November 16, 2021

Unpacking Education Finance Equity for State-Level Advocates: A Q&A with TennesseeCAN’s Erika Berry

Bellwether Education Partners’ series Splitting the Bill: Understanding Education Finance Equity gives advocates a crash course in the fundamentals of education finance and in key questions to ask in their states and communities. This series of short briefs is part of Bellwether’s ongoing examination of how finance and inequity in education shortchange millions of students and families. For a look at how equity-minded policymakers and advocates can begin to understand school finance policy, click here.

Erika Berry is senior policy director for TennesseeCAN, an independent, state-based affiliate of 50CAN’s* national network. The organization’s mission is to empower local stakeholders — from community members to policymakers — to advocate for improved K-12 education policies that put Tennessee children first. Berry has spent her career focused on improving educational outcomes for students and breaking down inequitable barriers that prevent students from succeeding, beginning her career in education as a middle school math teacher.

As a participant in Bellwether’s ongoing school finance equity trainings, Berry is currently examining Tennessee’s state school funding formula using data tools like R and Shiny, in collaboration with other advocates. I caught up with her over Zoom to discuss her work and learn more about the education finance equity landscape in Tennessee. To learn more about key education finance concepts within this Q&A, click here.

Bonnie O’Keefe:
How does TennesseeCAN’s mission overlap with education finance equity?

Erika Berry:
Every day, my work is centered on ensuring that students across the state have access to high-quality schools, teachers, and resources. I focus a lot on how Tennessee’s schools can equitably prioritize the unique talents and needs of its teachers and students. 

Education finance in Tennessee treats students as ratios. Our system assumes that all schools are the same with the same needs. School and district leaders make decisions based on prescribed inputs for staffing and resources, instead of applying a strategic mindset grounded in students’ needs. It’s not their fault; the state’s resource-based student funding formula encourages this kind of thinking. Tennessee is one of only 17 states with this kind of funding formula. 

This means that in Tennessee, our Basic Education Program (BEP) funding formula gives money to schools based on assumptions about schools’ costs and ratios of resources. This mostly revolves around staffing and student-teacher ratios. For example, in the BEP, for every 8.5 students with special needs, schools are allocated funding for a special education teacher, which means around an additional $48,000. But what if fewer than 8.5 students with special needs are enrolled in a given school — how will their needs be adequately met in this funding formula framework? And why are we counting “half” a student? 

To be clear, the resource-based formula doesn’t require that schools spend that exact dollar amount on those precise staffing ratios — it’s all based on averages. But it frames the way the whole state thinks about education funding. It’s an inherently inequitable system that is offensive to educators and students alike. Tennessee’s BEP system creates an incentive to hire less experienced teachers who make below-average salaries, and discourages schools from using their resources more creatively and strategically to best meet the needs of students. 

BOK:
Is there an alternative to this resource-based system?

EB:
Yes! At TennesseeCAN, we advocate for a weighted or student-based funding formula

BOK:
Tennessee’s governor recently announced a listening tour focused on potential changes to the state’s education finance system. What specific changes does TennesseeCAN most want to see, and why? 

EB:
Tennessee has done a great job in the past decade of implementing proven ed reforms. We have some of the best laws on the books to hold teacher preparation programs accountable. In recent teacher evaluations, something like 81% of educators in the state believed that the laws improved their teaching. I think our policymakers have held true to principles of accountability for high standards and it’s a good thing for students. But our resource-based funding formula just doesn’t match up.

A weighted, or student-based funding formula would force Tennessee school districts to think first about the needs of students every time they sit down at a table to form a budget. It would also allow district leaders to be more strategic about how to spend and create greater transparency around funding allocations clearly based on enrollment and student learning needs.

BOK:
How do coalitions or partnerships play into your advocacy strategy?

EB:
They’re a fundamental part of TennesseeCAN’s approach. In 2017, we started taking funding reform seriously as an organization and adopted a vision we wanted to see happen. We pulled in Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE),* Tennesseans for Student Success, the Tennessee Charter School Center*, and The Education Trust — all of whom are members of the Team Kid coalition.

Together, we’re pushing for a statewide weighted, student-based funding formula not just as a short-term fix, but as one that will support schools in the longer term. Every year and with each new state legislative session, our coalition partners work to defend progress made on accountability and on policies that center students. Although Tennessee is in a strong fiscal position at the moment, we know our advocacy work is far from done. Once you dive into the BEP funding system, you realize it’s wholly unpredictable and inequitable. School leaders, teachers, students, and families deserve more.

BOK:
What have you learned analyzing and visualizing your state’s finance system as part of Bellwether’s School Finance Equity trainings? What have you learned from other participants in the cohort?

EB:
Bellwether’s trainings enabled me to better understand and visualize our state and local revenue and stress-test prior assumptions — many of which were wrong. 

For example, we used to think that Tennessee’s state revenues were being distributed inequitably in the BEP. When we dove into the data, we were surprised to see that state funding was fairly equitable, but it wasn’t enough to offset inequities in local tax revenue, based on local property wealth. It was the local piece where the bigger, systemic inequities existed. We essentially have a regressive local funding system that allows wealthy districts to generate as much funds as they can, and still get state funding on top, widening the financial gap with districts that have less property wealth. My work in Bellwether’s trainings led me to realize that the added state revenue for lower-wealth districts isn’t enough to cover the local revenue shortfalls. This insight affected my thinking about what a more equitable state formula and school finance system should look like.  

The cohort model has been fascinating. I have a better analytical toolkit now, thanks to the cohort members and the training on data visualization. I’ve learned a lot from peers in other states and it’s interesting to see areas of similarity in state funding formula structures and, importantly, areas of difference. Every state has something funky in its funding formula that can usually be traced back to a quick-fix policy solution that’s good for adults, but not for kids and schools.

BOK:
What are some of the common misconceptions about Tennessee’s school finance that you encounter in your work — from policymakers, or from community members? How do you help break those down?

EB:
A lot of people think the BEP is student-based, so we spend time clarifying that. Enrollment is a factor, but it’s mediated by these resource-based ratios and funding assumptions. If you ask folks to think about how the funding formula influences decision-making, it often serves as an epiphany moment. Our resource-based system envisions spending on prescribed resources (e.g., number of staff, textbooks to order) but a weighted, student-based approach leads districts to first know their students’ needs and then be strategic about how to deploy funds in a way that prioritizes students over a laundry list of resources.

At the end of the day, local districts are in a better position to know their students than the state. And the resource-based mindset leads to a variety of ongoing issues around budgets.

BOK:
What do you hope to accomplish in 2022 as it relates to education finance?

EB:
We hope that 2022 will bring a new, weighted, student-based funding formula to Tennessee. We want to have a discussion about how a new approach could shift thinking and behaviors at the state, local, and school district levels to meet students’ needs and reduce inequities. 

I worry when I talk about education funding inequity, that people might misunderstand and think that this is a “silver bullet” solution. It’s not. But, a more equitable school funding formula can help uncover those silver bullet solutions and better enable districts to really move the needle for students. I think greater funding equity has the potential to pave the way for other kinds of reforms that target and center students’ needs, first and foremost.

BOK:
One last question: How did you get started in education and what fuels your work now?

EB:
I grew up in Mississippi and always heard that our schools weren’t successful because they were underfunded — and I believed it. After college, I taught middle school in a well-funded Mississippi school district and was surprised to find that my students weren’t achieving despite all the resources we had. More money wasn’t the solution; my students were kept behind in a system that could have served them well. 

That stark realization fueled my graduate work and advocacy work — to understand what was going wrong and think about what students need versus how to make it easy for adults to run a school system. 

*(Editor’s note: Tennessee SCORE is a Bellwether client; 50CAN and the Tennessee Charter School Center are former clients.)


November 10, 2021

Confused by your child’s state assessment results? You’re not alone.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

As trained psychometricians, my husband and I study how to design student achievement tests and interpret the scores. And if that work wasn’t complicated enough, our son took his first statewide standardized assessment last spring. We thought we were well prepared to review his results, but we were wrong. When we received an email in mid-October from our school district on how to access his results, my husband said to me, “Now I understand why people complain about standardized tests.” 

The process to get our son’s test scores was not at all user friendly, and I can’t imagine that we’re the only parents experiencing this level of confusion as families like ours receive spring 2021 student assessment results.  

First, we had to log into the school’s student information system (e.g., Infinite Campus, PowerSchool) where we could view his scores, proficiency levels (e.g., advanced, proficient, and not proficient), and the number of questions answered correctly for different portions of the test. Because our son had tested in person, there was also a claim code so we could create a separate “Parent Portal” account from the test vendor. If he had tested remotely, the only information that we would have received would have been his scores in the district system. We were instructed to take the scores, open a technical manual that had been linked in the email, and use the manual to find our son’s percentile rank. There was no information provided on how to interpret any of the scores.*  

Although the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is a likely factor causing confusion, our experience highlights problems with assessment information and transparency. Given calls to eliminate annual testing in schools, it’s increasingly important for states and districts to facilitate the appropriate use and understanding of the test scores so families can understand what these tests do and do not tell us about student learning. The first step is providing parents with information that’s not only timely, but also accessible. Here are a few common issues. 

Achievement Levels 

To help with score interpretation, states are required to create at least three achievement levels. These achievement levels provide a rough indicator of whether or not a student is meeting grade level requirements. However, not much information is given to parents about what these levels actually mean. The descriptions within the score report often use jargon that is likely unfamiliar to parents. For instance, an advanced student in mathematics has “a thorough understanding of Operations and Algebraic Thinking.” To understand the meaning, parents would need to read the detailed performance level descriptors that are in a different manual or read their state’s standards. Another issue is that proficiency can vary from assessment to assessment, and parents are left trying to figure out why their child was designated “Some Risk” on one assessment versus “Proficient” on another. 

Raw Scores 

Raw scores are the number of items that a student answered correctly. Sometimes assessments will report raw scores as a “subscore.” However, these numbers can be misleading without more context. For instance, if there were only four items for a particular subscore and a student missed two of the four, it could look like they were particularly weak in that area when the discrepancy may be an artifact of the test length.  

Changes in the Assessment 

Depending on the testing program, the interpretation of this year’s test scores may be different than previous years and it’s important to communicate the what and why about those differences. For example, percentile ranks are typically based on students who took the assessment during the first test administration. They’re referred to as the norm group, which provides a relatively stable comparison over time. When interpreting the percentile rank, it’s essentially saying that a student at the 50th percentile scored better than 50% of the students in the norm group. Changes to the norm group can make a big difference in terms of the interpretation as we’re changing our reference point. In my state, the first administration of the test was in 2019 but the norm group was updated to students who tested in 2021.   

On the surface, this could be reasonable. Given disruptions in learning, families, teachers, and school leaders may want know how students compare to others who have had similar disruptions to their schooling. But, if a parent wants to know how much learning loss may have occurred and compare their child’s score to peers’ scores pre-pandemic, they’d need to either use the proficiency standards (advanced, proficient, not proficient, which are a fairly rough indicator given the range of scores), or break out the 2019 technical manual and look up their child’s percentile rank. 

These issues may sound minor, but they’re not. And, when poorly communicated, they reinforce the narrative that test scores aren’t useful or important and contribute to increased skepticism about testing. Although some of the shifts are unique to COVID-19, states also change tests, norm groups, and cut scores in non-pandemic times.  

Moving forward, increased transparency is needed to ensure that parents like my husband and me, districts, and policymakers better understand how to interpret and use the scores to track student growth. 

 

(*Our school district has a one-to-one device initiative and provides hotspots to families that don’t have internet access. In other districts, there may be substantial equity issues in distributing student scores through online platforms, as not all families have access to technology.)

 


November 2, 2021

Unpacking Education Finance Equity for State-Level Advocates: A Q&A with EdAllies’ Krista Kaput

Bellwether Education Partners’ series Splitting the Bill: Understanding Education Finance Equity gives advocates a crash course in the fundamentals of education finance and in key questions to ask in their states and communities. This series of short briefs is part of Bellwether’s ongoing examination of how finance and inequity in education shortchange millions of students and families. For a look at how equity-minded policymakers and advocates can take a deep dive into the wonky details of school finance policy, click here.

Krista Kaput is research director at EdAllies in Minnesota, where she uses research and data to amplify asset- and equity-based stories from the state’s education landscape. She has held a variety of roles at the intersection of education policy and practice, and began her career in the classroom as a Teach For America corps member in Chicago.

As a participant in Bellwether’s ongoing school finance equity trainings, Kaput is currently analyzing and visualizing Minnesota’s state school funding formula using data tools like R and Shiny. I connected with her over Zoom recently to discuss her work on behalf of Minnesota students and the role school finance plays in educational equity. To learn more about key education finance concepts within this Q&A, click here.

Bonnie O’Keefe:
Tell me about your role and the mission behind EdAllies.

Krista Kaput:
I’m the research director at EdAllies, a Minnesota-based advocacy and policy nonprofit that partners with schools, families, and communities to ensure that every young Minnesotan — particularly those from underserved communities — has access to a rigorous and engaging education. I manage research projects and am the lead writer for EdAllies’ policy work.

Our work follows a three-pronged approach:

  • Advance equity: We advocate for policies that put underserved students first. In particular, we focus on teacher preparation and licensure, school discipline, college and career readiness, school finance, data transparency, and parent choice. 
  • Remove barriers: We work with families, teachers, and school leaders to find the most promising strategies for success and to remove policy barriers. 
  • Elevating historically excluded voices: We strive to change the conversation by elevating the voices of those who have been excluded from decision-making through storytelling efforts such as our blogs, op-eds, projects, surveys, and also through outreach at the Minnesota State Capitol.

All of this work relies upon collaborative partnerships among EdAllies and schools, coalitions, associations, and parent groups. 

BOK:
How does education finance equity relate to your advocacy agenda in Minnesota?

KK:
Equity is at the core of our work and education finance — where and how money is allocated and spent in Minnesota — is central to achieving a level playing field. We see the complexity and inequities of our education finance system as a barrier to the general public being able to understand and advocate for change that puts underserved students at the center. Minnesota has a reputation of being a very progressive and generous state when it comes to education funding. $10.5 billion in state dollars goes to public education, about 42% of the state’s general fund. We also have several dedicated funding streams for low-income students, English language learners, and other student groups that need extra educational resources. But that isn’t the whole story. Minnesota consistently puts equality over equity in school finance, and shortchanges the groups of students who need resources the most.  

Our overly complicated education finance system deters people from digging in and learning about systemwide nuances that are actually quite inequitable. We see it as our job to deeply understand the finance system and translate that knowledge to the general public. 

BOK:
Tell me more. What are education finance equity challenges facing Minnesota, and how do they affect students and schools?

KK:
Every state education finance system should start with an adequate base amount of funding per student and allocate additional resources to underserved student populations in an equitable, transparent, and efficient way. Minnesota doesn’t do this to the best of its ability. 

While we have a generous base amount of state funding per pupil, we use several disconnected, complicated formulas to allocate additional funds for low-income students, ELLs, students in rural areas, and students with disabilities. These separate formulas have many technical loopholes and quirks that undermine equity, which make it more difficult to put money in the hands of districts and schools serving students with the greatest needs.  

For example, I’ve recently been analyzing Minnesota’s “compensatory revenue” formula, which is meant to provide additional funds to schools and districts serving low-income students. This formula has an 80% cap, which means that schools don’t see a per-pupil increase in funding if they have a low-income student concentration above 80%. If compensatory revenue is meant to acknowledge that schools serving more low-income students need extra resources and supports, why would a school serving 99% low-income students get the same amount as a school serving 80% low-income students? Furthermore, while the money is generated at the school level, statutory language allows the district to retain up to 50% of the funds.

In another example, we’re one of six states that don’t have an expected local share in our state formula, which fuels district-level inequities. The state distributes money without anticipating how much local districts can raise on their own, giving already wealthy districts a larger share of state funds than they need. 

We would prefer a weighted, student-based funding formula, which could clarify how state and local funds get distributed to districts, and embed funding for students with additional needs within one consistent, transparent, and equitable formula.

BOK:
What work do you have underway this year around finance equity in Minnesota? How have you dug into the data and policies, and what are you planning to do next?

KK:
Although school finance is a newer issue area for EdAllies, we’ve been doing a lot with it this year, and have been collaborating with several national organizations in the process. 

Our team has been partnering with finance experts at The Education Trust to identify areas of strength and improvement in Minnesota’s school finance system and learn from other states’ best practices. Through this partnership, I’ve learned just how inequitable and “faux-gressive” Minnesota’s education finance system is, particularly for how we fund ELLs and students with disabilities. And through Bellwether’s school finance equity trainings, I’ve built up my data analysis and visualization skills so that I can model and demonstrate the impact of the policies we’re proposing to change using real education finance data from Minnesota.

During the 2021 legislative session, EdAllies was part of a coalition that advanced a bill that would have lifted the cap on compensatory revenue for low-income students and kept more of those funds at the school level. The bill made it into the final education omnibus bill in the Minnesota State House, but unfortunately didn’t make it through the Conference Committee. We plan to advocate for it again in the upcoming 2022 legislative session. 

My team is already strategizing how we can visualize the proposed changes in our advocacy agenda with legislators, educators, advocacy organizations, and other stakeholders. I’m creating a dashboard that will visualize the impact of potential policy changes for ELLs, students with disabilities, and students living in rural areas, as well as what a weighted student funding formula could look like in Minnesota. We’re also examining within-district finance inequity in how districts distribute funds to schools. With support through a NERD$ mini-grant from Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab I’ll also examine within-district per-pupil spending against a variety of metrics (e.g., attendance, academic proficiency, high school graduation rates, teacher diversity, and more). 

BOK:
What do you wish more state advocates for educational equity understood about school finance and state funding systems?

KK:
At least in Minnesota, I wish more people understood how much we could improve our way of funding schools. I run into a lot of Minnesotans who think that the way we do things currently is the best way, and that the only education finance change we need is more general funding. It’s a status-quo mindset that calcifies unnecessary barriers to people even trying to understand our finance system. And it perpetuates inequities and blocks progressive policies from passing. I wish more people understood that other states have transparent and clear weighted student funding formulas, and have figured out how to distribute local and state revenues more equitably. That’s what we’re working toward at EdAllies. 

If anyone reading this hasn’t already looked into how their state’s education funding system is structured, I highly encourage them to do so. I also want to encourage all readers to look at their state’s school finance data at the Edunomics Lab’s NERD$ database and, if and/or when it’s offered again, I encourage everyone to apply to take Bellwether’s school finance equity trainings.

BOK:
In closing, I’m curious about what drew you to a career in education policy and advocacy. Can you explain what led you to this work?

KK:
I grew up in a primarily single-parent household and attended Minnesota public schools for years. I wasn’t really challenged and started to make questionable choices. My mother worked two jobs and made many sacrifices to give me an opportunity to attend a private school that changed the entire trajectory of my life. No parent should ever have to do what my mom did to give their child a high-quality education. Every school should be high quality.

As an undergrad at the University of Chicago, I tutored fourth graders who could barely read. I was at a top-tier postsecondary education institution with limitless resources, neighboring woefully under-resourced schools. I decided to do Teach For America in Chicago and learned about toxic stress and the impact of neighborhood violence — I lost four students to violence while teaching there. My school had a purely discipline-based approach to teaching, that didn’t reward building trust and relationships with young people. 

These experiences drive my work and make me want to change the systems that schools operate in. 


October 28, 2021

Splitting the Bill: Understanding Education Finance Equity

School finance poses a unique challenge for policymakers and advocates alike. The consequences of school finance policy are monumental for students — it has a direct effect on the educational opportunities they will be able to access. At the same time, the complicated mechanics of how dollars move from taxpayers to classrooms can rival that of high-end Swiss watches.

Changing how dollars are raised and distributed to be more clearly aligned with student and community needs is essential to building a higher-performing, more equitable system of public education. But doing so requires a deep understanding of the policy gears and springs that power the movement of educational dollars. It’s critical that policymakers and advocates concerned with educational excellence and equity build fluency in the details of school finance systems.

Splitting the Bill, a new series of Bellwether education finance equity briefs, serves as a crash-course to demystify complexities embedded in school finance systems.

A good place to start? Understanding that where the money for public schools comes from creates challenges for policymakers. The vast majority of funding for K-12 schools comes from state and local governments (federal funding accounts for less than 10% of public school revenues), but the combination of state and local dollars often looks different from district to district. That variance is a product of two important variables: 1) the taxable property wealth per-pupil within a district, and 2) the level of student learning needs. Districts that have relatively less taxable property wealth and relatively higher student learning needs should receive more funding from the state to account for those differences.

Unfortunately, that’s not always how it plays out in practice. State school funding formulas take many different forms and attempt to account for the different wealth and student learning needs of school districts, but often fall short. These shortcomings can have many sources, from opaque formulas disconnected from student needs to inadequate “weights” to support students with particular learning needs (e.g., low-income students, English language learners, and special education students). In many states, problems in state school finance systems have led to litigation that can catalyze policy change.

Reading our Splitting the Bill series is a good way to better understand school finance generally, but true fluency in your state’s school funding system requires analyzing a lot of data and legislation. That technical work should start with collecting, cleaning, and exploring district demographic and finance data from state and federal sources, paired with building knowledge of your state’s funding policies and any relevant litigation.

Building this understanding isn’t easy — it requires a strong technical and analytical skill set. It’s why we’re developing these skills through a series of school finance equity training sessions with a cohort of state-level policy advocacy organizations. We’re building their capacity to use R to clean, analyze, and visualize school finance data from their states with the goal of pursuing reforms that create more equitable funding systems.

Developing a command of the details within school funding systems can reveal both the benign and malign impacts of different policy choices. Spending on K-12 education makes up the largest share of general fund expenditures for state governments, but there are relatively few people in each state that truly understand how those dollars currently move and, more importantly, how they should move to better serve students.

It’s time for more equity-minded policymakers and advocates to take a deep dive into the wonky details of school finance policy.


October 27, 2021

Education Innovator Q&A: Jordan Meranus on Elevating English Learners to Thrive

With the 2021-22 school year well underway across the country, we have continued to reach out to education leaders and innovators on where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what their organizations are doing to weather the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and serve students. Visit these posts for a few recent back-to-school reflections. 

Jordan Meranus is an entrepreneur with deep roots in launching and leading high-impact education companies and nonprofits. Early in his career, he co-founded Jumpstart, a national nonprofit providing intensive early literacy, language, and social-emotional programming to children in under-resourced communities in dozens of cities across the country. He was also a partner at NewSchools Venture Fund where he assisted entrepreneurs in developing innovative organizations in public education. Currently, Meranus is co-founder and CEO of Ellevation Education, a web-based ed tech software platform that provides solutions to improve educational outcomes for multilingual learners by increasing educator effectiveness and scaffolding student learning. Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham was an advisor to the company. 

I caught up with Meranus in a wide-ranging conversation focused on English Learners (ELs), how school systems and teachers can be better equipped to serve them, and how language matters. 

Yoshira Cardenas Licea:
I’m curious about what Ellevation Education does, the WHY behind your everyday work, and how it has evolved since its founding. Can you tell me a little bit about the organization? 

Jordan Meranus:
Ellevation Education is a mission-driven software company exclusively focused on multilingual learners and the educators who serve them. My co-founder (Teddy Rice) and I had been supporting and investing in education organizations and companies focused on underserved populations and struggling students for years. We’d spent significant time asking educators across the country about their most acute challenges. And we routinely heard that they were struggling to meet the needs of ELs in increasingly linguistically diverse classrooms. We quickly learned that ELs were the fastest growing population of students in the U.S., with an achievement gap wider than race and income at the time. We also quickly learned that school leaders and teachers were in dire need of resources to better serve EL students.

A decade ago, we started Ellevation Education to address this problem at scale. Our work ensures that educators have the tools to meet the needs of ELs and multilingual learners. Initially, we focused on school administrators, but have since grown to directly serve classroom teachers and EL students. 

YCL:
What does that work look like in practice in a classroom setting?

JM:
Today, we have about 150 Ellevation team members serving over 1,100 school districts in nearly every state in the country. Our work initially focused on administrators, with early products centered on data, workflows, and the challenges that pull educators away from instructional preparation and time for intervention. We soon realized, though, that to truly address EL needs, we had to expand to serve teachers and students. So we launched Ellevation Strategies to help classroom teachers understand the strengths and needs of their EL students and engage them in rigorous content. More recently, we launched Ellevation Math to help EL students develop the vocabulary and academic language needed to access content and actively engage in classroom instruction.

For example, let’s say you’re an eighth grade math teacher planning a lesson on parabolas. If you have EL students, it’s highly likely that they may not fully grasp some of the language and vocabulary that you’ll use in your lesson (e.g., vertex, slope, symmetry). How might that impact their experience in your classroom? Ellevation Math provides short lessons to teach students that vocabulary so that they’ll be able to participate and complete the rigorous standards-based work.

YCL:
What do you identify today as the biggest challenge facing ELs?

JM:
You can’t boil it down to ONE challenge, it’s too multifaceted. 

First, I think it’s important to realize that ELs have to do double the work. It’s an oft-used phrase but ELs have to learn content and language — all while navigating the social and cultural world in their schools and communities. Put yourself in their shoes, it’s a lot to ask of K-12 students. 

Next, layer in the fact that many families of EL children may lack a deep understanding of education in the U.S., especially now navigating complicated choices around schooling amid the pandemic. 

Mix in challenges with inadequate teacher training for educators — who increasingly have to be a teacher of both language and content — and there are enormously unmet professional development needs. Recent research that we’re seeing shows that teachers are increasingly worried about whether they and their schools are effectively meeting EL needs. Something like 64% of teachers don’t feel they’re getting enough PD to accomplish this.

This mix of EL student challenges and teacher training constraints adds up to a very challenging environment for 5+ million EL students in U.S. schools. 

YCL:
As a former teacher in rural south Texas with a high EL student population, I can’t imagine teaching in this context. What does the average person not appreciate about ELs?

JM:
I love the question, and it’s something I think about a lot. Either because of how the press covers this student population or test scores, most people approach this question thinking about deficits and not about the assets EL students bring to the classroom: 

  • ELs are well on their way to being multilingual, which the majority of native-born Americans won’t be. Participating in immersive language programs is something a lot of parents clamor for.
  • ELs demonstrate perseverance and grit on a daily basis, including many whose families endured obstacles and trauma to get to this country.
  • Most people don’t fully appreciate that being an EL is a moment in time. With the right supports, schooling, interventions, and trained teachers, ELs are on a path to being proficient and achieving outcomes as strong or often stronger than their non-EL peers.

Language is important. We had a recent guest on our Highest Aspirations podcast who’s started using the language of the “emergent bilingual.” It’s asset based, and focuses on where EL students are heading. Compare that to the standard “limited English proficient” language that’s so deficit based. These kinds of changes matter and I hope more and more that we’ll start to see a powerful shift in language around ELs.

YCL:
We think a lot about school culture at Bellwether in our work with educators and clients. What do you think are key steps more schools should take to create an inclusive school culture for ELs?

JM:
It’s critical to recognize and use the asset-based mindset we were just discussing. Community and family engagement are also critical levers to learn what assets and challenges families and EL students bring, and to welcome them and better serve them in a school setting. We also have to create language-rich environments: EL students work best when engaging with teachers and peers and in project-based learning with a lot of opportunities to practice. Teacher preparation is also a huge piece of a good school culture for ELs so that those welcoming and engaging classrooms are commonplace within a school. I also think students need to be and feel seen. As a society, we need to do much more to preserve and showcase students’ home languages and cultures.

YCL:
We’ve been through a lot since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. What are you most worried about?

JM:
As EL students achieve proficiency, they’re reclassified. If this happens by the eighth grade, ELs tend to achieve on par with or above their non-EL peers. I worry about those ELs who don’t get reclassified before eighth grade or high school. Data show that students who are not reclassified by this time are much more likely to fall further behind, be less engaged, and even drop out.

Prior to the pandemic, there was increasing evidence that the number of long-term ELs, or those that do not get reclassified, was on the rise. I’m concerned that COVID-19 has exacerbated this by depriving kids of in-person school environments and critical opportunities to experience rich language learning. I think by the end of 2021, we might see concerning numbers that require a larger focus on investing resources to ensure that these long-term EL students don’t drop out and are being adequately supported and engaged in their learning.

YCL:
On the flip side of that question, what excites you about Ellevation’s work and about EL students?

JM:
We’re clearly in an incredible period of disruption, with educators, families, and children — especially EL students — feeling a great deal of sustained stress. Ellevation’s mission, products, and services are designed to alleviate some of that stress. We’re well positioned to be a terrific asset for schools, educators, and students to meet this moment. 

YCL:
In closing, what personally calls you to this work?

JM:
Growing up, I knew what it was like to feel and live in a tumultuous environment and to feel vulnerable. That’s what led me to focus in part on education. I also worked at a residential camp for kids with severe emotional disturbances (victims of abuse and neglect). The experience gave me a unique window into how profoundly these kids were struggling but also the tremendous assets these same kids possess. They needed adults and communities to be there for them. So I helped start Jumpstart and focused my work on how to ensure we do the best we can to support struggling students in underserved communities. Ellevation gives me the opportunity to marry each of these things — focusing on underserved students, building a mission-oriented organization and team, and having an opportunity to impact and serve EL students and teachers — every day.

YCL:
Having grown up in a Spanish-speaking family and teaching ELs, thank you for your work.