Author Archives: Alex Spurrier

State Governments Will Be Even More Partisan Post 2020. What Does That Mean for Education?

In our federated system of K-12 education governance, state legislatures and governors play a huge role in shaping the educational experience of our nation’s children. Heading into the 2020 election cycle, only one state’s legislature was under split partisan control (Minnesota’s House of Representatives was controlled by Democrats, their Senate by Republicans). In every other state, one party had complete control of the legislature. In 36 states, one party held a trifecta of government control: both legislative chambers plus the governorship. 

The 2020 elections looked like an opportunity to disrupt that dynamic. Several legislative chambers looked like they might flip, including both chambers in Arizona and Alaska, Iowa’s House, Michigan’s House, Minnesota’s Senate, North Carolina’s Senate, and the Pennsylvania House. In an environment that appeared to favor Democrats across the country, it was a chance to break the stranglehold of single-party control in at least a few states.

But in the wake of the 2020 elections, it looks like we’ll have more of the same. So far, the only legislative chamber that flipped control is in New Hampshire, giving the Republicans a new trifecta under Gov. Chris Sununu. The GOP gained another trifecta in Montana following the election of Greg Gianforte as Governor. While there is still a chance that one or both chambers may flip in Arizona or Alaska, we certainly did not see Democrats making significant inroads in state-level races around the country. 

The next few years are sure to be critical for K-12 education policy. Schools, educators, and families are still struggling with educating kids in the midst of a global pandemic. State-level policymakers will not only have to support efforts to safely reopen schools for in-person instruction and face potential budgetary challenges, they will also need to address massive learning losses from months of disrupted learning — and in the case of some students, no learning at all

In 38 states, most of the policies to address those challenges will be formed and enacted by a single political party. In states controlled by Democrats, they’ll probably defer too much to teachers unions as they fight to keep schools closed. On the other side of things, Republican-led states may be hesitant to spend on measures to help schools reopen safely, like HVAC system upgrades

After all the ballots are counted, our nation will remain deeply divided on many fronts, but the challenges facing students, families, and educators transcend partisan affiliations. Let’s hope that state policymakers from both parties can rise to the moment.

Stay tuned for more Election 2020 coverage here.

Accountability Policy Needs to Adapt. To Do So, Policymakers Must Clarify Their Priorities.

This fall is turning into a slow-motion disaster for students and families. Many districts planned to implement some form of hybrid learning to start the school year, only to have those plans scuttled in the aftermath of rising COVID-19 cases across the nation. On top of the logistical challenge of shifting to remote learning on a short timeline, families and educators are making these changes without a shared understanding of students’ academic needs since state assessments were cancelled this past spring. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be painfully obvious now: our education system is in crisis. 

This moment calls for significant changes in how school systems meet the needs of students, both during the current crisis and once we return to something that resembles “normal.” Assessment and accountability policies are no exception. For too long, these systems have been asked to serve multiple purposes, from identifying schools for intervention, to providing data to inform instruction, to informing parental choice.Refocusing the Priorities of Accountability Report

In a new brief, my coauthors and I argue that now is the time to clarify and refocus the priorities of school accountability policy. In Refocusing the Priorities of Accountability, we explore three different scenarios where policymakers successfully limit accountability systems to one primary function: 

  • As a means for policymakers to intervene in schools
  • As a tool for schools to improve instruction
  • As a platform to inform parents as they engage with their school communities and/or make school choice decisions

For each of these single-priority approaches to accountability, we explain how it could work in practice and articulate what trade-offs policymakers would have to make to adopt that approach. 

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What’s Next in School District Reform? Five Leaders Share Their Visions

Across the span of three decades, several large, urban districts, including those profiled on our site EightCities.org, pursued reform strategies centered on autonomy, accountability, and family choice. In recent years, some of these districts rolled back their signature reforms or shifted their focus due to leadership change or backlash. Other districts are building off of past models to develop new district improvement strategies. And now, all of these districts are grappling with the challenge of serving students and families during a global pandemic.

The school systems profiled at EightCities.org all have different contexts, successes, and challenges, which we captured in our original 2018 site — now updated for 2020. To mark the site’s relaunch, we reached out to five prominent education leaders and asked each of them:

  • What is the outlook for innovative, ambitious district-wide reform strategies in 2020 and beyond? 
  • What are the biggest lessons state and local leaders should learn from the districts now facing headwinds in pursuit of these strategies?
  • What should education leaders do to advance reforms in partnership with families and community stakeholders?

Their responses range from calls for activism, to community and employer engagement, to renewed focus on curriculum and instruction. While the advice is varied, it’s clear that no education reform strategy is ever finished — it must adapt to build on successes and address new challenges.

Howard Fuller

Former Professor, Marquette University; Former Superintendent, Milwaukee Public Schools

The search for the “new best practice” or the critical “proof point” continues in the struggle for education reform in the United States. New theories and reworked old theories about what must be done abound. In fact, many “reformers” no longer want to use the term “education reform” to characterize their efforts. Some of us continue to make the mistake of committing to new institutional practices as opposed to being committed to the needs and interests of our children. This commitment to method as opposed to purpose has put many “reformers” on the road to becoming the new status quo.

One thing that is sorely needed to have any hope of breaking this pattern is to incorporate the ideas and suggestions of the people being affected into the process prior to the real decisions being made. We must take seriously the notion of giving “power to the people.” Too many of us “reformers” still think the way to bring about lasting change is to get a lot of so-called smart people in a room to make all the key decisions and then inform the parents and students about those decisions as a way to keep them “engaged.” Continue reading

6 Takeaways — and Video — From Our Webinar on Accountability

The bipartisan coalition that originally supported standards-based accountability is not as strong as it once was, but on Monday afternoon, we saw a glimpse of a revitalized and refocused effort to ensure student learning remains at the core of education policy decisions. To extend our recent work on the past, present, and future of accountability, Bellwether hosted a conversation with three national leaders with deep experience in accountability policy and systems: Jeb Bush, former Florida Governor; John B. King, Jr., CEO of The Education Trust; and Carissa Moffat Miller, Executive Director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). (Watch the full conversation below or read a complete transcript here.)

Each of these leaders approach education policy from different positions and political perspectives: the panel included a former Republican governor, a former cabinet member of the Obama administration, and a representative of states’ top education leaders. Nevertheless,panelists agreed on the enduring value of the core tenets of accountability, while stressing the need to adapt  systems to meet the current challenges facing schools.

I observed six key takeaways for policymakers as they adjust accountability systems for next school year and beyond:

  • Accountability is vital, even during a pandemic
  • Accountability can and should adapt
  • Accountability needs to be more than testing and school ratings
  • Better testing could improve accountability systems
  • Choice can add value to accountability systems
  • We can and should make next year count

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Now Is Not the Time to Roll Back Accountability Systems

This spring presented a massive challenge to educators, students, and families. A global pandemic caught our schools by surprise and forced them to quickly adapt to distance learning — a shift that exacerbated the inequities in our school system

Unfortunately, we’re already seeing signs that some states seem to be giving up on accountability for student outcomes during the 2020-2021 school year. That would be a mistake. Today’s accountability systems are by no means perfect, and they may well need to adapt to the moment, but now is not the time to abandon the only mechanism that provides information on how every school is serving every student.

For the past two decades, we’ve relied on standards-based accountability as a safeguard for equity. Now that schools face new challenges and greater inequities, will policymakers be able to adapt accountability for a new set of circumstances or will they relinquish this key lever for equity? 

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