January 19, 2017

Choice is Coming – But for Pre-K, It’s Already Here

Betsy DeVos is top-of-mind right now, particularly after her tense confirmation hearing on Tuesday night. Front and center in most of these conversations is DeVos’ strong support for school choice. What’s getting little attention, however, is what DeVos could accomplish on early childhood issues.3969866244_b02e13b9fb_o

We don’t know much about DeVos’ views on early education, but I’m personally hopeful that she takes a lesson from her home state: Michigan has a strong state-funded pre-k program that utilizes “diverse delivery.” “Diverse delivery” is another way of saying “school choice for early childhood.” In this system, parents of young children pick from a range of early childhood providers — including for-profit centers, churches, nonprofit community-based organizations, and school districts — based on whatever factors they deem most important. And in Michigan, unlike many other states, charter schools are included in the pre-k program. That model is something DeVos should bring to the national stage.

Michigan’s state-funded preschool program, the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), is a good example of diverse delivery in action. Funding for the program goes to intermediate school districts (ISDs); ISDs then contract with a variety of providers, all of which must meet a state-determined standard of quality, to actually serve preschool children. GSRP is targeted to families that make less than 250% of the federal poverty level, so if children are eligible to participate, their parents can send them to any GSRP center that has space for them.

And research suggests that Michigan’s program is effective. A 2005 study of five states, including Michigan, showed that children who participated in state-funded preschool had better vocabulary, early math skills, and understanding of print concepts than children who did not attend. GSRP is also growing. Between 2013 and 2015, Gov. Rick Snyder upped the investment in GSRP by $130 million. The program currently serves 32 percent of four-year-olds in the state, more than 35 other states.

And many of those children are served in charter school pre-k programs. Michigan is one of the more hospitable states for charter schools to serve preschoolers. In fact, Michigan has 76 charter schools that serve preschoolers, which is the fourth highest in the country behind California, Florida, and Texas.

This type of charter school/pre-k synergy is rare even though most states already have pre-k systems that incorporate a range of public providers. Diverse delivery may be old news in the early childhood world, but that’s not necessarily the case when it comes to certain providers — specifically charter schools. States that have offered pre-k choice for decades struggle with how to best incorporate charter schools as an early childhood option for parents.

Even so, early childhood is already more supportive of choice in ways that are controversial in K-12 — as evidenced by Tuesday’s hearing . In a column for U.S. News earlier this month, Andy Rotherham astutely noted that with Betsy DeVos at the helm of the country’s education agenda, “More choice is coming to education — it’s a question of when and how rather than if.” DeVos should take a cue from Michigan and start by expanding choice in early childhood.

To read our other coverage of Betsy DeVos, click here.


January 18, 2017

Diving Deeper into Michigan Data in Betsy DeVos’ Confirmation Hearing Last Night

During her confirmation hearing last night, Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, fielded questions from members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee. As we predicted, several committee members asked DeVos about her involvement in education policy and politics in her home state of Michigan and in Detroit Public Schools (DPS). In particular, Senator Bennet (D-CO) and Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) used Michigan and DPS data to press DeVos on accountability, charter school oversight, and school improvement.

In many cases, however, the questions and answers both misrepresented or oversimplified the data. To be fair, the time constraints and pressure of a confirmation hearing make it difficult to fully dig into the nuance of an entire state’s complex education history. To help analysts, journalists, policymakers, and practitioners accurately evaluate DeVos, we are releasing a fact-base about the education policy landscape in Michigan after the Inauguration. But until then, here are explanations for a few Michigan data points mentioned in last night’s hearing (note: all speakers’ talking points have been paraphrased for clarity): Continue reading


New Year, New Look

Bellwether was founded in 2009 with the vision of a world in which race, ethnicity, and income no longer predict life outcomes for students. There were four of us here at the beginning, education leaders with expertise in strategy, policy, and talent. We wanted to bring those skills to help education organizations in the public, nonprofit, and private sectors dramatically accelerate results for underserved students.

We believed then — as we do now — that the only way to ensure that all children have access to high-quality schools is to take a holistic approach to education’s most pressing challenges. And we sought to build a nonprofit where we’d all be proud to work.

Fast forward eight years to 2017: Our staff has grown from four to over fifty, and we’ve served over 325 clients and counting! While a lot has happened in that time, what hasn’t changed are our core values and commitment to quality, cutting-edge solutions to the most longstanding and complicated problems facing the education sector.

Bellwether has grown in people power, experience, and sophistication, and we wanted that to show on the outside, too. To mark our eighth year — and to honor our founding vision — we’ve refreshed our brand. See for yourself:

Before

Before

After

After

You might be asking yourself, why bellwether? Here’s a definition:

\‘BEL-‚weth- r\ noun; A leader of a movement or activity; also, a leading indicator of future trends.

Our new logo is just that: a leading indicator, with a compass dial symbolizing our work as trailblazers, guides, and trusted advisers. We’re moving the needle forward.

We’re excited to debut this new look for the new year, and look forward to rolling up our sleeves with so many inspiring organizations who share our commitment to serving students — in 2017 and beyond.


January 17, 2017

Questions for Betsy DeVos Inspired by Education Outcomes in Michigan

Tonight is Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing to become the next Secretary of Education. Because DeVos doesn’t have a track record as a government official or leader within the public school or higher education system, as most of her predecessors do, analysts are looking at her role as a funder, GOP donor, and board member of education organizations to understand what she might do as Secretary. This scrutiny has drawn particular attention to DeVos’ engagement in education advocacy and political causes in Michigan, where her donations and advocacy have touched many major education policy decisions over the past 20 years.

In many ways, the education system in Michigan is a microcosm of the challenges and opportunities facing the broader U.S. education system — and the next Secretary of Education. In both Michigan and the U.S. as a whole, there are large, persistent achievement gaps for disadvantaged student groups; rural, suburban, and urban schools with unique (sometimes competing) needs; and a long history of hotly debated education reforms that have had mixed success. To help analysts, journalists, policymakers, and practitioners make sense of the education landscape in the Wolverine State — and what it suggests about the perspective and positions DeVos would bring to the role of Secretary — Bellwether has compiled a comprehensive fact base about the education policy landscape in Michigan that we will release next week after the Inauguration.

In the meantime, here are a few Michigan fast-facts to know as you watch tonight’s hearing:

Demographics of Michigan K-12 students by race/ethnicity, family income. Source: MISchoolData.org

Demographics of Michigan K-12 students by race/ethnicity and family income. Source: MISchoolData.org

  • There are over 1.5 million students in Michigan and nearly half of them qualify for free and reduced-price lunch; more than 33 percent are students of color.
  • Michigan ranks 41st in 4th grade reading performance in the U.S. and 42nd in 4th grade math.
  • 35 percent of Michigan 11th grade students are college-ready according to the SAT; there are substantial gaps in college-readiness rates among black, Hispanic, English language learner, and low-income students.
  • Michigan has one of the nation’s largest charter sectors, with 10 percent of students enrolled in charter schools, about 300 charter schools, and over 40 charter authorizers.
  • Over 70 percent of Michigan charter schools are operated by for-profit education service providers.
  • Detroit is the lowest performing urban school district in the country.
  • Detroit charter schools generally outperform Detroit Public Schools, but there are still concerns about the overall quality of the sector.

Given the above facts, here are a few questions we’d like DeVos to answer at tonight’s confirmation hearing:

  • What should be the role of the federal government in addressing longstanding achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color, like those that exist in Michigan?
  • As you know, Detroit students have struggled academically and gone through numerous failed reform efforts over several decades. Given your work in Detroit, what turnaround strategies would the Department of Education encourage for chronically low-performing school districts?
  • What did you learn from advocating for expanded school choice measures in Michigan and how might you enact those measures at the federal level as Secretary of Education?
  • The presence of multiple charter school authorizers in Michigan has decentralized charter responsibility in the state. What quality-control and accountability measures are necessary for charter school authorizers? What should be the federal role in setting that bar?
  • What has your experience and observation of school choice and school turnaround efforts in Michigan taught you about potential strategies for improving low-performing schools? How would those lessons be applied to this spring’s review of states’ Every Student Succeeds Act plans?

Betsy DeVos’ hearing begins at 5pm and can be watched here. Check back here tomorrow for a recap of major events (and anything about Michigan education that needs a fact check).

To read our other coverage of Betsy DeVos, click here.


January 12, 2017

A Very American Story: Access Determined by Zip Code

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We’ve accepted in American political discourse and rhetoric that “a zip code should not determine a child’s future.” But our public policies have a long way to go, especially in the domain of early childhood education, one of the most effective policy strategies for ensuring low-income children are prepared for academic and lifelong success. In fact, a report published last month by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) reveals that an eligible child’s access to Head Start — the only federal pre-k program — is constrained by where he/she resides.

Head Start was first instituted in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’’s War on Poverty. The program served low-income children long before most states adopted state-funded pre-k programs and specifically aimed to ameliorate the effects of growing up in poverty through comprehensive child development programs. Started as a niche summer program that served 560,000 children, today Head Start serves nearly one million children across the country year round.

NIEER’s State(s) of Head Start is the first report in Head Start’s 50-year history to examine Head Start enrollment, funding, quality, and duration across the states. It reveals that only 18% of low-income three-year-olds and 21 percent of low-income four-year-olds receive Head Start services. Additionally, it shows that access to Head Start varies greatly by state. For example, among three- and four-year-olds living in poverty, 100% of eligible children in North Dakota attended Head Start programs in 2014-2015, whereas just 16% of eligible children in Nevada were enrolled in Head Start programs. In other words a poor three- or four-year-old in Nevada has less than a one in five chance of attending Head Start, while a poor child in North Dakota has a 100% chance of attending Head Start.

Even less three-year-olds living in poverty across the country have access to Head Start. The number of enrolled three-year-olds as a percent of children in poverty ranges from 2.7% in Nevada to 13% in the District of Columbia. The picture for low-income children in Nevada is concerning. There is a large population of children living in poverty, but the state has the lowest percentage of children living in poverty enrolled in Head Start of any state. In certain states the lack of Head Start spots would be less concerning because they have robust state pre-k programs that serve a high percentage of low-income children. This is not the case in Nevada.  Nevada’s public pre-k program is not serving these vulnerable children. Overall, only 6.72% of four-year-olds in the state are enrolled in Head Start or state funded pre-k.

Further complicating access inequities is the fact that states with large Hispanic populations are receiving less money per child enrolled in Head Start. Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, and Texas — all states with large Latinx populations — receive less funding per Head Start child than the national average.

In the report, authors Barnett and Friedman-Krauss write: “We can think of no reason that poor children in one state are less deserving of a strong early childhood program than those in another.”

So what actually explains these inequities? Continue reading