By Michael J. Petrilli
The controversy brewing over Obama-era school discipline policy has all the makings of a polarizing debate. For progressives, it taps into deeply held beliefs about fairness and justice. And for conservatives, it taps into deeply held beliefs about order and safety. Throw in race, Donald Trump, and Betsy DeVos, and you have a potentially toxic stew.
That’s a shame because this is an issue that desperately needs pragmatism and a good-spirited search for common ground. Let me propose how we might find it.
First a little background: In 2014, the Department of Education and Department of Justice published a “dear colleague” letter addressing discipline disparities by race and special education status in public schools. It was lauded by civil rights groups—and bemoaned by conservatives—for applying “disparate impact theory” to the issue of school discipline. In effect, it said that districts could be investigated for violating students’ civil rights if data collected by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights showed significant disproportionality—as would happen when, for example, African Americans were suspended by their schools at higher rates than whites. It also stated that districts could be found in violation of civil rights laws even if their discipline policies were race-neutral and applied evenhandedly. As with other Obama-era policy moves, this one never went through the formal regulatory process; rather, it took the form of a very long letter that local education leaders were expected to treat as official enough to guide their actions.
This particular policy change was part of a larger movement led by groups such as the NAACP and the Advancement Project to push schools to dramatically reduce suspensions and other types of “exclusionary discipline.” Dozens of large districts took up the cause of their own volition. Some states got into the action, too, such as by including suspension rates in their ESSA accountability systems as a way to nudge schools to find other approaches. All of this is motivated by national data showing big gaps in suspensions by race, and by the belief that exclusionary discipline can put students into a “school-to-prison pipeline.”
The Trump Administration now faces a decision—namely whether to rescind the 2014 guidance. Many of us conservatives have been urging them to do so, and on Friday I helped to arrange a listening session at the Education Department with some former teachers and parents from the Twin Cities region who came to Washington to share their personal stories about the unintended consequences of school discipline reform. To my surprise, this became big news both nationally and in Minnesota. Upon reflection, I should have known that when I told Politico’s Morning Education about the meeting it would be irresistible to the wider press. And sure enough that one little meeting—where teachers and former teachers spoke and Education Department staffers mostly just listened—has already inflamed passions, both here in Washington and back in the teachers’ hometowns.
That’s the backstory. Now, how can we search for solutions—and maybe lower the temperature?
First, we need to acknowledge the legitimate concerns of partisans on both sides of this debate.
Conservatives need to recognize that when African American and Latino students are suspended or expelled at three to four times the rate of their white peers, it is bound to raise suspicions about discrimination and systemic racism. We cannot ignore the possibility that some of this is caused by bias, implicit or otherwise.
And progressives need to understand that conservatives have a valid point when we worry about schools responding badly to new discipline mandates and becoming unsafe and disorderly. Teachers and students need to feel secure in their classrooms, and all kids deserve an environment that’s conducive to learning.
Where we can find common ground is in the view that suspensions and expulsions should be as rare as possible and that schools need to be as safe as possible. These values may feel like they are competing, but many great schools have found ways to thread this needle.
It starts with creating a culture where students feel safe, respected, and engaged. Everyone is held to high expectations—both in terms of work effort and behavior—but every adult’s goal is to help students meet those expectations almost all the time. In the rare cases when students fall short and act out (or worse), the schools have a clear, fair, and constructive process in place to handle the situation.
That’s what great schools do—and have always done. The problem is that too many schools are not like this. They have weak cultures, lackluster leadership, and low expectations. They respond reactively to misbehavior, and especially violence, and end up suspending or expelling many students. Most such schools—let’s call them “Suspension Factories”—serve high populations of poor and minority children, and thus they account for a big portion of the racial disparities we see in discipline rates nationwide.
How to deal with such dysfunctional schools is the heart of the problem. And here we should recognize that (as in everything else pertaining to dysfunctional schools, including academic achievement) there are no simple answers. Many progressives have concluded that it would help if we held such schools accountable for reducing suspension and expulsion rates. And thus they have supported moves to do exactly that, whether at the federal, state, or local level.
We conservatives, meanwhile, worry about the law of unintended consequences and what Daniel Patrick Moynihan once called “maximum feasible misunderstanding.” We worry that dysfunctional schools will respond to discipline mandates in the most thoughtless ways possible: not by building a stronger school culture or creating more engaging learning environments, but by simply throwing out a tool that has helped them avoid total chaos.
We are not surprised, then, when we hear stories like I (and the education department staffers) heard last week from teachers who were verbally and physically attacked by students and who got no support from higher-ups fearful of violating new discipline mandates. It’s impossible to avoid feeling empathy for such teachers, who are trying to uphold high standards and some degree of adult authority, and who are frustrated by policymakers who did not see such outcomes coming and betrayed by administrators who were cowed by those policies. We also worry about young peers of the disruptive students, who are equally likely to suffer—physically, emotionally, and in terms of lost opportunities for learning and upward mobility.
As Randi Weingarten tweeted last week, perhaps channeling her inner Al Shanker, “Safe and welcoming environments, clear codes that are equitably (not discriminatively) enforced are key—with resources that back it up. Not top-down mandates from superintendents or threats to teachers that if they report or take action they will be disciplined.”
If there’s anything the past two decades have taught us, it’s that some schools will respond to well-intentioned mandates with boneheaded stupidity or worse. Tell dysfunctional schools to get all students to proficiency, or else, and they will teach to the test or cheat. Tell dysfunctional high schools to get all students to graduation, or else, and they will pay for dubious “credit recovery” programs. And tell dysfunctional high schools—Suspension Factories—to reduce suspensions, and they will tie teachers’ hands and turn into war zones.
Policymakers can’t wish these realities away.
What’s next? In my view, the 2014 guidance needs to go because, whether intentional or not, it is scaring schools into reducing suspensions even when they haven’t done the hard work of improving their culture or of training their staff on other approaches. This is a recipe for disaster.
At the same time, all of us should embrace the work to help schools—especially the Suspension Factories—get better. Such efforts have a better chance of success if they are motivated by a bottom-up desire for continuous improvement, not a fearful response to top-down mandates.
Meanwhile, the Office for Civil Rights should continue to investigate individual complaints of discrimination and hold districts accountable when they treat students differently because of their race or other protected class.
Those three steps make for an agenda that should garner widespread support—if we can learn to trust one another again.
“An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject, and how to avoid them.”
Not three months after graduating from college, I got a job teaching middle school science at a local parochial school. For my orientation, I was given a tour of my classroom and the keys to a closet that contained my students’ textbooks. Whether I used them was entirely my call. It’s the kind of freedom many teachers could only dream of—and a freedom that is perhaps common in the Catholic school world.
As it turned out, the closet held two full sets of eighth grade science textbooks—one for earth science and one for physical science. My first big decision as a teacher was which one to use. When I met with the teacher I was replacing, she recommended I used the earth science textbook because it was “easier.” I followed her advice for one chapter, at which point I realized I didn’t much enjoy earth science and would rather teach physical science. So I switched—pivoting to an entirely different set of content and hoping my eighth grade students would follow along. I had the “freedom” to make this call as a twenty-two-year-old with absolutely no expertise to inform my decision.
In looking back on this experience, I now know that my students would have been far better served if someone had said to me, “Here’s what you need to teach. Your creativity and freedom lie in deciding how to present this information to the twenty-eight students in your charge every day.”
I thought a lot about my first experience with teaching as I read Tom Nichols’s new book, The Death of Expertise. While his book ostensibly isn’t about education, it sheds light on the challenges we face. We would do well to grapple with the implications of the cautions he raises, particularly as it pertains to the role of curriculum in school reform.
Nichols argues that we are living in a dangerous age. Although people have access to more knowledge than ever before in history, the paradoxical result is that we’ve become resistant to valuing or even trusting knowledge and expertise. The problem is that:
[W]e cannot function without acknowledging the limits of our knowledge and trusting the expertise of others. We sometimes resist this conclusion because it undermines our sense of independence and autonomy. We want to believe we are capable of making all kinds of decisions, and we chafe at the person who corrects us or tells us we’re wrong.
Perhaps nowhere is this truer than when it comes to what is taught and learned in America’s classrooms. We valorize teacher “freedom” and “creativity” over things like proven curricula, which are too frequently perceived as a constraint on teacher autonomy. But constraining yourself to something proven to work is the surest path to getting results.
I see this challenge every time we interview young, eager recruits—particularly those from top colleges and universities. Perhaps the most common question we get asked as we interview high-potential new teachers is, “What creativity will I have in the classroom?” The second question is often, “I prefer to use inquiry teaching methods. Can I do that here?”
I will confess that I bristle when I hear these questions. Not because I don’t appreciate the zeal of young teachers. It’s an enthusiasm I share, and that I shared at twenty-two, when I was given my first teaching job. But I cringe a little when I reflect on the cost to students of the freedom I was given at the time.
In education we have been conditioned to believe that mandating curriculum is akin to micromanaging an artist. That’s not only wrong, it’s dangerous. And, as Robert Pondiscio has persuasively argued, it simply makes “an already hard job nearly impossible [for teachers] to do well.”
Yet study after study has demonstrated that requiring teachers use a proven textbook or curriculum to guide their teaching is one of the surest ways to improve outcomes for students.
In 2009, Cory Koedel and Morgan Polikoff published results from a study comparing the effects of mathematics textbook choices on student achievement in California. They found that “non-trivial gains in student achievement are attainable simply by choosing more effective curriculum materials.”
Similarly, Brookings scholar Grover Whitehurst has repeatedly argued that, if we’re trying to do “what works for kids,” we should pay far more attention to curriculum. Whitehurst and his colleagues have shown that “the effect sizes for curriculum are larger, more certain, and less expensive than” other reforms, including improving the teacher workforce, expanding choice, expanding preschool, merit pay, class size reduction, and more.
That so many ed reformers have steered clear of advocating for proven curricula speaks volumes about how resistant our culture is to anything that puts limits on individual autonomy. Despite the overwhelming research that suggests that the most important thing school and district leaders can do is choose strong curricula to drive teaching and learning in core content areas, most teachers are repeatedly left to build their own curriculum, on top of everything else we ask them to do to plan, prepare, and teach every day.
A RAND study revised last April found that 98 percent of secondary school teachers and 99 percent of elementary school teachers draw upon “materials I developed and/or selected myself” in teaching English language arts. And those materials are most often pulled from Google (96 percent) and Pinterest (74.5 percent). The results were similar for math.
What’s most distressing is that the study also found that, in schools in which at least 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced priced lunch, teachers use Google and Pinterest even more often than their peers in schools with fewer such students.
When I stepped into the role of superintendent at Partnership Schools in 2014, one of the first decisions we made was to implement research-backed curricula across our six schools. Given our limited resources, we felt that it was the most cost-effective way to drive change and to support our teachers as they worked tirelessly to meet our students’ needs.
Since then we have found that teachers who drove the largest achievement gains in their classrooms embraced our adopted curriculum—and were thus able to focus their very real and creative energy and expertise on unlocking the potential of our curriculum to meet the particular needs of the students they serve every day. These are teachers who leverage the expertise of others in curriculum to then focus on areas like planning, classroom management, and building relationships with students, families, and the community.
In hindsight, that’s what I wish I had when I first stepped into the classroom. And it’s what we strive to provide to our teachers, who we know deserve much more than the keys to a closet.
In a world overrun with information—and in an age where our (sometimes justified) suspicion of expertise has too often swung the pendulum too far away from valuing knowledge and experience—we owe it to our teachers to give them the tools they need to succeed. And, more importantly, we owe it to students to avoid the mistake of pretending that the difficult work of teaching and learning can be done well with little more than a quick Google search after a taxing day.
Kathleen Porter-Magee is the Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer of Partnership Schools.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Advocates for gifted and talented education will always face an uphill struggle. Garnering support for policies that, by definition, benefit a small subset of students is hard—and harder when so many people assume that these kids will do fine regardless.
The inevitable—but foreseeable—result is the emaciated condition of programs designed to serve such children in U.S. public schools: scarce, often thin, and frequently staffed by ill-trained educators.
Weakness in gifted education undermines the country’s long-term prosperity. It’s also inequitable and bad for social mobility. The students most harmed are able pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, who depend far more than upper-middle-class students on the public education system to support them.
One partial remedy for this neglect is to ensure that policies that focus on all students truly benefit high achievers, too. Properly crafted, such policies can be significant boons for bright, motivated pupils, while sidestepping the “elitist” label that too often gets applied to gifted-centric initiatives.
The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) presents just such an opportunity for broad-gauged policy improvement at the state level—and it’s heartening that most of the new state accountability plans for schools under that statute are likely to do some good for gifted students.
ESSA replaced No Child Left Behind, which gave schools and teachers incentives to focus almost exclusively on helping low-performing students get over a modest proficiency bar. This neglected those who were likely to pass state reading and math tests regardless of what happens in the classroom. ESSA fixed this flaw by granting states more authority over their accountability regimes, giving them the opportunity to design different and improved systems.
That could have backfired if few states seized the opportunity—or made matters worse. That’s why we at Fordham published four reports and multiple blog posts encouraging every state to encourage their schools to focus on all pupils, not just their low performers. They could do this by giving substantial weight to a measure of academic growth for all students from one year to the next and/or by measuring achievement in a way that looked beyond proficiency, such as by using average scale scores or a performance index.
Performance indexes give schools credit for raising the attainment of their pupils across the ability spectrum. A state might, for example, create a system that gives schools partial credit for getting students to a basic level of achievement, full credit for getting them to proficient, and additional credit for boosting pupils to an advanced level.
And a “scale score” is just what a student attains on a scaled assessment, such as 670 out of 800 on the SAT math test. Average scale scores, then, are the average score of all students within a school and/or the average scores of particular student subgroups, such as disadvantaged, African American or Latino students, students with disabilities, etc. These, too, give schools credit for improving the performance of pupils across the achievement spectrum—but scale scores do this at a more granular level and are therefore even better than performance indexes.
States were obligated to submit their accountability plans to the U.S. Department of Education by September. All fifty (and D.C.) did so, and we document and analyze what they submitted in Fordham’s new study, Rating the Ratings: An Analysis of the 51 ESSA Accountability Plans.
In gauging whether a state’s accountability system encourages a focus on all students, we assigned ratings or weak, medium, and strong. Top marks went to states in which at least half of the accountability system was based on a performance index, average scale scores, and/or growth for all students. A medium meant those components made up between a third and half of the state’s plan.
The results were good for gifted students:
Twenty-two states and D.C. earned strong grades—with Colorado and Louisiana faring best—and another fourteen earned medium marks. In other words, 75 percent of the accountability systems that states plan to implement under ESSA do a good job of encouraging schools to focus high-achieving students, too—far, far better than under NCLB.
ESSA’s promising long-term effect on the education of high-achieving students is a great example of how large policies can indirectly benefit bright kids, and why those policies deserve the backing and political clout of gifted-child advocacy groups. Their goal—which I myself share—is to improve the academic outcomes of high achievers, and we ought to be pragmatic in how we bring that about.
We also ought to, at least for a moment, pause to applaud this victory for gifted education.
On this week's podcast, special guest Marc Porter Magee—founder and CEO of 50CAN—joins Mike Petrilli and Brandon Wright to discuss states’ accountability plans under ESSA. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines an international meta-analysis of how technology is affecting academic outcomes.
Amber’s Research Minute
Maya Escueta et al., “Education Technology: An Evidence-Based Review,” National Bureau of Education Research (August 2017).
Career and technical education (CTE) is a potential strategy to address the widening skills gap in the American workplace. But enrollment in CTE programs and courses is stagnant over the past ten years, despite rising demand for skilled workers.
A recent report by Advance CTE, the membership organization for state CTE directors, gauges the public opinion of career and technical education by surveying students who are considering or already involved in a high school CTE program and their parents. The survey collected responses from several groups of parents and students: 971 adults, comprising 252 parents of CTE students (in grades nine through twelve) and 506 parents of prospective students (in grades six through eleven); and 776 students—252 current CTE students and 514 prospective students. Prospective parents and students are “those who expressed interest (somewhat to extremely interested) in CTE during screening.”
There are three particularly noteworthy findings, each consistent across race, ethnicity, income level, geographic location, and education level of both parents and students.
First, the report finds that current CTE students and parents are more satisfied with their educational experiences than prospective parents and students. Fifty-five percent of CTE students and parents are “very satisfied” with their experiences, compared to just 27 percent of prospective parents and students. Current parents and students were particularly satisfied with CTE’s opportunities of exploring different fields and careers, with 89 percent of parents and 82 percent of students expressing satisfaction with their opportunities, compared to just 48 and 51 percent of prospective parents and students, respectively.
The second noteworthy finding is that, although employment or continuing education remains a post-graduation goal for almost all parents and students, CTE programs are associated with more specific future plans. Seventy-six percent of CTE students have a specific career path in mind, compared to 62 percent of prospective CTE students
Third, and problematically, researchers found that the phrase “career and technical education” is unknown to families. Despite being coined decades ago, only 47 percent of prospective students and parents reported being familiar with the term. They were still, of course, interested when the report’s authors presented them with a description of the typical details of programs and coursework. But this gap suggests that CTE advocates ought to better educate the public about these opportunities.
A drawback of the survey is its omission of the opinions of parents and students who are not prospective or currently involved with CTE. As my colleague David Griffith pointed out, because kids and parents select into CTE, the interpretation of the survey could be limited in some places. “For example, kids or parents of kids who take CTE might have a better sense of their future careers to begin with (relative to prospective CTE students), so you can’t say that CTE provided them with this sense of direction,” he said. “At the very least, the survey does suggest that CTE is meeting many of its goals in the eyes of parents and students. So rightly or wrongly, the consumers are satisfied.”
Although CTE shows great promise for solving today’s workforce skills gap, advocates of the programs haven’t sufficiently informed the public of their availability or benefits. This ought to change.
SOURCE: “The Value and Promise of Career Technical Education: Results from a National Survey of Parents and Students,” Advance CTE (April 2017).
As charter school enrollment increases around the country, issues of access and equity are becoming more pronounced. The question is whether charter schools are serving their share of students with disabilities and other challenges and not pushing out kids with behavioral problems. A new report by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) examines the ways charter authorizers are addressing these issues.
The report is a case study of two charter authorizers, the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB) and Denver Public Schools (DPS). NACSA used interviews with authorizers, charter operators, and city-based education organizations and experts to create a descriptive analysis detailing common struggles and solutions. The report purposefully avoids suggesting “best” solutions, understanding that each community and charter sector has unique circumstances.
The report found that DC PCSB, Washington’s sole charter authorizer, played a critical role in addressing disproportionate expulsion rates and a decentralized enrollment system, requiring separate applications to each charter school. In working through these issues DC PCSB prioritized maintaining charter quality and autonomy. In the case of expulsions, the authorizer, instead of creating mandates, publicized discipline data to encourage charters to change practices. It also provided best-practices training to charter school leaders and worked with DCPS, the city’s traditional public school district, and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to create common measures for easier comparisons between district and charter schools. And to get charter operators to agree to a common enrollment system and stem distrust with DCPS, DC PCSB partnered with a New Schools Venture Fund, a nonprofit organization, to develop My School DC.
In Denver, DPS tackled issues of student mobility and serving students with severe disabilities through regular meetings between sectors and by incentivizing charter participation with district facilities. DPS created enrollment zones consisting of charter and neighborhood schools to equalize the responsibility of accommodating new students throughout the year, previously only delegated to district schools. To recruit charters to a system that limited enrollment autonomy, DPS provided charters with access to district facilities. To provide more options for students with severe disabilities who require special programs and facilities, DPS provided charters with needed funding to accommodate disabled students. It also engaged charter experimentation by launching an inclusive schools initiative aimed at finding innovative ways to support students with severe disabilities in Denver. In both cases, DPS was aided by the ongoing dialogue between representatives of the district and charter sectors in the District-Charter Collaborative Council, which meets monthly to address common concerns.
Based on these two case studies, the report provides recommendations for other authorizers facing similar challenges of access and equity. They emphasize the importance of building strong relationships between sectors, using third parties to lead initiatives that require cooperation between district and charter schools, and leveraging access to district funds and facilities. They are also clear about the importance of trade-offs and compromises. In both cases, authorizers gave up autonomy in enrollment but maintained other freedoms. The authors note that all cities have unique circumstances and authorizers should avoid assuming the exact strategies used by DC PCBS and DPS are the best strategies for all cities.
Although charter authorizers are traditionally involved in monitoring enrollment and equity practices, this report advocates for a more proactive role for authorizers. Working to achieve enrollment practices that maximize student access is critical to charter schools’ mission of providing quality options. Charter authorizers now have some quality guidance on how to take the lead on these issues.
SOURCE: Daniela Doyle, Juli Kim, and M. Karega Rausch, Ph.D., “Beyond The Fringe: Charter Authorizing As Enrollment Grows,” National Association Of Charter School Authorizers (November 2017).