Author Archives: Kelly Robson

Rural Communities Don’t All Agree on the End Goal of Public Education

Should schools push all students to go to college or are alternatives like career and technical education (CTE) appropriate? The debate is far from settled. As the “college for all” mantra has taken hold over the last decade, CTE has gotten a bad rap as a dumping ground for underachieving kids. But critics of “college for all” point out that, done well, CTE can motivate students and help them build skills needed in the labor market. Nowhere is this debate more salient than in America’s rural schools.

For a recent report, Voices from Rural Oklahoma, Juliet Squire and I spent two weeks traveling throughout Oklahoma, conducting focus groups with members of rScreen Shot 2017-02-22 at 3.12.57 PMural communities across the state. We covered a lot of ground in these conversations, touching on issues like education funding, high school students’ course options, post-high school opportunities, and school consolidation. In each and every focus group, participants conveyed uncertainty and disagreement about what Oklahoma’s rural schools ought to be preparing students to do once they graduate.

In some cases, aversion to “college for all” was rooted in fear — fear that sending kids away to school would mean they wouldn’t return home, thus hurting their communities. There is evidence that suggests this does happen, that it is often the best and brightest that leave rural areas, leaving behind those with less education who are less prepared to help their communities prosper. A participant in one of our focus groups explained it this way: “If you drive them to college, they may have to go to Kansas City…You know, you’re setting them up to go away [rather than] return and develop our economy.”

Other participants’ views about about the necessity of higher education were shaped by the realities of their communities. We heard many stories about families who needed a welder or a plumber or an electrician — but none exist in their communities. In others, high school graduates working in the oil fields or wind farms were able to make a real, living wage without higher education. One participant told us: “A large percentage of our kids need to have a trade — be it carpentry, welding, plumbing, heat and air — ‘cause I know in our area, we don’t have enough of any of those.”

But these stories were far from universal. We also heard from parents desperate to send their kids to college, a desire stemming from their own struggle securing employment. One participant told us his story:

Just from my experience, I’ve been a welder for 16 years. I’m currently unemployed because of the market falling, bottom falling plum out of it. My boy, since he was big enough to follow me around, was putting my welding hood on. And I tell him, “You better get an education.” […] My dad grew up doing construction. I grew up doing welding. That’s no longer — not going to be available for very much longer. So education is very high and especially with us, you know, I’m telling my kids, “You got to get an education. You got to go to college.”

The economic realities of rural communities have changed significantly in recent decades, and in Oklahoma they fluctuate with the volatility in oil and gas markets. Community members may know well what skills and education credentials are necessary to get a job in their small town. But they have less information about what is needed to be employable in a different city or state, and even less understanding of the skills and knowledge that will be needed ten years from now.

Thankfully, rural communities don’t need to choose between “college for all” and high-quality CTE. Instead, state policymakers, business leaders, and education leaders can work together to help students and families understand and navigate their options. This includes listening to and accounting for the perspectives of students and parents, as we sought to do in our report. But it also involves a broader understanding of where the economy is, where it’s headed, and what skills and education will be necessary for students to thrive. With thoughtful coordination among the various actors and decision-makers in rural communities, students and families can be better positioned to make informed decisions about their educations and careers.

School Choice Alone Won’t Solve Educational Inequities Tied to Zip Code

Betsy DeVos advocates for school choice, at least in part, because she sees it as a strategy to address inequities in the public education system and expand access to quality schools for low-income students. But in contrast to many education reformers who speak explicitly about the role race plays in issues of educational inequity, DeVos talks in terms of geography. Her common catchphrase is that “every child, no matter their zip code, deserves access to a quality education.”

This raises two important questions: First, is talking about geography a reasonable proxy for educational inequiScreen Shot 2017-01-23 at 5.16.25 PMties that affect poor and minority students? And if so, are choice programs that enable students to attend schools outside their zip codes enough to disrupt the racial and income-based inequities that are tied to geography?

Here’s what we know about the relationship between income, race, and geography:

  • Growing up in a poor neighborhood is correlated with a host of negative outcomes, including higher rates of depression and obesity, poor academic outcomes, and lower future earnings.
  • Poor black people are five times as likely and poor Hispanics are three times as likely to live in a neighborhood with concentrated poverty compared to poor whites.
  • Children who attend high-poverty schools score lower on standardized tests than children attending more affluent schools.
  • Black and Hispanic children are more likely to attend high-poverty schools.
  • When low-income students are able to attend wealthier schools (where fewer than 20 percent of students qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program), the achievement gap closes between those students and their peers.

As these data demonstrate, neighborhoods, zip codes, census tracts, and other geographic boundaries are a reasonable proxy for much of the racial and income inequity that policymakers and politicians are seeking to upend.

But does that mean that allowing students to access educational options outside their neighborhoods will ensure equitable access to quality education for low-income and minority students? Continue reading

Finding and Financing Facilities Remains a Barrier for Idaho Charter Schools

Finding and financing school facilities continues to be a major barrier for charter schools. Many states have created programs to help ease the burden, including loan programs, per-pupil facilities allocations, and provisions to help charters access unused facilities.

But no state has fully equalized facilities access for charter schools. Idaho is no exception.

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 4.45.23 PMIn a new report, Juliet Squire and I present the results of a survey of Idaho’s charter school leaders. We asked charter leaders about their facilities-related expenditures, and what amenities (like auditoriums, gyms, and libraries) their facilities have. We then collected data points like the square footage and seat capacity of schools’ current facilities.

These data enabled us to quantify the stark discrepancy in access to state and local facilities funding sources between district and charter schools. On average, districts have access to approximately $1,445 per pupil of state and local funding. Charter schools get less than one-quarter this amount: $347.

Organizations like Building Hope and foundations like the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation (a Bellwether client) have helped close this gap for some charter schools. Others have been able to access tax-exempt bonds through the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. And the state has recently enacted a debt reserve fund and a small per-pupil facilities allocation (about $335 this year). Even so, most charter schools rely heavily on their per-pupil funds to cover facilities-related expenses.

The data from our survey suggest that, despite these avenues for facilities funding, accessing financing remains a major barrier to securing an adequate facility. Moreover, charter leaders struggle to find property suitable for their school, and often have to make significant tradeoffs — like forgoing a gymnasium or using cheaper materials to build. When facilities are inadequate, charter leaders indicate that it is difficult to provide the educational programming they envision for their students.

But perhaps the most telling finding is that, despite the financial constraints they face, charter leaders are doing extraordinary work securing facilities for their schools. In fact, they are able to build schools at a fraction of what traditional school districts spend. Continue reading

XQ Prize-Winning School Will Provide Educational Continuity for Disconnected Youth

RISE High, which just won $10 million in the XQ high school redesign competition, was created to address the unique needs of students facing disruptive life circumstances.

School instability is one of the biggest educational issues facing youth who experience crises like homelessness, foster care placement, or incarceration. These youth often miss school frequently and switch schools repeatedly, and, subsequently, they face diminished long-term academic outcomes.

Screen Shot 2016-09-16 at 4.49.34 PMThere are a number of things that schools and districts can do to facilitate attendance and consistency for students whose educations are severely disrupted — things like rerouting school buses, sharing data across agencies, implementing wraparound services, and utilizing competency-based education — but few truly solve the physical challenge of getting students to and from school every day.

Until now. RISE High will have several physical sites, an online learning system, and a mobile resource center. Students will have the option to attend any one of the school’s physical or virtual sites, helping ensure students can access the day’s lessons and/or tutoring regardless of where they may be. The physical sites will be co-located with service providers, and the mobile unit will be equipped with hygiene products, cell phone chargers, and Internet access to solve some of the basic — and often overlooked — challenges these students face.

But RISE High will do more for these students than just meet them where they are physically. Because it is one school, it eliminates many of the common barriers that highly transient students face. Students will be able to maintain consistent enrollment in a single school but attend multiple sites—rather than un-enroll and re-enroll in a new school with each move. Students will not risk losing credits due to course incompatibility between schools or districts. Instead, RISE High will provide each student with a personalized learning plan and allow them to earn credit upon mastery of a unit. This type of competency-based learning can be powerful for students whose life circumstances make it challenging to regularly attend a traditional school with seat-time requirements. And students will have a single record of their coursework rather than a complicated file cobbled together by many schools over time, which can help facilitate high school graduation and postsecondary enrollment.

RISE High has incredible potential to increase the continuity and consistency of the school experiences of youth whose educations have been severely disrupted. With greater consistency comes greater educational success, and, ultimately, more promising life outcomes.

Serving Disconnected Youth in a Dispersed School System

What happens to homeless and disconnected youth in a decentralized system of schools? This is a question that must be top of mind as charter school enrollment climbs and school systems become increasingly decentralized in cities across the country. (For an in-depth look at data on charter schools, see a new Bellwether resource, the Learning Landscape.) To some extent, education leaders have begun to grapple with the challenges of meeting all students’ needs when the district is no longer the only provider of education. Services like special education and policies like discipline — once in the sole purview of the district — have had to be reimagined to ensure equality and fairness across a decentralized system of schools.

In the same way, the systems and policies in place to support homeless and other disconnected youth must be reimagined to ensure students’ needs are identified and met.

The McKinney-Vento Act Captureoutlines the services homeless students are entitled to, including requiring each local education agency (LEA) to have a homeless liaison on staff, in charge of identifying homeless youth and liaising with outside agencies such as homeless shelters or mental health services. Though this model has its challenges, it does streamline districts’ advocacy efforts for homeless youth. In a traditional district, one person is in charge of coordinating with all necessary agencies to ensure that a homeless child’s needs are met. In cities where the majority of school-aged students attend the local school district, this means that those agencies are generally working with a single person to meet the needs of the majority of homeless students in the city.

But in cities with large numbers of charter schools, there could be dozens of liaisons — from numerous CMOs, independent charter schools, and the district — reaching out to the same limited number of service agencies in an attempt to secure services for their homeless students. The increased burden of coordination across many schools could lead to a decline in the quality of services.

It is imperative that education leaders and policymakers plan carefully and thoughtfully to ensure that homeless and disconnected youth are not lost in the shuffle. There is also real opportunity for new thinking around these issues: The autonomy and flexibility of the charter sector gives leaders a chance to fully reimagine the relationship between schools and service providers, cutting through silos and pioneering new ways for schools to identify homeless and other disconnected students and ensure there are supports are in place to help them do well.