Author Archives: Alex Spurrier

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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Student-Based Budgeting in Service of Equity: A Q&A With Jess Gartner of Allovue

This interview was conducted just before the coronavirus pandemic upended schooling across the country. We decided not to publish this while educators, students, and families navigated the first phase of this crisis, but now, as district and school leaders develop plans for the 2020-21 school year, we believe this conversation’s focus on budgets and equity can inform their decision-making.

This post is also part of a series of interviews conducted for our Eight Cities project. Read all related posts here.

School funding. Are we spending the right amount? Are we spending it fairly? Are we spending it wisely? These questions get the most attention when state legislatures debate policies that involve millions or even billions of dollars, or when those policies are challenged in court. Those conversations are critical — state funding policies are foundational to how schools are resourced — but they aren’t the whole story.

Less often discussed is how funding is allocated from districts to schools, which can have a major impact on equity. Most districts build school budgets based on inputs required to run each school, largely reflecting compensation costs for the teachers, administrators, and support staff employed in a school, plus budget for materials and supplies. This method may sound logical on its face, but it can limit strategic spending decisions and result in inequitable allocation of resources.

An alternative approach that some districts are beginning to explore is student-based budgeting, which allocates funds based on the students served in each school, weighted for factors associated with their individual education needs (such as income status, disability status, or status as a dual- or English-language learner).

Student-based budgeting can be a driver of equity and support district innovations like those highlighted in our Eight Cities project. When equipped with a budget that reflects the needs of their students, school leaders can then leverage increased school-level autonomy over key decisions, including staffing and budgeting, and customize school programs and operations to the needs of their students.

Allovue, a Baltimore-based education financial technology (EdFinTech) company, works with school districts to build and support technology-based solutions to plan, manage, and evaluate spending. We talked with CEO Jess Gartner to get more insight into student-based budgeting, particularly with an equity lens, and the opportunities and challenges it presents to districts.

"I am a huge proponent of principal autonomy – it's actually what got me into this work. I think that students and communities are best served when you put decisions and dollars in the hands of leaders that are closest to them"

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

At the heart of your company’s mission statement is a focus on equitable budgeting. What does that mean in practice?

Equity is not a “one size fits all” thing. There’s not a single “answer” for an equitable funding formula. You have to take into account the needs and context of the local community and align that to the needs of students and the resources they need to be successful in that district. A lot of the work we do starts with a “steady-state analysis” and helping districts understand where they are today. We are then able to dig in at a deeper level and ask: “What are some things jumping out at you as potentially problematic or areas that you want to improve?” We often see either an inverse correlation between need and dollars that are allocated or dollars that are spent, or we see a completely equal allocation of resources. In an ideal scenario, the resources are correlated positively with the needs of students.

Our recommended approach is to use the first six to twelve months with a targeted group of internal stakeholders to see where they are today. We can’t inform your strategy one way or another until we all have some time to look at where you are today.

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