Reinventing school

What’s next for the Laurene Powell Jobs-funded effort to rethink American high schools

Tom Hanks and James Corden during XQ's TV special, "Super School Live."

A star-studded television special broadcast on major networks last year had a simple message: high schools haven’t changed in 100 years, but they need to — and fast.

It was backed by the nonprofit XQ Institute, which has awarded $130 million to 19 schools trying new approaches, like using virtual reality or creating a school within a museum. As those schools get off the ground, XQ has begun to deploy another strategy: trying to influence local policy.

Last week, XQ published a report encouraging state leaders to push for innovation on their own, including a set of recommendations for things like graduation requirements, teacher training, and innovation funds. Another guide, this one focused on convincing school board members to prioritize high school reform, is on the way.

It’s a notable new tack for the organization, which is affiliated with Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective. (Chalkbeat is funded by the Emerson Collective through the Silicon Valley Community Fund.) And it’s one with a reasonable shot at influencing policy, thanks both to XQ’s generous funding and to the fact that innovation appeals to education advocates of many stripes.

But XQ is also sure to face familiar challenges in realizing its goal of dramatically reshaping schools: convincing policymakers that their strategy is the right one and addressing foundational issues like school funding that can stand in the way.

“Typically what systems do is they exempt innovative schools from the traditional policies and practices of the district, but all that guarantees is that they’ll remain a minority among a majority of traditional schools,” said Warren Simmons, who was involved in the Annenberg Challenge, a philanthropic effort to improve schools in the 1990s.

19 schools, broader ambitions

A few of XQ’s schools opened their doors for the first time this year, including Crosstown High in Memphis, which promises to have students focus their learning on projects. Schools like that, XQ argues, will help students get ready for a changing world.

“To prepare for the future of work, we need to set a clear agenda to prepare the future workforce — and that agenda ties directly to our schools,” Russlynn Ali, the XQ CEO and a former Obama administration official, wrote in the report’s introduction.

To address this, XQ recommends several policies. One is to “communicate the urgency” of overhauling the high school experience. Others are more specific, such as having states offer competitive grants to spur school innovation, as XQ did, and provide additional autonomy to district schools, as has been done in Colorado.

XQ also wants more students to progress through classes based on measurements of their skills, not a set number of semesters or “seat time.” It’s an approach that has a lot of overlap with technology-based “personalized learning,” which is backed by other major funders including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. (CZI is a supporter of Chalkbeat.)

Meanwhile, XQ suggests states require that the courses necessary for earning a high school degree mirror those required to apply to a state public university system.

Together, the policies are meant to make high school more engaging and prepare students more directly for college and work.

The initiative’s ideas have garnered support from ideologically diverse sources. The Betsy DeVos-led U.S. Department of Education hosted a summit late last year that featured some of the same schools that won XQ grants and also called for leaders to rethink schools. (DeVos’s schedule indicates that she met with Ali and Powell Jobs in July 2017.)

An image from XQ’s recent report.

XQ itself has also drawn praise from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “America’s students need their high schools to be places where everyone can gain the skills they need to be ready for college, apprenticeships or other career paths — and for the rest of their lives,” she said in a statement. “The XQ report is a thorough blueprint for how states and school districts can help public schools achieve this.” (A spokesperson for AFT did not respond to an inquiry regarding whether the union has received funding from XQ or Emerson.)

Carmel Martin, a managing director at the Emerson Collective and an author of the XQ report, said that the organization sent the report to governors and she recently spoke to education staffers at the National Governors Association conference.

“We’re sharing [our research and experiences] with policymakers across the political spectrum,” she said. “We stand ready to help them move forward with these policy recommendations.”

The organization has also published a number of resources, including online guides to the science of learning and student engagement, as well as kits for people interested in running for local school boards. XQ says it provides ongoing support to the schools it’s funding, including through a five-day seminar this summer.

In addition to the $130 million those 19 schools have been pledged, a 2016 tax form shows XQ spent over $38 million building public awareness of its work that year, including a nationwide bus tour. (XQ says the tour hit 66 cities and included 68 student roundtables.) It spent an additional $5 million to run the award competition. The organization declined to offer additional spending figures.

If you build it, will they come (and will it work)?

Will it all be enough to spur action, and if so, how successful will those changes be?

That depends on several factors, including whether XQ can convince policymakers that reforming high schools is the right way to prepare for the “future of work.” That idea, that the economy is rapidly changing while schools have lagged behind, is the centerpiece of its latest pitch to state leaders. (As Chalkbeat has reported, there’s mixed evidence on just how fast the economy is changing and the claim that schools haven’t changed in 100 years.)

Those policymakers will also have to contend with the fact that a number of those policies have been tried elsewhere and faced setbacks.

In 2012, for instance, Maine passed a law creating a competency-based high school diploma. Students were to graduate based on whether they demonstrated proficiency in given areas, not based on how many classes they passed. It’s the sort of approach XQ says it favors, but earlier this year, Maine repealed the model before it was ever fully implemented. “I think this program is just set up with every opportunity in the world to put in the minimal amount of work,” one parent said.

Other XQ policies, like expanding career and technical education, have a longer track record and solid research base. Some, like improving teacher preparation and their ongoing training, have widespread support, though educators have long wrestled over how best to do it.

Another question is whether XQ will be able to use their 19 schools as proof points. XQ says it is already seeing results, pointing to D.C.’s Washington Leadership Academy, a charter school that won an XQ grant. That school has expanded the number of city students, particularly black students, taking computer science, XQ said, and posted strong test scores.

Michele Cahill, XQ’s managing director of education, said the schools would be judged in a variety of ways, including a suite of SAT tests that all of the schools have agreed to take. XQ is also working on guides for evaluating its schools in partnership with the external research group CREDO, and says it will publicly report on those results in the future.

Simmons said one challenge of the approach is that simply creating a handful of successful schools doesn’t mean their approaches will catch on. “That viral theory of action has failed time and time again,” he said.

And Megan Tompkins-Stange, a professor who studies education philanthropy at the University of Michigan, noted the challenge of expanding on success. “It’s very difficult to scale up local innovation with quality and consistency across a very large number of sites,” she said.

Cahill of XQ said creating a movement won’t be easy, but it can be done, in part through inspiring people.

“We believe broad change of this magnitude requires a cultural shift, [so] we’ve made it a part of our wheelhouse, investing our time, attention and resources not just in creating proof points at the school, district and state levels but also in the effort to win hearts and minds,” she said.

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said past efforts similar to XQ’s have been “remarkably unsuccessful.”

But, Hess said, “The fact that it’s historically been incredibly hard to do in a sustainable way doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”