Thursday Reading List: Homegrown School Transformation and Racial Bias in Pre-School

Daarell Burnette II, writing at Ed Week, has a story that is personal for me. He looked at the progress of the Evansville, Indiana "Transformation Zone," which put local educators in charge of school school turnaround, when the pressure from the state was to turn their schools over to outsiders:

Overseeing the team was Carrie Hillyard, a longtime Evansville administrator with a knack for rapid change ... Members of the newly hired Evansville Transformation Zone moved their offices from the administration building, located miles away from the cluster of five schools with the most needs, and set up shop in them, down the hall from the principals. As each principal laid out a plan, the staff helped execute it, rewriting the school's curriculum, coming up with a set of new discipline strategies, and helping to pay for tailored intervention strategies ... Four years later, the district has risen from a D on the state's accountability system to a C, and the schools' scores in the transformation zone have modestly risen. The transformation schools' suspension and expulsion rate has dramatically declined and at least two of the schools have gotten off the list of schools in the bottom 5 percent.

The story is a work in progress, but in my prior life as a nonprofit executive, I was privileged to help Hillyard and her team realize this homegrown, locavore school transformation vision. I've never been more inspired by a group of educators, and it's a real gift to see other folks appreciating the fruits of their labor. The Evansville way is not the only way to transform schools; but the education reform community tends to have too much confidence in turnaround efforts led by charter school operators, and too little confidence in this sort of work, particularly when that work is conducted outside of major cities with high concentrations of philanthropic dollars.

In my home state of Massachusetts, The Bay State Banner, Boston's oldest running African-American newspaper, endorses raising the cap on charter schools:

There is an assumption that students in schools in high income areas will outperform students from families with lower income. That is presumed to be the primary reason for the academic achievement gap. However, Brooke [Public Charter School] students outperformed the affluent towns of Weston, Newton and Belmont on the PARCC test. The academic success undoubtedly inspires Brooke students to continue to achieve in school. According to Brooke records, 98 percent go on to graduate from high school, a rate substantially higher than in other public schools ... Continued excuses for failure in the academic outcomes from public schools are unacceptable. Charter schools like Brooke indicate that educational success is possible. Brooke achievements create a challenge to public school systems. It is too soon to shut down the innovation by voting “no” on Question 2. Vote “yes,” for the children’s sake.

As I've written about before, this battle is dividing voters along generational, race, class, and municipal lines. I mention these things not to stimulate tension among communities, but to point out the tradeoffs in which putatively progressive people are engaging right now. Peter Cunningham, writing in The Huffington Post, thinks it's a battle for the soul of progressivism:

The news that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has reversed her position on school choice and now opposes a ballot initiative to allow up to 12 new public charter schools per year in her home state, raises a fundamental question about the Bay State’s progressive values ... Empowering White middle-class voters to deny choice to low-income families of color is anti-democratic and politically immoral. To honor its progressive values, the good people of Massachusetts have an obligation to vote yes on 2 and give all parents the same right to choose the best schools for their own children.

Massachusetts, like all of New England, is a predominantly White place whose suburban communities are even Whiter and wield a disproportionate amount of fiscal and electoral power. Cunningham is right to point out the immense problems with giving those communities veto power over education resources for the state's cities, which happen to be far less wealthy and White.

Speaking of potential biases, researchers at Yale have identified proof that racial bias starts as early as preschool, which Emma Brown discusses in The Washington Post:

The study, conducted by researchers at the Yale University Child Study Center, asked more than 130 preschool teachers to watch video clips of children in classrooms. The teachers were told to look for signs of “challenging behavior" ... The children in the videos were actors, and the clips did not actually show any challenging behaviors. But the teachers didn’t know that. They were anticipating trouble. And as they scanned the video clips, looking for signs of that trouble, they spent more time looking at black children than white children, according to equipment that tracked their gaze. The teachers spent even longer looking at black boys.

Regular readers of my blog will not be surprised by this information. It is worth overstating, though, that these teacher mindsets have the effect of criminalizing children as early as pre-school. When we weep for a Tamir Rice or a Tyre King, we should dig deep and make sure we are addressing the mindsets cultivated by not just out criminal justice system, but also our schools.