At the height of the battle to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court a few weeks ago, a California math teacher took to Twitter, as many of us are wont to do, to vent. “I’m a teacher, and I don’t know what I’m going to say to my students if Kavanaugh gets confirmed,” fumed Nicholas Ponticello.
At the height of the battle to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court a few weeks ago, a California math teacher took to Twitter, as many of us are wont to do, to vent. “I’m a teacher, and I don’t know what I’m going to say to my students if Kavanaugh gets confirmed,” fumed Nicholas Ponticello. “Do I tell them that this country doesn’t take sexual assault seriously? Do I tell them that truth and integrity don’t matter? What do I say?”
The Tweet was “liked” 27,000 times and re-tweeted 8,000 more. The education news website The 74 followed up with an unusually credulous piece on how to navigate “tricky” subjects on politically contentious subjects, while eliding almost entirely the point that Ponticello was not seeking advice on lesson plans or curriculum resources—he was taking sides in a politically contentious debate, and one far afield from high school math.
Teachers, like every American citizen, are free to express their political views in a variety of public forums like Twitter and Facebook. But a series of court decisions have made it clear that a very different standard applies inside publicly funded K–12 classrooms, where teachers have far less freedom to speak their minds. If Ponticello was earnestly seeking advice, the best counsel he could have received might have been not to discuss Kavanaugh’s confirmation at all without first discussing his plans with his administration, and probably his district’s school board, which has broad and nearly unquestioned power to set curriculum and define what is and is not permissible teacher speech in classrooms.
“I really feel that civics is the number one most important thing we can teach our students,” Ponticello told The 74. “You can’t just bury your head in the sand just because you’re a math teacher. It’s your job because you’re the adult in the room.” I strongly concur with him on the importance of civics, but courts (correctly, in my view) are far more likely to assume that as the adult in the room, the teacher has an obligation not to air his or her views in front of children. In Mayer v. Monroe County, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago ruled unanimously against an Indiana elementary school teacher who alleged she was fired in 2003 for comments made in her classroom criticizing the U.S. war on Iraq. She sued the school district on First Amendment grounds and lost.
“The First Amendment does not entitle primary and secondary teachers, when conducting the education of captive audiences, to cover topics, or advocate viewpoints, that depart from the curriculum adopted by the school system,” the three-judge appeals panel said unanimously. They held that the teacher’s comments were not protected speech, citing a Supreme Court decision known as Garcetti v. Ceballos. In that 2006 decision, the Court held that a public official’s freedom of speech is protected only during private speech—not in the course of official duties.
“When talking to students during classroom instruction, teachers cannot assume their speech is protected,” observes Julie Underwood, a professor of Education Law, Policy and Practice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she also served as the dean of the university’s school of education. In a piece published last year in the Phi Delta Kappan bluntly titled “School districts control teachers’ classroom speech,” Underwood wrote, “Teachers cannot let their personal beliefs interfere with their obligation to deliver the school’s curriculum, and they may not hijack the curriculum or use their position as teacher as an opportunity to inculcate students to their personal beliefs.”
In sum, a math teacher who decides to stop teaching math because he wants to lead a discussion on Kavanaugh is not merely on thin ice. There is no ice under his feet at all. “Those of us who are educators absolutely have the right to speak on issues of education policy and to do so loudly and frequently,” Underwood told me in an interview. “But not in the classroom when you're teaching students about Shakespeare.”
While there’s a strong and largely protected tradition of academic freedom in higher education, K–12 teachers have far less latitude. As a practical matter, local school boards wield nearly complete power to set curriculum. Teachers are largely considered “hired speech.” This well-established legal standard was missing entirely from the “advice” Ponticello was offered on Twitter and in subsequent news coverage.
Nor is it much of a defense for teachers to claim they are expressing their views in solidarity with students. This is an unacceptable form of “moral grandstanding,” according to Joshua Dunn, a political science professor at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. In a draft collection of essays edited by Harvard’s Meira Levinson, titled Talking Out of Turn: Teacher Speech for Hire, to be published in 2019, Dunn notes that students have more free speech rights than teachers, and argues for the “necessity of neutrality” as a matter of public accountability and trust. “Teachers are in a position of authority and can dramatically affect the life prospects of students [who] understandably will self-censor to avoid offending the person who controls their grade,” he writes. Moral grandstanding is a particular risk, Dunn notes, “precisely because students are supposed to be learning how to honestly deliberate across lines of difference….the grandstanding teacher instead models dogmatism and self-righteousness.”
I’m with Professor Dunn. I wouldn't argue that politics has no place in the classroom. It certainly does, particularly in the service of restoring civic education to the center of schooling. But as a teacher, my politics has no place in the classroom. That’s not just a personal preference or a professional ideal. It’s a principle that’s well established in a series of judicial decisions.
In our polarized times, teachers may feel compelled to stop everything and talk politics, particularly when they feel righteous indignation over policies they feel unfairly impact their students. That may feel like the right impulse, even a deeply empathetic one, and particularly when so many education reform organizations are taking aggressively political stands on charged issues like immigration, policing, and housing.
My own tweeted advice to Ponticello was a suggestion that he tell his students that his views carry no more or less weight than theirs, their parents, or any other citizen’s. And that the Republic will endure only as long as we accept the rule of law and agree to abide by lawful outcomes—even those we don’t agree with. Ponticello didn’t respond, nor did I expect him to. He almost certainly wasn’t seeking advice. Only corroboration.
“If teachers take offense at the idea that they are nothing more than ‘hired’ speech, they are free to choose another career they find less insulting,” Dunn notes.
Now that’s good advice.
“Parental engagement” is one of those self-evidently appealing ideas for improving education. Who doesn’t want to engage parents? What child isn’t well served by more of it? Yet doing it well is hard, because it means shooting straight with parents about how their daughters and sons are performing, and committing to making hard changes and expending real resources to help those children do better. It’s not a program. It’s a promise: to be honest and do right by all kids.
Schools that take parental engagement seriously first look at how they are communicating to parents about their children. What most requires clear communication is student performance, for which there are two time-honored means of sharing news—good or bad—with moms and dads: report cards and parent-teacher conferences. Every school, then, should ask itself: Are we maximizing the impact of these communications vehicles? The honest answer in many communities? Probably not.
Start with report cards. A new Fordham study by American University professor Seth Gershenson examined the relationship between scores on a high school end-of-course algebra exam and student grades. While test scores and grades are certainly meant to measure different aspects of a student’s academic performance, we might be concerned if students regularly receive glowing report cards while not demonstrating proficiency on external assessments of their content knowledge.
Sure enough, that’s exactly the pattern Gershenson found. Just 3 percent of students earning a B and 21 percent of students earning an A in their algebra class reached the highest level of achievement on the exam. For students receiving Bs, the larger picture is even more concerning. More than one-third (36 percent) of students who received Bs failed to score “proficient” on the exam. Even fewer B students met the “solid” level on the exam, which indicates college and career readiness. Considering that a B is generally considered to be a good grade, these findings do indeed suggest inflated grades.
Inflated grades are surely one reason the nonprofit parent information and resource provider Learning Heroes has found that upwards of 90 percent of parents think their own kids are on track—even when data from myriad sources show that just a third of young Americans graduate from high school ready for what’s next.
Schools should look hard at the report cards they send home. Are they truthful? Candid? When kids are not on track for college or career success, do they say so? And do they provide ideas to parents on what they should do, and what the school will do, to help a student get back on track?
None of that is easy, which is why genuine parental engagement is hard. It means being honest when kids are off track—and doing something to fix the problem.
Parent-teacher conferences are another opportunity. Schools should first ask whether their teachers are well prepared to run effective conferences, knowledgeable about how to discuss student performance with parents, and full of workable ideas for how families can help their kids improve. Another approach is to scrap one-on-one conferences and instead launch Academic Parent-Teacher Teams. This innovative model gets all teachers and parents in a given school working together to improve student performance. They look at schoolwide performance data, dig into what the results mean, and discuss strategies to help students improve.
Like most things in education, changes like these will have greatest impact for the youngest students. Sadly, there are no really good options for high school students who are reading and doing math at a fifth-grade level. But we can do our utmost to ensure that nobody leaves fifth grade without being well prepared for what’s next. Elementary schools, then, have the greatest responsibility to give accurate information to parents and to help kids who are behind make rapid progress every year. Thankfully, this is also the stage of life when parents feel most comfortable being involved, children are most eager to please, and most families find it easiest to work together toward common ends.
That almost every parent has high hopes for his or her kids is one of the most valuable resources we’ve got. We owe it to them to tell them, right away, when their children are not on track to achieve their dreams, and to help them—as well as their schools—nudge those young people back to where they need to be.
This essay was originally published by The 74.
In our recent writings at the Ohio Gadfly, we’ve expressed dismay—sometimes outrage—at the education goings-on in the Buckeye State. To be sure, there’s a lot to be concerned about: The State Board of Education has gone soft on, and policymakers are talking about dismantling transparent and replacing them with opaque “data dashboards” that display a blizzard of statistics only technocrats can comprehend. On top of this is the reality—reinforced once again by the 2017–18 —that many thousands of Ohio’s children remain academically off track.
But amid this glum picture, there are terrific accomplishments and initiatives well worth highlighting. Consider just four that recently caught my attention (and feel free to send along others).
Ohio’s Straight-A schools
Let’s first give credit where credit is due—to the cream of the crop in terms of earning top marks on. The table below shows five schools that received A’s on the overall rating—a composite of Ohio’s various components—and on five critical measures of achievement and growth on state assessments: the performance index (PI), overall value added (VA), and three subgroup value-added indicators that are based on growth results for gifted students, students with disabilities, and students in the lowest 20 percent in statewide achievement. (Click showing the schools’ locations.) On average, pupils in these schools are achieving at very high levels on state tests, as indicated by A’s on the performance index. In addition, students across all parts of the achievement spectrum—low and high achievers alike—are making gains, as evidenced by the A’s on the value-added growth measures. Clearly, earning A’s in all these areas is challenging and especially so for high-poverty schools that typically score lower on the PI. But hopefully in the coming years, we’ll begin to see more schools break into this exclusive club. As for the fantastic five below: Job well done—and hope to see you again next year.
Table 1: Ohio’s Straight A schools based on 2017–18 report card ratings
Cleveland’s school quality guides
Led by Governor Kasich and Cleveland’s civic and educational leaders, thehas been one of the state’s highest-profile school reform efforts. Among the plan’s central initiatives was the creation of a nonprofit group, the Cleveland Transformation Alliance (CTA), which among a few other things is tasked with “communicat[ing] to parents about quality school choices.” For several years running, the CTA has published a superb School Quality Guide that aims to provide independent information that can assist Cleveland families in their search for a quality public school. With 170 public schools, both district and charter, there is a wide range of options in Cleveland, though not all have consistently delivered an excellent education. That is why CTA’s user-friendly (and too), including the most recent one released just this week, are so indispensable. This year’s version contains one-page profiles of every public school that contain key academic results—including their performance-index and value-added ratings—and importantly for Cleveland parents, information about how each school ranks in comparison to other city schools on these metrics. If they’re not already publishing parent-friendly materials like this, city leaders in other locales (ahem, Columbus and Cincinnati) should consider using the CTA’s work as a starting point. And the next big step: creating a common enrollment system for all district and public charter schools in a given city.
An evidence-based clearinghouse
Following trends inand , one of the catchphrases in education is “evidence-based” practices. It’s specifically referred to in the (ESSA), which requires districts to deploy evidence-based interventions if any of their schools are deemed low performing and in need of improvement. (Whether or how states will enforce this requirement is less certain, as Mark Dynarski of the Brookings Institution has .) Whatever the case, evidence-based practices are on educators’ radars—and that’s a good thing, as research has often been in K–12 education. While the U.S. Department of Education has long hosted the which provides reviews on a slew of program evaluations, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) recently launched a intending to reach educators across Ohio. ODE’s webpage helpfully organizes studies into evidence tiers, based on the strength of the research design (from experimental to less rigorous methods), as well by type of intervention (e.g., curriculum or school climate), grade span, or content area. With any luck, ODE will continue to invest in and develop this online tool—there is, for example, only one study on “human capital management.” Lastly, one suggestion from the cheap seats: It would be great to be able to search for rigorous studies from Ohio. That way, local educators could more easily locate and learn from nearby schools or service providers—maybe even one down the street—that implemented a program that worked.
A growing network of STEM schools
With much fanfare,new school in Akron opened its doors this fall. One of the lesser-known aspects of the school is that it’s part of Ohio’s growing network of STEM schools (science, technology, engineering, and math). As a relatively new innovation—the Ohio STEM Learning Network (OSLN) was formed in 2008 with the support of Battelle and the Ohio Business Roundtable—many Ohioans may not be familiar with the model. A recent provides a useful look at the growth in STEM schools across the state, which now include fifty-five schools, serving more than 25,000 students. As the report states, such schools must have open admissions; create partnerships with local businesses, colleges, and districts; use teaching methods “based on real-world problems”; and spread innovative practices through the network. Schools must apply to a established by state law to receive such a designation. The network also spans “sectors”: It includes district-operated schools (like LeBron’s I Promise school), public charter schools (such as ), a dozen or so private schools, and independently governed STEM schools. While a hard-nosed STEM curriculum may not be suited for all, Ohio needs to foster talent in the STEM fields to meet demands in technical careers. Kudos to these schools that are opening STEM opportunities to more young people.
As Jim Collins writes in his classic book,, we must acknowledge and confront head-on the difficulties of the present. But at the same time, we need always to maintain an unwavering optimism about the future. In the case of education in Ohio, there’s much hard work in the here and now to safeguard rigorous expectations for all students—and ensure that every child has opportunities to succeed in school and in life. At the same time, successful and innovative schools, along with important initiatives that empower families and educators, give us hope for the future of education.
Although ardent school choice supporters often argue that having options is an end in itself, the more pragmatic among us recognize that important real-life factors must be considered when describing the health of an area’s school choice landscape. Improvements in information dissemination and simplification of enrollment processes are making a difference in many cities, but a continuing obstacle is transportation. Even the best possible school option might as well not exist if a family cannot reach it. New research from the Urban Institute tries to identify the calculus that families must make in their efforts to secure the best possible fit.
Researchers Patrick Denice and Betheny Gross use data from Denver Public Schools, a portfolio system that includes traditional district schools, independent but district-run innovation schools, and charter schools. All Denver students are guaranteed a spot in a specific school or cluster of schools, but are free to apply to schools of any type for which they are eligible and they do so via a centralized application. School assignments are generally determined by lottery. As befits a system with this much choice and a simplified single application system, more than 80 percent of Denver students in typical transition years (e.g., entering kindergarten or moving from fifth to sixth grade) submit school choice applications. Noting that most students applying to high school do not apply to the school closest to where they live—the first choice is typically the fourth-closest school—Denice and Gross focus on students entering ninth grade to examine the trade-offs made in pursuit of this important choice.
Their study examined all rising ninth graders at the start of the 2014–15 school year who submitted a school choice application—a total of 3,100 students. The researchers used district data to determine all of the possible schools available to those students for that year (by application and by guarantee), used Google Maps to calculate the distance and time it would take students to travel via transit or car from their homes to all options, and then compared the results to their first choice school. It is important to note that this analysis was not based on the schools that students actually ended up attending, but only those they requested first on their list (students can request up to five ranked options), and that schools “bypassed” refers to any school that is closer than the first choice in any direction of travel. Half of the students’ first choice schools required less than a ten-minute drive each way, but the range was large—from almost zero to more than fifty minutes. The city’s median black student sought schools the furthest from home at nearly fifteen minutes one way. Overall, the median student bypassed four nearer available schools in selecting their first choice school; the median black student bypassed seven.
Wanting to know what motivated students to bypass certain schools and to subject themselves to longer travel time to attend their first choice school, Denice and Gross focus on a group of students they call “super travelers.” Super travelers fall into the top quartile of the sample in terms of travel time or the number of available schools they bypassed if they were assigned to their first choice. A surprisingly large 31 percent of students (nearly 1,000 total) fit the criteria. Super travelers would spend, on average, 21 minutes to reach their final choice school. While that may not sound like much on paper, keep in mind that travel time is one way and does not here include real world traffic considerations such as congestion, construction, or weather. Additionally, it does not consider parents transporting multiple children to multiple schools and the requirements of parents’ employment or the cost of wear-and-tear on vehicles. More importantly to the foregoing, the number of closer available schools to the average super traveler was a whopping 16.8 due to co-location of smaller “schools” within several given high school buildings.
Denver’s notoriously tricky geography, with a number of historically isolated neighborhoods, did not appear to influence super travelers’ choices, with a reasonably even distribution of super travelers originating from all of the city’s defined sectors. As a result, the researchers focused on what the students would be traveling for—the differences between far-away first-choice schools and those that are nearer but bypassed. They began by comparing characteristics of the schools nearest to super travelers’ homes to their first choice schools. They found that students favored schools with higher academic quality (as measured by ACT scores and graduation rates), lower discipline rates, and richer academic and extracurricular offerings (as measured by availability of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, Calculus, dual-language and immersion options, sports offerings, project-based learning, and music, drama, and visual arts). Families opting for quality should be music to the ears of school choice supporters. But travel distance remains an issue. Studies show that long commutes are associated with large costs in terms of time, money, lost opportunities, neighborhood social ties, and potentially traveling to or through unsafe areas. Not to mention unreliable transportation which could lead to dropping out.
But what about all the schools bypassed by super travelers? Unfortunately, the data indicated that only 22 percent of Denver’s super travelers could find another comparable choice nearer their homes, and even those would lessen their commute time by only a few minutes. Again, there is no indication here which additional schools students requested other than their top choice, nor which schools they ultimately attended. This limits the conclusions that can be made but does provide important descriptive information about what students and families are willing to do to attend the school that they want. Looking at the data, Denice and Gross noted that other nearer choices were available if certain parts of the quality criteria were relaxed, but the onus should not be on parents to compromise. It should be on school systems offering choice to think more holistically about their offerings, as it seems most families do.
Diversifying and improving the “package” of academics, culture, and extracurriculars and focusing on those school characteristics most in demand would go a long way to helping more students find the best fit. And transportation options—whether it be a school or city bus—that address the reality of families’ travel requirements wouldn’t hurt either.
SOURCE: Patrick Denice and Betheny Gross, “Going the Distance: Understand the Benefits of a Long Commute to School,” Urban Institute (October 2018).
As “career and technical education” (CTE) continues to get more attention from policymakers, education leaders, and the media, one valuable component of CTE often gets overlooked: apprenticeships. The Obama and Trump administrations both made efforts to boost interest in these career pathways, but participation remains low compared to other postsecondary options. In a report from the American Enterprise Institute, Jorge Klor de Alva and Mark Schneider survey the current state of apprenticeships in the U.S. and conclude that community colleges are best positioned to fertilize this particular landscape.
The authors pull from a variety of data sources to synthesize an overview of the current state of apprenticeship programs in the U.S. and internationally. They gather demographic information about apprentices from Department of Labor (DOL) databases and from a 2012 Mathematica study on the social benefits of apprenticeships. They also draw inspiration from a number of international surveys and case studies.
There exists no formal definition of an apprenticeship, but de Alva and Schneider consider it a formal program that includes both paid on-the-job training and a set of related coursework. They find that most states require at least 2,000 hours of supervised work experience and 144 hours of additional coursework, usually spanning four years. Today 13,656 programs are registered with the Department of Labor (DOL) or a related state agency, overwhelmingly in the construction trades and manufacturing.
Although they’ve been around for centuries, and have long led to well-paid careers in many fields, apprenticeships recently developed a reputation as fallback options for those who are “not college material,” and both parents and high school counselors have advised against pursuing them. This is unfortunate, given the steady earnings that apprentices enjoy immediately upon completion (and sometimes while participating). Nationally, 87 percent of apprentices find full-time employment, with an average starting salary of at least $50,000—the same starting salary as if they had earned a bachelor’s degree.
Other nations do not share the American skepticism towards apprenticeship programs. In England, 70 percent of apprenticeship candidates earned top marks on the General Certificate of Education (GCE) exam. These “A-level” scores could get them into most selective colleges, which means many students are choosing an apprenticeship over a four-year university. European programs generally span a wider variety of occupations, expanding their appeal to more students. de Alva and Schneider do not explore European systems with the intention of mimicking them, but see them as guides to how the U.S. can strengthen its own apprenticeship infrastructure.
They identify community colleges, which already offer a variety of non-bachelor’s degree opportunities—both certificates and lesser degrees—for students of all ages, as best positioned to do this work. However, structural changes are required. One of the greatest barriers facing the expansion of apprenticeships is the strict course-credit structure that American colleges follow. Traditional definitions of “credit” do not allow for the on-the-job hours that comprise most of an apprenticeship program’s requirements, nor do they trust non-academic instructors to oversee the majority of a student’s education. Transforming our understanding of the college credit will not only help apprenticeships regain their standing as a viable academic option, it will expand funding opportunities for aspiring apprentices. Federal student aid could then be applied to apprenticeship programs, which would give access to more students and give incentives to community colleges to expand their offerings. The authors also argue that more state and federal money should be leveraged because, even though apprentices can be expensive, the DOL estimates a $58,000 net social benefit over time per apprentice trained.
de Alva and Schneider are right that community colleges find themselves in a great position to reinvigorate and grow apprenticeships as respected postsecondary pathways. It is perhaps optimistic to hope that every campus in the country will open its arms to non-traditional, less-measurable academic and credit requirements, but the vast potential of apprenticeships does indeed hinge on our willingness to be flexible.
SOURCE: de Alva, Jorge Klor and Mark Schneider, “Apprenticeships and community colleges: Do they have a future together?” American Enterprise Institute, May 2018.
On this week’s podcast, Stephani Wrabel, an associate policy researcher at RAND, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss states’ ESSA-driven school report cards. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines Kentucky’s school turnaround efforts in the late NCLB period.
Amber’s Research Minute
Sade Bonilla and Thomas S. Dee, “The Effects of School Reform under NCLB Waivers: Evidence from Focus Schools in Kentucky,” Education Finance and Policy (October 2018).