August 21, 2018

Facing a School Turnaround Or Restart? We Have Expert Advice For You.

We say it every year: the summer flew by! That’s certainly how I feel about my summer at Bellwether Education Partners as a Strategic Advising fellow. As I get ready to go back to graduate school, I’m reflecting on my work with a group of school leaders taking on the critical task of school turnaround, who we supported with strategic planning.

This group was eager for guidance from the field, so we put together a panel of amazing leaders experienced in school turnaround: Rebecca Bloch at DSST Public Schools, Mike Kerr at Match Education, and our very own Tresha Ward. Across the three of them, they have more than 40 years of experience working in education.

Here are a few high-level lessons from the panelists for school turnaround leaders:

Build trust from the beginning and listen to the community

To build trust and learn from the community, go on a “listening tour.” This should be one of the first things you do when taking on a new school, with an emphasis on listening rather than asking a long list of questions. As you listen, a few big themes will likely emerge, which will help you develop your strategy and action items. A listening tour will also give you a sense for whether the school has a defined culture. If there’s no clear culture, you are closer to starting from a blank slate, which might be easier than working against the grain. And if there are community must-haves — like access to the school pool on the weekends — figure that out early on.

Figure out the community must-haves, whether that’s a community garden or pool, and maintain those. Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

Know your focus areas Continue reading


July 26, 2018

School Leader Summer To Do’s: Moving From Strategy to Execution

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. —Mike Tyson

It’s July. You are enjoying some well-deserved vacation after another intense year as leader of your school. The past year has wrapped up, and along with it, your latest round of long-term strategic planning. You feel good. In fact, you feel great. The cares of running the organization day-to-day melt away as you remember your inspirational ten-year impact goals, performance metrics, and high-level strategic priorities. You drift off into a visionary daydream…

…until suddenly…

It’s August.

Kids will be back on campus in less than a month. Teacher professional development starts next week. You start to get that gnawing feeling and ask yourself: “What about that strategic plan? Isn’t there something I’m supposed to be doing right now?” You pull the final plan deck off your shelf and realize that your strategic plan has no instruction manual, and you don’t know where to begin.

This blog post is for you.

As the leader of your organization, you’re the one ultimately accountable for delivering on the strategy. Delivering on a strategy is not easy work; as you move forward, it’s important to keep your mission front and center. Remember the kids, families, communities, and teachers who will benefit from you diligently executing on the plans you laid out. But this doesn’t mean you can or should be responsible for the bulk of the work of the strategic plan. Your personal responsibility falls into three buckets:

(1) Make sure the organization is actually executing the plan you laid out.

Two tips on this one: First, break your high-level goals into an actionable implementation plan so that all team members understand how the work they’re doing contributes to the overall mission and vision. Second, assign someone else as the project manager for that plan (and hold them accountable for driving that work forward). You must focus on leading rather than getting lost in the day-to-day of effective project management, but your organization would be wise to put project and portfolio management best practices into place to move the work forward. This can include everything from clearly defining roles and responsibilities for executing the work, to ensuring regular step-backs (see below), to establishing a mechanism for anticipating and mitigating significant risks that might threaten success.

(2) Identify how and when you will step back to evaluate progress and gauge whether your strategy is actually having an impact.

As with project management, it is wise to ask someone else to hold you accountable for plan outcomes. A board often plays this role, but it could also be an outside advisor or coach. Coupled with this, schedule strategy review sessions for you and your leadership team to step back and evaluate progress/impact. Depending on your pace of change, you may want to hold these every six months or so.  

(3) Decide when to change course.

Decide up front how and when you will adjust course. Metrics can be useful here, but ultimately there will be some amount of judgment and deliberation. If something doesn’t seem to be working, don’t continue to push relentlessly forward, potentially wasting precious time and money. In the spirit of Vanilla Ice, stop, collaborate, and…figure out what the problem is. Instead of proceeding down the path you set years ago, keep your head up and make sure there is a clear stage-gate or “greenlighting” process in place for major investments and new pieces of work. You want to move fast, but moving too fast is a recipe for failure. Finally, when you do change course, do so with conviction — and make sure to communicate the “why” to your team and other important stakeholders.

Need some support drafting or implementing your strategic plan? Contact our Strategic Advising team at: strategy@bellwethereducation.org.


July 24, 2018

Moving Away from Magical Thinking: Understanding the Current State of Pre-K Research

Depending on what newspaper or website you’ve read most recently, you may think it’s time for your local municipality or state to fully fund pre-K or that the increasing focus on expanding pre-K is completely overblown. Either early childhood education is the panacea for all our problems and achievement gaps, or it’s not a worthwhile investment. The truth lies somewhere in between.

Universal pre-K by itself is not going to inculcate children from future bad educational experiences or magically rectify all of the problems inherent in the U.S. education system. But high-quality pre-K is still an important public investment that can dramatically improve young children’s early educational experiences and long-term outcomes.

Still pre-K advocates need to reckon with emerging research which conflicts with the accepted wisdom that early childhood education has significant long-term effects and make sure their arguments are nuanced so that the benefits of pre-K are not oversold. Even though increasing access to government-funded pre-K is embraced by politicians from both parties, advocates must not adopt rhetoric that overpromises.

Writing for the Brookings Institute earlier this month, Grover “Russ” Whitehurst asserts that it is time for pre-K advocates to “confront the evidence” and accept that expanding access to state pre-K for four year olds is unlikely to enhance student achievement. In his analysis, Whitehurst looks at the relationship between a state’s prekindergarten enrollment and fourth grade scores of students on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). He finds that states with large pre-K enrollments have students who perform slightly better — but that the effects are small. Whitehurst also references the latest evaluation of Tennessee’s state pre-K program, which ultimately found that while the program had short-term effects on child achievement at the end of pre-K, these effects disappeared as children entered elementary school and turned somewhat negative by third grade. In other words, by third grade, the control group — children who did not attend state pre-K — scored significantly higher in math and science than the pre-K group.

It is certainly important for pre-K advocates to acknowledge this research, but Whitehurst makes the wrong conclusions. He insists that pre-K advocates need to temper our “enthusiasm for more of the same” and consider other policy proposals to address poverty. But when reading Tennessee’s results, there are a number of variables worth considering:

  • Is the Tennessee program truly high-quality?
  • Is there something about the Tennessee program that makes it different than other state pre-K programs?
  • Are Tennessee’s children receiving sub-par K-3rd grade education?
  • Are pre-K students repeating content they already mastered in kindergarten and therefore tuning out from classwork?
  • Are pre-K students receiving less attention from their early elementary school teachers?
  • Are the positive impacts of pre-K more likely to be captured in an analysis of children’s social-emotional development?

When children flounder after a year of PK-12 education, concerned individuals shouldn’t just throw the baby out with the bathwater. As my colleague Sara Mead has written: “Asking whether ‘pre-K works’ is as pointless a question as asking whether fourth grade works.” Continue reading


July 23, 2018

Students of Color are Less Likely to Attend “Well-Rounded” Schools: Three Reasons This Hurts Students — and Their Schools

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Earlier this summer, I attended a launch event for Learn Together Live Together, a D.C.-based coalition that promotes racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity in schools. The event featured a conversation with John King, CEO of The Education Trust and a former U.S. Secretary of Education. King spoke on many of the issues affecting poor children and children of color in our education system — they’re more likely to attend segregated schools, where students score below proficient on standardized tests in math and reading and which receive less per-pupil funding. But King made another surprising comment about these students: they’re also less likely to attend “well-rounded schools.”  

What is a well-rounded school? The National Center on Time and Learning describes well-rounded schools as ones that provide students with opportunities to engage in “critical thinking, problem solving, and teamwork,” and that include “arts, music, and other enrichments in their curriculum.” These enrichments can include classes like physical education, drama, or debate, as well as hands-on versions of science and more in-depth social studies and civics classes than are offered in many schools. The instructional time being spent on these subjects is declining nationwide and King is right: students of color are less likely to be in schools that offer these opportunities.

I’ve seen this decline first-hand, teaching both urban and rural public school districts that serve predominantly children of color. At one school, there was no science or social studies time on my administrator-provided schedule, only a block for teaching “informational text.” There was one art teacher for 500 students, and it was impossible to fit every class on her schedule each year. At another school I had a 20-minute block on my schedule in which to teach science, social studies, and P.E. There were no art, music, or other enrichment teachers at all.

Those who make curriculum decisions often choose to prioritize reading and math instruction with good intentions. They might believe they’re doing right by their students, ensuring that they have the necessary grade-level reading and math skills they’ll need to be successful. They might also believe they’re doing right by their schools: as instruction time in “tested” subjects increases, increased test scores will follow, bringing more students, funds, and opportunities to their schools.

But there are three big reasons why increasing the instructional time spent on the arts, science, and social studies might help accomplish these same goals: Continue reading


July 19, 2018

Teacher Residencies: Less Risk and More Reward?

Prospective teachers have many choices when it comes to their preparation, and the right decision isn’t always obvious. Depending on state requirements, college undergraduate students have the option of entering a traditional Bachelor’s education program at an institution of higher education. College graduates or career changers can choose to enter a traditional Master’s program or a variety of alternative certification programs such as Teach For America or TNTP, all of which vary in student teaching requirements, cost and financial incentives, and support and mentorship opportunities.

Increasingly, prospective teachers have yet another option at their fingertips, and one that holds promise: teacher residency programs. Residencies differ from other preparation programs as teacher residents spend the bulk of their training working in classrooms. In a report launched this week, Ashley LiBetti and I examine the appeals of residency programs and offer recommendations for addressing the policy and research gaps that inhibit the growth of these promising options.

Here are three simple takeaways from our report:

Teacher residency programs mitigate the risks associated with traditional preparation pathways. A 2016 Bellwether analysis found that teacher candidates spend $24,250 over 1,512 hours on average for traditional teacher training. Candidates invest significant time and money without truly knowing what life as a teacher looks like, since most traditional programs only require 10 to 15 weeks of in-classroom service requirements during the degree program. That’s a huge risk, particularly for career changers. Teacher residencies reduce that risk by being less expensive and exposing prospective teachers to the challenges and opportunities of teaching in a classroom right from the start.

From as early as day one, residents are placed in a classroom with an experienced mentor teacher and are deeply integrated into the daily life of a teacher of record. Some programs even have an additional trial period before starting the residency year. Nashville Teacher Residency, for example, requires that incoming residents take part in summer sessions prior to the beginning of the school year. The trial periods act as auditions for both the program and the resident.

Residencies provide support and mentorship more consistently than other traditional preparation and alternative certification programs. In our research, we found that teacher residents receive significant mentorship and support during their residency year, more frequently than traditional preparation programs. Many programs also provide specialized training to serve high-need communities. For instance, the Kern Rural Teacher Residency in Bakersfield, California provides additional workshops and conferences specifically to train residents on how to work with English language learners. Furthermore, residencies frequently provide induction, which involves systemic supports and guidance for novice teachers in the first few years of their career. Continue reading