This week, Sam Abrams lays out some of the key implications of recent Supreme Court decisions related to education, highlighting that by failing to acknowledge related foreign precedents, the US Supreme Court has made clear that religious schools can get public funds without adhering to the same standards and regulations as public schools. Abrams is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Education at Teachers College Columbia University; Director, National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education; and a Fulbright Visiting Professor, University of Turku, Finland, 2022-23. He is also the author of Education and the Commercial Mindset (Harvard University Press, 2016). This post was published originally as The Telling Gap in Carson v. Makin by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.
In tandem with its reversal of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court stands to substantially alter everyday life in America with its recent decisions of Carson v. Makin, amplifying its support for public funding of religious schools, and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, allowing prayer in public schools. The significance of Kennedy is blunt. With the Court ruling 6-3 along party lines that the dismissal of a football coach at a public high school in the state of Washington for holding post-game prayer meetings violated his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion, we can expect similar meetings as well as Bible study sessions, nativity pageants, and the like in public schools across the country. Such events will surely lead some students to feel coerced into participating for fear of disappointing peers and authority figures. In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor indeed noted that a lower court had determined that some players said they joined the coach’s prayer meetings “because they felt social pressure to follow their coach and teammates.”
The significance of Carson is more subtle but equally profound. In Carson, the same justices ruled 6-3—as forecasted on this site following oral arguments in December—that Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from partaking in its Town Tuitioning Program likewise violated the right to free exercise of religion. This program covers all or part of the cost for students in rural districts without high schools to attend either public or nonsectarian private high schools in nearby districts or beyond (if the school is public, the total cost is covered; if it is private, coverage is pegged to per-pupil statewide average spending). With this decision, we can expect religious groups in considerably rural states across the country to lobby legislators to create programs similar to Maine’s.
But there’s another dimension to Carson, which derives as much from what it did not say as from what it did. To grasp the wider implications of Carson requires understanding what is missing from the decision. While many countries—such as Belgium, France, and the Netherlands—have for many years allowed a considerable portion of their students to attend religious schools with public funding, the Court did not cite such foreign practice. In the Netherlands, in fact, 55 percent of students attend religious schools with public funding. Why then didn’t the Court cite foreign practice? This indifference to foreign practice holds, as well, for the majority opinions in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002, validating the provision of government-funded vouchers to cover tuition at religious schools in Cleveland, and Espinoza et al. v. Montana Department of Revenue in 2020, mandating that if a state permits students to attend private schools with scholarships funded by a tuition tax-credit program, it cannot bar religious schools from participation.
American jurisprudence does tend to stick to domestic precedent, but that custom cannot explain this disregard for education policy abroad.
American jurisprudence does tend to stick to domestic precedent, but that custom cannot explain this disregard for education policy abroad. After all, former Justice Anthony Kennedy, who voted with the majority in Zelman, was a prominent champion of deference to foreign practice and inspired others to follow in his path. In authoring the majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, Kennedy famously drew on British legislation and the European Convention on Human Rights to overturn state laws criminalizing homosexual relations. Two years later, Kennedy made use of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child in writing the majority opinion in Roper v. Simmons to nullify the constitutionality of the death penalty for juvenile offenders.
The answer to this question is crucial. To have invoked foreign practice would have been to invite trouble. Publicly funded religious schools in such countries as Belgium, France, and the Netherlands are regulated to a degree that American proponents of religious schools would find unacceptable. In Carson, Chief Justice John Roberts conceded in this light that while Maine public schools must adhere to specific standards for instruction in a range of subjects, that is not so for nonsectarian and religious private schools. Though accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), such schools, wrote Chief Justice Roberts, “are exempt from these requirements, and instead subject only to general ‘standards and indicators’ governing the implementation of their own chosen curriculum.”
In Carson, Chief Justice John Roberts conceded in this light that while Maine public schools must adhere to specific standards for instruction in a range of subjects, that is not so for nonsectarian and religious private schools.
As Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out in his dissent, one of the two schools at the heart of Carson, both of which are accredited by NEASC, considers academic and religious education “completely intertwined,” so much so that “in science class, students learn that atmospheric layers ‘are evidence of God’s good design.’ ”At religious as well as nonsectarian private schools funded with public money in such countries as Belgium, France, and the Netherlands, curricula must comport with national standards (meaning, for example, no attribution to divine design for atmospheric composition). In addition, teachers must be certified and guaranteed access to union membership while members of the LGBTQ community cannot be barred from either enrollment or employment.
The parameters of NEASC and other independent school organizations across the United States do not come close to such expectations, as Justice Breyer’s point about science education indicates. Indeed, many religious schools, such as the two defining Carson, refuse to hire gay or lesbian teachers. While Maine passed an amendment to its human rights act to bar schools from receiving public money if they discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity, that does not mean other states motivated by Carson to create similar programs will enact such protections; nor does it mean that Maine’s amendment will go unchallenged on the grounds that it interferes with an institution’s right to free exercise of religion.
In a guest essay in The New York Times, Aaron Tang, a professor of law at the University of California, Davis, cited this amendment as a model for deflecting the impact of decisions like Carson, but he neither acknowledged that other states implementing town tuitioning programs might not take such action nor recognized that Maine’s amendment might not last. Setting aside whether public funding of any form of religious schooling poses a threat to democratic values by fostering societal division and conflict, as Justice Breyer claimed in his dissent, there can be no doubt that public funding of lightly regulated religious schooling poses precisely such a threat.
Setting aside whether public funding of any form of religious schooling poses a threat to democratic values by fostering societal division and conflict, as Justice Breyer claimed in his dissent, there can be no doubt that public funding of lightly regulated religious schooling poses precisely such a threat.
Policymakers abroad have understood this. And it is basic to our own tradition. The Supreme Court made this clear in 1925 in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, ruling unanimously that Oregon could not, as decided by a statewide referendum in 1922, bar private schools from operating but that it was empowered to carefully regulate them. “No question is raised concerning the power of the State reasonably to regulate all schools,” the Court declared in Pierce, “to inspect, supervise and examine them, their teachers and pupils; to require that all children of proper age attend some school, that teachers shall be of good moral character and patriotic disposition, that certain studies plainly essential to good citizenship must be taught, and that nothing be taught which is manifestly inimical to the public welfare.”
With Carson building on Zelman and Espinoza, public funding of religious schooling appears irreversible. But that does not mean the message of Pierce and the lessons from abroad cannot be heeded. With Kennedy, the public school as neutral common ground is over.” With Carson building on Zelman and Espinoza, public funding of religious schooling appears irreversible. But that does not mean the message of Pierce and the lessons from abroad cannot be heeded. With Kennedy, the public school as neutral common ground is over.
In part 2 of this interview, Patience Mkandawiretalks with Thomas Hatch about Fount for Nations recent evolution, work during the COVID school closures, and next steps. Part 1 of the interview focused on the origins and initial challenges in developing an organization that has developed school, hospital, and community programs to support the education and development of differently-abled children in Malawi. In addition to being one of the founders of Fount for Nations, Mkandawire was selected as an Obama Scholar at Columbia University during the 2021-22 year.
Gaining control of the program and focusing on schools Thomas Hatch: You’ve told us about the origins of Fount of Nations in the activity center you established at a hospital; about the first two years after you established Fount of Nations with work in activity centers in several hospitals and in resource centers in schools. What was the next step? What was the next big transition point?
Patience Mkandawire: At that point, we expanded to include more attention to community engagement, which also has its own set of challenges, but we also closed the hospital program. We narrowed our focus to working with schools and community engagement. At the same time, we realized that because we didn’t have our own space we operated basically on the whim of the schools and the teachers; we had no control over our programming. We started thinking that to really control our own program and maintain fidelity of our programs, we needed our own center, like our model school. We started planning for that and that opened in 2020, which was bad timing, of course, because that’s when the pandemic hit.
But when we started doing more work in the community, we realized the economic barriers that many of our parents faced, which was not something we had focused on. We started doing home visits and found that a lot of our parents had come from a village, left their land, and come into the city and were living in areas with very poor economic conditions. That started us thinking that we should develop an economic empowerment program. Initially, I was not too keen on this, but my field team insisted that we really had to do it because the parents weren’t listening to us. There was a time that one of the counselors went out for a group counseling session and when she came back her face was gloomy. “What happened?” I asked her, “Was the turnout not good?” And she said “This is by far the best turnout. I had close to 40 parents come to the session, but all of them are on my neck saying things like ‘words can’t help us because all you do is talk to us. We want money, we want a livelihood.’”
“This is by far the best turnout. I had close to 40 parents come to the session, but all of them are on my neck saying things like ‘words can’t help us because all you do is talk to us. We want money, we want a livelihood.’”
I was opposed to that because it’s not an area we knew anything about. Nobody on our team was an expert on it. But we began to do some research on micro-finance, and we tried a partnership with another organization that was already doing business and economic empowerment for mothers.That partnership however didn’t last long enough to yield results. We were stuck on logistics of how to train parents that often had to take care of their kids full-time. I am not sure what it really was but most organizations we tried to work with weren’t really willing to make adjustments to take into account the unique needs of children with disabilities or their families. But we soon learned about Opportunity International. They had been training farmers and other populations in financial literacy, and we were able to get them to do financial literacy training for us. Then, once the parents were trained, we realized we needed to give them access to money…so we reached out to some of our funder friends, the Segal Family Foundation who connected us with a funder that was willing to give direct social cash transfers to some of our parents. We linked the cash transfers to the child’s education. In that way, we created incentives for increasing children’s attendance at school, and it turned out great.
TH: You said the economic impact program was successful, but what was your measurement of success?
PM: We measured academic indicators such as attendance, progression and parent involvement in learning. We also measured social indicators like how many meals do the children eat a day. For example, before the program (and during the pandemic), 76% of the parents said their child ate once or twice a day because they just didn’t have any money. After the financial literacy training, the numbers flipped. Over 80% were able to eat three times a day. In addition, close to 70% of the businesses they started with the initial social cash transfers are still running.
The Pandemic & Beyond
TH: Can you talk a little bit about how the pandemic affected the development of your program. What did you learn and how has that influenced how you think about developing and sustaining the program in the future?
PM: The pandemic is why I am here in the US, as part of the Obama Scholars program. When the pandemic hit, schools closed. And that was the first time we had ever imagined that anything would happen to our schools, I just can’t describe the feeling… All our programming happened in schools; our teacher training happened in schools; our parent convening happened in schools; many of our community convenings happened in schools. Schools are central in almost every village so they were very easy access points for us to meet people and to convene people, and suddenly, schools were all closed. And our teaching was all paper and pen. We had started doing some digital data collection, but our teachers across the country still taught on the blackboard
I remember one of the first things I did was give a break to the entire team. We just decided “Okay we’re all going to go home, and we’re going to take a two week break to think about what we’re going to do. Can we survive without schools? Like what sort of work can we do? How can we support our participants? Our community members? Our champions? Our advocates?”
“Can we survive without schools? Like what sort of work can we do? How can we support our participants? Our community members? Our champions? Our advocates?”
Over that break, the Government started to respond. They said “We’re going to have remote learning programs and we’re going to have TV and radio programs.” But I was thinking, “How is this going to reach a child who learns differently? Who cannot process? Who cannot hear?” Fount for Nations needed to respond too, but at that point, our team was also at risk and there was a lot of fear that we might die. But the team realized “if we are this scared, imagine what our parents are going through?”
It was really a team effort, and my husband and I would check in with individual team members and ask, “How are you doing? What are you going through?” But one by one, they said things like “We need to come back to work.” First, we said “We’re going to support the government in doing remote learning, and our parents are going to be teachers.” That was a gamble, but we brought back our volunteers and decided they would provide the support because teachers could not go in the homes. We had the volunteers meet with the teachers and learn about the typical lesson plans for the week and then the volunteers would call the parents, and the parents taught the children. Fount for Nations led a coalition of 4 education partners of the Segal Family Foundation to deliver remote learning to 3000 primary school learners across the country. One of our other long-time-partners, Rays of Hope ministries, released a handbook for teachers to support the school radio programs, and we used that to train our volunteers. Then we just started deploying SMS texts and phone calls, and that’s how the kids learned during that period. All this is happening on the phone. It was a surprise in some ways how well parents responded. Our volunteers would set appointments with the parents, and if our volunteers were late, we’d receive a phone call, “I just wanted to check with you because I’m looking at the time, and she hasn’t called yet. Is everything okay?”
The second thing was the counseling sessions. We also did that on the phone. Our counselors set up a protocol for mental health screening, and we started calling all our parents. They’d get a call – “How are you doing?” – to check in. If the parents’ needed extra support, the counselors would refer them or consult with them. We were also taking a gamble because this was the first time we’d ever called the parents for counseling sessions. Our counseling sessions had been in person. If the parents needed to cry, the counselor was there to just feel that with them. Now the sessions were not only over the phone, some of them were with a person the parents had never met because we had to increase the number of volunteers to make all the calls. It was a much higher volume.
It was crazy, and I was just upset at how in 2020, we still didn’t have any digital options for kids with special needs to learn in Malawi. In 2020, we didn’t have any psycho-social or mental health support for parents. In 2020, we didn’t have any therapists that could offer mobile services or online services. In 2020, Fount for Nations was one of three, maybe four organizations in the country that focused on education for kids with special needs. I just felt “I can’t do this,” because clearly people were not convinced that our work was as important as we think it is. That’s when the opportunity to come to Columbia came up. Joseph, my husband, said “Go. You need inspiration. You’re stuck. I think you need to go and meet awesome people. Meet experts. Get inspired. Come with ideas and then we’ll continue.” So I did, and I’ve been studying things like comparative policy studies at Teachers College, non-profit policy and advocacy, learning how international education policy is formulated. So now I’m thinking Fount for Nations is much more than a direct service provider. I’m thinking of Fount for Nations as a critical player in the ecosystem for inclusive education: as bringing all these stakeholders together to define and sustain the ecosystem and to inspire more actors to care about this issue.
in 2020, we still didn’t have any digital options for kids with special needs to learn in Malawi. In 2020, we didn’t have any psycho-social or mental health support for parents. In 2020, we didn’t have any therapists that could offer mobile services or online services
That’s been a big shift in terms of our plans and in our overall strategy. For example, in our training, we’re thinking of using a “train the trainer” model and focusing on being really, really good at that. We could offer that training to a wider range of organizations that can support learning and development for teachers and for children, particularly those who have learning difficulties. I’m also thinking about how to get back to the health care system because there’s still a role that they play, especially in assessment and diagnosis. I’m also thinking more about research now. How do we collect action-oriented data? How do we apply evidence-based research and implementation? Now merging those three things – advocacy, training and research – is becoming the core of our future plans. We are now working towards Fount for Nations becoming the Center of Excellence for Inclusive Education in the country and bringing together all these elements to really reduce the inequalities that exist in access to quality education for these children. I want to acknowledge that from our journey we’ve learned that the child’s education has not really been what the child is taught, but who else is around them that supports their learning. If the teachers’ perceptions are wrong; if parents’ perceptions are wrong; if community perceptions are wrong; if healthcare is not supported; if research is not adequate; if the government does not fund social services, then, no matter how creative our approach is – which was our initial idea – kids still won’t be learning. They still won’t be succeeding.
“We’ve learned that the child’s education has not really been what the child is taught, but who else is around them that supports their learning.“
TH: You really tied up that story beautifully and transitioned into where you’re heading. One thing you didn’t mention, though, that kind of brings you back to your initial experience with your brother, is your interest in growth monitoring because you’ve identified early screening and assessment as critical factors moving forward. Can you just say a word about your strategy with that?
PM: Yes, it was like a light bulb moment when I realized we could build on that. Like I said before, children in Malawi go to see a community health care worker for the first five years of their lives. From birth up to five, every single month, they have to go for growth monitoring. They are just going to get their weight checked; they’re going to get their height checked. And it’s mostly for nutrition screening, deworming, vaccinations, but they never get screened for developmental delays or learning difficulties. But I realized it’s a great opportunity because we could intervene early. The project I’m working on right now is, first of all, to adapt the assessment tools that are recommended so they are simple to screen for developmental delays and learning difficulties. And then we’ll train the healthcare workers to administer those assessments at the regular checkups that the kids come to anyway. That way we’ll get to see how many kids are at risk of developmental delays or at risk of learning difficulties. Then we can design workshops for the parents, because, with the pandemic, we’ve found that they can teach and help support their kids. For example, now that we know a child is struggling to sit up, how can we support the kid early on? And how can we intervene early? For most of these issues, parents would not know or understand that their child has something like epilepsy or even cerebral palsy until they were in primary school or even later. For example, I remember Elisa, whom I met when she was 17, and she had to drop out because she was just too big to be in primary school, and no one knew she had epilepsy until she repeated the same class 4-5 times! I wonder if we had met Elisa when she was six months or a year old? What difference might that have made? Could she have coped with her condition and been more successful? We want to make sure that these kids have a strong start by giving parents the information about what conditions their children have and the information that they need to help cope. Hopefully this generation of children will have a much better start.
In part 1 of this interview, Patience Mkandawiretalks with Thomas Hatch about the origins and initial challenges in developing Fount for Nations, an organization that has developed school, hospital, and community programs to support the education and development of differently-abled children in Malawi. Next week, part 2 of the interview will focus on Fount for Nations more recent evolution, work during the COVID school closures, and next steps. In addition to being one of the founders of Fount for Nations, Mkandawire was selected as an Obama Scholar at Columbia University during the 2021-22 year.
The Origins of Fount for Nations Thomas Hatch: Could you start by telling us a little bit about how Fount for Nations got started. What got you interested in these issues?
Patience Mkandawire: It was basically my mom who pushed me. She loved helping people and there was a time I was taking my baby brother for growth monitoring — in Malawi, growth monitoring happens every single month for children from birth to five years. When I was 14 or 15, being the eldest, I took my brother into the clinic and we were stuck in a line from 7 am to 3 pm and all he needed to do was get his weight checked! I went back home, and I said, “Mom, that was such a waste of my time.” She just told me, “You’re not the only one who wasted your time, so maybe you should go and help out.” And so I did. I went back to the clinic, and I asked a Dr. “Why do we have such long lines? How can I help?” “We don’t have a lot of people who do triage,” the Dr. told me. “If you wouldn’t mind just weighing babies that will drive the traffic a lot faster.” That’s how I started.
I said, “Mom, that was such a waste of my time.” She just told me, “You’re not the only one who wasted your time, so maybe you should go and help out.”
After that, I started volunteering at a local hospital [one of only two hospitals in the country that offered chemotherapy] and I had a lot of time to understand why the kids were in the hospital, and I was very curious about their learning. At one point, I met a boy who had lymphoma and he told me that he was in grade four, but I found out he could not write his name — he wrote his name backwards and confused the B’s and the D’s. For me, that was so fascinating because I never really struggled in school, and here was this boy who was supposed to be moving into upper primary school, how could he not know how to spell his name? I talked to an American pediatrician there who sort of took me under her wing. She showed me things around the children’s ward. She introduced me to special needs, and she told me he might have what we call dyslexia. At that point I set up an activity center for children at the hospital. I worked with a team of UN volunteers, and we did a little bit of fundraising for it. We did a toy drive and then a book drive, and I spent a lot of time with the kids, tutoring them and giving them opportunities for play and coloring and drawing and things like that.
That was really the first step. Then I went to college and studied nutrition and food science. The hospital was in the same city where I studied, so it was easy for me to just go there to check on things because I was not doing this alone, I was doing this with the team of professionals. After college, I didn’t have a job right away, and I volunteered at my mom’s school because my mom was a teacher at a private school. There I met another boy. This time it was looking like he had autism and his teachers were automatically failing him. But I got to spend time with him, and I discovered how he learned and found he loved storytelling and drawing. I experimented by telling him stories for whatever lesson he was supposed to be learning and asked him to draw. For example for his history class or his geography class, I’d tell stories about the Amazon and the insects there and the other species, and then he would draw. He did so well, and l thought “What an interesting way to learn.” But then I thought, “If this is what it looks like in a private school, I wonder what it would be like in a public school?” I visited a public school, and I found a lot of the same drama and problems there and that really started everything. It was a combination of experiences. I volunteered in different spaces then finally, I was like, no, something needs to be done and that’s when I set up Fount for Nations, with the support of my mom and my, then, very close friend who’s now my husband. We registered the organization and wanted to focus on children’s learning and children learning differently and to use creative arts as a way to teach literacy and numeracy. After I registered the organization, I went back to the activity center at the hospital, and it became one of the places that we worked. We re-opened the center with trained volunteers and trained healthcare workers. We professionalized it because I was now more aware and more organized.
TH: After establishing Fount for Nations you worked in healthcare settings and in schools, but did you have a focus at that time on working with children with developmental or learning differences?
PM: That hasn’t really changed. I wanted to see that children who learn differently or are differently-abled can progress in school, but our scope was larger. We did programming in hospitals and programming in schools and programming in communities. And our goal was wherever a child is, they should be able to continue learning and succeed in their learning. So that was basically it…we wanted to see these kids do better in school and progress through school. We’ve been trying to achieve that ever since.
“that was basically it…we wanted to see these kids do better in school and progress through school. We’ve been trying to achieve that ever since.”
But the hospital programs, initially, were a little bit different. Even though it all started with a child who had cancer and a learning difficulty, not all of the children in the hospital were like that. For the hospital program we had to open it up. Our criteria were that the children had to be in primary school, six years to twelve years old, and the other criteria was they had to be in the hospital receiving treatment that would keep them out of school for a period of three months or more. According to the school schedule, if a child misses three months or more then they repeat the whole year, and we wanted to avoid the repetition. If they were going to be in a hospital for more than three months receiving treatment, then they qualified for our program. Kids with malaria, for example, did not qualify, because those are short treatments, but if they had tuberculosis, if they had cancer, or if they had HIV – that was also a very big deal at that time – then they could be enrolled in our program because they would be absent from so many classes. We later reduced this requirement to a month or more of hospitalization or if they were on treatments that required multiple hospitalizations.
The school program, on the other hand, has always been 100% children with learning differences because we work in school resource centers. These are special centers within the school where all the kids with different conditions come in and that’s where they get their support. In the resource centers, it doesn’t matter the child’s age or their ability, they are all put in one room with one teacher. That’s why it was such a challenge because even two kids with autism or two with cerebral palsy had very different needs. Children with cerebral palsy may have some mobility or no mobility. Some kids with autism were highly functional, but others weren’t. As a consequence, with the resource centers at the time, some of it was just the amount of work that the teachers had to put in to offer individualized learning. That’s where we came in: to provide the volunteers to reduce the student-teacher ratio. When we started, that ratio was around 45 or 50 to one teacher. We placed up to three volunteers per school reducing it to about 5 to 10 kids per teacher or teaching assistant. That’s how it was structured in the beginning, for the first two to three years of our work, focusing on strengthening the health care system and strengthening the school system to be able to support the children.
TH: What are some of the first challenges you faced as you tried to work in these different areas? PM: The first challenge was at the hospital where I started the first activity center and in understanding the place of education in health care. There was a new leader at the hospital. He was not a pediatrician. He did not think that there was value in addressing the social-emotional aspects of patient care. He felt that we just needed to focus on physiology so we were in conflict. As one of only two hospitals in the country that offered chemotherapy, kids and their families often had to travel 400 kilometers from their homes to receive treatment. This was not easy on the families, so the hospital would admit the children for the duration of their treatment. That meant six months in the hospital, nine months in a hospital, a year in the hospital. And this is time away from school, away from socialization, away from friends, away from play, away from everything that is familiar to a child. My argument was that this affects their recovery; it affects how they respond to the medication; and, of course, it affects their parents, many of whom don’t believe their kids can get better. So, we offered emotional health care for the parents and also for the child focused on play. And we used play to explain the different conditions and to explain the process of chemo to them. We used to play to help them just unwind and not be afraid of all the needles and being in the hospital. Also, we used play for learning and for providing continuity so that when they went back into school they are not lost and they have not regressed.
Everything came to an end when we were planning a fundraising event to renovate an old building into a new activity center for the hospital because we were starting to run out of space. There was a building that they used as a construction warehouse that was empty, and we wanted to renovate it. Everything was all set, but the day before the event, there was a misunderstanding with the hospital director and he literally kicked us out of the hospital. Just like that the program ended, and Fount for Nations left the hospital. I was so disappointed, but the beautiful thing about it is we had trained volunteers and healthcare practitioners, nurses and community health workers to provide play therapy and support the children socio-emotionally. I think the program stopped for about six months, but then it picked up again and now it’s being run independently.
The other challenge we had was with schools. We worked in resource centers for children with learning differences in government primary schools and those schools had their own unique challenges like low teacher salaries, lack of training for teachers, and teachers being overburdened. Initially, we sat down with the teachers and we said, “What do you need to help you succeed? To help these kids succeed?” And they said “we need extra help; we need teaching assistants, we need materials, we need help with parents.” So, we focused on all those things.
We also asked the parents, “Is this helping?” And what the parents said was, “This is great, but there is a lot of stigma and discrimination in the communities, and we get really discouraged and really disheartened.” We had been doing a lot of information sessions with parents to help them understand the different conditions that the children had, and we wanted to help them with coping strategies. But they told us, “The problem is bigger than us.” Building on that, I wanted to help combat myths like these kids are bewitched and should be locked away which comes from the community, so we started doing a lot more community engagement and started working with chiefs and local leaders to start raising awareness around the abilities of children with developmental and learning differences.
We had an advantage for this work because in schools we started what we called “showcases.” At these showcases, kids from the resource centers would demonstrate what they had been learning. Because we used creative arts, it was very tangible, with displays of bangles, mats and color paintings among other creative projects. People were super excited. They’re like “oh these kids can actually do things!” Around the third year, we started an annual auction. We took what the kids produced at the hospital and the schools and worked with an artist to frame them, and then we auctioned them off. Part of it was fundraising but the most important part was raising awareness about what these kids can do about what they are learning. It was an educational family fun day as well as a fundraiser.
But after a year of doing everything that the teachers and the parents wanted, we realized we couldn’t financially sustain it, so we sat with the teachers again and asked them, “What works? What doesn’t work? What has worked for you, this year, and what hasn’t worked? And what are your priorities?” They told us, “We would like you to focus on teacher training and parent support.” So, we dropped the material support. We dropped the volunteer program. We dropped the showcases. Instead, in addition to providing trainings for teachers, we started advocating in communities directly as opposed to having the school as our base. That later on served us in the pandemic because we had other avenues to deliver our programming, as opposed to just being stuck in a school.
“…We started advocating in communities directly as opposed to having the school as our base. That later on served us in the pandemic because we had other avenues to deliver our programming, as opposed to just being stuck in a school.“
In this month’s Lead the Change Interview, Elise Castillo reflects on the possibilities and limitations of efforts to study, learn about and support educational change. Castillo, a former English teacher, is currently an Assistant Professor of Educational Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Her work critically examines school choice and integration policies and their potential role in advancing racially equitable and democratic public education. The LtC series is produced by Alex Lamb and colleagues from the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. 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?
Elise Castillo: I believe that one of the most important responsibilities we have as educational change scholars is to continuously examine the strengths and limitations of our conceptual frameworks, methodological approaches, and positionalities as researchers. What do our frameworks, methods, and positionalities enable us to see, and what may they obscure? How might critically examining these aspects of our research help to more strongly orient our work around equity?
During my graduate training, I read two articles that deeply impacted my thinking: Michelle Young’s 1999 article, “Multifocal Educational Policy Research: Toward a Method for Enhancing Traditional Educational Policy Studies,” and David Tyack’s 1976 article, “Ways of Seeing: An Essay on the History of Compulsory Schooling.” In their articles, Young and Tyack each examine a topic using multiple theoretical frameworks. Young investigates a school’s parent involvement policies through traditional and critical frameworks and methods, and Tyack examines the history of compulsory schooling through the lenses of political, organizational, and economic frameworks. Each of them highlights how different methodological and conceptual tools shape what we see and how we make sense of it. Young, in particular, argues that a multifocal approach, or combining multiple conceptual frames, can broaden our view and help us to see what only one framework may obscure.
As a researcher, I refer often to each of these pieces in considering the strengths and limitations of my methodological and conceptual approaches. In particular, I try to be intentional about designing projects using approaches that enable me to see how policies can advance, but also undermine, equity, particularly for communities of color and other historically underserved communities.
In my recent work, that has meant employing Critical Policy Analysis (Diem & Young, 2015), Critical Race Theory (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995), and theoretical and empirical literature from the politics of education (e.g., Ball, 2008; Lipman, 2011; Scott, 2011). These methodological tools enable me to examine the roles of race, politics, and power in shaping school choice and desegregation policy. And, as a qualitative researcher who often conducts interview-based research, I am continuously learning how best to engage with participants with empathy and integrity. One recent piece that has helped me think through these issues is Julissa Ventura and Stefanie Wong’s 2020 article, “Stepping Up and Stepping Back as Scholars of Color: Taking Care of Students and Ourselves in Troubling Times.” Here, Ventura and Wong discuss how they navigated their relationships with research participants, many of whom were from marginalized communities, around the time of the 2016 election, while also caring for their own well-being. I also love reading methodological appendices to books, and methods sections in papers, to learn about how other scholars, particularly women and scholars of color, navigate positionality and power.
LtC: Your recent work examines how progressive school choice efforts do and do not maintain their democratic and justice-oriented objectives in the larger neoliberal policy context. What are some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?
EC: One lesson I learned from my research is how important it is to situate policies and school reform efforts within their broader political and ideological contexts. Across my work, I specifically attend to the underlying context of market ideology, which privileges, among other things, individual advancement through competitive mechanisms, and has shaped education policy since at least the 1980s (Scott & Quinn, 2014).
For example, in studying New York City charter schools with racial and social justice missions, I found that even the most committed and mission-driven school leaders and educators, at times, compromise their equity and justice orientations to ensure their own organizational advancement and survival in a competitive market-based educational context (Castillo, 2020). Similarly, my research on school integration advocacy in New York City during Covid-19 with my collaborators Mira Debs and Molly Vollman Makris illustrates the challenge of advancing school integration within a political and policy context that has long privileged individualism and meritocracy. We found that, even amid the Covid-19 pandemic and nationwide racial justice demonstrations, which together prompted many public discussions about preserving the common good, ultimately, many stakeholders continue to view public schools as a mechanism for facilitating the private good, namely, individual advancement and mobility (Castillo et al., 2021; Labaree, 1997).
Finally, my work on middle-class, mostly second-generation Asian American families whose children attend magnet schools in metropolitan Hartford—schools that were created as a mechanism to advance desegregation—illustrates that most parents chose magnet schools not because they supported the political goal of desegregation, but rather, because they believed that diverse magnet schools would individually benefit their children, academically and socially (Castillo, 2022). In each of these examples, I see that efforts to advance racial equity, democracy, justice, and the public good are challenged by the ideology of the market, specifically its emphasis on individual advancement through competition.
“Many stakeholders continue to view public schools as a mechanism for facilitating the private good.”
LtC: In your study investigating desegregation in Hartford, Connecticut, you highlight the concerning invisibility of Asian American experiences and motivations in school choice conversations. How might your findings help scholars and practitioners think about and implement desegregation efforts in Hartford and beyond?
EC: The research on school choice, desegregation, and the intersection of the two issues, with some exceptions, often reinforces a binary between “students of color” and “white students,” and either makes no mention of Asian Americans, or, ambiguously groups them alongside white students. This pattern reflects the longstanding invisibility of Asian Americans broadly in education and social science research (Ocampo, 2018; Tseng, 2021). Additionally, the enduring model minority narrative, which positions Asian Americans as having overcome racism through hard work, implies that researchers and policymakers need not attend to the diverse experiences of Asian American students (Wu, 2015). I, too, have not explicitly attended to Asian American experiences in my own research until recently. Students, families, and other stakeholders who share my own racial and ethnic identity remained invisible as a topic worthy of inquiry to me as a researcher until late in my dissertation research, when, while observing a board meeting of a “diverse-by-design” charter school, I heard the principal casually remark on the challenge of recruiting Asian American students. This was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me as a school choice researcher: What schools were diverse Asian American students choosing, how and why were they making such choices, and what can their choices tell us about the possibilities for, and limitations to, advancing integration through school choice? And why haven’t school choice researchers explored these questions?
Upon completing my PhD in 2018, I have oriented my research agenda toward addressing these, and related, questions, in the contexts of metropolitan Hartford, Connecticut, and New York City. My research builds on the work of Stacey Lee (2006, 2009), OiYan Poon et al. (2019), and others, in highlighting the heterogeneity of Asian American identities and experiences with schools. Broadly, I find that Asian American students have varying levels of privilege in the school choice process, with important implications for school choice as a tool for facilitating desegregation (Castillo, 2022; Castillo & Debs, 2022).
“Efforts to advance racial equity, democracy, justice, and the public good are challenged by the ideology of the market.”
For example, some Asian American students are English learners; some are undocumented or from mixed-status families; and many hail from poor or working-class families. Given their limited resources and English fluency, some such families face barriers to navigating the array of school choice options, including selective public schools that “screen” students based on test scores and other factors. Interestingly, other such families invest their limited resources in test preparation to selective public schools, due to a perception that their children’s admission to such schools promises to lift their family out of poverty. We find that this perception partly explains the overrepresentation of Asian American students in New York City’s selective, or “specialized,” high schools (Castillo & Debs, 2022).
At the same time, numerous other Asian American students are from affluent families, speak English fluently, have parents who speak English fluently, and are U.S. citizens. These students and families often have more access to the information networks and resources needed to navigate the complex school choice process—including the resources necessary to move to suburban neighborhoods where the public schools are more highly resourced, as well as disproportionately white and affluent (Castillo, 2022).
As these examples illustrate, the heterogeneity of Asian American identities and experiences with school choice complicates the question of how Asian American students may benefit from, or are harmed by, an increasingly segregated school system. Better understanding the diversity of Asian American identities and schooling experiences is important for education researchers and policymakers, for two key reasons. First, as the 2020 Census results demonstrate, Asian Americans are the fastest growing immigrant group in the U.S. (Budiman & Ruiz, 2021). Thus, they will likely form a growing share of the public school population and profoundly shape the racial politics of school choice and desegregation policies in complex ways, raising new questions about how such policies may benefit or harm different segments of the diverse Asian American community. Second, the rise of anti-Asian violence and hate highlights the urgent need for us all to disrupt the longstanding invisibility of Asian Americans, pay attention to how diverse Asian Americans experience racism, and attend to the role schools can play in reinforcing or remedying such patterns.
“The rise of anti-Asian violence and hate highlights the urgent need for us all to disrupt the longstanding invisibility of Asian Americans.”
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?
EC: At Trinity College, I teach undergraduate classes on education policy and school reform, with a focus on issues of racial and socioeconomic inequity in urban contexts. This can sometimes be challenging because the majority of students at Trinity whom I teach did not personally attend urban public schools, and in fact, many attended private or suburban public schools in majority-white and affluent communities. Nevertheless, particularly among students whom I have had the good fortune of teaching over multiple semesters, I am proud to say that I have seen a deep transformation in their thinking. I believe that one of the most important things that has supported my students’ transformation was the opportunity to build relationships with public school students, educators, and other educational stakeholders in Hartford.
Whereas Trinity is a predominantly white and privileged campus, Hartford, its urban locale, is home to communities that are predominantly poor, working-class, and of color. Like many urban colleges, Trinity has long had a complicated relationship with the city of Hartford and its residents (Baldwin, 2021). To address this ongoing issue, over the years, Trinity students and faculty, alongside Hartford community members, have worked to foster meaningful and mutually beneficial connections between the campus and the surrounding community. Inspired by my colleagues who have long been doing this work, I have endeavored to incorporate community-engaged learning components in my Educational Studies courses, where my students have the opportunity to learn from and with Hartford students and educators.
Although reading about and discussing issues of educational inequity and change are often productive experiences, these issues become much more tangible and urgent for my students when they can observe them playing out in the lives of our Hartford neighbors. Moreover, I believe that the process of building relationships with students and educators in Hartford is key to pushing my students to question the many deficit narratives that prevail about urban public schools and, in turn, develop greater empathy and understanding.
Therefore, across several of my classes, I incorporate small research projects and other assignments wherein students engage with students or educators in the community. I also endeavor to design such projects so that they are mutually beneficial for our community partners, such as by sharing the findings from students’ research projects and inviting their feedback. I have to shout-out my colleagues in Trinity’s Educational Studies Program and the Center for Hartford Engagement and Research for initiating and sustaining our partnerships with local public schools and other community stakeholders, and, in turn, making such relationship-building opportunities possible for our students.
“Educational change does not happen when our work lives only within academic spaces.”
LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?
EC: It is often easy to feel that the future looks bleak. These are incredibly tough times for teachers, students, and others who care about educational equity. State legislatures are imposing restrictions on teaching about race, gender identity, and sexuality; undermining the safety and well-being of gender-expansive students; and doing little to protect students and educators—especially the most vulnerable—from the persistence of Covid-19.
Yet, in the face of these challenges, I am inspired by those who refuse to lose sight of the possibility for change. For example, in early May 2022, following many years of advocacy among students, educators, and other stakeholders, my current home state of Connecticut passed legislation requiring the incorporation of Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies in its state K–12 curriculum framework beginning in 2025–2026. This bill follows the passage of a similar bill requiring that public high schools in Connecticut offer courses in Black and Latinx Studies, which will be implemented beginning in Fall 2022. I believe that these bills signal growing recognition that a white-centric curriculum teaches an incomplete story, and that all students benefit from a curriculum that more strongly centers the experiences of people of color.
I am also excited about the many ways that Educational Change researchers are engaging and collaborating with those beyond the academy. I am inspired by scholars who are working alongside practitioners, policymakers, and other stakeholders to imagine what a more equitable and just school system looks like, and to enact such visions. For example, I am excited by the expansion of research-practice partnerships among university-based education researchers and public schools and districts. In addition, I see a growing effort among scholars to translate research findings to the broader public in an accessible and engaging manner. For instance, I am a member of the Connecticut chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which has recently partnered with a local news publication, The Connecticut Mirror, to feature op-ed essays authored by scholars on state-level policy issues. I know that AERA’s Division L and others have engaged in similar initiatives to train scholars in effective op-ed writing. Educational change does not happen when our work lives only within academic spaces, and I am excited about the growing numbers of ways scholars are sharing their work with stakeholders and partnering with communities to advance meaningful change.
Baldwin, D. L. (2021). In the shadow of the ivory tower: How universities are plundering our cities. Bold Type Books.
Castillo, E. (2020). A neoliberal grammar of schooling? How a progressive charter school moved toward market values. American Journal of Education, 126(4), 519–547. https://doi.org/10.1086/709513
Castillo, E. (2022). ‘More of the diversity aspect and less of the desegregation aspect’: Asian Americans and desegregation in metropolitan Hartford. Race Ethnicity and Education, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2022.2033196
Castillo, E., & Debs, M. (2022, April). Remedying invisibility: Asian American perspectives on school integration policy and advocacy in NYC. Paper accepted to Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, CA.
Castillo, E., Makris, M. V., & Debs, M. (2021). Integration versus meritocracy? Competing educational goals during the COVID-19 pandemic. AERA Open, 7, 233285842110657. https://doi.org/10.1177/23328584211065716
Diem, S., & Young, M. D. (2015). Considering critical turns in research on educational leadership and policy. International Journal of Educational Management, 29(7), 838–850. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJEM-05-2015-0060
Labaree, D. F. (1997). Public goods, private goods: The American struggle over educational goals. American Educational Research Journal, 34(1), 39–81. https://doi.org/10.2307/1163342
Lee, S. J. (2006). Additional complexities: Social class, ethnicity, generation, and gender in Asian American student experiences. Race Ethnicity and Education, 9(1), 17–28. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613320500490630Lee, S. J. (2009). Unraveling the “model minority” stereotype: Listening to Asian American youth (2nd ed.). Teachers College Press.
Lipman, P. (2011). The new political economy of urban education: Neoliberalism, race, and the right to the city. Routledge.
Poon, O. A., Segoshi, M. S., Tang, L., Surla, K. L., Nguyen, C., & Squire, D. D. (2019). Asian Americans, affirmative action, and the political economy of racism: A multidimensional model of raceclass frames. Harvard Educational Review, 89(2), 201–226. https://doi.org/10.17763/1943-5045-89.2.201
Scott, J., & Quinn, R. (2014). The politics of education in the post-Brown era: Race, markets, and the struggle for equitable schooling. Educational Administration Quarterly, 50(5), 749–763. http://eaq.sagepub.com/content/50/5/749.short
Ventura, J., & Wong, J.-H. S. (2020). Stepping up and stepping back as scholars of color: Taking care of students and ourselves in troubling times. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 33(2), 174–182. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2019.1681541
Wu, E. D. (2015). The color of success: Asian Americans and the origins of the model minority. Princeton University Press.Young, M. D. (1999). Multifocal educational policy research: Toward a method for enhancing traditional educational policy studies. American Educational Research Journal, 36(4), 677–714. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312036004677
This blog by Melanie Ehren and Martijn Meeternwas originally published by LEARN!. Ehren is a Professor in Educational Governance and Director of Research Intsitute LEARN!, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Meeter is Full Professor, Faculty of Behavioural and Movement Sciences, Educational and Family Studies, LEARN!
In many countries, COVID-related school closures affected already disadvantaged students most in their opportunities to learn and progress. In the Netherlands, the Inspectorate of Education raised the alarm over how the pandemic is leading to further inequality, with alarming numbers of students leaving primary education without the basic skills in arithmetic, reading and writing. As in many countries across the world, the Dutch government is developing new policies to address learning loss from COVID and ‘build back a better system’. These policies include funding for schools to organize targeted support for students in need (e.g. tutoring, remedial teaching) with further investments for schools serving a disadvantaged population. In addition, a government-wide investigation is now underway to better understand the root causes of educational inequality and how to make the education systems more responsive to policies addressing those root causes.
A decentralized system and a coordinated approach
Improving education from the top is not an easy task, given the highly decentralized nature of the education system in the Netherlands and the value placed on school autonomy. The OECD describes Dutch schools as having the highest autonomy internationally. Freedom of education has been the backbone of Dutch education for decades, and is a core value for many policymakers and practitioners working in education.
A more centralized and coordinated approach is, however, crucial to reduce inequality, given that differences in learning opportunities and outcomes often lie outside a school’s span of control. Examples are of parents’ free school choice, which leads to highly homogenous schools with a concentration of social, behavioural and learning problems in some schools, or the early tracking in secondary education which tends to disadvantage children from poorly educated and/or migrant backgrounds. Various studies have mapped out the causes and consequences of the high inequality in the Dutch system with one clear message: this is a complex problem because of its multidisciplinary nature (spatial, social, economic inequalities interact and reinforce each other) where any type of measure to improve education will have multiple outcomes, a high level of interconnectedness, and non-linear outcomes. The high complexity requires a coordinated approach that goes beyond individual interventions or programmes, but where the goal is to change how the whole education system operates to reduce inequality.
Where should we start when trying to address high inequality?
Ideally we want a set of interventions that have a multiplier effect where their collective impact on reducing inequality is greater than the sum of single activities. As good teachers and high quality teaching are the backbone of any education system, this is where we should start: We need to ensure that all school have sufficient high-quality teachers.
“The OECD TALIS report also indicates a sharp decline in the status of the teaching profession in the Netherlands… By reducing entry requirements, we unintentionally lower quality standards as well as the status of the profession.”
However, the Netherlands faces a large teacher shortage that will only become bigger in the future. Predictions are that secondary schools in 2023 will have a shortage of more than 1000 teachers with a further estimation of a shortage of 2600 fte in 2026, due to retirement. Certain subjects (Dutch, German, French, ICT, Mathematics, Science etc) will be particularly affected in the future, while schools in some urban areas in the country are already in constant crisis management to fill vacancies. Approximately 12% of primary schools in the large cities (e.g. Amsterdam) have permanent vacancies as teachers are moving to more affordable places to live and work. Even when a sufficient number of teachers enters the profession (which is unlikely given current student numbers on teacher education programmes), many of them leave due to high workload and stress, a lack of support and too much responsibility when starting to teach, an unsupportive school environment with too few opportunities for career progression and lack of communication with colleagues and school leadership. An average of 31% of beginning teachers in secondary education tend to leave teaching within five years of graduation.
The Ministry of Education has tried to increase the number of teachers by allowing schools to hire unqualified teachers while they train to be teachers on the job, but these teachers seem to be particularly prone to exit the profession. It’s also worth questioning this strategy for the message it sends to the profession at large: how should we understand the nature and status of teaching when we allow anyone with a degree in Higher Education to be a teacher? The Inspectorate of Education reports that an average of 7% of primary schools have unqualified teaching staff and this has detrimental consequences for the instructional quality and children’s learning outcomes. The OECD TALIS report also indicates a sharp decline in the status of the teaching profession in the Netherlands. This may well be an important factor in shortages, as low status affects the potential to recruit sufficient high quality teachers. By reducing entry requirements, we unintentionally lower quality standards as well as the status of the profession. Unfortunately, past policies have seen more of such inconsistencies, such as the introduction of a professional register which provides entry barriers but also increases the administrative workload of teachers without necessarily improving the overall quality of their work.
What can we do to increase the number of high quality and qualified teachers?
Various studies look at the types of interventions that can help build a strong and sufficiently large body of teachers. Here is a summary of the top 6:
Ensure high-quality school leaders. School leaders play a critical role in determining whether teachers are satisfied at work and remain at their school (Kraft et al, 2016), while their instructional leadership can improve the teaching in their school.
Ensure a good working environment for teachers. Sims (2021) review of empirical literature stretching back 20 years suggests that the quality of the working environment in a teacher’s school is an important determinant of retention. A good working environment includes limited administrative workload and marking, collaboration with colleagues and having a manageable classroom of students in terms of their behaviour and teacher-student ratios. The school leader will have an important role in shaping these conditions of work, but external stakeholders (e.g. Inspectorates of Education) will also have a role to play.
Ensure that new teachers are supported when starting teaching and receive feedback and coaching from experienced teachers in the school.
Ensure teachers are paid more in the most difficult schools, in the most unaffordable areas to live in, and to teach the subjects that are least popular. Sims and Benhenda (2022) find that eligible teachers are 23% less likely to leave teaching in state funded schools in years they were eligible for payments with similar results reported in the US.
Ensure that teachers have career prospects within the teaching profession, so that they don’t have to find these elsewhere. Singapore’s model is exemplary in this regard, while other countries (e.g. England) are also increasing the opportunities for a career in teaching (including formalizing professional development for the various stages).
Ensure that teaching is valued as a profession and has high status in society (e.g. such as when entry requirements are high and the job is paid well).
And one final take-away message: policies and measures need to be coherent and well-aligned in both aiming to increase quality and quantity; compromising on either will not reduce inequality in the long term.
Hope remains that, despite the tragic losses and disruptions of the pandemic there may be an opportunity to reimagine critical aspects of schooling. Correspondingly, over the past year, a variety of news and research outlets have shared a wide variety of hopes and proposals for change. At the same time, some long-time observers, like Larry Cuban, argue that the proposals and visions for change may not find their way into practice. As he put it, “I don’t see COVID producing a lot of reforms. If anything, it produces this huge public and professional need to resume schooling as it was. I think basically schooling has much more stability than change in it. And that’s the historian’s point of view.” Cuban continues, “I think COVID has reminded us that all parents want is a return to face-to-face teaching and to let the teachers teach the lessons that they had before school closures. Let them do what they do best.” To continue the exploration of the proposals and possibilities for changing schools post-pandemic, we highlight some of the related news stories we’ve come across from around the world, many of which echo trends in the US, including concerns about enrollment, “learning loss,” and well-being among students and teachers, and possibilities for digital/remote learning.
“I don’t see COVID producing a lot of reforms. If anything, it produces this huge public and professional need to resume schooling as it was.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, numerous proposals to “reimagine education” have been made. At IEN, we have been tracking both the news about those proposals for changing education and the discussions of what has (and has not) been changing in schools post-pandemic (see for example “What can change in schools after the pandemic?”). This week, Correne Reyes shares our latest scan of that news in the US and finds some media reports highlighting flexibility around “seat time;” increased attention to teacher wellbeing, and discussions of the ways online learning may serve as a substitute for classroom-based learning. A second scan will focus on educational changes reported in other parts of the world.
Rethinking Time in Schools?
The switch to remote learning in so many schools and districts prompted numerous proposals to rethink “seat time” – the conventional requirements for awarding credit based on the number of hours and days spent in classrooms. As Jonathan Alfuth put it , “While we agree that states must return to policies that ensure districts maximize the amount of time students spend on high-quality learning experiences, we also believe states must seize this unique moment to rethink the way in which they define instruction and credential learning.” These proposals argue for broadening definitions of what counts as “hours” of instruction, where instruction can take place, and how it can be measure (e.g. “How states are rethinking instructional time and attendance policies in the covid-19 era”; “Unlocking innovation in schools: Policies that create space for schools to better support their students”). Some states have begun reshaping their policies to adjust the barriers of seat time. For example, Minnesota proposed legislation that emphasizes personalized, competency-based education, which focuses on “outcomes—mapping to the pace of students’ mastery of knowledge and skills—instead of moving lockstep through time-based lessons and grades.” Arizona established an Instructional Time Model allowing school districts to adopt their own instructional hour requirements for attendance. Meanwhile, Washington created the mastery-based (or competency-based) credit as an option for high school students to earn credit for demonstration of learning on assessments that are tied to state learning standards.
“It’s not for lack of want, it’s not for lack of ideas…It’s really a lack of available professionals who are willing and qualified to provide these kinds of services to help kids and families and ultimately educators.” Ronn Nozoe
What does it take to support the development of a diverse group of education leaders? Lauren Bailes discusses this and other key issues of educational change in In this month’s Lead the Change (LtC) interview. Bailes is an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of Delaware who explores how organizational, social-cognitive, and leadership theory unite to promote the success of school leaders and K-12 students.The LtC series is produced by Alex Lamb and colleagues from the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. 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?
Lauren Bailes: Two things come to mind for me in response to this call. First, I’m trying to stay connected to practitioners and stakeholders in my local contexts as much as possible in order to listen and learn about their needs in the midst of a rapidly shifting set of systems. I recently had a conversation with a state education leader in Delaware and he asked me, “Do you ever worry that you’ll do research for forty years and you will have become irrelevant?” I told him that I think about that most days. I think, right now, my responsibility—and the way to preclude that irrelevance—is to tailor my work to the espoused needs of education leaders and practitioners around me. I try to conceive of my research agenda as a way to be of service; that necessarily entails collaboration, flexibility, and pivots—all of which definitely keep things current and engaging.
For me, this has certainly meant attending to meaningful research questions using high-quality methodological approaches and publishing in respected outlets, but I don’t want to stop there. One of my favorite moments of my career thus far was when one of my EdD students (a Black woman who was at that time an assistant principal) saw the assistant principal findings from my and a colleague’s AERA Open piece (Bailes & Guthery, 2020) in EdWeek and reached out to me to say, “Hey! This is you, right? This is everything I’ve been trying to say in my district!” This encapsulated so much for me: research has to be multilingual and speak the languages of our research colleagues and our practitioner colleagues. For Sarah and me, this has meant writing shorter summaries of our research in plain language with clear action steps which follow the peer-reviewed research articles. This is not new information, but I take this responsibility very seriously. I’ve also tried to take on some responsibility for leader preparation in my state—both through our EdD program and through other initiatives like the Governor’s Institute for School Leadership (GISL), which is a year-long executive style professional learning experience for third-year Assistant Principals who seek promotion in the school system. My colleague Bryan VanGronigen and I co-wrote the curriculum for the year, and I also teach in the program. The woman who contacted me about the EdWeek writeup graduated from our EdD program then spent a year with GISL and is now a district leader. For her and others like her—in our preparation programs and in our statewide leader supports—the job of translating research clearly in diverse outlets, is incredibly important, as is the practical enactment of what I find and espouse in research.
LtC: Your recent work examines the impact of “disappearing diversity” on the hiring of teachers of color. You have also examined the path to the principalship for assistant principals of color. What are some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience examining the growing equity issues of school staffing?
LB: School staffing is the chief concern I hear among my practitioner colleagues. Whether it’s hiring a highly qualified teacher, finding someone to cover a special education classroom, identifying an instructional coach for the school’s one STEM teacher, or retaining a principal, staffing is at the forefront for many school leaders.
Staffing shortages are certainly not new to schools and the acuity of that challenge varies by context; in Delaware, for example, 41% of principals are eligible for retirement in the next five years. Throughout the educator pipeline, there is a profound need to get positions filled. But even in the midst of a staffing crisis, just filling positions is insufficient. We have to maintain focus on equitable and just practices associated with recruiting, hiring, developing, retaining, and promoting education professionals (Bailes & Guthery, 2021).
Having a racially diverse pool of educators is good for all students and not just students of color, even though we also know that students of color experience particular benefits when they are taught and led by people who look like them (e.g., Simon et al., 2015).
One thing that became clear to me as Dr. Sarah Guthery and I wrote about teacher hiring was that we lose so many teachers of color in their teacher preparation programs. Whether that’s due to the cost of those programs, biased systems of licensure and certification, or lack of support among predominantly white systems of preparation, we have to make teacher preparation not just attractive but feasible for people of color. These might include more incentives for early career teachers of color as well as induction supports.
“We have to maintain focus on equitable and just practices associated with recruiting, hiring, developing, retaining, and promoting education professionals.”
We know from literature, and from the experiences of our practitioner colleagues, that the challenges inherent to education careers are multiplied when those educators are the only or one of very few people of color in their organizations. So, networks and ‘taps’ matter a lot. It’s critically important that, as women and people of color indicate interest in school leadership, they are able to identify systems of support and mentorship to get them into those positions, to scaffold their skills as they move into leadership, and then take seriously their development in those positions in order to retain them.
Ltc: In your study of principal promotion in Texas, you find that Black assistant principals and women high school assistant principals have harder paths to the principalship than their White and male counterparts. What policies and practices can school systems put in place to ensure equitable promotion?
LB: There are a lot of things districts can do and they fall roughly into issues of perception and issues of preparation. It’s also important to note that our study has been replicated a couple of times and the exact promotion patterns vary in different contexts, so I strongly recommend getting familiar with those patterns in your context. However, some of the perceptions regarding the leadership of women and people of color persist across systems. One of the most interesting things that I learned in the process of writing that paper with Dr. Guthery was that, even though we did not find a difference in likelihood of promotion to the principalship for women, we found that women were far more likely to be promoted to principalships in elementary and middle schools than in high schools. Given that superintendents and other district-level leaders are often hired out of high schools, this renders a lot of women invisible for those promotions (and has lasting consequences for pay equity). Principals of lower schools may be perceived as less ‘tough’ or as having to contend with fewer complex organizational management issues and that’s just not true (see for example: Joy, 1998). This is a perception problem and one we can and should counter very directly.
“Efforts toward equitable principal promotion have to be paired with other issues of persistent segregation as well.”
Similarly, principal licensure exams function as a sorting mechanism for many principal candidates of color. Despite similar qualifications to their white peers, aspiring leaders of color may be removed from candidacy because of licensure exams. This is also an opportunity to use the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (PSEL) in lieu of biased exams to enhance justice and equity within principal hiring and promotion practices. No standards are perfect, and they require careful training to be used well, but assessing principal candidates through the lens of standards rather than licensure exams may be one way to create more equitable access to school leadership for women and people of color.
Superintendents are best positioned to enact some of these reforms. They can call for audits, examine hiring records (including applicant pools that are often inaccessible to researchers), change job postings and hiring structures, and deploy resources for support and mentoring opportunities for people who are underrepresented in school leadership.
Finally, it’s important to recall that issues of segregation among education professionals do not occur in a vacuum—they’re influenced by racism, sexism, misogyny, and oppression throughout our systems of housing, medical care, higher education, and the list goes on. Efforts toward equitable principal promotion have to be paired with and are more likely to be successful as we concurrently attend to other issues of persistent segregation as well.
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?
LB: I see a tremendous amount of curiosity and willingness to experiment among many of my collaborators—both researchers and practitioners. My conversations with local education leaders suggest that the inequities and challenges associated with schooling in the last two years are not new—they weren’t created by the pandemic—but they were instead thrown into stark relief by the pandemic. Researchers have one set of language and tools to name those challenges, and I’m consistently impressed when I see researchers expand their language, outlets, and tools to be more inclusive of practitioners.
Similarly, I’ve seen practitioners take on some really brave and creative work regarding equity, school discipline, community engagement, instruction, and cycles of school improvement and they’re looking for research partners to support that work. Our practitioner colleagues spent two years creating systems to do schooling with unthinkable constraints on staffing, resources, and technology, so they’re empowered to innovate in ways that previously seemed outside the ‘grammar’ of schooling.
“Get close to a school and support the shared work of the teachers, families, leaders, and students there.”
We’ve seen systems that are breaking new ground in leadership preparation, team teaching arrangements, and school-wide equity training. So if you’re looking for partnership opportunities, get close to a school and support the shared work of the teachers, families, leaders, and students there. Their work is accelerating, rather than slowing, towards justice and equity—often in spite of profound barriers associated with resources and policymaking.
LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?
LB: I’m learning a lot from thought leaders in the conversation about CritQuant (critical approaches to quantitative methods). I employ a lot of administrative data and I’m keenly aware of their limitations and the ways in which the assumptions embedded in those data perpetuate oppressions along dimensions of race, class, and gender. Categories—like those that currently characterize quantitative data— are necessarily limiting and so I’m trying to think about ways to acknowledge meaningful differences in how individuals are treated by education systems (for example, people of color are less likely to be promoted from assistant principalships to principalships than are their white counterparts) while also exploring ways to think beyond the limitations of the categories in those data. I’m excited about the conversations in this space and the ways in which we have more opportunities for collaboration across theoretical and methodological boundaries.
I’m also really excited about the recent emphasis on PSEL Standard 3, which addresses equity. As I mentioned above, I think there’s a real appetite among schools for concrete and creative steps to increase equity in their schools at every level. Standard 3— which includes skills like cultural responsiveness, an emphasis on each child, and inclusive decision-making—is really brought to life in the other nine standards. For example, what does it look like to carry out inclusive decision-making with instructional faculty or with families? How do leaders enact cultural responsiveness in their communications with families? How do school discipline policies attend to the needs of each child? As I’ve worked with school leaders, the overwhelming refrain is something like, “I’m committed to equity—I just don’t quite know how to do it.” It seems like some clear direction on how to bring Standard 3 to life will offer them some purchase as they engage equity work in their own contexts. I’m so excited to be connected to more of that work, and I’m really optimistic that such clarity will contribute to overall school improvement.
Overall, I feel very lucky to be surrounded by talented, committed colleagues at University of Delaware and nationally as well as in our surrounding communities and schools. I’m consistently encouraged by their technical expertise, courage, and optimism, and I’m confident that educational change is possible as we learn from each other and continue to prioritize students.
Bailes, L. P., & Guthery, S. (2021). Disappearing diversity and the probability of hiring a nonwhite teacher: Evidence from Texas. (EdWorkingPaper: 21-447). Annenberg Institute at Brown University. https://doi.org/10.26300/qvmz-gs17
Joy, L. (1998). Why are women underrepresented in public school administration? An empirical test of promotion discrimination. Economics of Education Review, 17(2), 193-204.
The latest ThoughtMeet (TM) from the Atlantic Rim Collaboratory (ARC) featured conversations with Steve Munby and ARC delegates exploring “imperfect leadership.” Munby facilitates ARC events and is a member of the ARC Secretariat, and Visiting Professor at University College London Centre for Educational Leadership. Munby’s talk drew from his recently published book with co-author Marie-Claire Bretherton, Imperfect Leadership in Action: A practical book for school leaders who know they don’t know it all. This post highlights the key ideas and issues that were discussed in the meeting by representatives from the seven ARC member systems and its global partners. A summary, videos, and other resources from the March 25th ThoughtMeet: A Focus on Leadership. Summaries and materials from previous ThoughtMeets are available on the ARC Education Project website. This post was written by Mariana Domínguez González, and Daphne Varghese, ARC Research Assistants and Trista Hollweck, ARC Project Director.
“Nobody is ready for leadership. It is always a big step up. Imperfect leadership is neither a set of competencies to be mastered nor a body of knowledge to be memorized. It is a mindset to be embraced.”
What is imperfect leadership? According to Steve Munby, imperfect leadership goes beyond how effectively a leader responds to ever-changing and dynamic work conditions to encompass who the leader is as a person– their personality, expertise, how they motivate others, respond to stress, etc. Leaders are not finished products; rather, they should strive to be endless learners which he describes as grown up & restless (as illustrated in the quadrants below). Munby reminded ARC delegates that “walking into a leadership role is a new playground for everyone. There is no such thing as perfect leadership when we step into a leadership role.” Thus, strong self-awareness is crucial for imperfect leadership.
In order for leaders to stay restless, Munby stressed the importance of developing and leading an open-to-learning culture. Leaders should review and reflect on events or situations that haven’t gone well, practice self-compassion, and use feedback processes (such as 360 degree feedback) in a focused and time-specific way to improve their leadership practices.
How can we help educators to improve and to develop as leaders? Munby stressed that all members in a team have the potential to be leaders. The key is to provide them with the confidence to step up and take a leadership role. Creating an imperfect leadership culture requires an investment in others, especially early career leaders. As the more experienced leaders, he explained “it is our responsibility to support the leadership development of others. We must support future leaders and provide them with opportunities to take on challenging tasks and feel supported to take risks. We also must be conscious to not reinforce one simple stereotypical view of leadership, but encourage potential leaders from diverse backgrounds and perspectives to lead.” Munby added that an imperfect leadership culture provides opportunities for experienced leaders to take on new and challenging roles in an effort to renew and re-energize them.
A Q&A panel discussion followed the ARC talk and delegates asked Munby about the role of diversity in leadership, the importance of co-leadership and distributed leadership models, how to deal with negative organizational cultures, as well as how to balance risk-taking and learning from one’s failures against stakeholder expectations:
What role do you think diversity plays in leadership? Munby noted that organizations need to go beyond the notion that diversity is solely about fairness. Rather, diversity creates better teams characterized by numerous perspectives and expertise. Organizations also need to steer away from a singular approach to leadership, as it can encourage specific group members to be leaders and deter others from stepping into a leadership role. Munby emphasized that conceptualizations of talent are narrow and fixed, and we need to find ways to challenge them.
How do we “row together” to create an expectation of sharing power and decision-making? Munby described how stakeholder engagement is an essential collaborative strategy for systems to develop imperfect leadership and promote progressive policy leadership.
How do leaders cope with negative organizational cultures? According to Munby, it is always important to try to find a way to internally influence the work culture. However, in some cases, if the negative culture becomes too fixed and unlikely to change, it may be best for the leader to switch to another workplace.
Follow-up reflection questions for system leaders:
What does imperfect leadership mean in a virtual post-Covid-19 context?
What is the difference between leadership and management?
How do we further develop adaptive leadership in our systems so that leaders are not only aware of their individual strengths and default styles but equally aware of how to respond when a situation needs a different approach?
How do leaders balance the system/political aspect as well as the personal side of leadership?
How do leaders manage the very real external pressures and expectations and also provide conditions for aspiring leaders to grow and make mistakes?
How do we prevent or avoid burnout in leaders at all levels? What kind of support is most needed?
About the Atlantic Rim Collaboratory:
The (ARC) is an international policy learning network that was established in 2016 to advance educational change based on eight guiding principles: equity, excellence, inclusion, wellbeing, democracy, sustainability, human rights, and professionally run systems.Headquartered at the University of Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) since 2019, ARC brings together senior public officials (i.e ministers and deputy ministers of education), professional association leaders (i.e. unions and inspectorates) and other key stakeholders from its seven education member systems (Iceland, Ireland, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Scotland, Uruguay and Wales), global partners (International Confederation of Principals) and international experts and scholars to discuss, debate and exchange knowledge about educational policy issues and to formulate responses suited to their contexts. One of the founding ideas behind ARC is to tear down the walls between countries and regions, as well as between educational researchers and politicians, in order to pursue the most fundamental ideas of what it means to be educated in today’s world for the mutual benefit of all ARC-systems and future generations of students worldwide. Every year, ARC members meet at the annual Summit hosted by one of the member systems. However, since 2020, in addition to a virtual summit, ARC has also hosted bi-monthly virtual ARC ThoughtMeets (TMs) for its members. The TM outreach series was designed to stimulate and support a global educational movement for equitable, inclusive and sustainable educational solutions to COVID-19.
In Part 1, I asked the question whether or not the ways that U.S. schools have organized (i.e., the age-graded school) and the dominant ways that teachers teach in American classrooms (i.e., teacher-centered instruction) are unique to the U.S. So in a series of posts over the next few weeks, I will sample how different nations organize their systems of schooling and offer photos of classrooms and descriptions of lessons to see how actual students and teachers appear.
The organization of schools in other countries and photos of lessons suggest a strong similarity to the U.S.’s age-graded structures and classroom organization. While diagrams of a nation’s schools are helpful to readers in getting a sense of how each country organizes their public schools and while snapshots do convey how classroom furniture is arrayed, the importance of wall clocks, and national flags, neither charts nor photos tell viewers the ways these teachers teach multiple lessons thereby revealing patterns in teaching. Finally, snapshots fail to show student learning since they capture a mere instant of what a class is doing. So charts and photos can inform but they have definite limits.
Another shortcoming to relying upon photos is that I may have used non-representative samples of a nation’s classrooms, given that I pulled photos from the Internet. But those photos are all I have at the moment. I do invite readers to offer other photos and text that challenge the generalizations I make about school structures, given the limited evidence I offer.
In this post, I will focus on one country–France–and offer photos of “typical” public school classrooms over the past few years including the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
France has a centralized system of schooling for its 13 million students. A Ministry of Education establishes the curriculum for all levels of schooling and allocates both staff and funds to the 31 regions or academies headed by a rectuerresponsible to the national Ministry of Education.
The historically high degree of uniformity in curriculum and instruction has lessened in recent years as the Ministry of Education has delegated to local regions, curricular discretion. Moreover, local variation in schooling and classroom lessons–Brittany in the northeast of France and Marseilles on the Mediterranean Sea–Inescapably exists.
In France, education is compulsory for children between the ages of three and 16 and consists of four levels:
Students are required to attend school from age six to sixteen. All schooling between kindergarten and university is free except for private schools where parents pay fees. Seventeen percent of French children attend private schools.
Schools open in September and end in June with two weeks of vacation every few months. Also, most French schools are open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Wednesdays are often a half-day. The school day usually runs from eight AM to four PM. French students usually have over an hour for lunch and many go home to eat.
Class sizes in public schools vary. For instance, in primary grades, one teacher and a teaching assistant typically will be in charge of 25 children; in secondary school, teachers commonly have 30 or more students.
Even with these similar features, there are differences in schooling across France (e.g., urban/rural, small/large schools, heavily immigrant/mostly middle and upper middle class, public/private). Thus, what some authorities call a “typical” lesson may simply be what they believe (or want to believe) is a common instance of classroom teaching. Readers should keep that in mind.
Here are a few photos of “typical” elementary and secondary classrooms in France.