Equity and ESSA

Famed researcher Linda Darling-Hammond on the future of New York education — and what she makes of Betsy DeVos

Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute

New York could be on the cusp of “serious changes” to education policy — if the state takes the plunge, according to Linda Darling-Hammond, one of nation’s most influential education researchers.

Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor emeritus, served as director of President Obama’s education policy transition team and was rumored as a choice for U.S. education secretary under Obama and New York City schools chancellor under Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Now she runs the Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank that is helping a number of states, including New York, implement the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015.

Darling-Hammond has argued that it’s not just students who should be held to rigorous standards. So should teachers, schools, districts and states. The education system must provide students the “opportunity to learn,” she says, and ensure families that schools have enough support.

“They need for you to be able to improve things, not just to measure them,” she told Chalkbeat in an interview this week.

ESSA could allow states to do that in a new way, she said. While No Child Left Behind focused tightly on outcomes such as test scores, ESSA gives states more flexibility to consider “inputs,” such as how much money is spent on each student, as they evaluate schools and figure out how to help them.

New York officials have not yet committed to a plan, but they’ve hinted that equity — in terms of resources, curriculum, and learning outcomes — could be a central focus.

So what exactly would that look like? We talked to Darling-Hammond, one of several experts working with the state, to figure out how New York could use the federal law to measure and promote equity.

Below is a transcript of the interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What is your take on Trump’s education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos and how she could shift the direction of federal education policy?

The way ESSA was written, it outlines an important federal role, it outlines a state role. It actually prohibits the secretary of education from making a whole set of decisions that are outlined, so regardless of what administration is in Washington, the law really limits the extent of federal involvement.

My suspicion is that states will be able to continue to implement the policies that they were aiming at before. The way the law was drafted, states have a lot of room, within certain parameters, to make their decisions. It’s hard to imagine that changing very much.

Some argue that her nomination changes the political landscape in education. Do you think the battle lines have been redrawn?

I just haven’t really studied what her views are, so I don’t know enough to know whether she falls in a particular camp or what her views on all those issues are … We know that she’s involved in [vouchers and school choice], but I don’t know her views about testing or her views about teachers. So it will be interesting, in a way, because she isn’t someone who’s been involved in the education profession. Probably there are many things that we don’t know her views about, and maybe she has not even yet formulated views on everything.

How much change does ESSA enable? When the dust settles here in New York — even if officials want to make radical change — will we end up with a system that looks similar to No Child Left Behind?

I think ESSA really does enable some serious changes. If a state really wants to develop a plan that looks a lot like No Child Left Behind, they could do that, but if they wanted to think more broadly about accountability measures that include both outcomes for students and learning opportunities that schools provide, they can do that. If a state wants to really evolve the kind of assessments that it uses, they can do that … And if a state wants to really make investments — and more equitable investments — in schools, there are several parts of the law that encourage and allow that to happen as well.

New York officials brought up the idea of creating “equity indicators” at the last Board of Regents meeting. What does that mean?

It could mean being very explicit and attentive to the requirements of the law that require publicizing the spending of different schools, which would highlight where there are adequate resources and where there may be inadequate resources.

The state could use indicators that are equity-oriented that illustrate, for example, what kind of learning opportunities students are getting in terms of curriculum, in terms of school climate, in terms of various kinds of program opportunities in different schools.

The law requires that … [the state] look at whether the resources that are needed to turn around a school are there, and are they adequate. And if not, they have to do something about it.

That would mean, for example, the state may need to provide more funding for a struggling school?

They might need to provide more funding. They might need to provide wraparound services for students who don’t have healthcare or [for] before and after-school care. It might mean that they decide the best intervention is to [provide] preschool. It might mean that they need to put in place literacy coaches or math coaches or mentor teachers.

There was no expectation in No Child Left Behind that resources would have to accompany those labels [on struggling schools]. There is an expectation in ESSA that resources and intervention have to accompany those identifications.

You don’t want to hold schools accountable for things that are out of their control. So the indicators you would use to identify a school in need of intervention or assistance would be the things that they can control … graduation rates or test scores or college- and career-readiness.

But if a state is concentrated on inputs — providing extra curriculum, such as arts or physical education, for instance, or improving teacher training — does that divert attention from student outcomes?

It’s not either or. It’s both and. The outcomes are going to be there because they’re required by law. We need to measure performance in English Language Arts and math. We need to measure English learner proficiency gains, graduation rates … But if you only have outcome data and you don’t have any data about what kids are experiencing and what they’re getting, then when you find that the outcomes are not adequate, you don’t actually know very much about how to improve.

You want high-quality accountability, and part of that accountability is also knowing what you need to do to fix things. Because otherwise you’re not being accountable to parents and to children. They need for you to be able to improve things, not just to measure them.

There’s an implicit assumption that having additional resources is an important way to fix schools. But aren’t there limits to what money alone can fix?

There is also a lot of evidence that additional resources, spent particularly on the education of low-income students does pay off in higher graduation rates, higher educational attainment, higher wages as adults, lower poverty rates. The caveat [is] if that money is spent on the right things. You want to spend the money on higher quality instruction. You want to spend it on wraparound services, not on swimming pools and other athletic fields, and other things that are not going to translate into better learning.

I would not make a case that we should throw money at every problem indiscriminately without thinking about what’s needed and what will work … But, at the end of the day, you need to be able to make the investments to make those improvements.

Another thing you have supported is a “dashboard” approach to accountability, where schools are given a number of data points instead of one overall rating, like an A-F grade. But couldn’t that be confusing for parents?

When kids come home from school with their report cards, they get some kind of a grade in each of their subject areas, so the parent knows: How is my kid doing in math and reading and science and social studies and physical education and maybe even behavior or citizenship? That’s very helpful because if you want to help your child learn, and if the teacher wants to focus on what the child needs, you need to know how they’re doing. I’ve never heard a parent who said, “Can you just give my first-grader a single rating and tell me how I rate against the other children in the class with no other details?” It’s not very helpful to move the child forward if you don’t have those specifics.

It’s the same kind of thing with schools. If you really want to know what’s going on at a school and where they’re succeeding and failing, I think parents are easily able to absorb four or five or six pieces of information.

You’ve said that America is obsessed with “popcorn reform.” What do you mean by that? How do your ideas differ?

We tend to change our path every time we have a new school board or legislature or superintendent or whatever. We go from one idea to the next idea. We also tend to get excited about small innovations: Let’s try something over here. Let’s try something over there. But we don’t have, in all cases, the tendency to see what’s working and scale it up.

So what are a few things that you would say have worked and that we should scale up?

We know, for example, that high-quality preschool education reduces the achievement gap before kids get to kindergarten. We know something about high-quality literacy programs that are successful over the long haul … We know something about high-quality mathematics instruction. We also know that kids need to be healthy in order to learn.

Those are kind of basics. They’re fundamental.

It sounds like what you’re saying is these are not necessarily super fun and glamorous, but they are the things that we have seen work over the long haul.

Yeah. And there are some super fun and glamorous things that one can sprinkle in there. There’s all kinds of interesting work going on with technology. People are working on gaming and new assessments and various things that are at the edge. And that’s good too, but we have to keep sort of a strong element of, let’s be sure everybody’s got the basics at a high-quality level.

Do you see New York as being on the vanguard of many of the reforms you have advocated?

I think it’s a little premature to know exactly where New York will end up in its plan. But certainly I’ve heard the Regents talking about caring about equity in their investments in schools.

I will say that they have been explicit in every conversation I’ve been a part of, with either the Regents or the state [education department] staff, in raising the equity issue and saying this is going to be a centerpiece of our plan.

new use

Committee picks Denver Language School to use building vacated by shuttered elementary

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Teacher Yu-Hsin Lien helps her third-grade students with classwork at the Denver Language School.

A charter middle school that immerses students in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese would occupy the northeast Denver building of an elementary school shuttered for low performance if the school board follows a committee recommendation made public Friday.

Denver Language School serves more than 700 students from across the city in kindergarten through eighth grade, although the recommendation is only for the upper grades. The school was one of seven that applied to use the building previously occupied by Gilpin Montessori elementary school in the Five Points neighborhood.

With real estate for schools scarce in Denver, the recommendation represents a win for the Denver Language School and a nod to some of the district’s priorities, including rewarding highly rated schools and collaborating with charters.

A committee of community members and Denver Public Schools employees tasked with reviewing potential occupants is recommending placing the charter’s fourth through eighth grades there next year while the school’s current building in east Denver is being renovated. After that, the recommendation is for the fifth through eighth grades to be housed at Gilpin.

In a letter to the community (read it below), the committee cited Denver Language School’s “high academic performance” and “track record of strong enrollment” among the reasons they chose it. The school has for the past two years been rated “green,” the district’s second-highest rating.

Because of the language immersion model, few new students enroll after kindergarten, which means the middle school wouldn’t draw many students away from neighborhood schools, the letter says, a concern voiced by some community members.

Denver Language School would pay the district to use the building. In a gentrifying city where real estate prices have been steadily increasing and the number of school buildings is limited, securing an affordable location is one of the biggest hurdles charters face.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg received the recommendation earlier this week. He is expected on Dec. 18 to make his recommendation to the school board, which is set to vote Dec. 21.

The school board voted last year to close Gilpin Montessori despite community opposition. This year, the building housed several programs serving students with special needs while the district decided on a long term occupant. The district’s criteria for that occupant were that it be a currently operating or previously approved secondary school with 600 students or fewer.

Denver Language School opened in 2010. Last year, it served about 300 students in grades five through eight. The letter says the school expects to enroll 365 students in those grades in future years, which means it would not fill the entire 600-student-capacity Gilpin building.

“In the future, we will revisit options for using the rest of the building,” the letter says.

The committee also noted the diversity of Denver Language School’s students as a positive. Last year, about 48 percent of students were children of color and 19 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty. Both percentages are below district averages.

The committee included four community members and five Denver Public Schools employees. They met privately five times over the course of two and a half weeks to come up with their recommendation. The district also hosted several forums to gather community feedback.

The committee members were:

  • Evelyn Barnes, parent of two students and aide to city council president Albus Brooks
  • John Hayden, president of the Curtis Park Neighbors neighborhood association
  • Katherine Murphy, parent of a former Gilpin student and a Curtis Park resident
  • Maggie Miller, member of the city’s Slot Home Task Force and a Five Points resident
  • Joe Amundsen, DPS’s associate director of school design and intensive support
  • Liz Mendez, DPS’s director of operations support services
  • Maya Lagana, DPS’s senior director of portfolio management
  • Sara Baris, DPS’s senior manager of planning and analysis
  • Shontel Lewis, DPS’s manager of public affairs

The other schools that applied included one district-run alternative high school, Compassion Road Academy, and five other charter schools: The Boys School, Colorado High School Charter GES, Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, 5280 High School and The CUBE. The last two schools have been approved by the district but are not yet open.

Read a letter the district sent to the Gilpin community below.

Indiana graduation pathways

Parents and educators worry about how new graduation rules will affect students with disabilities

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

In the wake of a wildly unpopular decision to change Indiana’s high school graduation rules, state officials must grapple with how to actually implement the plan — and students with disabilities could face more challenges following those rules than their peers.

Called graduation pathways, the goal was to ensure students are ready for life after high school, but the recommendations are complex. The system seems to overlap with existing Indiana diploma requirements and also requires additional criteria such as exams, completing advanced courses, or gaining credit for internships.

But there are no guidelines around, for example, what kinds of internships or community service programs would count for graduation, what kinds of supports and accommodations would be in place for students with disabilities or how the pathways would function alongside a student’s needs for special services and therapies.

The potential for these challenges was not lost on the dozens of parents and educators who tried to convince state officials last week to rethink the plan. Most of the people who commented publicly and many who sent emails to the state education department mentioned concerns about students with special needs being able to meet the new demands.

Stacey Brewer, a principal in Yorktown, talked about her own child, a 6-year-old with autism, when she addressed the Indiana State Board of Education.

“There is a very real chance that my child with autism will never be able to accomplish” parts of the graduation pathways plan that go beyond what’s required by the state’s general diploma, Brewer said. The state is “not weighing out the disastrous impact” the plan would have on students.

As she finished her passionate testimony, she walked back to her seat to energetic applause from the packed auditorium. Many with similar stories and sentiments spoke after her.

J.T. Coopman, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents said before Indiana can create graduation pathways, it needs to figure out what’s happening with its diplomas — a related issue that has vexed parents and educators ever since the federal government announced it would no longer count Indiana’s general diploma in the graduation rate the state reports. The move could exclude about 12 percent of Hoosier high schoolers from being considered graduates.

Indiana has four diplomas: The standard Core 40 diploma, a general diploma with fewer requirements, and two honors diplomas, one for academics and another for career and technical education. Most students in the state earn a Core 40.

“Don’t we need to fix the diploma statute to better serve all Indiana students before we embark on a new, untested direction for our graduates?” Coopman said.

Not all of the feedback was negative. Mary Roberson, a superintendent in Perry County, said she supported the graduation pathways plan overall, and that her district was already having students with disabilities pursue internships, where they’ve been successful.

In a newsletter sent out last week, Pam Wright, director of special education for the Indiana Department of Education, said policymakers and educators need to remember that all students with disabilities are not the same and have different needs and abilities. Some might struggle to meet the pathways requirements, but others might not.

“It is my hope that as other debates occur during this legislative session, the one-size-fits-all disability myth continues to be debunked,” Wright said in the newsletter. “Yes, definitely, students with disabilities need to be considered in any public policy change, but the uniqueness of each student’s capabilities should not be lost in the debate.”

Only about 17 percent of students with disabilities don’t earn a high school diploma, and almost half earn the state’s standard Core 40 diploma or an honors diploma.

Conversations about pathways, both as they relate to special education and to a variety of other topics, are just getting started. The pathways committee said it would continue to meet to address whether Indiana should create a single statewide diploma and how graduation waivers work in the new system.

Indiana law allows for a graduation waiver if students fail to meet pathway requirements, but the waivers are controversial, and schools are sometimes hesitant to award them. Supporters say they give opportunities to students who might face specific challenges, but critics believe the waivers give students a free pass and don’t ensure they leave high school with adequate skills.

No additional committee meetings have been scheduled at this time.

Students with significant cognitive disabilities — generally about 1 percent of students across the state — wouldn’t be affected by the pathways plan. They typically don’t earn high school diplomas, instead they receive a certificate of completion, a credential that until recently showed employers or educators little else besides that a student physically attended school. (It has since been expanded and updated to include more course suggestions and academic structure.)

Last week wasn’t the first time special education advocates came out in full force to challenge state officials on policy that could be detrimental to students with disabilities. Several diploma-related topics have garnered considerable attention, such as when the state attempted to overhaul diplomas in 2015.

The next year, when lawmakers passed legislation to ensure all schools offered students a chance to earn any state diplomas, educators, parents and other community advocates were there testifying to lawmakers, too. And as recently as last year, when an early version of a bill would have killed the general diploma, the language was amended out after pressure from the special education community.

Often, these graduation policy changes are sparked by a call for students to meet higher standards demanded either by employers or higher education. But Kim Dodson, executive director for the Arc of Indiana, an organization that advocates for people with disabilities, said focusing on raising the academic bar distracts from the very real problems policies like the current graduation pathways plan could present to students with special needs.

“Most of the time, when students fall short of their expectations, it’s not because the bar wasn’t set high enough,” Dodson said. “It’s because they didn’t have the resources and accommodations they needed to be fully successful.”