Civil Discourse in Action — with Sam Cole and Carol Burris

August 2019

Carol Burris & Sam Cole discuss their views on the purpose of education.

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The Line | Web Exclusive

Civil Discourse in Action:

Carol Burris & Sam Cole discuss their views on the purpose of education.

The purpose of the Civil Discourse in Action series is to bring together education leaders with different perspectives, to listen, to learn and to model civil engagement. The conversation presented here features Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, and Sam Cole, chairman of the New York City Governing Board of Success Academy Charter Schools.

Our fifth issue of The Line asks the big question: Are we delivering on the promise of education? With Editor-in-Chief Hanna Skandera moderating, Sam and Carol explore the answers to this question. Their conversation — lightly edited for readability — is available below.

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    Hanna Skandera: What is the purpose of education from your vantage point?

    Carol Burris: The purpose of education, since the time of Socrates, has been to bring each individual to a full understanding of what it is to be human, and to share with them what is known and what is still unknown.

    I had a wonderful literature professor in college, and when he wanted us to comment on a work, he would always use the expression, “Enter the dialogue.” I loved it. It made me realize that I was a contributor to knowledge, not just a passive receptacle into which facts are poured.

    Now, that being said, there are also more pedestrian purposes to education. Business will tell you that the purpose of education is to prepare the workforce. And certainly, our founders saw the purpose of education as preparation for citizenship, which I think is more important than ever. However, that core purpose, which is to educate to create a richer, fuller, and kinder understanding of what it is to be a human being, I think is as meaningful and essential today as it was back in the time of Socrates.

    Hanna Skandera: Sam, would you add to that, have a different perspective, or continue to build on that?

    Sam Cole: So, I actually think it is actually quite similar. And when you first posed this question, I thought about it both in more philosophical terms, and given my background, in more pragmatic terms, as well.

    Philosophically, and this is a view I’ve held for some time, the point of education is to give every child the opportunity to become the best version of themselves. It’s about allowing kids to deliver on the fundamental rights to which they’re entitled in this country: pursuit of happiness, life, liberty, etc. It’s to assure that every child has a fair and equal opportunity to live a successful and fulfilling life, however they define that. And this should be true for all children, regardless of circumstances into which they are born or raised.

    On the practical side, echoing some of what Carol said, I think education should serve the complementary purposes of developing an informed citizenry that’s capable of self-governance in a free society.

    From an economic perspective, it’s about developing an enlightened, productive, intelligent, thoughtful workforce that’s able to drive economic growth and higher standards of living for everyone in the country, particularly at this time in our national development as a country.

    Hanna Skandera: I’m struck in listening, and I think if I were to answer the question, all of our answers would not be that divergent. Actually, we would agree from a philosophical and a presuppositional perspective.

    But if we dive in a little bit deeper, I’d love to hear a little bit about what has shaped your beliefs about education, and are there any specific experiences that you’ve had that deeply impacted and provided more nuance into your belief about what the purpose of education is? Are there things that are happening, whether they were historical or current societal influences that would add some more definition?

    Carol Burris: I attended Catholic school in grades 1-12, so that was the beginning. And my first through eighth grade school taught everything through the perspective of the Church. For example, when I first heard the term “Protestant Reformation” I had no idea what it meant. I’m serious about that. I had been taught it was the “Protestant revolution.”

    Now, of course, this was Catholic school back in the early 60s. In terms of discipline and practice, my Catholic primary school would probably be considered a “no excuses” school today. I wanted something very different for our three daughters, so they attended public schools.

    I became involved in the school district, East Rockaway School, a very small district on Long Island, where I was elected and re-elected to the school board. I served up to 10 years, because I felt it was a system that I wanted to be part of improving. And then that experience resulted in a career change; I became a middle school Spanish teacher then moved to high school, then an assistant principal, and finally a high school principal for 15 years.

    During those 25 years as a public school educator, I became acutely aware of the inequities and opportunity, not only amongst schools, but especially within schools, due to tracking or ability grouping, which leads to racial and socioeconomic segregation. I used to say that I could walk down the hall of the high school where I taught and identify the track by the color of the kids’ skin. That realization led to reform work that I did in my high school, my doctorate at Columbia Teachers College, some college teaching, as well as consultation for the Department of Justice on desegregation.

    I would say that every part of that journey influenced my belief that I’ve come to at this point, which is probably where we’re going to start to diverge. I believe that the best model of education for our country is the common public school. And what I mean by that is one that’s integrated, both in race and class, and not only in the school building itself, but also in classrooms. I believe children should learn together in heterogeneous classrooms, being taught in enriched curriculum, and that they should be getting ample support if they struggle.

    Hanna Skandera: Carol, thank you for sharing that. Sam, how is your view about what has impacted your beliefs about education similar or different from Carol’s perspective?

    Sam Cole: I start with my personal background, and I think that’s probably true of everyone, when it comes to education. It’s often the one thing that we have in common in this country, as a foundation. My father was actually a teacher, an assistant principal, a principal, assistant superintendent, and then superintendent. He got his doctorate in education. My mother was an elementary school teacher. Both of my parents taught in public schools.

    I attended public school my entire life. First, in South Jersey, in a working-class town, right near the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Later, I attended school on the Jersey Shore, in a town called Long Branch. My high school was about 60% minority and 40% white. I think there were two Jewish kids in the whole school, including me. It was a fairly diverse environment.

    When I look back on my public school education, I thought it was wonderful. My teachers were just outstanding. I remember my chemistry teacher was a Ph.D.

    My physics teacher was a Ph.D. And my English teachers were just outstanding. I actually don’t remember a bad teacher, going through middle school or high school. And we’re not talking about Scarsdale, or Millburn, or some of the areas regularly designated top school districts in the state. This was a very middle class/working class town, which just had exceptionally committed and highly professional teachers.

    My father read weekly newspaper column by then-president of the United Federation of Teachers, Al Shanker. When Shanker was initially forming these unions, it was really about professionalism in the teaching profession. He worried about the declining quality of teachers, and he welcomed the attention of national reports, like “A Nation At Risk,” which focused on education quality.

    As I moved along, I attended Harvard and did my graduate school education at MIT and the Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. When I had kids myself, and they were attending public schools in pretty good-quality districts, I began to see that education today was very different from what I knew as a kid. The rigor and quality and the commitment of the teachers, that I saw was different. One of the things that struck me is that the only thing that should really matter, and what should be the center of and the single animating element of education, is what is in the best interest of our children.

    Yet, too often, this consideration, I’ve found, has played second fiddle to political power, to the interests of employees, to the desire for harmony and local control. This sentiment is what we see in public education today.

    I got involved about a decade ago in Success Academy’s founding of Harlem Success Academy 5, becoming a member of the board, then chairman of that board, and then ultimately, we grew out the network. The notion that a child’s education and his or her future is determined by where they live is, I think, an abominable prospect, and fundamentally amiss and amoral in this country.

    Hanna Skandera: If I were summarizing what I think I just heard, Sam, you’d say you had an incredible experience growing up in public schools. Today, however, maybe, we aren’t delivering on the promise of education that you received.

    And so, Carol, do you agree with Sam, or do you have a different perspective?

    Carol Burris: I guess, you know, primarily, I would disagree. The picture that he paints of teachers that don’t care, and who care more about themselves than kids has not been my experience. It has not been my experience either as a parent, as a teacher, or as a principal. As a principal, I worked with a union. There were times the union and I would butt heads, but we were always able to work through those issues. And there were times where, you know what, they may have been right in pushing back on some of the things that I wanted. Listening to those perspectives and coming to consensus was important.

    I think local control is incredibly important. The community school, that we’ve really lost in so many ways — where people who are different, and sometimes very similar, come together, share their ideas, and give feedback on that school system — is critically important, it’s one of the most important places where democracy happens.

    Our schools are not perfect. There’s a lot of work that we have to do to make schools and our society more equitable, which is where so much of this starts. But to paint a brush that schools were once wonderful, and now they’re not… I don’t think is fair, nor do I think that the data supports that contention.

    Hanna Skandera: Are we delivering on the promise of education? Sam, if you had to say yes or no, what would you say?

    Sam Cole: No, not even remotely.

    Hanna Skandera: And, Carol, if you were going to give a yes or no answer, what would you say?

    Carol Burris: There’s too much nuance. You’re forcing me into a choice that I really can’t make because I think I’m somewhere in the middle on this, in some ways we are, and in some ways we aren’t.

    Hanna Skandera: So, Carol, take us back to the data that implies some successes. Talk a little bit about the nuance that you see, and where you’re excited, and where you’re concerned or think there’s room for continued improvement.

    Carol Burris: Well, let’s take a look at high school graduation rates because I do believe that they are important. If we look back to the 1940s, less than half of those over 25 had a high school diploma. By 2017, that figure was up to 90%. And it was 87% for black Americans, so while we see gaps in lots of places, that’s one where I think we’ve done extraordinary work in public schools in closing the gap.

    And when you look at the figure internationally, because everybody seems to think, “Gosh, we’re at the bottom or in the middle,” we’re number five among OECD nations, that’s the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

    In 2000, 26% of those over 25 had a four-year college degree. By 2016, we’re up to 34%. And 46% of all adult Americans have some kind of a post-secondary degree; so, it may not be four-year college, it might be two year, it might be a skilled degree, but we’re at almost 50%. That, again, places us fifth among OECD nations. We’ve made a lot of progress among women in the 25-34-year-old age group: 41% have a college diploma.

    In college completion rates, we’re also starting to see some progress. That’s an area where we have to work a lot harder, and that means lots of things: it means giving kids financial support, especially if they’re poor, it means better preparation of courses K-12.

    In Massachusetts, there was a pretty interesting study, looking at their four-year institutions. The findings showed that the rate of completion has grown from 57% in 2011 to 63% today. And for black students, there’s even been more impressive growth from 42% to 53% in the same timeframe.

    We are inching along to the big goals: high school and college completion. Now, when you look at test scores, it starts to get a little more confusing. No Child Left Behind promised that every child would be proficient, we never met that promise. We’re not going to meet that promise. The children in my high school with Down Syndrome, they’re never going to be proficient on the English Regents Exam, they’re not, and to try to get them there, is tantamount to child abuse.

    These promises are based on test scores that are very, very complicated measures. I like to look at NAEP. We have seen a downturn in NAEP results. There is some research that’s attributing that downturn to the common core; I happen to agree with that, but that’s for reasons that are a lot more complicated than we have time to discuss.

    We saw our greatest closing of the gap in NAEP during the years in which we had a serious commitment to integration. And since then, the gap’s been stubborn. Our outcomes are very uneven. I believe that until we make the commitment that the Finns, for example, have made — with a focus on equity, not only in schooling but in housing, salaries, childcare, healthcare — those gaps are going to continue.

    Hanna Skandera: Carol, really appreciate you laying out the data, and the areas where you see progress, and where we can continue. Sam, why did you say emphatically “no”, and to the degree that you’re able to respond to some of Carol’s points, what’s your perspective?

    Sam Cole: Yeah. So the reason I didn’t respond with nuance is because I think this question doesn’t require it. If you look at what is required today to be a successful and productive citizen, it’s pretty clear that there are several features or themes that are important. A clear theme is the more you learn, the more money you’re going to make. If you look at the numbers, from a high school dropout to a high school graduate, all the way up to a Ph.D., the more educated you are, the higher your lifetime earnings. There’s no question about that, that’s just empirical.

    We know wages for men have stagnated over the last 40 years, and for women they’ve basically stagnated over the past decade. We know that wage trends, I was just looking at this the other day, are pretty ominous for men without a college degree. And a high school diploma, Carol’s right, a high school diploma used to be sufficient to have a fair shot at the American dream, but that’s no longer the case. A college degree, in many cases, is required, putting aside the question of middle-skills jobs.

    If you look at the returns on education, and the penalty for lack of education, it’s been greater for women in recent years. In some cases, even a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough.

    Two additional points I would make are that male high school dropouts are much more likely to be incarcerated and a lack of education literally has deadly consequences. So, when you look at adults 25-64 years of age, and you move from less than high school to high school and more than high school, you see a huge difference in mortality rates and health.

    You then look at the investment we’ve been making over the past decades. Overall, K-12 education spending has grown rapidly since the 1950s, and, in particular, since the 1970s. We spend more per pupil than any country, other than a few in Europe. We also spend more on education as a percentage of our GDP than most other countries. This rise in spending has been driven largely by the increase in the number of public school teachers. If you look at our spending since the 1970s, we’ve basically doubled spending on an inflation adjusted basis.

    And then you look at the results, and I don’t buy the point that tests and assessments, in many cases, do not reflect the quality of education that a student receives. SAT scores haven’t budged since the early 1970s. NAEP scores, and Carol referenced this, have stagnated, as well. If you look at PISA, and I understand there’s a lot of potential issues with PISA, but our performance in PISA has been dismal.

    In 2018, for example, in New York City, the overall Math pass rate was 38% and the overall ELA pass rate was 41%. For students of color, that number fell to 29% in Math, and 35% in ELA.

    These numbers reflect what is happening in other major urban centers. If I look qualitatively at the talent that we’re seeing flow into the workforce, that pretty much aligns with what I am seeing in the assessment results.

    Hanna Skandera: Talk a little bit about your views on the different opportunities we present our kids today, around education and the promise of it.

    Sam Cole: So, this is a big question. I begin with the assumptions that any kid is able to succeed and that the ingredients for success in education are well known. And by the latter I mean if you have a talented principal and teachers, a compelling vision of education that’s shared by the principal, the teachers, the parents, and the students, rigorous curriculum, deep engagement with assessments and academic data, carefully considered and enforced school routines and rich professional development and preparation for your teachers, any student can succeed.

    Clearly, there are schools and districts that do not have that combination of success factors. Often, such schools and districts tend to be concentrated in lower-income areas.

    It is an appalling reality today that many of those parents, and their kids, simply don’t have other options. And I do think it’s incumbent upon us, as a moral country, as an ethical country, to provide a set of options to parents and kids, regardless of socioeconomics.

    I think there are general principles that we should be able to agree on. There was some commonality in our discussion on the purpose of education, at the beginning of this conversation. But I think we can also agree that to achieve success in the 21st century, students have to master certain foundational skills in reading, writing, math, basic science, etc.

    We should be able to agree that we should have the same set of high expectations around mastering these skills, regardless of where a child is from, where a child is raised. We can agree that standards need to be set, and perhaps centrally, but that pathways to achieve these standards should be locally determined. And that standards are meaningless if you can’t really evaluate whether children have met the standards.

    And we can agree that you need to have a high-quality talent management system in your schools and districts, that is about training, evaluation, promotion, all of the things that we take for granted in other sectors of our society.

    And, finally, we can agree that poverty is not destiny, and that schools matter enormously. And if we agree on those principles, then we should be able to provide a variety of options to kids, regardless of their socioeconomic level. Rich kids in this country are able to go to private schools. They’re able to move out of their districts if the schools aren’t performing well and go to other public schools. The same is simply not true of lower- income students today, whether they’re black and brown kids in urban centers, or white kids in Appalachia.

    Hanna Skandera: Sam, you actually shared several presuppositions about what a quality school setting looks like. You suggested that choice and options for students to have access to those key components, whether it’s the standards around reading, math, and science, great teachers, etc., are essential. And if we agree on those things, then we should provide options so that students can find and have access to the best and highest quality in those areas, as possible.

    Carol, what do you think?

    Carol Burris: I like the way you summed it up because rather than to try to deal with all of it, I’ll just talk about the piece at the end. So, the assumption, then, that I’m hearing from both of you is if there is choice, then there will be options for quality, and the implication is quality that is higher than the quality in the local public school.

    So, there’s a few things to think about. One is there is a lot of public school choice now, even in states that don’t have charters or vouchers, there’s public school choice. But let’s talk a little bit about what we know about charters and vouchers, and there are a variety of charter schools, from online charter schools, to for-profits, to “no-excuses” charter schools. What we know is that after 10 years, one-third of them are gone, only two-thirds of them remain. When you get to 14 years, the failure rate rises to 40%.

    If you take a look at the test scores, what you see is some schools do better than others. When you look at the sector as a whole, kids perform on tests about the same as public schools. The charter school graduation rate is a lot lower than the public school graduation rate. The four-year graduate rate for public school is 85% and for charter school’s it’s 70%.

    When you take a look at vouchers, there are problems with discrimination based on religious beliefs, special education status, sorting and selecting of kids as to who gets into the school. The studies on vouchers show consistently that kids don’t do better when they leave a public school with the voucher, and that there are many where they actually do worse, most especially in mathematics, sometimes they recover, sometimes they don’t.

    So, my worry with all of the stuff with choices is that it’s a lot of work avoidance. What we should really be putting our energy and our money into is to make every public school a great public school. And I hear you, Sam, when you talk about money, but I’ll tell you, as a principal, the kids today, and the problems that they face, take tremendous resources.

    I think about the public high school that I led. We had outstanding results with 16% of the kids receiving free or reduced-priced lunch. For the size of the high school, that number was substantial. Every one of those kids graduated with a Regents diploma, almost all of them received a Regents diploma with advanced designation. But, boy, did we put resources into that work. My high school had two psychologists and three social workers on staff.

    Now, if my high school, which was in an affluent area with a relatively low proportion of kids of poverty, had those kinds of resources, what should our schools in the inner-city have?

    So, what we see now in the Red for Ed movement, is that teachers are fighting not only for their salaries, but for better resources for their students. This idea that by having all of these alternatives, we’re bleeding off the funding that we have, and creating a system of competition, which is very different, for example, than Finland, a very successful country where everything’s focused on cooperation, not on competition.

    Hanna Skandera: I want to close by thanking you both for the richness of your perspectives that were each grounded in data and a clear passion and commitment to education.

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