Virtual School Meanderings

February 15, 2019

NEPC’s February Education Interview Of The Month Features Discussion Of Teachers As Brand Ambassadors

From the National Education Policy Center.

NEPC Education Interview of the Month is a great teaching resource; engaging drive-time listening; and 30 minutes of high-quality policy information for educators, community members, policymakers, and anyone interested in education.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Publication Announcement

NEPC’s February Education Interview of the Month Features Discussion of Teachers as Brand Ambassadors


NEPC Education Interview of the Month is a great teaching resource; engaging drive-time listening; and 30 minutes of high-quality policy information for educators, community members, policymakers, and anyone interested in education.


William J. Mathis:

(802) 383-0058

Christopher Saldaña:

(303) 492-2566

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BOULDER, CO (February 14, 2019) – In this month’s NEPC Education Interview of the Month, Lewis and Clark College Emeritus Professor of Education Gregory A. Smith speaks with Christopher Saldaña, Doctoral Student Researcher at the National Education Policy Center. They discuss the emergence of Brand Ambassador programs, a new phenomenon in the marketing of educational resources to schools.

Along with his co-authors, Kevin Welner, Susan Malcolm, and Eleanore Tisch, Saldaña explores this recent trend in depth in the NEPC policy brief, Examining the New Phenomena of Teachers as Brand Ambassadors. In this podcast, Greg and Chris discuss the origins of teacher brand ambassador programs and related ethical and legal concerns.

Saldaña also situates the teacher brand ambassador phenomenon within past forms of advertising and research on schoolhouse commercialism to argue that teacher brand ambassador programs pose threats to the well being of teachers and students. For example, serious conflicts of interest can arise for these teachers, as happened just last month in Irvington, New York.

Among Saldaña’s recommendations is a call for school-district policymakers to revisit conflict of interest policies and codes of ethics. He also suggests that this process of rethinking conflict of interest policies should be inclusive of key community stakeholders such as teachers and parents. Through this process, teachers should receive clear guidance on the ethical issues to consider before accepting the role of a brand ambassador.

Don’t worry if you miss a month. All NEPC Education Interview of the Month podcasts are archived on the NEPC website and can be found here.

Coming Next Month

In March, Greg will be speaking with Mark Warren, Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, and Jonathan Stith, contributors to the book Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out, about the educational justice movement.

Stay tuned in to NEPC for smart, engaging conversations about education policy.

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at:

Copyright 2018 National Education Policy Center. All rights reserved.

February 13, 2019

Affirmative Action On Trial. Again.

An item from the National Education Policy Center.

Affirmative Action on Trial. Again.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019


Affirmative Action on Trial. Again.


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Harvard on Trial

In November of 2018, Harvard went on trial. More specifically, representatives of the university spent 15 days defending undergraduate admissions policies that plaintiffs argue discriminate against Asian American applicants. The case, Students for Fair Admissions vs. President and Fellows of Harvard College, was filed in the U.S. District Court in Boston. It alleges that the university violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by using its holistic admissions approach. The key allegation is that Harvard holds Asian American applicants to a higher standard in an effort to racially balance incoming classes. The judge is expected to rule any day. The case is one of a series of similar efforts widely viewed as aiming to entirely eliminate the use of race in the college admissions process.

The Core Story

When it comes to cases that make it to the U.S. Supreme Court, opponents of race-conscious admissions policies have taken no fewer than four bites of apple. The story starts in 1978. That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court set forth guidelines for selective colleges and universities to constitutionally use race-conscious admissions as part of their affirmative action policies. In a nutshell, race can be considered as part of a holistic review of applicants, but cannot be used as a quota (Regents of University of California v. Bakke). The decisive opinion pointed to Harvard as having an exemplary approach.

Yet challenges to race-conscious admissions policies continued to wind their way to The Supreme Court:

Each time, the Court’s decisions were closely divided. But each time, the Court also concluded that the colleges and universities had a compelling interest in enrolling a diverse student body and that they could, in pursuit of that interest, include race-conscious elements as part of their holistic review.

In the 2013 and 2016 cases, Justice Anthony Kennedy was the deciding vote and wrote the majority opinion. But Kennedy is gone. Justice Brett Kavanaugh has replaced him, and opponents of affirmative action can count to five. At least two of the cases are backed by Edward Blum, a conservative activist who was also involved in prior efforts to end race-conscious admissions policies. Blum has said that his intent is to push the Harvard case to the Supreme Court in the hopes of ending all considerations of race in college admissions. A broader objective is to end affirmative action altogether. Blum’s prior efforts have been backed by deep-pocketed conservative funders including the Searle Freedom Trust and The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Why No One’s Even Bothering to Challenge the Benefits of Diverse Educational Settings

As part of the “Just Talk” feature of UCLA’s Center X, John Rogersrecently interviewed Mitchell Chang about the new fleet of legal challenges to affirmative action. Both Rogers and Chang are professors at the University of California Los Angeles, and both are NEPC Fellows.

“[O]ne notable difference is that they’re no longer going after the educational benefits argument,” said Chang, a professor of higher education and expert in diversity-related initiatives. He continues:

Since the Michigan cases, the research community has amassed a large body of empirical studies that show quite consistently and conclusively that there are real benefits that accrue for students, institutions, and society. When a study shows otherwise, those studies typically fail to account for what institutions have to do to maximize those benefits.

Writing for Inside Higher EdNEPC Fellow Michele Moses explains: “Research on the educational benefits of diversity provides strong evidence that we generate ideas and knowledge, solve problems, and think critically much better when we learn in environments rich in diversity.” Moses is vice provost and associate vice chancellor for faculty affairs at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she’s also a professor of education.

The Critical Question of Critical Mass

Yet, despite the strong evidence in their favor, efforts to diversify college campuses remain vulnerable to legal attacks, notes Chang:

One way they’re attacking it is by raising the question of when do institutions know that the composition of their students has reached a point where they don’t need to apply race- conscious admission practices anymore? This argument is couched around the notion of critical mass. When do you reach a point where you’re maximizing the potential of the student body to realize the educational benefits of diversity? Is it five percent underrepresented students? Ten percent? This is a tricky play, because as soon as you give folks a particular number, it becomes a target, and the target then becomes a quota; that number and quota is unconstitutional, so you’ve already undermined yourself by answering that question in the legal sense. Yet, if you don’t define what a critical mass is in some concrete way, then “diversity” becomes very amorphous and unclear.

The problem, says Chang, is that “critical mass” is not a numerical target with a magic number. Rather, for legal and practical reasons, it varies from institution to institution, from year to year.

A New Approach: Asian Americans as Plaintiffs 

In addition to eschewing arguments related to the educational benefits of diversity, this latest round of affirmative action attacks also differs from earlier cases in that key plaintiffs are Asian American.

“It goes without saying that highly selective colleges should not discriminate against Asian American applicants,” Moses writes:

The bottom line is that critics … are using racial politics to pit racial groups against each other. Their attention to possible negative action against Asian American applicants wrongly targets affirmative action, overshadowing the real issue of inequality of access and opportunity in higher education: historical preferences that selective colleges and universities have displayed for legacy applicants, affluent applicants and urban/suburban white applicants. Those are the groups whose advantages have compounded over the years in K-12 schools, college entrance examinations, leadership and community service opportunities, and special “talents.” Institutions of higher education can then incorrectly point to those students’ “merit” to justify racial and ethnic disparities in admission and retention – and to challenge the fairness of affirmative action policies.

Chang further questions whether eliminating race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard would actually benefit Asian American applicants, given that research suggests admissions practices at highly selective universities favor Whites over Asians.

We should be asking whether or not there are discriminatory practices by Harvard that privilege white applicants, and as a result, [discriminate] against Asian applicants. If this were the focus, it makes little sense to target an unrelated policy like race conscious admissions that addresses underrepresentation. If the Courts find that Harvard is discriminating against Asian American applicants in favor of their white counterparts, I don’t see why Harvard can’t redress practices that privilege white applicants and still practice race conscious admissions to enhance the diversity of their student body. The two are separate issues and framing it as such is a qualitatively different way of looking at this case. It’s important to decouple the discrimination claim from the diversity interest so that we shine a spotlight on the privileges that continue to be afforded to white applicants.

The Continued Existence of Opportunity Gaps

As noted, affirmative action in today’s college admissions process includes race as one of many different factors in the college’s holistic review. In the most simplistic version, imagine comparing a student with a 4.0 GPA who has faced few disadvantages in life to a student with a 3.7 GPA who has repeatedly overcome opportunity gaps linked to school and community resources, race, poverty, and disability. The latter student may be more impressive than the first and would likely add greatly to the institution’s diversity—which creates a richer learning environment.

Because our society remains highly unequal, children do face large opportunity gaps, and those gaps are powerfully linked to race and ethnicity. Today’s high school students who are Native American, Latinx, or African American are more likely than their White and Asian American counterparts to have faced the sorts of challenges that, if overcome, make them extremely impressive and attractive candidates at competitive colleges and universities. Certainly, it is less than ideal to impose discriminatory obstacles against certain groups of students in K-12 and to then offer them a boost if these obstacles are overcome. However, this is the reality we face.

Affirmative Action and the Harvard Lawsuit: Read More

This newsletter is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice:

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at:

Copyright 2018 National Education Policy Center. All rights reserved.

February 6, 2019

A School Where All Students Are Challenged And Supported

From the National Education Policy Center.

A School Where All Students Are Challenged and Supported

Tuesday, February 5, 2019


A School Where All Students Are Challenged and Supported


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At another school, Dayshaun Davis might have fallen through the cracks. His mother was seriously ill. He was missing his classes at California’s Seaside High. He was falling behind and checking out.

Instead, Mr. Davis graduated and matriculated to a four-year university.

“Mr. Moran, he always said I’d be a role model, leader,” Davis said of his principal, Carlos Moran, in an “ATTN:” video about his school that was watched over a million times on Facebook alone.

Seaside’s formula is both simple and effective: universally high expectations plus strong supports for students and their teachers. This gives students like Mr. Davis opportunities to succeed, even when the odds seemed stacked against them. The school was recognized as a School of Opportunity, as part of an NEPC program honoring public high schools that focus not just on achievement gaps but on the shortage of opportunities that are the root cause of the differences in test scores, graduation rates, and other outcomes emphasized by accountability-based systems.

All students at Seaside take core classes that prepare them for the University of California. The school refuses to enroll students in low-track classes that tend to provide watered-down coursework. Instead, the school’s students, three-quarters of whom hail from low-income families, select from more than 15 Advanced Placement courses.

This carries over to the school’s electives, as well. Vocational education—now called career and technical education—has a shameful history of providing reduced opportunities to students of color and those from low-income families. Yet Seaside avoids that trap by blending college preparatory coursework with so-called “pathway” classes that prepare students for jobs in engineering/technology, health, safety, public service, hospitality, business, and arts/media.

It also carries over to students with more specific needs. Even the students with the most severe special needs spend at least part of the day in general classes. All teachers are prepared to work with emerging bilingual students whose first language is other than English.

“All students can be successful no matter what background students are coming from in terms of their demographics and socioeconomic status,” Moran told The Monterey Herald. “There’s this idea that one thing in order for us to authentically close that achievement gap is first we have to start with giving all students an opportunity.”

This newsletter is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice:

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at:

Copyright 2018 National Education Policy Center. All rights reserved.

Questions About “Virtual Charter School Accountability: What We Can Do Now”

So this report came across my electronic desk again in the past few weeks.

Virtual Charter School Accountability: What We Can Do Now –

And looking at it a bit more closely this time around, I have some questions…

If you review the document, some of the main themes that are included are: what is a virtual charter school, what types of students enroll in those schools, how have those schools struggled to serve students in the past, what are the ways those schools have been approved and evaluated, and what ways should those schools be approved and evaluated?

Now the reason this report stood out to me this time around was because I am current working on the latest version of the National Education Policy Center’s Virtual Schools in the US report.  And the cross over or a lack thereof is fascinating…  The NEPC reports provide 1) the most complete data related to virtual charter school student demographics and student performance, 2) an update on what the research related to virtual schools and, specifically, virtual charter schools has to say (including things like definitions, student performance, approval and evaluation procedures, and 3) a complete listing of all of the proposed and passed legislation and regulations related to digital learning in all 50 states, as well as the federal government.  Each section makes specific recommendations for policymakers.

Given the crossover (I’ve colour coded it for you above), you’d expect the authors of the Virtual Charter School Accountability: What We Can Do Now report to make extensive use of the annual NEPC reports…  However, that is not the case.

If you look at the Virtual Charter School Accountability: What We Can Do Now report, the only references to the annual NEPC report are:

  1. It is about full-time virtual schooling delivered under a charter contract granted by a state-endorsed authorizer. This is an important distinction since the vast majority of students in full-time virtual schools are in charter schools.
  2. Two national companies, Connections and K12, manage high-enrollment charters in a number of states. K12’s Ohio Virtual Academy currently enrolls just under 10,000 students and Commonwealth Connections Academy in Pennsylvania has over 9,000 students.
  3. Figure 2: Enrollment in Full-Time Virtual Schools
  4. It will come as no surprise that operators of virtual charters are challenging this barrage of bad news. Those
    interested in the technical arguments made by operators and researchers can find online the statements by
    K12, CREDO, the National Education Policy Center , and other groups that participated in recent

Basically, there is one reference related to defining virtual charter schools, two references related to student enrollment figures, and one reference that places the research-based arguments of the NEPC on the same level as the greed-based arguments of the largest corporate profiteer from virtual charter schools.

Interestingly, as an aside, there are nine references to the single CREDO study.

I guess it is better for a charter school organization to reference a single study by an research body that has almost always manipulating the methodology to find in favour of charter schools, than it is for them to reference seven years of annual studies by an organization that – heaven forbid – receives funding from a teachers’ union!

But this does explain a lot about what is wrong with educational research around the issue of school choice.  You have one side that looks at all of the data and incorporates the research from all corners of the field, and then another side that simply selects the data and research that fits their already constructed narrative – which in most cases runs counter to the research in the larger field.

February 1, 2019

Teachers Are Striking. NEPC Fellow Terrenda White Explains Why

An interesting item from the National Education Policy Center.

Teachers are Striking. NEPC Fellow Terrenda White Explains Why

Thursday, January 31, 2019


Teachers are Striking. NEPC Fellow Terrenda White Explains Why


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In the past year, teachers in more than half a dozen states have participated in strikes protesting conditions such as low pay, large class sizes, and inadequate funding. National Education Policy Center Fellow Terrenda White has been studying the walkouts. White, an assistant professor of education policy and practice at the University of Colorado Boulder, is a sociologist and former elementary school teacher, whose previous work has examined topics including the impact of choice on instructional practices, teacher turnover at charter schools, and racially diverse charters. “We know historically that it is social movements that change laws and policies as well as culture and entrenched forms of power,” White says in a recent University of Colorado Boulder School of Education “Ed Talk” entitled What if Teacher Walkouts are Just the Beginning? (Inspired by Ted Talks, Ed Talks are the school’s biannual series of short, community-oriented presentations on hot topics on education.) In the Q&A below, White sheds light on the walkouts themselves as well as the broader social context of the strikes. She explains what the movements do and do not have in common, examines outcomes, considers their impact on students, and predicts which states may experience strikes next.

Q: Why did teachers start walking out last school year? Why then? 

A: Last school year, we saw six statewide walkouts, and also one walkout from charter school teachers in Chicago who were unionized and demanded changes by their network, which was the nation’s first charter strike. In the six walkout states—West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, Arizona, and North Carolina—there was a shared frustration with low teacher salary and inadequate funding, which had not been restored to pre-recession levels of funding in some states or did not reach national averages for per-pupil spending in the country. 

I’m not sure why the walkouts happened when they did, butit’s interesting that they occurred in politically conservative states with the sparsest reputations for labor militancy and in some cases states that flouted union-centric organizing on the part of teachers. And, remarkably, the walkouts occurred before the Supreme Court’s summer decision, Janus v. AFSCME, which weakened the capacity of all public sector unions to collect agency fees from nonunion members. So the pre-Janus walkouts eased the fears of many like myself who worried that teacher activism would be muted by the threat of Janus or by a conservativeleaning Supreme Court. But, oddly enough, the walkouts in conservative states provided a blueprint for what future organizing might entail for teachers in the rest of the country post-Janus.

Q: How have the desired outcomes of the walkouts compared to the actual outcomes?

A: Most would argue that the outcomes of the walkouts have been mixed, but I think it hinges in large part on which dimensions of change people are looking at. I think about the outcomes from three angles, including immediate gains in material resources or conditions for teachers and schools, gains in public opinion or support for the plight of teachers and their concerns about the organization of our public schools, and long-term gains via substantive change to policy or funding structures. Teachers have voiced desires to foster change in all of these areas, so it’s important to weigh the outcomes of the walkouts in a multifaceted way. I’ll briefly walk through all three.

Click here to read the rest of this Q&A.

This newsletter is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice:

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at:

Copyright 2018 National Education Policy Center. All rights reserved.

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