First Person

A former superintendent wonders: What’s missing from the discussion about the portfolio model?

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Sharif El-Mekki, the principal of a Mastery Charter School campus in Philadelphia. We walked the hallways and talked about how to infuse social justice, social-emotional learning, and other priorities into the everyday life of the school.

As we popped into classrooms, it struck me that the teachers all seemed to share a vision for what students should be learning and how they should be learning it. The instruction that I saw was not just excellent but also consistent. The rest of our discussion focused on how specific practices in use at Mastery might be adopted successfully by traditional high schools.

When I returned home that afternoon, I came across the Chalkbeat series on portfolio schools. I appreciated the comprehensiveness of Chalkbeat’s reporting. But having just spent some time visiting classrooms and talking with El-Mekki about what was actually happening inside classrooms, I couldn’t help but notice that the articles were devoid of any reference to teaching and learning.

As I wrote not long ago, the school reforms of the last two decades have pursued mainly structural solutions to instructional problems. To be clear, I think that structural changes — having to do with school governance, parental choice, data collection, accountability systems, and so on — can be important and valuable. But they aren’t valuable in and of themselves. Rather, they’re valuable only insofar as we put them into the service of a larger vision of what we want schools to achieve, for whom, and how.

That’s why, for example, my conversation with El-Mekki didn’t veer toward the structures that enable and hinder his school’s success (although I’m sure he could go on and on about them). Rather, he wanted to talk about the knowledge and skills his students need and the ways he works with teachers and staff to support their development. As he knows, that’s where the discussion should begin. That’s what gives context and meaning to any subsequent conversation about structural reforms in education.

When I was superintendent in Stamford, Connecticut, a very diverse system of about 15,500 students, we embarked on a major effort to de-track the middle and high schools. For generations, the system had placed black and Latino students in low-level classes and white students in honors and advanced courses. We urgently needed to make a structural change, and we did by eliminating lower level courses and changing the student assignment process.

These changes were necessary, but not sufficient. We also had to invest heavily in improving what students were learning in the classroom. Science became more hands-on, we established core texts in English and increased teacher content knowledge in mathematics. The structural changes were a catalyst for transformation, but the everyday student experience in the presence of a well-prepared teacher and rich content is what actually improved outcomes.

The core challenge we’re trying to solve in American public education is to graduate all kids with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions required to navigate an increasingly complex world on their own terms. In pursuit of this goal, it might be helpful to pursue the sorts of managerial tactics and decisions associated with portfolio districts: closing low-performing schools, expanding high-performing ones, and letting parents choose any school in the system. Then again, it might turn out that these tactics aren’t helpful at all, or that they’re helpful in some places and harmful in others. (After 15 years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, reformers should know better than to assert that they know the one best way to reengineer troubled school systems.)

But I know from experience that we need to focus on the substance of what goes on in schools, not just the formal structures in which those schools operate.

The other element of great schools and systems that feels missing from the portfolio approach, as described in Chalkbeat, is attention to adult learning. Advocates for structural reform often chant simplistic slogans like “Children first,” and “Let’s focus on student needs, not adult interests.” But it’s disingenuous at best (pernicious is more like it) to suggest that 3.7 million teachers and hundreds of thousands of administrators are willfully choosing to disregard students’ needs — as though they know how to educate all children to high levels but don’t want to do so.

Likewise, it’s unhelpful for supporters of portfolio schools to make one-sided attacks on the unions, ignoring the essential protections they’ve given to generations of teachers, including the women and people of color who have made up the bulk of the teaching workforce throughout our history. It’s high time to put aside the dichotomous notion that schools must serve either the interests of adults or the needs of kids. In fact, leaders of all kinds of successful organizations know that productivity increases and clients are better served when adult workers are happy and engaged.

I’ve seen schools across the country show that when teachers are paid well, treated with respect, given opportunities to collaborate, encouraged to develop new knowledge and skills, held accountable for results, asked to teach a rich curriculum, and given the resources they need to do so, great things happen for kids — whether those teachers work in a charter school, traditional public school, or a private or parochial school.

Finally, I have to take issue with a comparison made by Ethan Gray, the head of Education Cities — which helps support the growth of the portfolio school model around the country — who likens the role of the organizations in his group to that of the quarterback of a football team. Those organizations have a catalyzing effect on local school systems, he says, handing off and passing resources to those who can move the ball forward. But the analogy rings hollow to me.

As a lifelong New York Giants fan, I’m aware that a few players, like Eli Manning, manage to have long and healthy tenures in that position (his remarkable streak of continuous games as the team’s starting quarterback just ended at 210). But most quarterbacks are here today and gone tomorrow. That’s why I always tell new school superintendents that they should think of themselves as a temporary steward of the community’s values. While one can push, cajole, inspire, and fight to transform systems in support of kids, the community will exist long after the superintendent has moved on.

Perhaps the portfolio approach can be a catalyst for useful changes in K-12 education. My advice to the leaders of that movement would be to be a little more humble, a lot more willing to adapt themselves to the values and wishes of community members, much less eager to prescribe structural solutions (e.g., parental choice and school closures) for complex problems, and much more mindful of the need to ground school improvement in the everyday work of teaching and learning.

Joshua Starr is the CEO of PDK International, an association for educators. He was previously the superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Maryland and Stamford, Connecticut. He tweets @JoshuaPStarr.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.