Author Archives: Bellwether Education Partners

Opinion: Get Michigan’s Thousands of Missing Kids Back in School This Fall

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

As schools nationwide look ahead to the start of the 2021-22 school year and spend federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, there’s a group of students at risk of being overlooked: those who didn’t show up in public schools last year. In most states, these missing students outnumber the largest school districts

Michigan is no exception, where Alex Spurrier argues that its public schools, along with other states and communities across the country, must identify and meet the needs of missing students this fall:

“In Michigan, more than 61,000 students didn’t enroll in public school between 2019-20 and 2020-21. That’s more students than make up Detroit Public Schools. And Michigan isn’t alone: Washington State saw enrollment declines of 55,000 students — more than students enrolled in Seattle Public Schools. Maine, Missouri and Vermont also have total enrollment drops greater than their largest school district. In seven other states, the size of the enrollment drop was only eclipsed by the largest school district.

The scale of disruption to children, families and school communities is massive. It’s also widely dispersed within each state, which can obscure the magnitude. Policymakers must respond to the staggering but disparate problem of enrollment declines.”

Will leaders act urgently to meet missing students’ needs, even as everyone is exhausted and just wants a return to normal?

Support local journalism by reading more from Alex Spurrier’s op-ed featured in The Detroit News here.

Is Curriculum Infrastructure?

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Hopes for a bipartisan infrastructure bill may be fading, but there is growing interest in instructional infrastructure in the form of high-quality curriculum. 

Last month, I argued that policymakers and education leaders ought to start treating curriculum like infrastructure. A high-quality, coherent curriculum should provide every student and educator with a solid foundation upon which excellent instruction can be built. Unfortunately, policymakers often defer responsibility to the lowest levels, creating a status quo where educators spend more than 12 hours a week creating or curating instructional materials.

What needs to be done? 

It’s an important question at the core of a podcast conversation I had on Melissa and Lori Love Literacy. We covered four key ways to develop more schools where instruction, learning, and professional development are centered around high-quality, coherent curricula. 

1. High-quality curriculum should serve as a foundation for post-pandemic teaching and learning

School systems will undoubtedly use federal recovery funding to address the wide range of post-pandemic student learning needs. We’re likely to see tutoring programs and efforts to remediate (or accelerate) student learning during the 2021-22 school year, but will they have a meaningful impact on students?

Absent a strong curriculum that clearly articulates the knowledge and skills students ought to acquire, many of these efforts will fail to produce positive outcomes for students. This is a particular risk in non-math subject areas, where there are fewer direct connections between state standards and specific content knowledge. 

If school system leaders aren’t centering their learning recovery efforts around high-quality curricula, now is the time to start moving in that direction.

2. Curriculum is an under-utilized lever for equity

There are two ways in which curriculum can serve as a lever for equity in schools. First and foremost, high-quality curricula can reduce the gaps in background knowledge for students. We have mountains of examples, from the baseball study to the works of E.D. Hirsch and Natalie Wexler, that show the immense impact increased background knowledge can have on student learning. Well-structured, knowledge-building curricula can ensure that students in different classrooms or different schools have access to a similar body of topics and content. 

Secondly, strong curricula can improve equity by increasing the efficacy of early-career educators. More often than not, schools that serve highest-needs students are staffed with less experienced educators than schools with lower-needs students. Ensuring that teachers don’t have to spend upwards of 12 hours a week on instructional materials is a big step toward improving the quality of early-career educators. Supporting educators with a strong curriculum can help them focus on instructional delivery and building a strong classroom culture — a shift that would help early-career educators the most and, in turn, their highest-needs students.

3. Policymakers should focus on transparency

When William Goldman said of the movie industry, “nobody knows anything,” he could have been speaking about curriculum in K-12 schools. It’s unfortunately rare for a state education agency to have a solid understanding of what is actually being taught in its classrooms. Even though districts and schools may have adopted curricula on paper, teachers may not have support or resources to implement it with fidelity. 

Policymakers must reduce the opacity that obscures what curricula actually get taught in classrooms. One way is by reporting adopted curricula at the district and school level, along with surveys of educators to gauge to what degree adopted curricular materials are actually used in their instruction. 

4. Everyone involved in schools can work to move the needle on curricular transparency and quality

No matter your position in K-12 schools — as an educator, a policymaker, a parent/guardian, or a concerned taxpayer — everyone can play a role in driving improvements in curricular quality. State leaders can build support for more transparency around curriculum. District leaders can more thoughtfully engage in the curriculum adoption process. Educators can advocate for more curriculum-aligned professional development. Families and taxpayers may not want to engage in the wonky details of curriculum, but they, too, can play a role by asking schools a simple question: “What books can you guarantee my child will read during the next school year in (insert grade level/subject)?” 

The school year ahead will include innumerable ongoing challenges associated with the pandemic. Ensuring that school leaders and teachers have access to high-quality curricula is one way to build back better.

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