Tag Archives: Accountability

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.

Go Forth and Improve, Teacher Preparation Programs. But Don’t Ask How.

2018663891_2209bb4ffe_o

Image by Kevin Dooley via Flickr

A few weeks ago, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote an open letter calling out education schools. In it, he made several blunt remarks about the quality of teacher preparation programs, including that current teacher training “lacks rigor, is out of step with the times, and […] leaves teachers unprepared and their future students at risk.”

What the former Secretary’s letter didn’t include, however, were specifics on how preparation programs should improve. He talked a lot about grades, and about holding teachers to high standards, but that’s it.

At this point, you may be thinking: “You can’t expect him to get into the nitty gritty! The letter was more an op-ed than a policy brief.”

Sure. But then last week, the Department of Education released the final version of its long-awaited teacher preparation regulations. The regulations are an effort to hold teacher preparation programs accountable for the performance of the teachers they train after those teachers enter the classroom. Using teacher performance data, the regulations require states to create a system that rates programs as effective, at-risk, or low-performing.

Like the open letter, these regulations are devoid of specifics for how programs should improve. They say that states need to provide technical assistance for low-performing programs, for example, but don’t hint at what that support should look like. When the regulations were out for public comment, which were due in February 2015, several commenters suggested that the regulations should include specific prescriptions for what states need to do to support programs — but the Department declined, saying instead that states have “the discretion to implement technical assistance in a variety of ways.”

Why do both of these documents — representing the past and future of the highest education office — say practically nothing about how preparation programs can get better?

The answer is depressing: As a field, we don’t know how to build a better teacher preparation program.

That’s what Melissa Steel King and I found in our latest paper, A New Agenda: Research to Build a Better Teacher Preparation Program. There’s half a century of research on what makes a good teacher, but that research provides only the barest outlines of what an effective preparation program should look like. So much of teacher prep research asks “Does it work?” when really we need to be asking, “How well does it work, for whom, and under what circumstances?” Continue reading

#16for16: A Policy Agenda for the Next President (Whoever That Is)

WhitehouseThis election season has been long on drama and vitriol and woefully short on substantive policy ideas. And K-12 education might win the “Most Ignored Major Policy Issue” superlative in the yearbook of the 2016 campaign. Isolated references to charter schools and feel-good statements about teachers aside, neither Clinton nor Trump has proposed a comprehensive vision for our nation’s public schools. This lack of attention belies the importance and need for an education vision: Although the current administration presided over the passage of the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA), the devil is in the details, and the critical work of its implementation will be left to the next administration. But we’d be hard pressed to identify what policies might emerge come January.

We’re here to help.

Bellwether has compiled a collection called 16 for 2016: 16 Education Policy Ideas for the Next President. We solicited ideas from a range of authors across the ideological spectrum, both inside and outside the education sector. You are almost guaranteed to love some of these ideas, and probably hate some too, and that’s the point. No matter who prevails in November, the new presidential administration will need to set an ambitious education agenda. And with this collection, we are priming the pump for whichever candidate is sitting in the Oval Office in January.

In this volume, you’ll find: Continue reading

We Have to Improve the School Improvement Process

It’s September 1. School is back in session in many places. And yet, state test results from last spring are still trickling out. Colorado’s are out today. The District of Columbia’s results officially came out on Tuesday. California’s results came out August 24th.

These results are too late for schools to do much with. Principals are busy running their schools, and teachers are busy in their classrooms. There’s no time for schools to draft improvement plans in response to results, let alone implement those plans in time to affect students. It’s no surprise that teachers and school leaders might not value a school improvement plan that’s drafted well into the school year, yet we’ve been repeating this cycle over and over again.

Ten years ago, I was a graduate assistant for College of William & Mary professor Paul Manna. We compiled every state’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) determinations for the 2005-6 school year, and we found that most states were releasing results in August or September, well past the time when they could be most helpful to school improvement planning. The graph below shows what we found. Each dot represented one state, plotted based on when they released their school results.

State test results timing_Manna graph

This was 10 years ago, and a lot has changed since then. In 2006, most states were in their first years of statewide testing programs. NCLB was in its infancy, and states were just starting up their accountability systems. They barely had processes in place to compile the results and make them public. Computers were a lot less powerful back then, and every state was testing its students using paper-and-pencil tests.

States have been doing all this for 10 years now. And most states have now moved their testing systems online. Theoretically at least, we should be able to get results back much faster than we were in the past. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. I’m afraid that if we created the same graph today as we did in 2006, it would look nearly identical.

These delays represent a big kink in the theory of action behind school accountability. Without timely information, states can’t identify which schools need to improve and why. We can’t dump information on teachers and principals right in the middle of back-to-school season and expect they’ll be able to do anything meaningful with it. It’s too late to design a school improvement plan, and it’s too late to tell parents and families, “Welp, that school we assigned your child to is no good. Too bad they already started 4th grade there.” If we want to help schools improve, we have to improve the school improvement process.

Candidates Think We Can’t Handle the Complex Truth About Education

The Learning Landscape

We need a nuanced education conversation based on data, not polarizing rhetoric. That’s why we built this new resource: www.thelearninglandscape.org/

Depending on whom you ask, charter schools represent either the best of things or the worst of things in the modern education system. This binary hero-villain dialogue plays out time and again among education advocates. It’s so pervasive that it even managed to infiltrate a presidential election that has otherwise been light on K-12 education talk.

Bernie Sanders declared his support for public charter schools, but not private ones in a CNN town hall event last March — belying a fundamental confusion about what charter schools actually are. Last year Hillary Clinton disparaged charter schools with a blanket statement suggesting that they reject serving students who are the “hardest to teach.” And while decrying the federal footprint in education, Donald Trump said he wants more charter schools because “they work, and they work very well.”

The primary flaw with all of these statements is that each one lacks nuance and ignores what is true, what we know, and what we don’t know about charter schools. After all, one of the hallmarks of political campaigns is the reduction of complex issues to simple binaries. Candidates harp on divisive issues and ask voters to pick a side — for or against, good or bad. While this strategy makes for rousing stump, it misleads and under-informs voters about critical policy issues.

Sanders’ confusion about whether charter schools are public or private schools is not uncommon, but it’s easy to clear up. Charter schools are public schools. They are publicly-funded, and they provide education free of charge. The confusion arises because they are often operated by private organizations (a mix of non-profit and for-profit). Some of these private organizations are very good at running schools that achieve amazing outcomes with kids. Some of them are not as good.

Similarly, by painting all charter schools with the same brush, either negatively or positively, both Clinton and Trump ignore the complex reality of what we know about charter schools. (Clinton, I should note, told the NEA convention earlier this month that we should seek to learn from the many good charter schools – that common sense statement drew boos from the crowd).

In practice, who is served best and most often by charter schools varies significantly from state to state and city to city. And the overall quality of charter schools varies, too. In some cities, like Washington DC, charter schools produce an average of 101 days of additional learning in math compared to the surrounding district schools. That’s a tremendous difference. But in Fort Worth, Texas, charter schools underperform district schools on average.

Attempting to define the whole notion of charter schools as either good or bad encourages us to continue to focus on the existential question of whether we should have charter schools at all. And that is simply the wrong question. Continue reading