2020

President Winfrey? Here’s what we know about Oprah’s education outlook

Oprah Winfrey, right, hosted N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg when Zuckerberg announced a $100 million gift to Newark schools in 2010.

When Oprah Winfrey delivered an emotional, inspirational speech at the Golden Globes on Sunday, many viewed it as an introductory address for a possible presidential run.

Indeed, after years of denying any political ambitions, people close to Winfrey now say she’s open to running for office, according to CNN. (She again denied plans to run on Monday.)

So what would a President Winfrey look like when it comes to education? As with most policy issues, she hasn’t taken a firm stand — but her background, personal giving, and guests on her show, which aired from 1986 until 2011, all offer clues. Here’s what we know.

She understands racism and poverty in America — and how schools can make a difference.

Growing up impoverished in the South and then Milwaukee, Winfrey endured many of the challenges that disproportionately affect poor children in America, including family instability, teen pregnancy, and frequent school changes. (She was also sexually abused by family members.) She credits a fourth-grade teacher with giving her the intellectual energy to persevere.

“I always, because of you, felt I could take on the world,” Winfrey said in a 1989 special where she honored her favorite teachers. “You did exactly what teachers are supposed to do. They create a spark for learning that lives with you from then on.”

As a teenager, Winfrey did so well at her Milwaukee high school that a teacher decided to help her become one of 16 black students to integrate a high school in an affluent suburb. (She later left that school when her mother decided to send her to Nashville, where she also attended a newly integrated high school.) “It was culture shock for me. It was the first time I realized I was poor,” she said during the 1989 show. “But it made a major difference in my life.”

Those experiences left Winfrey believing in the power of schools to change lives, she has said. “I value nothing more in the world than education,” Winfrey said in 2010. “It is the reason why I can stand here today. It is an open door to freedom.”

She has given to education initiatives that cross partisan divides.

As one of the world’s wealthiest women, with a net worth of nearly $3 billion, Winfrey has directed her giving to a wide array of causes, including education. She has donated to charter schools across the country, participated in a collective to reduce high school dropouts, and funded scholarships for students at historically black colleges.

She even launched a school of her own in South Africa that has sent poor girls to elite universities. For a megastar, Winfrey took an unusually personal role in the school’s development: She handpicked the school’s first class; overhauled the leadership when a sex abuse scandal occurred early on; gave students her personal cell phone number; and took the first graduates shopping for dorm-room decor.

The experience gave Winfrey insights into what kinds of efforts might alter the track of poor students’ lives. “I had worked with other organizations, I had written lots of checks, I had started my own big sister program, where I was taking girls on skiing trips and spending time with them and reading. It doesn’t work,” she said in 2017.

“What works is being able to change the trajectory of somebody’s life where you are literally brainwashing them for the good,” Winfrey added, as she reflected on her school’s first decade. “Because what poverty does is brainwashes you to believe that you are not enough.”

She’s also aligned herself with heavyweights of the ‘education reform’ movement.

Many people treated Winfrey’s enormously popular show as an ideal platform to reach Americans of all races and classes — something that can be especially pressing for education influencers, who are often criticized for imposing their ideas on poor communities.

Toward the end of the show’s run, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg chose it to announce a $100 million gift to overhaul schools in Newark, New Jersey. Also on that episode: then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, now U.S. senator. The trio, Winfrey said, “are putting politics aside to help turn around the failing public schools in Newark.”

One of the most education policy-heavy episodes of Winfrey’s show aired in 2010, when Winfrey promoted the documentary “Waiting for Superman” with a special about “the shocking state of our schools.”

The film galvanized support for charter schools, and teachers unions treated it as an attack. Winfrey gave air time to the director, Davis Guggenheim, as well as to philanthropist Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee, then the Washington D.C. schools chief who was attracting attention for trying to fire low-performing teachers.

Winfrey called Rhee “a warrior woman” and appeared sympathetic to Rhee’s agenda, at one point asking her, “Why can’t you just fire bad teachers?” But Winfrey also hit some more positive notes.

“Everybody knows I love good teachers, and there are so many thousands of you — great ones — in this country,” Winfrey said on the show. “So we’re not talking about you if you are a good teacher.”

As part of the episode, Winfrey capped off a round of giving from her Angel Network philanthropy with $1 million awards to six networks of charter schools, which she suggested were making almost superhuman efforts to help their students.

“Imagine this,” Winfrey said. “A school where high school freshmen, reading at a fourth-grade level, can jump ahead five grades in a single school year. Or a school where teachers stay until 11 at night to help children with their homework, and where children say school is like a second family to them.”

Winfrey’s proclivity to promote heroes sometimes resulted in unstable education initiatives getting a boost: One New Orleans charter school that the Oprah Winfrey Network profiled as a promising turnaround effort closed a year later as one of the lowest-performing schools in Louisiana. And Zuckerberg’s Newark donation, which spurred a controversial package of policy changes for Newark schools, had mixed results: Growth in student achievement dropped for three years, but bounced back in years four and five.

Have her views shifted as many in the Democratic party have shifted their education outlook? We don’t know.

One of Winfrey’s most sustained causes has been Booker, whose U.S. Senate race she supported with fundraising and air time.

Booker’s personal evolution on education issues reflects a broader one within the Democratic party. Early in his career, Booker became known for championing charter schools and sat on the board of Democrats for Education Reform, a group that set out to counter the influence of teachers unions in local elections. But as uneven results and pushback from local communities have racked up, Booker puts less emphasis on the most divisive parts of that agenda. Now, he is more likely to promote pre-kindergarten and criticize Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, than to propose particular policies to improve schools.

That mirrors a broader shift in the education world. Gates, for example, has turned away from funding individual schools and policy initiatives in favor of supporting locally led efforts to improve education.

It’s unclear whether Winfrey is attuned to this shift: Since her show went off the air, Winfrey hasn’t often commented publicly on major matters of public debate, including education issues — although she did endorse Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, and expressed disbelief that Donald Trump, like her an entertainer, had been elected instead. (Trump’s nomination, she said at the time, made her feel for the first time “really qualified” to run for office.)

Her speech at the Golden Globes — which focused on empowering women — suggests that Winfrey is ready to be a public influence.

One clue to her general approach could come from the 2010 “Waiting for Superman” special, when Winfrey also underscored that education is a communal challenge, not an individual one.

“Just because your kids are in a good school, because your kids are graduated from school, doesn’t mean that it is not our country’s problem,” Winfrey said. “Our country will suffer if we continue to look the other way.”

Signed and sealed

Federal officials deny New York testing waivers but sign off on its plan for judging schools

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa

New York cannot create special testing rules for students with disabilities or those still learning English, the U.S. education department said Tuesday.

The decision to deny New York the testing waivers it had sought came on the same day that the department signed off on the state’s plan to evaluate and support schools under the new federal education law. The plan, required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, was the product of more than a year of writing and revision by state officials and over a dozen public hearings.

The federal education department approved most of New York’s vision which aims to move beyond test scores when evaluating schools and places new emphasis on whether schools have the resources they need though they required some changes, which the department first proposed in feedback last month.

One of the revisions affects the way schools are rated when many students refuse to take the state exams. Meanwhile, the federal reviewers did not appear to require changes that could have lowered the state’s graduation rate, which some experts had said was possible under the new law.

Here’s what you need to know about the federal government’s feedback to New York’s plan:

1.) Two testing waivers were rejected

At the same time that New York submitted its ESSA plan, it also requested three testing-related waivers — two of which federal officials shot down on Tuesday.

One of the rejected waivers would have allowed students with significant cognitive disabilities to take tests below their grade level, which New York officials said would have resulted in more accurate measures of their progress. However, special-education advocates and the New York City education department had raised alarms about that request, saying it could lower standards for those students and potentially violate federal law. In denying the request, the U.S. education department appeared to validate those concerns.

The other denied waiver had asked that schools not be held accountable for the English test scores of newly arrived immigrants until after those students had been in the U.S. for three years. Without that exemption, school evaluations will factor in the English scores of students who are still learning that language after their second year in the country.

New York did, however, receive approval for one waiver to allow middle-school students to skip the state’s annual math or science exams if they instead sit for the Regents exams in those subjects, which are required to earn a typical high-school diploma.

2.) A change for schools with high opt-out rates

New York must treat students who boycott state tests as having failed them when evaluating schools’ performance though state officials don’t expect that to trigger interventions for high-performing schools with high opt-out rates.

In its ESSA plan, New York officials had wanted to make sure that schools were not penalized if a large number of students sit out the state exams — as 19 percent of students across the state did last year. To that end, they created two accountability measures — one that counted boycotted exams against a school’s passing rate and another that did not — and allowed schools to use the higher of the two ratings.

But the U.S. education department blocked that methodology, instead requiring the state to treat boycotted exams as the equivalent of failed tests when judging their academic performance. (They are still allowed to use the other metric to evaluate schools, just not under strict federal guidelines for what count as academic measures.)

State education department officials said Wednesday that the changes will like result in slightly lower ratings for schools with high opt-out rates. However, they said they do not expect those schools to face serious consequences as long as they perform well on other metrics.

Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, which helped organize the opt-out movement in New York, said she expects the state to protect schools where many students boycott the exams.

Otherwise, she predicted, “There’s going to be outrage.”

3.) New York’s graduation rate is in the clear for now

Federal reviewers could have forced the state to lower its graduation rate, but they appear to have decided against that drastic step.

ESSA requires states to include only diplomas earned by a “preponderance” of students when calculating their graduation rates. Several experts thought New York’s “local diploma,” a less rigorous diploma awarded to only about four percent of students, did not meet that requirement.

If federal officials had agreed, the state could have been forced to recalculate its graduation rate and possibly eliminate some newly created options that allow more students to graduate with local diplomas. However, the officials appear to have let New York’s graduation rate stand with the local diploma in place.

on the market

Albany to Boston? New York education official Angelica Infante-Green in the running to lead Massachusetts schools

PHOTO: Chiefs for Change
Angelica Infante-Green is a finalist to run schools in Massachusetts.

One of New York state’s top education officials is a finalist to take over the leaderless state education department in Massachusetts.

Angelica Infante-Green is one of three finalists to succeed Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts education commissioner who died unexpectedly in June 2017, according to the Boston Herald.

Infante-Green is a deputy commissioner overseeing instruction in New York’s public schools, where she has recently spearheaded the state’s efforts integrate schools by race and class. Before arriving in Albany in 2013, she oversaw New York City’s efforts to serve to English language learners. In that position, she was responsible for expanding the city’s bilingual and dual-language programs and making sure that immigrant families landed in the best schools for their children.

Infante-Green is the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, a graduate of New York City schools, and a Teach For America alumna.

When she was teaching, Infante-Green felt “a little frustration in the classroom because there were policies that were being made without really knowing what was happening in the classroom,” she said in a video interview with Chiefs for Change, a national coalition of state and district education leaders that advocates for policy changes to help students. “So I decided that I was going to bring that drive to create change at a different level.”

Infante-Green is part of Chiefs for Change’s “Future Chiefs” program, which aims to cultivate a diverse pipeline of education leaders. She is also is a public school parent of two children; her son attends the first-ever dual-language program for students with autism, which she helped launch.

In an interview with Education Post last year, Infante-Green reflected on how her experiences as a parent, educator, and administrator inform her outlook on education policy.

“I’ve always had a passion for equity because of my own experience. I know firsthand what it’s like to be in a school where there isn’t much support and expectations are low,” Infante Green said in the interview. “If I didn’t have the chance to change schools, I don’t know how I would have ended up. So I work to make sure all kids have the opportunity to thrive.”

Massachusetts would present different challenges for Infante-Green. Schools there are considered the highest-performing in the country, and unlike in New York, the state runs some struggling districts directly.

The other candidates for the Massachusetts job, according to the Boston Herald, are Jeffrey Riley, who leads the state-run Lawrence Public Schools in central Massachusetts; and Penny Schwinn, chief deputy commissioner of academics at the Texas Education Agency. They were selected from 18 applicants and will undergo interviews in Boston next week.

Clarification (Jan. 17, 2018): This story has been updated to clarify the activities of Chiefs for Change, as well as to include Infante-Green’s participation in the Future Chiefs program.