Author Archives: Bonnie O'Keefe

Media: “Boston schools achievement gap remains wide along racial lines — a troubling sign” in Boston Herald

In February, Bellwether published “An Uneven Path: Student Achievement in Boston Public Schools 2007-2017.” Boston was in the midst of a leadership transition, and we advised the next superintendent to make tough choices in support of equity. Last week, the Boston School Committee chose Dr. Brenda Cassellius, former state superintendent in Minnesota, as the district’s next leader.

Chad Aldeman and I recently spoke to the Boston Herald about the findings in our report, and the challenges Dr. Cassellius will face in her new role:

“Black and Hispanic students have not been making enough progress,” said Chad Aldeman, senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit that recently student achievement in Boston Public Schools, “It’s a troubling sign.”

BPS risks losing its status as a national leader in urban K-12 education if it doesn’t launch innovative strategies to address flattening testing scores, the experts added. “If they want Boston to continue to be a stronger-than-average district, they have to focus on black, Hispanic, and low-income students,” said Bonnie O’Keefe, an associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners.

Bellwether board member Paul Reville also weighed in on Boston’s achievement gaps:

“It’s clearly a major challenge for Boston moving forward,” said Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Paul Reville, a former Massachusetts secretary of education. “They still have a long way to go.”

For more detail on Boston Public Schools’ progress and performance in the past ten years, take a look at “An Uneven Path.” Or read the full Boston Herald piece here.

Straight Talk for City Leaders on Unified Enrollment: A Q&A with Shannon Fitzgerald

In many cities across the country, school application and enrollment processes are built like high-stakes obstacle courses, where families with the most time and resources at their disposal tend to come out on top. A unified enrollment system is one way that cities with broad school choice have tried to level the playing field, and make enrollment processes less burdensome and more equitable for families. In cities like D.C., Denver, and New Orleans that have unified enrollment systems, families submit a single application and rank the charter and district schools of their choice. Then each student is matched to a single school via an enrollment algorithm.

These systems can decrease inequities by making enrollment processes for families easier to accomplish and harder to “game,” maximizing students’ likelihood of getting into their top choice schools. Unified enrollment can also decrease budget instability for schools caused by unexpected enrollment changes in the beginning of the year. For city leaders, data from unified enrollment systems can reveal important lessons about family demand for specific schools or programs. But that does not mean there are no risks, speed bumps, or potential problems. There is a lot that has to happen behind the scenes to create an enrollment system that meets families’ needs and avoids unintended consequences.

Shannon Fitzgerald knows what it takes to implement a lasting unified enrollment system. She was one of the first in the country to do it as the Director of Choice and Enrollment for Denver Public Schools from 2008-2013. Now, as an enrollment systems consultant, she works with other cities and districts who are interested in reforming their enrollment systems. I talked with her recently about the lessons she’s learned along the way and her advice for city leaders.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you define a unified enrollment system? What differentiates unified enrollment from other enrollment approaches?

I think about enrollment systems as a spectrum. On one end, you have “wild west” systems. Nothing is coordinated: families have to go all over the place and apply to each school individually, and there are different deadlines. You have students enrolled in multiple schools — who knows where they will show up in September? On the other end, you have truly unified enrollment systems like Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans. They include all public schools in the city, district and charter; they have common tools, a common timeline, and a common application; and every student gets matched to a single school of their choice. In between those two ends of the spectrum are about 50,000 different variations.

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Three Reasons to Expect Little on Innovative Assessments — and Why That’s Not Such a Bad Thing

Photo by Josh Davis via Flickr

Next week is the deadline for states to submit an application for the innovative assessment pilot to the U.S. Department of Education (ED). If you missed this news, don’t worry, you haven’t missed much. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) allows ED to grant assessment flexibility to up to seven states to do something different from giving traditional end-of-year standardized tests. The best example of an innovative state assessment system is New Hampshire, which allows some districts to give locally designed performance-based assessments. These assessments look more like in-class activities than traditional standardized tests, and are developed and scored by teachers.

Two years ago, Education Week called the innovative assessment pilot “one of the most buzzed-about pieces” of ESSA because it could allow states to respond to testing pushback while still complying with the new federal law. But now only four states have announced they will apply, and expectations are subdued at best.

Why aren’t more states interested an opportunity to get some leeway on testing? Here are three big reasons:

  1. Most states are playing it safe on ESSA and assessments are no exception

When my colleagues at Bellwether convened an independent review of ESSA state plans with 45 education policy experts, they didn’t find much ambition or innovation in state plans — few states went beyond the requirements of the law, and some didn’t even do that. Even Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has approved the majority of state plans, recently criticized states for plans that “only meet the bare minimum” and don’t take full advantage of the flexibility offered in the law.

Several states responded that they were actually doing more than they had indicated in their plans. As my colleague Julie Squire pointed out last year, putting something extra in an ESSA plan could limit a state’s options and bring on more federal monitoring. If most states were fairly conservative and compliance-based with their big ESSA plans, there’s little reason to think they’ll unveil something new and surprising in a small-scale waiver application.

Additionally, the law includes several requirements for an innovative assessment that might be difficult for states to meet. For example, innovative tests have to be comparable across school districts, they have to meet the needs of special education students and English learners, and the pilot programs have to be designed to scale up statewide. If states have any doubts they can meet that bar, they probably won’t apply. Continue reading

Supporting Teachers and Leaders in Minnesota and Beyond

Minnesota is a fascinating place when it comes to education. Student populations are increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse, especially in the Twin Cities. Overall child outcomes have been historically high relative to national averages, but wide and persistent achievement gaps reveal unacceptable disparities by race, ethnicity, immigration status, and income. Local education leaders, funders, and advocates are increasingly seeking change in policy and educational programs. In this environment, it’s interesting to zoom in on work happening at a local level, to identify lessons that can be applied elsewhere in Minnesota, and in other schools, states, and cities.

Today we release Supporting Minnesota Educators, a new website from Bellwether Education Partners. This project began by looking at the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative, which aimed to improve pre-K to third grade reading outcomes in seven schools in Minnesota’s Twin Cities via formative assessments, educator professional development, and leadership supports for principals. McKnight and its partners began with bold ambitions to support significant improvements in student learning, but those gains haven’t materialized in most participating schools. These results show how complicated school improvement work can be, and also point to how policymakers can better set schools and principals up for success.

In examining evaluation results and speaking with initiative stakeholders, we found three key lessons that can inform future efforts:

  1. Foster stability among educators and leaders to allow for instructional and school culture changes to take hold
  2. Build leadership teams in schools focused on improving teaching and learning
  3. Improve training for educators so they have the knowledge and skills to provide excellent instruction for all students

Supporting Minnesota Educators expands on all three of these lessons, and brings together results from the Initiative with national research and resources. The website will also serve as a home for more resources to come on these topics in the year ahead – you can sign up for updates here. I hope this website will be a helpful resource for leaders, teachers, and advocates and generate conversation about pre-K to third grade and school improvement in Minnesota and elsewhere.

Looking at Leadership to Combat Teacher Turnover and Sustain School Improvement

This is the third in a series of blog posts and resources to offer lessons and reflections for school leaders, district officials, and education policymakers using data and stories from the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. The series is supported by a grant from the McKnight Foundation.

Photo by Eric E. Castro via Flickr

In recent blog posts, I’ve been looking at the impact of teacher turnover on school improvement efforts and ways schools, states, and districts can address this challenge. But what about turnover in leaders, such as principals, district leaders, and superintendents? Leaders can have a huge impact on the culture, priorities, and strategies of their schools and districts. Recent studies have found that principals had a significant effect on teachers’ overall job satisfaction, and that the quality of administrative support could strongly influence teachers’ decisions to leave or stay. Given this reality, efforts to address teacher turnover should not overlook leaders.

Despite the demonstrated importance of strong, stable leadership, leaders in urban schools and districts continue to turn over at high rates. Leadership turnover can be caused by some of the same factors as teacher turnover, such as retirement, performance issues, or competitive offers elsewhere. A single change in leadership can reverberate through a school or district, for better or worse.

Principals in the Pathway Schools Initiative were fairly stable over the course of the Initiative. Of seven schools participating in the Initiative, three retained the same principal throughout all five years of the initiative, and two experienced only one change in principal leadership. This is unusual for high-poverty, urban schools, where principals turn over even faster than teachers. Nationally, 22 percent of public school principals and 27 percent of principals in high-poverty public schools leave annually. Two schools in the initiative, however, experienced more frequent leadership transitions — including one elementary school that had a new principal almost every year of the initiative.

Even when principals stayed the same, changes in district leadership had an impact on schools. All three of the traditional school districts in the Initiative changed superintendents and reorganized district leadership at least once. This is not surprising based on national trends: The average urban superintendent lasts barely three years, and the role of an urban superintendent is increasingly high pressure and politicized. These people were key liaisons between the Initiative partners, schools, and districts, and every time a district leader changed, it took time for their successors to build working relationships and learn about the Initiative.

Churn in district leadership is also frequently accompanied by changes in district strategies, and teachers and principals in Pathway Schools reported to SRI International evaluators that this sometimes hindered progress at the schools. Especially in the larger districts involved in the Initiative, Pathway Schools had to negotiate for the flexibility to pursue their goals differently from what other elementary schools in their districts were doing. With changes in leadership and accompanying changes in district strategies, this process had to be repeated, creating potential uncertainty and mixed messages for principals and teachers.

A change is leadership isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a district or a school — like teachers, leaders change for all kinds of reasons. Still, districts should take every possible step to retain high-performing and high-potential leaders where they can, and to simultaneously plan for succession and create a pipeline of new leaders from within their staff. Potential solutions to consider include: building a complete district framework for principal talent management, instituting school leader residencies to create effective new leaders, and facilitating smooth transitions with extra support for new leaders. Schools and students shouldn’t start from scratch when leadership changes occur.