Why Education Power Trumps Voice

Why Education Power Trumps Voice
From left: Anita Wadhwa, Valissia Allen, Ric Zappa, Eldridge Greer, Amanda Aiken, John B. King, Jr.
Tony Wan

Parents and kids. When was the last time you attended an education policy conference that put both kids and parents into the spotlight? Or tried to confront not-so-politically correct topics of race and politics in a way that stayed civil to the last word? Or talked about what it takes for low-income kids to get an internship and work experience?

Since Stacey Childress took up the post of chief executive of the NewSchools Venture Fund three years ago, she’s transformed the annual shindig from a parade of the stars who frequently pop up in newspaper headlines to one where school practitioners, a handful of entrepreneurs and policy wonks, and yes, now students and their parents are the focus. Since NewSchools began 19 years ago, it has launched more than 450 schools around the US, serving 190,000 students. Forty more schools are slated to open this fall or in 2018. And of the 1,200 people attending the summit, half the speakers and a third of attendees were black or Latino, up from 12 percent in 2013. Both Republicans and Democrats were in the mix, too.

Here’s what we saw:

Up With Kids

This year’s event, held in Burlingame, Calif., started by making a big statement from a thoughtful and smart 10th grader, Jahari Shelton, from Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC. Shelton is also preparing to launch a school himself, the North Star College Prep Academy, slated to open in 2018. “When we look for leaders to solve the world’s problems, why don’t we look to young people?” he asked. “Educators and my fellow students: Demand, demand demand.”

Voice Is Nice; Power Is Better

Panels at education “innovation” conferences are traditionally populated by nonprofit leaders, school administrators and funders. But this year’s NSVF lunch plenary focused solely on parents, a group that often gets forgotten or left out of the conversation according to Innovate Public Schools founder and CEO Matt Hammer. Parents don’t just want a “voice,” Hammer said. They want to be co-leaders in their children’s schooling.

“Those who are keeping systems in place are very focused on power,” said Hammer. “Parents don’t just need a voice—they need power.”The six parent advocates from Colorado, Nevada, and California on the panel didn’t always recognize that they had the power to create change in their children’s schooling. Diana Castro, a Mexican immigrant and mother of a RISE Colorado student, shared how gaining that power started when she helped organize a parent coalition—rather than just be a solo advocate. “Even though this isn’t my native language and native country… I know now that I have power,” she said.

The inspiration for Chappelle White, parent and member of ACE (Advocates for Change in Education) of Nevada, to assert her own power came from her daughter. One day, the daughter came home from school and announced that she no longer felt comfortable “ever speak up in class again.” White began advocating on her daughter’s behalf--and soon her daughter began exploring other options, too. “I want my daughter to continue to say, ‘With all due respect, this isn’t working for me,’” White said, “but what about all of those other students who haven’t found what they need?”

Diversity Unites Us

Gabriel Moncayo, CEO of AlwaysHired, recalled one of the first moments that taught him the importance of including diverse perspectives: He was watching a science show about airbags in vehicles, and learned that women and children died at a higher rate than men. Why? Because airbags were initially designed for males.

“Unless you have people from different backgrounds working on something, you run the risk of building something with a one-track mind,” said Moncayo. “And we’ve already seen with the airbag how that can be problematic.”

Speaking on a panel about making edtech companies more diverse and inclusive, Moncayo was joined by Carolina Huaranca, Principal at Kapor Capital. “Diversity makes a company much more competitive. It’s also the right thing to do,” she stated.

Citing Kapor’s recently released 2017 Tech Leavers Study, Huaranca underscored why diversity isn’t just a moral policy but an economic one: the most frequently cited reason for leaving a job according to a survey of nearly 2,000 respondents was unfair treatment, a problem cited by 37 percent of those surveyed. That’s expensive: unfairness costs companies $16 billion annually to replace employees who leave for that reason. Fifty-seven percent of respondees said they would have stayed if their employer created a more fair and inclusive work culture

Lynzi Ziegenhagen, CEO and co-founder of Schoolzilla, says she borrows a page from professional sports when hiring. “We have something like the Rooney Rule,” referring to the NFL policy that prevents team from hiring a head coach or senior executive without having interviewed a minority candidate for the job.

Word choice in job descriptions also matter when seeking to attract diverse candidates. Words like “rockstar” or “ninja” may be perceived differently by people of different backgrounds. Panelists proffered TextIO as a tool that can help companies carefully craft descriptions of job openings.

Huaranca was also clear about where Kapor Capital stands on social impact. She offered a not-so-subtle jab at a startup that she believes is widening achievement and opportunity gaps: “There’s an edtech company, which I will not name, that’s raised oversubscribed [funding] rounds...It’s built brick-and-mortar schools that are very expensive, along with proprietary technology.” (Any guesses?)

Working Working

A panel devoted to preparing students for work asked why we so often forget about how to get students ready to work—not just be students. “If we don’t incorporate work success, we’re seeing only one part of the picture,” declared panel moderator Lisette Nieves of Lingo Ventures. Dee Chambliss, a director at the National AF, agreed: “I want [my children] to see themselves working—to be a part of community, be valued - and to pay their rent,” she added. Education should include helping young people “have a quality of life that they aspire too.”

Working at a young age typically gives youth more exposure to unions and to workers rights, noted Noel S. Anderson, a Professor of Educational Leadership at New York University. At the same time, some of the “aspirational language” that urges all students to see themselves at Harvard University is “a lie,” he added. “Let’s get real. Harvard is selective because of who it keeps out.” Anderson urged conference goers to get away from “politically correct language” and give students a clear sense of what they need to succeed—either in work or in university.

“if we truly believe that all young people have talent, what kind of school would we create?” asked Nieves. “Schools say ‘I need SEL support’ but they don’t say ‘I need an internship coordinator’! Why not?”

Excuse Us

Last year, the moniker of most unruly session, ironically, belonged to a panel on school discipline which ignited an intellectual brawl between supporters and critics of the “no excuses” approach. This year’s encore was tamer; the conversation focused squarely on restorative justice strategies that emphasize communication over punishment. Even so, the statistics are still horrifying: In 2013-14, nearly three million students were suspended from school. Those suspended are more likely to drop out or wind up in jail.

Session moderator John King, CEO of The Education Trust and former Secretary of Education (and the only high school dropout to hold that position, he noted), challenged attendees with this question: What if we held adults to the same "no excuses" standard that educators expect from students?

No-excuses models can and do work--at least for some students, argued Valissa Allen, founder of Leadership Preparatory School in Memphis. “We recognized that that model worked for 80 percent of our students,” she explained. “But we had to also think about the 20 percent who were not flourishing under our ‘no-excuses’ policy. We had to get real about that.”

For Allen, “getting real” meant implementing policies—“even things I hate, such as providing more incentives” for performance and offering additional chances. Her team has also instituted a morning mindfulness training program. Fellow panelist, Eldridge Greer, Associate Chief of Student Equity and Opportunity in Denver Public Schools, says suspensions have dropped by 75 percent in the 10 years since the district put a restorative justice program in place.

Hiring a more diverse teachers is important step but not enough to challenge the implicit bias that can occur when doling out discipline, said Anita Wadhwa, Restorative Justice and Intervention Coordinator at YES Prep North Brook in Houston. “Don’t just assume having the same racial background as a student [will] automatically build a connection.”

Schools and districts must train teachers in restorative justice practices. “We have to educate our teachers to fully understand what it means to be a restorative school,” says Ric Zappa, Director of Culture at KIPP Bay Area, “to help them address the misconception that you immediately go from [being] punitive to permissive.” Greer later added: “We haven’t recognized the secondary trauma that our teachers face” as they work with students raised in challenging environments.

Providing these supports shouldn’t be seen as an additional responsibility, implored Zappa. “If we keep thinking of restorative justice, social-emotional learning or mental health as something added to the plate, that’s wrong. They are the plate.”

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