Episode 14: Jennifer Davis | National Center on Time and Learning

Jennifer Davis being interviewed by Eric Gurna on the Please Speak Freely Podcast

Jennifer Davis, Co-Founder and President of the National Center on Time and Learning, leads a campaign to get educators and others to re-think how time is used in schools. In this episode, she describes the Expanded Learning Time (ELT) movement and responds to some of the concerns raised by people in the after school/youth development field.

“Why should there be a limit with regard to the number of students that can be served? Why can’t it be that the schedule itself could be changed in order that all students have those opportunities versus just a subset of students as a part of an afterschool or summer program?” – Jennifer Davis, regarding reforms to the 21st Century Community Learning Center program

Transcript Available here.

Jennifer Davis and Eric Gurna on the Please Speak Freely Podcast (Transcription)

Eric Gurna: Hi, I’m Eric Gurna of Development Without Limits and this is Please Speak Freely, the podcast where we have honest conversations about youth development and education.

So I’m here in New York, New York at the Development Without Limits office with Jennifer Davis, the co-founder and president of the National Center on Time and Learning. Welcome.

Jennifer Davis: Thank you, nice to be here.

Eric Gurna: So you know, what the National Center on Time and Learning is most known for, and I believe what you’re most known for in the field is sort of spearheading expanded learning time. Um, and I feel like that has become a catchphrase that’s thrown around in lots of different contexts, so I’d love to hear from you what you see – if you feel like defining expanded learning time that’s fine, but even beyond that, sort of, what is your work?  What is your personal mission in all this? Why are you the cofounder and president of the National Center on Time and Learning?

Jennifer Davis: Sure. In 1998 I was working in Boston for then-mayor Menino, current mayor Menino, to launch a major initiative to expand afterschool and summer programming across the city. We had a very ambitious goal to serve every child in every neighborhood over time.  And about two years into it one of the things that our research showed was that many of the children that needed the programs we were helping to launch the most weren’t in those programs. And we were concerned about that and began – I launched my own non-profit organization when I left the mayor’s office, to research, you know, what might other models be to provide the kind of enriched learning and the variety of programming that many of the afterschool programs were offering, but in a way that more students and those particularly most in need were benefitting. And we started to research the movement around the charter schools sector and started to notice that, you know, they were starting their schools with significantly more time. So they just had a very different definition of what their school day was and what their offerings were going to be. And so over time we began to develop an initiative in Massachusetts, really in 2004, 2005 – to see if we could help create a more integrated school model where community partners became a part of a redesigned school day, but that all students in the school were staying roughly for a seven to eight-hour day, and they were all benefitting from the kind of enriched programming that only a few were getting in many of the schools in the programs that we were serving and supporting prior to.  That initiative came to be known in Massachusetts as the Expanded Learning Time Initiative and that’s really kind of a little bit of the history behind the name and the initiative. And basically what we were trying to do was to expand and really broaden learning opportunities for students but through a different mechanism. The-afterschool -in-school partnership work which I invested a lot of time and energy in had taken us what we felt was just so far, and this we felt was the next iteration of that work, which was a much more integrated model.

Eric Gurna: And were you aiming all of this work at a particular demographic of young people, a particular demographic of community?

Jennifer Davis: All of our work is focused on high poverty students and children in urban districts for the most part. There are a few communities in Massachusetts that are less high poverty than the Bostons or the Woosters or the Fall Rivers, but the majority of the students are well over seventy percent poverty.

Eric Gurna: Mm-hmm. So that brings to mind a question for me, and I want to ask it without seeming like I’m being combative. So just know that I’m genuinely asking this question, not trying to make a point in the form of a question. Does – does that mean that you believe that kids from economically poorer neighborhoods need to be in school longer hours than kids who are from middle class or upper-middle class or wealthier neighborhoods?

Jennifer Davis: So wealthier and upper-middle class communities invest in learning opportunities and they pay for it. They have the resources to do so. Many of the children that again we were most concerned about didn’t have those kinds of resources and there weren’t enough programs and they weren’t engaging them enough. And so what the reality is, is that many of the students that we’re concerned about the most start school behind and they never catch up. So without additional learning opportunities, without extra supports, they’re just not going to be on a path to success in high school, college and beyond. And so yes, the majority of our efforts are targeting students that don’t have typically the kind of enriched learning opportunities beyond school, to make sure that they get those kinds of opportunities in an integrated, newly designed school model.

Eric Gurna: But in that comparison between the neighborhoods, communities with more resources and poorer neighborhoods, the equivalent, so the economically – you know, the wealthier the middleclass neighborhoods, hey have enrichment activities and other kinds of experiences that they pay for, right? Things like music, art, sports – all of that stuff. But not everyone does those things, right, only the ones who choose to sign up for it and pay for it do those things. And some kids don’t do any of it, and some kids might do a little bit, or some kids might do a lot. So wouldn’t the equivalent of that in a poorer neighborhood be the kinds of afterschool programs that you were working with in Boston originally where it’s a choice that families or young people are making to do those things or to do other things to have free time or to do whatever they do.

Jennifer Davis: The majority of the schools in the districts across the country we work with, it is a choice for families. Families choose to send whether to send their children to a school with an expanded schedule or not. I mean, the reality in most large urban districts now you can make choices as families as to where your children go to school, and also the reality is that the waiting lists are very high. The parents want their children to be in these kinds of schools. And remember, what I’m taking about in the schools we’re working to help redesign is arts and music and physical education, more recess time, longer lunches are very much a part of those new designs. So students are getting a very diverse set of offerings and that’s the goal, and that’s the mission of our work. And again we- I think it’s fabulous that parents can choose, and in most of the communities if not all the communities we’re working in there are waiting lists to get into these schools.

Eric Gurna: Mm-hmm. It’s interesting, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how much energy goes into just different initiatives and movements and stuff within education. And something that I read recently online when I was looking at this issue of Expanded Learning Time, was the notion – the issue isn’t necessarily you want to have more time in the day, because there’s twenty-four hours in a day, right? It’s what we do with the time when we’re engaged with school that the movement -that ELT is concerned about. And within the regular school day that’s not been extended or expanded in any way, there’s a lot of time spent typically on things that maybe aren’t that productive. And one comment that was made that sort of crystallized it for me was, if we took out the high stakes testing pressures that teachers and principals and superintendents and most of all the kids and parents feel, and if we took out the huge amounts of homework that go along with that, the test prep practice that goes along with it, even just the days of testing themselves, if we took all those days out of it, we’d have all this time to do more music, art, recess and all the things that you’re talking about.  So it’s a choice expand – to have more hours in the day to accommodate all of those things and the other things you wanna have in there. Um, how do you- have you thought about that balance and that sort of investment of energy into putting more hours in the day versus possibly investing in changing the larger picture of what schools face?

Jennifer Davis: Well, so my early work in education reform was for President Clinton and Secretary Dick Riley in the launching of the Standards Movement in America. I believe in the need to have more clarity about what students should know and be able to do, in having accountability around that, and driving resources based on the accountability to support kids most in need. So, um, is there a question that’s being debated right now about the magnitude and focus on high stakes testing and assessments, yes.  Is that a worthy conversation, is that an important issue for debate and discussion, I do agree. But I don’t think that’s so much of the real challenge. I think that ideally we want all of our children to excel in the core academic subjects and have access to this broader set of educational opportunities. And it is my belief even if you were to narrow out some of the testing, that the majority of students that live and grow up and are experiencing poverty are gonna need more time for learning. And one of the things we do when we first start working with schools is, we help them understand,  “How are you using your current time? Are you wasting some of your time?” And inevitably decisions are made about how to strengthen the six hours before they add the two extra hours.  We also know from our important report entitled Time Well Spent where we analyze thirty high performing high poverty expanded time schools across America, that those schools that excel at such high rates for kids use every minute strategically and well. But they’re eight-hour school days typically and longer school years as well. And so I understand the point you’re trying to make, I just don’t believe that that is, you know, the most important issue.  I think the most important issue is that we need to support kids with extra time extra learning, extra enrichment throughout the pipeline from early childhood to and through college. I mean that’s just the reality for kids that again are in circumstances where they don’t have the kinds of networks and supports readily available to them.

Eric Gurna: So I hadn’t actually heard about that, what you described around – in your work with schools before you help them to see how to use like, say, two additional hours or however much more time the school day is gonna have, that you work with them on making better use of the time that they currently have. What does that consist of, how do you help them improve the way they use their, I mean it’s funny framing it in the context of how they use their time. It’s a little bit of a false construct ’cause really it’s not such much just looking at what they do with their time, it’s looking at how they engage young people, what’s their practice, how do they improve their practice.

Jennifer Davis: We’ve developed some tools that we’re refining, um, one is called the Quality Time Audit, that helps teams from schools analyze how much time they’re dedicating to each subject, how much time they’re dedicating to, for example, passing time in the hallways, how much time they’re dedicating to things like recess and lunch and so forth. And some schools have made very simple changes that have had dramatic impacts on time, and those simple changes might be anything from reorganizing the structure of the school so that classes are closer together, um, it might mean that they think differently about, um, you know, when lunch takes place and a whole series of other issues. It might mean that they really hadn’t realized how much they had cut a certain subject because they had never looked at it holistically. It’s a whole range of things and what we try to do is help encourage teams from schools to themselves uncover the strengths and weaknesses. Now we also are developing and refining a tool that looks more at classroom time, what’s happening in the classroom, you know, how are students being engaged or not.  Um, you know, those are more complex analyses that schools are doing and you know that’s complicated ’cause that’s the guts of teaching and learning, you know, what’s happening in the classroom. But I guess what I’m just saying is, you know, we don’t believe just adding time is the answer. It’s not. It’s being thoughtful about it, it’s how your current time is being used. We don’t encourage schools that are dysfunctional to add more time, they have other things they need to address before they can add  time and do right by children. Um, so, it needs to be done thoughtfully, it needs to be done carefully. We encourage, as schools think about moving in this direction, a year-long planning process to really help think through all of the opportunities that more time allows and to step back and say let’s throw out the schedule, let’s throw out how we’ve been doing things, let’s think about how can we staff our school differently, that might mean bringing community partners onto the team it might means just thinking very different about class sizes, about individualizing supports for students, small group instruction, you know, many many things are considered during that planning phase. But we encourage that kind of creativity and that’s really important because educators very often do not  have time or the luxury, frankly, to really step back and say, you know, “How can we do a better job supporting our children and our students?” And so this is not a simple reform, it’s very complicated, it’s very hard, there are schools that have not succeeded at it. Um, and there are schools that are excelling at tremendous rates and kids are thriving, and you know,  obviously we’re working to make more of those kinds of schools possible

Eric Gurna: And you just sort of mentioned the big, I think, criticism that is generally thrown around and maybe oversimplified around ELT and your work, which is, well, “More of the same isn’t gonna do it,” right? That’s what you hear again and again when people talk about this. “Well, if they’re not, you know, engaging young people in a rich way with the time that they have, why is more time gonna -why is that gonna do anything more? Or better?” And I think that that can be an oversimplified critique but I think there’s a much deeper more complex critique sort of embedded in that um because it seems to me like if were working within the same construct of objectives things like the high stakes testing, things like grade level reading even just keeping kids in grades first second third fourth grade and assessing using test scores and grades as the primary means of assessing, if we’re keeping within that construct then our options for how we change the pedagogy are really limited. and so the question around what are kids doing in the classroom or what are teachers doing in the classroom or what’s going on in the classroom and how they’re using their time, um, that I guess I wanna say, the example that’s often held up are KIPP and other charter schools that say, “We’re having success with improving achievement as measured by tests, and we do it in part by putting more time in,” but there’s a whole lot of people in the field that critique the whole thing and say that’s not even  a good measurement stick. Even if you can say that, and even if it’s true according to your data, that’s not a good measuring stick. So are we really improving engagement? And engagement being what really leads to actual genuine learning. as opposed to the kind of learning where you put it on the test and then you forget it.  Are those conversations happening in that year of planning, are they happening in your conversations with your team at the Center on Time and Learning  or with your partner organizations? I just cant tell how much this work is with that constr -that sort of paradox and how much you all who are working on this are willing to look at other frameworks.

Jennifer Davis: Well a couple things. First of all, I think that it’s not true if people believe that students in the KIPP schools I’ve visited aren’t getting a broader set of educational experiences. Whether they’re in the orchestra, the school that I’m very involved with in Massachusetts students travel to Utah and all kinds of really interesting opportunities to really broaden their educational experiences and beliefs and understandings, to the very nurturing environment, there’s athletic teams that have been created. So I do think that some of the high performing charters in KIPP are signaled out often, are not understood comprehensively. And of course not every KIPP or not every high performing charter is the same, so there are some high performing charters you walk into and it is very regimented and there isn’t a lot of, maybe creativity, right. And maybe others you walk into and there’s a true focus on the joy factor. So I think it’s a little unfair to kind of pigeonhole charters in one bucket, so I just wanted to start with that. But I wanna go back to the’ more of the same’ situation or question. Um, two schools that we’ve worked with the longest, really since 2005, that both were chronically underperforming, the Cuss Middle School and the Edwards Middle School, one in Fall River and one in Boston, um, where the teams from those schools and their partners truly did step back and say, “We can’t do more of the same. We have to think differently. We have to design a school schedule that is going to more individualize how we approach each child, that they get the kind of support from the right kind of adult at the right time during the course of the day and the year.” That there are engaged learning whatever in be in science or whatever subject it might be that really keeps middle schoolers in school and engaged in wanting to continue to learn and grow. And so there are examples in the traditional urban district school construct that we’ve experienced and documented and seen. One school that we’ve been working with, Orchard Gardens, a group of first graders were just at the White House with President Obama this week because of just some of the really interesting work they were doing in the area of poetry, and they recited a poem, it was the cutest thing. But part of you know, what these schools that we’ve worked closely with have done is, they really are working and creating a school outside of the box. Now we don’t have enough of those, right. We don’t have enough schools that have taken that year to be thoughtful about thinking differently, engaging the faculty, parents and community partners in that process and then coming out on the other side with a bold, creative, innovative, engaging education opportunity for kids. Um, it’s hard work and we gotta create more educators excited and engaged in doing that work. And you know, there’s a lot that needs to be done to move more schools in that direction, but I know its possible because I’ve walked into those schools and I’ve seen them.

Eric Gurna: And a lot of this, you know, the issue of scale always comes up around, you know, we have these shining examples of what’s possible in certain places, and then how do we grow that? If it’s something that we, you know, really value, how do we grow it? And that’s related to another sort of I guess category of questions or ideas that I had in mind when talking to you. And I wanna sort of, so it’s a little bit of switching gears but it’s really quite closely connected. I wanna frame this that a lot of my preparation for this already done for me on the Washington Post blog The Answer Sheet. They had a whole thing around you know, the issue of time and school and afterschool, and you and Jodi Grant from Afterschool Alliance had a whole sort of back and forth.  It was really compelling to me because you know, as you know from the work we did together a couple of years ago with the Schools at Washington Conference in Washington State, I am interested in bringing different perspectives to light. So that conference was, you came out and Hillary Salmons from Providence, Rhode Island came out to co-present on extended learning time. And to present some things you had in common and some views that you had different and it wasn’t exactly a debate but it was different perspectives, and at that same conference we had a debate around measuring outcomes and the importance of measuring outcomes from two people with very different viewpoints. And I think that there’s lots of people with very different viewpoint in our fields and in the larger field of education, um and, but we don’t often get to really hear how those things can bounce off each other and can inform each other and can also just compete for people’s, you know, attention and energy. So I thought that was a great forum that you all had. Um, so I say some of my work was done for me because you know, I was able to go through that and cull some things and say, “Oh that’s an interesting thing, I wonder what you know, Jennifer Davis, how she would respond to that.” There’s a few things that came up on there that I wanna roll by you and see what you think, but with this issue of scale, can you explain to me a little bit, before we get into the issue of scale, the context of this is, new potential wavers to No Child Left Behind or education, what is it called, elementary secondary education act, because were not supposed to call it No Child Left Behind anymore, what wavers proposed by secretary of education, the president were given – states were given the opportunity request wavers to sort of get out of certain aspects of No Child Left Behind policies and one of them led to the state’s ability, or leads to the states ability to use Twenty -First Century Learning Center funds for things other than afterschool or before school or summer programs,  including some services that may go directly to schools or school districts for expanding their school day or expanding the school year. Do I have that right?

Jennifer Davis: Yes.

Eric Gurna: Is there any, is there part of that that you would wanna sort of make clearer? Because I’m not – policy is not necessarily my specialty.

Jennifer Davis: Sure, let me back up just for a minute. The Twenty-First Century Program was really launched and grew significantly when I worked for Secretary Riley and President Clinton in Washington. And the purpose of that program of course was to expand learning opportunities and broaden opportunities for students during the hours when schools were not in session. That was during a period of time where the standard American school schedule was not being questioned, it was just the way it always has been and presumably the way it always will be. There were no other models to look to. And what was important is that we had safe, engaging learning environments for more children, particularly in, you know, the large urban districts in America. A lot’s changed since then, a lot’s changed since that since that program was first launched. A very critical evaluation came out that Mathematica conducted that basically showed that the program, even though it was an education program, wasn’t having the educational impact. And that concerned the Bush administration, it concerned, you know, the Clinton administration and it certainly has concerned those who came in under President Obama and the Duncan administration. And so over the years it’s been an emphasis to try to strengthen the Twenty-First Century Program and that’s been very important and it’s been very exciting actually to see because I was there at the very beginning and then to see the strengthening of the program overtime with these intermediaries, one of which I ran in Boston being formed to strengthen and support a program to provide training, to help build partnerships between schools and community organizations, the integration of those. There’s been a vast improvement with regard to the integration of afterschool and in-school really over the last ten years. But really what’s happened since then, a couple of things. One a concern that students need more educational support in order to succeed in this very competitive, internationally connected economic condition and climate. Two, that we now have models of high performing high poverty schools that we didn’t have fifteen years ago and so how can we really create more of those kinds of schools so that more and more kids are prepared for success beyond high school in higher education. And so the Obama administration made a decision that they wanted resources to be dedicated initially through a proposed bill called the Time Act to support the creation in standard district schools of expanded time. And as the policy agenda unfolded the Obama administration made a decision that they wanted to also provide flexibility in the Twenty-First Century program that did not allow, even though in many cases these programs were operating in schools, the money could not be used to change the school schedule. It could only be used for nonschool time. That didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to the Obama administration and frankly to me. Why should there be a limit with regard to the number of students that can be served? And why can’t it be that the schedule itself could be changed in order that all students have those opportunities versus just a subset of students as a part of an afterschool or summer program? So the policy barrier didn’t make sense to this administration and they made a decision they were gonna make changes to it through a variety of policy vehicles. And the one that’s actually now being implemented is the waver option. And states can choose as to how they want to use those resources and of course what’s going to happen over time is that many communities will continue their afterschool programming and invest in summer programming. But there’ll likely be a subset of schools where they’re gonna wanna invest in changing and redesigning the school schedule for all students.

Eric Gurna: So, I mean, it comes down in part to how much funding is available overall, right, ’cause if the funding – if the pot remains the same as it was and they, here’s the possibility of doing more things with it, um, think you know, many in the Twenty-first Century Learning Center World see that as a net cut to afterschool programs.

Jennifer Davis: It’s not a net cut to children being served. That’s where I get concerned abut the points that they’re making. We’re talking about students being served, just through a different vehicle and setting.

Eric Gurna: I think that’s what I hear the most is, if it’s the schools who are deciding what to do with it for the regular school-day rather than community-based organizations being a primary partner and providing the program as a separate but supplemental program to the regular school-day, that those shining examples that we see that are held up as the role model programs or schools won’t be what we see everywhere. That it will be “Here’s a little more for my budget. I can make the school-day a little longer, I can use it for this, I can us it for that,” but that it’s not gonna be a replication of the same –

Jennifer Davis: So do you think that local communities should be able to make those decisions for themselves?

Eric Gurna: Do I think the – Which decisions, how to use the money, you mean?

Jennifer Davis: Because that’s basically what the Obama Administration is saying.

Eric Gurna: Well, they’re saying that states first get to decide whether or not their local communities will be able to make those decisions, is that right?

Jennifer Davis: States and then, but, you know, states could choose not to move in that direction and then local communities could choose not to apply, it’s going to be a, still a very flexible set of resources.

Eric Gurna: The devil’s in the details with that though. Because if a state goes ahead and says they want to be able to use Twenty-First Century money for a regular school-day, um, and then-

Jennifer Davis: It’s not for a regular school-day, it’s for an expanded school-day.

Eric Gurna: For an expanded school-day. If they decide that, it’s sort of in how they do the procurement. That sort of determines whether local communities decide to apply for that or not, because if schools, if the RFP is written in such a way that it encourages schools to do that, then they will. It’s just like in Twenty-First Century competitions. You get more points if you have certain things on there, so if you’re gonna have a high school you get some more points, or if you’re, things like that -There’s a huge increase in the number of high school programs who apply because it’s schools and districts who make that decision, they can decide which schools to include, they wanna increase their chances of getting funded. And so sometimes I think the fact that there is technically an option doesn’t mean that it’s really a choice if the RFP is written in such a way as to strongly encourage those schools and communities to make that choice.

Jennifer Davis: I just think, I guess what I’m saying is there are going to be very few states, I believe, that will narrow the option to just expanded learning time. I think that there is going to be a variety of options available for districts and schools to apply for. Expanded learning time will be one.

Eric Gurna: Um, so, a couple of aspects of this that I wanna try to dig into a little bit, one actually comes directly from Carla Sanger of LA’s Best and the reason I can quote her is that she put it in the comments to the Washington Post blog. So I’m just gonna quote her from that. She said a bunch of things, but I wanna just jump right to it. She talks about the cost per student of implementing the longer school-day versus the cost of afterschool programs. Um, and she says , where am I –  “Based on costs associated with the Massachusetts Extended Learning Time Initiative, for each school that eliminates its afterschool program and instead uses Twenty-First Century Community Learning Funding to extend the school day to three-thirty or four o’ clock, six other communities with afterschool and summer learning programs supported by Twenty-First Century will lose funding and be left with no expanded learning opportunities for kids. We can run six afterschool sites for the price of extending the school day on one campus.” Is that a fair argument?

Jennifer Davis: No.

Eric Gurna: Why not?

Jennifer Davis: Because it’s a very cost effective model if you’re expanding the school day depending on how you do it. Um, it’s all, you know, many of the schools are being incredibly creative about the integration of community partners, the use of technology, staggering teacher’s schedules, a variety of things. And so she is kind of making up numbers that I don’t believe are accurate or really based on truth, to be honest with you. I mean the Wallace Foundation not long ago came out with a study on the cost of afterschool programs, and it was significantly higher than thirteen-hundred per child.  In Massachusetts it was between two-thousand and something like almost five-thousand dollars based on the type of program we’re talking about. So, um, you know, I just feel like some of the numbers that have been thrown around are just not at all based in reality.

Eric Gurna: It’s hard for me to defend or speak to that too much because I’m not, I don’t have a good coherent expertise of any of that, the costs of things. But where my interest really is, and my fear and concern with this, is that for me the reason – what drew me to afterschool, it seems like it’s the place in public education where you can focus on individualized learning, where you can focus on project-based learning where you can focus on putting young people in the driver’s seat in their own learning. That the afterschool sort of pedagogy generally, not entirely, but generally,  is really focused on putting young people at the center and finding out what those young people are really interested in, what drives them, what they care about and building your program around that. I have not seen a public school that’s doing that. I have seen a couple of schools that give some rhetoric to it but I haven’t actually  seen it in practice. There’s many more schools out there that I haven’t seen than that I’ve seen, but I’ve got to visit a lot of schools around the country. So that’s where my impression is formed from.  So my concern with it is, does this drive the community organizations who are leaders in the field of afterschool learning, does it drive them away from that kind of philosophy and approach and towards figuring out how they can fit into a school district’s plan to extend the school day rather than focus on the values that they come from?

Jennifer Davis: Well again, I just need to say several things. First of all, no one is arguing that afterschool programs aren’t really important in communities, ok. Afterschool programs and summer programs are very important to the fabric of all communities across this country and they need to continue and hopefully thrive and strengthen and so forth. My point here is that states have a constitutional responsibility to provide a child a quality education and that is not happening in too many places in this county. And so some of us who are committed to that goal, that civil rights agenda, believe strongly that we have to do whatever we can to improve those educational opportunities. Many people who I talk to from the afterschool sector seem to have given up on public schools, and we cannot give up  on public schools. We have to create, strengthen and expand the good schools that are serving students in this country. That’s where I really differ, I understand why many funders are so committed to afterschool programs ’cause they’re so frustrated with the urban schools that they don’t see that they’re improving or making a difference. And that’s all well and good and that’s really important to continue to invest outside of the school context. But what my organization is dedicated to is trying to bring some of that wonderful engaged learning into schools. To try to make them a better learning environment , a broader learning environment for children. And that’s what we’re committed to, that’s what we feel is necessary.  This administration believes that to be the case as well.

Eric Gurna:  And but – If you’re dedicated to bringing that kind of engaged learning into public schools, I mean, do you really not think that the toxic pressures from high stakes testing and the teaching to the test that that creates is like a massive obstacle towards creating that kind of engaged learning in schools ?

Jennifer Davis: It’s a massive obstacle in a traditional school schedule, because that’s what’s happened in this country since No Child Left Behind passed, is the narrowing of the curriculum to ELA and math primarily. Cuts to other core subjects and certainly to the arts and music and drama and all the things that engaged me when I was a kid in school.  So it’s not going to be realistic in the short term to say we’re gonna get rid of high stakes testing.  And now that the common core is being implemented there’s gonna be more of an emphasis I think on ensuring that more kids reach those high standards, and only with more time are students gonna get that broader set of educational opportunities that they deserve. And we believe strengthened, redesigned expanded schools is an important model, but certainly afterschool and summer programs are bringing that kind of creativity to kids too. But, by the way, you’ve talked to me a lot today about the poor quality of schools. There are a lot of poor quality afterschool programs out there.

Eric Gurna: Yes indeed. Yeah, for sure.

Jennifer Davis: The reason I always come back to states have a constitutional responsibility to ensure that kids gets a quality education, you know, we have got to put all the pressure on that we can to make sure that they’re delivering. And to just pile on all the focus and support into programs that aren’t school it seems to me is skirting one of the most fundamental challenges we have in this society.

Eric Gurna: Sure, but no one is arguing that everyone, we should take all the money that’s going to schools and give them to afterschool programs. It’s the opposite that’s being argued. That the money that’s going to afterschool programs, some of it should be going to schools in stead.

Jennifer Davis: A different kind of expanded school.

Eric Gurna: Yeah, I mean, I will say that when I read through the Washington Post blog comments, what I was left with was, while I agreed with a lot of the comments that were on there that were sort of defending afterschool, I also was left with sort of a bad taste, because it feels like we’re defending an industry rather than advocating for good practice. And I completely agree that the quality of afterschool is hugely diverse and there’s a lot of poor quality afterschool going on. It’s just the thing that I am so stuck on is, if we don’t change the framework of how we define success, then I don’t see how more time will do it. Because the toxic pressures that high stakes testing brings on, I don’t think that it’s possible- because what I see in the kids that I know and the teachers that I know even more, is that it’s so demoralizing and so disengaging that the engagement level for other things is – the potential to do good even if you have more time is so diminished. I don’t mean it’s impossible, that you can’t do other good things, but it’s so diminished by this huge centerpiece of the school, which is, you know, preparing kids to succeed on tests. And so I just, I think that if energy was put into shifting that, that it would have a huge impact on exactly the goals that your center has.

Jennifer Davis: Right, but I mean, one of the whole purposes behind the Common Core and certainly in states that have been very thoughtful about their reforms, it’s not just about the tests because the tests are aligned to knowledge that students need to succeed, good writing and good computation skills and reading skills. I mean, so you’re making an assumption and you keep using the word toxic, you’re making the assumption that all testing is bad because students actually aren’t gaining skills by preparing for those tests. The whole purpose of the standards movement was not for rote learning, it was to help put in place a quality approach to defining what students needed to know and be able to do in the core subjects. And so certainly in states like Massachusetts you are not wasting your time preparing for the MCASS, because the MCASS provides a fundamental baseline in reading and writing and calculation skills. So I just think you’re going a little overboard. Now, should we over time be able to cut back maybe on how often students are tested? Probably, yes. Or the emphasis? Probably, yes.  Now we’re gonna be broadening the subject and the content areas, there’s a new focus on science, of course, coming up. But you know, so I’m not saying there isn’t a challenge around that and certainly if you look at high performing countries like Finland, standardized tests are really nowhere on the agenda , right. And they are very high performing and students particularly across the economic board. So certainly there’s a point, and I hear your point. But you know, over time, and there certainly has been a lot of movement I think in the right direction to make sure that what’s tested is actually, are valuable skills.

Eric Gurna: I may be going overboard. I think we have to agree to disagree that we’ve been going in the right direction with, in terms of that the tests are becoming better at testing the actual skills. Um, but you know, I’m the first one to admit that I could be going overboard. I’m certainly stuck on that as what I see as not an insurmountable obstacle but something that absolutely has to shift in order for any of these other things to shift. But that being said, um, I know that you have a plane to catch and I want to give – I’ve thrown a lot at you and I really appreciate your willingness to engage in the conversation. And I do in closing want to give you the opportunity,  is there anything, either is there anything that we missed that you wanted to say

Are any of the arguments that I’m making, are any of the arguments that I’m making or questions that I’ve given you unfair? Or is there things that you’d like to have the chance to talk about if we had more time? I just wanna give you to the open forum to have that mic if you choose to.

Jennifer Davis: I think the challenge is that people seem to come to this discussion from one side or another. And I’ve been on both sides. I ran a large 2-6 afterschool initiate for Mayor Menino and worked hard and we doubled the number of kids in programs. I learned a lot and it was a fabulous experience and um, I remember walking out of those schools and programs with the question of why are only forty, fifty kids in a five-hundred -child school getting the benefit of these opportunities? And you know, although not every school that we’ve worked with of course has done as excellent a job of ensuring these broader engaged learning opportunities, it is been a component of every initiative in every school that we’ve worked with. It’s not just about ELA and math, it’s about broadening enriched opportunities for kids. It’s been a part of our model from the very beginning, it continues to be in all of our national work. We believe strongly that you need to provide students a broad educational experience for them to be engaged and to be prepared for the future. And, you know, the other goal of our work is to also give teachers additional time to plan and meet and strengthen their teaching approaches. And so I just feel like not enough people in the youth development world have been exposed to schools that are doing this work really well. And I find that’s, you know, unfortunate, because they’ll continue to have a fairly I feel limited perspective on what’s possible. Many of the nonprofit groups that we’ve worked with who then went from afterschool programming to deeply partnering with schools have had fundamental shifts in their own thinking, in their business models, and have found real success in that work.  And again, not enough have seen that and understand how to do it and that it’s possible. And I think until those kinds of things change, we’re gonna continue to have these kinds of debates and discussions. But I think what’s most important here is that it isn’t about who is delivering the services, it isn’t about the industry, as you mentioned, it shouldn’t be. This should be about, how do we prepare children for success in their life. And they do need both the academic skills and the broader skills that help them navigate this really complicated world we’re living in. And that can come from more than one place, but great schools thoughtfully designed can certainly and are doing, providing those kinds of services for kids and that’s what we wanna see more.

Eric Gurna: Yeah and you know, the amazing thing to me about working in this field is that even if you sit down with someone and you don’t agree about a lot of things, there’s something fundamental that I think almost a hundred percent of the people I’ve met working with in this field do agree on and that’s what you just described. That in the end that we are all going, shooting for the same goals, and that we are all dedicating our lives to improving the quality of life for young people and all the things that you just described. I really, I do appreciate that and even if we don’t agree on everything I can definitely see the, you know, the genuine dedication to that and I appreciate it. And thanks for being on Please Speak Freely.

Jennifer Davis: Thanks for having me.

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Please Speak Freely

On Please Speak Freely, Eric Gurna, founder of Development Without Limits interviews leading thinkers, artists and others to shed light on key issues and explore different perspectives about youth development and education. The idea is to get past the platitudes and institutional positions, and have honest, nuanced conversations about things that really matter to young people and communities. Please Speak Freely guests include:

  • Raffi, Children’s Troubadour and Founder of the Centre for Child Honouring
  • Alfie Kohn, Author of several books including Punished By Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve
  • Dr. Pedro Noguera, Professor of Education at New York University
  • Karen Pittman, President & CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment
  • Tony Smith, Former Superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District
  • Lenore Skenazy, “America’s Worst Mom” and Author of Free-Range Kids

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