March 14, 2018

What Does it Take to Be a Quality Authorizer?

The autonomy-for-accountability bargain at the heart of the charter movement rests, crucially, on the effectiveness of the entities — known as authorizers — that have the ability to approve charter schools and the responsibility for holding them accountable. If authorizers are lax in their responsibilities — approving weak applications, failing to effectively monitor or assess school performance, or refusing to close low-performing schools — the accountability part of the bargain isn’t held up. But if they overstep their bounds, by limiting the kinds of schools they will approve, being overly prescriptive about requirements for school approval, or trying to micromanage schools they oversee, the autonomy part of the bargain goes missing. Getting the right balance between holding schools accountable and protecting their autonomy is a crucial question, both for authorizers and the charter movement as a whole, and since the start of the charter movement, it’s been the subject of heated debate — one that has intensified in recent years.

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March 13, 2018

Pay Gaps in Education are Bad. Pensions Make Them Worse.

Education, as a field, isn’t supposed to have pay gaps. In the vast majority of school districts, salaries are determined by uniform salary schedules based on educators’ years of experience and educational attainment. This policy should, at least in theory, guard against gender- or race-based salary inequities.

Sadly, pay gaps persist. In a new report, we studied Illinois’ educator data and found that women, regardless of experience level, earn markedly lower salaries than their male peers. As shown in the graph below, gender-based salary gaps begin in educators’ first year and increase until an educator reaches her 30th year of service.

As we show in the paper, these gaps also persist into retirement. For example, a teacher first becomes eligible for a pension after working for ten years in Illinois. At that point in their career, women’s average salary is $8,000 less than their male colleagues. This salary gap translates in a $2,100 disparity in annual pension benefits. And that pension inequity continues to grow each year. After working 30 years, a common retirement age, male educators get an average pension that is $8,000 more valuable than the average pension women receive. That is $8,000 less per year. After 10 years in retirement, men will have amassed an additional $80,000 in retirement benefits.

In short, salary schedules fail to sufficiently guard the education field against large and persistent gaps in salary and retirement benefits.

To learn more about gender-and race-based inequities in salaries and pensions, read the full report, here.

March 12, 2018

Three Potential Risks of New Federal Weighted Student Funding Pilot

The education field widely acknowledges that some students may need additional support to thrive in school and beyond because of challenging life circumstances, specific learning needs, or other factors. And, in fact, the structure of federal funding programs like Title I and the design of many state school funding formulas recognize this principle and provide targeted support and differentiated funding based on specific student needs.

However, this idea is rarely reflected at the local district and school level, where budgets are more commonly based on inputs like staffing ratios and salary schedules that are not directly linked to the needs of students served in a given school. But a new federal pilot program authorized under the Every Student Succeeds Act, 2015, (ESSA) seeks to change that by incentivizing more districts to redesign their school funding methods around students.

School districts’ applications to participate in ESSA’s weighted student funding pilot program are due to Secretary DeVos today. And while these funding models could theoretically increase equity, the devil is in the details. The Department, advocates, and ed-watchers should be on the lookout for both the potential rewards and the risks of these district proposals.

Under a weighted student funding model (WSF), districts fund schools in whole or in part through a formula that considers the total number of students served in each school and specific student characteristics linked to higher costs. These types of formulas assign greater funding weight to students with such characteristics, sending more money to the schools serving them.

Well-designed WSF systems can counter the unfortunate result of common funding distribution methods currently in practice in many districts, where input-driven funding methods often result in higher funding levels in schools that serve fewer high-need students. As such, in theory, encouraging more districts to implement funding allocations that shift resources toward student need should be a boon to equity — a potentially big “reward.”

To date, districts that have implemented WSF, such as Boston, Denver, and Indianapolis, have limited these allocation methodologies to state and local funds. Federal funds have been left out of the mix primarily because federal regulatory and reporting requirements make it complicated and burdensome to mingle federal, state, and local resources in a single, unified WSF formula.

This ESSA pilot could change that by waiving many federal requirements and permitting approved districts to combine funds and allocate them to schools under locally determined WSF formulas. In exchange, these formulas must provide “substantially more” funding to low-income students and English language learners compared with other students.

However, relaxing regulatory oversight is risky. Despite requirements written into the law, vague guidance from the Department on how important regulatory protections will be evaluated and enforced could actually allow districts to participate in the pilot without increasing funding equity.

Risk #1: “Substantially more”

ESSA requires that pilot participants provide “substantially more” funding for low-income students, English learners, and any other group of disadvantaged students the district identifies. This requirement intends to protect against districts rolling back funding for services targeted for these students. However, in the application materials, the Department does not define how much more funding needs to go to identified students.

In fact, the law only requires that compared with the preceding year, districts provide “more” funding from all sources to low-income students and at least flat funding for English language learners. This establishes a baseline relative to prior funding for the targeted group and not relative to other students not identified as disadvantaged. It is easy to imagine how a district could comply with that rule without providing differentiated funding for low-income students or English language learners.

Risk #2: “Significant portion”

Even districts that have been using WSF models for a while don’t necessarily flow all funding through that formula. There are legitimate reasons for this, which may be tied to incremental implementation of WSF, separate accounting for capital costs, or other factors. The ESSA pilot requires that a “significant portion” of funds flow through participants’ WSF formulas. However, the application fails to define how much funding qualifies as “significant.” This is critical because the positive impact of a well-designed, equitable formula can be undermined if enough funds are funneled outside that formula through a more regressive method.

Risk #3: Scoring questions

In addition to vague guidance on issues critical to promoting equity, a lack of clarity regarding how district applications will be graded raises concerns. On each question, a district will receive a rating (strong, sufficient, insufficient) that corresponds with 10, 5, or 0 points. The top 50 plans based on total points will be approved. Application guidance does not indicate whether a 0 score on any section is disqualifying. As a result, it appears possible that a plan that earns 0 points on critical questions could still be approved if its total score lands it near the top of the list.

Although DeVos recently gave a strong speech about her disappointment in weak state ESSA accountability plans, she nevertheless approved them. The lack of clarity and rigor in the WSF pilot application drives concern that she may be similarly lax in approving these district plans.

The ESSA pilot could incentivize real gains to the equitable distribution of funding if it promotes well-designed local formulas that truly link resource allocation to the cost of supporting strong outcomes for all students. However, it remains to be seen whether the Department will harness this potential by elevating principles of equity in its review and approval process and enforcing the equity protections written into the law. Absent those commitments, the pilot could elevate funding models that do little to increase equity, or even roll it back. The education sector must pay careful attention to those devilish details, push districts to improve when necessary, and hold the Department accountable to the full legal requirements in the law.

March 9, 2018

International Women’s Day at Bellwether

In honor of yesterday’s International Women’s Day, here is work we’ve done over the years to uplift women’s accomplishments and ensure equity:

March 7, 2018

Education Policy, Meet Human-Centered Design

In a lot of ways, the worlds of education policy and human-centered design couldn’t be more dissimilar. The former relies heavily on large-scale quantitative analysis and involves a long, complex public process. The latter is deeply qualitative, fast moving, creative, and generative. Policy professionals come up through the ranks in public agencies, campaigns, and think tanks. Deep issue expertise and sophisticated deductive reasoning are highly valued. Designers come from an array of backgrounds — the more unorthodox the better. Success for them comes from risk-taking, novel ideas, and synthesizing concepts across time, space, and sectors.

figure from Creating More Effective, Efficient, and Equitable Education Policies with Human-Centered Design comparing policy and design methods

figure from Creating More Effective, Efficient, and Equitable Education Policies with Human-Centered Design

I’m fortunate to have spent some time in both worlds. They each appeal to different parts of my personality. Policy analysis affords me order and confidence in answers based on facts. Design lets me flex my creative muscles, fail fearlessly, and have confidence in answers based on experience.

So when a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York gave me the opportunity to write a paper about bringing these two worlds together, I jumped at the chance — I knew that each could benefit from the other.

Creating More Effective, Efficient, and Equitable Education Policies with Human-Centered Design makes the case that policy practitioners can use human-centered methods to create better education policies because they are informed by the people whose lives will be most affected by them.

The underpinning hypothesis is that 1) co-designing policies with constituents can generate more accurate definitions of problems and more relevant solutions, 2) human-centered design can generate a wider variety of potential solutions leading to innovation, and 3) the process can mitigate or reverse constituent disenfranchisement with the lawmaking process.

Human-centered policy design is still a new practice, however, and there are still important questions to work out, like how to make sure the process is inclusive and where exactly human-centered design methods can enhance policy research and design.

Luckily, SXSW EDU, a huge national conference focused on innovation in education, is a perfect place to test new ideas. So I reached out to Maggie Powers, director of STEAM Innovation at Agnes Irwin School and member of IDEO’s Teachers Guild, and Matt Williams, vice president of Education at Goodwill of Central Texas, to explore what it would look like to apply human-centered design to policies that affect high school students whose education suffers because of lost credits when they transfer schools. Our session will pressure test some of the ideas that emerged in the paper. The results will inform the next phase of this work, which will help policy practitioners implement human-centered design methods. Keep an ear to the ground for that!