Author Archives: Andy Smarick

Saying Thanks.

Andy Smarick

Photo by Toby Jorrin.

Today is my last day at Bellwether. It’s been a terrific four years. I’ve been very lucky to have had such top-flight colleagues and to have had the chance to work with so many exciting and inspiring partner organizations.

It’s been a daily delight to work at a fast-growing organization dedicated to helping improve America’s schools. My teammates taught me a great deal and took on our work with smarts, energy, and good cheer. Whether we were working on standards, assessments, accountability, charters, choice, educator evaluation, facilities, transportation, or something else, the members of the Bellwether team always prioritized the needs of America’s disadvantaged kids. We might’ve been producing a business plan, a financial analysis, a report, an article, or a blog post; it was always a rewarding experience.

Bellwether’s leadership team imagined, created, and rapidly expanded a unique and successful organization. They continue to lead a group of exceptional professionals that contribute mightily to the field. I’m lucky to have been a small part of this adventure.

I’m also thrilled, though, about the opportunities ahead. I’ll be joining the exceptional team at American Enterprise Institute and will share more information on what’s next for me in the weeks ahead. Until then, just a final thanks to Bellwether and the great groups we’ve worked with. You’ve enabled me to do the work I love while helping students and the adults working on their behalf.

David Esselman Joins Bellwether as Entrepreneur-in-Residence

Esselman no backgroundThe Bellwether team is very pleased to announce that David Esselman has joined us as an entrepreneur-in-residence to launch a new organization (whose working name has been the “Center for the School System of the Future”). The organization, which will eventually spin out of Bellwether as its own nonprofit, will build upon the most encouraging developments and best thinking around creating ideal urban school systems.

In short: This effort will aim to help city and state leaders generate diverse, high-quality school systems that are designed to succeed, because they are driven by families, responsive to community needs, and constructed to propel their own improvement. These will be systems that give underserved families lots of great schools from which to choose.

This coming organization will spread the word about terrific efforts already underway, build a movement to support those leading the charge, and lend an on-the-ground hand to those engaged in this work.

When we began our national search for a founding executive director, we couldn’t have anticipated the number of extraordinarily talented education leaders who would express interest in the role. It encourages us greatly that some of the most committed, seasoned, forward-leaning professionals in our field want to dedicate their energy and talents to this particular reform strategy. But their interest is also a convincing signal of our strong, collective desire to bring about meaningful, lasting change.

We are so fortunate and excited to have David launch this venture. During our selection process, David impressed us on many fronts. He exuded both a commitment to excellence and a humble, nuanced understanding of the complicated historical, cultural, racial, and class dynamics associated with this work. He brings a sharp intellect and deep knowledge of and experience with complex education systems. Perhaps most importantly, though, David–for a host of personal and professional reasons–is devoted to ensuring all boys and girls have access to great schools.

So you can get to know him a little better, David agreed to tackle a few questions from me, below. Continue reading

Real Autonomy, Real Accountability: Pacts Americana

We had an idea.

It started with two really depressing facts. NCLB hadn’t worked. But the pre-NCLB era hadn’t worked either–that’s why we got NCLB, for goodness sake.

But instead of obsessing about the weakness of both (we and everyone else had done plenty of that already), we started thinking about the strengths of both. Before NCLB, states and their districts and schools had lots of flexibility. They could develop policies and practices that fit local needs, and they could change courses swiftly when things went wrong. Education leaders were in charge of their standards, tests, and accountability systems, so they felt a sense of ownership over their state’s system of public education.

In the NCLB era, we got an increased focus on student achievement. We were able to track the performance of all kids, and we were assured of meaningful school and district interventions when students were falling behind. We also enjoyed an unprecedented increase in accountability for billions in federal taxpayer funds.Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 11.39.57 PM

Our question became: Is it possible to marry the best of both eras? We started sketching something out.

We eventually hit upon what turned out to be The Big Question–the one that ultimately brought about “Pacts Americana,” the report we’re releasing today: Does the education world have some kind of time-tested system–something could be brought to bear on ESEA reauthorization–for combining real accountability with real autonomy?

Yes, we realized. That’s precisely what chartering is all about. Continue reading

Baltimore and the Societal Factors Influencing Our Schools

The unrest in Baltimore has been on most of our minds this week. As a kid, I lived–and, now with my own three kids, live–not far from the city, so I’ve been following events closely.


Image from Baltimore Four Seasons

Over the last few days, there’ve been some moving pieces written about the schools of Charm City. NPR followed a principal the day after schools reopened and captured the pained (and painful) voices of 8th-grade boys. The Baltimore Sun covered a group of Baltimore Ravens visiting schools, including a high school named for famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass (watch the two embedded videos of Ray Lewis).

My favorite, though, has been the piece written by my friend, the inspirational Derrell Bradford, a Baltimore native. He offered a personal reflection of his journey–figurative and literal–from a troubled neighborhood through challenged and elite schools to his current role as a school reform advocate. This CNN piece, about Baltimore’s lost men, is similarly moving and even harder to read.

I’m incapable of adding new insight to the issues of race involved here. I did my best to contribute a small bit on that score in the wake of Ferguson last fall.

But since then, I’ve spent a good bit of time looking into a wide range of issues associated with the tough conditions faced by millions of city kids and what we might do to offer these boys and girls better opportunities. I’m under no illusions that I’ll end up with The Answer, but I am hoping to grow smarter and more thoughtful about some of the issues influencing and influenced by urban schools.

I haven’t yet integrated all of this into a cogent vision or argument. But here are some of the most relevant and most interesting recent items I’ve come across. Maybe you’ll find one or more of them thought-provoking.

Understanding and Empathy: New research suggests that strangers cause us stress and that stress inhibits our ability to appreciate the suffering of others. If we can move people from the “stranger zone” to the “friend zone,” we can grow our empathy for those in need. So how do we do this? One unexpected answer appears to have a range of other social and cognitive benefits as well. Unfortunately, there are powerful cultural forces that seem to pull people of different groups apart from one another–see this book by Mark Pagel or his talk on how language can be a factor. An excellent Aspen Ideas presentation by Kwame Anthony Appiah, however, offers some hope. His take on cross-cultural conversations argues that there’s far more to gain by talking than we might expect. Continue reading

Taking Pearson and McKoy at Their Words

I’m thankful Sara took the time to take issue with my response to PCSB’s position on chartering in the nation’s capital. But to be honest, I get nervous anytime Sara disagrees with me, because that generally means I’m wrong.

And I have to admit Sara produced a compelling defense of one of the positions in my virtual debate with Pearson and McKoy.

The only problem is that it’s a defense of my view, not the one expressed by her PCSB colleagues. In fact, I would associate myself with much of Sara’s articulation of the board’s goals. But that explanation belies what Pearson and McKoy actually wrote.

Continue reading