January 17, 2018

What We Can — and Can’t — Learn From New Jersey to Improve Pre-K Teacher Training and Pay

teacher chalkboard word cloudShould pre-K teachers have degrees? A recent New York Times Magazine article looks at both some of the challenges facing early childhood teachers and the debate over whether or not policymakers should raise education requirements for them. I explored these issues further last week in U.S. News & World Report — but I also wanted to comment on the Times piece’s coverage of New Jersey’s Abbott pre-K program.

Times author Jeneen Interlandi highlights New Jersey’s Abbott pre-K program, which both requires all pre-K teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and pays them comparably with public school teachers. This practice is in sharp contrast with the norm of low education requirements and pay in many other early childhood settings. A little background here: In the 1990s, a court first ordered New Jersey to offer universal pre-K to three- and four-year-olds in thirty-one high-poverty districts and, later, to ensure that teachers in those pre-K programs held both a bachelor’s degree and state certification. As Interlandi argues, the strategies New Jersey used to meet that requirement offer lessons for other efforts to elevate the skills and training of early childhood teachers.

Yet, as someone who’s studied New Jersey’s Abbott program, I fear that the article misses some key points about it that have implications for what policymakers can take away here:

1. Pre-K is pretty much the only part of the Abbott program with evidence of demonstrable, lasting benefits. New Jersey’s Abbott preK was the result of the long-running Abbott v. Burke school finance litigation. Besides mandating pre-K, various Abbott decisions required the state of New Jersey to increase spending in poor districts, repair school facilities and reduce overcrowding, and cover costs of supplemental services to address the needs of children in concentrated poverty. Billions of dollars have been spent on these efforts. Yet there is no clear evidence that they resulted in improved outcomes for students in high-poverty. Abbott Pre-K, however, is the exception.

Interlandi writes: “Abbott studies show fade-out effects, albeit less significant ones than in many other preschool studies.” This statement, while technically correct, underplays the evidence of Abbott pre-K’s results. Research shows that Abbott children made meaningful gains in pre-K — and that a portion of those gains persisted through at least 5th grade.

Interlandi is correct that the magnitude of Abbott pre-K advantage diminished over time, as some degree of fade-out is to be expected over time from any intervention. And, in the context of the Abbott results (or lack thereof) more broadly, the Abbott pre-K results are quite striking. Put another way, the Abbott pre-K results, combined with other evidence on quality early childhood programs, suggest that a marginal education dollar is more likely to generate results if spent on pre-K than if simply added to general education budgets.

2. New Jersey’s pre-K program is expensive — but so is education in New Jersey generally. Interlandi reports that New Jersey spends about $14,000 per child on pre-K — more than double the typical state spending on pre-K. The implication is that requiring pre-K teachers to have a bachelor’s degree is really expensive. Continue reading


January 11, 2018

School Behind Bars: A Q&A with Nebraska’s Randy Farmer

There are nearly 2,600 schools across the country providing education to young people who are held in secure justice facilities. One of them is a short-term facility in Nebraska called the Pathfinder Education Program, and I spoke with its educational director, Randy Farmer, to learn more about what his job is like and what he wishes more people knew about how best to support students like his.

Pathfinder provides education services for young people detained for legal offenses in Lancaster County, Nebraska and awaiting court decisions about their need for services. The program is operated by the Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska, and Farmer’s role is similar to that of a school principal. He has worked with the National Partnership for Juvenile Services (NPJS) the last twelve years as an advisor, board member, and Education Council president, and he has worked with the Nebraska Department of Education on a standing committee to improve educational services for youth in out-of-home placements.

Tell us a bit about your role and what you do. What’s a typical day like?

The Pathfinder Education Program supports a unique and diverse population of youth who are experiencing serious traumatic life events. We offer educational services as an opportunity to renew a love of learning and provide a continuation of their path toward graduation, and we follow up with transition supports in collaboration with the community and juvenile justice system. These are bright, curious, and creative young people — they can be a tremendous asset to society when given an appropriate and supportive way to positively connect with their school and community.

I work with a wonderful staff of experienced and dedicated professionals, and a school district willing to provide exceptional support.

A typical day starts at a 6 a.m. morning briefing with detention staff. I then spend time responding to emails, organizing daily activities for the program, and greeting the arriving staff and students. Throughout the day I respond to youth who are disengaged from the classrooms, and problem solve with teachers and officers to find ways to return them to school. I visit with teachers, observe classes, and offer support where needed. If things are running smoothly, I can find time for data collection, budgeting, program design, and professional development, as well as district appraisal requirements.

What would you say has most surprised you about working in a secure facility? Continue reading


January 9, 2018

A Day in the Life: Bellwether’s Kirsten Schmitz

Kirsten Schmitz headshotThere’s this cool thing that sometimes happens when a person gets to know Bellwether as a client or intern and then decides to work here. One shining example is Kirsten Schmitz, an analyst on our Policy and Thought Leadership team who started as a short-term fellow after finishing graduate school. Kirsten got a taste of the Bellwether magic and decided to come back!

Since joining us full-time in 2016, Kirsten has written about inequitable teacher pensions, done live coverage of election issues at the 2016 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, blogged about gender and language barriers, and much more. She brings her journalism chops and teaching experience to the team and always keeps kids in mind as the ultimate mission of her work. Read our short conversation below, where we talk about Kirsten’s journey to Bellwether, her love of the classroom, and why we need to keep examining gender parity for teachers.

Tell me a little about your education trajectory — both your own schooling and how you got involved in teaching and education policy.

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs — Mundelein if you want to get really technical — and was lucky enough to attend strong public and private schools in my community. I studied journalism at the University of Missouri and to this day am still a big news nerd. A large part of my interest in journalism was rooted in social justice, and I still feel the two are closely related. To me, journalism was a means of amplifying the voices and stories of those who had been historically silenced.

I was drawn to Teach For America’s mission early in my undergraduate career, and the organization was my original point of entry to the education equity space. As a 2012 corps member, I taught sixth grade English in Irving, Texas, just outside of Dallas. Being “Miss S” was the greatest privilege of my life, and I miss the classroom fiercely. My students are talented, kind, hilarious, and strong. As you can imagine, leaving was incredibly difficult. Many factors went into my decision to pursue policy, but ultimately, I was eager to find a space that married my journalism background in writing and research with meaningful outcomes for my students and others. Education policy was that intersection for me.

How did you hear about Bellwether? What attracted you to working here?

I started at Bellwether as a summer fellow. I had just finished my master’s in education policy and was assigned to research teacher pensions with Chad Aldeman and Leslie Kan. Pensions were, perhaps unsurprisingly, a topic I knew very little about. That said, I’m nothing if not curious, and Chad and Leslie were generous and supportive with their time and knowledge. By the time my fellowship was complete, I had built up shallow but substantial expertise. More importantly, I had gotten a taste of the Bellwether magic.

No organization is perfect, but Bellwether attracts smart, driven, and thoughtful people. This place is a bit of a talent magnet, and I wanted to soak up as much as I could. After my fellowship, I spent a year working at the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, and then made my way back to Bellwether in the summer of 2016. I don’t always agree with my colleagues, but I admire them all the same. Honestly, I think that’s more important.

Leaving the classroom gutted me. I do think I’ll go back at some point, but until then, Bellwether’s flexible hours allow me to get as close as I can to students, teachers, and communities. I appreciate Bellwether for many reasons, but a work environment that allows me to volunteer (I coach with Girls on the Run and teach at Washington English Center) during typical office hours is invaluable.

You bring a gender lens to your work on our Teacher Pensions team. With the majority of the teaching profession being women, it might seem like a redundant focus. Why do you find it important to look through an explicit gender lens?

I’m actually working on a paper examining gender inequities and how they manifest in teacher retirement systems, and it was important to me to have another female researcher read a draft of my report. But when I pulled up an informal list of researchers in the teacher pensions space to seek out guidance, the overwhelming majority were male. It was disheartening, and it gave me real pause. We know the majority of the teaching profession, 76%, is female. Why is it that the vast majority of people researching their retirement system are male?

At face value, it can feel really redundant to examine gender in education. But I think it’s just the opposite. If we want to examine topics like teacher recruitment, teacher pay, teacher turnover, etc., we are remiss not to consider what it means to be a woman in our larger workforce, and how those dynamics play out in a field dominated in number by females, though still led by men. Here, it’s especially important to consider the intersection of race and gender, too.

What’s an education success story you’re proud of right now?

I’m most proud of my students, whether that’s my original sixth graders from August 2012, my Girls on the Run team who just wrapped their season with a 5k and a service project, or the adult learners who come to night classes at Washington English Center eager to learn even after a full work day.

I was lucky enough to be back in Irving, Texas last week, and I set up coffee dates with a few of my former students. I met Litzy when she was a sixth grader, one who willingly came in on Saturdays to bring up her reading level. Nothing is more powerful than hearing the eleven-year-old you tackled The Outsiders with talk about where she wants to apply to college next year. It gives me goosebumps. I’m proud of the work we do at Bellwether, of course, but listening to Litzy is next level.

Education policy work isn’t always flashy. In fact, I would argue that it’s very rarely flashy. If you’re in this space, it’s because you truly care about positive outcomes for all kids, but especially those who have been historically underserved. I’m here because our current system is objectively inequitable, and I want to do everything I can to change that.


December 21, 2017

State ESSA Plans Are in the Eye of the (Viewpoint) Holder

There has been a lot of discussion of state ESSA plans since the remaining 34 states submitted their plans earlier this fall, with various efforts assessing state plans against a set of common metrics. We wonks can go back and forth all day niggling on the metrics and indicators in each analysis (did it place enough emphasis on student subgroup performance, or on state’s long-term goals for growth and proficiency?), but that masks another important — and deeper — question:

How do states view the purpose of their state ESSA plans?

Among the American public and among state education leaders, there are vastly different perspectives on the role of the federal government in education. Whether you agree or disagree with the additional leeway that states enjoy under ESSA, the reality is that state leaders who believe that states should drive education policy will approach their ESSA plans with an orientation very different from state leaders who believe that the federal government should play a dominant role. Continue reading


December 19, 2017

Best in Bellwether 2017: Our Most Read Publications and Posts

Below are the most read posts from Ahead of the Heard and our most read publications in 2017! (To read the top posts from our sister site, TeacherPensions.org, click here.)

Top Ten Blog Posts from Ahead of the Heard in 2017

1.) Anything But Equal Pay: How American Teachers Get a Raw Deal
By Kirsten Schmitz

2.) Exciting News
By Mary K. Wells

3.) Some Exciting Hires and Promotions
By Mary K. Wells

4.) Where Are All The Female Superintendents?
By Kirsten Schmitz

5.) An Expanded Federal Role in School Choice? No Thanks.
By Juliet Squire

6.) Teacher Turnover Isn’t Always Negative – Just Look at D.C. Public Schools’ Results
By Kaitlin Pennington

7.) Georgia Addressed Its Teacher Shortages With This One Trick
By Chad Aldeman

8.) A Day in the Life: Bellwether Analyst Andrew Rayner [Andrew’s now over at Promise54!]
By Heather Buchheim & Tanya Paperny

9.) Welcoming Our New Senior Advisers
By Mary K. Wells

10.) How Will States Handle New Title I Powers with Minimal Federal Oversight?
By Bonnie O’Keefe

Top Five Publications & Releases from Bellwether in 2017

1.) An Independent Review of ESSA State Plans
Chad Aldeman, Anne Hyslop, Max Marchitello, Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, & Kaitlin Pennington

2.) Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century
Jennifer O’Neal Schiess & Phillip Burgoyne-Allen

3.) Michigan Education Landscape: A Fact Base for the DeVos Debate
Bonnie O’Keefe, Kaitlin Pennington, & Sara Mead

4.) Voices from Rural Oklahoma: Where’s Education Headed on the Plain?
Juliet Squire & Kelly Robson

5.) The Best Teachers for Our Littlest Learners? Lessons from Head Start’s Last Decade
Marnie Kaplan & Sara Mead

To hear more, you can always sign up here to get our newsletter. Thanks for following our work in 2017!