Category Archives: Education Governance

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.

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.

What’s Really Driving Leadership Turnover in Education?

Image by Alachua County via Flickr

Image by Alachua County via Flickr

When DC Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced she was nominating Oakland, CA Superintendent Antwan Wilson to succeed Kaya Henderson as DC Public Schools’ Chancellor (after an anxious public search), the San Francisco Chronicle responded with a scathing op-ed accusing Wilson of disloyalty and self-serving ambition. The Chronicle also took a few shots at San Francisco’s former superintendent Richard Carranza, now working in Houston, and generally railed against urban superintendents who “come in, do enough to raise hopes, then move on to a higher paying job.”

High turnover in educational leadership is alarming, but to paraphrase the advice columnist Dan Savage, if you have a long string of dramatic, failed relationships, the common denominator is you. I’m not just picking on the Bay Area — the average urban superintendent stays in his or her role just 3.2 years, and state education chiefs turn over at an even faster rate. These dismal numbers are likely not the sole product of individual ambition, but it remains unclear what actually drives this churn. When experienced, qualified school system leaders across the country leave their posts much earlier than expected, should we blame the individuals, or take a closer look at the jobs?

What is clear is that state and district executive leadership roles have become more challenging in recent years. Federal education policies put myriad new responsibilities and choices in the hands of state and district central offices to measure teacher and school performance, increase student achievement, and close achievement gaps for disadvantaged  groups of students. For example, a new publication on teacher evaluation by my colleagues Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead uncovers a minefield of choices facing state and district leaders — and that is just one policy area out of many. Leaders are figuring out these new responsibilities in an increasingly polarized and politicized educational environment.

Holding our school systems and their leaders accountable for providing an excellent education to every student is absolutely the right thing to do, but we also should recognize that educational bureaucracies were not designed to be agile performance managers orchestrating school turnarounds. They were mostly built to disburse various funding streams down to schools, and collect documentation that the conditions of that funding and other legislative mandates have been met. Those compliance responsibilities remain in place even as new performance goals are added, and on top of that, many agency budgets are being slashed by their state legislatures. Untangling the messes of red tape, budgetary crises, and misaligned priorities takes time and support that most superintendents are not afforded by their school boards or by their communities.

Even the best leaders can be hamstrung by the political, legal, and bureaucratic contexts in which they operate. Instead of looking for more selfless miracle workers to lead dysfunctional systems, envision a school system where great leaders (or maybe good-enough leaders!) could do their best work. How would it be organized? How would it be accountable to the community and work in the best interests of students? What are the conditions that enable that kind of school system to exist and succeed? I don’t have all the answers, but legislators, governors, mayors, and school boards will need to think bigger to disrupt the current cycle of leadership churn, and these big questions are one place to start.

Donald Trump, Public Education, and the Rise of the (New) New Federalists

donald-trump-1818950_1280Many of you might have woken up on November 9 (and perhaps each day thereafter) thinking to yourself “but Donald Trump can’t actually do that, can he?” As far as education goes, the answer is mostly “no, he can’t.” The federal executive branch cannot make binding education policy: it can only offer states funds in exchange for adopting preferred policies.

This is because thankfully there are structural limitations to the president’s power; in high school social studies we called them “checks and balances” and probably thought of them as quaint academic concepts. But these checks and balances — especially the intentional friction between the states and the federal government — will play a big role in education policymaking over the next four years.

Federalism is the name for the concept that the U.S. Constitution grants certain limited powers to the federal government and that all other powers are preserved by the states. Despite the possibly misleading name, it is the philosophy that constrains federal power and it is a fundamental principle of American government. And one of the most visible exercises of that state power is public education. (Others that will likely be very important over the next four years include policing and health care.) Continue reading

Charter Board Members Shape DC’s Charter Sector in Countless Small Ways

In a new report “Charter School Boards in the Nation’s Capital,” my co-author Allison Crean Davis and I provide a wealth of new information on charter boards in Washington, DC. But there’s one simple fact that merits further consideration: 62 different boards oversee the schools that enroll nearly half of the city’s children. Individually, each charter board makes consequential decisions for their school. But collectively, their decisions shape how the whole sector evolves.

School-level governance means charter boards can act quickly, approve the roll out (or roll back) of programs in response to feedback, and even address individual student or parent concerns. Decisions at this scale can be faster, more responsive, and less bureaucratic than those at the district or state level. In short, it is far easier to change the course of a speedboat than the Queen Mary (or the Titanic, depending on your optimism regarding district reform efforts).

Depending on a school’s particular challenges, one charter board may spend a great deal of time and energy debating whether and how to increase the salaries of their teachers. Another may focus on student recruitment and retention. A third may spend most of its time searching for their next school leader. The open responses to our survey showed board members wrestling with each of these issues and many more. In these myriad discussions and decisions, small organizations are responding and adapting to changing needs, problems, new information, and opportunities.

We note in our report a number of data points that suggest boards of low-quality charter schools are changing their practices. As we might expect, the boards of the highest-quality schools are most likely to evaluate their school leaders, they meet most often, and they have the most accurate knowledge of their school’s student population. However, the board practices of low-quality schools fall between those of high- and middling-quality schools rather than below them.

These data points present the possibility that board members of low-quality schools are responding to their own sense of urgency to improve school quality and/or pressure from the DC Public Charter School Board. (More research, especially analyzing board practices and school quality over time, would shed valuable light here.)

School-level governance means that the potential impact of a charter board’s actions are correspondingly smaller than the potential impact of an urban district’s comprehensive reform plan. However, school-level governance also enables each charter school to adapt more quickly, in a thousand small ways. Meanwhile, the education policy community watches to see whether these adaptations collectively fulfill the promise of a continuously improving charter sector. I’m optimistic.

You can read the full report here.