Movers & shakers

Three things Willie Herenton has to say about Memphis education today

PHOTO: Larry Robinson
Willie Herenton (at left), former Memphis City Schools superintendent and the city's first black mayor, records a podcast at LPI Studios.

Since Willie W. Herenton left the helm of the former Memphis City Schools in 1991 after 12 years as its superintendent, the city’s education landscape has changed dramatically.

No Child Left Behind Act. Race to the Top. The advent of charter schools. A historic school merger — and subsequent de-merger. The arrival of the state-run Achievement School District.

A former Memphis mayor who is now CEO of his own charter network, Herenton says the community is not supporting its public education system as much as it can or should to lift its schoolchildren out of poverty.

Herenton spoke about the challenges during a Funky Politics podcast, which aired this week. At 76, he is now the CEO of W.E B. Du Bois Consortium of Charter Schools, which operates six schools in Memphis and one in Atlanta. Four of the Memphis schools are among the state’s bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools.

(Disclosure: Chalkbeat Tennessee is partnering with The Funky Politics on a podcast series exploring national education reform and its impact on Memphis.)

As Memphis’ first black mayor, Herenton is a trailblazer and also a mammoth personality in local politics. He remains a powerful figure in the city and is revered in many neighborhoods. Born in 1940, he also is the product of a racially segregated school system, where books were often hand-me-downs from white schools in the city.

Here are three things Herenton had to say about the state of Memphis education today:

1. Charter schools are not anti-traditional schools.

As a charter school operator, Herenton said freedoms afforded to charter schools bolster efforts to close achievement gaps between poor and affluent white, black and Hispanic students. That goal has yet to be realized.

“There is a direct correlation between economic status and academic achievement. That has not been broken,” he said.

Still, Herenton said taxpayer money siphoned off from school districts to charter schools should not be held to the same scrutiny as money allocated to private schools if vouchers were to pass in Tennessee.

“There’s a prevailing belief that charter schools take away funds from public schools,” he said. “It’s exercising the right of a parent to send their child to any school they want to send them and the funds will follow the child. … Charter schools were designed to give parents more options in the marketplace.”

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
Willie Herenton

2. A good education is important, but is only part of the equation to break students out of poverty.

“Back in the old days, we had a burning desire for education. We just believed education was the passport out of … the slums,” Herenton said. “It produced a lot of us who were first-generation college graduates. I was a first-generation college graduate.”

Now, he said, wraparound services such as health, mental health and community development are necessary to help.

“What I’m finding out now is how many African-American families engage in a holistic kind of way to break the cycle of poverty. How do we create more opportunities for African-American kids who may be in impoverished conditions — who may, like me, not have a father in the home? How do we get them to break out of the poverty cycle so that they get to college, so their children (can)?” he asked.

In recent years, Herenton has aimed those questions toward the intersection of education and juvenile justice systems. In June, Shelby County’s governing body endorsed Herenton’s plan for a juvenile rehabilitation facility in the city’s Frayser community to provide medical and mental health care and educational and vocational training.

Herenton opened a school with a similar mission in 2013 but had to abruptly close it a few weeks later. He said not enough students were being redirected from the juvenile justice system.

3. Re-engaging the black middle and upper class is crucial to the success of public education.

After school integration efforts and the steady population shift of wealthy black and white families to the suburbs, the city’s black community lost power, Herenton said. To reverse that trend, black people who are more affluent must actively provide opportunities to others seeking to break the cycle of poverty.

“Now, some brothers and sisters that get in the middle class and make six digits, they become oblivious of their past and history. They forget why, how they got there, and what they were supposed to do when they get there,” he said.

Herenton said he was criticized for intentionally providing opportunities to African-Americans during his political career. But he insists that black people in positions of power must provide those opportunities.

“My purpose was to educate but to empower people who had been left out. … People don’t do that now as a mission,” he said. “That was what I was supposed to do: create opportunity for my people.”

schools of the future

As ed reformers urge a ‘big bet’ on personalized learning, research points to potential rewards — and risks

Philanthropists and school leaders need to make a “big bet” on dramatically reshaping schools, according to the leaders behind last week’s major education conference.

Re-imagining learning, schools of tomorrow, personalized learning, jobs of the future — these were the watchwords at the New Schools Venture Fund Summit. Ideas about how to reinvent schooling were more prominent than even hot-button topics like school integration or vouchers.

“The world has changed dramatically … and our schools have struggled to keep up,” said New Schools CEO Stacey Childress at the summit’s opening session. “We just think it’s time to update the way schools work so they better prepare students for success in today’s world.”

The solution, according to some, is a focus on innovative school models — particularly ones that use technology to “personalize” teaching based on students’ needs, desires, strengths, and weaknesses.

The gathering was underwritten by deep-pocketed funders known for backing technology-based education initiatives, including the Gates Foundation and the relatively new Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. (Gates is a supporter of Chalkbeat, as are the Walton Family Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, which were also major sponsors of the event.)

Advocates are extremely optimistic about investing in this new breed of schools. A report released by New Schools at the end of last year made an aggressive call to direct $4 billion in philanthropy toward creating, studying, and promoting this sort of innovation. Doing so, the authors write, will produce an estimated 200 to 500 percent return on investment.

It’s a remarkable claim, but perhaps an overly rosy one: the author of the study that New Schools relied on to make such a strong assertion says it’s likely inflated. And although some studies point to the benefits of specific technology programs, the research about whole schools using these approaches remains in its infancy.

As the ideas gain prominence, skeptics fear that the push amounts to the latest fad in education.

“What I see … is people imagining that if we just design the school with new models we will be able to satisfy the needs of the future,” said Ben Riley, head of the group Deans for Impact and former New Schools staff member. “The graveyard of people thinking they could successfully predict the future and then finding out that they were wrong about that has a lot of tombstones.”

The appeal of innovative schools and a personalized approach

Amidst a sea of buzzwords, it can be hard to define school innovation or personalized learning. (Some even argue that trying to pin down a clear meaning is misguided.)

Roughly speaking, though, the idea epitomized at the New Schools summit focuses on expanding technology in schools to better tailor teaching to specific students’ needs and desires.

The New Schools report points to several traits of these schools: maximizing “time, pace, instructional methods and outside experiences”; using “an expanded definition of student success”; ensuring students “feel ownership of their learning”; more frequent use of technology; and ensuring students build trusting relationships.

Advocates often point to Summit Public Schools, a charter school network in California that embraces a technology-infused model. A favorable case study authored by David Osborne of the reform-oriented Progressive Policy Institute calls them “schools of the future.”

Students at Summit spend about 16 hours a week — half of their school time — learning via computer. As Osborne describes it: “Teachers were there to answer questions, make suggestions when kids got stuck, and check their progress, but students were in charge of their own learning. They worked at their own pace, and when they felt they had mastered a concept, they took a 10-question assessment. If they could answer eight of the questions correctly, they checked that off and moved on to the next topic.”

Supporters of that approach highlight an analysis released by the RAND Corporation and the Gates Foundation. The study, which looked at schools funded by Gates because of their “promising approaches to personalized learning,” found that students made much larger gains on standardized tests compared to peers with similar characteristics attending different schools.

There is broader evidence that specific technology programs can improve achievement. Studies of computer programs designed to help students with algebra and early literacy, as well as the math program used by the Rocketship charter network, have shown benefits for students.

“The findings in general are very positive, especially for math,” said Andre Nickow, a Northwestern graduate student who worked on an analysis of technology-based personalized learning that was recently presented at a research conference.

Proponents also say the push for personalized learning is based on a deeper understanding of how kids learn — and how they can benefit from individualized instruction.

“The evidence base for the benefits of 1:1 mastery-based instruction is quite strong,” said Debbie Veney, a spokesperson for New Schools, pointing to a 1984 analysis of individual tutoring by prominent educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom, creator of the well-known Bloom’s taxonomy.

But providing each student a personal tutor is prohibitively expensive; the idea is to use technology to provide that personalization at a fraction of the cost.

“The innovative schools we and others support are working to find ways to produce similar academic results for students by using a mix of instructional approaches,” Veney said. “The early results of schools working on this challenge are quite promising, including the schools in the RAND study.”

Students at University Prep, a Denver elementary charter school, work on a computer-based assignment .
PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

The concerns about existing research

Indeed, that RAND study of innovative schools using personalized learning is often cited in these conversations. But there are a few reasons to view the findings cautiously.

The first is how New Schools frames the results in its report. Based on the RAND analysis, New Schools estimates a 200–500 percent return on the $4 billion the group argues philanthropists should invest over 10 years. But John Pane, author of the RAND study, disputes those projections.

“I was not really keen on some of the leaps that they were making based off of our data,” he told Chalkbeat. Pane himself estimated a potential return on investment and said he found “vastly smaller numbers” than New Schools did. (He declined to share his exact figures because his results have not gone through peer review yet.)

Veney said that the method in the report — converting effects on test scores into days of learning — is common in education research, including the CREDO charter studies.

The report has another major limitation, which Pane acknowledges: the schools in the study had to go through a rigorous application process in order to receive funding. That means the academic gains described in the study may not be the result of the schools’ use of personalized learning per se, but simply the possibility that only high-performing schools were examined.

“For me, the headline was good schools do good things,” said Alex Hernandez, a partner at the Charter School Growth Fund, which invests in new school models.

Regarding the two leading “pioneers” identified by New Schools, the research is also limited. Studies of the New Classrooms model, a personalized learning program that began in New York City known as Teach to One, have found mixed results. There does not appear to be any external empirical research on Summit Public Schools, though an internal analysis says students in the schools make large gains on standardized tests.

Skeptics say that the theory behind personalized learning has some inherent flaws, too.

For instance, Diane Tavenner, Summit’s CEO, previously said, “Look at the economy: it’s not about concrete knowledge, it’s about higher-order thinking skills, and the ability to perpetually learn and grow.”

Sentiments like that worry Ben Riley, who argues that the best way to train students for the jobs of tomorrow is to “provide them with a really rich, broad comprehensive education that gives them the knowledge base that allows them to adapt to those new jobs.”

“If there’s one thing that cognitive science has shown over and over again, it’s that our ability to understand new ideas depends on what ideas we already know,” said Riley, whose group released a report compiling research on the science of learning.

Meanwhile, unmentioned in New Schools’ report is research on fully virtual schools, in which instruction is delivered exclusively online. Although supporters might not categorize this approach as personalized learning, the schools are certainly different from traditional schools in their reliance on technology. And yet the results to date have been abysmal — students have generally seen large drops in test scores relative to those in brick-and-mortar schools. This suggests that expanding technology in education can come with significant risks.

If it fails, move on — but who is left behind?

New Schools acknowledges that these innovative schools aren’t a sure thing. (It is calling the plan a “big bet,” after all.) But trying out new structures for schools is necessary to prepare more students to succeed in college, especially the black, Hispanic, and low-income students who haven’t been served well by typical schools, they argue.

“If after several years this approach isn’t living up to the potential we imagine, let’s change course,” the report states. “But let’s also evaluate every other idea for how to direct the $20 billion in education philanthropy over the next 10 years based on concrete estimates of the improved outcomes we should expect for students.”

As schools experiment, “We will fail,” said Derwin Sisnett, cofounder of the Gestalt Community Schools charter network, at the summit.

But critics of the approach say such failure could lead to collateral damage.

“Should philanthropists scrap the initiative after five years, 1,700 schools will be left to deal with the aftermath and lost funding despite the many constraints they face,” wrote Jeffrey Snyder of Cleveland State University in a critical review of the New Schools report for the National Education Policy Center, which is partially funded by teachers unions.

Veney of New Schools said the group’s vision is to use philanthropic funds temporarily to jumpstart innovation. “Our proposal is to support educators who want to make the shifts with the resources they need to do it well,” she said, “and to ensure that the designs and practices they are adopting are sustainable with public funding after the first few years.”

Snyder, though, writes that the risks extend beyond the financial considerations. “Especially concerning should be the potential for this philanthropic shift to continue (and exacerbate) reform churn — the process where schools move quickly among reforms, never allowing any to take root.”

Betsy DeVos

Head of Democrats For Education Reform blasts DeVos, calls push for vouchers a ‘sideshow’

PHOTO: Will Caldwell / Vimeo
Shavar Jeffries, head of Democrats for Education Reform.

It’s a tough time to be a Democrat for education reform.

After eight years with one of the original DFER members, President Obama, in the White House, the well-financed organization is under siege from both the left and right.

On one side are fellow progressives critical of the expansion of charter schools and test-based school accountability — whose backlash was epitomized by the rejection of an initiative to expand charters in Massachusetts, which was backed by DFER’s chapter there. On the other side are Republicans who are most interested in pushing for public funding of private schools and are skeptical of testing and standards, including the Common Core. Add President Trump to that mix, whose support of charter schools may alienate Democrats otherwise open to supporting them.

With all that in mind, Chalkbeat sat down with DFER’s president Shavar Jeffries at the New Schools Venture Fund summit to ask, what now?

Fighting Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration at large, he said, arguing that their policies are likely to harm students inside and outside of schools. He also defended charter schools as effective options for kids, saying they have to comply “with the same civil rights law, the same accountability standard, [and] have to be transparent in terms of their finances.” (This point, it’s worth noting, isn’t true in many cases, and remains a point of significant controversy.)

Jeffries also discussed school integration (he’s for it but said it’s not politically viable); school vouchers (he’s skeptical but unwilling to dismiss them out of hand); and the political divide in education reform.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Chalkbeat: How do you think it’s gone with Secretary DeVos so far?

Jeffries: I think it hasn’t gone well. I think what we’ve seen from her has been very disappointing on many levels. There seems to be a lack of commitment to any meaningful federal role in terms of accountability — we’re very worried about what we’re going to see coming out of the ESSA accountability process. We obviously saw the skinny budget, which we saw cut 13 percent from the DOE, $9 billion, cutting after-school programs, cutting teacher preparation programs, cutting out of the Pell grant surplus, eliminating the supplemental education opportunity grant programs. All of that is very disappointing.

There seems not to be a commitment to civil rights equity and enforcement. The candidates we’ve seen who are up for that position really don’t have a background in terms of civil rights enforcement. So, very disappointing.

And then frankly the administration more broadly for kids — it’s not just what happens within DOE but the social safety net, the cuts to the community development block grant program, the cuts to the housing programs, the cuts to the food stamp programs, kicking 24 million people off of healthcare, more aggressive enforcement in deportations, which affect large numbers of our kids. On every level we think it’s been horrible for children, so we’re fighting against it.

How are you fighting against it?

On every level. We’re fighting on the communications front, in partnership with DFERs throughout the country in Congress to push back against this; we’re fighting at the state and local level to protect our DREAMers, to ensure that immigration agents aren’t showing up at schools to deport children; mobilizing DFERs throughout the country to fight for increased investments in our kids, in after-school programs, teacher prep, higher ed.

Do you support Secretary DeVos’s push to expand private school choice through vouchers and tax credit scholarships?

We don’t even know what that is. We haven’t seen any specific plan from her.

We support choice through the public charter sector, so we support increases in the federal charter school program. We’ll see what her proposal is, but to the extent it is a proposal where money is going to for-profit providers, to the extent it’s a proposal where there’s going to be partial vouchers that don’t cover the cost of tuition, to the extent that it’s a proposal where there’s going to be lax accountability, we wouldn’t support any of those types of proposals.

Are there any state voucher programs that you think are good and would support?

We just don’t do a lot on vouchers, and in a lot of ways vouchers are really a sideshow — you have 50 million kids in public schools, 3 million in public charter schools, about 400,000 in voucher programs.

We would say to DeVos that public school choice is a great thing. Focus where we already have a track record of what works, which is the public charter sector. The idea of taking scarce federal resources and investing them in a set of programs that are not proven doesn’t make a lot of sense for us, whereas you get much more leverage, you get much more return for every dollar invested in terms of student outcomes for kids, investing in the federal charter school program. That’s what we encourage her to do.

If they’re going pursue some sort of voucher program, we’ll examine it whenever they put it together, but to us fundamentally it’s a sideshow. It addresses a very small number of kids. Again, any kid that we can do something positive for, we’re always going to support, but we’re really focused holistically on the entirety of what it is DOE’s proposing and what it means for kids.

One criticism I’ve heard of DFER is that by supporting charter schools you’re pushing the slippery slope toward vouchers, toward what critics would call privatization. I’d love for you to respond to that.

I just think that’s a false critique. It’s not a slippery slope to support public schools that are accountable to the public, that have to comply with the same civil rights law, the same accountability standard, that have to be transparent in terms of their finances, that are non-profit, so there’s not any profit motive, there’s not any distribution of any margins to investors — but to bring innovation to public education. We’re focused on what works for kids. We have a strong track record of public charter schools doing great things for kids.

We’ve seen in other domains — in the healthcare space, we see that public healthcare benefits leverage both hospitals and doctors who are run by governmental bureaucracies as well as nonprofit hospitals, as well as doctors who work for nonprofits. Same in the housing space — you have public housing run by governmental bureaucracies and then you also have nonprofit community development corporations that provide housing. To us it’s the same sort of model. We don’t see any slippery slope at all because they’re held accountable to the same rules, the same standards, the same kind of values that motivate public investment.

Are you concerned about virtual charter schools, when some research shows that students at these virtual schools, which are expanding in some states, make a lot less learning gains in a year?

If it’s virtual and kids aren’t coming into school, we’d be extremely skeptical of that. I wouldn’t want to just rule it out of hand.

We’re categorically opposed to for-profit providers running schools. It’s hard enough to educate particularly vulnerable kids with available resources — we don’t know how people can figure out how to educate kids and then distribute profits to investors. Furthermore, we haven’t seen the track record of people able to do that.

We focus on the core areas that affect most kids. That’s our disappointment with DeVos — there’s just so much focus on all these various permutations of choice and there’s not enough focus on the bread and butter, what needs to happen in classrooms every day to educate babies.

We obviously deeply believe in public choice in the form of public charter schools, but that has to be married with good instructional practice, making sure we have the right teachers in the classroom, making sure we have the right professional development, making sure we have the right instructional materials, making sure that those instructional materials are aligned with globally competitive standards. The bread and butter work, we don’t hear about that.

A lot of people have talked about the importance of school integration recently. Is that something that DFER has worked on much, wants to work on, is working on?

I’m a civil rights lawyer, so personally I have a lot of background in this. Organizationally, we haven’t spent a lot of resources in this space.

What I would say though is the data show that integrated classrooms are best for everybody — not only students of color, but white students as well. It fosters citizenship, people get to know one another, proximity breeds commonality in ways that are irreplaceable. When kids are talking to one another, in school with one another, it breaks down a lot of cultural and ethnic stereotypes. That’s good. So, sure, integration we think would be very positive.

Unfortunately there’s not many levers to bring that about now — the Supreme Court has really undercut over the last 30 years governmental efforts to coerce integration. Recent decisions, several terms ago in the Kentucky case made it even more difficult to have voluntary integration programs.

There’s not a political will to bring about integration; there’s very much a not-in-my-backyard attitude that a lot of parents and families have. We even see in New York — which by national standards is more progressive than other parts of the country — there’s a lot of pushback of efforts to bring about more integrated schools there.

I think it’s good for everybody personally — white and students of color — I just don’t see any realistic political capacity to bring it about, unfortunately. I think it’s bad for our country. Part of the cultural and ethnic division we have is because people aren’t proximate to one another, they aren’t talking to one another. If we learn about one another through the media, no wonder there’s so much misunderstanding and polarization in our country.

You’re on a panel about the left–right divide in education reform. Could you talk about where you think the reform movement stands on that left–right issue? Do you think it’s important for left-of-center reformers like yourself to work with more conservative ones?

I think it’s important to have more values-based conversations and coalitions around what’s best for kids.

I’ve heard from some folks that DFER is opposed to DeVos or opposed to certain types of policies because we’re Democrats. We’re like, no we’re opposed to this because we love children.

For us it’s not a Democrat thing. We spend most our time fighting Democrats because of our values. When we fight the union and old-guard Democrats, which is honestly what we spend most of our time doing, we don’t fight them because they’re Democrats; we fight them because we think they’re wrong on what’s right for kids.

In the same way we can fight them, damn right we’re going to fight Trump, DeVos, anybody who we believe is making it harder for our children to fulfill their potential. That’s the message I’m going to have — that if you say you’re here to advocate for kids and then we see policies that seek to gut the health of the communities where these families come from, don’t come to talk to me and say, “That’s outside the school, I can’t talk about that.”

I’ve heard from some, “That’s outside the school building, why should we talk about that? That may fray the coalition.” I’m like, then what coalition do you think we’re in? I’m in a coalition to fight for babies. If that child is going to be deported, I can’t say, hey, you know, what that’s not within however you define the four corners of what you think a school is responsible for. I’m saying you misdefined your role.

Historically, educators have always done this. Historically, educators have always fought to make sure their kids were fed and had access to healthcare. It’s only in spaces like this where people have to debate should we fight for food for children, should we fight for access to healthcare for children, should we fight for environmental health to make sure kids aren’t drinking lead when they go home, let alone within the school or that there aren’t environmental toxins. Only here do we debate that.

We’re also mindful, too, we can fight on this and work together on that. That’s OK, and that’s cool too. That’s part of the message I’m going to have. Look, if some of you all want to convince yourself that you don’t need to fight for food security or health care access or fight against mass incarceration — if you don’t think that’s going to affect kids, affect their educability, I think you’re smoking crack — but if that’s what you want to do, do that. I’m going to fight you on that, but if on charters or teacher prep or higher ed we can work together, we can do that. When we come back over here, I’ve got to put my foot in your butt because I think you’re doing things to hurt my babies.

On that point, could you see yourself working with the Trump–DeVos administration if there are areas of agreement?

It’s just hard to imagine what those might be.

Charter schools?

I just think the Trump administration is such a disaster on so many different levels. The character of — and I’m talking about Trump right now, not DeVos — the administration seems to be one that you can’t trust. They say one thing one day and say something totally different the next day.

It’s hard to work with people like that because you may think that you’re on the same page but then find out you’re not. The HBCU presidents, I think, thought there was a commitment; then when there was a signing for the budget, Trump is questioning whether or not it’s even constitutional to invest in HBCUs. Then a couple weeks later, now, maybe they’re trying to say something different. The challenge is character.

You can always work with people on policies where you agree, but when you don’t trust the character of the person you’re trying to partner with, it’s hard to work together because they may switch 24 hours later, and then you may have lost the credibility that you have worked hard to maintain. That’s what I say about Trump because he’s the leader of this administration. That makes it very difficult to work with folks you can’t trust.