Movers and Shakers

Meet the Colorado education researcher you can actually understand

PHOTO: Creative Commons
Residents in the Munger Elementary School neighborhood will receive hundreds of books over the next three years to build better reading skills in youngsters.

Have you ever wandered into a thicket of education research terminology and wished you had a translator? Someone who could put “effect size” and “causal inference” into perspective? Or just English?

Kevin Welner’s your man.

On Monday, the Boulder professor was recognized with the 2017 American Educational Research Association’s Outstanding Public Communication of Education Research Award.

Welner, who has been featured in the Washington Post and on NPR, shared a few tips with Chalkbeat.

Education research can be complicated and mind-numbing. What’s your secret to communicating so the general public can understand it?

My personal “secret” is just a lot of editing and rewriting, sharing drafts with friends and colleagues and seeking to squeeze out the academese.

But more important is the secret underlying the National Education Policy Center, which I direct and which is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education: We have a ready pool of hundreds of top researchers from around the country.

So if we need someone who can make sense of a research study with methods that are mind-numbingly complicated, we can quickly reach out to any of a dozen brilliant minds, all trained to fully understand those methods. If we need an expert who knows all the research on early-childhood education, class-size reduction or charter schools, we can do the same. We then work with those experts to engage in the editing process I noted above for myself – all geared toward ensuring that the published version is useful for academics as well as the general public.

What advice would you give to other academics and policy wonks ?

In the graduate programs where we receive our Ph.D. training, we learn almost nothing (or literally nothing) about how to communicate our research to a broader audience. Instead, our training focuses on preparing researchers to add to the scholarly knowledge base. We do that through academic journals, books, conferences, etc.

We designed the National Education Policy Center to help close that gap — to facilitate communications between the scholarly conversation and the conversation that everyone else is having, often about the same issues.

My advice to researchers would be to embrace opportunities to speak to a larger audience, even if it means stepping out of our comfort zones. The truth is that we’ve already found an enormous readiness to do so. Notwithstanding our training, and even the incentive systems that reward university-based researchers for more traditional work, we have seen a strong interest in this work, generally known as “public scholarship.”

You’ve critiqued influential news organizations, including U.S. News and World Report about their rankings of the nation’s best high schools. Why is it important to raise public questions about such things?

At best, each of us can only have real expertise in a very small number of areas. When a medical doctor or auto mechanic tells me something based on their expertise, I’m largely at their mercy. I often don’t know enough to even ask the right questions, let alone to have a B.S. detector for their answers.

What I and my colleagues at the National Education Policy Center have tried to do in the area of education research is to show the broader public a fuller picture. The U.S. News work I did, regarding high school rankings, is a good example. The rankings were undermined by technical problems, sloppiness, and fundamental problems involving choices about how and what to include in their measurement formulas. How would a parent who sees those rankings otherwise know about these weaknesses?

Signed and sealed

Federal officials deny New York testing waivers but sign off on its plan for judging schools

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa

New York cannot create special testing rules for students with disabilities or those still learning English, the U.S. education department said Tuesday.

The decision to deny New York the testing waivers it had sought came on the same day that the department signed off on the state’s plan to evaluate and support schools under the new federal education law. The plan, required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, was the product of more than a year of writing and revision by state officials and over a dozen public hearings.

The federal education department approved most of New York’s vision which aims to move beyond test scores when evaluating schools and places new emphasis on whether schools have the resources they need though they required some changes, which the department first proposed in feedback last month.

One of the revisions affects the way schools are rated when many students refuse to take the state exams. Meanwhile, the federal reviewers did not appear to require changes that could have lowered the state’s graduation rate, which some experts had said was possible under the new law.

Here’s what you need to know about the federal government’s feedback to New York’s plan:

1.) Two testing waivers were rejected

At the same time that New York submitted its ESSA plan, it also requested three testing-related waivers — two of which federal officials shot down on Tuesday.

One of the rejected waivers would have allowed students with significant cognitive disabilities to take tests below their grade level, which New York officials said would have resulted in more accurate measures of their progress. However, special-education advocates and the New York City education department had raised alarms about that request, saying it could lower standards for those students and potentially violate federal law. In denying the request, the U.S. education department appeared to validate those concerns.

The other denied waiver had asked that schools not be held accountable for the English test scores of newly arrived immigrants until after those students had been in the U.S. for three years. Without that exemption, school evaluations will factor in the English scores of students who are still learning that language after their second year in the country.

New York did, however, receive approval for one waiver to allow middle-school students to skip the state’s annual math or science exams if they instead sit for the Regents exams in those subjects, which are required to earn a typical high-school diploma.

2.) A change for schools with high opt-out rates

New York must treat students who boycott state tests as having failed them when evaluating schools’ performance though state officials don’t expect that to trigger interventions for high-performing schools with high opt-out rates.

In its ESSA plan, New York officials had wanted to make sure that schools were not penalized if a large number of students sit out the state exams — as 19 percent of students across the state did last year. To that end, they created two accountability measures — one that counted boycotted exams against a school’s passing rate and another that did not — and allowed schools to use the higher of the two ratings.

But the U.S. education department blocked that methodology, instead requiring the state to treat boycotted exams as the equivalent of failed tests when judging their academic performance. (They are still allowed to use the other metric to evaluate schools, just not under strict federal guidelines for what count as academic measures.)

State education department officials said Wednesday that the changes will like result in slightly lower ratings for schools with high opt-out rates. However, they said they do not expect those schools to face serious consequences as long as they perform well on other metrics.

Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, which helped organize the opt-out movement in New York, said she expects the state to protect schools where many students boycott the exams.

Otherwise, she predicted, “There’s going to be outrage.”

3.) New York’s graduation rate is in the clear for now

Federal reviewers could have forced the state to lower its graduation rate, but they appear to have decided against that drastic step.

ESSA requires states to include only diplomas earned by a “preponderance” of students when calculating their graduation rates. Several experts thought New York’s “local diploma,” a less rigorous diploma awarded to only about four percent of students, did not meet that requirement.

If federal officials had agreed, the state could have been forced to recalculate its graduation rate and possibly eliminate some newly created options that allow more students to graduate with local diplomas. However, the officials appear to have let New York’s graduation rate stand with the local diploma in place.

on the market

Albany to Boston? New York education official Angelica Infante-Green in the running to lead Massachusetts schools

PHOTO: Chiefs for Change
Angelica Infante-Green is a finalist to run schools in Massachusetts.

One of New York state’s top education officials is a finalist to take over the leaderless state education department in Massachusetts.

Angelica Infante-Green is one of three finalists to succeed Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts education commissioner who died unexpectedly in June 2017, according to the Boston Herald.

Infante-Green is a deputy commissioner overseeing instruction in New York’s public schools, where she has recently spearheaded the state’s efforts integrate schools by race and class. Before arriving in Albany in 2013, she oversaw New York City’s efforts to serve to English language learners. In that position, she was responsible for expanding the city’s bilingual and dual-language programs and making sure that immigrant families landed in the best schools for their children.

Infante-Green is the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, a graduate of New York City schools, and a Teach For America alumna.

When she was teaching, Infante-Green felt “a little frustration in the classroom because there were policies that were being made without really knowing what was happening in the classroom,” she said in a video interview with Chiefs for Change, a national coalition of state and district education leaders that advocates for policy changes to help students. “So I decided that I was going to bring that drive to create change at a different level.”

Infante-Green is part of Chiefs for Change’s “Future Chiefs” program, which aims to cultivate a diverse pipeline of education leaders. She is also is a public school parent of two children; her son attends the first-ever dual-language program for students with autism, which she helped launch.

In an interview with Education Post last year, Infante-Green reflected on how her experiences as a parent, educator, and administrator inform her outlook on education policy.

“I’ve always had a passion for equity because of my own experience. I know firsthand what it’s like to be in a school where there isn’t much support and expectations are low,” Infante Green said in the interview. “If I didn’t have the chance to change schools, I don’t know how I would have ended up. So I work to make sure all kids have the opportunity to thrive.”

Massachusetts would present different challenges for Infante-Green. Schools there are considered the highest-performing in the country, and unlike in New York, the state runs some struggling districts directly.

The other candidates for the Massachusetts job, according to the Boston Herald, are Jeffrey Riley, who leads the state-run Lawrence Public Schools in central Massachusetts; and Penny Schwinn, chief deputy commissioner of academics at the Texas Education Agency. They were selected from 18 applicants and will undergo interviews in Boston next week.

Clarification (Jan. 17, 2018): This story has been updated to clarify the activities of Chiefs for Change, as well as to include Infante-Green’s participation in the Future Chiefs program.