March 15, 2021

Relief at last? Join Bellwether on March 17 to discuss what Biden’s first major law means for schools.

Last week, the Biden Administration signed its first major law — and it’s a big one: $1.9 trillion in spending with additional stimulus checks going to millions of Americans, child tax credits for families, and funding to pull millions of Americans out of poverty. It also includes a lot of funding for schools that could be transformative — or just absorbed as business as usual. Whether and how America’s students benefit from the aid package is an open question. How should states, cities, and schools use this funding to go from pandemic to progress? How can education leaders use this boost in funding to innovate and support students, especially those who live on the margins? And what are the key lessons from the last big education recovery bill during the Great Recession in 2009.

On Wednesday, March 17, at 2 p.m. ET, join Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham and education leaders to discuss the possibilities for schools.

​Participants:

  • Phil Bredesen, Chairman of the Board and President, Clearloop and former Governor of Tennessee, 2003-2011
  • Lillian Lowery, Vice President of Student and Teacher Assessments, Educational Testing Services and former State Superintendent of Schools, Maryland and Secretary of Education, Delaware
  • Deborah Gist, Superintendent, Tulsa Public Schools
  • Ken Wagner, Senior Advisor for AnLar, NCTQ, and kmkwagner Advisory, and former Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, Rhode Island
  • Andy Rotherham, Co-Founder & Partner, Bellwether Education Partners (moderator)

​Registration:

Please click here to register for this event. Live captioning will be available.

Learn More:

To hear about future webinars at Bellwether, sign up for our newsletter here.

Questions? Contact us.


March 8, 2021

Puerto Rican students during the COVID-19 pandemic: Data update and Q&A with Carlos Rodríguez Silvestre

In October 2020, “Missing in the Margins: Estimating the Scale of the COVID-19 Attendance Crisis” estimated that approximately 3 million American students had experienced minimal to no formal education since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The analysis focused on the most educationally marginalized students in the country — English learners and students with disabilities, in foster care, experiencing homelessness, and/or eligible for the Migrant Education Program. But the original 50 state and D.C. estimates left out Puerto Rico, the Bureau of Indian Education, and other U.S. territories. These students have been just as affected by the pandemic, if not moreso, and deserve more attention. 

Missing in the Margins data estimates now include data from Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Education. Other U.S. territories did not have sufficient comparable data on the population groups in our original estimates, but we are hopeful that this expanded version paints a more comprehensive picture. 

The estimates emphasize the scale of the challenge before state and local education agencies as they work to begin the recovery process. As before, estimates are based on student population numbers from educationally marginalized groups, not on 2021-22 enrollment numbers. Those enrollment numbers, where available, track with our earlier estimates: enrollments are down around 2-3% on average, with much larger reductions concentrated in kindergarten. But even this far into the 2020-21 school year, we still do not have a clear enough picture of who these unenrolled students are or where they have gone: private school, home school, work, or elsewhere. 

In 2017, public school enrollment in Puerto Rico was approximately 350,000 students, but economic crises, natural disasters, and the COVID-9 pandemic have all contributed to fast enrollment declines. Local estimates suggest enrollment is now closer to 280,000. We estimate up to 25,000 children on the island may have had little or no access to education due to the pandemic.

To learn more, we sat down virtually with Carlos Rodríguez Silvestre, Executive Director of the Flamboyan Foundation in Puerto Rico, where he oversees all aspects of the Foundation’s mission-driven work and programmatic strategy in Puerto Rico, to ensure students most impacted by inequity are prepared to succeed in school and beyond. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

  • Carlos Rodriguez SilvestreHow are students in Puerto Rico faring during the COVID-19 school closures and virtual learning? How have the effects of COVID-19 interacted with other disaster response efforts, including the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Maria?

COVID-19 compounded trauma for students in Puerto Rico. The end of in-person classes last March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic is the latest in a series of interruptions to the education system in Puerto Rico, including Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 and earthquakes in early 2020. We estimate that students in Puerto Rico already lost up to 159 days of school between 2017 and 2020. \Adding on lost instructional and socialization time related to the pandemic further deepens challenges for students, families, and educators. 

Taken together, these disasters have had a profound effect on the physical, social, emotional and academic wellbeing of students. Any resolutions will need to take into account the compounded nature of trauma on students and the uniqueness of Puerto Rico’s context. 

  • Are there experiences or considerations that may be unique to Puerto Rican students and schools? 

Yes. The compounded impacts of multiple disasters present unique challenges for Puerto Rican students and schools. 

A crippling economic crisis had left the island bankrupt in 2006 and 15 years later recovery has not been realized. Schools and island infrastructure were already under-resourced as a result.  Continue reading


March 2, 2021

We’re missing a staggering amount of information around early care and education – here’s why that needs to change

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This guest post is in response to a new series of briefs from Bellwether, From Pandemic to Progress, which puts forth eight ambitious but achievable pathways that leaders and policymakers can follow to rebuild education – and student learning and well-being – as the country begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As Ashley LiBetti explains in her brief in From Pandemic to Progress, millions of families use home-based child care (HBCC). But even though home-based child care represents a substantial portion of the early care and education market, we lack important information about HBCC. If we are going to get serious about supporting and improving HBCC, we need to collect better information — and then make sure state governments know how to actually use that information. 

Home-based child care is critical for families — especially for households with immigrant and dual-language children, rural populations, families with non-standard work hours, and other communities that are more likely to have a hard time finding the care they need. But while there are millions of children receiving HBCC, we don’t do a good job of keeping track of who these children are, what services they receive, and what happens to them when they enter the K-12 system. 

We also lack information about HBCC providers. We do know that HBCC settings are diverse; they include both licensed and license-exempt providers, as well as family, friend, and neighbor care (FFN). We also know that many FFN providers enter the system to serve a particular child or group of children, not to make a career of it. In all likelihood the cost-benefit analysis of tracking FFN providers who care for only one or two children isn’t worth it — especially given privacy concerns and FFN providers’ limited capacity. 

But there is more we can do to track the experiences and outcomes of non-FFN HBCC providers. Better data is critical to developing effective strategies for improving HBCC circumstances, and ultimately child outcomes. Early care and education is a complex market in which “supply” and “demand” are not well understood. States often think of “supply” in terms of publicly-funded slots — which is far from the entire market, particularly when it comes to HBCC. Indeed, in many instances the services parents want aren’t actually available, or are extremely hard to find.  

Of course, even non-FFN HBCC providers are small and have limited capacity. These providers are also justifiably concerned about the burden of information collection imposed on them by states and cities. This is particularly true when collection requirements are dictated by statutes or regulations that do not adequately account for the realities of HBCC businesses. Any efforts at data collection must be sensitive to these issues.

But there is a real need to collect that data, and a potential benefit to the providers in delivering it. As long as states don’t understand the dynamics of the early childhood market, they are likely to continue enacting requirements that make it difficult for non-FFN HBCC businesses to operate. Policy choices states make with regard to state-funded preschool and subsidized child care can have a major impact on HBCC businesses. If states don’t know enough about how HBCC businesses operate, they are likely to make decisions that don’t take proper account of their role in the market. 

Even when states have decent information, they struggle to maintain the analytic capacity needed to make sense of the data they collect. And whatever child care data governments have usually can’t be linked to data about preschool, K-12, or federally-funded Head Start programs. States need to build integrated data systems that allow them to actually capture the role of HBCC in the market, and then develop the capacity to make sense of that data. Then they can make decisions and provide supports that will help HBCC providers thrive.

Improving what we know about home-based child care can help us better understand the critical role it plays in state early childhood systems, and provide important context for any proposals to improve HBCC. Without that context, even the best ideas may amount to a shot in the dark. 

Elliot Regenstein is Partner at Foresight Law + Policy, and Chris Strausz-Clark is Principal at 3Si.


February 26, 2021

From pandemic to progress? Yes, now is the time for a national Institute for Education Improvement.

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This guest post is in response to a new series of briefs from Bellwether, From Pandemic to Progress, which puts forth eight ambitious but achievable pathways that leaders and policymakers can follow to rebuild education – and student learning and well-being – as the country begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As part of Bellwether’s new series of briefs, From Pandemic to Progress, Allison Crean Davis makes the case to establish a national Institute for Education Improvement (an IEI), stating the need for continuous improvement across the American education system. Davis says, “If the U.S. education sector is to dramatically improve outcomes for students, it needs large-scale, consistent, and sustained organizational support for continuous improvement.”

Hopefully soon, our students will be coming back to in-person learning, but now is not the time to come back to the way things were pre-pandemic. We have a new administration in Washington, and with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, an educator in the White House. Now is the time to stop jumping from one disconnected education policy initiative to the next and focus our national efforts on evidence-based policies and measurable indicators that actually matter for student success.

Continuous improvement is not about creating the next policy but instead focusing on improving what’s happening in the classroom and helping teachers and administrators do their work more effectively.

Continuous improvement is happening in education—look to our cities for lessons learned.

Davis notes that “continuous improvement is not new,” citing decades of continuous improvement in industry and healthcare. Continuous improvement is also happening in education at the city and district levels. Research-practice partnerships all over the country, including our own partnership between the University of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools, have led to policies and practices that build capacity for systemic school improvement.

In 1998, just over half of Chicago Public Schools students graduated from high school. By 2019, the graduation rate increased to 82 percent. A 30-percentage-point increase in graduation rates is an incredible achievement, accomplished through rigorous attention to data and dedication to continuous improvement within the district.

When we started to look at what matters most for high school graduation, there were numerous competing hypotheses, including an assumption that Chicago’s students were academically unprepared for high school. Many of those assumptions turned out to be false. What matters is supporting students through the shifting context and changing responsibilities that occur in the transition to high school. By monitoring progress of grades and attendance during freshman year, using the Freshman OnTrack indicator, we formed a research base that educators could use in practice.

Through annually evaluating rates of Freshman OnTrack, high school graduation, college enrollment, college persistence, and college graduation, we have seen consistent progress in educational attainment. These improvements are possible because schools have access to research on what matters most for high school and college attainment, and data to monitor whether their strategies are working. Supporting more students to earn college degrees must include their entire education experience, and recently we’ve expanded our research-practice partnership to include City Colleges of Chicago to support Chicago’s students from pre-k through post-secondary success.

We’re asking questions and testing assumptions to learn what matters most for college success. For example, there is a misconception that GPAs are inconsistent across high schools, and that standardized test scores, like the ACT, are neutral indicators of college readiness. In fact, we found that students’ high school grades are five times stronger than their ACT scores at predicting college readiness and graduation, regardless of which high school a student attends, while ACT scores have different relationships with college graduation depending on a student’s high school.

Five Lessons We’ve Learned at the City Level

  1. Improvement comes from a back-and-forth between practice and research. Collaboration between research and practice allows practitioners to know what is working and how it’s working, and allows researchers to understand issues in nuanced ways so they can conduct studies that are useful to practice.
  2. Create metrics for things people believe are important but lack the data to measure progress. The Chicago partnership not only led to the development of Freshman OnTrack measures, but annual data on school climate and organization so we know if students feel safe, challenged, and supported, and how those factors are affected by different policies. It led to the creation of a post-secondary tracking system so schools could see whether their efforts to prepare students for college were really working.
  3. Identify where educators DON’T need to put their attention. Educators have a lot on their plates. Instead of piling on more with new policies and programs, it’s vitally important to know what they can take off their plates and what is critical. Many policies and programs do not show benefits for students, even as they increase the burden on educators—spending time preparing students for standardized tests is one example.
  4. Test assumptions to learn what’s most important for student success and what levers schools can use to affect change. Improvement requires change, and change can only occur with evidence that things are not working the way people think they should. When we began developing the Freshman OnTrack indicator, there was an assumption that students were struggling in ninth grade because they were academically unprepared. In reality, some students have difficulty transitioning to high school because it’s a new environment with increased responsibility.
  5. Pay attention to more student outcomes than test scores—students’ work effort, engagement, and experience of school as a learner are much more important for their long-term outcomes. Is this a school environment where students feel their work is meaningful? Is this school a place where students feel that they belong to a community of learners? Do students feel adults in the school believe in their ability? Do students believe they can succeed? Social-emotional factors are critical for students’ long-term outcomes.

Change the narrative we’re telling our students—and our educators.

There is a lot of emphasis right now around the risk of a “lost generation” of students resulting from remote learning during the pandemic. But what might this message inadvertently tell our students about their ability to succeed in the face of the odds? Research tells us that students are resilient, that learning loss may not be as insurmountable as we think, and what students will need when they return to school is a safe, supportive, and challenging environment in which they believe they can succeed.

Elaine Allensworth is Director and Jenny Nagaoka is Deputy Director at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.


February 19, 2021

New Mexico and a Tale of School Accountability

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This guest post is in response to a new series of briefs from Bellwether, From Pandemic to Progress, which puts forth eight ambitious but achievable pathways that leaders and policymakers can follow to rebuild education – and student learning and well-being – as the country begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It seems that nowadays just the mention of school accountability elicits groans of frustration and hopelessness. For many working to improve education in our country, school accountability has been a critical tool, but one that — as Bonnie O’Keefe lays out in her recent brief,  “Redesigning Accountability has been fraught with implementation challenges and political toxicity. Equally as important as acknowledging the shortcomings of school accountability is highlighting stories of success. 

New Mexico, my home state, may not have a lot to brag about when it comes to education outcomes, but we do have a story that I think all advocates for school accountability can learn from. 

In late 2017, New Mexico became the first state in the country to assign schools under the Every Student Success Act’s new designations, including identifying schools as in need of “More Rigorous Intervention” (MRI). Identification of a state’s worst performing schools was not required by ESSA until 2021, but New Mexico recognized the urgency of school turnaround and acted immediately. Four elementary schools were identified for more rigorous intervention after earning five or six consecutive “F” letter grades in New Mexico’s school grading system. This meant that an elementary school student could have attended a failing school for their entire elementary school experience, beginning to end. 

Each school was provided four options: 

  1. Closure: Close the school and enroll the students who attended that school in other schools in the surrounding area that are higher performing. 
  2. Restart: Close the school and reopen it under a charter school operator that has been selected through a rigorous state or local authorizer review process. 
  3. Champion & Provide Choice: Champion a range of choices in an open system that focuses on new approaches to learning; one that keeps the individual student(s) at the center of accessing options that best support their learning path. 
  4. Significantly restructure and redesign the vision and systems at a school including extending instructional time, significantly changing staffing to include only educators earning highly effective ratings and above, state-selected curriculum approaches, and/or personalized learning models for all students. 

As predicted, each elementary school chose to redesign and restructure, which resulted in a months long back and forth between the Public Education Department and the administration of Albuquerque Public Schools, which oversaw three of the four schools identified. Ultimately, then Secretary of Public Education Christopher Ruszkowski held the line in demanding serious reforms to the schools including extended learning time and eventually the department and the district agreed on plans to redesign each school, unlocking approximately  $1 million of support for each school over the three-year MRI period. If a school did not improve over the three-year period, it faced closure from the state. 

Anyone reading the local paper or watching local news saw play out what advocates know all too well: the department was vilified for “labeling schools” and “threatening closure.” In fact, a lawsuit was filed to fight against the identification of one of the schools. But eventually, as time passed and the reforms were implemented with financial support from the department of education, something amazing happened – the schools improved! In fact, Hawthorne Elementary saw a 10.4 percentage point increase in their reading proficiency scores in a single year, which was the largest improvement in the district. 

I wish the story stopped here. This is the story we are all striving for, the story in which struggling schools are identified, given a timeline to implement rigorous changes, supported with funding and motivated by a sense of urgency, and ultimately improve learning outcomes for children before it’s too late. But that’s now how this story ends. 

In 2019, New Mexico’s newly elected Governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham took office and on day one, she decoupled student assessments from teacher evaluations and removed New Mexico from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARC) consortium. Soon after, the legislature enacted changes to New Mexico’s school accountability system, doing away with the A-F ratings and the Department of Education submitted an amendment to the state’s ESSA plan removing “MRI” designations from the four previously identified schools. 

This was a win, right? It was problematic to put such heavy pressure on perpetually underperforming schools and threaten closure, wasn’t it? 

While the move may have earned political favor, it brought with it disappointing news for the schools that were seeing results from their new plans–no MRI designation, no funding. Instead, the schools were re-identified as “Comprehensive Support Intervention,” which came with less financial support, thus leaving the district to self fund the continued programming that was bringing success and increased enrollment, to the schools targeted for turnaround. It was a political win that brought devastating financial consequences. 

In my opinion, a state’s education department has one primary responsibility: accountability. It is uncomfortable and fraught with political landmines but it is necessary and absolutely worth it. School accountability is challenging to execute well but it is necessary in the fight towards equity. Oftentimes the worst performing schools serve a state’s most vulnerable students and allowing them to flounder in schools with single-digit proficiencies for five or more years in a row, as was the case for New Mexico’s first MRI schools, is an abandonment of our moral responsibility to do right by our students. Our students deserve more.  

I hope that as each state grapples with school accountability in the years ahead, we recognize that while it is not easy, it is possible to implement school accountability systems grounded in equity, transparency and data -informed action to improve outcomes for students. We did it once in New Mexico and I hope we find the courage to do it again.

Amanda Aragon is the Executive Director of NewMexicoKidsCAN.