Friday Reading List: Cultural Competency, Radical Changes in Higher Ed, and Charters in D.C.

Nehemiah Davis, writing at Philly's 7th Ward, wants to make sure that policymakers consider both diversity and cultural competency in the teacher workforce:

African-American teachers make up only 7-percent of America’s pedagogue population. The number is even smaller when it comes to African-American men. They make up less than 2-percent ... A Harvard Education Review study indicates that potential African-American teachers are less likely to be hired than their white counterparts. The study looked at “hiring patterns of one large unidentified public school district.” The study found that “…black and white teachers who applied for jobs in the district were equally qualified. However, white teachers received a disproportional number of job offers,” a stark difference when comparing employment percentages from both cohorts.

Davis goes on to examine the Tulsa public schools in serious detail. While the statistical underrepresentation of Black teachers is a national phenomenon, it manifests in different ways in different communities. Remedying this problem means understanding the local context, wherever you live and work.

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Emily J. Levine and Mitchell L. Stevens are in The New York Times with a series of radical proposals to remake the American higher education system:

We need to start asking which public goods universities are producing and whether government support gets Americans more of them. Taxing graduate students is a crude, destructive mechanism for extracting goods from academia because it would diminish both scientific discovery and the size and scope of the educated public that has been improving our country for generations ... To address these issues, universities must bring new proposals to the table. Using the G.I. Bill as a model, they might expressly commit to provide opportunities for people who would never otherwise attend college. Elite schools could forgo their current business model, in which teenagers from wealthy families are their primary clients. They might instead create new forms of instructional opportunity that are within reach of people regardless of age or life circumstances.

Levine and Stevens are responding to provisions in the current tax proposal that is wending its way through the Senate. Their broader point is relevant across the various tax proposals being entertained right now: you can't meddle with the tax code without also affecting the investment structure in different parts of the economy. Higher education is one of those areas wherein public investment should lead to robust public outcomes. Their argument leads me to believe that our public investment in higher education currently is suboptimal, but that the Republican tax bill would make things even worse.

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Finally this week, Rachel Cohen has a long, reported piece in Washington City Paper about the charter schools sector in Washington, D.C.:

Today 46 percent of public school students in D.C. attend 120 charter schools operated by 66 nonprofit corporations, each of which constitutes its own separate school district. (Roughly 5,000 of those students are adult learners, a population DCPS barely educates.) The [Public Charter School Board] is not exactly an intuitively structured entity ... The PCSB’s role in the larger D.C. educational ecosystem is also not quite straightforward. Lines of responsibility within that ecosystem are often unclear, with multiple bodies orbiting each other, influencing each other, and sometimes colliding ... A perennial question for D.C’s charter sector is how to sufficiently live up to their name—public charter schools—while also remaining independent and free from the kinds of regulation and red tape that other government agencies deal with on a regular basis.

Charter proponents might not agree with the tone of Cohen's piece, but her reporting is both straightforward and accurate. I worked for the D.C. Public Schools for a number of years, and the governance structure of public schooling in Washington is confusing enough to technocrats, let alone the average parent who is trying to navigate the range of options in the city. One piece of information that Cohen missed, but would have added even greater complexity to her reporting, is that the federal government continues to play a role in the city's financial structure; Congress still has tentacles in all of the city's public schools, traditional and charter alike.

My primary quibble with Cohen's reporting is that she conflates financial transparency with public accountability. Fiscal transparency is one component of public accountability, but academic performance, college persistence rates, staff satisfaction, and school safety are others. Moreover, while it's true that it is hard to look at the financial transactions of individual charter schools in D.C. because of their financial autonomies, the finances of individual traditional public schools are equally opaque.

In the end, D.C. will need to have some sort of reckoning about the fact that it has two parallel public schooling systems that operate under different sets of rules. My personal perspective is that the presence of charter schools has been a net positive to both the overall quality of schools in the city, and the vibrancy of the professional schooling culture across sectors. That said, the growth of charters has happened alongside dramatic reforms to the traditional system, creating a complicated dynamic that may be hard to sustain, both financially and politically.

Have a great weekend!