Education Next is a journal of opinion and research about education policy. Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School.
EdNext Editor-in-chief Marty West sits down with Senior Editor Paul E. Peterson to talk about some of the most popular articles published by Education Next in 2018, articles on inclusion and special education, teacher evaluation, homework, and more.
Check out the Top 20 Education Next articles of 2018 here.
On Tuesday, the White House released a report on school safety that recommends, among other things, that the Department of Education get rid of guidance issued by the Obama administration relating to school discipline. The report of the Federal Commission on School Safety, created by President Trump and led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, also called for schools and states to consider a long list of other actions aimed at making schools more safe.
Many have been expecting the Trump administration to scrap Obama-era guidance on school discipline, which had been aimed at reducing the number of suspensions and expulsions, especially for students of color.
That guidance, which came in a Dear Colleague letter, warned schools that they might be breaking the law if they adopt a discipline policy which “is neutral on its face—meaning that the policy itself does not mention race—and is administered in an evenhanded manner but has a disparate impact, i.e., a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.”
The portfolio strategy has driven real improvement in urban K–12 school systems over the past 10 years. Results in Chicago, New Orleans, and New York City have been strong, and portfolio has started to reverse the decline of poverty-ridden cities like Camden, Cleveland, and Indianapolis. But progress is now uncertain, given changes in governorships and state legislatures, and the Trump-DeVos agenda’s alienation of many natural supporters on the left. District leadership changes in key cities like Denver and Indianapolis, and toxic charter politics in Oakland, also pose challenges.
This is not the time for supporters to move on to something else. Yes, portfolio strategies are encountering new headwinds, but the old education system can’t really come back. Alternative strategies—paying more money to the same teachers to do the same things, and trying to improve schools with diverse populations via initiatives seeking districtwide uniformity—have never worked, and won’t work in the future.
And school leaders in portfolio districts have learned to appreciate having control over their budgets and hiring decisions. They will resist giving up that power. Parents, including those from low-income areas who did not have good options before and those from higher-income areas who are swelling enrollment in many cities, will be reluctant to give up their choices. New teachers attracted to charter and autonomous district schools—including not only career switchers but also newcomers recruited from Teach for America and well-organized dissident groups within local teachers unions—won’t go away.
Events can and will stall a city’s portfolio strategy. A state legislature might limit the charter school law or forbid the use of nonprofits to provide support services. District leaders and new school board members might fall back on old habits of central control and seek to undermine principals’ control over hiring and budgets. But even so, city leaders who want to back away from the portfolio strategy will be hard-pressed to exclude educators, parents, and school providers, all of whom know it leads to better options for kids. The result will likely be that the foundational elements of the portfolio strategy remain even in districts that have stopped actively pursuing it.
A more realistic possibility in some cities is temporary stalemate, with opponents unable to tear down what has been built under the portfolio strategy and supporters unable to advance it. However, stalemates themselves will not last, as city leaders once again become concerned that weaknesses in the public education system are threatening the city’s growth and prosperity.
The futility of a return to the past will be evident soon enough, in light of economic and technological changes affecting the job market and the possibility of individualized learning pathways to make the most of all students’ skills and interests. If one size ever did fit all, it won’t in the future. Cities that want to thrive will need a portfolio of diverse schools that have the ability to curate different learning experiences for different students, and to provide second chances into adulthood for students who drop out, struggle to make academic progress, or need to upgrade job skills in the years after graduation to keep up with economic and technological changes.
This may require local education leaders to expand learning opportunities and supports outside their current system of schools. They might want to foster local versions of the services offered by EdNavigator in New Orleans, which guides parents through the process of choosing schools, and ReSchool Colorado, which helps parents identify educational opportunities outside of school.
Leaders might wish to do what Henry County, Georgia, has done in suburban Atlanta and offer districtwide online classes, as well as a college and career center, to expand the courses available to students attending comprehensive high schools. And they might want to pursue breakthroughs for their most complex learners by creating new opportunities for educators to collaborate on special education across campuses, or giving parents the ability to obtain customized tutoring, therapy, and other services beyond what schools themselves offer.
The portfolio strategy has always been primarily a problem-solving approach. Addressing some of the most pressing challenges in public education may force system leaders to think beyond their portfolios of schools and focus on their broader portfolios of opportunities for students. Localities that can’t overcome educational and political inertia risk losing jobs and population, and failing their children.
Portfolio strategies are inevitable because diverse learning opportunities are necessary. The portfolio strategy incorporates many ideas that are often presented as stand-alone panaceas (such as school choice and performance-based accountability), but treats them as mutually reinforcing parts of a broader strategy for driving continuous improvement. It is a plausible settling point between purely market-based and purely governmental solutions. That, more than the current state of play in any locality, is likely to guarantee that the strategy will endure, spread, and continue to evolve.
Contrary to some hopes, the portfolio strategy was never going to disrupt and reshape the K–12 system in a matter of a few years. But it can thrive and spread over a longer time if supporters understand its ratchet effect: make some progress by creating good new schools and meaningful learning pathways; build parental support and aligned nonprofits; wait out the inevitable returns to ineffective centralization; and when the demand for better learning opportunities becomes strong again, as it will, build further.
— Paul Hill
Paul T. Hill is Founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and Research Professor at the University of Washington Bothell.
The education space has been gripped by a newfound love of listening. The same advocates and funders who, a few years back, were exhorting us to embrace a pretty specific slate of Big “R” Reforms (like test-heavy teacher evaluation and the Common Core) are now eager to listen and are busy exhorting others to join them. Meanwhile, those who felt ignored, slighted, and locked-out when Big “R” Reform was flying high are snidely pooh-poohing all this ostentatious listening as a dollar short and a day late.
@bugwugsmom via Twenty20
I find this “we’re ready to listen” meme a decidedly mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s healthy. I mean, over the past decade or more, education policy did become increasingly disconnected from—or even hostile to—the concerns of many families and educators. And far too many advocates, funders, and policymakers have seemed deaf to the resulting complaints.
On the other hand, this enthusiasm is more than a little discomfiting. After all, many who insist that they’re eager to listen have proffered little evidence that they’re actually listening. Indeed, having already moved on from yesterday’s agenda (and pivoted to personalization, social and emotional learning, career and technical education, research-practice partnerships, early education, et al.) the complaints they’re hearing feel like old news. More tellingly, when it comes to critical feedback on today’s agenda, the listening—especially to criticism—is markedly less receptive.
In fact, because much of the listening seems detached from an effort to learn much that’s relevant to what comes next, the whole thing feels a lot like performance art. For convenience, here’s a quick primer on the most common kinds of performative listening:
There’s “Listening as a Toll.” You can tell when someone is in this mode, because you see them silently thinking, “How long do I have to listen before I can explain what we need to do?” This is especially evident among policy wonks who concede that this or that effort stumbled, but that they now know the best practices and design strategies that’ll solve the problem. They’ve already intuited all the concerns the audience may raise, so they’re eager to share the new “new thing” and get on with making it happen.
There’s “Listening to Show I’m New Here.” This is most evident when talking to officials at a foundation or advocacy group who have tiptoed away from yesterday’s agenda. In the face of bitterness about yesterday’s agenda, the new officials are discreetly distancing themselves from their predecessors. This is mostly about doing penance and cleaning the slate by throwing gentle shade at the prior leadership. Since the new agenda is baked, there’s not much need for input; rather, the ritual of listening is mostly about cultivating support for the new agenda.
There’s “Listening as a Substitute for Reflection.” It turns out that sitting down, taking notes, rubbing one’s chin, and nodding attentively is a powerful way of showing respect for an audience, without actually having to weigh their arguments or recalibrate one’s assumptions. Listening ostentatiously to complaints about test-based accountability or elaborate teacher evaluation systems, even while secretly knowing that the complainants “just don’t get it,” for instance, is a lot easier than having to square one’s convictions with the frustrating realities that have marked these efforts.
The interesting question is why so much of the listening seems performative rather than genuine. The simple answer is that, for those invested in the sureties of Big “R” Reform, listening is mostly a stratagem. In any era, Big “R” Reform exists as a self-reinforcing, insular dogma—leaving little room for meaningful listening. If one is emotionally invested in a bold, sweeping agenda to “fix” American education, it’s tough to regard disagreement, dissent, or skepticism as anything other than a moral failure.
And that’s a big problem. At any given moment, the most timely and useful feedback is also the most likely to be tuned out. After all, what counts as “constructive” or “serious” criticism depends on the passions and sureties of the moment. Indeed, right now, many avid listeners who’ve decided it’s important to hear critiques of teacher evaluation are nonetheless quick to dismiss the concerns that get voiced when it comes to restorative justice, state “equity” plans, SEL, or early childhood programs.
Listening is only meaningful when listeners are hoping to learn something. It’s only when someone can concede they’re uncertain about school improvement that listening is valuable for more than PR purposes. This requires curiosity, openness, and reflection, posing quite a challenge when the mantra is “go big, be bold, and be impatient.”
— Frederick Hess
Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.
The Florida Legislature created the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program in 2001. Last year, scholarships from the program were awarded to a total of 108,098 students to attend private schools in the state.
Jason Bedrick, director of policy for EdChoice, joins Paul E. Peterson to explain how the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program works and to discuss the results of a new survey of participating families.
Almost two thirds of the nation’s high school graduates enroll immediately in some form of post-secondary education. Why?
Getting a better job is a “very important” reason for — on average since 2010 — 86 percent of entering college freshman.
Is that hope realized? Yes and no.
Two current studies spotlight this aspiration-to-experience rift. The first, by Strada Education Network and Gallup, is the nation’s largest collection of college consumer insights on post-secondary education’s efforts to prepare young people for the job market and workforce.
The second, a series by Echelon Insights, is of millennials aged 18 to 35 speaking about their public school experience: both how their own education prepared them for college, work, and life, and how they expect schools to prepare their own children, now that so many millennials are parents themselves.
These studies provide key findings on the aspiration-to-experience disconnect felt by many college-goers. Is there a way for innovative K-12 schools and organizations to step in earlier to prepare young people for job market and workforce success?
College and K-12 Consumers Speak Out
A central finding of Strada and Gallup’s three-year effort involving more than 500,000 college consumers — both college goers and graduates — is that the most important element for a valuable and quality higher education is how relevant coursework was to their careers and daily lives.
We learn that:
• Only 26 percent of working Americans with college experience “strongly agree” their college education is relevant to career and daily life.
• Comparing those with the lowest and highest relevance scores, there is a 63-point gap between those who “strongly agree” education was worth the cost (14 percent vs. 77 percent) and a 50-point gap between those who “strongly agree” they received a high-quality education (27 percent vs. 77 percent).
Echelon Insights show that millennials understand the importance of education in creating opportunity for people. And while most millennials think their own education was good, few think their K-12 experience prepared them for much beyond high school — a circumstance they hope to fix for their own children.
We learn that:
• Two-thirds of millennials say they got a good or very good education — though only 39 percent think they’re prepared to succeed in the workforce and only 20 percent felt prepared to navigate life and real world challenges.
• When asked what best describes the purpose of a good education, the second most common answer among millennial parents is “to prepare students for the workforce so they can succeed in a career and make a living.”
Both studies show that these college and school consumers experience buyer’s remorse — a sense of regret and disconnect between their post-secondary expectations and educational experiences.
To borrow a line from best-selling author Tony Schwartz, “The way we’re working isn’t working.”
Fortunately, changes are happening and some innovative public and private programs offer new ways to involve students in career pathways earlier in their schooling experience.
In Georgia, Junior Achievement, Fulton County Schools, and the Atlanta business community launched a public-private partnership in 2015 to create a new school curriculum model within a traditional district high school. 3-D Education “re-engineers high school education to be more relevant, experiential, and…connected to the…real world in order to more fully prepare today’s students for the demands of tomorrow’s economy. Today, “3DE” has expanded to six schools in four public school districts.
Examples of the workforce pathways they offer students include business and technology; entrepreneurship; marketing and management; and financial services. 3DE’s project based learning design includes a six-week case study beginning in 11th grade which involves students in off-campus experiences with industries and professions, including work based coaches. Not only do students excel academically, they feel prepared for what lies ahead: 98 percent of 3DE students feel excited about their futures.
In New Orleans, the education, business, and civic partnership YouthForce NOLA has been preparing students for high-wage and high-demand career pathways since 2015. YF NOLA works with open enrollment charter high schools, offering career exposure and work experiences, soft-skills training, coaching for students, and paid student internships for seniors. The internships consist of six hours of paid training, followed by 90 hours of work placement in a career pathway where opportunities include biology and health sciences, digital media and IT, and skilled crafts like architecture and water management.
YF NOLA has other programs, including an annual Career Expo for sophomores sponsored by Junior Achievement; a soft skills teacher fellowship where teachers learn the practice and teaching of soft skills; and a family engagement program educating parents about the career pathways program. The twelve organizations comprising the organization’s steering committee — including New Orleans school district, workforce and economic development organizations, community advisory groups, and philanthropic partners — are the secret sauce to getting on the other side of bureaucracy and putting New Orleans’ students first.
In Indianapolis, Kenzie Academy began in 2017 as a two-year venture funded technology and apprenticeship program, focused on software engineering skills, for students from varying backgrounds — e.g., 19 year old high school graduates, formerly incarcerated individuals, and individuals with master’s degrees seeking new occupational opportunities. In year two of the program, students apprentice in Kenzie Studio, the company’s consulting arm.
To make the $24,000-a-year program accessible to more people, students have an income-share agreement that can delay payments until they complete the program and have a job paying at least $40,000. Kenzie also has a partnership with Butler University allowing students to receive a joint certificate from both organizations.
These new career-enhancing programs can overcome the aspiration-to-experience rift that we’re seeing from college consumers and millennials.
Programs like 3DE, YF NOLA and Kenzie Academy provide young people earlier in their schooling with new options to gain the knowledge and skills that will lead to success in the workforce and a lifetime of opportunity. And these models are replicable, sustainable, and workable in a multitude of school district, charter schools, and other public-private settings.
Student borrowers earn more credits, better grades
Being offered federal loans increases academic and long-term success for community college attendees
November 8, 2018—Student loan debt is often characterized as a national crisis for borrowers struggling to pay back balances. But until now, little has been known about how student borrowing impacts educational outcomes such as credits earned and grade point averages (GPAs). Is student borrowing necessarily bad? In a new article for Education Next, Benjamin M. Marx of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Lesley J. Turner of the University of Maryland report the first causal effects of loans on student outcomes, finding that eligible students who were offered federal loans through their community college earned 3.7 additional credits and raised their GPAs by more than half a letter grade. A year later, borrowers were 11 percentage points more likely to have transferred to a four-year public institution than those who were not offered student loans.
Through their financial aid offer letters, community colleges have the discretion to offer students the full loan amount for which they are eligible, a portion of that, or zero loan dollars. Marx and Turner used this common discretionary practice to measure the impact of such offers on both borrowing decisions and subsequent educational outcomes at a large community college during the 2015-16 academic year. They randomly divided students into two groups of approximately 10,000 students with each group receiving a different financial-aid award letter. Students in the loan-offer treatment group who were eligible to borrow received a loan offer of either $3,500 or $4,500 in their award letter (called “nonzero” offers). All loan-eligible students assigned to the control group received financial-aid letters that either listed $0 loan offers or did not mention student loans. These offer letters did not impact students’ eligibility for federal student loans.
Among the key findings:
• Students offered loans were more likely to borrow. Some 30 percent of students in the loan-offer group borrowed, compared to 23 percent of students in the control group. Loan-offer group members borrowed $1,374, on average, approximately $280 (26 percent) more than the $1,097 average for control-group members.
• Students who borrowed as a result of a loan offer signed up for more classes and progressed further in school. On average, students in the loan-offer group who borrowed attempted 2.5 credits more than comparable students in the control group and earned 3.7 credits more during the 2015–16 academic year.
• Students who borrowed earned better grades. Students in the loan-offer group who borrowed earned significantly higher GPAs over the academic year, with a cumulative increase of more than half a point on a four-point scale—roughly the difference between a “B” and an “A-” grade.
• Borrowers were more likely to transfer to a four-year institution a year later. Borrowers were 12 percentage points less likely to re-enroll in the community college for the 2016-17 academic year, a decrease of 23 percent, but they were 11 percentage points more likely to transfer to a bachelor’s degree program within a four-year public institution, a remarkable 178 percent increase relative to the control group.
• Borrowers likely to earn more annually after graduation. Drawing on existing research, the researchers estimate that student borrowers will earn $370 more per year, on average, based on taking out a $4,000 student loan.
“More than five million students attend U.S. colleges that do not offer loans in financial-aid award letters,” say Marx and Turner. “However well intended, efforts to discourage student borrowing may be hindering students’ progress rather than protecting their future.”
About the Authors: Benjamin M. Marx is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Lesley J. Turner is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Maryland.
About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit educationnext.org.
Stephanie Saroki de García is co-founder and managing director of Seton Education Partners, which supports blended learning in 14 urban Roman Catholic schools and operates three virtue-based charter schools in the South Bronx. Previously, Stephanie launched and directed the Philanthropy Roundtable’s K-12 education programs for five years, and she also co-authored the book Saving America’s Urban Catholic Schools: A Guide for Donors. I recently had the chance to talk with Stephanie about why blended learning matters and how to revitalize urban Catholic education. Here’s what she had to say.
Rick Hess: So Stephanie, what is Seton?
Stephanie Saroki de García: Seton Education Partners is an organization I co-founded with KIPP pioneer Scott Hamilton—no, not the figure skater—in 2009. We seek to find innovative ways to achieve the goals of Catholic education for our most vulnerable children. Our signature initiative brings robust blended learning to now 14 Catholic schools in nine cities across the nation—serving over 4,100 primarily underserved Latino and African-American children. Our second initiative launches and manages secular, virtues-based charter schools that offer optional, privately-funded Catholic after-school programs. Our charter schools are based in the South Bronx, serving nearly 800 children in grades K-6 across three campuses.
RH: What prompted you to launch Seton?
SSG: The short version: I felt called. The long version: I am one of six children born to an immigrant Iraqi Catholic family. Our parents taught us that, while we are on this earth, we are called to use the gifts God gave us to serve others. That message is why I joined Teach For America [TFA] 20 years ago and what motivates my work today. My time in TFA teaching English in the second toughest high school in Oakland, California, changed me. Rather than going to law school as I had planned, my experience led me to Harvard’s Kennedy School, and ultimately to the Philanthropy Roundtable. There I met Seton’s co-founder, Scott Hamilton. My work at the Roundtable always felt meaningful and high-impact—so I wasn’t looking to leave—but when Michelle Rhee became chancellor of D.C. public schools, I thought I might be able to help her. When I asked my older brother for advice, he said something that stayed with me: “Stephanie, if you can’t help children to know God, you’ll only ever get so far with them.” Not long after that conversation, Scott Hamilton left KIPP, and providentially, we both became interested in urban Catholic schooling in America. One night at dinner, I tried to convince Scott to apply his strategic brilliance—especially what he had learned helping to grow KIPP and shape the national charter school movement—to finding a new way forward for urban Catholic education. He said, “I will, but only if you’ll join me.” And my heart leaped. I was 32 years old at the time, and I called my brother that night and left him a message: “I know what God wants me to do with my life. Call me back.”
RH: Catholic education has long been a passion of yours. In your experience, what do you think Catholic schools can uniquely teach district and charter schools?
SSG: Catholic schools understand—better than any other kind of school—what it truly means to be human.
RH: What do you mean by that?
SSG: For 200 years, Catholic schools were the opportunity-equalizing force in America for underserved children—Catholic and non-Catholic alike. You could even say the original Teach For America was an army of nuns who founded and built and taught in schools that gave disadvantaged children—especially new immigrants—a decent shot at success. And they accomplished this by respecting the inherent dignity of every child—holding the children they served to high academic expectations, providing them a strong foundation in core subjects, and, vitally, nurturing in them a deep sense of something greater than themselves. Catholic schools educate the whole child—mind, body, and soul. Such models are increasingly rare, however, and will become extinct if we aren’t careful.
RH: One of the main things Seton does is help facilitate blended learning. For those who may not know, could you explain what that is?
SSG: Blended learning combines a traditional, brick-and-mortar educational experience—imagine one person teaching several children—with online learning that allows a child to move at his or her own pace. It can take many, many shapes. Blended learning is not the same as what some would call “technology-rich” instruction. It goes beyond 1-to-1 computers and high-tech gadgets. Instead, blended learning leverages the internet to provide students a personalized learning experience. This means increased student control over the path and/or pace of learning. At Seton’s schools, we use a rotational blended learning model—and to best understand it, you want to see it in action.
RH: And why would Catholic schools, in particular, want to implement blended learning?
SSG: When blended learning is done well—it is magic—and can truly give each child what he or she needs. Here’s an example: At the beginning of 8th grade, when Seton first partnered with his Catholic school, Jeremy, a child with a robust IEP, was reading at a 4th grade level. At 6′ 2,” Jeremy was the star of the basketball team. He was a hard worker and knew how to persevere—but his teachers, prior to blended learning, had no idea how to help him because he was so far behind his peers. Using adaptive software targeted to his unique needs, Jeremy grew over three grade levels in reading by the end of the year. How did he respond to learning that he had grown faster than any other student in his class? He fell to the floor crying. Jeremy explained, “No one has ever told me that I can be good at school. People only think that I can be good at basketball.” Jeremy is now a senior in high school and is in advanced reading classes. I could share many, many more stories like Jeremy’s.
RH: Now, I know of several public schools that have implemented blended learning without the help of a third-party. Is there any reason urban Catholic schools might need more assistance?
SSG: You hit on a key point here, Rick. Unfortunately, high-poverty Catholic schools are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to harnessing the potential of blended learning. Charter networks like KIPP, Aspire, IDEA, and Rocketship have national and regional teams dedicated to infrastructure, content, software price negotiation, professional development, and data analysis. There is no equivalent for this in the Catholic school space; the typical Catholic school serving a high-poverty student demographic is incredibly lean staffwise—we’re talking one principal, one secretary, and a teacher in each classroom. And Archdiocesan education offices are often stretched thin. There is no comparison between the administrative support in the charter schools Seton operates in N.Y.C., which are bringing in over $18,000 per child, and our urban Catholic schools, which are bringing in about $3,000 to $5,000 per child. Blended learning doesn’t mean just buying every child an iPad and you’re done. In fact, I’ve told philanthropists to run away from any such plan. At Seton, we have an 80-page playbook—and yes, if you want it, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll share it. We very thoughtfully and systematically implement adaptive software to transform an entire school in one year. We hire a full-time, on-site staff person to coach teachers and principals through the process. Once our partner schools have made the full transformation, we help them manage content, negotiations, and professional development from afar.
RH: So what do the results look like?
SSG: They’re strong—and your readers can find them on our website. Since Seton’s co-founder was a KIPP pioneer, and because KIPP publishes its NWEA MAP growth results, our target has always been to match or beat KIPP in the percent of students meeting their year-end growth targets in both English Language Arts [ELA] and math. The good news: We’ve done this every year. We, of course, look at other metrics—especially enrollment. Across our network of 14 Catholic schools, we’ve increased enrollment by a whopping 30 percent. That’s unthinkable in a sector where the norm is decline. This demonstrates what’s possible when you combine high quality, whole-child education with grassroots recruitment and marketing. Even in cities without tax credits and vouchers—we’ve seen enrollment jump up 20 percent.
RH: A second component to your work, which you alluded to earlier, involves operating charter schools that offer Catholic after-school programming. How does that work, and what prompted you to start that program?
SSG: Let’s start with the why. In 2011, the Archdiocese of New York made the heartbreaking decision to close almost 60 schools due to declining enrollment and financial instability—the very same trouble that’s forced similar decisions in so many other cities. Most of the shuttered New York schools served largely low-income and minority children in grades K-8. They provided these boys and girls a safe haven and a holistic education that nurtured their heads, hearts, and spirits. In response to these closings, and at the request of Cardinal Dolan, who did not want to abandon his most underserved communities, Seton set out to pioneer a new charter school of virtue—Brilla. Our hope was that, when paired with a vibrant after-school faith-formation program—one that is voluntary for children and that does not use government funds—Brilla would achieve the goals of Catholic education for the underserved and would do so in a financially sustainable way that complies with charter school laws in both word and spirit. Today at Brilla—three campuses strong serving nearly 800 children in grades K-6—our scholars get an outstanding academic education paired with robust character formation.
RH: And what kind of outcomes have you seen at these schools?
SSG: We outperform the district, N.Y.C., and New York state in both English Language Arts and math on the state proficiency tests. When you look at our English-language learners and special education subgroups, they do the same. My favorite statistic, however, is when we compare Brilla to other public district and charter schools serving a similar student demographic—high special education, high English-language learner, and high poverty. Under such a comparison, Brilla ranks fourth in the entire state in percentage of students who achieved proficiency on the state math test, and 10th in ELA. In terms of growth, the percent of Brilla students achieving over a year of growth on the NWEA MAP is 77 in reading and 78 in math—far outpacing the national average of 50 percent. In addition to academics, we’re especially proud that we’ve had 100 percent attendance at parent-teacher conferences, and 95 percent of our parents are satisfied or highly satisfied with their school. Meanwhile, since our founding, we’ve had zero expulsions and our suspension rate is very, very low. And we’re working on a tool to try to measure our character outcomes, because our character results are just as important, if not more important, than our academic ones. To be honest, we aren’t sure that such a tool can work and we want to be very careful about how we do this, but we’re serious about character and our conviction that “Results Matter.”
RH: I imagine the partnership with the Church could provoke pushback in some corners. How has that played out?
SSG: In the communities we serve—there’s been no pushback. Brilla is located in one of the nation’s most underserved congressional districts—Mott Haven in the South Bronx. The truth is, we need more schools of virtue, and not just of the Catholic variety. We need more schools that are not only academically strong but that also give kids a solid moral foundation that aligns with their families’ traditions and values. And the thing is, if you ask black and Latino families, by and large, they want to see more of these schools, too.
RH: How do you fund this work? Does the Church pay for most of this, or are you dependent on other philanthropists?
SSG: The Church subsidizes our voluntary faith-formation program, but we raise start-up dollars from philanthropists to launch each of our charter schools—funding for feasibility studies; building renovations; school leader recruitment, selection and training; staffing up our charter management organization; and many other things we need to start our new charters well. One of Seton’s four founding principles is sustainability—so all our charter schools are completely sustainable on public dollars by Year 4 of operations. We run a really lean organization and we are proud of that. But because we start small and grow a grade level at a time, our charter schools run at a deficit in the early years.
RH: In my experience, many education reform funders are leery about private schools and about the role of religion when it comes to schooling. Have you noticed anything like that?
SSG: Are you trying to get me in trouble? I already get in enough trouble all by myself! Yes, some funders, especially larger foundations, can be wary of funding anything that has to do with faith—and sometimes, that wariness is especially strong when it comes to the Catholic Church. That’s not been our experience universally, but it has been our experience in specific instances. We do, however, have a lot of high net worth individuals who “made it” in America because of a Catholic school and who want to find a new way forward for achieving the academic, character, and—for families who choose it—faith goals of Catholic education. Having spent five years in philanthropy, I think it’s OK for funders to specialize—decide what they want to achieve and how they’re going to get the results they want with their giving.
RH: What’s next for you all?
SG: We’re looking to expand. We’re actually working closely with the Charter School Growth Fund on a robust expansion plan for our charter network. In N.Y.C., we plan to go from three campuses to eight or possibly nine campuses by 2026—and will be serving well over 3,000 children at capacity. With our Catholic schools, our goal is to show that in choice states, such schools can thrive given the right set of priorities, guidance, and governance. In order to do that, we are working to create local networks of Catholic school innovation in key locations to show what is possible. And we’re actively exploring whether we want to start a network of independent Seton Catholic academies in states with good public school choice programs—Ohio, right now, being the top contender.
— Frederick Hess
Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.
During his 1988 campaign, George H. W. Bush said, “I want to be the education president.” Was he?
No, says the K–12 Teachers Alliance. It ranks “education presidents” based on their use of federal mandates to direct school success—as Bill Clinton did with Goals 2000, George W. Bush did with No Child Left Behind, and Barack Obama did with Race to the Top and conditional waivers to federal law.
Yes, I say. I still believe what I wrote in 1993 after serving 22 months as Bush’s education secretary: “When the dust settles and the history books are written, President George H. W. Bush’s leadership in education will be recognized as among his most significant and lasting contributions.” (See “What We Were Doing When We Were Interrupted.”)
Instead of relying on federal mandates, Bush in 1989 convened a national summit of governors to establish six national education goals focusing on improved graduation and literacy rates; student achievement; school readiness; and the elimination of drugs and violence in schools. Then, in April 1991, he launched the bipartisan America 2000 strategy in every state to mobilize the country, community by community, toward meeting those goals.
In addition to America 2000, the president’s agenda included a series of truly radical initiatives: 1) a new set of voluntary national standards in core-curriculum subjects, including science, history, English, geography, arts, civics, and foreign languages (math already was done); 2) a voluntary national examination system geared to those new standards; 3) a new generation of thousands of start-from-scratch, break-the-mold, and public charter schools; 4) more autonomy and flexibility for teachers in their classrooms through the waiver of federal rules and regulations; and 5) a $500 million GI Bill for Children to give middle- and low-income families $1,000 scholarships to spend at any lawfully operated school of their choice (which Congress did not approve). With the nation’s governors, he created the bipartisan National Education Goals Panel of governors, members of Congress, and administration officials to monitor progress toward the goals. The private, nonprofit New American Schools Development Corporation raised $50 million to fund design teams to help communities create break-the-mold schools.
Enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015 confirms that most governors, teachers, superintendents, parents, school board members, and members of Congress today agree with H. W. Bush’s formula for federal education policy. As Newsweek said in July of that year, No Child Left Behind—the principal vehicle for more federal control of schools—was “the education law everyone wants to fix.” ESSA reversed the trend toward a “national school board” and made clear that the future path to higher standards, better teaching, and real accountability will be through states, communities, and classrooms and not through Washington, D.C. In November 2015 the Wall Street Journal called ESSA “the largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter century.” In short, almost everyone involved in educating America’s children had grown tired of Washington telling them how to do it.
ESSA basically put federal education policy back where it was in 1992 when Bush told the Democrat-controlled Congress that he would veto its reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act because it smacked too much of a “national school board”—but ESSA leaves in place and encourages the considerable strides states have made since 1989: creating higher standards, better tests, new accountability systems, and ways to help low-performing schools. The 10 start-from-scratch public charter schools that Minnesota created in 1992 have grown to 7,000 nationwide. States and school districts have made significant progress in new teacher-evaluation systems and school choice. Bush helped start or encouraged most of the effective actions states are taking today to strengthen their schools.
To be sure, federal mandates sometimes have contributed to better schools. They also have created a massive backlash that threatened to undermine the steady state-by-state progress toward national goals. See, for example, Common Core, teacher evaluation, and high-stakes testing. It is tempting and simpler to use federal mandates to try to improve student achievement in 100,000 public schools, but Americans are fed up with Washington mandates. Without local buy-in, there is little lasting benefit. A harder but better strategy is for the federal government to set the agenda and create an environment for success—but avoid mandates. George H. W. Bush understood that. That is why I believe he was a consequential education president.
Lamar Alexander is Tennessee’s senior United States senator.
In the Wall Street Journal, Tawnell D. Hobbs writes about several school districts that are “banning homework, forbidding it on certain days or just not grading it, in response to parents who complain of overload and some experts who say too much can be detrimental.”
In a new article for Education Next, Janine Bempechat examines whether American students are receiving too much homework and reviews the case for assigning homework. She writes:
Are American students overburdened with homework? In some middle-class and affluent communities, where pressure on students to achieve can be fierce, yes. But in families of limited means, it’s often another story.
Bempechat explains what kind of homework is most beneficial and considers the impact of reducing or eliminating homework on the achievement gap.