School Improvement, Educational Inequality, and Politics: A Conversation with Beth E. Schueler

This month’s Lead the Change (LtC) interview features Beth E. Schueler, an Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. She studies education policy, politics, and inequality with a focus on efforts to improve low-performing K-12 schools and districts and previously worked on legislative affairs at the New York City Council.  The LtC series is produced by the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research AssociationJennie Weiner, Chair; Olga O. Fellus, Program Chair; Corinne Brion, Secretary/Treasurer; Alexandra Lamb, Series Editor; Cynthia Wise, Social Media Coordinator. A pdf of the fully formatted interview is available on the LtC website.

Lead the Change: The 2022 AERA theme is Cultivating Equitable Education Systems for the 21st Century and charges researchers and practitioners with dismantling oppressive education systems and replacing them with anti-racist, equity, and justice-oriented systems. To achieve these goals, researchers must engage in new methodologies, cross-disciplinary thinking, global perspectives, and community partnerships to respond to the challenges of the 21st century including the COVID-19 Pandemic and systemic racism among other persistent inequities. Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems and reimagine new ways of thinking and doing in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call? 

Beth E. Schueler: The pandemic, high-profile anti-Black police violence, and threats to the health of our democracy have had me, like many other scholars, questioning whether my research priorities are the right ones to make the greatest contribution toward promoting race- and class-based equity. Recent events have only reaffirmed my belief that greater attention to the politics of education is critical to making progress toward these goals. For example, politics played a comparable, if not larger, role in shaping post-COVID school reopening plans than public health factors, with some comparisons showing partisanship to be a stronger predictor of in-person learning offerings than case rates. There continue to be substantial differences in parental preferences for learning modality by race while we know not all modes are equally effective. There are strong partisan and racial/ethnic differences in opinion over how much time should be devoted to studying the causes and consequences of racism and inequality in schools. 

In many ways, educational inequality is a product of political inequality. For instance, it is difficult to revamp Title I federal education funding formulas when those who benefit from the status quo have greater political influence than those who are getting the short end of the stick—often low-income, Black, indigenous, and Hispanic families. It is difficult to get these students appropriate resources when adults in their communities are underrepresented in elected office, at least in part due to disenfranchisement of various sorts, and when voter turnout in local school board elections is so low as to not represent the public interest. It is impossible to implement and sustain public policy that effectively mitigates social inequality if there is not the political support for those reforms. Therefore, I am doubling down on a research agenda that seeks to understand the relationship between political and educational inequality with the goal of helping justice-oriented leaders learn how to effectively navigate the politics of education to implement policies that sustainably promote equity.

One challenge for me—and I would guess other educational change scholars—has been finding the right balance between keeping my head down to make progress on this research agenda while also being open to the need to periodically rethink, refresh, overhaul or even abandon aspects of that agenda based on new learnings, awareness, or shifting trends. There is sometimes a temptation to switch course entirely based on current events but there is also a danger in doing so without thought and intentionality. After all, most of us got into this field in the first place because we care deeply about fighting educational and social inequality, so there is likely value in our ongoing projects. Successful efforts to dismantle oppressive systems require sustained attention over the long run. High-quality research takes time. A key part of the battle is about maintaining an unwavering commitment to racial and economic injustice by “putting our heads down” and doing the work, day in and day out.

“Successful efforts to dismantle oppressive systems require sustained attention over the long run.”

The challenge is to keep up that long-term persistence without getting complacent and while being open to recognizing when we are devoting our energy in the wrong direction. Educational change scholars have a responsibility to stay the course on worthy projects but also to “put our heads up” periodically to make sure we are not wasting time on low-impact endeavors, to be aware of new evidence that could change our perspective or priorities, or to recognize action or inaction we are taking that, worst case, contributes to upholding the oppressive systems we seek to dismantle. This is a difficult balance to strike because the time horizons for producing high-quality research are long while the need to fight racial and economic injustice is urgent. I cannot claim to have found the perfect balance, but I am always trying to find it and welcome constructive critique or advice from colleagues who share a commitment to equity.

LtC: Given some of your work focused on the political viability of school takeover and turnaround for low-performing schools, specifically the model in Lawrence that yielded positive results for students, what are some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?     

BES: Lawrence, Massachusetts represents a rare case of districtwide takeover and turnaround where things went well both in terms of the policy effects and politics. Leaders were able to generate meaningful academic gains in the early years and there was much less opposition and more support for the reforms than a stereotypical case of takeover. The public narrative around improving low-performing schools and systems has been notably gloomy in recent years. In contrast, one of the major lessons from Lawrence is that it is indeed possible to dramatically improve outcomes in a politically viable way for low-income children of color in low-performing educational contexts. 

How were leaders able to improve outcomes? Half of the gains in math and all the gains in ELA were concentrated among children who participated in “acceleration academy” (sometimes called “vacation academy”), small-group programs where talented teachers work with a small group of roughly ten struggling students in a single subject over a weeklong vacation break. I have since replicated these findings with a field experiment of a similar program in Springfield, Massachusetts. These programs have high-potential for supporting students who lost learning time due to COVID-19 disruptions and are more affordable than high-dosage tutoring programs (which tend to be highly effective but challenging to implement widely due to cost). The remaining gains in Lawrence were due to a package of reforms (and it is hard to disentangle what mattered most) involving funding being pushed from the central office to schools, greater school-level autonomy (tailored to schools based on strengths and needs), extended learning time, data use, and a focus on improving administrator and educator quality.  

How were leaders able to generate political support for reforms? Part of the explanation had to do with the context in which reforms were implemented. The public perceived not only low-performance but also mismanagement, and this led to more openness to dramatic change (a finding we have replicated with national public opinion data). The district was medium in size, allowing leaders to get their feet on the ground in all schools and tailor reforms at the school-level. The teachers union and district leaders were willing to collaborate with each other. The majority of teachers were white and came from outside the district, so there was not a lot of overlap between the teaching force and the majority-Hispanic local community, making it difficult for the union to mobilize parents to oppose reforms. 

There were also ways the leaders designed, implemented, and framed their policy choices to minimize opposition and increase support. I describe this as a “third way” approach (Schueler, 2019)—blending the favored ideas from the traditionalist and reform perspectives in education politics to overcome criticism from either side. For instance, leaders focused on bolstering academic expectations and instruction, and on fleshing out extra-curricular offerings meant to support whole-child well-being. Leaders handed over a small number of schools to be managed by charter groups and one school to the teachers union, showing a willingness to work with groups on both sides of major education policy debates. They did not formally convert any schools to charter status, however. Even those schools that were managed by charter operators retained neighborhood-based student assignment and a unionized teaching force, addressing concerns of the charter critics. Leaders replaced nearly half of the school principals in the early years of reform but only actively replaced ten percent of the teaching force and deployed notably strong pro-teacher rhetoric. They implemented a merit-based career ladder while simultaneously giving nearly all teachers a salary increase in the process. The case provides a proof point that it is possible to overcome polarized debates in education policy to implement politically viable change.  

“Lawrence provides a proof point that it is possible to overcome polarized debates in education policy to implement politically viable change.”

LtC: In some of your recent work examining the effects of state takeover of school districts nationwide, you find that takeover does not lead to improved student academic performance. Given your findings and the heterogeneity of takeover models and outcomes, why do you think takeover persists as an improvement mechanism and how might successful models, like those in Lawrence, be brought to scale in more districts nationwide?

BES: Having studied a rare positive case of state takeover and turnaround, I wanted to understand whether the Lawrence experience was an outlier. In a subsequent study, we examined the average effect nationwide of state takeover on academic outcomes and inputs. We found no evidence of positive effects and some evidence of disruption in the early years of takeover, particularly in ELA. We conclude that, despite the positive Lawrence experience, leaders should be very cautious about deploying takeover as a mechanism for improving achievement outcomes, particularly in contexts that are very different from those in which takeovers have previously been successful. More specifically, takeover appears least likely to generate academic improvements in majority-Black communities and in districts that are not among the very lowest performing in the country. 

My guess is that takeover persists (and indeed has increased as an improvement strategy over time), despite this evidence, in part because research does not provide a ton of easy answers for how to improve low-performing school systems. Given education is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, states are responsible for school district performance. Therefore, it is somewhat understandable that states would feel a responsibility to take action when a district has been low performing for many years, and especially in cases where there is evidence of mismanagement or corruption. However, again, some of the research that I have contributed to suggests that there are also political factors at play. We find that takeover is more common in contexts where states are paying a larger share of educational expenses, and in majority-Black districts regardless of academic performance. While our study does not provide definitive evidence of intentional racial targeting, it is certainly consistent with such a story. Furthermore, in work on public opinion, we find high levels of support for state takeover among members of the public as a whole, but lower levels of support among teachers and those in low-performing districts most likely to be under threat of takeover. Therefore, statewide pressures can lead to takeover despite local opposition. 

How can successful models of district improvement be brought to scale? If and when considering state takeover, leaders should pay careful attention to local contextual factors that have historically predicted the success of takeover reforms on average, including the racial/ethnic makeup of the district, the extent of academic underperformance, and the political landscape.  The contexts ripe for these types of reforms are rare and therefore state leaders should be cautious about using this authority. For instance, they should be especially careful about takeovers of majority-Black districts and districts that are not among the very lowest performing in the country. Leaders should also consider research on the most effective reforms for improving low-performing schools and districts, such as extended learning time and efforts to improve teacher quality. Many of these reforms could be undertaken in the absence of state takeover. 

LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?    

BES: In my view, one of the biggest barriers to educational improvement is that it is very difficult for educational leaders (or anyone for that matter) to admit that they do not actually know what works. The political dynamics incentivize certainty and on a micro-level it is hard to acknowledge that what we are doing for the kids we care about might not be best for them. However, research and learning requires an acceptance that there is something to learn. Educational change scholars can support leaders through this process by encouraging a culture of continuous learning in which it is not only acceptable but expected to admit that we don’t always know what works. This is at the heart of the research enterprise.

“Research and learning requires an acceptance that there is something to learn.

I recently partnered with an organization to study a phone-based tutoring intervention delivered in the context of Kenya while students were engaged in remote learning due to COVID-19. We were surprised when our research revealed that the well-intentioned program had actually negatively impacted math performance among some groups of students by causing them to spend less time studying with family members at home. It is therefore fortunate that the organization had the humility to rigorously study the intervention, so that it could improve its future offerings and so that the field could learn about the importance of carefully designing interventions to align with best practice and of targeting programs to groups of students most likely to benefit. These learnings should help maximize impact and minimize unintended consequences, particularly of inevitable upcoming efforts to address lost learning time due to COVID-19. My hope is that the field of educational change can play a role in encouraging research and learning in these unprecedented times. 

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future? 

BES: Two things come to mind. First, I am encouraged by the recent interest and enthusiasm around individualized instructional approaches—such as high-dosage tutoring and small-group instruction—to supporting students who have experienced COVID-related learning disruptions. It is the right time for these programs to gain traction, not only because a large and rigorous body of evidence indicates that they can improve academic outcomes in a range of subjects and grade levels, but also because these more personalized programs have the potential to support students’ social and emotional well-being and to help them reconnect with schools and teachers after a time of relative isolation. That said, we have a lot to learn about how to modify these programs for the given context and how to implement them in ways that will mitigate rather than reinforce inequality, such as through careful targeting that avoids stigmatizing students in need of support. 

The second future direction for the field that excites me is the renewed interest in civic education. Given politics shapes policy, it is paramount that schools play a role in developing students’ abilities to effectively participate in collective decision-making, particularly students from groups that have historically been disenfranchised or otherwise excluded from the political process. In my view, these civic competencies include the ability to make a complete argument supported by reasoning and evidence, the ability to critically interrogate others’ arguments, media literacy, social perspective taking, and civic engagement. I am energized to see the field thinking about how to incorporate these competencies into measures of school quality and to cultivate these skills, particularly in ways that will reduce the political inequalities that are at the root of so many of our most pressing social challenges. 

References

Brenneman, R. (2021). Poll: Calif. Voters worried about pandemic’s impact on K-12 students. https://rossier.usc.edu/poll-calif-voters-worried-about-pandemics-impact-on-k-12-students/

Schueler, B., Goodman, J. & Deming, D. (2017). Can states take over and turnaround around school districts? Evidence from Lawrence, Massachusetts. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 39(2), 311-332. 

Schueler, B. (2019). A third way: The politics of school district takeover and turnaround in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Educational Administration Quarterly, 55(1), 116-153. 

Schueler, B. (2020). Making the most of school vacation: A field experiment of small group math instruction. Education Finance and Policy, 15(2), 310-331. 

Schueler, B. (2020). Summer “vacation academies” can narrow coronavirus learning gaps. Education Next. https://www.educationnext.org/summer-vacation-academies-narrow-coronavirus-learning-gaps-springfield/

Schueler, B. & West, M. (2019). Federalism, race, and the politics of turnaround: U.S. public opinion on improving low-performing schools and districts. Annenberg Institute Working Paper No. 19-129. 

Schueler, B. & Bleiberg, J. (In Press). Evaluating education governance: Does state takeover of school districts affect student achievement? Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Also Annenberg Institute Working Paper No. 21-411.

Schueler, B., Asher, C., Larned, K., Mehrotra, S. & Pollard, C. (2020). Improving low-performing schools: A meta-analysis of impact evaluation studies. Annenberg Institute Working Paper No. 20-274. 

Schueler, B. & Rodriguez-Segura, D. (2021). A cautionary tale of tutoring hard-to-reach students in Kenya. Annenberg Institute Working Paper No. 21-432. 

Robinson, C., Kraft, M., Loeb, S., & Schueler, B. (2021). Accelerating student learning with high-dosage tutoring. EdResearch for Recovery Design Principles Series.

One response to “School Improvement, Educational Inequality, and Politics: A Conversation with Beth E. Schueler

  1. Fantastic blog! Thank you so much for sharing this kind of wonderful things.

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