Author Archives: Jason Weeby and Lauren Schwartze

Veterans in Education Organizations May be Overlooked, Isolated

Photo by Ian Koski.

Photo by Ian Koski.

Today is Veterans Day and an opportunity to express our gratitude for those who have served in a military conflict. More importantly, it’s a time to consider if education leaders and their organizations are doing enough to hire and support veterans.

So we decided to dig into data generated by Bellwether’s Talent Ready Diagnostic (TRD), a proprietary framework that we use collaboratively with organizations to assess their “talent readiness” along 16 key talent dimensions including core values, leadership, culture, diversity, equity and inclusion, competencies, talent acquisition, on-boarding, performance development, career development, total rewards, decision making, communications, and work/life mix. The results provide us with a window into how “talent ready” an organization is — that is that degree to which they are innovative, effectively managed, great places to work that generate sustainable results and have durable, authentic relationships with the communities they serve. Importantly, it provides us and our clients with valuable data on the diversity of their employees and whether their employees feel that the work culture is inclusive. Thousands of employees from 36 education organizations across the sector, including 14 nonprofits, 13 CMOs, and 9 districts, have submitted responses.

We wanted to see if we could get a picture of the sentiments expressed by education organization employees who identify as military veterans. Our data set is small, so all the requisite interpretation caveats apply, but clear themes emerged.

What we found is discouraging.

Overall, there are incredibly few areas where the veteran group reports more positive perceptions of talent dimensions than the non-veteran group, suggesting that the identities and experiences of veterans may be isolated or overlooked.

Here are some concrete findings: Continue reading

Reactions to the U.S. Education Innovation Index

One of the main goals of creating and publishing the U.S. Education Innovation Index Prototype and Report was to stimulate evidence-based conversations about innovation in the education sector and push the field to consider more sophisticated tools, methods, and practices. Since its release three weeks ago at the Digital Promise Innovation Clusters convening in Providence, the index has been met with an overwhelmingly positive reception.

I’m grateful for the many fruitful one-on-one conversations that have pushed my thinking, raised interesting questions, and provoked new ideas.

Here are a few takeaways on the report itself:

People love radar charts. And I’m one of those people. In the case of the innovation index, radar charts were a logical choice for visualizing nine dimensions and a total score. Here they are again in all their glory.

City Comparisons

Readers weren’t always clear on the intended audience or purpose. This concern came up often and hit close to home as someone who strives to produce work that is trusted, relevant, timely, and useful. One of the benefits of the prototype is that we can test the tool’s utility before expanding the scope of the project to more cities or an even more complicated theoretical framework. So far the primary audience for the index funders, policy makers, superintendents, education leaders, and city leaders have demonstrated interest in learning more about the thinking behind the index and how it can be applied to their work. Ultimately I hope it will influence high-stakes funding, policy, and strategic decisions.

The multidimensionality of innovation challenges assumptions. When I explain that we measured the innovativeness of education sectors in four cities New Orleans, San Francisco, Indianapolis, and Kansas City, MO inevitably, the next question I get is “how do they rank?” Instead of answering, I ask my conversant for his/her rankings. I’ve had this exchange dozens of times, and in almost every case, New Orleans topped the list because of the unique charter school environment. When I then explain that the index was sector agnostic it doesn’t give preference to charter, district, or private schools people immediately reconsider and put San Francisco in the number one slot. What this tells me is that many people associate innovation with one approach rather than treating it as the multidimensional concept that it is. This misperception has real policy and practice implications, and I hope the index provides nuance to the thinking of decision makers.

Dynamism” and “district deviance” are intriguing but need more research. Two of the measures that I’m most excited about are also ones that have invited scrutiny and criticism: dynamism and district deviance. Dynamism is the entry and exit of schools, nonprofits, and businesses from a city’s education landscape. Too much dynamism can destabilize communities and economies. Too little can keep underperforming organizations operating at the expense of new and potentially better ones. In the private sector, healthy turnover rates are between five and 20 percent, depending on the industry. We don’t know what that number is for education yet, but it’s likely on the low end of the range. More research is needed. Our district deviance measure assumes that districts that spend their money differently compared to their peers and are trying new things, which is good. It’s a novel approach, but its accuracy is vulnerable if the assumptions don’t pan out. Again more research is needed.

Measure more cities! Everyone wants to see more cities measured with the index for one of two reasons. The first is that they want to know how their city is doing on our nine dimensions. The second is that they want to compare cities to each other. Both make my heart sing. Knowing how a specific city measures up is the first step to improving it. Knowing how it compares to others is the first step to facilitate knowledge transfer and innovation diffusion.
Continue reading

What a Cluster! Dispatch from #EdClusters16

WaterFire - Providence, RI

via http://waterfire.org/

Last week, Digital Promise, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating innovation in education, hosted its fourth convening of Education Innovation Clusters in Providence, Rhode Island (#EdClusters16).

According to Digital Promise, “Education Innovation Clusters are local communities of practice that bring together educators, entrepreneurs, funders, researchers, and other community stakeholders (families, local government, non-profits) to support innovative teaching and learning in their region. By working together, these partners form a network that is uniquely positioned to design, launch, iterate on, and disseminate breakthrough learning practices and tools.”

The goal of the convening was to share best practices and address common challenges among clusters. One of those challenges is research and measurement of innovation efforts so I was there to share our recently released U.S. Education Innovation Index Prototype and Report (USEII).

I gave the whole presentation with my eyes closed (false) & there was more than one person listening (true!). Photo credit: @johnbaldo.

I was thrilled to be invited because there are only a handful of people in the education sector who are diligently working to push the envelope of schools. This group of entrepreneurs, funders, school leaders, and accelerator leaders were refreshingly aware of the current everyday realities of students, teachers, and principals, but thinking five to ten years into the future.

There was another reason that I was excited about joining this convening. Clusters are prototypical innovation-supporting institutions, structures that specifically aim to increase and improve innovation activities. The clusters facilitate social connections, help practitioners solve problems, and serve as hubs for the diffusion of new ideas. Because of this research-backed lesson, cities that are part of one of Digital Promise’s innovation clusters score higher on the USEII than those that don’t. Convenings of cluster leaders like this one create a superstructure for the diffusion of knowledge within and between clusters. It’s one thing to research networks like this, it’s quite another to be swept up in the debate, discussion, and energy for education innovation.

Here are a few observations on the convening and what it signals for education innovation: Continue reading

Red Herring in the Evergreen State: Adult Special Interests Try Blocking Progress (Again)

Red Herring

via havokjournal.com

What if I told you that there was a method for improving urban schools that, when done well, can close the achievement gap between low-income students of color and their white, wealthier peers? That, when instituted citywide, it can result in the most improved urban district in history? That there are reams of academic research to learn from, dozens of successes to replicate, and clear pitfalls to avoid?

If you’re a small group of parents backed by the Washington Education Association, you file a lawsuit to keep it from happening.

I’m talking about charter schools, of course, and the latest attempt to prevent Washington’s families from having the choice to send their children to a free public school other than their traditional district school.

If you aren’t following along, Washington’s legislature passed a charter school law by voter referendum in 2012 only for it to be ruled unconstitutional last year due to an arcane definition of what’s considered a public school. A new law with a different funding source passed in April.

Kim Mead, the president of the Washington Education Association, frames the effort to block charter schools this way: “Instead of passing unconstitutional charter school laws, we believe the Legislature should focus on its paramount duty — fully funding K-12 basic education for all of our state’s 1.1 million students, no matter where they live.”

This is a red herring. There’s no doubt that all public schools, charters included, should be funded fully and equitably. But it deflects from the fact that the legislature has already passed the law. Mead’s red herring is also a clever way to avoid saying that eight schools in five cities should close their doors to hundreds of families who sought alternatives to their traditional public schools.

The move to block Washington’s charter law is a prime example of special (adult) interests throttling a promising model for improving the educational outcomes for students who need the most help. Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and Washington State resident, said it best:

The arguments against public charter schools in our state are based on fear-mongering, not facts, and are out of step with the rest of the country. Public charter schools are no panacea, nor are they a replacement for the many amazing public schools we have today, including those that my kids attend. But shame on all of us if we let misinformation and interest-group politics shut the door on new hope and opportunity for the kids who need it most.

Washington is a latecomer to the charter school movement— 42 other states and DC have charter laws on the books — but because of this, the state’s leaders also have 25 years of lessons at their disposal to build a top notch system. It could be a magnificent opportunity to give options to students stuck in failing schools, if only a small group of adults would get out of the way.

[Corrected 8/11/16: The original post indicated that the new law had more stringent regulations instead of a different funding source. It also indicated that the new law is fully constitutional. While it hasn’t been ruled UNconstitutional, no court has yet ruled either way. Both have been corrected.]

Clinton Has a Platform for K-12 Education Innovation, She Just Doesn’t Know It Yet.

Read more live coverage of #EDlection2016 via Bellwether and The 74’s Convention Live Blog.

Last month, Hillary Clinton laid out an initiative on technology and innovation at Galvanize, a nationally-recognized technology incubator in Denver. The proposals are wide-ranging, from talent to cyber security and, surprisingly, may include what’s perhaps her most detailed K-12 plan around STEM education.

The slate of proposals is impressive and it includes ideas that will keep many sectors competitive domestically and globally. But for some reason, many of the strategies that Clinton proposes for transforming manufacturing, transportation, energy, and healthcare don’t explicitly apply to the education sector.

Instead, Clinton’s platform positions the education sector as a means to an end, preparing a knowledgeable workforce that will advance other sectors but the sector is not recognized as one that would benefit from serious innovation efforts that others enjoy.

Photo from BMACHI

Photo from BMACHI

This perception is indicative of how most people, even reformers, perceive the education sector. Perhaps it’s because the U.S. education system is so localized, because people and lessons from the private sector are suspect, or because there isn’t a lot of exposure to successful and responsible innovation efforts.  Whatever the reason, this perception is keeping the education sector from evolving and improving.

Our country’s worst performing schools and chronically under-performing districts do their best to make incremental improvements, because the K-12 education sector in America lacks the kind of robust public and private infrastructure to take on serious innovation.

For all of the rhetoric about staying competitive with Singapore and Finland, scant attention is given to the role that innovation can play in making that happen. Research, development, and innovation-friendly policies are critical in keeping other sectors competitive. Why shouldn’t that be true for education?

While the context may differ, the concepts that drive innovation in other sectors can and should apply to the education sector. Clinton’s campaign could fill its vacuous K-12 education platform with ideas it already has in its innovation and technology platform.

Here are a few of her own strategies that Clinton should apply to education.

Increase Access to Capital for Growth-Oriented Small Businesses and Start-Ups, with a Focus on Minority, Women, and Young Entrepreneurs

There’s a lot in Clinton’s technology proposal incubator creation, student loan deferral for entrepreneurs, and global recruiting for STEM professionals and entrepreneurs — all of which have applications in education. Tom Vander Ark of Getting Smart and David Fu of 4.0 Schools  make the case that intermediaries like incubators, accelerators, and funders are key to making an education ecosystem thriving and dynamic. My own project underway at Bellwether to measure the level of innovation in education ecosystems supports this notion. Clinton’s announcement at Galvanize signals their importance. When combined with strategies to recruit entrepreneurs, startup assistance for organizations that launch new school models, programs, and products can get a city or state’s innovation flywheel spinning.

Invest in Science and Technology R&D and Make Tech Transfer Easier

According to the Clinton campaign’s brief, “Hillary believes the benefits of government investment in research and development (R&D) are profound and irrefutable.” Yet her commitment to R&D doesn’t extend to the education sector. Right now, the U.S. invests only around three percent of its federal education budget on R&D, and the trends don’t look like that’ll change any time soon. The R&D obligations for the federal Department of Education have been decreasing steadily since 2006. The DOE’s Office of Innovation and Improvement’s 2017 budget is down 17 percent from 2016 compared to a department-wide reduction of just 0.32 percent. Closing the opportunity gap has proven more difficult than putting a man on the moon, so perhaps our investments in innovation should match the enormity of the challenges educators face.

Ensure Benefits are Flexible, Portable, and Comprehensive as Work Changes

In a recent blog post, my colleague Max Marchitello points out that most teacher pension plans restrict the mobility and savings potential of teachers, and Clinton’s proposal to create flexible, portable, and comprehensive benefits to workers should apply to the second largest workforce in America.

“The teacher workforce like nearly every labor force in America has evolved considerably. No longer are teachers educators for life, nor do they live in a single state decade after decade. Teachers are mobile. They enter and exit the workforce at different points in their lives. Nevertheless, teacher pension systems have persisted for more than a century with more or less the same structure. By increasing flexibility and portability for teacher retirement benefits, we can ensure that teachers don’t have to choose between working with kids and earning a healthy start on retirement saving.”

Reduce Barriers to Entry and Promote Healthy Competition

One of the more interesting, powerful, and likely controversial ideas for increasing innovation in the education sector is to make sure entrepreneurs don’t have to overcome bureaucratic obstacles to implement new ideas. The brief states that,

“Hillary will challenge state and local governments to identify, review, and reform legal and regulatory obligations that protect legacy incumbents against new innovators. Examples include state regulations governing automotive dealers that stifle innovation and restrict market access, or local rules governing utility-pole access that restrain additional fiber and small cell broadband deployment.”

A classic example of this happening in the education sector is when school districts (legacy incumbents) make access to facilities for charter schools difficult or impossible to prevent their openings or expansions. So many policies and special interests exist specifically to protect legacy incumbents that pursuing this with seriousness would shake up the K-12 education space considerably.

Open up More Government Data for Public Uses

Data is essential for good decision-making, but accessing and analyzing government data in the education sector is often a dreadful experience, a topic about which I’ve recently written. Opening up more government data for public use is important, but the federal government can also use its heft to collect and analyze complicated quantitative data. A recent report on K-12 labor productivity by the Bureau of Labor Statistics signals that this may occur more in the future. Clinton could take a more aggressive stance and require states to conform to specific data reporting standards and timelines.

When ESSA is shifting power to states, quarterbacking innovation efforts would be a way for the federal government to extend their influence beyond policing states accountability systems. And, the U.S. Department of Education already has an office to do it.

The DOE’s Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) is a natural home for these activities, but a mindset shift would be required there to make them happen. It would have to focus more on creating and executing on policies that create the conditions for others to implement new ideas instead of funding programs with very specific aims. Their Investing in Innovation (I3) grant competition, Race to the Top District, and credit enhancement service for charter school facilities are example of steps in the right direction.

Realizing the vision to make the U.S. education system equitable and excellent will require new ideas and new ideas happen through innovation activities. Other industries have made innovation a central strategy to stay competitive and there are many lessons that can inform the education sector. If Clinton should become president and wants to modernize the federal role in K-12 education, she’d benefit from looking at her own proposals for other sectors for a path forward.