December 5, 2019

Bleak Pictures of Rural Communities Are Not the Full Story

From lobsters to bikes to HBCUs, Bellwether has covered a breadth of topics tied to rural education over the last six years. While we are by no means the first group to do in-depth research on rural schools and communities, we were among the first in the education reform community to begin thinking critically about policy solutions for rural schools. And as more and more of our peers have turned their attention to the rural context, we’ve realized that there’s a lack of basic understanding of the facts about rural schools and communities. 

To help address that problem, we’ve put together a new resource: “Wide Open Spaces: Schooling in Rural America Today.”

This deck pulls together data and research on education, economic development, and more into a coherent fact base to explain the current state of rural communities and schools. It begins with an overview of the variation of communities within the rural designation in terms of their locations, economies, strengths, and challenges. For example, resort communities like Eagle County (Vail), Colorado and impoverished communities like many along the Mississippi Delta are both considered rural but have dramatically different geographic, economic, educational, and social contexts. Continue reading


December 2, 2019

On National Special Education Day, I Remember My Sister-in-Law Laurie

When I married my husband John in 1987, I said “I do” to three people: John, his mother Sophie, and his sister Laurie. John was the caregiver, household manager, driver, and grocery purveyor for his mother, who had several health issues at the age of 68, and his younger sister, who was born with Marfan Syndrome, a disorder of the connective tissue resulting in a host of physical challenges. Laurie also experienced oxygen deprivation at birth. As a result, she never cognitively developed past the age of 7 or 8.

photo courtesy the author

Neither Laurie or Sophie are with us today, but in honor of National Special Education Day, I want to elevate Laurie’s education story, however fragmented it was. Laurie was provided transportation to an elementary school building starting in kindergarten, but there was no grade designation, no Individualized Education Program (IEP), and no social supports. She learned some very rudimentary skills, like how to count from 1 to 10 and write her first name. We know very little of what she experienced at school, but my husband remembers the taunts of “retard” thrown her way by neighborhood and school bullies. By middle school, she no longer attended school.

Like most parents, neither Sophie nor her husband were prepared for a child with special needs. Sophie was very private, but I gathered a few pieces of her story over the years we lived together. A child of Polish immigrants, Sophie’s education didn’t advance much past middle school. During the Great Depression, kids did whatever they could to keep their families from starving, and while she shared very few Depression-era memories, standing in bread lines was often her job. I regret not knowing her full story — she held many secrets — but the best we could cobble together was that her teen years were akin to sooty Cinderella, providing domestic labor until she met her real-life prince in the form of John’s father, the appliance repairman she married.

The fact that they advocated for any schooling, including transportation services, for Laurie is a tribute to the doggedness of their own backgrounds. The gaps in Laurie’s education were representative of that era, and I am glad we have moved to a point where we recognize National Special Education Day and the importance of serving all students. 

People often tell me how much they admire what John and I did, caring for Laurie and Sophie in our home as we raised our own family. But Sophie deserves the credit for standing up for her daughter in an era when mothers were shamed for having a special needs child. And Laurie faced many of her physical and cognitive challenges as an adult: She eventually learned to read with Hooked on Phonics, and learned to laugh again, thanks to the antics of her two nieces and one nephew. 

So much has improved in the special education field since Laurie’s experience in the 1960s, but there is still more to be done. These experiences tie me closely to Bellwether’s mission, and remind me of our commitment to improving education and life outcomes for underserved students, including those in special education.


On National Special Education Day, Don’t Forget Special Education Pre-K

Today, December 2, is National Special Education Day, marking the anniversary of President Gerald Ford’s signing of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). As we reflect on the important ways in which IDEA has changed our public education system, I want to call attention to an important and often overlooked component of the early childhood landscape: special education preschools.

Heather Snyder, 31st Medical Operation Squadron educational and developmental intervention services speech and language pathologist, hands a plastic coin to Nathan Gribble, a patient at the Educational and Developmental Intervention Services clinic. The EDIS clinic also has multiple health care providers that offer the following services: child psychology, occupational therapy, speech pathology, and physical therapy. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff Sgt. Taylor L. Marr)

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Taylor L. Marr

Under Section 619 of IDEA Part B, children ages 3-5 identified with disabilities have a right to a free, appropriate, public education. This means that school districts have an obligation to provide preschool services to children diagnosed with disabilities. Currently, approximately 462,383 children with disabilities are served in special education preschool nationally, meaning that special education serves more children than any single state preschool program, roughly half as many preschoolers as Head Start, and nearly 1/3 as many children as all state-funded pre-K programs combined.

Beyond the number of children directly served, special education preschool influences our national early childhood care and education system in a variety of ways. Preschool special education pre-dates the growth of state-funded pre-K, and until relatively recently, most licensed early childhood teachers working in public schools were special education preschool teachers.

As a result, licensing and preparation programs for birth-5 or early childhood teachers in many states are designed primarily to prepare special educators. At the state level, early childhood specialists in state departments of education have played important roles in state pre-K and early learning systems coordination over the past 25 years, but many of these roles were originally created to support and oversee preschool special education — which remains a major part of these system leaders’ portfolios.

And at the federal level, the Office of Special Education Programs funds training and technical assistance for special education preschool and has developed or supported the dissemination of resources, models, and approaches — such as the Pyramid Model — that support quality teaching and child development across a variety of early childhood settings.

In other words, special education preschool is a pretty big deal. Yet it’s largely overlooked in national conversations about early childhood care and education. Continue reading


November 27, 2019

“Quiet Rooms” and Other Forms of Exclusionary Discipline Are Not Evidence-Based Practices

Every time a reformer proposes a new idea in education, critics and skeptics demand evidence. Our state and federal laws prefer evidence-based practices and reward the adoption of practices backed by valid and reliable research. But when defending the status quo, no one ever seems interested in the evidence. 

Last week’s Chicago Tribune piece on the disturbing use of “quiet rooms” as a behavior management strategy indicated that these euphemistically named rooms are in use across the state of Illinois. Children are routinely placed into isolation when they misbehave, under the pretense of behavior management or time to reflect. These rooms are isolation masquerading as quasi-in-school suspension, and there is, of course, no evidence to support them. In fact, the evidence runs in the opposite direction: “time-outs” actively harm children. That doesn’t seem to stop schools from using them.

A student in Utah sits alone outside his classroom

A student in Utah sits alone outside his classroom. From Bellwether’s Rigged series.

Beyond the extreme example of Illinois’ “quiet rooms,” isolation and other exclusionary discipline practices are pervasive and, for many, noncontroversial. This includes suspensions and expulsions, which enjoy mainstream support from teachers and policymakers. Stories of suspension and expulsion don’t carry the same visceral horror as these examples from Illinois, but they’re all based on the same fundamentally flawed premise: that you can compel any individual to behave well by demanding obedience through force and deprivation.

The problem with our easy comfort with exclusionary discipline is that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in schools — and it doesn’t work in any other context either.  Continue reading


November 26, 2019

50 Years Ago, Native Education Leaders Gathered. What Now? A Q&A with the National Indian Education Association.

Fifty years ago, a group of Native educators and activists organized the first national conference on Indian education in Minneapolis, MN. Over 900 parents, community leaders, and educators came together to exchange information, share their experiences, and discuss efforts to change federal education policy. That group became the National Indian Education Association (NIEA).

Diana Cournoyer, Executive Director, National Indian Education Association

Today, NIEA is a powerhouse, not only when it comes to education for Native children, but also their civil rights efforts to change education outcomes for all students. We spoke with Executive Director Diana Cournoyer to learn more about the organization’s founding, the importance of partnering with allies, and how NIEA’s resources can be useful to educators working with students from marginalized communities.

NIEA is a client of Bellwether. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

NIEA just turned fifty. What were some of the social and cultural forces that led to NIEA’s founding?

Diana Cournoyer: The founding of NIEA in 1969 was initially driven by a need for education advocacy at a federal level. There had been several federally commissioned reports, like the Miriam Report in 1928 and the Kennedy Report in 1969. Again and again, these reports indicated that conditions in government funded boarding schools and public schools were harmful for Native students, but the government failed to act on that knowledge. This was also a time during which a large portion of Native populations were moving to cities to find work, and it was clear that urban public schools were dismissing the needs of Native students.

In response to an educational system lacking cultural relevance, Native language, or community inclusion, Indian education advocates held an American Indian Scholars Convocation. In 1969, these educators discussed concerns, shared best practices, and learned what was important to Indian people in the United States. Many convocation attendees desired an opportunity to continue the discourse and share ways to improve the education of Indian children. 

Founding members, educators, and tribal leadership stressed the need to create an opportunity for professionals in Indian communities to discuss common interests, talk about the education of Indian students, and explore ways to be more effective teachers, better school administrators, and discover practical experiences that might provide a path for improving schools serving Indian students.

With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, NIEA shifted some of its focus from federal-level work to state-based work. Can you tell us more about that?

Diana: NIEA’s founders cultivated allies at the federal level, but because of the transition to state oversight of education, we’ve been increasingly focused on cultivating relationships with state education agencies. Part of the reason for this is so that we can ensure that ESSA is implemented in the manner that it was written. It’s NIEA’s mission to hold states accountable to the promises they’ve made to Native students. Continue reading