January 23, 2020

Media: “District Schools? Charter Schools? There’s a Third Way — Autonomous Schools That Work Like In-District Charters” in The 74

Alejandra Barraza was working as a school principal when San Antonio Unified School District identified her as a strong leader who could impact more students. Now she runs two schools that enjoy freedom over their curriculum, professional development, and a portion of their funding.

Autonomous schools like the ones Barraza runs are cropping up across the country. Whether they will live up to their promise depends on whether they’re given enough autonomy over resources and time to customize their approach to meet their students’ specific needs.

Read more in my op-ed published over at The 74 today:

With many teaching and learning responsibilities moved away from the district level, central office staff can focus on operational functions like human resources, transportation, food service, maintenance and school facilities. Mohammed Choudhury, the district’s chief innovation officer, explains: “We want to ensure our schools have autonomy around the use of talent, time and resources. We don’t want our principals in autonomous schools to worry about janitors, procurement processes or air-conditioning service providers.”

You can also read a recent resource on autonomous schools I co-authored with Tresha Ward here.


January 22, 2020

What are Blaine Amendments and Why Might SCOTUS End Them?

Today the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will hear oral arguments in Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue, a case that could have massive consequences for hundreds of thousands of K-12 students across the country — and might even lead to changes in several state constitutions. 

United States Supreme Court Building by Joe Ravi, Wikimedia license CC-BY-SA 3.0

The case centers on three families participating in Montana’s tax credit scholarship program, a policy that gave tax credits to people who donated to scholarship organizations, organizations which could then help low-income students pay for private K-12 schools, including private religious schools. However, the Montana Department of Revenue issued a rule stating that scholarships could not be used at religious schools, and later the Montana Supreme Court ruled that any aid to religious schools violated part of their state’s constitution, specifically a provision against public funding for “sectarian schools,” commonly known as a “Blaine Amendment.” Eighteen other states already have similar tax credit scholarship programs and 37 states have some form of Blaine Amendment. 

The three families, in partnership with the Institute for Justice, now have the chance to make their case before SCOTUS. The parents are arguing that their right to free expression of religion was violated by the ruling in Montana. The other side argues that funding any private school — religious or not — was unconstitutional at the state level and that overturning the state’s tax credit scholarship program did not lead to any violation of free expression. (SCOTUS started to define how state governments might provide funding to religious schools under the Constitution beginning in the 1970’s with Lemon v. Kurtzman and has been refined through subsequent cases, like Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002 and Trinity Lutheran v. Comer in 2017.) Continue reading


Should an Ivy League Business School Train Education Leaders? Why Not?

Leading a large school district is a complex endeavor. Your days are spent managing thousands of employees charged with educating tens or hundreds of thousands of students, overseeing budgets that can easily reach nine figures, and navigating a complex legal and political environment. It’s not unreasonable to think that given the skill set needed to tackle those challenges, a business school training could be a great complement to traditional education leadership pipelines — which usually involve experience as a teacher, principal, and central office administrator, accompanied by training at schools of education, before taking on the superintendent role.

In fact, Bellwether’s Eight Cities project includes several examples where leaders with business backgrounds have overseen reforms that led to better outcomes for kids, including Joel Klein in New York City, Michael Bennet in Denver, and Paymon Rouhanifard in Camden. (Our site also includes examples of districts led by superintendents with more traditional backgrounds as teachers and school administrators, like Henderson Lewis in New Orleans.)

But efforts to infuse business skills into the superintendent role are still met with fierce criticism. Take for example the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation,* which recently gave Yale’s School of Management $100 million to house the Foundation’s efforts to develop a pipeline of public school leaders. Diane Ravitch and like-minded folks on Twitter are describing this as another step towards the “privatization” of public education. 

Edward P. Evans Hall, Yale School of Management, New Haven, CT. Via Wikimedia user Nick Allen.

Broad’s expansion and move to Yale is but the latest in an ongoing debate about the ideal skill sets for transformative district leaders. Should they be well-versed in pedagogical theory, curriculum design, and classroom management practices, or should their expertise be grounded in the leadership of large organizations and management of multi-million dollar budgets? 

A better question would be: why should a large district have to choose? The Broad-Yale partnership could help strengthen public school leadership by adding new and complementary skill sets so that superintendents can benefit from the best of both worlds.  Continue reading


January 21, 2020

Choosing a College is Both Art and Science: An Introduction to “Match and Fit”

Over the coming months, high school seniors across the country will anxiously wait to hear which colleges have accepted them. And after all the hard work of applying comes another tough step: deciding where to go to college. 

How do young people decide where to go to college? Do they pick the most selective school, or do they prioritize the place where their friends are going? Do they stay close to home or get as far away as possible? Big school or small school? Urban or suburban? Public or private? Greek life or geek life

There are countless factors to weigh, which can make the college selection process feel overwhelming, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds and those who are the first in their family to attend college. As counselors, advisers, and mentors to young people, we need to build systems and processes that enable them to make informed postsecondary choices.   

Fortunately there’s a useful framework for considering postsecondary options that’s gaining popularity among high school counselors and frontline staff in college access programs: “match and fit.”

While there is no standard definition, practitioners generally agree on the following working definitions: 

  • Match: The degree to which a student’s academic credentials align with the selectivity of the college or university in which they enroll. Match encompasses the quantitative elements of choosing a postsecondary option; it is more science than art.   
  • Fit: A more nebulous concept that refers to how well a prospective student might mesh with an institution once on campus: socially, emotionally, financially, and otherwise. Fit encompasses the qualitative elements of choosing a postsecondary option; it is more art than science. 

Together, these concepts enable students, families, and college counselors to share a common language when talking about college. A student may technically “match” to a particular institution based on their academic credentials, but then decide that school is not a great “fit” given their desires and interests. Conversely, a student might have their heart set on a college — it may seem like a perfect “fit” — but it may turn out to be a poor “match” when the student’s GPA and test scores are considered.  

Importantly, these concepts can be used to support equity in access for underserved students. Here’s how: Continue reading


January 15, 2020

Summer Camp Offers Numerous Scholarships to Low-Income Campers: A Q&A With Galileo Learning’s Glen Tripp

Oakland, California-based Galileo Learning offers engaging and high-quality Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) summer programming for students in the San Francisco Bay Area, Southern California, and Chicago. Their programs aim to foster lifelong innovators through project-based learning and exploration. 

Galileo has a high bar for quality: they select top-notch instructors, have low student-staff ratios, and invest in extensive curriculum development. This unwavering commitment to excellence means the programs typically cost about 25% more than city-operated summer programs.

But Galileo has a deeply held belief that all students should have the opportunity to become innovators, so in their model, families paying the full cost of camp tuition subsidize the attendance of those who cannot afford the program. With 10% of their students receiving scholarships, Galileo came to Bellwether in 2016 and asked the question: how can we increase the number of low-income students we serve? 

When my colleagues Lina Bankert, Genny Orr, and I arrived at their Oakland headquarters, we found ourselves walking into an innovation zone. Right inside the front door, staff worked on prototypes of machines students would build the next summer at camp. The open-concept office was spacious, fostering collaboration and community. Glen Tripp, Galileo’s CEO, invited us to attend their all-staff meeting, where we witnessed humor and laughter, support and care for one another, and unbounded energy. 

Over the next several months, we developed a three-pronged strategy to help Galileo achieve its impact goals: 1) increase scholarships to attend Galileo camps, 2) build strategic partnerships to extend Galileo’s approach to new educational settings, and 3) leverage the existing corps of teachers to infuse innovation thinking into more classrooms.

As of 2019, Galileo has increased the percentage of students receiving scholarships from 10% to 15% and is on track to provide scholarships to 22% of campers in 2020, equaling about 20,000 kids. I spoke with CEO Glen Tripp to understand more about Galileo’s model and how they were able to accomplish these impressive numbers.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What motivated you to set an ambitious scholarship goal?  

Galileo’s mission is to develop innovators who envision and create a better world, and we believe that impact should belong to all kids. Finding fulfilling work in the future will require innovation skills, and our educational systems are not set up to deliver them. While many are understandably trying to close the math and reading achievement gaps, a new “innovation achievement gap” has emerged, and Galileo wants to combat this.

Initially we set a goal of awarding scholarships to 10% of our students. In 2019, we made it to 15% and in 2020 we are targeting 22%. That means that 20,000 students will receive partial to full scholarships in 2020, with very little foundation or public funding involved.  Continue reading