How It Takes a Village—and a Summit—to Redress Education Inequality

How It Takes a Village—and a Summit—to Redress Education Inequality

Priscilla Chan (left) with NewSchools Venture Fund CEO, Stacey Childress / Tony Wan

Gone were the tables where entrepreneurs with their Apple laptops and iPads showed off their edtech apps. In their place were students from east Los Angeles and other parts of the country sporting XQ School Project tee-shirts who spoke frankly about their educational journey—along with the mentors, teachers and support networks that guided them through their obstacles.

Students spoke the first and last words at the NewSchool Venture Fund’s 2016 Summit—offering a visceral reminder of why several hundred nonprofit heads, company CEOs, policymakers, philanthropists, government leaders and, yes, Mark Zuckerberg, gathered in the Hyatt ballroom in Burlingame, Calif. on May 11, 2016.

Among all the headline speakers and newsmakers in attendance, “those kids were the people with whom I feel the deepest connection,” remarked Priscilla Chan, co-founder of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and CEO of The Primary School, during the closing keynote.

Since taking over as chief executive of NewSchools in July 2014, Stacey Childress (formerly Deputy Director at the Gates Foundation), has focused the nonprofit’s efforts towards supporting innovative schools, the tools and services they need to succeed, and a talent pipeline of education leaders to steer the way. But she acknowledged that money and grants alone won’t fix the underlying problems that afflict society and children. The community needs to understand “racial, ethnic [and] economic inequality, how our efforts to reimagine education fit into [these issues]—and where they fall short.”

The day’s agenda touched upon a wide array of deep-rooted problems—from social-emotional learning, to school segregation, discipline and research—that go beyond what any single entrepreneur, venture capitalist or educator can fix. Here’s what we heard on the ground:

DON’T MANDATE PERSONALIZED LEARNING: “Personalized learning” may be a stale terminology to those in edtech circles—but the term is receiving plenty of attention from the mainstream media. Still, there are plenty of unresolved questions about what personalized learning looks like as as a tool, policy or pedagogical approach.

What concerns Childress is the risk that policymakers will turn “personalized learning” into legislation that all educators have to follow. “A rush to policy mandates can create a compliance mentality and squash the promise of personalized learning,” she says, “and this can inadvertently create resistance to the school designs and instructional practices that educators are eager to embrace.” No Child Left Behind offered a recent example of how well-intentioned efforts to collect data on student performance and achievement spiralled out of control into unrealistic expectations.

TFA’S HAD ITS UPS AND DOWNS: Teach for America has struggled with recent recruitment issues, as corps applicant numbers have dropped by more than 20,000 between 2013 and 2016. But current TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva-Beard took to the NSVF stage to share that this is all part of the growth process. "Growth creates complexity, and complexity is the silent killer of growth,” she said, quoting Chris Zook’s “The Founder’s Mentality.”

While Villanueva-Beard reports that the "financial health [of TFA] is great,” she and her team are determined to “evolve our definition of impact” and continue to diversify TFA’s corps and staff members. Those numbers, in fact, have continued to grow; today, 49% of TFA staff are people of color (compared to 34% in 2013), and almost half of the 2015 corps come from low-income backgrounds.

HOW DO WE TEST THE EFFICACY OF EDTECH PRODUCTS? There may not be a singular answer to that question, but several organizations are trying out approaches to see what works. One is LEAP Innovations, based in Chicago, Illinois. CEO Phyllis Lockett presented on LEAP’s Pilot Network and its “robust 36-week research framework.” After one year, pilots have yielded results “indicating that innovation, fueled by edtech, has the potential to make a real impact,” she said, adding that product highlights included Lexia Reading Core 5 and ThinkCERCA.

Harvard Professor Thomas Kane, meanwhile, spoke to the efforts of his team at the Center for Education Policy Research’s Proving Ground, a collection of districts and charter management organizations. “We need to make it much faster and cheaper to see the impact of various educational interventions,” he said, sharing that Proving Ground partnered with data analytics platform Schoolzilla to track the efficacy of Achieve3000 and ST Math on student learning.

ARNE’S THREE BIG FAILURES: The former Secretary of Education reconnected with an old colleague, Jim Shelton (who now likely fields plenty of funding requests as the head of Chan-Zuckerberg’s education efforts). But Shelton didn’t pitch softballs. Duncan’s biggest regrets include failing to get Congress to allot more federal funding for early childhood education, inability to get immigration reform passed to allow undocumented students to attend college, and “getting nothing done on gun control” especially in the wake of Sandy Hook.

Now a Managing Partner at Emerson Collective, Duncan summed up the root of these shortcomings: “The hard lesson is that we as a nation just don’t value our children as much our nations do. These are all policy choices. My honest opinion is that other nations care about their kids more.”

Arne Duncan (left) with Jim Shelton

SEGREGATION IN SCHOOLS IS ALIVE AND WELL, but not all hope is lost—desegregation efforts are out there, shared Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist behind the Peabody-award winning “The Problem We All Live With” podcast. “There is hope; John King introduced the first desegregation legislation that we've seen coming out in 30 years,” she gave as an example. But the firm roots of segregation, she adds, really comes down to the choices of individuals: “Integration is very hard for white parents.”

In response to a question about what’s next for desegregation and integration efforts, Enid Rey, Executive Director of the Office of School Choice at Hartford Public Schools, simply stated: “Stop talking about it. Be about it. Don’t make this an intellectual masturbation exercise.”

THE MOST ROWDY PANEL, ironically, went to a session about school discipline. (Kudos to moderator and Chalkbeat co-founder Elizabeth Green for corralling some heated back-and-forths.) Charter school leaders who implement a “no excuses” approach toward students’ academic and behavioral performance found themselves in the hot seat when asked: “Would you send your kids to a ‘no excuses’ school?” Shawn Hardnett, who helped start KIPP Bay View Academy and Polaris Academy, was brutally honest: “What my child will need is not what the kids who come to my schools need.” RiShawn Biddle, Editor at Dropout Nation, concurred: “Most of us would not put our kids in the ‘no-excuses’ schools that we are building.”

The heated discussion stemmed from a lack of shared understanding about what counts as an excusable student mishap—and what’s deserving of suspension or expulsion. Panelists raised many more questions than answers. At the heart of the issue: school leaders don’t quite agree on what it means to create a culture of compliance, versus a culture of authentic engagement.

BEYOND SCHOOLS AND CLASSROOMS: As a pediatrician at San Francisco General Hospital, Priscilla Chan got a firsthand look at the emotional and traumatic factors that affect how students learn. “Obesity, asthma, violence, instability, housing....I don’t have a prescription for how these problems get fixed, and all these things impact how all children can be present and learn in classrooms.” Her newest venture, The Primary School, is set to open this fall with four-year-olds, aims to “redefine how we deliver primary healthcare, early childhood education and parent empowerment” together.

Chan intends to create a “model that is sustainable and replicable outside of philanthropy.” The Primary School is currently a privately funded independent school that “gives us the flexibility to tinker and move quickly.” Her hope is to “build a framework and model for people to take into other communities.”

FROM EQUITY TO INCLUSION: How can we ensure that commitments to diversity to beyond pledges and employee statistics? Aaron Walker, CEO of Camelback Ventures CEO, argued that the discussion should not be about numbers and equity, but about inclusion. “Often times, companies just want black and brown faces to replace white faces. But a person is not just a face. What do you value? A brown skin or everything that comes with it?”

At the end of the panel, an attendee pointed out that the crowd in the room was largely formed by people of color and Latinos. Few white people were present. Childress acknowledged the disproportion but highlighted that the number of people from different backgrounds in attendance at the Summit has been increasing. This year, she notes, black and Latinos made up one-third of attendees and 42 percent of speakers.

QUOTES OF THE DAY: “If we want equality, everyone has to give up privilege,” implored Nate Parker, actor and director of “Birth of A Nation,” a film that explores the life of Nat Turner. “Freedom, equality and justice is binary—you either have it or you don’t,” he added. “Let’s not be so quick to celebrate incremental progress, or be afraid to be vocal about immediate change at the risk of being labelled a ‘radical.’”

Disclosure: EdSurge has received support from NewSchools Venture Fund

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