May 24, 2018

Four Lessons for School Leaders from STEM School Principals

 

By Johannes Rössel [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Career and technical education (CTE) is having something of a moment. An October Brookings report found that media mentions of the term, which commonly refers to programs teaching specific career-oriented and technical skills, have quadrupled in the past four years, and in 2015, 39 states instituted new CTE-related policies, many of which increased program funding.

While researching high-performing CTE programs, I was able to connect with two school leaders: Earl Moore, principal of Highlands, New Jersey’s Marine Academy of Science and Technology (M.A.S.T), and Jeff Brown, principal of Strathmore, California’s Harmony Magnet Academy. Both schools have a STEM focus, and while the institutions have their differences, four shared lessons emerged:

1. Career and technical education isn’t what it used to be — we’ve come a long way

When I think about vocational programs, I immediately visualize my own eighth grade shop class. It was a six week crash course — a literal crash, we hung drywall and then smashed it to patch it — and while I took away some foundational hammering and sanding skills, the background wasn’t connected to my eventual career aspirations.

But that’s not what many of today’s CTE programs look like, and it’s certainly not the case at M.A.S.T. or Harmony. In recent years, Harmony has added a student-run enterprise program, courses in biomedicine, and a summer coding camp targeting young women. Brown spoke to Harmony’s engineering program’s constant innovation cycle: “We’re always pushing the envelope to develop new opportunities for students; we’re constantly working to find a new way to make it more real.” Moore credited his school’s success to its ability to reinvent itself: “M.A.S.T. today is not what it was in 1981…the key to a successful CTE program is the ability to change with the times.”

2. Get you a program that does both — combining an academic core with STEM-centered courses prepares students for high-value jobs after college graduation

Both M.A.S.T. and Harmony pair traditional academic core classes with CTE-specific coursework. Both leaders found integrating a technical curriculum with a college prep foundation to be especially powerful. “Teaching academic subjects through a technical lens provides immediate opportunities for application, and students really learn at a higher level. We can’t be just a school,” says Brown. M.A.S.T. also combines CTE-specific experiences with traditional academies. All students take four years of Math, English, Social Studies, and Naval Science, but they also have the opportunity to learn on a 65-foot research vessel called the “Blue Sea.” In addition, all M.A.S.T. students participate in the Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.

3. Teacher preparation and professional development matter more than ever

Just as CTE has changed over time, how we teach it has changed, too. It’s critical for teacher preparation and development to evolve with the field. Moore links his staff’s ability to prepare M.A.S.T. students appropriately to an increase in ongoing professional development offered at the school and an awareness of the constantly changing skills and knowledge industry leaders are prioritizing, which are reinforced through partnerships with local businesses. “It’s an investment in money and resources,” he says, “but you need to give educators the professional development they need to achieve the goals of the program.”

4. It takes a village — and also local businesses — to get it right

No school is an island — not even a marine sciences academy. Both Brown and Moore underscored the support of local industry and community partners, from college professors to government officials, in developing their curriculum to align with workforce needs. Says Moore, “Vocational schools really need to be in tune with their local businesses.”

Region-specific programs can foster mutually beneficial relationships. Student interns are both learning and contributing to their community.

Researchers found high school CTE participants are more likely to graduate on time and less likely to drop out than students who do not take CTE courses. At the same time, some policy makers voice concerns around equity and access, as well as wide variation in CTE program quality. There’s a lot to unpack, but programs like M.A.S.T. and Harmony show positive student outcomes using hybrid vocational and academic curriculum are possible.


May 17, 2018

New Hires & Promotions

We’ve built a whip-smart staff here at Bellwether; pooling our experiences from past lives as teachers, nonprofit leaders, and congressional staff to deliver sharp insights and solutions that dramatically improve outcomes for kids. It’s what makes us special.

And it makes sharing hiring and promotion updates that much sweeter. I’m thrilled to announce a new hire to the Bellwether team and a number of promotions that will increase our ability to deliver on the ambitious goals we’ve committed ourselves to for kids:


First, I am excited to share that Alyssa Schwenk will be joining our team as Development Director. Alyssa comes to us by way of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she led external relations for the organization after managing fundraising and partnerships for some time. Alyssa is a former teacher and Teach For America corps member and taught at a public charter school in D.C. We’ve built a successful and sustainable organization without focused attention to development, so I’m really excited about what we can do with her leading this work for us.


On the promotions front, Gwen Baker recently took on the role of Chief Operating Officer and Senior Adviser. Gwen is drawing off of her experience as an entrepreneur, supporting me and our team of partners in driving progress on our new strategic plan. She will continue to serve clients, helping Bellwether develop its growing expertise in technology as a driver of learning and business effectiveness — something Gwen knows a lot about. She joined our team last year after many years as the co-founder of CoreSpring, Inc., whose mission is to provide the field with access to high-quality formative assessment content and digital authoring tools.


I’m also delighted to share that we have promoted Katie Rouse to Principal. Katie joined us about a year ago; she was previously the COO at DC Prep, a successful charter network. She has also held positions in Chicago Public Schools and Bain & Company. At Bellwether, Katie quickly distinguished herself for leadership on client projects, including leading strategic planning for charter schools, launching new organizations and initiatives, and supporting innovative strategic plans at complex nonprofits. In addition, she brings experience in developing talent systems and processes to our leadership team, and serves as an amazing coach for our Strategic Advising team.

Evan Coughenour has been promoted to Associate Partner on our Strategic Advising team! Evan joined us over 3.5 years ago and has served a wide range of clients, from start-up organizations to long-standing nonprofits to charter networks. Most recently he has helped develop our cohort-based strategic advising work that has been integral to delivering growth solutions to districts and charter networks looking to expand and in driving the continuous improvement of our approach to advising these clients. Over his years here, Evan has also offered his time to many of our team members to build their financial modeling skills.

Justin Trinidad has been promoted from Research Assistant to Analyst on our Policy & Thought Leadership team. Justin quickly absorbs all the content we throw at him and is on his way to becoming an expert in teacher prep, juvenile justice, and the inner workings of teachers’ unions and legislation. His insight, thoughtfulness, and poise are adding value to the projects he works on and to our policy work overall. Justin joined the Bellwether team with years of experience in Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) advocacy, having spent time with the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates.


Starr Aaron has been promoted to Executive & Business Systems Assistant. Over the last two years, Starr has provided expert support to some of our busiest senior staff. In this new role, Starr will continue to support some of those folks, while taking on new work in supporting our entire team with systems and technology. Prior to coming to Bellwether, Starr received her masters in education and spent almost two years as a technical trainer on proprietary banking software, where she developed and produced webinar tutorials, edited complex and highly technical training materials, and trained clients on new systems.

I’m so proud of our entire staff and their unwavering commitment to delivering smart, tailored solutions to our clients and recommendations for the field at large. If you’re interested in joining our team, please check out our open roles here.


May 15, 2018

Do Incarcerated Youth Have Equal Access to Education? Let’s Look at the Data.

Although we regularly assess student learning and evaluate the effectiveness of teachers in traditional schools, there is almost no hard data on the quality of education in the schools that serve students held in juvenile justice facilities. These facilities tend to only collect data focused on safety and security. What kind of education do these students receive?

Based on the first year of available data from the U.S. Civil Rights Data Collection, we conducted a national analysis to answer some simple questions:

  1. How many youth are enrolled in juvenile justice schools across the U.S.?
  2. To what degree do they have access to math and science courses (the only courses on which we have data)?
  3. How often do they enroll in these courses?

What we encountered on the way – before even answering the latter two questions – was troubling.

At the start of our analysis, we needed to set up a rudimentary fact base. How many juvenile justice schools are there in each state, and how many kids are enrolled in each? Basic questions, it would seem. Thankfully, the U.S. Department of Education collects public school enrollment nationally. In the 2013-14 data set, the first one made available, they decided to include juvenile justice schools in their definition of “public.” After adding up the number of students in juvenile justice schools for each state, we found that the number was suspiciously low. For example, Arkansas reported only six students enrolled in one juvenile justice school – in the entire state. South Carolina reported no juvenile justice schools at all.

We found it hard to believe that only six students were incarcerated in all of Arkansas, so we compared the enrollment data to another data set – the number of incarcerated youth in each state for the year 2013. If all was well in the world of data quality and educational access, we would expect the data sets to somewhat align, meaning the number of enrolled youth would account for about 100% of incarcerated youth. That, in turn, would give us a fairly accurate picture of educational opportunity for incarcerated youth in each state.

However, we found that in the majority of states, the enrollment numbers of juvenile justice schools didn’t remotely match up with the number of incarcerated youth for the same time frame. In only 18 states did the number of enrolled students somewhat account for the number of youth in placement (that is account for 70% – 130% of youth). In the other states, that alignment ranged from 0% (South Carolina) to 940% (Delaware). 940% means that way, way more youth were reported enrolled in juvenile justice schools than actually incarcerated. What seems mathematically impossible is more likely the result of schools being mislabeled as serving incarcerated youth or schools reporting cumulative enrollment (how many kids enrolled in a year) instead of snapshot enrollment (how many kids were attending school on one day).

Without accurate data, it’s hard to make state-by-state comparisons about access to education in these facilities. Good data matters. Without it, we don’t know whether the thousands of kids who are reported as incarcerated, but not enrolled in a school, are actually getting an education. They deserve better.

Check out our other findings in the full slide deck, Measuring Educational Opportunity in Juvenile Justice Schools.

Alexander Brand was an intern at Bellwether in the spring of 2018.


May 10, 2018


May 9, 2018

How Can DC Public Schools Keep Its Best Teachers? Give Them Encouragement, Flexibility, and a Chance to Lead.

It’s National Teacher Appreciation Week! Time to celebrate and thank teachers across the country. Weeks like this are important, but they are not enough to keep our best teachers in the profession. Retaining great teachers also requires targeted efforts by school districts to make teachers feel supported and engaged. In a new Bellwether analysis, we looked at teacher exit survey data from DC Public Schools (DCPS) to better understand why their best educators leave the district and how to retain them. cover of new Bellwether analysis, "Retaining High Performers: Insights from DC Public Schools’ Teacher Exit Survey"

It turns out, commonly promoted retention strategies such as better pay, more classroom resources, or reforming teacher evaluation aren’t the most promising ways to address the turnover of DCPS’ high-performing teachers. Here are three areas to focus on instead:

  • Work-life balance: For high-performers in DCPS, work-life balance was the top job-related factor in leaving DCPS. But directing all efforts towards decreasing teacher workload might not be the most effective solution. Instead, get creative with scheduling. High performers who left for better work-life balance said more schedule flexibility, especially part-time and extended leave options to spend time with family, would have made them stay.
  • Recognition from school leadership: Of the high-performing teachers who said DCPS could have retained them, 45 percent said more encouragement or support from school leadership would have made the difference. In fact, one in three high-performing teachers who left due to school leadership said they would have liked more recognition and encouragement.
  • Opportunities for teacher leadership: After work-life balance and school leadership, the most common reason highly effective teachers left DCPS was to pursue a leadership opportunity elsewhere. Notably, teachers of color reported more leadership and growth opportunities as the top effort that would have kept them in the district. While most teachers continued working in a traditional public school after leaving DCPS, high-performing teachers who left for a leadership opportunity were more likely to switch to a charter school.

The recent turmoil surrounding DCPS makes retaining teachers as crucial as ever. But the district needs to be strategic in targeting its most effective teachers. And these lessons on teacher retention can also indicate strategies for other urban districts.

Check out the full analysis here.

Alexander Brand was an intern at Bellwether in the spring of 2018.