December 12, 2018

All I Want for Christmas Is for People to Stop Using the Phrase “Education Reform”

In a recent opinion piece at The 74, Robin Lake casts off the label of educator reformer, arguing that “to imply that they are some monolithic group of reformers is ridiculous.” I agree, not so much because education reform has lost its meaning but because it never had a single definition in the first place. At the heart of reform is an acknowledgement that the educational system isn’t serving all kids well, but agreeing that the system could be improved is far from agreeing on how to get there.

definition of educationTo some people “education reform” is about holding schools and districts accountable for student outcomes, which can be viewed as either a means of ensuring that society doesn’t overlook subgroups of students, or as a top-down approach that fails to account for vast differences in school and community resources. To others education reform is shorthand for increasing school choice, or requiring students to meet specific academic standards to be promoted or graduate from high school, or revising school discipline practices that disproportionately impact students of color. Each of these ideas has supporters and detractors, and I suspect that many people who are comfortable with one type of reform vehemently disagree with another.

To take a specific example, consider teacher evaluation reform. One challenge in debating this particular education reform is that there are multiple ways teacher evaluation could change outcomes: one way is by providing feedback and targeted support to educators; another is the identification and removal of low-performing teachers. So even when “education reform” types favor a policy, they might have very different views on the mechanisms through which that policy achieves its goals. In the case of teacher evaluation reform, the dueling mechanisms created trade-offs in evaluation design, as described by my Bellwether colleagues here. (As they note, in redesigning evaluation systems, states tended to focus on the reliability and validity of high-stakes measures and the need for professional development plans for low performing teachers, devoting less attention to building the capacity of school leaders to provide meaningful feedback to all teachers.)

I personally agree with those who argue that teacher evaluation should be used to improve teacher practice, and I have written previously about what that might look like and about the research on evaluation’s role in developing teachers. In a more nuanced conversation, we might acknowledge that there are numerous outcomes we care about, and that even if a given policy or practice is effective at achieving one outcome — say, higher student achievement — it might have unintended consequences on other outcomes, such as school climate or teacher retention.

Instead of broadly labeling people as “education reformers,” we need to clearly define the type of reform we’re discussing, as well as the specific mechanisms through which that reform achieves its intended goals. Doing so provides the basis for laying out the pros and cons of not just the overall idea, but of the policy details that transform an idea into action. Such specificity may help us avoid the straw man arguments that have so often characterized education policy debates.


December 10, 2018

We Are Not a “Model Minority”: The Need for Better Education Data About AAPIs

This post is by Bellwether intern Truc Vo. Read more about Truc here.

Growing up, I went to a relatively diverse high school, with over 60% of the student population being students of color and a third of those being Asian American or Pacific Islander (AAPI). Although there was a large Asian-American population, most of them were middle- to upper-middle class and either South or East Asian — there was no Pacific Islander representation.

For most of my K-12 education, I fully subscribed to the myth of AAPIs as a “model minority,” assuming we were all high-achieving in both school and work and financially stable. There seemed to be an unspoken rule amongst my Asian friends to take the highest possible class, whether AP or honors, for each subject, and if you didn’t do that, people looked down on you. In this environment, I lumped together all AAPIs and perceived over 30 different ethnic groups as homogenous.

Graphic from report done by Center for American Progress on the educational attainment by Asian national subgroups

via Center for American Progress

When looking at AAPIs as a whole, they do in fact academically outperform whites. On average, they have higher test scores and grades, are more likely to graduate high school and college, and get into more selective schools compared to White Americans and other racial groups. However, some AAPI subgroups are not performing well in school and need more resources in order to succeed.

I didn’t realize that there are ethnic groups under the AAPI umbrella who are not graduating college, let alone high school, and that many of these ethnicities are also much more likely to be impoverished than AAPIs as a whole (according to the U.S. Census). I didn’t realize that as a Vietnamese American with two college-educated parents, one with an advanced degree, I am the exception not the rule. According to Pew Research, in 2015, only 25% of foreign-born Vietnamese Americans over the age of 25 had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

There are over 30 different ethnic groups that fall under the label of Asian American and Pacific Islander, and the “model minority” myth fails to take into account the ethnic and class differences amongst AAPIs. Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders, on average, attain less education compared to East Asians. The Center for American Progress reports that while 49 percent of Asian Americans in 2012 had a bachelor’s degree or higher, fewer than 15% of Hmong, Cambodians, and Laotians and only 19% on average of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders had a bachelor’s degree or higher. Furthermore, over 30% of Hmong, Cambodian, and Laotian adults over 25 do not have a high school diploma or equivalent. 

Graphic from report done by Center for American Progress on the educational attainment by Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander subgroups

via Center for American Progress

In addition to discrepancies in education attainment, there is also a wide distribution of wealth among AAPIs. Although AAPIs, on average, had a higher median household income in 2015 than the nation’s median income ($73,060 versus $53,600), this masks that Bangladeshi Americans’ median household income was $49,800, Nepalese Americans’ median household income was $43,500, and Burmese Americans’ median household income was $36,000. Pacific Islanders are more likely to live in poverty compared to Asian Americans, with 20.4% of Pacific Islanders in 2012 living in poverty compared to 12.8% of Asian Americans.

Given the statistics, it is clear we need better data disaggregation so that leaders and educators can understand the different experiences of AAPI ethnic groups and identify which groups may need more support. In order for policymakers and educators to change the status quo, they need data-backed evidence of the existing achievement and income gaps.

Several years ago, the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) launched a national campaign called All Students Count to push government agencies at all levels to collect and report disaggregated AAPI data. More recent efforts have centered on state and local governments. For example, California, Minnesota, and Washington all recently passed data disaggregation bills and Massachusetts and New York are currently trying to pass similar ones.

As the fastest growing racial group in America, AAPIs deserve more targeted interventions, especially given that the income gap between AAPI ethnic groups continues to grow. In fact, in 2016, AAPIs had the largest income inequality out of all racial groups. This open letter from educators and leaders offers more information on data disaggregation efforts and addresses common misconceptions. I strongly believe that data disaggregation will lead to more educational equity amongst all AAPIs.


December 5, 2018

What I Learned at a Rocketship “Launch” — and How It Changed My Career Trajectory

Five years ago, on a public school playground in San Jose, California, I joined a school full of students and teachers as they joyfully launched their day, an experience which ended up catapulting me into the elementary and secondary education world in an unforgettable way.

I was visiting a Rocketship Public Schools campus, where they begin every morning with what is known as “launch,” a combination of workout, celebration, information-sharing, and exhilarating warm up for the school day ahead. (Disclosure: Rocketship Public Schools, a national charter management organization, is a Bellwether client.)headshot of Lynne Graziano, Bellwether Education Partners

The students assembled into loosely organized classroom groups, many first stopping to greet, hug, or high-five their school leaders and teachers. Launch that day began with general announcements followed by recognition of teachers and students for various achievements. Next, everyone on the playground moved into a choreographed dance and vocal warm up to the tune of Katy Perry’s “Roar.” The students loved flexing their biceps and roaring at one another, and especially enjoyed shout-singing, “‘Cause I am a champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar.” Concluding with laughter and applause, the students and their teachers launched into the school day with energy and enthusiasm.

I remarked to my Bellwether colleagues that this was the way we should all begin our day: focused on important details, recognizing positive achievements, and getting our adrenaline pumping for the work ahead. I also asked a question that lingered with me: How do we allow some schools to take promising students like these, with a deep hunger to learn and unbridled desire to achieve, and fail them somewhere between the time they enter public education but before they reach the finish line? It was a question I couldn’t shake.

That morning, I witnessed Rocketship’s signature “launch” while working part-time as a contractor for Bellwether Education Partners. At the time, I was pursuing a Ph.D. in history, and while I always enjoyed working with young people, I thought teaching and mentoring at the college level was where I could have the most impact. But the launch experience lingered in my memory even as we completed our project. It followed me back to my dissertation work, and I eventually succumbed to its pull.

Less than a year later, I deferred my dissertation and jumped into the work of Bellwether full-time, with its mission of dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved students, many akin to the students I saw at launch that morning.

My career shift was an unexpected bonus of participating in that project. Rocketship has continued to replicate this school tradition as their network of schools has expanded. (I should note that across the country, many schools of varying types do similar morning routines to start their day.) Today Rocketship has 19 schools in four regions. In Washington, D.C. Rocketship Legacy Prep recently posted the highest score ever for a pre-K through eighth grade school on the D.C. Public Charter School Board’s School Quality Report. (They planned to open a second school in DC’s Ward 5 but were not able to, citing a facility/permitting issue.)

While Rocketship has its share of critics, its current students seem to be enthusiastic about attending school.  A colleague of mine recently witnessed this at Rocketship Legacy Prep. He was walking toward the school behind two kids who were maybe 7 or 8 years old — young enough that their backpacks seemed enormous, wider than their shoulders. As they approached the school, one said, “It’s three minutes to launch! We can’t be late!” They looked at each other before breaking into a run, backpacks bouncing in rhythm with their pounding feet.

So many students don’t attend schools worth running toward. I hope those two young learners made it to school on time, sang and danced during launch, and continued to hunger for education in a way will carry them through the years to come. And I hope that those of us in the education space continue to push for enough great public schools to keep students everywhere fueled and focused.


December 3, 2018

Integration, Choice, and Power: An Interview with Mohammed Choudhury

School integration is making headlines again. On one extreme is Jefferson County, Alabama, where white parents sought to secede from the racially diverse district and create a new, segregated one. On the other, New York City sought to redesign the admissions criteria for selective schools to be more inclusive.

Some of the most exciting school integration work is taking place in San Antonio, Texas. While integration and choice are often pitted against one another, as we wrote recently, the San Antonio model is based on a blend of intentional integration and school choice. The 74 Million recently profiled the effort, and we sat down with Mohammed Choudhury, the effort’s chief architect, to better understand his approach.

The conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Kaitlin Pennington: The conventional wisdom is that the integration efforts of the 1980s and early ‘90s were failed experiments. How do you respond to this common perception?

Photo courtesy of Mohammed Choudhury

Mohammed Choudhury: Right off the bat, it’s not true that integration did not work. Integration did work and was working. Were there problems with implementation? Sure. However, in the aggregate, it was working at scale and we gave it up to maintain the power structures of this country.

I would encourage folks to read and study that era more closely. You can pick up “Why Busing Failed” by Matthew Delmont. He did a fantastic job of outlining the narrative that was crafted about integration not working or it turning into busing problems, when the reality is that kids have been bused for a long time. When it became about kids with different skin colors coming to schools with better resources and access to opportunities, all of a sudden busing became a problem. It was a manufactured crisis of sorts to placate racism.

The period of meaningful integration was the only time in our country when we’ve significantly narrowed the achievement gap based on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. But then the courts backed away from integration enforcement and the gap widened again. So integration not working is a funny statement in my opinion. It seems to me that folks are just trying to be comfortable with rationalizing and maintaining the legacy of “separate but equal” in our country.

Max Marchitello: The problem of generating sufficient political will and courage seems central to addressing segregation. How have you succeeded in building that political will in San Antonio, not just within the school board, but in the community?

Choudhury: Political will-wise, I always say you have to talk about it. You have to confront it. I start talking about the data and why socioeconomic diversity and integration is a powerful academic strategy that has benefits for all kids. I always start with the fact that segregation is bad. It is unhealthy, economically and in the literal sense. It does not work and it has not worked. I lean forward with that; I don’t try to sneak it in or anything.

From there, you assess your conditions and the initiatives that you’re running in order to make decisions. Are you running school choice efforts? Do you have the power to reimagine and draw attendance boundaries? Are you entrusted to review and uphold them? And then ultimately you design and control for integration. For example, one way we are pursuing integration in San Antonio is by creating “diverse by design” school models. These allocate 50 percent of the seats for Title I students and the other 50 percent for non-Title I kids while also ensuring that our most historically disadvantaged communities receive priority access by looking beyond the Title I measure to assess need and the persistent effects of poverty. Through this approach, you can achieve meaningful levels of racial integration as well.

Pennington: In the past, court rulings forced districts to integrate, and now most of those have lapsed. So how does this work evolve? How does it scale? What’s the next phase? Continue reading


November 29, 2018

Bellwarians React: Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 Billion Donation to Johns Hopkins University

photograph of Michael BloombergEarlier this month, Michael Bloomberg announced a $1.8 billion donation to his alma mater of Johns Hopkins University (JHU) to officially make the university “need-blind” forever. The largest donation to an individual college in history, the funds will also support other policies to make the campus more affordable for low- and middle-income families.

Internet and social media erupted with reactions, ranging from excited to skeptical to angry. Bellwarians, including two JHU alumni, took to Salesforce Chatter, our internal social media and collaboration tool, to weigh in. As a place that champions ideological diversity and doesn’t take organizational positions, Bellwether encourages staff to share — and to disagree. (More broadly, by maintaining an environment where divergent perspectives are freely expressed, we are able to generate creative solutions to our clients’ problems without falling into pre-baked camps or agendas. It’s something we’re proud of.)

Here are a few quick takes from across the Bellwether team:

Starr Aaron, executive & business systems assistant:

I am pleased to see these efforts. When I was at Hopkins, it was not known as particularly generous with financial aid. Some of the skepticism I’ve witnessed is from classmates who wonder if the money will reach those who need it. Others wonder if Bloomberg is running for President (maybe he is, but he’s been generous a long time). Some are smirking while they remember the time he gave a relatively small amount to “upgrade” all the walkways on campus to brick paths and how the university hopped right to it.

The current tuition is eye-poppingly high — I’ve already warned my own children that if they feel Hopkins-bound, well, good luck with that!

Bonnie O’Keefe, associate partner:

I think the skepticism and anger come from two places. One, a frustration that so many public and private institutions depend on the largesse of billionaires to fulfill what should be essential parts of their mission. Second, the idea that so much money is going to an elite institution where a billionaire has a personal connection — an institution that doesn’t serve the most at-risk students and could operate a lot more equitably with the resources it already has. (Full disclosure: I went to Hopkins for grad school and my husband worked there for several years).

All things being equal, I agree with Michael Bloomberg that alumni should direct donations to financial aid. Especially at highly selective and expensive schools, this seems much more urgent than rec centers or fancy buildings. And Bloomberg has done plenty in education outside JHU, so I don’t think he could be credibly accused of focusing only on his own alma mater. The backlash seems more symbolic of where elite colleges and billionaire philanthropy sit today than anything specifically bad about this particular donation.

Cara Jackson, associate partner:

Students who gain admission to JHU are probably going to succeed in life regardless of which college they choose to attend. And if Bloomberg wanted to target resources to help low-income students access higher education, he’d spend the money at a community college or cover the living expenses of low-income students attending public universities. My (admittedly skeptical) take is that this mainly benefits JHU…which is not to say that Bloomberg wasn’t well-intentioned.

Hailly Korman, senior associate partner:

I think it’s complex and I don’t disagree with anything that folks have raised so far, but it also makes me think about how Bloomberg got so much money in the first place. If we look under the hood, what are the links between the policies and systems that support that kind of wealth accumulation and the things that make low-income families low-income to begin with?