ExcelinEd’s Dr. Cara Candal on National School Choice Week

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The Learning Curve Cara Candal

[00:00:00] Charlie: Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of the Learning Curve podcast. My name is Charlie Chieppo. I’m a senior fellow at Pioneer Institute, and I am thrilled to once again be hosting with Alisha Searcy. Hi, Alisha. How are you doing?

[00:00:38] Alisha: Hey, Charlie. I’m great. How are you?

[00:00:40] Charlie: Well, thank you. I’m glad to get to connect with you again.

[00:00:43] Alisha: Same. Always enjoy being with you.

[00:00:46] Charlie: So why don’t we just get started? We’ve each got a story that we want to talk about a little bit. Today, mine is about a teacher strike that’s getting some attention here in the Boston area. Last Friday, teachers went on strike in Newton, which is an affluent suburb of Boston, that up until now was probably best known for spending $200 million on one of its two high schools when it built a new school a couple of years ago.

[00:01:15] Charlie: So, the average teacher salary in the town is just under $90,000, which I don’t know, I think it’s probably just about right as an average. It’s not nearly enough for the best teachers. But the two sides are supposedly very far apart still and the mayor, Ruthanne Fuller, says that she’s not going to sign a contract that would trigger layoffs, which is what she says the union demands would cause.

[00:01:37] Charlie: So, what makes this one interesting to me is the political backdrop. Teacher unions, you know, obviously very strong in a lot of urban areas around the country, but Massachusetts is kind of unusual because really, it’s one of the only states where, they have that kind of strength, except for it’s true statewide, not just in urban areas. And the unions have been pushing recently to make strikes legal in Massachusetts they haven’t yet succeeded with that. And Governor Maura Healey, who’s only been in office for about a year, opposes legalizing them. So, it will be very interesting to see how this all plays out. As we’re recording this on Monday, the teachers are out again as they were on Friday. Over the weekend, they were ordered back to school by the Superior Court, but they’re defying the order and I just think it’s going to be very interesting to see this whole controversy plays out because not only is it important obviously for the families of Newton, but I think it’s one that is going to have a lot of impact in terms of the direction that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts goes on these issues looking ahead.

[00:02:45] Alisha: Absolutely. And not to mention the impact it has on student learning, right?

[00:02:49] Charlie: As yeah, we learned that in the pandemic, didn’t we?

[00:02:51] Alisha: Yeah, absolutely. And to that point, the story that I wanted to mention is on chronic absenteeism is changing K-12 education — on NPR. So, an interesting interview and conversation about the fact that 14 million kids are chronically absent across the country and chronically, we’re talking they’ve missed 10 percent of the school year. So, that’s on average 18 days in a 180-day school year. So of course, chronic absenteeism has been a problem all along in schools, but what they’re seeing is that it’s even more dire now that the pandemic is over, and so there are lots of questions about the why and I think if anything, Charlie, it’s really making us focus more on a lot of the social issues that kids are coming to school with, right? There’s public health issues. So, in the interview, it talked about you know, the difference between two kids.

[00:03:53] Alisha: One has health insurance. One doesn’t. So, if your kid is out for five days, let’s say, with an illness and one has health insurance and they have the ability to go in and get a doctor’s note, they’re going to go to school with that doctor’s note and those absences will be excused. But if you don’t have health insurance and you’re not going to see a doctor and you go in without a doctor’s note, then those are probably going to be considered unexcused.

[00:04:16] Alisha: And so that’s a real problem. And I think a lot of us don’t think about what that means for lower income families in particular. When you have health insurance versus when you don’t, or mental health issues and how parents are dealing with that. There was a parent that wrote in talking about when her child needs a mental health day, she will let them stay home.

[00:04:37] Alisha: I know I’ve done that for my daughter before. It’s an important conversation about how we serve kids and families when we have all of these challenges, but we know they need to be in school. And the less that they’re in school, the wider the learning gap is. So, very interesting conversation and really more of a need to continue to provide support for schools. A lot of us, you know, would love to be in the business of just talking about instruction, but we cannot forget that people are humans, right? And they have real issues that they’re dealing with health-wise, mental health, all kinds of things that kids are coming to school with. So, interesting piece.

[00:05:16] Charlie: All right. Well, coming up next, our guest today is going to be former Learning Curve co-host Dr. Cara Candal, who is a vice president at ExcelinEd and we are looking forward to hearing what she has to say.

[00:05:58] Alisha: Dr. Cara Candal is the vice president of policy for ExcelinEd, focusing on education policy strategy. A former high school English teacher, Cara has worked in education policy for more than 20 years. She was formerly a research assistant professor at the Boston University School of Education, a founding team member of the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education, and a senior fellow at Pioneer Institute in Boston.

[00:06:23] Alisha: Cara has authored and or edited more than 25 papers and four books on education policy. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Indiana University, a Master of Arts in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Doctor of Education from Boston University. And of course, she’s no stranger to The Learning Curve podcast. Cara, we are so excited to have you. Welcome home. Welcome to the show.

Charlie: I second that.

[00:06:49] Cara: Oh, it’s so great to be back. Thank you so much. And especially with these two just amazing co-hosts. I’m loving listening to The Learning Curve and it’s really exciting to be back. It’s been too long, my friends.

[00:07:03] Alisha: It’s been too long. That’s right. It’s the perfect time to have you back. We love having you back on our airwaves. Yes. Yes.

[00:07:08] Cara: Well, we’ll see how the listeners feel about that. I guess.

[00:07:12] Alisha: Well, let’s jump in. You know how this goes. I’m going to start with the first couple of questions. I’m very anxious to hear your thoughts on this.

[00:07:20] Alisha: So, after two landmark U. S. Supreme Court decisions and wide frustration over school closings due to COVID, numerous states either expanded or established private school choice programs. Can you share with our listeners your insights about these developments and their impact on K-12 education reform across America?

[00:07:39] Cara: Yeah, I mean, whew, of course. I had to say Alisha, so in addition to working with Pioneer for many years for the past four and a half, I have been at ExcelinEd, as we talked about at the outset. And when I was pretty new at ExcelinEd, I was the Director of Educational Opportunity there, and I think at that time, there were six education scholarship accounts, what some would call education savings accounts across the country, and they were small and quiet, and they were mainly either for students with special educational needs, or they were means tested programs, and then, along comes the pandemic, and we just we doubled in like almost overnight, the number of programs available to students and families doubled.

[00:08:24] Cara: So, you know, to the point that’s implicit in the question, I think there’s no doubt that the pandemic really drove the expansion of these programs. almost overnight in some cases. And you know, to the point, it’s still a relatively small number across the country, but I think we’re going to see more and more even this year.

[00:08:45] Cara: And what’s interesting, and I hope we can talk about a little bit later, is also just the extent to which these programs are becoming more widely available to more students. And I think that there are ways and ways to do that, and we’re not seeing that in every place. But what it says to me is that the story is about parents getting a window into what was going on in schools.

[00:09:06] Cara: I think that’s right. I mean, I was certainly one of those parents and maybe they’re, maybe you guys saw the same thing in your own lives, the thing that I think I want to drive home is that I don’t think that getting a window into what was going on in schools was in any way an indictment of public schools.

[00:09:27] Cara: I think instead, it was an indictment of, you know, for some parents, certain things that they saw, and it was about needing a more personalized approach for kids, right? So, a lot of families struggling at home and being like, wow, you know, it really is difficult when you’ve got 30 kids in class. It must be terrible to be that teacher.

[00:09:48] Cara: And my kids needs are really different than that kid’s needs, et cetera. The other thing I would say that it was not about something that we hear way too much about, in my opinion, was it wasn’t about the culture wars. I think it was about actual content. What is the academic content that my kids are learning in school? And so, to the extent that they provided an alternative that wasn’t previously available, I think we saw. First of all, groundswell among parents, which, you know, they’re the electorate, which leads to a groundswell among legislators, some of whom were parents themselves that we’re seeing the same thing.

[00:10:23] Cara: So, I think that that’s part of what has informed this expansion. And now it’s sort of like, you know, the train has left the station, people. And now we’re in a place of thinking through what should these programs really look like? What’s good policy? Not what’s good politics, but what’s good.

[00:10:41] Alisha: Yes. And I appreciate you saying that because I think folks who don’t necessarily support choice of any kind have this misperception that those of us who do don’t like or support public schools, and that’s just not the case. So, I’m so glad that you made that distinction. And so speaking of political support over the last five years, political support for charter schools even for very high performing ones like the ones in Boston, New York, and I argue some in Georgia has eroded. And so, can you talk about the recent political shifts within K-12 education policy making, as well as a path forward to rebuild wider coalitions to support charter schools and standardized testing, especially in blue states?

[00:11:27] Cara: Oh, I mean, how about a whopper of a question, right? And I would say that it’s probably the question is understated in terms of where we’re at with charters. And I just flashback, you know, even 15 years ago and think about the movement for really expanding access to high quality charter schools across the country and the extent to which just have to say it. I mean, I think that the opponents have been incredibly successful. I think to some extent, charter schools maybe in places like where I am in Massachusetts and New York and some of the other places that you mentioned have been their own worst enemies in that they haven’t been their own best advocates in many places, but I think it’s they’ve been swallowed up by the status quo. Now I will say that I think a big learning here is that bad policy, really weak legislation. You know, we’ve got a lot of weak charter legislation across this country that really does not give charter schools the autonomy they need to be different.

[00:12:29] Cara: I think there are also charter schools and charter leaders who have made the decision not to distinguish themselves. And that’s a shame because charter schools are supposed to offer an alternative. And that’s why parents have been flocking to them and still are in many places, I should say. But back to the bad policy piece, you know, bad policy or whether it’s an arbitrary cap or an inability for a charter school to distinguish itself really makes it difficult for these models to thrive. And then once you have a bad policy in place, it just is the death by a thousand cuts really, right? We can, we can regulate you and regulate you and cap you and make it difficult for you to get facilities or make it super so expensive for you to get a facility that you have nothing left to put into instruction, things like that. So, and then you get to a place where, as we are, I would say in Massachusetts well, there’s no more room to grow. The communities where we could establish charter schools on the cap, you are for lack of a better way of putting it, you know, politic out of those communities because we have such a large anti charter, mainly teachers’ union backed, presence that makes it difficult for anybody with a good idea to open a charter school.

[00:13:43] Cara: I’m going to share very quickly a very sad story. I was asked just about a week ago to speak with somebody who runs a very high performing charter network in another state for autistic children. If they thought the conditions were ripe in the state of Massachusetts for them to come and establish a charter school and I had to tell them in no uncertain terms, go to New Hampshire or go somewhere, go somewhere where you’ll be able to do this and do it well for kids.

[00:14:09] Cara: Um, because I don’t think the environment exists here. So now, you ask about the path forward, so to me, I think there is an opportunity here in places where the policy permits, and so these are places in my mind where choice has other forms of school choice, have a prayer of expansion, so, for example, I’ll look to our neighbors to the north, New Hampshire, right?

[00:14:35] Cara: They’ve got an education scholarship account and public schools of any kind can be service providers in the Education Freedom Account ESA in New Hampshire. And I think that more and more public charter schools need to think about the other avenues they have to reaching students. And, you know, in places where school choice is more robust, certainly being an education provider is one thing. I think charter schools need to go to places, states that offer things like part time enrollment so that they can offer their services to kids who want to homeschool part of the day and be enrolled in their schools part time. It’s a perfect model for charter schools, which should be more nimble and have a little bit more flexibility.

[00:15:18] Cara: But I think the real answer is that charters need to start to go to the states where they are welcome, where they can flourish. States like Florida will help high quality charter networks start up and get facilities funding. They’re called schools of hope. So, there are places where charters are wanted and we need to, I think, as advocates make high quality charter providers more aware of those places as well as the other opportunities, they should be taking advantage of to serve more kids.

[00:15:46] Alisha: I love that. I always love hearing from you because you have all of these innovative ideas that a lot of us aren’t hearing about across the country. So, thank you for sharing that.

[00:15:56] Cara: Well, they’re not all my ideas. I steal a good number of them. Yeah.

[00:16:01] Alisha: And that’s okay. We don’t mind. Many of the states that have expanded and created school choice programs, arguably, are also among the lowest performers on NAEP. So, we’re talking Arizona, West Virginia, Arkansas, Oklahoma. Can you talk about the National School Choice Movement strategy of universal ESAs in low-performing red states?

[00:16:25] Cara: Yeah, I mean, so it’s interesting the way that question is phrased, right? So, it’s certainly true that we are seeing the expansion of ESAs in red states, and I think that, you know, politically speaking, there’s really good reason for that. These are initiatives that are about the most local form of control, which is parent control and parent engagement. I think that to say that there is a national strategy to start ESAs in low performing states, I don’t know that I would necessarily view it that way, but what I do see are states who, in some cases, realize there’s nowhere to go but up.

[00:17:06] Cara: I think that they absolutely realize that a comprehensive approach to school choice is one part of a larger agenda that can really help raise a state from the bottom to the top. So, like, if we look at Florida and it’s really impressive rise in the NAEP rankings over the past 15 years, right?

[00:17:27] Cara: And now in many cases, it’s up close here with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and some other high performing states on some measures. School choice was a very important part of that, but it was. Part of a larger package of things that included autonomy with accountability as a balance, as a check, a comprehensive approach to early literacy transparency in terms of school funding and where the money’s going and all of these things.

[00:17:55] Cara: But I think that in the states where we’ve seen the dramatic expansion of school choice more recently, it’s also a response to Hey, these are states where families really don’t have a lot of alternatives. And we know that if we open up our state to more school choices that we might see more providers come in, right? So, let’s take West Virginia as an example. They’ve now got an ESA that I believe is three years old. And for my money, it’s a good one. I think that they’ve taken a really conscientious approach to that E.S.A. to creating it to making it available to ramping it up. It was part of a larger package of education reform that included things like a comprehensive early literacy package. West Virginia knew that it was going to have to do something to attract private providers to its state to give kids more options. Now, you can’t attract people to your state to open district schools, right? You need to have some sort of approach to school choice.

[00:19:00] Cara: So, I think that that is certainly one way of thinking about it. And then we’ve got other states like, so Arizona was also on your list, which had an E.S.A. And the way in which their E.S.A. Was expanded to become universal. It’s pretty interesting because I think caught a lot of people by surprise, but it had an E.S.A. It had a robust school choice environment. And I think in a state like Arizona, it becomes really logical to open up choice to all now. Yeah. You also pointed out that Arizona does not perform as highly on NAEP as we would maybe like to see, and as other states do. But I think that in that we need to have a conversation about what constitutes a strong quality ESA policy.

[00:19:42] Cara: So, I’m really interested in thinking about and looking at universal ESAs that, number one, really prioritize access for those who already have the least, and, number two, that couple that access with the right kind of accountability. So, I’m not talking about making private schools or providers take state tests, but about transparency in terms of student academic outcomes.

[00:20:09] Cara: And what can we, what can we tell the taxpayer about the return on their investment in these school choice programs? And you don’t see that in all of the states that are going universal, but I think you see it in a handful of states that are going to make a really big difference.

[00:20:23] Alisha: Yeah. And again, I think you raise a very, very important point. I think there’s a school of thought and I don’t think you share it, but you know, people believe if you just have school choice, it’s going to fix all of education. But you raise a very important point when you think about the successes that we’ve seen in Florida, which by the way, I was educated in Florida in my K-12 education experience that it’s about having the right policies and not just school choice policy, but a lot of other things like literacy and etc. that have to go along with the school choice policy. So, thank you for raising that point as well. My final question for you before I turn it over to Charlie, I want to talk a little bit more about some of these innovations.

[00:21:06] Alisha: So, during the pandemic, some states have led efforts to support homeschooling and micro schools, learning pods, while others impose a variety of restrictive measures to undermine these educational innovations. So, what’s your take on the role of these parent driven models in expanding school choice and for boosting student achievement?

[00:21:26] Cara: Yeah, I mean, listen, I am all for innovation and entrepreneurship, especially around parent-driven models. And I think that, you know, we can pretty easily, without looking at a map, understand which states would look to really highly regulate these models and which states are a little bit more willing to see them take root.

[00:21:47] Cara: The thing that I would say is, you know, I think that’s a really good thing. Think about, I would say, when it comes to understanding these models again is access. So we see a lot like homeschooling, as we know, shot up during the pandemic and has more homeschool than we might otherwise believe, especially among black families, right? Um, when we think about the opportunity cost, say of a kid, right? That’s a decision that a family has to make because probably one parent might be giving up full-time employment or, you know, you’re rearranging your life in a really meaningful way. And so, I think that that’s where programs like education scholarship accounts can come in as much as I know.

[00:22:31] Cara: Some homeschoolers would really prefer not to have any entanglement with government funded approaches. You know, if a homeschooling family can receive an E.S.A. To support their efforts, like imagine what that could look like and feel like. I think that the advent of micro schools is a really interesting one.

[00:22:50] Cara: I think that they’re important questions around scale and the extent to which we need to start to think about. Overregulation and or what regulation looks like and or how we understand outcomes as these models’ scale. They still continue to serve a really, really small number of families, but I think that as we move forward and we think about the possibilities and I know people get like really nervous and clammy and sweaty when we talk about this, but the possibility He’s opened up by things like a I the possibilities opened up when you could like there’s no reason that my kids should be sitting in Newton, Massachusetts and not be able to take a really great virtual course at a middle school in California or in China for that matter, right?

[00:23:39] Cara: I mean, it’s really when we’re thinking about the possibilities that families can seize that small, nimble schools like micro schools can seize to put together to assemble a kind of education that’s not only tailored to the individual kid, but is really, really groundbreaking. And we could scale that to become available to more.

[00:23:59] Cara: [00:24:00] I think that that’s just amazing. But again, the thing that I think about the most with these models is just who gets in. Who’s shut out and for the ones that are working really well, how do we take those and make them more accessible and available to all without dampening at the same time, the thing that makes them what they are, which is small entrepreneurial, right? Yeah, I’m excited to see more research on this.

[00:24:26] Alisha: Same. Thank you for that.

[00:24:28] Charlie: Yeah, speaking of getting more access to, you know, successful models, as you know, you know, Massachusetts is the clear national leader in voc-tech schooling, public schools of choice that prepare students for careers in college in the age of massive college debt, career and career readiness. Does voc-tech education fit into the wider portfolio of school choice options available  —

[00:24:50] Cara: Massive college debt? Charlie, I hadn’t heard about that. Yeah, you know, that’s the middle-aged woman who’s still paying off her student debt.

[00:24:59] Charlie: I was right there with you, I’m just that I’m a lot older than you.

[00:25:01] Cara: Not that much, my friend.

[00:25:04] Cara: No, I mean, my friends at ExcelinEd would say now Massachusetts is keep, we keep calling it voc-tech, but we are who we are. And they talk about it, they don’t, they talk about it in other terms, but I think that just like parents saw during the pandemic a need for a more customized education for their kids, there is absolutely no doubt that we need to be thinking as a society. So, we need to be thinking as a society really deeply about the kinds of college and career pathways that are available to students and that we need to be thinking really deeply again about who has access to which pathways, right?

[00:25:44] Cara: So, anything from dual enrollment to the ability to take advanced placement courses and things that we know can really make a difference for kids who choose to go to college. We also need to be thinking about alternative pathways that are available for people who increasingly, for many of the reasons you cited, including enormous debt, including I’m not getting a return on that investment, decide the college is not for that, that they’re going to go a different route.

[00:26:10] Cara: And I’m going to channel our team at ExcelinEd that just does some amazing work on this. And I would plug their websites, pathways matter dot org and credentials matter dot org. I think what we need to understand is that voc-tech. And similar programs work when you have a really aligned understanding of what folks are getting out of it in the long run.

[00:26:35] Cara: That is, that question of, are we preparing students who enter these programs to go into careers where they’re actually going to make, you know, have a high quality of life? Make a wage that’s going to allow them to lead a high quality of life? And that they are on a path where they can. Accelerate their knowledge at the pace that’s necessary to keep up with the changing times. You know, these careers that we are now preparing folks for in voc-tech programs, computer science, very technical careers that we need desperately folks to go into, but that we also, you know, they’re changing at such a fast pace.

[00:27:14] Cara: So, I think we need to be talking about things like micro credentials. And do I earn? How can I stack my credentials? And how do I earn credentials along the way? Maybe as early as high school, right? We’ve got Bloomberg Philanthropies, you know, investing a lot of money in these partnerships with healthcare providers and a great one’s going to be opening in Boston.

[00:27:35] Cara: I mean, we need to figure out which careers are most in demand, which are going to give the highest return on investment. And then do a much better job than we currently do in most places of giving kids and families the right information about access to these careers. One thing I’ll mention that I’m really proud of our team at ExcelinEd for their work on this is they go into the states, and they do audits. What are the programs that are available to your students in what we might call vocational technical education? What are the programs that are available and to what extent are those programs going to allow students to graduate from high school or from postsecondary programs with a high quality of life. Are they going to actually be able to earn money? Because if we’re just funneling kids into programs where they’re getting credentials either in things that there’s no demand for in the state or that they’re never going to make a living wage doing that we’re not doing our job.

[00:28:28] Cara: And I think one of the reasons Massachusetts shines in this department is not only because vocational technical schools have such a high bar of academics, but that the careers for which we’re graduating kids are really aligned with the needs of the local economy, and that makes a huge difference.

[00:28:44] Cara: So, I wish more folks would talk about this. And I think that we’re going to see a move in a lot of states to be more thoughtful about the kind of programs that are offered.

[00:28:54] Charlie: Yeah, that’s such a good point. You know, these schools in Massachusetts have really been able to respond to the needs of the local economy. Create this kind of virtuous circle between the, you know, the schools and the local businesses and the students, you know, where everybody benefits. And yeah, I think there’s definitely something to take away from that model for a lot of difference.

[00:29:11] Cara: Yeah, absolutely. And if you don’t have employer engagement in any of these programs, then you’re, you’re missing part of the equation, a really important part of the equation. So, thanks for bringing that up.

[00:29:20] Charlie: No, that’s right. All right. On a less happy note, recent yeah. NAEP scores across the country. Aye, aye, aye. Yeah, yeah, revealed that two decades of modest progress are gone as national math and reading results hit historic lows.

[00:29:37] Charlie: Of course, the point I keep making here is that even in the decade before COVID, two thirds of states experienced declines in both reading and math, which Obviously got a lot worse during the pandemic. So how can the country address underperformance and these wide achievement, wide growing achievement gaps?

[00:29:55] Cara: You know, Charlie, okay, here’s my cynic. I think maybe the better question is like, does the country care?

[00:30:03] Charlie: Well, you know, that’s, that’s, yeah, you’re right about that. Everybody talks about education; how important it is to them. And when was the last time you saw the election that turned on it?

[00:30:11] Cara: Oh, yeah, exactly. And or when was the last time you saw anybody really care, except for those of us who are on this call and a handful of other walks, like actually really care that NAEP scores are with you or really, right? So, or even know, or even know in, in the fact that, like, for example, you know, Massachusetts can continue to feel good about itself for being hanging on to that number one slot in the middle of when nationally we are performing so far below where we should be given our investment in education, et cetera.

[00:30:46] Cara: It’s really, really disheartening. And in this country, we invested in things like NAEP. But you think about things like PISA, right? The program for international student assessment. Those scores also down huge math declines. And you think about the fact that the U.S. We were the ones that wanted this assessment as part of always O.E.C.D. Until we found out that we didn’t know how to perform on it. And that you know that we just show we have an abysmal track record and especially that we don’t want to own it. Yeah. What PISA consistently shows are the huge equity gaps, right? So that achievement gaps in the U.S. Are just yawning compared to other countries.

[00:31:26] Cara: Yet we prefer to sort of sweep that under the rug. So, cynic aside, you know, I think your question was what? What should maybe we say? What should we learn? And what’s the path forward? Besides learning that kids can’t read and can’t do math for the most part. I think that yeah. Let’s take NAEP especially.

[00:31:43] Cara: NAEP has always been useful as a check on the low standards that most states set for themselves. Right? So how is it that I can say, you know, a majority of eighth graders passed my state reading test, but we look at NAEP and 33 percent of them can actually read on grade level. Well, it’s because states love to continuously lower standards and it’s egregious and you know, it makes things toothless and meaningless.

[00:32:08] Cara: And I think the other part of this, though, is that when you do have states, so take the states, let’s look at Mississippi, for example, which, you know, we keep calling it the Mississippi miracle and Florida saw it before when you have states that really do increase their performance steadily over time.

[00:32:25] Cara: And I’ll know these are the same states that sort of hung on to where they were. Their NAEP scores this last round, when everything was abysmal, didn’t decline as egregiously as they did, for example, here in Massachusetts, especially in math that we can look to those states and say, all right, so what’s been going on there in the last decade that might explain this?

[00:32:46] Cara: So, in places like Florida, in places like Mississippi, you know, just bottom of the bottom. And then you get, well, we for 15 years, we held strong and fast and meaningful accountability, and we didn’t lower standards and we invested in the right kind of early literacy curricula math remains to be seen.

[00:33:04] Cara: If only there was a science of math to help us understand exactly the right things to do. I think we’re going to get there sooner than other states, right? So, like Alabama now, yeah. It’s going to look to Mississippi and Florida and say, huh, maybe we should actually think about teaching kids to read in a way that’s evidence based.

[00:33:22] Cara: So, there is some hope there for what these tests can do. But the extent to which most states that are sort of middling along and muddling through are going to wake up and pay attention. It’s usually your low performers that have a good reason to say, time to try something new, folks. And so that’s to the extent that that matters, I think they’re still very important.

[00:33:46] Charlie: Well, you mentioned PISA. What do you think that these kinds of international tests PISA, TIMSS, these kinds of things, these kinds of assessments, you know, talk about how they’ve expanded our understanding of education performance in other countries because, you know, as we constantly hear, you know, education is indeed a key to a country’s you know, economic competitiveness. So, you know, what do we learn from our stepping our toes into these kinds of assessments and getting more familiar with them?

[00:34:15] Cara: Yeah, so I think again, the corollary is like states looking to one another for, you know, why did you do well when we didn’t? And I think, so if you think about these precipitous declines in math, they didn’t just happen here. It’s happened almost everywhere except for a handful of places. And if memory serves, they’re sort of the usual suspects. It’s Singapore. South Korea. I think Japan was up there, right? So. Places where we might start to ask questions because we don’t have what we would call a science of learning math, like we have a science of reading.

[00:34:48] Cara: How are they teaching math there? When are kids, you know, doing algebra one and in what order? And, you know, so we can start to understand an approach that works. Maybe it’s because they offer more personalization. Maybe it’s simply more time on task. Maybe it’s valuing these things differently. But I think that there’s a corollary there.

[00:35:08] Cara: And then, I also think that the other way and I mentioned this, I alluded to this a little bit before that we can really Think about using international exams is they help us understand these equity gaps that we have in our country to a much greater extent. So, if for those who are willing, if you go to the piece of website, there is just there’s student surveys and a plethora of information that can really allow us to see that fundamentally the way, for example, we deny certain students in this country access to a high quality of education based on where they live is a detriment overall to our society and to economic progress, right? If this were the post-Sputnik era, I don’t know if I’m really into watching For All Mankind on Apple TV Plus, I’m going a little deep if this were post-Sputnik era. Right. I think our attitude would be much different toward, you know, remember it was like. Oh, my gosh, post-Sputnik, we need more math and science. And then A Nation at Risk comes out and we have huge initiatives. And it’s not just about investment. It’s about what incentives do you put in place to help states and communities rise to the occasion? And I’m not sensing nearly the same urgency in the general public around these declining math scores as I think we would have sensed 50, 60 years ago.

[00:36:31] Charlie: Yeah, no, you know, the whole Cold War thing and the existential concerns

[00:36:36] Cara: That Cold War thing. Exactly.

[00:36:36] Charlie: A little bit of a different look at all those things. But finally big urban school districts, including Boston, New York, Houston, Detroit, were in crisis before COVID, which then really revealed even deeper weaknesses in big education systems that enroll mostly poor and minority students. Can you share your thoughts on how education leaders, mayors, governors, local officials should be addressing this ongoing crisis which just never — I don’t know — just doesn’t ever seem to change to us, you know, or not change as much as it should, this crisis that we face in urban K-12 education.

[00:37:16] Cara: Well, Charlie, you know, better than most people that have a lot of opinions on this, because I can’t, I can’t even count the number of papers that you have taken your red pen to that I have written.

[00:37:26] Charlie: They’re responsible for everything I know about education.

[00:37:30] Cara: I doubt that for the best editor ever. Yeah, I mean, you know, part of the problem here is that so much of this, so  maybe this is my problem, I’ll own it. So much of this seems really painfully obvious, yet there’s just an absolute failure to act on it.

[00:37:46] Charlie: Right, exactly. That’s why it’s like you’re crazy.

[00:37:48] Cara: Yep. Do, do the thing and then you’ll see, we know what gets results. Like we do have evidence for what gets results. So do the thing. And then there’s, you know, apathy, bureaucracy, and teachers’ strikes, I’m sorry, as you know, I’m in the midst of a little bit of politics there.

[00:38:03] Cara: I mean, just take over, right? So, here’s the thing. I think, first of all, all of the districts that you’ve mentioned, these large urban districts — and I have a soft spot in my heart as everybody who’s ever listened to the show before knows, for Detroit. I grew up around Detroit and Boston as well. You know, first of all, let’s talk about under enrollment, consolidating schools, getting budgets under control because it, by the way, these are all places for the most part, like certainly Boston, a couple of the other places you mentioned where per pupil spending is astronomically high given the performance of the kids.

Charlie: $30,000 a year in Boston.

Cara: Exactly. So let’s stop leading with the give me more money argument and start focusing on how do we create the kinds of learning environments that these kids deserve, that our kids deserve, which starts with closing schools that are under enrolled, closing schools that parents are telling you, because many of these in a place like Boston, are schools of intradistrict choice that parents aren’t choosing because there’s a reason they don’t want to attend them and focus instead on creating schools, giving kids the right facilities.

[00:39:07] Cara: Facilities do matter so that they have a learning environment where they can thrive. And then not just that, obviously, we need to start thinking about curricula that are based on evidence. I applaud Governor Maura Healy of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for making an historical investment in early literacy.

[00:39:24] Cara: But like kids, we could have done this 10 years ago. I mean, we’re losing generations of students because we are allowing schools of education — many of which don’t know what they’re doing — other stakeholders to own the narrative about like what we should do these things when we have brain research that shows, for example, how kids read that we know how it works, right?

[00:39:50] Cara: So, the fact that we’re just now starting to talk about investing in phonics-based materials in many of these places. It’s absolutely mind boggling to me this morning. It’s crazy. Stop buying math textbooks that we all know don’t work. Right. And then the other thing that we really need to do, and I do think that this is incredibly important, is we do need to focus on teachers.

[00:40:12] Cara: We also need to take a much harder look at schools of education, which has somehow fallen out of fashion to do the folks, these institutions, many of whom teachers are paying huge amounts of money to go and be trained at these institutions are turning out folks who have either been, provided with information that is just flat-out  wrong in terms of how kids learn and what we should be teaching, or they’re just entering these places, these districts are utterly unprepared to teach. So, we need to focus on alternative methods of training in recruiting teachers. Absolutely, we need to incent and reward high-performing teachers.

[00:40:48] Cara: In fact, I would say states should be giving high-performing teachers the most incentives in that guess includes money to go into districts where we know kids haven’t had access are performing well because they haven’t had access. So, we need to focus on that. We need to retain these folks. And you don’t do that without some of the programs that I’ve talked about, like incentives.

[00:41:08] Cara: If you’re going to live in the city of Boston, you should be able to make a livable wage and you should be able to do that within budget because there are a lot of things that we’re spending money on in our schools that make no sense. Which brings me to the final point, which is transparency. So, I think that these large urban school districts are a black box in many cases, especially when it comes to where, where on earth is that $30,000 per pupil pgoing?

[00:41:32] Cara: And if it’s going to somebody who’s sitting in an office that can’t tell you what their job is on the daily, I would much rather have that money in the hands of a highly qualified teacher. I would much rather put it in facilities. And so, I think that we need to start getting real in passing legislation that say these school districts need to show us exactly where the money is going, what it’s being spent on, how much of it is going to kids, and that money needs to be student centered. So, if I choose that I don’t want to go to the district that you’ve assigned me to in the city of Boston, that money should follow me to whatever school I need it to go to.

[00:42:09] Cara: So, we kind of come back full circle, right? That choice is an important part of the equation, but it’s certainly not the only part of the equation. And I think that it’s really disheartening that we do have evidence on the things that work for kids. And too often those things are not being employed, these practices are not being employed in the districts that you mentioned.

[00:42:30] Charlie: Cara, I got to say, whether it is sitting and editing what you write or hearing what you have to say, it always gives me a whole lot to think about.

[00:42:38] Alisha: And we appreciate all you do. Thanks for being with us.

[00:42:41] Cara: Likewise, Alisha.

Charlie: Thank you, Cara.

[00:42:42] Cara: Thank you so much.

[00:43:16] Alisha: Great interview. It was great to have Cara back and hear her voice again. Now let’s talk about the tweet of the week. This week Robin Lake retweeted the article, Don’t Ditch Standardized Tests, Fix Them. Oh, my goodness. Don’t we agree with that? I’m looking forward to having that conversation about the need to, we know that we have to assess our students, but we probably need to change the way we assess them to make sure we’re getting the right information.

[00:43:43] Charlie: Amen to that.

[00:43:44] Alisha: Well, thanks Charlie for being with me today. This was a great conversation. Great to be with you as always.

[00:43:51] Charlie: Always a pleasure, Alisha. Thank you.

[00:43:53] Alisha: Be sure to join us next week on the learning curve podcast, where we will have our guest Eva Moskowitz. She’s the CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools and author of A Plus Parenting, the Surprisingly Fun Guide to Raising Surprisingly Smart Kids.

[00:44:07] Alisha: Looking forward to that. See you next week.

This week on The Learning Curve, guest co-hosts Alisha Searcy and Charlie Chieppo interview Vice President of Policy for ExcelinEd, Dr. Cara Candal. Dr. Candal delves into the evolving landscape of K-12 education in the U.S., examining the expansion of private school choice programs in the wake of two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. She then discusses the changing political dynamics around charter schools and the national school choice movement’s strategies in low-performing states.  Next up are the role of parent-driven models during the pandemic, the significance of voc-tech education, and how to address underperformance and achievement gaps. Finally, she reflects on the international perspective through tests like PISA and TIMSS, and concludes with insights on addressing ongoing crises in large urban school districts.

Stories of the Week: Alisha comments on a story from NPR, on the chronic absenteeism in K-12 education; Charlie discusses a story from CBS News on the Newton, Massachusetts, teacher strike.


Dr. Cara Candal is the Vice President of Policy for ExcelinEd, focusing on education policy strategy. A former high school English teacher, Cara has worked in education policy for more than 20 years. She was formerly a research assistant professor at the Boston University School of Education, a founding team member of the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE), and a senior fellow at Pioneer Institute in Boston. Cara has authored and/or edited more than 25 papers and four books on education policy. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Indiana University, a Master of Arts in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Doctor of Education from Boston University.

Tweet of the Week: