Chiefs for Change
Editor’s note: redefinED guest blogger Ashley Berner, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, and David Steiner, the institute’s executive director, comment on their new report, jointly released with Chiefs for Change, that outlines relevant research and provides key recommendations for reopening K-12 schools when public officials deem it safe to do so.
COVID-19 brought face-to-face learning around the world to an abrupt halt. Now, after weeks and months of remote learning, some countries are beginning to open the schoolhouse. Others, including most U.S. systems, will not resume brick-and-mortar operations until August or September. The first order concern is, of course, the health of our families and teachers.
But education leaders already are wrestling with critical issues that are next in line, such as: How will we structure instruction to maximum effect? What additional supports should we build into the school year to prepare for abrupt changes in the future? And, most importantly, what is the best way to accelerate, rather than remediate, student learning in the wake of COVID-19?
To answer these questions, our team at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy partnered with Chiefs for Change to evaluate the research on interventions that work for students in normal times and in the wake of crises such as SARS in Hong Kong or tsunamis in Japan. The result is The Return: How Should Education Leaders Prepare for Reentry and Beyond?
Our guidance is evidence-based, represents the collective wisdom of our country’s forward-thinking chiefs, and offers concrete steps to scale up excellence. It is also sector-agnostic; the changes we suggest apply to district, charter, and private schools alike. A summary is below.
First, add hours and days of learning time to the school calendar, in line with international norms. Students in many countries take shorter summer holidays (6-8 weeks instead of 12!) and experience more days of instruction. Extending the academic year has lots of benefits, such as stanching the summer learning loss that particularly affects low-income children, and allows more young people to hold part-time jobs throughout the year.
Second, redesign staffing models to maximize instruction and social-emotional support. Teachers have different strengths. Some possess extensive content-knowledge expertise and deliver highly effective instruction; others are incredibly adept at connecting with kids and making them feel known and seen. Changing the model makes sense. Instead of aiming for smaller class sizes across the board, we should let “master teachers” lead larger classrooms, while teachers who are demonstrably excellent at providing individualized academic support and personal relationships can lead smaller mentor groups.
Third, help students build habits of self-direction and self-regulation. There are many ways to promote these capacities, but two that we mention in the paper are building in practice time for remote learning models and allowing meaningful consequences for academic success and failure. Too few American classrooms enable the “productive struggle” of letting students wrestle with a problem until it’s satisfactorily solved; too many assessments lean heavy on teachers without placing commensurate responsibility on students to learn the material. This needs to change.
Fourth and finally, use this opportunity to ramp up the rigor of classroom instruction. Remediation toward grade-level reading or math does not work in the aggregate; students who start behind usually stay behind. Instead of addressing students’ missing skills, we should be accelerating their access to knowledge-rich materials that challenge and delight them. Skills can be learned along the way. Teachers’ professional development should meanwhile revolve around excellent use of high-quality materials – the ones they actually use in the classroom. For their part, leaders should embrace – and incentivize – content-rich assessments that are integrated with strong curricula, in every tested subject, thus creating a virtuous circle around student learning.
We know that “high expectations” matter for student success. But copious studies from around the world lead us to the much more profound, and much more specific, nature of the “high expectations” that really do narrow achievement gaps and accelerate social mobility: expect students to master, synthesize, and deploy knowledge-rich content. (For more on why curriculum matters, see recent posts on this blog (here, here, here, and here). And keep in mind that two things matter: what we teach and how effectively we teach it.
COVID-19 has been devastating for entire domains of American life. There is much we cannot control as we look ahead to Fall 2020. One thing we can do, together, is use the unexpected pause on business as usual to design education for the better.
Editor’s note: This commentary from Ashley Berner, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, is the second of a four-part series that examines the importance of high-quality materials for state leaders, schools, and parents.
The case for a knowledge-rich curriculum is strong. How can state policymakers make its use the norm? What is even possible in states with firm traditions of local control and extensive choice programs, both of which contribute to variability in content and instruction?
Two (very different) states are role models: Massachusetts and Louisiana.
In 1993, Massachusetts passed a law that required strong curricular frameworks for K-12; established new, rigorous assessments; changed teacher certification to reflect deeper mastery of subject-matter; and specified that professional development focus on subject-matter expertise (see here, here, and here). Over the next two decades, the state became one of the highest-performing educational systems in the world.
More recently, under John White’s leadership, Louisiana made high-quality materials a signature priority (see here, here, and here). In the last few years, membership organizations Council of Chief State School Officers and Chiefs for Change have elevated this work and carried it to other states and districts. See, particularly, Chiefs for Change’s policy memo and the Center for American Progress’s report, on the process.
There are at least four concrete actions that innovative state leaders could take (or have already taken), from least to most extensive, to drive change.
Make the case based on evidence.
Two kinds of evidence matter here: evidence from research, and evidence from your state. The research on the benefits of choosing a knowledge-rich curriculum and empowering teachers to deliver it is robust, but making good on that research pushes against the grain and requires an explicit, and consistent, focus. It means translating the research into the currency of your context, whether that means adequate support for English Language Learners, fiscal responsibility and cost-effectiveness, teacher leadership initiatives, or strong culturally-relevant materials, and then creating a common conversation across stakeholders.
Research on your state can take several forms but is a variation on the theme, “Do you know what your teachers are using?” To answer this question, leaders can support system-wide surveys on teachers’ materials use (as one state we worked with undertook in 2019); offer targeted funds for districts to use for such purposes (as Massachusetts did – see here); and/or develop recommended lists of strong curriculum (see Tennessee as well as Louisiana).
A good survey, such as one based on the RAND Corporation’s national panel, will tell you not only what teachers are using, but why, and for what purposes. District- and state-level findings provide actionable data that let leaders identify exemplars as well as the most pressing needs.
Most of us yawn when we hear “procurement.” But the protocols by which materials and professional development are selected make a huge difference. Once it had identified high-quality materials with the help of teacher experts, for instance, Louisiana made it easier for districts to purchase them.
State and district regulations on textbook selection vary, of course, but every state can create a policy environment that promotes better choices. As Chiefs for Change wrote last year, “States should provide the knowledge and expertise necessary to help districts and schools select high-quality options without sacrificing the flexibility and autonomy needed to cater to the uniquely local needs of their communities.”
This plays out even in terms of the ideal Request for Proposals (RFP). For guidance about RFPs that incentivize, and those that discourage, high-quality applicants, see here. States could curate model RFPs for district use.
Change teacher preparation.
A third mechanism to promote high-quality curricula is to embed what my colleague David Steiner calls “Curriculum Literacy,” or “the capacity to decide whether a given set of instructional materials is strong or weak,” into teacher prep programs. There are many barriers to doing so, not least that schools of education moved decidedly away from specific content knowledge and towards developmental psychology, more than a hundred years ago.
There thus remains a strong bias in the field against requiring specific knowledge. Nevertheless, preparing teacher candidates to discern the wheat from the chaff would directly benefit the children they end up teaching. For detailed guidance on what it would look like to move the needle, see here.
Design curriculum-specific assessments.
The highest-octane change that state leaders could make would be this: Integrate high-stakes assessments with particular curriculum content that students need to master. This is how summative assessments actually operate in many other countries, with content-specific exit exams in all major subjects, at the end of each grade or grade band. Such an arrangement places meaningful responsibility on students for their own learning (a good thing) and provides clear signals to teachers and parents alike about what instruction should look like.
For a glimpse at how Alberta, Canada, does it, see here. Alberta funds all different kinds of schools, from Catholic, Jewish, and secular, to Inuit and even home schooling, but holds them together through the content knowledge that all students learn and through assessments that ensure that they master it.
An analog in our country would work the other way around, from the curriculum materials that schools actually are using, to tests that reflect that content. One could imagine states having not one but rather several state assessments, each of which draw on high-quality materials being used in the field. Think of a state like Florida, where numerous districts, charter networks, and private schools have begun to use Eureka Math, Agile Minds, or Bridges (in Math) and Wit & Wisdom, Core Language Knowledge Arts, or Guidebooks (in English Language Arts). What if the state allowed schools to choose for-stakes tests that were derived from these curricula, as opposed to only offering one curriculum-agnostic, skills-based state assessment or, for tax-credit-supported private schools, nationally-normed but curriculum-agnostic ones?
A state-approved menu of curriculum-linked assessments would round out the virtuous circle of rich content for students, teachers, and parents. Students would know what was expected of them. Teachers could lean into classroom content without “test-prep breaks” of disaggregated skills. State tests would make more sense to parents, who could draw a straight line from the books their kids are reading. (Some high-quality materials even have parent resources for every unit.)
Even formative assessments could join in, with curriculum-specific tests that guide teachers more precisely, and quickly, instead of providing data that have nothing to do with the daily work of teaching and learning.
Lest one think that this is just pie-in-the-sky, it’s actually happening: Louisiana’s pilot assessment project, for which this institute serves as a partner to the work. This initiative, currently focused on middle school students in districts that opted in, assesses students on the most commonly used English Language Arts curriculum in the state (Guidebooks). The pilot tests the usual ELA skills, of course, but also asks students to think deeply about specific sources they’ve read in class, integrate new but related content thoughtfully, and synthesize ideas that arose across the year in an end-of-grade essay. One of the testing panels also draws on the state’s social studies content, thereby reducing overall testing time.
The Louisiana initiative reinforces the knowledge-build that we know works for teachers and kids, and it could be scaled up elsewhere. Any takers?
Read Ashley Berner’s previous post in this series here.
Tony Bennett, Florida’s new education chief, on testing, teacher evals and school choice as social justice
Within minutes of his selection as Florida’s next education commissioner this morning, Tony Bennett was in the midst of his first press gaggle in Florida (well, if four reporters can constitute a “gaggle”). Among several things that were noteworthy, Bennett said he probably didn’t do a good job of communicating with teachers in Indiana about coming changes – and vowed to do better in Florida. He raised the question of whether the new teacher evaluation law in Florida needs to be tweaked. And he described himself as an “unabashed supporter of school choice” for this primary reason: Social justice.
“I have school choice because I can afford it. And in Indiana, I believe every parent in the state of Indiana should have the same choice I had because I could afford it,” he said. “And that’s social justice. Every child should be able to live the American Dream the way the Bennett children lived the American Dream.”
Here is a transcript of Bennett’s remarks, edited slightly for length and clarity.
Q: What’s your reaction to the selection?
Bennett: I’m humbled and honored first. I’ve often said that I thought I had the dream job, working with a second-term governor with a very high approval rating. Who made education reform a priority. And who basically said, ‘Go out, develop, executive and implement the nation’s most aggressive education reform agenda.’ And he basically said, at every step along the way, ‘I support what Tony Bennett’s done.’
The reason I give you that context is because there’s only one state I believe is better than that. And that’s Florida. Florida has a rich history of serving students in a way that I don’t believe any other state has replicated until Indiana came along in the past four years. And I have made the comment many times that if I wasn’t the state chief in Indiana, the place I always thought you could make the biggest difference for children, not only in the state, but in the national context, is in Florida. Because I think this state is so vitally important to the national education discussion.
The Florida Board of Education announced its finalists for education commissioner today, with a list of three candidates including Indiana’s outgoing education chief Tony Bennett.
Bennett, who gained national acclaim and criticism for pushing Florida-style education reforms in his home state, lost his re-election bid last month. That immediately sparked rumors that the Chiefs of Change leader might come to the Sunshine State.
The other finalists culled from 53 applications are:
Charles Hokanson Jr. A consultant and former president of the Alliance for School Choice, he also served as a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, appointed by former President George W. Bush. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Hokanson said he worked on state reform efforts at the alliance, including those pushed in Florida by former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Randy Dunn. Murray State University president and a former Illinois state superintendent of education.
The board will interview the finalists during its Dec. 11 meeting in Tampa.
The new education commissioner will replace Gerard Robinson, who left at the end of August. Robinson, who only took the job a year earlier, said at the time that being apart from his family in Virginia proved too challenging. He also received sharp criticism surrounding changes to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test that resulted in test scores dropping statewide.
Pam Stewart, the interim education commissioner, did not submit an application for the permanent post.
Education Week wrote that Bennett, the Hoosier State’s superintendent of public instruction, “could be a natural fit” for the opening in Florida. Education researcher Rick Hess said Bennett will land on his feet “given that folks are likely to be clamoring for his services (including the state of Florida, which is desperately seeking a new chief).” The Gradebook, the ed blog for the Tampa Bay Times, put this headline on its first post of the day, “Might Indiana superintendent stunner yield Florida commissioner candidate?”
Speculation that Bennett may be headed to the Sunshine State began well before last night’s loss. And it’s easy to see why. Bennett championed Florida-style reforms in Indiana, including implementation of a statewide voucher program. He’s part of the Chiefs for Change group formed by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. And he makes a lot of sense when he talks persuasively about new definitions of public education that aren’t either/or. “We have allowed our opponents to draw a caricature of us that says we’re against public schools,” Bennett said last spring at the American Federation for Children conference. “I’m not an adversary of public schools. I’m an advocate for public school children.”
Applications for the Florida commissioner post are due by Nov. 30. We called and emailed the Indiana Department of Education to see if we could find out about Bennett’s plans. If we hear back, we’ll let you know.
In the meantime, there’s also plenty of commentary today about why Bennett lost to Glenda Ritz, an elementary school media specialist.
More money for schools. In Miami-Dade, voters approve a $1.2 billion bond referendum for public schools, the Miami Herald reports. In Pinellas, they again approve a property tax increase aimed mostly at boosting teacher pay, reports the Tampa Bay Times.
Legislative races. In Central Florida, pro-school-choice Democrat Darren Soto wins a state Senate seat, while Democrat Karen Castor Dentel – a teacher targeted by that Jerry Sandusky ad – wins a House seat, the Orlando Sentinel reports.
Florida style reformer loses. Indiana state superintendent Tony Bennett, who championed Florida-like ed reforms and was a member of the Jeb Bush-backed Chiefs for Change, lost re-election in a stunner to Glenda Ritz, an elementary school media specialist. Stories here and here.
Jury awards charter principal $155 million. From the Miami Herald: “The ousted principal of an Aventura charter school has won a $155 million award in a lawsuit claiming her firing was not only without cause, but ruined her health and career prospects.” More from Education Week.
Criticism of tax credit scholarships. A mother complains about education quality at an Orange City private school that accepts tax credit scholarships, reports wftv.com.