Teaching teachers

Blame game must end for schools to improve, says new dean of CU education school

PHOTO: Courtesy of CU
Kathy Schultz is the new dean of the School at Education at the University of Colorado.

BOULDER — There’s a new dean in town.

And she wants to make teaching fun and intellectual again.

Kathy Schultz, who will begin her role as dean of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s School of Education in August, said in a wide-ranging interview with Chalkbeat that everyone needs to stop blaming each other for a broken school system and that teachers should be given more autonomy and better training based on individual needs.

Schultz currently runs the School of Education at Mills College, a liberal arts college in Oakland, Calif. She will succeed Lorrie Shepard, who led the school at CU for 15 years.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How are you getting settled in Boulder?
It’s been great. I’ve been able to meet with Lorrie about once a month.

This is such a strong school of education. What I really want to do is build on its strengths. I want to build on all the incredible programs going on already, while bringing in my own vision to support people to move forward.

There is an incredible faculty here. And from what I know, an incredible group of students. The kinds of programs and the research agenda and community engagement that people are doing make it really strong. The scholars here are nationally and internationally recognized. There’s this very nice combination of people committed to educational research and educational practice and educational policy. That kind of combination is really rare.

What is your vision for the school?
To really flesh out what my vision is, I need to keep learning about what’s being done here. My work has been in preparing urban teachers. One of the things that’s very interesting to me is that this school is not located in an urban center. I think that presents really interesting possibilities. I will continue to be very interested in understanding what the connections can be in Denver while thinking about how to look at underserved populations in rural areas.

As a dean, I’ve become increasingly interested in education policy. I really do see this as a place where there are a lot of people working on issues. There’s an opportunity to highlight our role in participating in public conversations.

The Denver-metro area student population is changing very quickly, in part to gentrification.
That’s one of the big issues I’ve been working on in Oakland: How are we responsible to these new and changing groups of students? I think that’s very relevant here. How do we think about changing demographics? What are our responsibilities? And what are our responses?

What are the responsibilities for schools of education?
It’s really important that schools of education present themselves as in the conversation, not the experts who are going to determine the conversation. So I’d like to think of the walls as being really porous. As a school of education, we should be learning from the community and using the external resources of the community to inform the courses we’re providing. At the same time, we’re not only educating the students in our walls, but (asking), ‘How do we contribute to the larger education of the community?’ Again, this school does this a lot. More and more schools of education have that obligation: take in knowledge, but also contribute knowledge through scholarship and research and through practice like professional development for teachers and policy briefs.

Many states, including California and Colorado, are in the midst of teacher shortages. What should teacher colleges be doing to address this? What have you done?
The figures are incredible in California: Over the last 10 years there’s been a 75 percent drop in people going into teaching. So that’s been a huge concern both for the health of the teacher education programs and school districts.

One of the things CU Boulder is doing is developing a new major for undergraduates. This major is being connected to leadership and civic engagement. It’s just such a strong move for the university to be making. What this means is that when students come in as freshmen, they have opportunities to think about teaching and think of it as being closely connected to community engagement work.

I think this generation of students, of youth, is interested in making a difference and being engaged in community. I think there’s less and less of an interest in just being a teacher.

Partly that’s because teaching is being de-professionalized. It’s not intellectual work in the same way it used to be.

That’s one way to work on it: make it a better profession.

Are we asking too much of our teachers?
I think what’s important is that when you have greater demands there should be greater rewards. And I’m not just saying financial rewards — although that would help. I’m also saying, make it so that teaching continues to be a rewarding profession. There just has to be a real, greater appreciation for teachers.

One of the things that happens in education is that there is this revolving set of targets for who to blame. It’s the parents or the children who are being blamed. More recently it’s been the teachers and the teacher educators. Some people would say the truth is it’s none of those — it’s poverty.

I don’t think it’s helpful to blame any group, or even poverty. I do think poverty is an underlying cause and needs to be addressed. People can’t learn if they don’t have breakfast. But I think that rather than blaming, there has to be a focus on, ‘What are the rewards? How do you recognize the successes of teachers?’

How do you make it so it feels not like a losing, overwhelming job — because people will leave it. And they do. It’s not only that people aren’t going into teaching. It’s that people are leaving too quickly. We not only have to get more people into teaching, but we especially need to work on retaining teachers.

At Mills, we put a lot of effort into programs to support teachers through their first three or four years of teaching. If you can get teachers to stay for three to five years, it’s more likely that they’ll stay longer. It’s that revolving door that is really creating the shortage.

What was your program at Mills like?
Teachers would come together once a month. They would bring questions from their classroom. Now, it’s really structured on teachers doing practitioner research in their own classrooms. We’ve developed it so principals are supporting whole schools to do this work.

Teachers feel like professionals. They’re actually doing research. They’re feeling respected for doing it. They’re teaching is improving. And they’re talking every month with their colleagues about a puzzle they have about teaching. And collecting data about it.

What could lawmakers do to improve the teaching profession?
For schools to succeed, teaching has to be a respected profession. And I think that means we need to attract the most excited and engaged people into teaching. That includes salary and work conditions. It’s really tied to the demands on teachers.

How do we both hold high expectations and give teachers autonomy? One of the ways that teaching doesn’t feel like a profession now is when teachers are given very little autonomy and are told what to do. That’s because accountability is held at such a premium.

I think the Every Student Succeeds Act is flawed in many ways that No Child Left Behind was. But I think more local control is a good thing. And the state would do well to give more local control.

I’m for even more than local control. I’ve written a lot about how teaching is about listening to students. So when I talk about standards, I talk in a way about respecting students’ own standards. I think we need to pay lots of attention to who students are and build curriculum around that.

That’s doesn’t mean as a country we don’t have high expectations. You don’t have to have national standards to hold high expectations for everybody. This is a cliche, but there is a difference between standards and standardization.

If you were going to open up a school for the 21st century, what would it look like?
It would be open to the community and it wouldn’t be just from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. It would be porous to the community. I think students would be able to pursue their interests. It would be well-resourced. There would be structure for people who need structure.

The idea of who is a teacher would be greatly expanded. There would not only be the people who are paid to teach, but also community members would be teachers and maybe students would be teachers.

There would be very high expectations. Maybe clear graduation requirements that would be adaptable to how the world is changing. It would have plenty of technology, as well as technology free spaces so there could be different forms of creativity.

… That sounds pretty romantic.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Mills College is an all-women’s institution. It serves both genders.  

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has opened a crack in the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

On the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do some of the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for the district’s turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 106 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a district where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.