KnowAtom's Blog

Jennifer Berkshire: Five Key Debates

Posted by Sara Goodman on Jun 28, 2016


Nationally recognized education journalist Jennifer Berkshire discusses big questions that will continue to shape the future of K-12 with KnowAtom CEO Francis Vigeant.

"We're seeing the whole conversation around testing start to shift. The conversation around the relationship between charter and district schools is going to, if not shift, get sort of more concrete and out in the open. I think that as we have this sort of bigger debate about the future, about what kind of jobs people are going to have, it's going to be impossible to talk about schools without having a more vigorous argument about what schools are supposed to be doing." -Berkshire

In this transcript of their conversation, Jennifer and Francis discuss these Five Debates:

  1. What is school for?
  2. Should school be about adults pulling or kids pushing?
  3. What should the relationship between charter schools and traditional school districts be?
  4. How should we measure school quality?
  5. What is the relationship between schools and neighborhoods?


Francis Vigeant: Hi there, and thanks for joining us for this webinar discussion of five big questions shaping the future of K-12 education. My name is Francis. I'm CEO here at KnowAtom. Glad to have you all with us, as well as our special guest, Jennifer Berkshire.

To tell you a little about KnowAtom and our interest in these five key questions shaping the future of K-12, KnowAtom is a group of educators. We're located just north of Boston, in Salem, Massachusetts.

If you haven't noticed, there's been a kind of education revolution that's been underway for some time. At KnowAtom, we're not education reformers, but we find ourselves often times in schools where education reform, and other aspects of change, are underway. As we're helping schools and districts meet the needs of the new next generation science standards, which is our focus, why we're called KnowAtom. This kind of tug of war, at times, is playing out. These five questions, in part, are a way of discussing that tug of war. At the same time, helping all of us sort of wrestle with the ideas that really may not have entirely clear answers.

I'm very excited to have our special guest, Jennifer Berkshire, with us. Jennifer is a nationally recognized education journalist and blogger at EduShyster. Her latest venture is as co-creator, co-host and co-producer of Have You Heard, along with Aaron French. Have You Heard is a monthly podcast focused on education issues ranging from education turnaround to kindergarten suspensions. Berkshire spent six years editing a newspaper for the American Federation of Teachers, in Massachusetts, before freelancing as an education journalist. Her articles and interviews on the debate over the future of public education have appeared in the Washington Post, Salon, Baffler, The Progressive, and also most recently I noticed, in the New York Times she was quoted. Jennifer, thank you for joining us.

Jennifer Berkshire: Thanks for having me.


Francis: I have this picture of you here from Have You Heard? I guess that's your Have You Heard self. I was wondering if you could tell us maybe a little bit about your inspiration for Have You Heard, and what it's about.

Jennifer: Sure. That picture, it may appear like a cartoon, but that is really what I look like, so thanks for putting that up. The inspiration for starting our new podcast had a lot to do with the five debates that we're going to be talking about today. No doubt, if you are in a school or near a school, or have anything to do with education, you've noticed that the debate over the future of public education in this country, is really intense. Yet, it can often be really kind of stale too.

You tend to hear a lot of the same talking points and arguments over and over again, and we thought, well wouldn't it be great to go around and hear what people who were in the thick of this stuff have to say? Whether they're students, whether they're teachers, and that in some way, by bringing the voices of people who don't really get to participate in the conversation out into the open, we might be able to change the debate. So far so good.

Francis: I know I've enjoyed the Have You Heard podcast series so far, you have four sessions up so far? I believe.

Jennifer: The fourth episode came out last Friday. It dropped, as my co-creator would say. He's a millennial, so he uses words like that. We're planning a series of 10 to start, and then we'll see what happens next.

Francis: If you'd like a direct link it's We'll show this again later at the end. Just to let you know, if you are on the live session, we are going to do our best to take questions at the end. Please, as we're going through, feel free to drop questions into the little part of your screen there. Send them over and we will try to entertain those at the end.

Jennifer, I've got to ask you, in all your travels, have you figured out yet, what is school all about? What's it for?

Jennifer: One of the things that's become really clear to me is even that big and so fundamental question, is one we don't share even the most common agreement upon. People who are listening, you can carry this experiment out yourself. This afternoon, run this question by a student, by a teacher, by and administrator and by a parent, and then just be sort of dazzled at how different their answers are.

I think what Francis is alluding to in the opening, this sort of sense of kind of clashing ideas on the ground. There isn't an agreement about whether the point of school now to train kids for jobs, or for what particular kinds of jobs? Is it about college readiness?

If we go back in history, where this picture is taken from, you'll see that people started with a much broader definition of what school was for, and it always included things like self-development and civic responsibility. Over time, even as we heap more and more responsibility on the schools, our understanding of what school is actually supposed to do has gotten narrower. You don't tend to hear as much about civic responsibility. In some cases, the definition of what school is for has been narrowed all the way down just to raising math and English test scores.

Francis: How do you see this playing out in maybe specific schools? Do you feel like, not necessarily naming names, but do you feel like there are dominant schools of thought that are basically at odds, that represent that tug of war?

Jennifer: Yeah. Absolutely. When I travel around, whether it's for writing or for the podcast, I'm always interested in examples of what's happening on the ground. Our latest podcast is about some students in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and what you can see there is that these students, many of whom have a tie to the Dominican Republic, have a broader definition of what school is for than maybe their school leaders. Lawrence is in the midst of a turnaround. There's a lot of emphasis on boosting academic achievement there. If you listen to the students, they envision the purpose of school as being about education through experience, with an eye towards helping them be leaders who can transform their own communities. The different schools of thought, I would say, are almost like different sizes of thought. How big your vision is of what's possible ends up determining your answer for what school is for.

You see, in some communities, take Nashville for example, there's been a huge effort there to tie schools to particular kinds of job training. You'll see more and more academies in the communities, where kids basically pick their occupation early on and get trained for it. You're being trained for a health career, for example, or you might end up at a hospitality academy. Think about how much narrower that school of thought it, the school as a kind of vocational training center, versus what the kids in Lawrence, you can hear on my latest podcast, they're talking about, where they see school as broadening their horizons.

Francis: It's interesting. It seems like how one defines school is largely about how broad your vision of what's possible in education is. In the sense that the origins of education, and again it depends I guess where we're particularly pointing, in other time periods it's for literacy's purpose is the basic skills necessary to be part of mill work and different manufacturing operations like this. Today I think the maximum vision that I'm seeing, and I don't know if you agree,  has to do with empowering children and their futures, and communities.

It seems to me that perhaps this debate for some may be flipping around, back to its origins, and being prepared for industry in some cases. Is it maybe more the case that there are some places, where maybe the debate hasn't progressed past that point? Perhaps that the debate isn't circling around, it just never really left the basics in the first place. Does that make sense?

Jennifer: Yeah. I feel like you are starting to see the pendulum swing a little bit on this debate. I'm seeing more and more references to civic education. We've come through this long period where there's been just immense emphasis on math and English scores. It's hard to find anyone who doesn't think that one of the unintended consequences has been the sort of narrowing of not just the curriculum, but the vision of what school is for. You'll hear people express concern that maybe this debate we're having in our current election, for example, is a sign that we need to be thinking about what kind of citizens our schools are producing as well.

I think the tension is going to be that you see schools in different areas, and schools that serve different student populations, evolving in different ways. The skills that say, urban students who attend high performing charter schools, for example. The skills that they're being equipped with are completely different from their middle class peers who are being encouraged to question authority, and how have a kind of, there's expectation of civic development, and even civic leadership, built into their education. I think we're going to be talking a lot more about this. I think that's good, for question number one.

Francis: When you think about that idea of civic development, are we preparing children to  question or to respond? I feel like that kind of leads into question number two, should school be about the adults pulling from the students, or really the kids pushing and developing their own skills within the context of the unknown? Or perhaps another way to think of this: what can student do verses what they can say from what they've been fed?

Jennifer: I think this is such an important question. You don't usually hear it phrased this way. I will acknowledge that I did steal this from somebody else, but what our experiment in urban education reform, in particular, has shown that you can really drive achievement up if you have a model where adults are just pulling and pulling kids like crazy, and that the problem is that once kids then get to college and then that sort of structured environment isn't there, that it becomes really hard for them to succeed on those terms. One of the reasons that I so enjoy interviewing students is that they can often tell you exactly where they would like to be pushing.

For example, there's a fantastic story just today in Chalkbeat in New York. Somebody went and talked to kids about why they think it should be a goal of schools to have fewer suspensions and instead to pursue restorative discipline. It's really amazing, you can sort of see, the kids can explain exactly why a discipline heavy approach is bad for them, why it leads them to hate school. Then they come to understand that so much of what gets them in trouble are these sort of petty misunderstandings that get blown way out of proportion. Once they start to understand that, you feel their horizons broaden, that they're not totally at the mercy of these kind of forces that are constantly threatening to blow up. That's a great example where that's a kids pushing model. Lots of discipline may make for a quiet school, it may work for the adults, but if you listen to the kids, they'll say that, "This isn't working for us." Maybe this other model is a little bit more labor intensive, but at the end of the day it's going to get better results.

Francis: Do you see any trends? Is there a socioeconomic component here that's a part of this, or is it really just two different approaches?

Jennifer: I think that would certainly be the expectation, like middle class kids are going to have more room to push. I'm always looking for the examples that defy the odds and inspire everybody else. I was just out in San Francisco. This is going to be the future episode of Have You Heard? It makes a lot of sense that if students have a curriculum that they're invested in that they're going to stay in school longer and maybe do better in their classes, but no one has really studied this in any kind of systematic way, so I went to San Francisco where there's a really cool kind of culturally responsive curriculum in the high schools now. I went and I talked to kids and I got to hear what they were learning. This particular group of students, they had a bunch of questions about how school lunch plays out at their school. It's a big urban high school. Like a lot of schools crowding is a problem and so they have some ridiculously short amount of time to eat lunch.

The students were learning all sorts of research skills, but they were also learning these things that they weren't even aware that they were learning, about how to navigate what seemed to be a kind of insurmountable bureaucracy. What to do when an adult tells you, "No." Then it happened that some researchers at Stanford also studied the program and were able to show that for kids who had been at risk of earning low grades and dropping out, that this hands-on curriculum made a huge difference. I'm looking for examples like that, where kids get to exercise more freedom, and then as a result of having measurable success, maybe we can hold that up for other schools in other districts.

Francis: When you think about measurable success, one of the things that I think is often discussed is the role of charter schools. I know that charter schools are a kind of petri dish for new ideas and new models that often times may not have been tested in a sort of formal school setting over the course of many years and months. We have charter schools, but I think in the vision for charter schools, it's often thought of that there should be a close relationship and that charter schools are basically the petri dishes developing, essentially in a scientific sense, new knowledge, or practices, which could be leveraged by district schools. I wanted to ask a bit about your thoughts on that relationship, if that was really the intention, if that's what you see playing out, and what you think that relationship, how are folks answering this question?

Jennifer: I think that that absolutely was the intention, but that it's harder and harder to find examples where that's what's happening. I'm particularly interested in what's happening in urban districts. I refer to it as the unintended consequences of education reform. What you see more and more of is an expanding charter sector that competes with the district. The original vision, that charters would be sort of a laboratory of innovation and then export their best practices back to the district. That is not what's happened. Instead in many cases you have a competitive relationship, often a really strained relationship.

In some cities it looks as if charters will eventually replace the district, or dominate. If that's going to be the case it raises a whole other set of questions, some of which are on our list of the big five questions. This is one question where I feel like the answer is less clear, and sort of less hopeful, that it's hard to find places that have really resolved this tension. It's hard to meet the demand the parents have for more choices, but also take care of kids who, for whatever reason, are not going to exercise that choice.

Francis: Thinking about exercising choice and this idea of competition. Maybe competition first, where do you feel like the root of that competition is coming from, such that the competition can actually result in a district becoming essentially an entire charter district?

Jennifer: You mean who's driving that?

Francis: Exactly, what do you feel drives the competition? It seems like it's a big shift from the intention of sharing best practices, to kind of trying to compete with each other. Those two don't seem very compatible.

Jennifer: Right, yeah, and that's, when you talk about sort of the forces that people are feeling on the ground, it's the incompatibility of those that can make your life in a school building, or as a parent, really complicated. You have a few different things going on.

One is that we're living through a period of just intense anxiety about the future. Parents are tremendously concerned about what lies ahead for their kids, and so they are making the very rational decision to just pursue what they see as the best choice possible.

Then you have an education conversation that's really dominated by people who believe that whatever ails our public systems, that the answer lies to make them function more like a market. The market answer is to treat families more like consumers and provide them with more choices.

These choices aren't made in a vacuum. Our cities are highly unequal places. If you're in Boston, you know Boston's now the most unequal city in America. This idea of people sort of picking and choosing and chasing quality, as reform advocates often refer to it, is happening in a landscape where people don't bring the same sort of set of options to making that choice. That's where this sort of contradiction about, is our goal to lift everybody up, or is our goal to just offer people as much choice as possible even though you're going to leave a whole bunch of kids behind as a result?

Francis: Just on that point though, I don't think that most folks involved in charter schools would see it that way, as children being left behind by giving an option for a charter school. I find it hard to believe that's happening in an active process, but perhaps a byproduct. I was wondering, in terms of a byproduct of having choices, how students get left behind, as you're describing?

Jennifer: One of the things that you're seeing in cities where this experiment is further along, take a city like Newark, for example, where the charter sector has expanded really dramatically. It achieves some great results, but the sort of architects of this transition never thought to ask the question, what happens to the kids who aren't going to be attending charter schools? It's now widely accepted that the kids who did not end up in a high performing seat, as they're called, have fared badly. Their schools have fewer resources and more kids with higher needs.
I do feel like you're starting to hear many more charter advocates acknowledge that this is a big issue. If the goal is to really expand charter schools, that this sort of thinking about what happens to the schools that aren't going to be part of that, and the kids who are in those schools, has to be part of that conversation from the beginning. The idea that you're going to have, you know, 60% of your students, or 40% of your students in schools that have fewer resources but are having to attend to kids with higher needs, that's an impossible scenario. There's no one who really thinks that's an ideal outcome.

Francis: Well it seems like what you're describing is as money follows the child, in many cases, that while all students have a choice, those who execute their choice are the ones that actually are moving. If there's a situation where, particularly if there's a correlation between those who don't execute a choice, as well as need, then those are the folks who are left behind, the children who are left behind. The picture I get, I guess, is you have sort of a concentrating effect of need within the district schools. For instance a sort of flight effect to the charter schools. Does the debate go full-circle here too? How are best practices ever being developed because, in a transferable sense? The environment changes, you have two totally different ecosystems now. I wonder how those best practices then can flow back, because the school landscape seems like it would be entirely different. Is that something that you see? Where the landscape of the, let's say fictional Lincoln Elementary School in, you know, middle of America somewhere city, does it look very different as a result of this transition sometimes?

Jennifer: I think, in some ways, I think the worst case scenario is that you just have these two sectors that are now completely different and are at war with each other. That seems like the worst possible outcome. This goes back to one of our earlier questions about, is there a way, can that sort of experimentation process continue, even though the process has evolved in a way that seems totally counter to how it first started out?

Since we're at KnowAtom, I think it's okay to talk in sort of science terms. What we've ended up with here is a new set of problems that weren't envisioned when all of this started. So far, we're stuck in the part of the debate where there hasn't been a lot of acknowledgement that we have this new set of problems. I feel that starting to change, then that does sort of open up this possibility. What then are we going to do? If we have these two systems, and having them compete against each other on unequal ground is not an ideal outcome, what are the other options?

Francis: I think what you're describing, and I feel also, it seems to come to, for one, the transfer of funding. When I hear a lot of the charter debates, that seems to be the first place people go, whether or not they have ever had children in schools or any relationship to education. That funding piece is only one part though.

I think another piece, which I don't think has much to do with charters at all, it's really more of a by product of No Child Left Behind, and the high stakes testing environments that have evolved over the last 20 years or so.

What are your thoughts on how school quality should be measured, and some of the ramifications of the way we measure it now?

Jennifer: Almost everyone agrees now that just focusing on math and English is way too narrow and has taken us into a sort of tragi-comical cul-de-sac in a lot of ways. There are some really interesting experiments underway about how you create broader measures of school quality, that align more with what parents want, what students want, what teachers want, but also produce the achievement gains that everyone is so focused on. One of them is happening right here in Massachusetts.

A friend of mine, a scholar named Jack Schneider, who's an education professor at Holy Cross, has been working with urban districts to come up with an alternate measure of school quality.

He's focused on schools where he lives, in Somerville, because what happens when schools are graded, for example, parents go to look for a school and they're looking at their real estate listing site, and often what they'll do is they'll just show you how the schools fare with, say, SAT scores. What ended up happening was schools, they're really diverse, like in Somerville, where an astonishing range of languages are spoken and you have kids from all these backgrounds, they end up at the very bottom of the pile, and so parents would be told, "Oh don't go to school here, you want to go some place more affluent." That just exacerbates all the inequalities we've been talking about.

He and a whole team of researchers set out to see if they could come up with a measure of school quality that would more accurately value what Somerville has to offer, but also take into account all these things that parents and teachers and school leaders and students, really care about. The measurement is so much broader, and I sort of felt my world opening up a little bit as I read about it, because you could see, if we started with this broader definition, and then it came time if we needed to sort of try to step in and sort of fix the school, we'd be trying to fix it in a broader way.

Francis: I'll use Massachusetts as an example, even the quality measures that we have now are lacking for ELA and Math, because they not focused on proficiency, Massachusetts as an example, the CPI indexes that Massachusetts use, really don't look at proficiency. They look at failing. What we see, particularly within science data, is that folks try to kind of get rid of the bottom, "bring the bottom up" as they say, but they never really get students over the line to a level of proficiency or advanced, even on the existing metrics because that's kind of how the formula is structured, and as soon as that lowest tier kind of empties out, then it's kind of off to put out the next fire in a different discipline. There is however a tier between failing/below basic and proficiency which is basic or needs improvement.

The example I think of this going awry is, there was a recent Associated Press article about Lynn, Massachusetts. They could not be reached for comment, but basically the children of migrant workers, I believe it was, were being kept out of schools, particularly they were being kept out of for-credit classes. They weren't being allowed to enroll in the high school. They were being sort of funneled through adult education and transitional assistance programs instead of the elementary, middle schools and high schools. Could that be because needy students in for-credit classes count in state and federal test data vs non-credit classes which are not tested? I don't know. But it feels like our existing measures of school quality really steps over the line at that point, because it feels like the equivalent of a hospital closing its doors to the neediest patients for fear of the impact on the data if somebody should die in their care, in essence, in a hospital. In the case of a school, if students can't make progress fast enough to measure on some metric. Is it causing schools to play it safe and close their doors where they can? Is that something, do you think it's isolated or connected here?

Jennifer: That is such a great and horrifying example. When you think about it, that shows you where question number four intersects with question number one. At a certain point, you think it's Lynn has been a kind of gathering point. Lynn is a place where immigrants come. There are like 28 languages spoken in the public schools. Part of the vision for public education there has always been to help immigrants transition. If you go to a Lynn school and you're there when a student arrives, it's kind of an amazing scene, but you also see first hand the challenges. What to do with a student who's just arrived and doesn't speak English, and PARCC testing is right around the corner. Then you see with the example you just gave how they've ended up with sort of re-engineered understanding of what their schools are for. They're now to make measurable progress in math and English, such that they view these kids, these newcomers, as a liability.
I think that's an example that shows you how far off track you can get if you're focused so intently on the smallest measurable units, and you lose sight of this bigger question about what school is for. If there's a broader measure of school quality, is there a way to value the contribution that schools in Lynn that do meet their responsibility of welcoming these new immigrant students, and help them meet particular benchmarks, so that the schools can embrace their success with that, rather than feel like this is something to be, send these kids off to some place where they're not going to be counted.

Francis: I feel like it also relates to question number two, around should schools be about adults pulling or kids pushing? Because, as an urban educator myself, I know, when I was in that environment, and you are facing children who are maybe new arrivals, may not even be literate in their native language, which a lot of folks who don't experience that urban environment where you do deal with newcomers. If the focus is on these little granular pieces of a particular, getting a certain number of test items correct so that your school doesn't fall into a certain accountability status, which either threatens your funding or your autonomy. I know myself, as a teacher, I've felt the pressure that as much as I wanted maybe for it to be about the kids pushing, and for it to be about their voice and their empowerment. I felt that the reality was, if they don't get a particular score on a test, we're all in trouble. Do you feel like that's part of this connection, and maybe even part of the urban story in education right now?

Jennifer: Absolutely. What you see, you see school leaders and teachers acting completely rationally within this system. The overwhelming emphasis on having to produce short term goals rewards stuff that's ultimately counter-productive.

I'll use the example, I went to a student forum in Lawrence last week. A senior, who you'll hear on my podcast, was talking about how on the one hand, achievement is measurably higher in Lawrence, and the schools have improved in so many ways, but the student was complaining that there's so much emphasis on short term gains, she likened it to a quickie weight loss plan. That's what the adults were focused on, rather than a long term investment.
I thought, "Wow, that's so insightful of this Lawrence High senior." That's part of why I think it's so important to be able to hold up examples where people are doing things differently, whether they're measuring things differently. Sometimes we just want success stories within the same crazy system, and hope that by both kids pushing and adults pulling, that we're able to change those systems over time. What you're talking about is really common. I think there's more and more people acknowledge that we got to an absolutely crazy place, just sort of testing and measurement wise.

Francis: It seems like, when we think about question number five, what's the relationship between schools and neighborhoods? One of the things that I think about in your example about the student and their view from where they're at, about sort of trying to maybe get low hanging fruit, and points, and tactics, in their experience. The bigger that a school district gets, as well, they're not monolithic, even though it may appear that way on the outside, that within a school district, any particular elementary school, or any particular middle school, can be approaching something entirely differently. You may have those folks who are trying to, the get rich quick scheme equivalent of test prep, or things like this, to try and boost things, and others who are really taking a longer view and more of a holistic approach, could be happening essentially side by side. The connection here being that the school buildings themselves almost function like neighborhoods, but then there's this bigger question about what the relationship between the school and its literal geographical neighborhood is. What are your thoughts on that?

Jennifer: This just happens to be a question that I'm particularly passionate about. I've gotten to travel all over the country, and I do tend to gravitate towards neighborhoods that you wouldn't necessarily visit if you weren't going there to investigate some kind of a problem. People who are in cities, you'll know what I'm talking about. As we move towards a kind of market based system in public education, the argument has been that the goal is either to get the students out of their bad neighborhoods, or the neighborhood doesn't matter. If you can just get the student into a quality school.

As any sociologist will tell you, these things don't happen in isolation. Students live in neighborhoods, and the school is one of the most important institutions, along with the family, along with other things that bind the community together. We've been way too quick to sort of think that neighborhoods don't matter, and that if you can just put kids on a path to college, that's how you're going to solve these big questions like income inequality, the lack of social mobility and poverty, but without ever thinking through what's being left behind, and what happens to those institutions when people now have the choice to go someplace else? What happens to the neighborhoods when they don't have schools anymore?



This picture that you're looking at now, some of you may remember, there was a group of people in a neighborhood in the south part of Chicago that launched a hunger strike over the summer, because that part of Chicago has no open enrollment high schools left. They felt that this was really unfair, that there was no way to sustain their community over time. They laid out a very specific vision of what they kind of high school they wanted, and the kinds of careers that they hoped that it would train and equip kids for. They did not win that particular battle, but that argument about what kind of schools we're going to have, and what their relationship to the neighborhood is, and who gets to make those decisions, is very much unresolved. I think we'll be hearing a lot more of that.

Francis: It seems, when I think about the relationship between schools and neighborhoods, it seems to me like a type of, like a planning issue. I think of urban planning and I think about some of the early ideas and examples from DC, where this was this idea that there were certain parts of town where they could locate all of the stores. What they did was they took and created shopping malls basically, in certain areas of DC. It was part of this kind of new urban planning model. What happened after was that all of the neighborhoods that were built up around, they had no stores, they had no coffee shops, they had no anything. It was either all residential or all commercial. What happened was, and people still talk about this to this day, is that there are parts of town where you have to drive great distances to just get a coffee, or to get a newspaper. There's no place to kind of hang out and meet your neighbor. There's no sort of social cross points. On the flip side, there are parts of town that are completely deserted in the evening, or after four or five o'clock, because that's where all of the kind of office buildings and things were located.

In essence, by hyper concentrating this industry and removing embedded services from different places, it had a really unintended effect on neighborhood socialization and things like that. When I think about schools and the busing, and some of the disconnect that can happen between schools and neighborhoods. I think about some of that movement from K-8 schools to elementary and middle schools, to really, instead of ten middle schools, you have now one or two middle schools. It just seems like it becomes almost more and more industrial. I know that a number of studies have been done really looking at the transition between students leaving elementary and going to middle school. It's problematic for them, developmentally, at that point, to be uprooted from everything they've known K through five, and then be thrown into a middle school environment where there's entirely new faces and new expectations. Just themselves, developmentally, they're kind of in a tentative state as students, and I wonder, does this neighborhood busing situation layer a whole other piece on that, when you think about students being taken from within walking distance of a school building, and moved to potentially quite far away, when you start to think about regional schools even.

Jennifer: I think the two lessons here, and of course there are more lessons, but the two I'll talk about is, one, that policy makers never think to envision the impact of their policies through the eyes of the students that they're affecting, and sort of what that transition that you're talking about would look like. Two, one of the themes that's come up again and again as we've been talking about these big questions, is that the people crafting these policies tend to craft them in a narrow and technocratic way, and not think about the larger implications of what they're doing. I have spent a lot of time in New Orleans, because that city is held up as an example of what urban school districts in the future are going to look like. That's a classic example where you have a group of people who set out to solve a problem of poor quality schools and concentrated poverty. What they did, kids can pick schools all over the city, this is great, but the problem is that New Orleans is such a high poverty city that people don't have their own transportation. This means that kids now spend hours on school buses crisscrossing the city. This means that their school day is really long.

You can find kids who, their school day, they're leaving the house at 6am or earlier, and not getting back till after dark. This sounded like such a great idea, right? Our response to concentrated poverty is going to be to move kids around the city, and we're going to have a market based system where we close schools that are under performing and open new higher performing schools. One of the trade offs has been this kind of quality of life issue. Go to New Orleans sometime and marvel at the sheer number of school buses that are on the road. I think that is, these things are cautionary tales about how policy, the impact, it's kind of like ripples in a pond. The unintended consequences can go so far beyond what the architects of these policies set out to do.

Francis: When you think about these five questions, and kind of as we're wrapping up maybe take some questions from folks in the audience, if they have any. It seems like these five questions are, in essence, not only unresolved, but they're kind of, education feels like it's in a bit of a tentative state right now. Do you feel that whether you have an answer for all five, or some of the five, do you feel like there's a clear path forward in deciding what school's for, or whether adults should be pulling or kids should be pushing? How to reconcile the relationship, if that's what's necessary, or really build, or whatever, the creative relationship between schools, the charters and districts. I think you've given one around measuring the quality of schools. When you look at these five questions, are there any clear paths forward for any of them?

Jennifer: If they were clear paths, then I would be less attracted to them as questions. I'm always drawn to the sort of messy, unresolved issues. I think what's really important for people to understand is that these are the often unspoken debates that are happening all around them, and that it's because there aren't easy answers that these are so intense. You can feel the ground starting to shift under some of these.

We're seeing the whole conversation around testing start to shift. The conversation around the relationship between charter and district schools is going to, if not shift, get sort of more concrete and out in the open. I think that as we have this sort of bigger debate about the future, about what kind of jobs people are going to have, it's going to be impossible to talk about schools without having a more vigorous argument about what schools are supposed to be doing.
I'm really encouraged by all the attention that's being paid to civic education. I also think it's really interesting, we haven't talked about desegregation in this conversation, but suddenly you see references, we're talking about that again. Whether it's really possible to have ... It's widely understood and agreed upon, that having kids attend school in a highly segregated context is just not good for anyone.

That include kids in affluent areas, that they lose out when they're only surrounded by a very narrow segment of the population. If you had asked me a year ago whether that was something that we would be having a full-throated conversation about, I would have been really surprised, and yet here we are. There's all sorts of interesting stuff coming out about busing. That's going to be the topic of my next podcast, as a matter of fact. I have an interview with a really exciting young academic named Matt Delmont, about his book, Why Busing Failed. It's kind of a trick question.

Francis: Sounds quite interesting. I have to get to New Orleans to see all these buses you keep talking about.

Jennifer: Yeah, you do have to go to New Orleans, because that really is, for people who think that the market holds the answers to our public education woes, I really encourage them to go to New Orleans, see for themselves what's worked and what are the things that people never thought about? What are the unintended consequences of having schools basically compete against each other in the contest for higher test scores? What do you end up with a lot of, and what do you end up with very little of?

Francis: We have some interesting questions here. I hope you have your thinking cap on.

Jennifer: I do, actually, I am literally wearing a thinking cap.

Francis: Wonderful. We have some big questions here. One is, do you have any thoughts on ESSA, the new sort of the Obama replacement to No Child Left Behind?

Jennifer: That is a big question. This is not my particular area of specialty/interest/obsession, but I will say that sort of as some power gets shifted back to the states, you are going to see a lot more experimenting. That, I think has the potential, that's going to produce some interesting stuff, so I'm excited about that. Francis, you and I were talking earlier about how you can already see that there are efforts underway in particular states to shape what's happening with the new regulations, in ways that people aren't really aware of. So much of this is going to be in the implementation, but also in what's happening behind the scenes to either ... I would just say we have to pay very close attention.

Francis: Here's another one that kind of maybe piggy backs on that a little bit. I'm not sure if this is a snarky question, but I'm going to ask it because I think it is a thought provoking question. Is education really about children? They're saying they're from a common core and PARCC state.

Jennifer: Yeah. It's really easy, if you follow education, and you write about it and you travel around, it's easy to get really cynical. I think a lot of teachers can relate to this. You have that sense that there's just one thing after another that comes down the pike, and the more you understand that the stuff that's coming down the pike is often driven by, someone's figured out a way to make money off of a particular service.

We see this with ed tech. We see this with a lot of test prep stuff, where you have sales people going from school to school promising a certain percentage increase if a school buys into a product. It's easy to look at stuff like that and think, "This has nothing to do with the kids." Which is why I think that focusing on these bigger questions, in some way, forces that debate. Only in a system where we've lost sight of what schools are for, can we view quickie test prep sales solutions as the answer.

Francis: This one, here's another interesting one. This person's asking if there's a difference between for-profit and nonprofit charters that you have seen?

Jennifer: Yeah, there's a huge difference. We tend to talk a lot about the, sort of, start charters, these chains like KIPP and Uncommon, but the largest charter operator in the country is K-12, which is a for-profit, virtual charter chain. The research about how kids fare in the virtual charter context is absolutely dismal. You hear some people, people who love charter schools saying that we have to figure out what to do about this. When you consider that this is the biggest charter operator, that's a big problem. The for-profit thing is a huge part of that. When you're under pressure to deliver profits, the corners that get cut tend to be the corners that directly impact the students in the system. I take a hard line on this. I don't think for-profit and education mix. People will say, "Schools have always relied on for-profit vendors." There are differences, there's a big difference between a huge virtual charter school system and the vendor that your school system relies on to supply computers, for example.

Francis: Sure. A new question in a different direction. Our community schools, what's being called community schools--are those just neighborhood schools, or is that an entirely new model?

Jennifer: We have different names for a lot of this stuff. Some of these experiments have a way of coming back. The concept of a community school can be a neighborhood school, meaning that students who live in a particular area attend it. It could also serve a broader population of kids, but serve as a community hub. The idea would be that the school would provide other services to a broader population beyond just the kids who go there. The students who attend would be supported in various ways, but maybe their parents are benefiting from the school as well. We've seen, there's a successful example of this in Lynn that's been around forever, that parents can learn, they can take English classes. They can learn about financial management. The school can function as your health care clinic. I think that this is very positive in a lot of ways, and it does sort of force this question of, what is school for?

What critics would say is, "Well, unless we have evidence that community schools are boosting achievement, they're not worth it." If your question is bigger, if you understand that a school plays a key role in a neighborhood, and that the health of the student, student performance doesn't take place in a vacuum. Kids go home to families, and if families are thriving, the kid's much more likely to do better in school. You see more and more interest in community schools across the country. I would say, I'm a little bit of a contrarian on this. I still think it puts all the onus on fixing every problem in the world, on the school, and that we need to think about, if the problem is that everybody in the neighborhood lacks access to quality health care, maybe that's a problem that's a little bit bigger than an individual school can fix.

Francis: That's a good point.

Jennifer: Right? I hate to be a nay sayer.

Francis: It's a good point. Where should health care come from? Especially more than what you can provide in a school too, I think is part of that. We'll end on this question.

Jennifer: People who are following Mark Zuckerberg see he made this huge controversial gift to the Newark schools, but people say that he learned a lot of lessons, and so he and his wife are focused on more specific ventures. One of them is a school in East Palo Alto, that will provide all sorts of wraparound services, so the kids who attend that school, their families are guaranteed health care. I thought, I read about that and I thought, "This is so depressing." That you would have all that power and influence, and that would be your solution, rather than, "We really need a health care system that works for everyone in the country, including people who live in East Palo Alto."

Francis: Sure. It's a good point. My guess is he'll probably learn a few more lessons along the way too. OK... this is it really, one last queston: what about educator preparation?

Jennifer: This is a huge issue, and I think that people outside of the education debates don't have any idea that this fight is going on. Basically what's happened is everyone who is anyone has reached the conclusion that our traditional teacher prep programs have failed, and that it makes much more sense to have a kind of very targeted teacher prep that focuses less on theory and more on getting teacher trainees in front of students faster, giving them all sorts of feedback, and then measuring the quality of their preparation programs based on the student test scores. I have no particular love for traditional teacher prep programs, but to me, you can spot the unintended consequences of this approach, the new approach, ten miles away. One of them is that when you throw out all of your theory, that includes things like theories of appropriate child development. You can see how teachers to be need to understand things about how kids develop and what is appropriate when.

You can see that this approach is moving in a very narrow direction, as opposed to teacher prep sort of broadening its perspective. There are some interesting counterexamples, like at University of Washington, where they bring the community into the teacher prep program. All these debates are happening at the same time. There's the conclusion that teacher prep is a failure, but there's also the increasing acknowledgement that students really benefit from having teachers who look like them and who understand what's going on in their community. You can see how it would make sense to broaden what students are learning in their teacher prep programs, as opposed to focusing so overwhelmingly on driving up achievement in a narrow way.

Francis: Boy, there's so many questions. I wish we had more time. I think we should have had the ten key questions, or maybe the 20 key questions to shape the future ...

Jennifer: What if we had the webinar last for ten hours?

Francis: Maybe we can try that. That would be a web-a-thon maybe?

Jennifer: Next time we'll do a web-a-thon.

Francis: A web-a-thon. Okay, we'll have to schedule that. In the meantime, I just wanted to say, thank you very much. I feel like I've learned a lot, and also there are clearly more questions even than we've had the time to discuss, which no doubt are going to continue shaping the future of K-12 education. Jennifer, thanks for joining us.

Jennifer: Thanks for having me, and thanks to the people who asked questions, those were great questions.

Francis: Thank you, and if you haven't checked it out already, you need to check out this podcast series. Get there after this discussion. You should check it out and bookmark the site You'll be able to hear all of the great interviews and discussions in a very NPR, but much cooler, format, from the folks at Have You Heard.

Jennifer: It's on iTunes as well, if you just go to the iTunes store and search for Have You Heard podcast, you'll find us too.

Francis: Wonderful. Jennifer, they can follow you @EduShyster on Twitter, right?

Jennifer: They can. I weigh in throughout the day on matters large and small.

Francis: Also your blog, which has quite a following as well, If you'd like to find out more about KnowAtom, you can reach KnowAtom at Stay connected to us also through our blog and Facebook. You can follow us on Twitter as well, our handle is just @KnowAtom. If you'd like to access a recording of this webinar, check out the resource section of our site. Thank you for joining us. Thank you for all your questions, and I wish you all a wonderful day. Take care.


Topics: STEM, STEAM, STEAM Curriculum

On-Demand Reading Sessions

Posts by Topic

see all

Stay Up to Date With Our Latest Posts

Pick How Often: