Charter guidance

With 45 charters and only three overseers, Shelby County Schools may consult with national group

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management for Shelby County Schools, confers in 2016 with the district's charter overseers including Stacey Thompson and Charisse Sales. Leon will continue to supervise the office now headed by Daphnè Robinson.

From a corner office of an administration building for Shelby County Schools, just three people oversee 45 charter schools that educate 12,200 Memphis students.

That’s more than 10 percent of the student population in Tennessee’s largest school district — and too many students being monitored by too few people, say district leaders.

On Tuesday, the school board will review a proposal to continue work with a national charter group to develop best practices in managing its increasing workload. A $152,000 grant from the Hyde Family Foundation would fund the work with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) to establish clearer processes to approve, oversee and revoke charters — issues that this year prompted a reprimand from the State Board of Education. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat Tennessee is a nonprofit news organization that receives financial support from the Hyde Family Foundation. You can see the full list of our financial supporters here.)

The guidance from NACSA would signify the district’s commitment to working with its charter sector as it seeks to improve Memphis schools. It also would provide a valuable resource for a newly formed charter advisory committee, charged with setting the ground rules for issues such as charter accountability, funding, academic standards and facility needs.

The Chicago-based NACSA association helps local districts and other charter authorizers to open charter schools, as well as close failing ones.

Charter oversight was the topic of a school board subcommittee meeting last week on academic performance. Charisse Sales, the district’s director of charter schools and one of its three overseers, told members that NACSA recommends about 7.5 central office staff for every 10 charter schools. That would equate to about 34 staff for Shelby County Schools. But Sales, who has worked with Memphis charters since the state allowed them in 2003, said those positions wouldn’t necessarily have to be in the charter office. Even now, the charter office uses expertise of other district departments on charter matters.

“We have three people. But as you dig deeper into the accountability piece, (you’re) treading water,” Sales said.

NACSA vice president William Haft says charter authorizers’ methodology and staffing ratio vary based on a district’s needs.

“As you build those systems, there are choices to make. Do we have this information run through the charter office and build up capacity within the charter office … or do we do that through the department with the substantive expertise?” he told Chalkbeat.

Staffing also touches on funding issues, partly addressed through the district’s new charter authorizer fee, which channels to the district up to 4 percent of an operator’s state-allocated funds based on student enrollment. Officials say the fee, implemented this year, will help with administration costs.

The district’s work with NACSA would help inform where best to use that money, board member Chris Caldwell said. The State Board of Education and state-run Achievement School District previously had been the only charter authorizers in Tennessee able to levy a fee.

NACSA already is familiar with Memphis’ charter landscape. The association helped the ASD review and evaluate charter applications in its turnaround work, which is mostly in Memphis, and garnered praise from former superintendent Chris Barbic in a testimonial on the group’s website. The association also helped the State Board of Education create a framework in 2014 for authorizing and monitoring charter schools.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, who is a non-voting member of the charter advisory committee, said the collaboration with NACSA will be worth it.

“This is an opportunity to give us a road map in order to be successful,” Bibbs told Sales. “I think whatever their suggestions are will be an opportunity for us to advocate for an investment in your area.”

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

Story booth

With no art teacher, students at this Detroit school say their talents go unnurtured


When the eighth-grade students at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side talk about things their school needs, they point to a classmate named Casey.

“He’s a great artist,” one student said. “He can look at a picture and draw it in like five minutes and it will look exactly the same.”

If Casey attended school in the suburbs, his friends believe, he and other talented students would have an art class where they could nurture their skills.

“They don’t have the time to put in the work with their talent because we don’t have those extra-curricular activities,” another classmate said.

The students at the K-8 school have no art, music or gym teachers — a common problem in a district where resources are thin and where a teacher shortage has made it difficult for schools like this one to find teachers for many subjects, including the arts.

While the Detroit district has committed to expanding arts programs next year, it would need to find enough teachers to fill those positions.

“People out there think we’re not smart and they always criticize us about what we do,” Casey said. “We can always show them how smart we are,” he said, but that requires “getting the type of programming that we’re supposed to.”

Chalkbeat spoke with students at the school as part of a “story booth” series that invites students, teachers and parents to discuss their experiences in Detroit schools.

Watch the full video of the Paul Robeson/Malcolm X students below and please tell us if you know someone who would like their story featured in a future story booth.