Education Reform: Elevating Student and Family Voices

We all know that educational reform is complex. Whether addressing enrollment, teacher recruitment, college readiness, literacy, school choice or the dozens of other issues facing Baltimore’s students, any change involves many people with many ideas and considerations.

Typically, conversations about improving some aspect of education for Baltimore’s students include school district leaders and representatives from educational nonprofits. Sometimes, funders and influencers are invited to provide perspectives. But in most cases, important people are missing from these conversations: the students and families who are most effected by – and who are the intended beneficiaries of – any improvement.

Students’ and families’ perspectives should be a part of any discussion about what will affect them. They belong in the conversations. By not including their thoughts on how to make the educational experience better, we push ideas onto them rather than finding solutions with them. We need to develop a system that reflects not just what we want (no matter how well-meaning we are), but what students and parents want. And we can only know that by asking and listening to them.

This is not a new thought. Many in Baltimore, from local educational nonprofits to the district itself, are working to engage with the families, students and communities impacted by decisions about their education. At the Fund for Educational Excellence, we’re speaking with communities about school choice, grade level reading, CTE programs and college readiness. Our Bmore Ready website was created by students, with the information that they consider important. Our School Choice Guide was created based on family feedback and with significant input from a parent. And our Grade Level Reading parent resources were created with significant input from parents. We’re hearing their recommendations and giving them voice. But we, and all of us, need to do more.

We recognize that not every decision in an 80,000-student school system can include everyone’s participation. But how and when we include students and communities in discussions – and doing so with intentionality – matters. It leads to better and more relevant decisions, greater understanding of why changes are being made, and easier buy-in.

How can we do this? To be truly collaborative, students and families need to be asked for input before decisions are made. Better yet, they should be at the table, in the discussion during the decision making process. And further, we need to change who the “deciders” are so that students and families are actively part of setting policy and making decisions.

This requires boldness. Unfortunately, reform has been too often based only on asking “what have other cities done?” and “is there evidence to support this approach?”. If used alone, those relevant and helpful questions risk perpetuating the pattern of relying only on the past to determine the future. It’s time we acknowledge that students and families have unique insight and deep passion that can impact positive change – and that those insights should be combined with evidence-based approaches for an inclusive and thoughtful path forward.

We all can do better. Next time we’re at a table where a decision is being made that affects people, let’s make sure those people are represented in the conversation. Next time we connect with students or families impacted by our work, let’s make sure we hear and understand their perspective, and do more listening than talking. Next time we are hiring, convening a committee or recruiting board members, let’s consider whether the experiences and insight our candidates bring reflects all of our constituents.

In doing so, our educational community will grow closer, stronger, and faster towards a system where every student from every community receives a fantastic education.

New MSDE Star System Overlooks Achievement Gap

On Tuesday December 4th the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) released the first iteration of its new school accountability, or “star ratings,” system as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). On the surface, understanding how schools are performing against a set of consistent measures seems reasonable. At its best, a school rating system helps parents know how their child’s school (or prospective school) is performing and how that compares to others in the county or state. Furthermore, a rating system has the potential to provide a useful roadmap to principals and teachers on how to improve their schools.

The problem is, as it ever has been, that rating education is complicated and nuanced. Rating systems almost never account for this complexity because a rating system almost always prioritizes the aggregate. Thus, any attempt to make a system “easy” ultimately misses important considerations. MSDE’s new accountability system is no exception – as has been shown in responses over the past two weeks.

I appreciate MSDE’s effort to share transparently the criteria being considered for the school ratings. These criteria include PARCC scores, chronic absenteeism, graduation rates, a well-rounded curriculum, and the achievement of English Language Learners – all important components of a quality education.

Yet, the most glaring omission from the criteria is any emphasis on decreasing the very-well documented and critically important student achievement gap that persists throughout the state of Maryland along racial and socioeconomic lines – two groups that unfortunately, in our unjust society, too often include the same children. State-wide results from the 2018 PARCC assessments show white students outperforming students of color by 19-39 percentage points in subject area tests. These gaps have remained relatively consistent for every administration of the PARCC assessment and show that across Maryland, black, brown, and poor students are not receiving the education they deserve. The new rating system fails to take into consideration or hold schools accountable for this persistent, disturbing gap.

One would think that in order to receive the highest possible rating on a tool created for the Every Student Succeeds Act, there must be evidence that every student is succeeding. This is not happening here; instead, the rating system gives schools with significant achievement gaps the chance to still receive the highest “5-star” ranking. One does not have to look hard to come across a highly respected 5-star high school in a nearby suburban school district where black students are lagging behind their white peers by 41 percentage points in Math and 29 percentage points in English. This is but one of many examples I found when looking more closely at the newly identified “5-star schools”. While this may be a 5-star school for some students, it is not for students of color. Reviewing this breakdown by poverty level is well worth exploring and sharing here, but MSDE does not yet share this data.

By omitting the achievement gap as a factor in its rating system, MSDE is allowing this school to mask the fact that some students are being served significantly better than others.

A rating system that fails to consider student data disaggregated by race and socio-economics perpetuates the incorrect notion that schools in places like Baltimore City and Prince George’s County—with significantly larger populations of black or brown students and substantially more concentrated poverty—are somehow worse. It also completely ignores the well documented negative effects of poverty on the education of children. Just as problematic, it misleads the parents of those children whose performance may not be accurately reflected in aggregated, school-wide data into believing that their child’s school is serving them well when there is often evidence to the contrary. It sends the message that Maryland considers schools “great” whether or not the achievement gap is being addressed.

It is disappointing that instead of proactively and boldly identifying the racial and economic achievement gaps we know exist in schools across every county in this state, Maryland developed a rating system that masks the problem and perpetuates racial and socioeconomic inequity.

At the Fund, we strive every day to improve the educational outcomes for children growing up in Baltimore City. It is important to understand how our city’s schools are performing—not just relatively (though I do look forward to the state fulfilling its responsibility to compare demographically like schools), but against objective measures as this rating system intends. I am not opposed to the idea of honestly examining how schools serve their students. But context matters. If, as a state, we are going to live up to the ideal that every student succeeds, we have to value the achievement of every student. This new rating system simply does not do that.

Impacting Education from all Angles

Expanding access to high quality learning and equitable opportunity for all students takes many forms. At the Fund for Educational Excellence, our unique role working with the Baltimore City Public Schools and our community’s students, families, funders and organizations allows us to take many approaches towards this work. We’re managing programs, matching philanthropic support to system priorities, researching issues with community input, and identifying resources for students and families based on community-identified needs. Here is a look at a few of many programs managed and/or created by the Fund to expand equity and opportunity for all students in Baltimore – what they are, how we help, and where they’re headed.

Chicago Parent Program:
The Chicago Parent Program (ChiPP), a nationally recognized 12-week program for parents with children ages two to seven, promotes good behavior and educational success for children through empowered parenting. With the support of trained facilitators and the ChiPP curriculum, groups of parents meet each week to discuss parenting techniques, participate in role-play parenting scenarios, share experiences and explore ways to better connect with their children and schools.

The Fund helped bring ChiPP to Baltimore four years ago as a pilot/research project in partnership with The Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, and is now directly managing the program in 11 City Schools. We have been thrilled by parents’ interest in the program. During the three-year pilot program, 65% of eligible parents in the targeted schools registered for ChiPP, a higher rate than in other cities across the country. This year, our programs are fully enrolled, with parents consistently reporting increased confidence in connecting with their child’s school and talking about their child’s behavior. To learn more about ChiPP, contact danielles@ffee.org.

School Choice Workshops:
In 2017, the Fund spoke with 400 City Schools parents and students about their experiences with the district’s school choice process – how students and families choose which middle and high school they would like to attend – for our Calculated Choices: Equity and Opportunity in Baltimore City Public Schools report.  One of the biggest concerns we heard from parents was a lack of clarity and support throughout the school choice process.

Last year, in collaboration with parents, we created a School Choice workshop that gives parents the information they need to navigate the often confusing school process. Any group of three of more parents, school representatives, or community organizations can request a workshop. We do the rest – delivering an immersive group workshop covering timelines, choices available, school rankings, composite scores and more. This year, our materials were translated into Spanish and we expanded our team of facilitators.

All workshop resources are also available online – find them here! To schedule a workshop in your community, email danielles@ffee.org.

Bmore Ready – College Readiness:
Created and managed by the Fund in response to a need identified by parents and families, Bmore Ready is a one-stop, online college readiness resource
designed specifically for City Schools students by the people who know the process best – City Schools graduates currently enrolled in college. The Bmore Ready website and workshops offer helpful information and first-hand video advice from recent graduates on how to identify, apply and transition to college. Bmore Ready is an outgrowth of the Fund’s conversations with families as part of its 2016 report on college readiness: Building a Bright Future; Understanding College Readiness in Baltimore City Public Schools.

This year, we’re emphasizing the importance of early preparation for the application process. Most importantly, we’re demystifying the often-cumbersome processes of applying for financial aid using the FAFSA (Free Application For Federal Student Aid) forms. We will be working as one of City Schools partners, helping to support and get the word out about upcoming drop-in FAFSA fill-out sessions for students and families. Stay tuned as the sessions get scheduled! FAFSA applications are due March 1, 2019!

If you’re interested in learning more, getting involved or staying in the loop as we move these initiatives forward, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, or email info@ffee.org to continue the conversation!

Finding Books with Diverse Characters: It’s Harder than You Think. The problem, the need, and how you can help

By Angelique Jessup, Ph.D., Program Director, Baltimore Campaign for Grade Level Reading/
Fund for Educational Excellence

“Nearly impossible.” “Like finding a needle in a haystack.” “Frustrating.”

These are just some of the comments the Baltimore Campaign for Grade Level Reading (GLR) and the Fund for Educational Excellence recently heard from colleagues and partners discussing the availability of children’s books with diverse characters. While this conversation is not new to the field, a recent New York Times op ed, “Black Kids Don’t Want to Read About Harriet Tubman All the Time,” echoed both the difficulty and frustration we experienced in our own recent book search.

Research shows that seeing characters that represent ones reality sparks connectivity and deepens interests and curiosity. Children of color are no different. However, GLR—a program of the Fund for Educational Excellence that aims to make sure all Baltimore City Public Schools students are reading on grade level by third grade—has experienced firsthand the issues outlined in the op ed: finding children’s books that show racially and culturally diverse characters is incredibly difficult. This needs to change.

As part of a new project (in partnership with Improving Education and City Schools) with six elementary schools designed to improve family engagement, increase summer learning, and build home libraries, we set out to find appropriate books to give every first grade student to encourage reading at home.

The task seemed simple enough: find a fun and engaging book for first grade students that included diverse characters. After hours of searching with incredible partners at the Enoch Pratt Free Library and City Schools, a frustrating truth surfaced: books that meet these criteria are few and far between. Our dilemma deepened as we expanded our search for bilingual books where we found an even starker dearth of options representing diverse characters. Why is it so hard? According to a February, 2017 NPR Code Switch article, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin found that only 12% of children’s books published in 2016 had characters who were people of color.

The call for more diversity in children’s books is getting louder and stronger. We were certainly able to find books that delved into historical topics like Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and how people of color have consistently overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. But, there just aren’t many books featuring diverse characters that are simply having fun and engaging in day to day life. 

Don’t get me wrong, these historical stories are incredibly important and need to be told to children (and as an African American mother of two young children, I am deeply grateful for these books). However, children of color deserve an array of books that span all topics—from silly to serious—and see illustrations that look like them and their communities.

We are not alone in this thinking. Groups like We Need Diverse Books and many others are pushing for quality books that are diverse in characters, topics and reading levels. GLR and the Fund are proud to be adding our voice to this call for greater diversity as an important step in encouraging reading for our City Schools students.

The good news is that while there are not nearly enough, diverse books do exist. With the help of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, GLR recently curated a list of diverse books for our 37 Little Free Libraries located throughout the city. Please check it out, and send us the names of other books that we should add to the list.

While you’re there, consider donating one of the books to a Little Free Library and be part of a movement that has given away over 60,000 books in the last 18 months to children living in book deserts. Or just buy one for a child in your life to help show publishers that the demand for diverse books is as real as the need to make sure all children can find themselves in the pages of a book.

Interested in learning more about GLR, how you can get involved, or other projects supporting children’s education at the Fund for Educational Excellence? Visit the GLR website or contact me at angeliquej@ffee.org.

Families in Baltimore City Need a Centralized School Choice Hub

by Corrie Schoenberg, Senior Program Director

In 2016, the Fund for Educational Excellence spoke with more than 400 Baltimore City Public Schools parents and students about their experiences with the middle and high school choice process. What we heard is outlined in Calculated Choices: Equity and Opportunity in Baltimore City Public Schools, the third in a series of reports bringing parent and student voices to bear on how Baltimore’s public schools can work better for those they serve.

During the Calculated Choices listening campaign, parents talked about how confounding the school choice process can feel. Many didn’t understand how to complete the City Schools choice application, particularly the importance of ranking the five schools they were applying to in order of preference. Others expressed confusion about how charter applications relate (or don’t) to the City Schools application. With the choice season for SY18-19 winding down, now is a good time to talk about streamlining the process to better serve parents and students. We need to move to one online school choice hub.

Without a centralized hub, families are left juggling multiple applications, requirements, and timelines. Consider what a mother and son intent on maximizing school choice options might have to navigate. Let’s say this student is interested in the Ingenuity Project, an advanced math and science program offered at Poly, and plans to apply to City College, Dunbar, Bard, and MerVo as other options on his City Schools choice application. He also wants to apply to three charter schools – Green Street Academy, Coppin Academy, and City Neighbors High School. Here is what this family is facing:

  • Ingenuity requires a completely separate application due in December – a month before the City Schools application deadline — and administers its own admissions assessment in January.
  • Bard requires an interview and writing sample during a Bard-run interview day in November, December, or January.
  • Each of the three charter schools requires its own application with its own deadline and conducts its own lottery to select students.

This student and his mother are now managing six different application processes.

It’s easy to understand why parents are confused about the school choice process. Different choice elements have been pieced together and added to each other for decades. What sounds simple – in middle and high school, City Schools students can choose their schools – is, in practice, simply not.

We strongly encourage City Schools, including all of Baltimore’s charters, to band together and establish one common online application and one lottery for the benefit of all Baltimore City students and their families.

We know this kind of system is possible. The District of Columbia Public Schools and nearly all of Washington, DC’s charter schools made this move several years ago with www.MySchoolDC.org. Public school parents in DC go to that website to apply to up to twelve schools – district or charter – and rank their choices. School profiles are also located on MySchoolDC.org.

City Schools and all of our city’s charters can and should do this as well.

As we push for this change, we recognize that parents and students need help navigating the choice system we have right now. This year, the Fund is offering a new school choice workshop to any group of three or more City Schools parents, available upon request. For more information, please email corries@ffee.org.

We owe it to our families to simplify the choice process so that all students can find and apply to the schools that best meet their needs. Make your voices heard and help advocate for this necessary change. Share this article on social media, contact district and school leaders, and spread the word.