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.

How I Lead

Meditation and Mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school. Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teacher College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness. For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving (and) for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways, do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.

Regents retreat

Regents use annual retreat to take stock of changes in testing, charter schools and more

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York State’s top education policymakers took a whirlwind tour Monday of their own accomplishments this year, kicking off a two-day retreat full of presentations and updates.

The briefings, conducted by top education department officials, served as a distillation of some top policy goals among the Board of Regents: rolling back graduation requirements, creating new graduation pathways, cutting back on state testing, and even rethinking how the board evaluates the charter schools it oversees.

Monday’s discussions largely tread on familiar territory, but here are three of the key issues they discussed.

Testing

New York State continues to be a hotbed of controversy surrounding testing, with roughly one in five students opting out of the 3-8 math and reading exams in recent years (the number is far smaller in New York City).

In response to concerns about the length of the exams, the Regents reduced the number of testing days for each exam from three to two — a change that went into effect this year. Education officials touted those changes Monday while stressing that they have gone out of their way to involve educators in the process of crafting exam questions.

“One of the things I believe is a major adjustment in New York is the extent to which teachers across New York are involved,” state education MaryEllen Elia told the board, noting that 75 percent of the test questions are released to the public. “We have to constantly be asking ourselves what can we do better.”

Still, some Regents continued to express concerns about the exams, including whether they are fair to English learners, and whether the tests themselves help perpetuate disparities.

“What research is used about what’s developmentally appropriate?” Regent Judith Johnson asked. “Is it possible to have a test question that is culturally neutral?”

Charter schools

The Regents are currently discussing changes to the way they evaluate the charter schools they oversee, including taking a deeper look at suspension rates compared to traditional district schools, and tracking why students leave.

“There are charter chains that might have 25 percent of the students when they first started and they’re claiming great growth,” Regent Kathleen Cashin said during Monday’s discussion, adding that questions about why students leave shouldn’t be “buried.”

The discussion highlights a tension in the board’s discussion of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. On the one hand, board members are often quite critical — worrying some within the charter sector. But on the other hand, they have still approved large batches of new charters, including at their most recent meeting.

And the debate will continue in the fall: The Regents are expected to consider a proposal for changing the way charter schools are evaluated at their September meeting.

Students with disabilities

The board also heard from state officials about efforts to improve access to programs for students with disabilities, including those in preschool.

As Chalkbeat has previously reported, there is a shortage of seats for preschool special education students — with students often languishing at home without education services, a problem that advocates say has only gotten worse. Part of the issue, officials say, is they don’t have a way of quickly tracking supply and demand for those programs, which are often provided by private organizations.

Instead, state officials rely on phone calls and informal surveys, which can make it difficult for officials to quickly respond to shortages. Now, state officials are in the process of implementing a new data system for tracking students and open seats.

“We need to move from our current reactive system,” Christopher Suriano, an assistant commissioner of special education told the board. “We have to start reacting proactively to make sure we have capacity.”

Grab bag

  • The Regents spent some time talking about how to measure “civic readiness” which will be a component of how schools are judged under the state’s ESSA plan.
  • New data released by state officials shows that at least 500 students with disabilities graduated this year as part of a new policy that lets superintendents review their performance in lieu of passing all of the Regents exams. Though officials cautioned that the data are preliminary, and the number is likely to increase, that’s up from 315 students during the previous year.