On the Agenda

Four things to watch for at New Schools Venture Fund Summit, this week’s big education reform confab

PHOTO: Katherine Taylor

Education conferences are often carefully orchestrated affairs involving panel discussions in which the participants more or less agree. Rarely do they make headlines.

But last year’s summit put on by the New Schools Venture Fund — a “venture philanthropy” that supports education reform causes, including charter schools — was an exception.

Its emphasis on social justice, with one attendee describing the event as reminiscent of a Black Lives Matter rally, sparked a heated debate about the role of race and politics in education, as below-the-surface tensions within that movement went public. The election of Donald Trump and his appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary have only served to exacerbate the strains.

This year’s conference, which includes a few big names, including former Secretary of Education John King, will feature some discussion of these debates, as well as a heavy focus on education technology.

Chalkbeat will be attending this year, and here’s what we’ll be looking for:

Can right and left get along?

The debate about last year’s summit was sparked by a blog post from the Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio. He described a “leftward lurch” that was going to “push conservatives out of education reform,” as epitomized by the conference’s focus on social-justice issues. This led to a flurry of blog posts, internal debates, and open letters about political divides and racial diversity within the ed reform movement.

Some on both sides of the debate worried that long-running bipartisan support for charter schools and teacher accountability initiatives — recall Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney both praising President Obama’s education agenda — would be weakened.

In a nod to this issue, this year’s summit’s closing session is titled “Why Can’t We Be Friends?: Disagreements, Tradeoffs and Common Ground,” and features panelists with diverse ideological perspectives, including Shavar Jeffries of Democrats for Education Reform and Matt Ladner of the Charles Koch Institute.

How do people talk about DeVos and Trump?

Since the last summit, U.S. politics has been turned upside down — a new president and secretary of education are promoting school choice, but not the brand that’s generally popular at New Schools.

Some charter supporters worry that DeVos and Trump will make the topic politically toxic and are much more skeptical of private school vouchers, DeVos’s signature issue. Although the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools initially praised Trump’s proposed budget — which directs more money to charter schools, but cuts from the education budget — a number of charter leaders criticized it in an op-ed in USA Today, as did DFER.

“We want to join with all those who are fighting to defend public education as an essential pillar of our democracy,” the charter leaders wrote.

Notably, there’s not much about Trump, DeVos, or private school vouchers on the NSVF agenda, suggesting that the conference may steer clear of the topic — at least officially. We’re sure it will be a frequent topic of conversation at receptions and hotel bars after the official programming.

A “big bet” on ed tech — but where’s the evidence?

The agenda does include a heavy focus on education technology and “personalized learning,” or the idea that technology can be used to tailor teaching to specific students’ needs. Sessions include “How to Personalize Learning with Rigor and High Expectations,” and “Is Ed Tech the Great Equalizer? Designing Products for Equity,” among several others.

Even the description of the one panel on the new federal education law starts by saying, “The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) brings tremendous opportunities for innovation and personalized learning.”

This emphasis dovetails with a recent report from NSVF calling on philanthropists to make a “big bet” on technology-based innovation in schools. Indeed, two of the biggest sponsors of the event — The Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — are key supporters of edtech. (The Gates Foundation is also a funder of Chalkbeat’s.)

That attention raises an obvious question: What’s the evidence that such an approach is likely to pay off for students? The research base on personalized learning is fairly thin, particularly when looking beyond standardized test scores. Supporters can point to some evidence of success, but critics can also point to a lack of impact in other instances, and an overall lack of studies on the topic.

We’ll be watching to see what studies are cited at panels promoting personalized learning. If they aren’t, we’ll be asking where the optimism about a generally unproven strategy stems from.

How is the charter school movement evolving?

One session, “Charters: Bigger, Better or Different?” points to three separate visions for the charter school movement: a focus on growth (expand quickly) vs. quality (be really good) vs. variety (offer families a number of different options). This panel features the heads of three charter networks, including KIPP.

In fact, the conference will be attended by many of the leaders of the highest-profile charter school networks. And the charter world is as big, numbers-wise, as it’s ever been. That means new pressures and lots of ideas about how the sector should evolve.

Should charters grow more, or less, quickly? Should the sector focus on creating different educational options for families to choose from? Should no-excuses charter schools change their approach to discipline? Will anyone discuss much-maligned virtual charters, which have posted abysmal test scores, leading even many charter advocates to call for them to be more tightly regulated?

There may well be tension between the different goals, so we’ll be paying attention to what different panelists have to say on the topic — and what approach charter leaders believe should be emphasized.

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.

Coming to Tennessee

Betsy DeVos to address Jeb Bush’s education summit in Nashville

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos is scheduled this month to make her first visit to Tennessee as U.S. secretary of education.

When former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush convenes his foundation’s annual education summit in Nashville this month, he will welcome the person he championed to be the nation’s education chief: Betsy DeVos.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education announced this week that DeVos will address its summit on Nov. 30 after Bush opens the gathering of education leaders from across the nation.

The speech will mark DeVos’s first official visit to Tennessee since the Michigan billionaire became President Trump’s secretary of education in February.

It also will reunite two old friends. Bush and DeVos worked closely together to advance school-choice initiatives in Florida, and Politico reported this month that it was Bush who recommended DeVos for the cabinet job to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who led Trump’s White House transition team.

The upcoming addresses by DeVos and Bush are expected to offer a one-two punch on the merits of school choice, even as one of the movement’s primary vehicles — charter schools — have dropped substantially in popularity, according to a recent Education Next poll among both Democrats and Republicans.

The group’s 10th annual summit also will convene in a state that has consistently rejected vouchers as an alternative for students attending low-performing public schools.  Even as money has increasingly flowed into Tennessee to promote vouchers and voucher candidates, including cash from DeVos’s American Federation for Children, the proposal to provide students with state-funded tuition to attend private schools failed again this year to clear the state’s House of Representatives. (The Senate has passed the legislation three times. Lawmakers will take up the matter again in January.)

In announcing DeVos’s address on Thursday, the foundation trumpeted her as a longtime “advocate for children and a voice for parents.”

“As secretary, DeVos continues to advocate for returning control of education to states and localities, giving parents greater power to choose the educational settings that are best for their children, and ensuring that higher education puts students on the path to successful careers,” the announcement says.

DeVos will face a friendly audience of mostly like-minded reformers at the Nashville summit, but the reception she will receive outside is less certain; the city last year voted mostly for Democrat Hillary Clinton, even as the state gave Trump a solid win.

DeVos has been greeted by jeers and protests across America during her recently completed “Rethink School” tour. In Tennessee, anti-DeVos educators and parents congregated outside of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s home offices on the eve of her confirmation vote by the Senate panel he chairs. Both of Tennessee’s senators also were deluged with phone calls before they ultimately cast their votes for Trump’s pick.

Bush launched his foundation in 2009 to promote the education model he led in Florida as governor: expanding private and charter school choice initiatives, holding back third-graders who failed reading tests, and awarding letter grades to schools based largely on test score performance.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

Last year’s “ExcelinEd” summit in Washington, D.C., convened more than a thousand educators, policy experts and legislators from 47 states. Speakers included former education chiefs Arne Duncan, William Bennett and Rod Paige and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who served as the foundation’s interim leader during Bush’s failed 2016 quest for the White House.

This year’s event likely will include a focus on expanding the role of education technology in schools. Both DeVos and Bush have embraced tech-infused personalized learning and fully virtual schools. Online charter schools, though, have faced a wave of negative research and press, including a recent Chalkbeat investigation into a struggling school in Indiana. One of several sponsors of the summit is K12, the largest operator of virtual charters.

(Disclosure: The Summit’s list of sponsors also includes several supporters of Chalkbeat. You can find our list of major donors here.)