive in school, not because of it. And kids who aren’t lucky enough to have parents with the time and expertise to teach them how to read will continue to be left behind.
On national reading tests, almost two-thirds of American students score below the proficient level. More tragically, almost half of African American and Hispanic fourth graders still score below NAEP’s basic level in reading. Hanford’s latest documentary keeps the momentum going on an important national conversation about curriculum reform and how our nation’s children are (or aren’t) being taught to read. OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma is expected to file for bankruptcy, but Heinemann, the purveyor of the misbegotten reading products dominating the education market today, continues to rake in north of $500 million annually. The lack of accountability can be infuriating, but Hanford’s meticulous spotlight on the evidence could be the first step in beginning to turn the tide.
How personalized learning enthusiasts can ensure they aren’t lowering the bar for the kids who are behind
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts looking at how two school networks—Rocketship Public Schools and Wildflower Schools—enable their students to master standards at their own pace. See the first post here.
Last week I argued that one of the greatest challenges facing elementary educators is the vast gulf in readiness levels between their high- and low-achieving students. Some kids enter first grade ready for Diary of a Wimpy Kid, if not Harry Potter, while others are still sounding out their letters. We looked at how two very different school models—Rocketship and Wildflower—cope.
This week we go deeper into how these schools ensure that their lowest-performing kids don’t fall further behind. That’s an essential objective for any school, but it’s a particular concern in the personalized-learning world. That’s because some skeptics have insisted that by focusing instruction on the current level of struggling students, educators might inadvertently impede them from making progress and catching up.
For example, after the release of last year’s blockbuster report, The Opportunity Myth, TNTP’s Amanda Kocon urged schools to make sure every student was spending at least half of their time on grade-level content:
Students don’t need assignments to be grade-appropriate 100 percent of the time—or even three-quarters of the time. In fact, in the very best classrooms we observed in The Opportunity Myth, students spent roughly half of their time on grade-appropriate assignments, and that made a real difference—about six months of additional learning for kids who started the year behind—relative to classrooms where students had those opportunities less often. That still leaves plenty of time for intentionally designed remediation, for tapping into student’s individual interests and strengths to guide the arc of their learning, and for making sure students’ experiences in school leave them feeling successful and proud.
And of course the Common Core standards stress the importance of students reading books with appropriately demanding “text complexity,” rather than spending all of their time with “just right” texts at their current reading levels.
So how do Rocketship and Wildflower thread this needle for their low-performing students—meeting them where they are while helping them stretch to master grade level content? Let’s find out.
Wildflower’s Matthew Kramer:
Those of us in the Montessori world, and at Wildflower, don’t think of the curriculum as one long scope and sequence to be worked through linearly. We think of curriculum as a spiraling, branching way of organizing skills and knowledge—where students find different things easier and harder and more and less interesting at particular moments in time, or over longer periods. This can lead to the situation of a child being “behind” state standards in a given area, sometimes for trivial reasons (e.g., the student has yet to learn a particular geography topic), and sometimes for very important reasons (e.g., undiagnosed dyslexia leads to accumulated struggles with reading and writing). We also don’t think of childhood as a long, undifferentiated teaching and learning opportunity. As modern neuroscience research has demonstrated, children go through periods of special sensitivity and openness to particular types of input and learning.
We aim to leverage the natural energy that exists in children to follow their passions as the primary fuel for student learning and development, but we also recognize that there are times when a more direct intervention model is needed. For example, in a Montessori environment, when sensitive periods for language acquisition and touch end between six and seven years old, children are much less likely to spontaneously be drawn into reading and writing. Once that happens, it’s the teacher’s (we call ours Guides) role to create a highly structured, direct instruction program focused on phonics—generally delivered in short, fifteen-minute bursts sprinkled throughout each day, where most time is still spent focused on a child’s interests. Over the years, Montessorians have borrowed intervention programs developed in other environments (e.g., Orton-Gillingham for reading) and developed their own interventions that typically involve using the manipulatives in more teacher-directed, structured ways.
This approach to curriculum causes the notion of being ahead or behind to be much less salient. As a Montessori child and parent myself, I have appreciated the way Montessori classrooms are more collaborative and less competitive than traditional classrooms. There is less focus on getting good grades and figuring out your class rank. That doesn’t mean that kids are protected from reality about things they are learning quickly or struggling with; the environment seeks to use reality as a tool for reflection in many important ways, and materials are self-correcting so that feedback is built into nearly everything. It just means that we don’t seek to roll things up into broad summative judgments. We don’t need to go from “long division is interesting and I like it and I’m good at it” to “I’m good at math” and certainly not to “I’m smart.” That chain of inference isn’t very helpful, as Carol Dweck’s work on fixed versus growth mindsets has made clear.
Instead, we encourage children to find the things that spark their passions, dig into them deeply with the structured support of the Montessori curricular framework, and think of their classmates as a group of fellow human beings who also have passions, strengths, areas that don’t come easily, etc. One person whom I went to school with thirty-five years ago, who subsequently became a Montessori teacher and administrator, recently said to me that the first time he realized there were “smart” and “dumb” kids was when he switched to a traditional college prep high school environment. Up to that point, the other kids in the class were just kids. He didn’t realize that evaluating each other and ranking the group by aggregate smartness was a thing. I think that’s a beautiful sentiment.
Rocketship’s Preston Smith:
Twelve years of experience has confirmed our belief that it is critical to meet students where they are and help them rapidly grow up to and above grade level. If a child is behind, giving them solely grade-level content is not necessarily the best solution, as they cannot access that content. Similarly, if a child is ahead, giving them solely grade-level content can often lead to boredom and disruptive behaviors.
Our model has proven effective for all types of students, helping children of all abilities grow and succeed. We set high expectations for all students, regardless of where they start academically. As a parent of two Rocketeers, I have personally witnessed the benefits of purposeful differentiation and personalization for each of my kids. Our mission to eliminate the achievement gap compels us to serve students who are most at risk of falling behind their college bound classmates. Eighty-plus percent of our students are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged, with some schools seeing up to 30 percent of pupils classified as homeless. Many Rocketeers have experienced PTSD and trauma, such as depression, anxiety, and lack of trust, causing short- and long-term challenges to their learning and physical and mental health. We also accept students in all grades at all times of every school year, so we have many children coming in mid-year or mid-elementary school. All of this adds up to many Rocketeers starting the school year more than one grade level behind or at vastly different academic levels. Therefore, there is quite a lot of ground to make up to get our Rocketeers to grade level and beyond, so we have focused our model on making sure we can get our kids from behind to ahead instead of stuck working on material not at their mastery level.
We’ve accomplished this through a more flexible approach to curricula and instruction than other schools. Our model is built upon using different learning modalities in order to meet the unique needs of each student. Our Rocketeers move throughout the day, week, and school year from large to small group to even one-on-one instruction, based on academic data that indicate their level and need. Our ability to rapidly utilize student achievement data indicating content mastery (regardless of grade level) allows us to quickly and accurately discern where our Rocketeers are excelling and where they need more practice. Data are reviewed and used to adjust work plans on daily and weekly bases, ensuring that our Rocketeers are meaningfully engaged in a flexible learning environment that best allows them to master content and skills.
We know that this approach and flexibility of groupings and content in the classroom is working, as our Rocketeers progressed an average of 1.36 years in math last year (as measured by the nationally-normed NWEA MAP), which means that in just one school year they learn an entire year’s worth of material and skills, plus 36 percent of an additional grade level’s content. So a student who comes in far behind stacks this success year over year to rapidly close that grade-level gap. Last year alone, over 2,100 Rocketeers made the leap from behind grade level to ahead in at least one academic subject.
This approach to instruction and learning at Rocketship means that grades are not the driving force for our Rocketeers and families. Rather, parents and students are intimately aware of their personalized goals on various indicators like STEP, NWEA, their online learning programs, and more. Our Rocketeer’s success is not determined or judged based on subjective means or grades, but rather personalized goals that grant our parents and students greater agency to succeed and thrive. In addition to greater ownership, it makes success and progress more visible for all of our Rocketeers, which better enables their growth mindset and engagement in school.
Through regular analysis of student work and assessment data, we are able to ensure that our Rocketeers are not falling further behind, but rather are making the level of progress necessary to return to grade level. In addition, our advanced Rocketeers are exposed to content that challenges them at their level, and they are supported to continue to accelerate their learning above and beyond their grade level. This instructional approach enables us to best serve all students and, in the process, enable our Rocketeers to more rapidly eliminate their achievement gaps.
A new study by Matt S. Giani, Paul Attewell, and David Walling uses unemployment insurance data from 2015 to estimate the effect of completing some college on labor market outcomes of more than 200,000 Texas students who graduated high school in in the year 2000. Unlike most studies, which compare college non-completers to completers, this one compares non-completers to students who didn’t enroll in college to begin with. And the size of the sample allows the authors to explore differences based on students’ economic background, race, gender, and the type of institution (two-year or four-year).
Overall, they find that attending some college but not graduating boosts employment by roughly 20 percentage points and earnings by 6 percent after fifteen years. Moreover, the employment benefit from having some college seems to be greater for historically underrepresented groups. For example, going to but not completing a four-year college is associated with a 13.2 percent increase in earnings for women, but just a 2.6 percent increase for men. Similarly, “non-disadvantaged students who attend four-year colleges short of a credential receive almost no increase in earnings, whereas disadvantaged non-completing students receive a 22.6 percent increase in earnings.”
In addition to these findings, the authors also highlight two results that are arguably counterintuitive.
First, among “non-completers at four-year institutions,” only the first one to twelve credits were associated with a significant increase in earnings—meaning there were no additional benefits for students who earned more credits (but no degree). As the authors note, this suggests that “the simple act of enrolling in college is a strong signal to the labor market, even before students have accumulated significantly more human capital.” However, another potential implication is that college is mostly a signal, meaning that human capital isn’t really accumulating at all.
Second and even less intuitively, the benefits of “some community college” seem to be larger than the benefits of “some four-year college,” especially for certain groups. This finding points towards what is arguably the most important insight in the paper, which is the generally underappreciated extent to which signals are “contextual.” As the authors put it:
A bachelor’s degree in a specific field from a specific college or university could be a positive signal for certain job opportunities and a negative signal for others. Similarly, college attendance without completion could be a positive signal for some job opportunities and a negative signal for others.
Based on their findings, the authors argue for “a conceptual shift away from the notion of ‘the college dropout’ as failure or wasted effort and toward an appreciation of the practical utility of ‘some college’ for many students.” In other words, perhaps we’re spending too much time worrying about students as opposed to institutions. Or to put it in even more plainly, perhaps the fundamental problem isn’t “college non-completion” so much as it’s the increasingly watered-down nature of the college experience.
After all, if you really do get points for trying, it makes even less sense to let everyone win.
SOURCE: Matt S. Giani, Paul Attewell, and David Walling, “The Value of an Incomplete Degree: Heterogeneity in the Labor Market Benefits of College Non-Completion,” The Journal of Higher Education (August 2019).
Bellwether Education Partners, long interested in the improvement of school transportation systems, released no less than three papers on the topic this summer. One of them, “Intersection Ahead,” looks at choice-based racial integration efforts through a transportation lens.
School choice efforts such as charters and vouchers are still a long way from fulfilling their primary purpose—increasing the number of quality school seats for the neediest underserved students—but authors Phillip Burgoyne-Allen, Bonnie O’Keefe, and Jennifer O’Neal Schiess focus specifically on schools of choice designed with another purpose: reducing racial segregation in their cities. They provide three case studies—a magnet system in North Carolina, a “diverse-by-design” charter network in Kansas, and a “controlled choice” model in Kentucky. For each, the authors explain the myriad ways that leaders are trying to facilitate more integrated classrooms, and the many challenges they’re facing. One of biggest issues, and the focus of the paper, is how to effectively and efficiently get prospective or enrolled students to the schools they want to attend. This is an issue for all schools of choice that are trying to achieve any positive end.
Magnet schools enroll students in specialized programs—be it math, science, art, etc.—from larger geographies than traditional school assignment zones, either serving an entire district or multiple districts in a region, with entry often via lottery. The breadth of geographic coverage, and often the quality of magnet schools, ensure that they are attractive to a wide cross-section of students. Some magnets, like the system in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools profiled in one case study, have been engineered specifically to boost integration. Admission, for example, hinges on an index comprising five socioeconomic indicators: household income, educational attainment, English being spoken in the home, homeownership, and single versus multi-adult households. And based on the existing diversity of a magnet school, priority for new admissions is given to students at whatever indicator levels are needed to maintain the desired diversity level. Because these systems exist in tandem with more traditional assignment zone schools, districts must literally drive far and wide to meet students’ needs. Mitigating efforts like staggered bell schedules and efficient pickup locations can help, the report says. But costly and time-intensive routes seem mostly unavoidable, and therefore hamper magnets’ contribution to integration.
The second case study covers Crossroads Charter Schools in Kansas City, Missouri, which are “diverse-by-design,” meaning they’re committed to student diversity in their mission and have achieved a certain level of diversity within their actual enrollment. Location decisions, when those can be controlled, can assist greatly in achieving a charter’s mission of diversity, but can often wreak havoc with transportation. The Crossroads schools are located in a downtown area where space was available but population density remains low. Getting any students to simply attend, let alone a diverse group of them, required the school to create its own transportation network from the start via fundraising and partnerships with other charters. But ultimately, the students bore the cost of increased diversity, not the schools. “The reality is that the low-income student across town has to wake up earlier and catch the bus, whereas a more affluent student closer to our schools might have a parent drive them and get an extra hour of sleep,” said Courtney Hughley, chief operating officer at Crossroads. As with the aforementioned magnet systems, there are ways to mitigate these effects, but they’re largely unavoidable as long as children live far from the schools they want to attend.
The final case study is of the “controlled choice” model in Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) in Louisville, Kentucky. The populous and sprawling district has several large school-assignment zones. Residents can only attend schools in their zone, but each has a number of school choices—especially at the elementary level. Individual schools have a “diversity index” that includes average household income, racial breakdown, and family educational attainment. Families rank their choices and are assigned based on those rankings and how their attendance would affect a school’s diversity index. The transportation requirements are, obviously, enormous. JCPS provides all transportation and employs a “depot model,” wherein many students must travel to transfer points and change buses daily to and from school. Without it, the district’s school choice system and diversity efforts would not work. Data show that JCPS’s transportation is more efficient overall than its description might suggest, but much of that financial efficiency rests on the sacrifices of the youngest students in the district—elementary students who must travel farthest and transfer twice each day. Throw in fog, snow, or rain, and those real “costs” surely become apparent.
The key recommendations from the Bellwether—adequate and equitable funding; innovation, planning, and technology; and partnerships among districts, charters, and other community organizations supporting families—make sense. They’d generally make any transportation system more efficient. But a well-funded and cost-effective school transportation system—even one that leads to increases in quality and integration—that requires poor kids to wake up before dawn, transfer buses, and ride for two hours is not a win for families. They’re bearing most of the costs. A better system would include a collection of good schools near every child from which families could choose. But until we achieve that, “efficient” school transportation may, sadly, be the best we can do.
SOURCE: Phillip Burgoyne-Allen, Bonnie O’Keefe, and Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, “Intersection Ahead: School Transportation, School Integration, and School Choice,” Bellwether Education Partners (August 2019).
On this week’s podcast, Patrick Corvington, executive director of DC School Reform Now, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to offer advice on how parents can play a role in improving their kids’ schools. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines the academic effects of early interventions for children born at a low birth-weight.
Amber’s Research Minute
Eric Chyn et al., “The Returns to Early-life Interventions for Very Low Birth Weight Children,” National Bureau of Economic Research (August 2019).