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.

Q and A

Former Success Academy lawyer hoping to start own charter network wants to ‘take it to the next level’

As the former top lawyer for Success Academy, Emily Kim had a hand in almost every aspect of New York City’s largest and most controversial charter-school network — from negotiating lunch times for schools in shared buildings to defending Success in court.

After spending six years with Success, Kim is setting off to launch her own charter network with locations in Manhattan’s District 6, which includes Inwood and Washington Heights, and the Bronx’s District 12, which includes the south and central Bronx. Called Zeta Charter Schools, she hopes to open in 2018.

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Emily Kim
Emily Kim

Kim is still a big believer in Success — two of her children go there, and she praised its lightening-rod leader, Eva Moskowitz, as “brilliant” — but she thinks she has something different to offer.

“I chose the best schools possible for my own children,” she said during a recent interview with Chalkbeat near her home on the Upper West Side, “but I’m still going to innovate and take it to the next level.”

The school’s co-founders — Jessica Stein and Meghan Mackay — also have ties to Success, as do several board members listed in the school’s charter application. (One of the board members, Jenny Sedlis, is a Success co-founder and director of the pro-charter advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY.)

But Kim’s vision also seems tailored to avoid some of the usual critiques of charter schools, including that they rely on harsh discipline policies. By contrast, her plan for Zeta calls for limiting the use of suspensions. She also wants her schools to be diverse, though she admits that will be difficult in residentially segregated areas like the Bronx.

A mother of three, Kim has taught in classrooms in New York City, Long Island and even West Africa. She worked on special education issues in Philadelphia district schools before heading to law school at Temple and Columbia. While working as a corporate litigator, she took on a case pro-bono for Success — and was soon offered a job as the network’s first general counsel.

Below are edited highlights from our interview with Kim earlier this month where she described how her experience as an Asian-American growing up in Iowa shaped her views on school segregation, why she believes high-stakes tests are important, and what role she sees for charter schools like hers.

Kim talked about sending her son to Success:

My child was 4 years old when all of this kind of unfolded. The first school I visited was Eva’s school, Harlem 4.

… I was so astounded by what I saw — which is the energy of the teachers. Just the level of dedication, commitment, the joy and energy of their teachers — I was blown away.

Then Eva gave a talk at the end. She was clearly a hard-driving, almost in a sense, from my perspective then, a business person. So I thought, “That’s the type of person who should be running schools.”

What’s your role going to be as you launch your own charter schools?

I’ll be the CEO. I want to take all of the great things that I saw at Success and at other schools and — like in any other enterprise — I want to take the best of the best, and I want to implement it.

And then I want to work on implementing some of the ideas that I have as well.

What’s your goal for your schools?

The number one goal is to just create additional education opportunities. As a parent, I feel this very strongly: No parent should have to send their child to a school that is not a good school.

… Our schools are going to prepare kids for the tests, and the reason is that tests are access to power. And whether you like it or not, if you want to go to college — to a good college — if you want to go to law school like I did, you take the SATs. You take the LSAT. You have to do a good job.

How are you going to measure your schools’ success?

Academic outcomes are first and foremost because truly, if I can’t hit the academic outcomes, there’s no point. I’m wasting everybody’s time and I don’t want to do that. That’s number one.

… We’re looking at going backward from very rigorous high school and college curricula, and working backwards from there. So that’s our vision when we’re establishing our schools. What do kids need to be successful in college?

And it’s not just the testing outcomes, but it’s also the soft skills that kids need in order to get there. Kids need to be able to self-regulate, and that’s got to start in elementary school, in order to be successful in middle school.

On what her schools will look like:

One of the most important elements of our school design is going to be technology.

We’re still in early days, but I’m visiting many schools across the nation that are doing things that are very exciting in technology. I’m also going to be looking in the private sector to understand what are the skills that kids need to actually be innovators. I’d love if one of our students were able to invent an app that made a difference in the world.

Many New York City schools, district and charter alike, are highly segregated by race and class. Kim spoke about the city’s segregation:

In New York City, with the exception of Success Academy and other high-performing schools, you can go to the playground and look at the skin of the children who are playing there or look around the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and you’ll know the quality of the school. It’s a terrible, terrible situation. And that’s 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

And how her own background informs her views on the issue:

I grew up in Iowa. I was one of the very few students who looked like me. My dad was a math professor. There were very few African Americans, few Hispanics, and very few Asians. That was hard in a lot of ways in that I grew up with a lot of teasing and whatnot. But I also was forced to navigate a world that I didn’t understand from my own experience.

… I have the perspective that it shouldn’t [just] be the case that minorities are integrating into the larger majority population. The majority population also has to integrate themselves in the minority enclaves. As long as we have this idea that it has to go one way only, that’s perpetuating the problem.

Have the city’s charter schools done enough when it comes to integration?

… It’s just so challenging for charters because honestly, opponents of charters use the segregation idea as another weapon against charters in terms of why they’re not serving the greater good — because they’re segregated.

Well, they’re segregated because they went into areas that were low income. Unfortunately, those kids weren’t getting a good education.

So what should the mission of charter schools be?

Charter schools were largely, originally intended to bring options to children who didn’t have them — so that would be low-income [students]. That’s not really my vision of charter schools. I think that charter schools are places where innovation can happen.

… I would love for what we learn through our [research-and-development] approach to be implemented at district schools. I’m very interested in district reform. I think there are a lot of challenges to district reform, but we’d love to come up with solutions that can be applied in other contexts.

Kim explained her decision to leave Success and start her own schools:

Staying with Success surely would have been a very rich experience, but I also thought I wanted to build something and I had some ideas.

… It was a really hard decision. But I’m really glad I did and every day I’ve made that decision, I feel like I’ve made the right decision.

I guess it will be answered once I have the schools up and running. If they’re doing well, then I’ll have my answer.

approaching deadline

In year three of New York City’s massive school turnaround program, the big question is: What’s next?

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks with East Flatbush Community Research School Principal Daveida Daniel during a visit of the Renewal middle school.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña walked into a classroom at Longwood Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, where students were absorbed with gleaming iMacs and recording equipment.

She paused for a moment, watching the teacher shuttle between students experimenting with audio-editing software.

“Look at the attention these kids are getting,” Fariña said, praising the school’s new vocational program in digital media. “It’s a feeling of renewed vigor and energy.”

With the smell of fresh paint still hanging in the air, Fariña’s visit was meant to highlight the enormous investments the city has made in dozens of schools that have floundered for years — including this one.

Under its former name, Banana Kelly, the school suffered from one of the highest dropout rates in the city, churned through four principals in five years, and struggled with serious safety incidents. (A previous principal was doused with pepper spray, and in 2012 was shot with a BB pellet outside the building.)

Now — as one of several back-to-school check-ins at some of the 78 schools the city is currently trying to revamp — Fariña was eager to praise the school’s energetic principal and its recent gains. Its attendance and graduation rates have improved in recent years, though its 2016 graduation rate (which is the latest figure publicly available) still lagged behind schools with similar student populations.

The visit comes as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s three-year effort to revive long-struggling schools, including the former Banana Kelly, is rapidly approaching its third birthday this November. The “Renewal” program — which has cost at least $383 million so far — is arguably the mayor’s most ambitious education reform, an effort to nurse some of the city’s lowest-performing schools back to health with extra social services and academic support rather than shut them down.

And while some experts say it’s too soon to expect big payoffs, de Blasio’s three-year timeline for “fast and intense improvement” has invited scrutiny into whether the program is translating into better outcomes for students.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña tours Longwood Prep with Principal Asya Johnson (right) and student Heaven Molina.

“Enough time has elapsed that there is an appetite for looking at results,” said Aaron Pallas, a Teachers College professor who has studied the program.

Meanwhile, the exit strategy for schools in the Renewal program remains unclear. Despite promises that schools released from the program won’t lose the extra support they’ve come to rely upon, some school personnel are nervous that extra funding, counselors, and social services could be scaled back.

“There are some principals whose reaction is: ‘We really need to get it together because next year these [partner organization] resources might not be here,’” said Derek Anello, a program director with the nonprofit Partnership with Children who oversees staff in four Renewal schools. “Lots of people are experiencing it as the last of the three years.”

Planning for life after Renewal

Felicia Guerrier has helped usher in a new wave of social services at  P.S. 298 Dr. Betty Shabazz in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a Renewal school where 96 percent of students come from low-income families, and which used to suffer from “a love drought and a resource drought,” as she recently put it.

She supervises two new full-time social workers, oversees vision and dental services now offered out of the school’s auditorium, and coordinates with a nursing service that helps keep student health issues like asthma and diabetes in check — resources she says have led to a big boost in attendance and family involvement at the school.

But she’s already started handing off some of her responsibilities, out of a concern that the nonprofit she works for, Partnership with Children, might eventually be forced to reduce its role at the school. (Some nonprofits in Renewal schools are unsure whether their contracts will be extended past this school year.)

Guerrier explained that she’s now taking a back seat in meetings, making sure the assistant principal is in the loop to coordinate with health providers, and positioning the school’s parent coordinator to help run a food pantry for students and their families.

“I’m feeling the pressure to make sure there is some type of lasting power with what’s happening even when I’m gone,” she said.

While the mayor vowed in 2014 that the original cohort of 94 Renewal schools would be revamped or shuttered within three years (16 schools have already been closed or folded into other schools), the city has indicated the program will continue beyond this year. And officials stressed that the work of nonprofit organizations like Partnership with Children won’t end even if schools are taken out of the program.

“Steady improvement is key, and of course we will evaluate each school that is ready to transition from the program and provide them with the right supports to maintain their improvement,” Aimee Horowitz, the executive superintendent for Renewal schools, said in a statement.

An unclear exit strategy

Even as the Renewal schools move forward with their reforms, a big question hangs over them: How exactly do they exit the program? So far, no schools have left it without being combined with another school or closed.

This August, Mayor de Blasio said that would change. In addition to more closures, he said some schools could graduate out of the program, and others might stay past the three-year deadline.

“We have to work out the details,” de Blasio said, “but we’re not going to leave a school in the lurch.”

In making decisions about which schools to shutter or merge in the past, the city has looked at test scores, enrollment changes, principal effectiveness, and attendance rates — though officials have said there aren’t strict cutoffs, making it difficult to predict which schools could depart the program this fall.

If schools are released from Renewal, it remains to be seen whether they’ll continue to enjoy the same level of support and extra resources.

Brian Bradley, principal of Renaissance School of the Arts in East Harlem, said he is preparing for the possibility that this will be his school’s last year in the program. Renewal, he said, has made a real difference: Additional training for teachers has improved classroom instruction, aggressive outreach is boosting attendance, and the community school director has taken over once-overlooked administrative responsibilities.

“We have a great partnership and that has been the number one thing,” he said.

The school only banked on three years of support, but Bradley noted he has come to rely on extra funding the school receives to lengthen the school day. It’s a feature of the Renewal program that has a dual payoff, he said: more time for student learning and a pay bump that helps reduce teacher turnover.

While he’s already looking for sponsorships or other ways to fund his new programs, he’s aware that his school might have improved its way out of extra money and help.

“I have definitely used the phrase ‘victim of our own success,’” he said, “and that could be the reality.”

Looking for results

The program’s three-year anniversary doesn’t just create uncertainty for Renewal schools, it also raises questions about whether de Blasio’s signature turnaround program is working.

Some advocates of the mayor’s strategy have expressed concerns that his promise of rapid improvement was too aggressive. They say school turnarounds usually require well over three years, especially when they hinge on cultivating partnerships with social service organizations — a new task for many school leaders.

City officials have pointed to better attendance, test scores and graduation rates in some schools, but many others have not yet made significant academic gains. And researchers who have tried to sort out whether the program has led to academic improvements have reached mixed conclusions.

Using three years of test score data (including the results released last month), the Manhattan Institute’s Marcus Winters found that the program is generally boosting math and English scores in elementary and middle schools.

But using a different statistical method that compares Renewal schools to similar ones that didn’t receive extra resources, Teachers College’s Pallas found the program appeared to have no effect on test scores or graduation rates. (He has not yet updated his analysis to include the latest test scores.)

Renewal schools remain under pressure to raise their scores. To aid in that process, education staffers who work with the schools have pushed them to target increasingly specific groups of underperforming students, according to Partnership with Children’s Derek Anello.

“In the prior two years we were more general in what the goals were,” Anello said. Now, “There’s really a microscope on every number and how we move the needle.”

Yet even if schools don’t make huge strides this year, some observers say the mayor is unlikely to change course. Many argue that adding social services to high-need schools enhances students’ health and wellness, even if it doesn’t result in swift academic improvements. The city has invested heavily in creating social service-rich “community schools,” which include more than 130 schools outside the Renewal program.

Even if Renewal’s academic results are mixed, Professor Pallas of Teachers College predicts that de Blasio won’t face strong political pressure to scale back his resource-intensive approach to school improvement, which has generally earned support from local politicians and the teachers union.

The program “resonates with progressives’ desire to support community-based schools,” he said. But, he added, “at some point somebody’s got to make the difficult decision about whether the benefits are worth the investments they’re making.”