Author Archives: Allison Crean Davis

Evaluators Bring Superpowers to Your Federal Grant Application

Yesterday, my colleague Lina Bankert wrote about three new federal grant competitions that have just been posted. Those who are new to federal grant competitions may find the evaluation requirements and research-design options (explained below) overwhelming. Federal grant applications typically require:

  • An evidence-based rationale for the proposed project’s approach, such as a logic model
  • Citations of prior research that support key components of a project’s design and meet specific thresholds for rigor specified by the What Works Clearinghouse
  • Expected outcomes and how applicants will measure those with valid and reliable instruments
  • Explanation of how the proposed project will be studied to understand its impact

Proposals may be scored by two kinds of individuals: reviewers with programmatic expertise and reviewers with evaluation expertise. Sections of the grant are allocated a certain number of points, all of which total to a final score that drives which proposals receive awards. The evaluation section of these proposals can represent up to 25% of the total points awarded to applicants, so having a strong one can make or break an application. 

red letters that say "KAPOW" coming out of a blue and yellow comic-style explosion

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Writing these sections requires a sophisticated understanding of research methodology and analytical techniques in order to tie the application together with a consistent and compelling evidence base. Our evaluation team at Bellwether has partnered with a number of organizations to help them design programmatic logic models, shore up their evidence base, and write evaluation plans that have contributed to winning applications to the tune of about $60 million. This includes three recent partnerships with Chicago International Charter School, Citizens of the World Charter Schools, and Grimmway Schools — all winners in the latest round of Charter School Program (CSP) funding for replication and expansion of successful charter networks.

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50 Years Ago, Native Education Leaders Gathered. What Now? A Q&A with the National Indian Education Association.

Fifty years ago, a group of Native educators and activists organized the first national conference on Indian education in Minneapolis, MN. Over 900 parents, community leaders, and educators came together to exchange information, share their experiences, and discuss efforts to change federal education policy. That group became the National Indian Education Association (NIEA).

Diana Cournoyer, Executive Director, National Indian Education Association

Today, NIEA is a powerhouse, not only when it comes to education for Native children, but also their civil rights efforts to change education outcomes for all students. We spoke with Executive Director Diana Cournoyer to learn more about the organization’s founding, the importance of partnering with allies, and how NIEA’s resources can be useful to educators working with students from marginalized communities.

NIEA is a client of Bellwether. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

NIEA just turned fifty. What were some of the social and cultural forces that led to NIEA’s founding?

Diana Cournoyer: The founding of NIEA in 1969 was initially driven by a need for education advocacy at a federal level. There had been several federally commissioned reports, like the Miriam Report in 1928 and the Kennedy Report in 1969. Again and again, these reports indicated that conditions in government funded boarding schools and public schools were harmful for Native students, but the government failed to act on that knowledge. This was also a time during which a large portion of Native populations were moving to cities to find work, and it was clear that urban public schools were dismissing the needs of Native students.

In response to an educational system lacking cultural relevance, Native language, or community inclusion, Indian education advocates held an American Indian Scholars Convocation. In 1969, these educators discussed concerns, shared best practices, and learned what was important to Indian people in the United States. Many convocation attendees desired an opportunity to continue the discourse and share ways to improve the education of Indian children. 

Founding members, educators, and tribal leadership stressed the need to create an opportunity for professionals in Indian communities to discuss common interests, talk about the education of Indian students, and explore ways to be more effective teachers, better school administrators, and discover practical experiences that might provide a path for improving schools serving Indian students.

With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, NIEA shifted some of its focus from federal-level work to state-based work. Can you tell us more about that?

Diana: NIEA’s founders cultivated allies at the federal level, but because of the transition to state oversight of education, we’ve been increasingly focused on cultivating relationships with state education agencies. Part of the reason for this is so that we can ensure that ESSA is implemented in the manner that it was written. It’s NIEA’s mission to hold states accountable to the promises they’ve made to Native students. Continue reading

Bellwether Recognized For Core Value of Synergy as Key Partner in $20 Million Grant

Collaborating across teams sounds simple, but it’s not easy, and it has even been described as “dangerous.” 

When organizations and individuals join forces with those outside their immediate circles, they do so to reach common goals, recognizing that their combined efforts, if synergistic, can create greater impact than their separate ones. But because human beings, and the groups with which we affiliate, bring our cultures, jargon, preferred solutions, and power dynamics to collaboration, synergy is not inevitable — or easy. It requires deliberate effort, a willingness to work outside of one’s typical patterns, and a desire to meld together the best of various disciplines to provide holistic solutions for complex problems. 

Synergy matters because education is complex: its problems are not one-dimensional, so its solutions can’t be either. 

Entering our tenth year as a nonprofit, Bellwether has long harnessed our organizational superpower of synergy — and in fact it’s one of our core values. We intentionally bring together people with different specialties, work experiences, identities, political affiliations, and approaches to advance a shared mission of dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved students. Some of my colleagues are former teachers who think through the lens of facilitation and skill-building when working with adults. Some, like myself, come from the background of evaluation, and reference the scientific method when we approach problems. Others have a business or consulting background and think about making organizations more effective and joyful places to work. Still others within Bellwether think about the policy contexts in which these organizations operate. 

This approach is getting some recognition. In late September, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a five-year grant worth $20 million to a collaborative partnership involving Bellwether Education Partners, Westat (the lead grantee), RMC Research, and Academic Development Institute to support a National Comprehensive Center (“National Center”) aimed at improving educational outcomes for all students, closing achievement gaps, and enhancing the quality of instruction. Through this work, we’ll get to take synergy to the next level by leveraging skill sets within our team and across these partnering organizations. 

Some context: Since 2002, regionally based comprehensive centers (RCCs) have been quietly providing capacity-building services to education agencies across all 50 states and territories. Funded by the Department of Education, RCCs are intentionally focused on the specific needs of the state and local education agencies they serve, which can vary based on local priorities, policies, and student populations. 

Until now, the benefits and lessons from this targeted support have remained largely within the states and regions being served. The Comprehensive Centers have done important work, but they have lacked the synergy superpower. Continue reading

Six Lessons on Education Governance from Rhode Island, the Ocean State

This post is part of a series about Bellwether’s recent work on school governance and school board effectiveness.

Those who govern our schools (e.g., members of elected and appointed school boards) make and enact policies that are local in scope and potentially enormous in impact. They choose how resources are allocated to support staff and implement programs; they weigh in on decisions being made by district and school leaders that drive day-to-day activities; and they ensure the work being done for kids is aligned to federal and state policies and enacted in keeping with local priorities.

We assume boards make a difference for how our districts and schools function and ultimately, how well kids learn and develop. But what do we actually know about the link between board effectiveness and school quality?

Bellwether has conducted some important research on this very connection. In our 2016 study “Charter Boards in the Nation’s Capital,” we described the relationship between board characteristics, practices, and school quality in Washington, DC, one of the most robust charter sectors in the country. In collaboration with Colorado Succeeds, we developed an evidence-based framework for evaluating school board effectiveness. And in 2018, we received a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to help leaders at the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) understand if there was a relationship between its different governance models, their practices, and the performance of their schools across the Ocean State.

Rhode Island has six school governance models, described in the table below, which communities may choose from to suit their local contexts and goals. (For more detail on the state’s historical approach to education governance, see this new report from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.)

Bellwether’s mixed-methods approach to learning more about these models included researching state code and regulations on governance models, reviewing research on best practices for board governance, conducting interviews with RIDE staff and other state leaders, designing and administering a survey to governing boards and school leaders throughout the state, and analyzing student achievement results. Our findings include feedback from over one-third of the governing board (called “school committees” in Rhode Island) members and superintendents across the state, primarily representing the two largest governing models: traditional districts (52% of respondents) and independent charters (39% of respondents). We had few respondents from the other school types.

Six takeaways from this research, listed below, may provide insights for state education agencies, school boards, and charter boards both inside and outside Rhode Island about why people serve on boards, how governance is consistent and how it is different across districts and charters, and why observing boards in practice may be critical to understanding links between their decisions and consequences for families and children: Continue reading

Education is All Guts, No Glory for Some Parents

This week, Bellwether staff share their perspectives on family and parent engagement. Follow Ahead of the Heard from now until Friday for a series of blog posts that tackle common misconceptions about engaged parents, working with multilingual families, and more. Click here to read other posts in the series thus far.

 

We’ve heard the phrase “No Guts, No Glory” (like in this Air Force manual), but when it comes to parents and their children’s academic success, the phrase doesn’t hold true.

Parents can have all the “guts” — hopes, wishes, and high expectations for their kids — but their kids still may not get the “glory” — a great education and high academic achievement.

That’s because too often, kids don’t have equal odds when it comes to educational opportunities.

It’s not because their parents don’t care, as a misguided stigma against poor parents might suggest. A hypothesized culture of despair says that parents with the least financial resources discount their children’s odds for future success and hence invest less into their child’s academic experience.

In fact, parents across demographic characteristics and economic conditions tend to have strong and robust expectations for their children, and these patterns of thought are influential over the course of their children’s academic careers. However, the difference between economically advantaged and disadvantaged parents is in the objective probabilities that their children will succeed as hoped. That is, for parents at the bottom end of the economic spectrum, the gap between their high expectations and their child’s likely reality is much larger than it is for parents with greater economic means. All parents seem to have the guts to dream big, but only some of their children are likely to see the glory of results.

Then what can schools do to support parents in helping their kids? Schools must offer equitable educational opportunities and reinforce mechanisms in the home that drive student achievement. Parental expectations and behaviors can mitigate economic inequities, but schools must deliver the goods through rigorous learning standards and outstanding instruction, which sadly remains not a foregone conclusion.

As schools consider their approach to parental and family engagement, they should understand that high academic expectations don’t necessarily translate into parents attending school events or volunteering their services. Schools should acknowledge and continuously reinforce parental beliefs about their child’s potential, and they should emphasize ways parents can support — through the home environment and through specific behaviors — their child’s learning.

All parents are hopeful about their children’s futures: sometimes against real odds. This provides an opportunity to focus outreach to families. Schools can and should bolster what parents hope and do for their children. Yet they must reach inward too, to ensure what they expect from parents is mirrored by high expectations and excellent teaching during the school day.