Welcome to 2018, and to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! We’re Matt Barnum and Sarah Darville, Chalkbeat’s national team. Our goal is to help you make sense of the messy, fascinating, often controversial efforts to improve education for poor students across the country. If you enjoy this, tell a friend: the link to subscribe is here.


The big story

Happy new year! We’re ringing it in by looking back and looking forward, at some of our favorite roundups of 2017 and predictions for 2018.

First, we have our own review of what we learned from research in 2017. One item we noted: In a couple of well-crafted studies, state test results tracked with how students did in college. Another one: Union protections for teachers may also offer concrete benefits for students.

Audrey Watters, the chronicler and frequent critic of technology’s growing influence in schools, published an in-depth series on the ed tech trends of 2017. “Imagine if education’s investors, philanthropists, and practitioners alike committed to addressing, say, economic inequality and racial segregation instead of simply committing to buying more tech,” she writes.

What’s on the horizon? EdWeek listed eight big questions about federal education policy in 2018, including “Will DeVos end up getting a big school choice initiative over the finish line?” The 74’s stories to watch in 2018 included the U.S. Supreme Court case that could cripple teachers unions and a potential federal rollback of efforts to reduce suspensions.

NPR’s Claudio Sanchez took another approach, offering a few predictions. One is that DeVos will step down in 2018. (Hopefully that item won’t prompt stories implying that she is quitting early.)

Coming up this year from us: More stories connecting research to real life and connecting national policy to local schools. Got ideas? Send ‘em our way — or just say hi — by replying to this email.


Local stories to watch

  • The search for a new leader of New York City’s schools is on. He or she will contend with the legacy of outgoing chancellor Carmen Fariña, whose faith in the school system was either her greatest strength or a critical flaw.
  • Vouchers are off the table in Tennessee. Even as voucher advocates have gained an ally in Betsy DeVos, the effort is dead in the water for now. A few weeks ago, the latest bill lost its Senate sponsor, and now the state’s House sponsor has also backed away.
  • What one “innovation school” in Indianapolis is up to. Twenty high school students are about to head to Thailand for three months with their teachers. The radical departure from how local schools normally operate is a first for an innovation school, which is part of the district but run by charter operators or nonprofits.

Matt’s research roundup

Does teacher merit pay work after all? In the last newsletter, we mentioned a big new federal study that showed that giving performance bonuses to teachers raised test scores for students. Now we’ve got more details, including a discussion of whether the study should change the conventional wisdom that performance pay doesn’t work.

The “school choice” provision in the tax bill might not expand school choice. The federal tax bill allows families to set aside money for K-12 private school costs in a tax advantaged account. But it may not bring private schools within reach for any more families: Past research has found that schools might simply respond by raising tuition.


The portfolio push

We recently published a three-part series on the efforts to advance a specific strategy for improving a city’s schools known as the “portfolio model.” We’re going to continue to follow it here.

  • Innovate Public Schools, a group in the Bay Area that’s a part of the Education Cities organization pushing the portfolio model, made a big splash with a report documenting the wide test-score gaps between San Francisco’s black and white students. The L.A. Times looks at the ensuing debate, and a local San Francisco outlet highlights that Innovate is funded by charter school supporters.
  • Meanwhile, the head of the teachers union in Camden, New Jersey is arguing against turning over district schools to charter operators, an approach similar to Indianapolis’s “innovation schools.” In Camden, they’re called “Renaissance schools.”
  • Speaking of terminology, we came across a new one: In a recent letter, Denver’s Superintendent Tom Boasberg referred to the district’s “family of schools.”
  • Author David Osborne is on a 24-city tour promoting the portfolio approach, and he’s now urging Detroit to create a commission that would exert control over that city’s charter-school sector. That coordination, and ability to close schools, is key to the portfolio model, but an attempt to create a similar commission was scuttled in 2016 largely due to the influence of now-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
  • Finally, some district leaders that have embraced the portfolio approach — including Denver’s Boasberg and Camden’s Paymon Rouhanifard — are rumored to be in contention for the recently opened top job in New York City’s schools.

Tracking DeVos

This one we missed before the holidays: A national survey by Education Week found that only 30 percent of teachers who voted for Trump said they had a favorable opinion of DeVos. Among teachers who voted for Hillary Clinton, it was only 2 percent.

The New York Times also dug through charitable giving records for DeVos and her husband’s family foundation for 2016, before DeVos resigned to take the education secretary job. On her “nice list”: Success Academy Charter Schools and Embracing the Journey, a Christian organization with a mission to “help reconcile the LGBTQ community and their families.”


Names to note

Johnny Collett is the U.S. Department of Education’s new assistant secretary for the office of special education. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is writing a book about school segregation.


What we’re reading

  • Some Newark teachers are missing a lot of school days, but key players in the district disagree about why. Wall Street Journal
  • The three largest philanthropic gifts of 2017 involved foundations or organizations working on education issues. Chronicle of Philanthropy
  • “It’s not clear that de Blasio wants, or could get, a forceful personality for a second term that will likely be shaped to serve the mayor’s future political plans.” The 74
  • Andy Rotherham argues that the flawed expansion of 529 savings programs is a still a big win for school choice advocates. U.S. News
  • Some kindergarten students in Philadelphia take two- to three-hour-long bus rides each way to reach a suburban charter school managed by a for-profit company. Philadelphia Inquirer
  • A look inside the fight for public information about San Diego’s schools. Voice of San Diego