First Person

A former superintendent wonders: What’s missing from the discussion about the portfolio model?

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Sharif El-Mekki, the principal of a Mastery Charter School campus in Philadelphia. We walked the hallways and talked about how to infuse social justice, social-emotional learning, and other priorities into the everyday life of the school.

As we popped into classrooms, it struck me that the teachers all seemed to share a vision for what students should be learning and how they should be learning it. The instruction that I saw was not just excellent but also consistent. The rest of our discussion focused on how specific practices in use at Mastery might be adopted successfully by traditional high schools.

When I returned home that afternoon, I came across the Chalkbeat series on portfolio schools. I appreciated the comprehensiveness of Chalkbeat’s reporting. But having just spent some time visiting classrooms and talking with El-Mekki about what was actually happening inside classrooms, I couldn’t help but notice that the articles were devoid of any reference to teaching and learning.

As I wrote not long ago, the school reforms of the last two decades have pursued mainly structural solutions to instructional problems. To be clear, I think that structural changes — having to do with school governance, parental choice, data collection, accountability systems, and so on — can be important and valuable. But they aren’t valuable in and of themselves. Rather, they’re valuable only insofar as we put them into the service of a larger vision of what we want schools to achieve, for whom, and how.

That’s why, for example, my conversation with El-Mekki didn’t veer toward the structures that enable and hinder his school’s success (although I’m sure he could go on and on about them). Rather, he wanted to talk about the knowledge and skills his students need and the ways he works with teachers and staff to support their development. As he knows, that’s where the discussion should begin. That’s what gives context and meaning to any subsequent conversation about structural reforms in education.

When I was superintendent in Stamford, Connecticut, a very diverse system of about 15,500 students, we embarked on a major effort to de-track the middle and high schools. For generations, the system had placed black and Latino students in low-level classes and white students in honors and advanced courses. We urgently needed to make a structural change, and we did by eliminating lower level courses and changing the student assignment process.

These changes were necessary, but not sufficient. We also had to invest heavily in improving what students were learning in the classroom. Science became more hands-on, we established core texts in English and increased teacher content knowledge in mathematics. The structural changes were a catalyst for transformation, but the everyday student experience in the presence of a well-prepared teacher and rich content is what actually improved outcomes.

The core challenge we’re trying to solve in American public education is to graduate all kids with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions required to navigate an increasingly complex world on their own terms. In pursuit of this goal, it might be helpful to pursue the sorts of managerial tactics and decisions associated with portfolio districts: closing low-performing schools, expanding high-performing ones, and letting parents choose any school in the system. Then again, it might turn out that these tactics aren’t helpful at all, or that they’re helpful in some places and harmful in others. (After 15 years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, reformers should know better than to assert that they know the one best way to reengineer troubled school systems.)

But I know from experience that we need to focus on the substance of what goes on in schools, not just the formal structures in which those schools operate.

The other element of great schools and systems that feels missing from the portfolio approach, as described in Chalkbeat, is attention to adult learning. Advocates for structural reform often chant simplistic slogans like “Children first,” and “Let’s focus on student needs, not adult interests.” But it’s disingenuous at best (pernicious is more like it) to suggest that 3.7 million teachers and hundreds of thousands of administrators are willfully choosing to disregard students’ needs — as though they know how to educate all children to high levels but don’t want to do so.

Likewise, it’s unhelpful for supporters of portfolio schools to make one-sided attacks on the unions, ignoring the essential protections they’ve given to generations of teachers, including the women and people of color who have made up the bulk of the teaching workforce throughout our history. It’s high time to put aside the dichotomous notion that schools must serve either the interests of adults or the needs of kids. In fact, leaders of all kinds of successful organizations know that productivity increases and clients are better served when adult workers are happy and engaged.

I’ve seen schools across the country show that when teachers are paid well, treated with respect, given opportunities to collaborate, encouraged to develop new knowledge and skills, held accountable for results, asked to teach a rich curriculum, and given the resources they need to do so, great things happen for kids — whether those teachers work in a charter school, traditional public school, or a private or parochial school.

Finally, I have to take issue with a comparison made by Ethan Gray, the head of Education Cities — which helps support the growth of the portfolio school model around the country — who likens the role of the organizations in his group to that of the quarterback of a football team. Those organizations have a catalyzing effect on local school systems, he says, handing off and passing resources to those who can move the ball forward. But the analogy rings hollow to me.

As a lifelong New York Giants fan, I’m aware that a few players, like Eli Manning, manage to have long and healthy tenures in that position (his remarkable streak of continuous games as the team’s starting quarterback just ended at 210). But most quarterbacks are here today and gone tomorrow. That’s why I always tell new school superintendents that they should think of themselves as a temporary steward of the community’s values. While one can push, cajole, inspire, and fight to transform systems in support of kids, the community will exist long after the superintendent has moved on.

Perhaps the portfolio approach can be a catalyst for useful changes in K-12 education. My advice to the leaders of that movement would be to be a little more humble, a lot more willing to adapt themselves to the values and wishes of community members, much less eager to prescribe structural solutions (e.g., parental choice and school closures) for complex problems, and much more mindful of the need to ground school improvement in the everyday work of teaching and learning.

Joshua Starr is the CEO of PDK International, an association for educators. He was previously the superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Maryland and Stamford, Connecticut. He tweets @JoshuaPStarr.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.