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The 13 Best Education Articles From February: President Trump’s Mysterious State of the Union Scholarship, the Politics of Reading, a John White Exit Interview & More

By The 74 | February 25, 2020

Every month, we round up our most popular and buzzed-about articles from the past four weeks. (Go deeper: See our top highlights from January, December and across 2019 right here)

It was a month of memorable features and profiles at The 74, from an exit interview with Louisiana’s outgoing schools chief to a report on Tennessee’s plans to expand whole-child services in rural schools and a new feature on how a Khan Academy experiment in California led the network to pursue district partnerships across the country. More details on the month’s most popular stories below. (And remember, you can always get our top news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for The 74 Newsletter.)

Janiyah Davis, a fourth-grade student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and her mother, Stephanie. Both attended President Trump’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night, where he spoke of the family’s unsuccessful attempt to get a tax-credit scholarship in Pennsylvania. (White House)

During State of the Union, Trump Announced Philadelphia Fourth-Grader Would Receive ‘Opportunity Scholarship’ for Private School Tuition. But That’s Not Quite True

Fact-Check: At his 2020 State of the Union address, President Donald Trump introduced the country to a Philadelphia fourth-grader in the audience who he said was stuck in “failing government schools.” In front of the nation, he told her she would be getting a life-changing chance to attend the school of her choice by way of an “opportunity scholarship.” In the week that followed, however, new questions arose by the day concerning the president’s promise. The student’s mother told the Philadelphia Inquirer that her daughter does not attend a failing school but rather one of the city’s most sought-after charter schools. And that twist came after the revelation that the “scholarship” cited by the president would, in fact, be a personal payment by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Mark Keierleber tries to get to the bottom of a SOTU mystery. (Read the full investigation)

English language arts teacher Frank Queris talks with students at a Wednesday night SEO Scholars class. (Taylor Swaak/The 74)

Within NYC’s Highly Segregated School System, a Group of Low-Income Students Sacrifice Their Summers, Weekends for a Chance at College Success

New York City: The SEO Scholars program exists entirely outside the New York City public school system. But for many low-income, minority students who attend the city’s schools — highly segregated and saddled with an unequal distribution of resources — it could be their only chance at high school, college and career success. Those who get in as high school freshmen receive eight years of continuous support, including rigorous coursework to bridge achievement gaps, help with the SAT and the federal financial aid application, college advisers and networking opportunities. Of the students who stick with SEO, 100 percent are accepted to four-year universities and typically 90 percent earn a degree within six years; the national average for that socioeconomic group is 11 percent. But those outcomes don’t come without a cost. From the time they’re 14, the students have to commit to spending one month during the summers, three of four Saturdays a month and one school night each week in a classroom. The experience is bittersweet, students say — a life-changing opportunity born of systemic failures in the public schools. Marginalized students “don’t really say, ‘Oh, this is a problem,’ because this is how it’s always been,” senior Alexander Rodriguez said. “But SEO has really just called it out for what it is: ‘No, this is an inequity, this is injustice, and that’s why we’re here.'” Taylor Swaak takes an in-depth look at the program through the eyes of the students it serves. (Read the full profile)

Louisiana Department of Education

Outgoing Louisiana Chief John White on the New Orleans Experiment, His Longevity and What It Means to Be Well Educated

74 Interview: When John White announced he would leave his post as Louisiana state superintendent of education next month, the news was received with the kind of fanfare typically reserved for name-brand politicians. The architect of numerous policies that have driven rapid improvement in schools, White somehow navigated ever-changing political winds to become the longest-tenured state education chief in the nation. His departure — he’s a new father and the co-founder of an innovative career-readiness program — has the education advocacy grapevine humming: What will White do next, and can the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, now in the unenviable position of seeking a replacement, be persuaded to stay the course? Beth Hawkins has an exit interview. (Read the full conversation)

New York City Department of Education

Urban Design Firm WXY Is at the Center of the Country’s Most Contentious School Integration Work — From New York City to Maryland. Who Are They, Exactly?

Investigation: After temporarily being derailed by parent protests, New York City’s District 28 in Queens will start holding meetings in March around a prospective diversity plan to integrate its 13 middle schools. One key question: Why was architecture and urban design firm WXY Studio tapped to lead what will likely be impassioned and complex community discussions around race and equity? “I thought architects built buildings,” one parent flatly told The 74 earlier this month. “I don’t know if [WXY] would be qualified to do — whatever this is.” It’s not the first time that the motives, methods and qualifications of the New York City firm have become fair game in the conflict surrounding school desegregation efforts. WXY oversaw a similar process two years ago in Brooklyn’s District 15 and is conducting a controversial review of school boundary lines in Montgomery County, Maryland, that has raised parents’ ire. It’s doing a similar school boundary analysis in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and back in 2012, it studied school assignments in the Boston Public Schools, whose history is inextricably tied to school segregation battles. Taylor Swaak takes an in-depth look at WXY: who they are, what they’ve done and how parents are responding to their work. (Read the full article)

Rotherham: Phonics. Whole Language. Balanced Literacy. The Problem Isn’t That We Don’t Know How to Teach Reading — It’s Politics

Curriculum: Last year’s NAEP scores continued a lackluster streak and set off a predictable bout of hand-wringing. This time, it was our national pandemic of ineffective reading instruction catching the flak. But reading isn’t just the latest obsession of education advocates; literacy is a real issue in people’s lives. Deny people access to the written word, and you deny them freedom, agency — even humanity. Unfortunately, writes contributor Andrew Rotherham, national data show we do that systematically. Only about a third of fourth-graders are proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and substantially fewer low-income students and black and Hispanic youngsters. Our reading problem and how we approach it is broadly illustrative of a confusion that often pervades education reform efforts: We conflate problems of education politics with problems of education craft. Somehow, phonics, despite the evidence of its importance in reading instruction, especially for low-income youngsters, has become a “conservative” or Republican approach to reading, while “whole language,” or its more acceptable stepbrother, “balanced literacy,” has more adherents on the left. We tend to treat the problem of poor reading instruction as one of craft: Teachers don’t know how to teach reading, so how do we make sure they do? Solve the craft problem, the argument goes, and the politics take care of themselves. But what if this is backward and, instead, it’s a political problem that allows the craft problem to persist? And maybe not just on reading, but on other issues like testing, accountability and teacher evaluation, where we’re constantly told that if things were just a little better from a technical standpoint, everyone would actually be on board? (Read the full commentary)

Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent Chris Steinhauser and Khan Academy founder Sal Khan discuss their then-budding partnership in 2018. That relationship would serve as a model for the partnerships Khan has now established with 11 districts across the country. (Credit: Esmeralda Fabián Romero)

How Khan Academy Used a Successful Experiment With California’s Long Beach Unified to Launch District Partnerships Across the Country

Spotlight: Khan Academy’s free online tutorials are well known, used by more than 18 million learners every month in more than 190 countries and 18 languages, according to the company. Just this month, the California-based nonprofit reported that its free SAT preparation hit a milestone of 10 million registered users. It was that SAT prep that formed the basis of Khan Academy’s relationship with the Long Beach Unified School District in 2016, when Superintendent Chris Steinhauser personally called 340 seniors from low-income families with the lowest SAT scores and urged them to use the free Khan videos to improve their scores next time around. The district saw a 20 percentage point gain in the number of Cal State-eligible seniors over a four-year period and a 22-point gain on its state math test results after incorporating Khan Academy’s videos and student analytics into math and other subject instruction for younger students. “It is truly a game-changer for kids and families in closing the achievement gap,” Steinhauser said. Long Beach served as a model when Khan Academy last year announced its new paid initiative, Khan Academy Districts, and MAP Accelerator, a new personalized learning tool. The two are now used in 11 districts from California to Florida, including two of the country’s largest, Houston and Clark County, Nevada. “Virtual is nice,” founder Sal Khan said, “but when it’s coupled with incredible teachers and administrators and done in the right way, that is when you really get the power.” Esmeralda Fabián Romero takes a look. (Read the full article)

State school superintendents gather with literacy experts at a national literacy summit hosted by the Council of Chief State School Officers. (James Bell for CCSSO)

At National Literacy Summit, State Education Chiefs Warn of Reading Stagnation

Literacy: Reading instruction in American schools is so rife with pseudoscience and bad practices that it resembles “chemistry departments teaching alchemy,” according to David Steiner, an education expert and former New York State schools commissioner. At a national literacy summit held in Washington, D.C., Steiner and a host of state superintendents spoke about the challenges of improving reading achievement for K-12 students. The conclave, hosted by the Council of Chief State School Officers, included a bracing look at standardized test scores in the subject, which have been essentially stagnant for the past 30 years; but it also proposed solutions for state leaders, including pushing school districts to adopt better curricula and working with teacher preparation programs to make sure that future educators understand the science of how kids learn to read. (Read the full article)

Threatened With Closure, Virtual School Embraced Accountability, Fired Its For-Profit Manager and Made Dramatic Gains for Its 9,000 Students

Accountability: In contrast to the nap-inducing bureaucratese of a typical charter school renewal application, Georgia Cyber Academy’s petition for permission to keep enrolling students is riveting reading. The state’s largest public school — and one of its most persistent underperformers — the Georgia Cyber Academy two years ago was threatened with closure if it didn’t take steps to address student growth. The school’s nonprofit board, its renewal application explains, took the concerns seriously but was hamstrung by “artificial barriers and obstacles” and a “combination of misinformation, omitted/skewed data and lack of transparency” that its application says was created by K12 Inc., the for-profit corporation that ran the school. After an outside audit and the hiring of a veteran education leader “to act as the board’s eyes, ears and voice at the school level,” according to the petition, the board cut its ties to the company. Since then, student academic growth has been swift, and the school’s leaders were optimistic that the Georgia State Charter School Commission will grant a three-year renewal of their charter later this month. (Read the full article)

U.S. Economic Activity Could Grow by Tens of Billions of Dollars If We Invested More in Single Mothers Attending College, Report Shows

Big Picture: If colleges, universities and government officials got serious about helping more single mothers earn a college degree, the ripple effect on individual incomes — plus state and federal coffers — would be enormous, a new collection of reports shows. Mikhail Zinshteyn examines analyses from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington, D.C., think tank, which calculates that single moms who earn bachelor’s degrees pay $220,000 more in taxes over their lifetimes than those with high school diplomas. Single moms with associate’s degrees contribute $71,400 more, and those with some college but no degree pay $35,000 more in taxes over the course of their working lives. (Read the full article)

Tennessee Education Chief Penny Schwinn on Her Radical Plan Using Schools to Bring Social Services to Rural Areas — and Her Whole-Child Approach to Training Teachers

74 Interview: Tennessee’s deep-red politics have traditionally meant little appetite for the mix of services and social-emotional learning opportunities broadly described as whole-child supports. Yet, as Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn surveyed the landscape upon her appointment one year ago, she saw a level of unmet need that could not be denied. With an overwhelming number of profoundly isolated rural districts — with rising levels of addiction and few economic prospects — Tennessee has to figure out how to create rapid responses to everything from mental health crises to impassable mountain roads. And with a third of the state’s teachers at or past retirement age, Schwinn has to raise an army of replacements and equip them with a whole new set of skills. In this 74 Interview, Schwinn talked with Beth Hawkins about her radical plan to use schools as a focal point for bringing social services to these remote, distressed areas — and to train teachers for free. (Read the full interview)

HS Diploma, 2-Year College, Apprenticeship — Which Is the Best Path? New ‘Right to Know’ Bills in 6 States Would Give Students More Data About Options (and Outcomes)

Analysis: Students today have more opportunities than ever to make choices about pathways through school and into the workforce. Whether it’s a traditional high school, a career and technical education program, a university, a community college, the military or an apprenticeship, students and families need information to make the best decisions toward their own goals. At the same time, state policymakers are grappling with challenges facing the school-to-workforce pipeline — rising student debt, businesses that can’t find qualified hires while graduates remain unemployed, college courses that don’t keep up with today’s economy. Data can show state leaders how widespread these issues are and allow them to pinpoint solutions. And by linking the data across agencies and sharing it, states can provide students and their families with the information they need to make informed decisions. Contributor Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger of the Data Quality Campaign spotlights six states — Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and West Virginia — that have introduced versions of the Right to Know Act, which would give students information about potential post-K-12 pathways and real workforce outcomes. “At a time when it feels like no one can agree on policy issues, it’s remarkable that so many states are considering the same model of improving pathways from school to workforce. And what’s most notable about this effort is that it all boils down to empowering students with information as a theory of change. … Student transitions from school to workforce can’t be improved without data. The more complete and robust data that students and their families have about potential pathways and real outcomes, the better off they will be as they set off toward the future.” (Read the full piece)

Middle School Marvel: For Her Science Project, This 14-Year-Old Invented a Way to Eliminate a Car’s Blind Spot. Now She’s Won $25,000 — and Volvo Is Intrigued

STEM: Alaina Gassler’s 2019 science project started small, designed for her middle school in Pennsylvania. Soon, though, her invention to remove blind spots from cars was winning county and then regional science fairs — and now, Gassler has taken top honors at the nation’s largest middle school science contest. Not only did the 14-year-old beat out 29 other finalists from around the country to win the $25,000 Samueli Foundation Prize — she got to travel to Sweden to discuss her creation, which uses a camera and projector to improve drivers’ range of vision, with Volvo’s top female engineer, who also heads the automaker’s safety division. And, with girls snagging all five of the top spots in the Broadcom MASTERS competition for the first time, Gassler is determined to get even more girls involved in STEM. Tim Newcomb has the story. (Read the full article)

Teachers Find Coaching Helpful, but Most Don’t Get Enough of It, Survey Says

Big Picture: A large number of teacher coaches oversee at least 16 teachers, more than the recommended 10 teachers per coach, according to a new study. And while teachers report finding value in receiving biweekly coaching, most see their coaches less frequently and in shorter durations than the teachers would like. The results, Mikhail Zinshteyn reports, are from a survey of more than 1,000 active coaches by Digital Promise, a nonprofit that promotes online educational tools, and Learning Forward, a professional development nonprofit. Google for Education also took part in the survey’s release. One finding: 61 percent of teachers who find value in coaching meet with their coaches at least biweekly, but fewer than half of teachers see their coaches that often. Another: Coaches may have too heavy a workload — 40 percent of in-school coaches are also teachers. (Read the full article)

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