October 13, 2021

Want More Equitable Schools? Look at Housing and District Boundary Policies.

In a new report, Alex Spurrier, Sara Hodges, and I outline the very real impact of policy decisions across housing, funding, and education, made at all levels of government. 

In Priced Out of Public Schools: District Lines, Housing Access, and Inequitable Educational Options, how district boundaries are drawn and where accessible housing is located means that low-income families are priced out of some school districts and segregated from more affluent families. This isn’t only exclusion from certain public schools, but also exclusion from academic opportunities (such as magnet schools or Advanced Placement courses) and extracurricular activities. 

In looking at the 200 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, we found nearly 500 “barrier borders” across the country that have deep funding implications:

  • 12.8 million students live in districts with a high concentration of low-income housing and generate $6,355 per-pupil less in school funding from local, state, and federal sources than their affluent peers in districts with inaccessible housing.
  • Districts with inaccessible housing have an average of $4,664 more per-pupil than the “average” district, while districts with accessible housing have $1,691 less per-pupil than the “average” district.

This work joins a cadre of important studies and news media coverage on how seemingly random boundaries and borders are actually deliberate policy decisions. (Check out the Urban Institute’s latest study on within-district attendance boundaries and race, as well as the archives from EdBuild.)

Simply put, this is an intentional policy decision — sometimes made decades ago, but not always. We can also intentionally address it.

If we want equitable schools, I’ve long argued for making funding more equitable

The radical, but swift policy solution would be to decouple the real estate market from school funding, allowing local property taxes to play a minimal role in funding schools (if at all). Instead, states could create a state-funded education system (essentially replacing local funding) and distribute that funding equitably and based on student needs. 

Alternatively, if the policy landscape makes replacing local property taxes nearly impossible, states could seriously invest their dollars in leveling the playing field so that communities with higher property values do not continue to systematically disadvantage lower-income communities. 

There are also ways to fiddle around the ends if using property taxes for school funding continues, including the state limiting how much property taxes can be used locally and redistributing any amounts over the cap.

But changing funding isn’t the only avenue to pursue. States and locales could simply eliminate the mismatch between school district boundaries and city or county limits. It’s hard to imagine a rationale for one city, such as greater Chicago, to have 353 districts (and 45 barrier borders). Which also makes it hard to imagine what the rationale of these policies might be, if not the resulting exclusion of some families from some schools and resources. States with the highest number of school districts also tend to have the greatest number of barrier borders: eight of the 10 states that account for 70% of the nation’s barrier borders also rank in the top 10 states for highest number of school districts. Some metropolitan areas may be too big to have one mega-school district, but drawing boundary lines to explicitly divide communities based on income is inequitable and wrong.

Finally, there is a role that the federal government can play, and that’s in housing policy. At a baseline, there should be more low-income housing in more communities. The reality is that the need for low-income housing far outpaces the supply of affordable options, and sequestering low-income families together (particularly when physically far from important educational and other resources) is inequitable.

With the infusion of funds from the federal government, now is the time to reexamine and redraw what may seem like random funding, housing, and boundary decisions that are far from random. They are indeed intentional. The question is, can we be intentional about creating a more equitable landscape?

Priced Out of Public Schools: District Lines, Housing Access, and Inequitable Educational Options is part of an ongoing Bellwether examination of how finance and inequity in education shortchange millions of students and families.

 


October 12, 2021

How Inequities in Housing Affect Education — and Vice Versa

Photo courtesy of cottonbro for Pexels

As part of the Priced Out of Public Schools: District Lines, Housing Access, and Inequitable Educational Options release, Bellwether asked housing expert Malcom Glenn to weigh in on how finance and inequity in education and housing shortchange millions of students and families across the country.

There’s an old adage in politics, repeated in some form by everyone from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Sen. Tim Scott to President Barack Obama: a person’s ZIP code should not determine their destiny. More often than not, the two factors at the intersection of ZIP codes and social determinants are fair housing and education. Policymakers tend to think of these as separate issues and address them in silos. But from an equity perspective, rarely do you find two issues as inextricably linked — or as generationally interrelated — as housing and education.

Housing is the foundation for much of what comes after in a person’s life — the Urban Institute called it “the first rung on the ladder to economic opportunity,” and the absence of stable housing has significant negative impacts on health outcomes, family well-being, and overall quality of life.

Discrepancies in quality related to both housing and education are unfortunately the result of intentional decisions: just a few of the countless outgrowths of America’s history of racial discrimination. Not all of them show up in concrete, government-backed policies. As author Richard Rothstein writes, much of these discriminatory practices amounted to de facto segregation, where private actors were free to discriminate without any engagement from policymakers. That began a cycle that persists today.

From real estate agents unwilling to sell homes to people of color to discrimination in appraisals to mortgage lenders offering significantly higher interest rates to prospective Black borrowers, racist policies depressed Black wealth creation for generations. As white families in previously more racially diverse neighborhoods were able to favorably engage in the house-buying market, they moved elsewhere, and Black residents maintained significantly less net worth than their white counterparts. Over time, key pieces of infrastructure were at best, neglected, and at worst, purposefully used to further separate, segregate, and subjugate Black families and neighborhoods.

As property values dropped, there was less tax revenue to help fund investment in improving public school quality, widening the gap between high- and low-quality schools. As students at underfunded schools continued to see lower educational attainment, it deterred families from moving to those neighborhoods and further exacerbated plummeting property values in these communities. Without significant growth in property values, families remained stuck in a cycle of limited housing options resulting in limited educational options — the limits of which were passed on from generation to generation. In the past decade, housing costs near high-performing K-12 public schools were more than twice as much as costs near low-scoring public schools, according to a 2012 Brookings Institution report.

Data from recent years shows the results of more than a half-century of policies, neglect, and cyclical marginalization, and it starts at the very beginning of a child’s educational journey and continues as long as they’re in school. According to a 2016 report, there’s an association between lower kindergarten readiness scores and “cumulative exposure to poor-quality housing and disadvantaged neighborhoods.” 

Research from that same year also found that household crowding — defined as having more people living in a home than there are rooms — has a direct impact on educational attainment, particularly during a student’s high school years. And passing rates in virtually every subject are lower for children experiencing homelessness than children in stable housing situations. It’s not just the students who suffer from housing difficulties, either. Increases in teacher pay have been outpaced by rising home prices, making many teachers significantly more likely to depart their jobs in high-cost school districts within just two years. 

Fixing this problem requires addressing the fundamentally interrelated aspects of fair housing and education. Policymakers, education advocates, families, and more should consider a range of solutions, including the following.

It’s these types of efforts that will make housing more equitable in its own right, while importantly creating better educational attainment. And it speaks to a philosophical shift that can and should occur, with a clear recognition of the impact of quality housing policy on good education policy. Too often, a person’s ZIP code still does determine their destiny. It’s only by unraveling the inequitable policies of the past and leveraging smart policies of today that we can provide better futures for America’s schoolchildren.

Malcom Glenn is a fellow at New America’s Future of Land and Housing Program and the director of public affairs at Better, a platform that makes homeownership easier and more accessible. He’s a former national director of communications at the American Federation for Children


October 4, 2021

What Can Spring 2021 Assessments Tell Us About Learning Loss?

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

As spring 2021 state assessment results come in across the country, the academic impacts of COVID-19 are no longer theoretical. The preponderance of data points in the same direction: student learning was significantly impacted by the pandemic. States are reporting significant decreases in math, reading, and science proficiency since 2019 — with students of color, English language learners, and students from low-income families among the most impacted.

How did we get here, and what can schools, districts, and policymakers do about it? 

Learning loss is not a new concept in education, although it might go by many names. In its simplest form, it’s the result of a significant disruption in education that can lead students to lose previously acquired knowledge or skills, or shift to a learning trajectory that takes them further from grade level standards. Pre-pandemic studies looked at two kinds of learning loss 1) the “summer slide” or “summer setback” that many students experience between one school year and the next as well as 2) the short- and long-term academic effects of school closures due to weather and natural disasters. 

In the rocky shifts to and from remote learning (and back again) over the past year and a half — often without sufficient support for educators and families — it seemed very likely that students would experience some form of learning loss, perhaps in entirely different ways than previously understood. Emerging studies throughout 2020-21 consistently showed that the negative academic effects of COVID-19 disruptions were real, and were most pronounced among historically marginalized student groups. But the idea of learning loss received surprising pushback, mostly from those who felt the term stigmatized students or blamed educators for circumstances outside of their control. Some claim that learning loss is a “myth” and indicative of “deficit framing” because it ignores the student learning during the pandemic outside of traditional curricula. Examples of non-traditional learning include resiliency, creativity, and technology skills. However, acknowledging the value of non-traditional skills doesn’t erase the importance or urgency of developing academic skills and knowledge that are essential for college and career readiness. 

As states across the country analyze spring 2021 assessments, the results are often startling. Some examples from 2020-21 school year data include:

  • North Carolina, where student scores decreased across all end-of-year assessments. In most cases, fewer than half of students were meeting grade level expectations.
  • Minnesota, with a 7 percentage point decrease in students reading on grade level and an 11 percentage point decrease in on-grade-level math proficiency.
  • Virginia, where the percentage of students passing state tests is down by 28 percentage points in math, 22 percentage points in science, and 9 percentage points in reading.
  • Tennessee, which experienced a drop in overall statewide proficiency of five percentage points — with Nashville and Memphis schools that serve the largest proportions of students of color, economically disadvantaged students, and English language learners seeing an 8 and 11 percentage point decrease, respectively, in overall proficiency in math, social studies, reading, and science. 

There are important caveats to these results at the student, school, and state level, and comparisons to prior years should be made with caution. Students may have also been tested under unusual pandemic conditions and some states shortened or changed their assessments this year with permission from the U.S. Department of Education. Furthermore, some, but not all, states have reported atypically low test participation rates. Federal law usually mandates greater than 95% test participation at the state, district, and school level. North Carolina and Tennessee reported 90% and 95% student participation, respectively, but only 75-80% of students in Virginia and 78% of students in Minnesota took those states’ assessments. 

Even with these caveats, evidence is mounting that learning loss is a real challenge facing schools across the country. Some see these data as representative of “arbitrary” academic standards. While one can reasonably debate the utility of academic standards that align with age-based grade levels, the fact remains that, as education author and commentator Elliot Haspel put it, skills that students would have otherwise learned to a certain level during a normal school year were not learned during the pandemic year. 

It’s time to move beyond the semantics of what to call the problem and instead figure out what we’re going to do about it. Here are four key recommendations for states and local school districts to address learning loss in the current 2021-22 school year:

  • Continue leveraging data to provide targeted academic support by regularly administering interim assessments to monitor student progress and using the data to drive rapid cycles of improvement — where changes in strategy or approach to academic intervention can happen in real-time as needed. 
  • Adopt accelerated learning strategies in lieu of traditional remediation and train teachers on effective accelerated learning pedagogy, which has been found to be more effective than traditional remediation in helping students regain pre-pandemic skills and pick up where they left off — especially for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. 
  • Supplement increased academic investments with robust mental health supports by providing resources for adequate numbers of trained professional counselors and social workers, wraparound services, and the high-quality delivery of evidenced-based social and emotional learning curricula. 
  • Adopt approaches to intentionally teach and assess non-academic skills in a traditional school setting, recognizing that schools are responsible for teaching students essential life skills such as time management, goal setting, self advocacy, effective communication, and resiliency.

Acknowledging learning loss does not mean that students learned nothing. It does recognize that students’ academic learning experiences were deeply affected by the pandemic in ways that need urgent action. Students of color, English language learners, and students from low-income families have been disproportionately impacted by pandemic learning conditions. 

It’s important that we name the challenge and it’s incumbent upon states and local school districts to invest the resources into addressing this issue, or risk further exacerbating long-standing educational inequities. 


September 28, 2021

Designing From the Margins Toolkit: Three Ways to Solve Problems Facing Young People

Young people facing disruptions to their education need support and guidance to meet their goals. But too often, the systems meant to support young people at the toughest moments of their lives end up frustrating and burdening them as they navigate a complex bureaucracy. Leaders working within these systems can see the challenges young people face, but they get stuck, because creating change within and across large organizations is difficult.   

A different approach to problem solving can help communities get unstuck within and across schools, nonprofits, and other child-serving organizations. This week, Bellwether released Designing From the Margins: Tools and Examples for Practitioners to Address Fragmentation and Build Equity Into Systems Design. The downloadable toolkit draws on Design Methods for Education Policy and is aligned with our Continuous Improvement in Schools Workbook, but is created specifically for local leaders who might be new to tackling human-centered design from start to finish. It includes tangible examples and facilitation strategies for collaborative problem-solving processes based on our work with communities across the country. 

Designing From the Margins centers young people and families with the most serious and concentrated needs to make inclusive solutions for everyone. By taking this approach, problem solvers focus on equity from the start, and focus on the voices and perspectives of those experiencing problems directly. 

Here are three ways schools, foster care systems, homeless shelters, and health care providers, among others, can use the toolkit:

1. Engage Young People and Families in Identifying Problems

What problems need solving right now? In order to answer this question, you should go to the people experiencing issues directly. This toolkit focuses on improving systems serving young people. In our work, we used techniques like empathy interviews to hear from young people about their experiences and unmet needs. We prioritized young people with severe disruptions in their lives and education, such as incarceration or homelessness, in order to hear how systems served (or failed) those with the greatest needs. The toolkit can help you create a plan to collect these perspectives and reflect on them in a structured and coherent way. 

2. Structure a Collaborative Problem-Solving Process

Organizations serving young people often operate under great stress and uncertainty. This can make collaboration difficult. For example, a leader of a community nonprofit might consider another organization to be a competitor for funding or enrollment, rather than a potential collaborator serving overlapping groups of young people and families. The Designing From the Margins Toolkit gives tangible examples of ways to build a productive, cross-organizational working group that centers on the needs of young people, which includes building relationships among participants who might not work together frequently. 

3. Plan for Better Implementation Through Monitoring and Continuous Improvement 

Even great plans can fall victim to incomplete or insufficient implementation. The problem-solving cycle described in Designing From the Margins includes an emphasis on concrete implementation plans, with clear metrics and owners each step of the way, along with a framework for implementing continuous improvement cycles of monitoring and evaluation once solutions are put in place. 

Click here to read and download Bellwether’s Designing From the Margins Toolkit, and visit Bellwether’s Lost by Design website to learn more.


September 22, 2021

Bellwether is Growing: New Hires and Promotions

One of the best things about working at Bellwether is the diverse, passionate, mission-driven, brilliant people that work alongside me. I am delighted to welcome several new leaders into our organization. They will play vital roles in expanding our capacity and deepening our expertise.

  • Tom Gold joined Bellwether in April as a senior associate partner in our Policy and Evaluation practice area. For the past two decades, Tom’s work has been driven by the urgency to utilize research and evidence to advance social change and greater equity in education. He brings extensive experience as an independent consultant and education leader, including within the New York City Department of Education directing its external research team and as adjunct associate professor of education studies at New York University. His work will deepen Bellwether’s evaluative field impact.

 

  • Anson Jackson joined Bellwether in May as a senior adviser in our Academic and Program Strategy practice area. A seasoned educator and school and instructional leader, he was recently the deputy chief of schools for Uplift Education and the superintendent of Summit Public Schools in the Bay Area. In his education career, Anson has also overseen innovative school design, school turnaround, leadership development initiatives, and leading systems with an emphasis on equity. He brings an unparalleled insight into the inner workings of school systems to our Academic and Program Strategy team. 

 

  • DaWana Williamson joined Bellwether in June as a partner and chief operating officer. A chemical engineer and an MBA by trade, she has spent the past 15 years working for nonprofits in the education and technology sectors honing her operations and change management skills. Most recently, DaWana served as senior vice president of youth development operations for the YMCA of Metro Chicago. She currently serves on the Advisory Board of the David Lynch Foundation, Chicago, an organization dedicated to bringing the practice of transcendental meditation to at-risk populations. As Bellwether continues to grow, DaWana will play a critical role in supporting the evolving needs of our team.

 

  • Daniela Torre Gibney joined Bellwether in July as a senior associate partner in our Policy and Evaluation practice area. Daniela has extensive experience designing and implementing complex mixed-methods evaluations and research projects, and providing technical assistance to organizational leaders focused on using data for continuous improvement. Prior to Bellwether, she led foundation- and federally-funded evaluations at SRI International. Daniela’s work focuses on supporting programs and informing policies that improve teaching and school quality, particularly for multilingual learners and marginalized students. She will further enhance Bellwether’s evaluative expertise and field impact.

 

  • Alex Cortez joined Bellwether in September as a partner in our Strategic Advising practice area. He brings an extensive range of experiences, including as an operator, a consultant, a funder, and in nonprofit board governance. His most recent work, as a managing partner at New Profit, focused on parent power and systems change, scaling the direct and widespread impact of K-12 models and postsecondary success. He also previously served in multiple roles within KIPP, including with KIPP Houston Public Schools and with the KIPP Foundation. Alex sits on multiple nonprofit boards and the Massachusetts State Board of Higher Education. He will bring an operator’s sensibility to our work, a strong lens around inclusion of stakeholder voice, and an extraordinary level of strategic acumen to guide and shape our Strategic Advising work. 

 

I am equally delighted to celebrate recent leadership promotions of incredible team members who have raised the bar, every day, and who have been a critical part of Bellwether’s growth in recent years.

  • Melissa Steel King has been promoted to partner. She leads our Evaluation practice area and has been a key team member since joining Bellwether in 2015. Her leadership has grown Bellwether’s expertise in program evaluation, teacher preparation and training, whole child development, and evaluation capacity building. In addition to her expertise in conducting evaluations on behalf of client organizations, Melissa is particularly skilled in working with clients in building their internal capacity to measure impact, inform growth and improvement, and ultimately to drive outcomes for the communities they serve. Melissa’s deep expertise and dedicated focus on equity are evident both in her work with clients and in her many contributions to Bellwether as an organization.

 

  • Evan Coughenour has been promoted to senior associate partner in our Strategic Advising practice area. Since joining Bellwether in 2014, he has advised a diverse range of projects, building deep expertise in charter and parochial school growth and sustainability planning, long-term financial planning and analysis, and postsecondary access and success efforts. Evan is an exceptional leader of projects and teams and a skilled mentor to newer team members. His leadership will continue to be instrumental to the ongoing impact of our Strategic Advising team.

I hope you will join me in welcoming our new Bellwarians and congratulating senior team members who continue to grow and advance here on their new roles. Through client and field-facing work, our entire team is approaching this school year with a renewed focus and energy around helping the sector accelerate its impact for students who need it the most at this critical moment. 

We are also still growing and hiring, check out our open roles here.