February 22, 2017

Four Problems With Betsy DeVos’ Possible Vision of School Accountability

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

During her Senate hearing, now Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos repeatedly stated that she supports school accountability. But what does accountability actually mean to her? For clues, I looked into the model school choice legislation proposed by the American Federation for Children (AFC), an organization DeVos formerly chaired. If that bill reflects DeVos’ priorities, it suggests she supports accountability measures that are significantly weaker than the ones currently applied to public schools in all 50 states.

There are at least four key accountability problems with the AFC’s voucher program:

Continue reading


February 16, 2017

A Day in the Life: Bellwether Analyst Andrew Rayner

Andrew Rayner

Bellwether Talent Services analyst Andrew Rayner

Bellwether analyst and Chicago native Andrew Rayner always wanted to be a teacher. From a very young age, he says, he loved school, learning, and teaching people things. Teaching in the Marshall Islands and Bosnia after college reinforced his love for the world of education, so when he came back to the U.S., he worked as a behavioral specialist for kids with mental health and behavioral challenges. The following year, he was one of the founding teachers at a charter school in Boston, where he taught math and special education. “To see changes in my students, even over the course of a year, was so amazing,” Andrew explains about his love of teaching.

After five years in the classroom, Andrew joined Bellwether’s Talent Services team in August 2016. Below, we talk to him about his path from a classroom educator to an education graduate student to a member of our own nonprofit firm.

Why did you transition out of the classroom and into other branches of the education field?

My behavioral work with kids made me see the importance of organizational culture as a whole in terms of lifting up kids. The culture and environment you create for students, both in the classroom and in the school building, matter. I also saw how things outside the school building were affecting and enticing kids. When I was a charter school teacher, I taught the same group of kids for two years. Getting to know them reiterated the need to influence the culture inside the classroom, inside the school as a whole, and in the community outside of the school.

I love teaching. It is rewarding but also incredibly challenging. I wanted to find another way to impact the field. I’m a big believer that if you want to become an expert in a field, you should see it from as many angles as you possibly can. So, while five years is not an extensive period of time teaching in comparison to many people, I felt ready to see the field from a different perspective.

I went on to get my master’s degree with an interest in how to create safe and brave spaces in organizations to discuss issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). I went to graduate school thinking I was going to do that work with kids, but I realized that adults actually need a lot of support to deeply and authentically engage in discussions about how to accelerate progress toward building and running DEI organizations.

Can you speak to your identities and how they inform your passion for DEI work?

As a person of color, I loved teaching in the Marshall Islands. You wouldn’t think that anything while living on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean would remind me of home (and the place itself didn’t, really), but the kids looked somewhat like me. They shared my complexion. Then, I did work in Bosnia, where my students didn’t look like me at all. It seemed like every conversation happening in sidewalk cafes would stop as I walked by. People would literally stare at me and point. It wasn’t malicious at all. They just had never seen a black person in the flesh. I felt like such a unicorn.

Working outside the country reminded me of the work that was needed in our country, especially in communities where the people looked like me. I was driven to go back to the United States and work in urban environments with historically marginalized and underserved youth, which is why I started work as a behavioral specialist.

My other salient identity is my queer sexuality. I came out to my parents during my second year of teaching in Boston. I never came out to my students — I was still figuring out what it meant to be a queer teacher.

However, during my third year of teaching, sexuality started to be talked about between the students themselves. The administrators wanted someone to talk to the seventh graders about it, particularly because bisexuality was “trending” in the seventh grade. I was asked by an administrator to consider talking to the students, and one of the reasons that was given for my involvement was because I was gay myself. At first, I thought it was an opportunity to leverage my identity for the betterment of the students. But then I realized I didn’t know how to do it! It also felt really uncomfortable that I would be asked to do it because I was gay.

It ended up being addressed by someone in that grade-level team, but it was the first time I really thought about how to talk about sexuality in a way that was beneficial and productive to the students and not just about me coming out as a gay teacher. I began to ask school administrators if there were any internal school policies or structures in place to support me as a queer-identified teacher if I were to have come out to the students and something went wrong (e.g., a student felt uncomfortable or a parent complained). The administrators said that there were no policies or structures in place and that they had never thought about it before. That was mortifying to me.

There are still challenges for queer educators. Where I am positioned now will hopefully allow me the opportunity to create safe spaces through talent planning in organizations. Through Bellwether, I hope to have opportunities to lead the field in this work.

What attracted you to working at Bellwether?

By the end of grad school, I was looking for work in diversity consulting and found it a really hard thing to break into. I stumbled upon Bellwether, and what started out as an informational interview turned into the first of multiple interviews. I knew education consulting would give me that different-altitude look at the field and the opportunity to see what it is like to enact systems-level change.

I was drawn to Bellwether because it is mission-driven, and I had not seen that in a lot of other firms. I also thought it was incredibly impressive that the organization spanned across talent, strategy, and policy. This organization embodied the mantra I shared earlier by getting its feet wet in three different views of the same field.

My eyes have been opened in ways I didn’t think they would be, particularly about the impact that talent services work has on perceptions of DEI on the ground. For example, I never realized that how you are compensated, how you move along a compensation schedule, and perceptions of the two are all very much issues of equity. It has been great to learn that by implementing certain strategies along the talent life cycle, you can affect the experience of DEI that individuals have at an organization.

Is there anything that stands out for you about the work environment at Bellwether?

I have been lucky in that I’ve always worked at organizations that are extremely passionate about the work they are doing. That’s no different at Bellwether: People care very much about what they are working on and about impacting education. And they do it with a smile and love to laugh with one another. They bring that joy both to the seriousness with which they do the work and also to the clients to whom they’re delivering the work.

I am fortunate to be at Bellwether as we are fleshing out our DEI offerings and services for clients. I’m excited to see how we are going to codify the practices we are establishing and how the solutions we are coming up with evolve.

 


February 15, 2017

Three Lessons for Reforming State Early Childhood Systems “In Crisis”

preschool teacherLast week, Massachusetts’ House Speaker Robert DeLeo declared his state’s early childhood workforce “in crisis.” How did he come to this conclusion? A year ago, DeLeo asked local business leaders to examine the state’s early childhood education system, and last week they released a report showing unacceptably low salaries and high turnover among early childhood educators in the state.

But Massachusetts is no anomaly. If we applied the criteria used by the Massachusetts Advisory Group to any state in the country, that state’s early childhood workforce would also be deemed “in crisis.”

So what can state legislators serious about reforming their early childhood workforce do? Past efforts to improve public pre-k programs and federal efforts to professionalize the Head Start workforce offer several lessons. Continue reading


February 8, 2017

Two Ways Compensation And Diversity Should Not Be At Odds

At this time of year, schools are buzzing with the sounds of potential new teachers, school leaders, and other team members. Candidates are touring schools, presenting sample lessons, and interviewing, all with the end goal of an accepted offer. Given talent shortages in some areas of the country, Bellwether’s Talent Advising team has seen increased interest from both traditional and charter public school systems in redesigning their compensation approaches to best position them to attract top talent.

Despite rendollar-1924523_1920ewed energy in our sector to create diverse, equitable, and inclusive teams of adults that will then better create equitable and inclusive environments for students, existing diversity conversations don’t talk enough about compensation, and vice versa. Reasons for this may range from lack of awareness to conflicting priorities such as autonomy and flexibility. In well-intentioned efforts to woo particularly high-potential candidates, we often find leaders making isolated “little” decisions around compensation and rewards which can unintentionally create an inequitable set of practices and behaviors. In larger organizations where hiring authority is dispersed across a larger group of managers, these disparate choices can have even greater consequences.

For example, referral bonuses are all the rage, particularly in tight hiring markets for strong mission-oriented organizations where mission fit is critical for a successful hire. Referral bonuses are paid to existing staff members for referring successful candidates to their employer.  

Why might this create a diversity problem? This is a technique that does an excellent job of maintaining the status quo of your current team demographics. Your current team is going to know more people similar to themselves due to their natural networks. Now, if you already have a diverse set of staff, then maintaining the status quo through existing networks could be fine, but if you are trying to expand your pipeline to develop a more diverse pool, this practice could hurt more than help.

Instead, you can target your referral bonuses to those who find candidates for particularly high-need subject areas or schools, limiting them to where you truly need an extra tool in your toolbox. You could also offer bonuses to staff who actively support your efforts to expand your pipeline by attending career fairs at HBCUs or identity-based conferences or by reaching out to affinity groups at teachers colleges.

As another example, opportunities to negotiate are handled differently at different organizations, with some school systems tied to a strict salary and bonus schedule while others may offer a bonus or higher salary when a candidate negotiates.

Why might this create an equity or inclusiveness problem? It’s well-known that some identity groups are more actively, consistently socialized to negotiate. In our work with clients, we see lax negotiation approaches leading to greater perception of compensation inequity among staff members.  In addition, the more leeway a leader has in determining compensation, the more likely you are to see unintentional bias begin to show up in actual wage differentials. No matter how much anti-bias training we do, we need structures in place to mitigate this.

Leaders often say they need to have flexibility to negotiate, and while I might personally beg to differ after working at multiple organizations with strict policies, I understand the concern. To achieve your goals more equitably, we usually recommend getting really clear ahead of time on the factors that you might negotiate around, such as former salary, competitive offers, or years of relevant experience. You can then both identify a policy that can apply to anyone equitably, but also proactively communicate that policy so hiring managers and candidates less likely to negotiate otherwise now have a clear policy to work from. In addition, calibration meetings to align on decisions across managers or a compensation review step can enable some autonomy in hiring manager decision-making while providing some checks and balances in the system to intervene when unintentional bias shows up in outcomes.

If you incorporate a wide number of perspectives and zoom out on your compensation approach, you can preemptively adjust or identify when your well-intended initiatives have subtly morphed into an equity challenge. By proactively addressing these “little” structural decisions, you can improve retention; more easily meet your goals around diversity, equity, and inclusiveness; and reduce hiring pressure. Competitive compensation does not have to be at odds with building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization.


February 7, 2017

We Have to Say More About Teacher Evaluation Reforms Than Just “They Didn’t Work”

In a piece for Education Next released last month, I looked at the Obama-era push for better teacher evaluation systems. As states and cities turn the page on that particular set of reforms, I wanted to pause and reflect on what we can learn from the last eight years. In the piece, I nodded toward some of the successes of that effort but spent more time reflecting on what could have gone better. I focused on four major policy mistakes:

  1. A universal approach of trying to get all states and cities to pursue teacher evaluation reform efforts;
  2. A narrow definition that focused too much on the specific elements of evaluation systems without leaving room to accomplish the same goals in different ways;
  3. An emphasis on process over purpose, which paid too much attention to the evaluation systems themselves and not enough on the actual use of those systems;
  4. A collision in timing with the rollout of Common Core that proved politically and logistically challenging.

These failures do not invalidate the entire theory of action that teachers matter and that improving the policies around how school districts hire, evaluate, compensate, and train teachers could lead to better outcomes for students. Encouraging school districts to evaluate teachers and principals at least in part on student growth, and to make consequential decisions based on those determinations, was never going to be an easy shift. It required new policies, new systems, and better tools, not to mention changing a culture that treated teachers as interchangeable widgets. For all these reasons and more, we haven’t seen the widespread changes President Obama or his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, might have hoped for when they made teacher evaluation one of their signature policies.

Still, failing to change everything doesn’t mean we’ve learned nothing. There’s a growing body of evidence that evaluation reform can be a viable school improvement strategy for places that want to pursue it. In my piece I cited a randomized controlled trial of the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF), which provided competitive grants for districts to revamp their evaluation and compensation systems. The study found that TIF led to gains equivalent to 10 percent of a year’s worth of learning in math and 11 percent in reading. There are other positive examples as well. Studies on evaluation reform efforts in Cincinnati, Chicago, Denver, New York City, and Washington, D.C. have found that comprehensive evaluation systems can help identify teachers who need to improve their practice, nudge low-performing teachers out of the profession, and, ultimately, boost student achievement. To be sure, these cities all pursued different sets of reforms, but they had the common thread that they were all trying to identify and act on differences in teacher performance.

In total, these positive examples provide evidence in support of the underlying theory of action on teacher evaluation reforms. Rather than discarding this era and moving on, as states and advocates seem wont to do, we should learn from this massive effort: what worked and what didn’t work and why.