Author Archives: Cara Jackson and Hailly Korman

All States Need to Shore Up Literacy Instruction After the Detroit Decision

There has been a lot written about the 6th Circuit’s decision in Detroit’s right-to-literacy case, the latest in a long line of lawsuits bringing state and federal constitutional challenges to the quality of education opportunities provided to public school students. The court held that the Constitution protects a right to a minimal education opportunity: the right to literacy. This decision is an unmistakable signal to schools and districts about the importance of meaningful literacy instruction. 

And although the facts in this case are specific to Detroit’s unique relationship with Michigan’s state government, that will not excuse another state or district from falling short in their obligation to provide an education that offers a genuine opportunity for literacy.

three young black girls and one black adult looking at a table of books, Knight Arts Challenge Detroit: Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History The Charles H. Wright will use the arts to foster an interest in reading by weaving interactive cultural experiences throughout the museum’s Children’s Book Fair.

Photo of Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History via Knight Foundation on Flickr

The path to good literacy instruction isn’t a mystery. There is relevant science and resources to help schools, districts, and states. Good instruction is described in a set of practice guides produced by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, which are based on reviews of research, the experiences of practitioners, and the expert opinions of a panel of nationally recognized experts. States and districts can encourage the use of these resources by administrators, teachers, school specialists, and families.

To identify which specific programs and interventions have been effective at improving student outcomes, state and district leaders can search the What Works Clearinghouse, with particular attention to programs that have been independently evaluated. Reading interventions may impact a variety of outcomes, including alphabetics, reading fluency, comprehension, and general reading achievement. Since some interventions may be more effective than others for certain types of literacy skills, states might encourage the use of needs assessments to better understand which interventions are the best fit for a school or district. Continue reading

Major Conference Going Virtual? My Lessons From Co-Hosting #AEFP2020

Nine days before a conference for which 750 people had already registered, an education organization I’m on the board of decided to switch to virtual because of coronavirus. This was, as you can imagine, a pretty hectic choice, but one we’re proud of as we prioritized the health and safety of our members.

The Association for Education Finance and Policy (AEFP) is a nonprofit professional and academic association. At the annual meeting, researchers, practitioners, and policymakers share research and lessons learned about efforts to enhance student learning. Initially, my role was to chair a session and moderate a policy talk. The switch to virtual meant that I also served as host for seven sessions. 

Three computer monitors showing different concurrent sessions of @aefpweb virtual conference

Photo via @aefpweb on Twitter

Since many other conferences will be going virtual in the coming months, here are lessons I learned about the transition — as well as some unexpected upsides to going remote: 

Organize your team and provide clear instructions.

AEFP’s executive director, Lydia Ross, and IT contractor, Hiep Ho, arranged for all 126 sessions, four featured policy talks, the skills sessions, and the general session to be held via Zoom webinars. (Zoom has provided a helpful list of tips for setting things up in a way that minimizes party-crashers and other unwanted behavior.) In addition to the usual chair and presenters, each session had a host. Hosts were provided instructions on how to log into the designated Zoom room to start the webinar and enable panelists to share their screens during presentations. AEFP used Zoom’s branding capabilities to tailor the conference look by uploading the group logo and creating a custom URL. AEFP also created a Zoom page on the conference website with instructions and troubleshooting tips. Having this information accessible made it easier to support attendees. 

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The Logic Behind School Choice — And Three Ways To Strengthen It

In recent weeks, Democratic presidential candidates’ views on education, specifically on school choice and charters, have come under scrutiny. And a recent EdNext poll indicates that Democrats are deeply divided on school choice topics. 

The usual debate on school choice asks “does it work,” but rarely do I hear discussion about how it’s intended to work in the first place.

Some people view school choice as a public good in and of itself, in that it provides options for families. For this group, evidence of student achievement, educational attainment, and other outcomes is secondary. It is the availability of and access to educational options — on their own — which validate the need for and merit of school choice.  

Others, myself included, view school choice as a potential means to an end: a way to improve educational opportunities not just for the students whose families are willing and able to choose, but for those students who remain in their traditional public schools as well. In theory, competition pressures schools to improve quality in order to retain their “customers,” i.e., students.

In order to get from point A (offering school choice) to point B (improved outcomes), what has to happen? The logic model below outlines the theory behind my perspective:  Continue reading

#DemDebates: Another Nothingburger on Education?

Two members of Bellwether’s Policy & Evaluation team, Cara Jackson and Beth Tek, watched Wednesday’s debates for any mention of education. They didn’t get what they were looking for, but there’s still plenty to discuss. 

Beth Tek: I have to say, while I was disappointed about the lack of education-related talk during the Democratic debate last night, I’m also not surprised.

Cara Jackson: Yup, I’m guessing no one got education bingo. But several candidates did discuss social supports that impact children, such as child care, paid maternity leave, and housing.

stack of empty burger buns, photo by Marco Verch

Photo by Marco Verch

Beth: That’s true. Elizabeth Warren talked about childcare, universal pre-K, and the exploitative wages of childcare workers. And Andrew Yang mentioned the fact that close to 75% of school outcomes are determined by what happens to children at home.

Cara: Yes, we know that out-of-school factors explain much of the variation in student achievement. This has been demonstrated since the 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity report by James Coleman and colleagues, and by more recent work too. 

And candidates rightly addressed housing policy, which directly impacts education policy! Tom Steyer commented that housing determines where your kids go to school. Warren noted that her housing plan includes 3.2 million new housing units for lower-income families and middle-class renters in communities with severe housing supply shortages. She aims to mitigate the long-term impacts of redlining, the segregation created by refusing loans to black families, which continues to impact neighborhoods, and by extension schools, to this day.  

There’s also evidence of long-term academic benefits for children from low-income families who attend universal pre-kindergarten programs, so the debate certainly had implications for education.

Beth: And it’s not like these candidates don’t have education plans! I would have liked to hear Warren talk about her proposed infusion of Title I funding. Schools could use that money to provide more wraparound supports for America’s students, which would go a long way to educate the “whole child.” We know that Millennials (approximately ages 24 to 38) and Generation Zers (currently in K-12 and early adulthood) are reporting the highest percentages of anxiety and depression of any age group. And schools are trying to do more to address and support mental health.

Cara: Yes! I’d love to see some of that additional funding used to ensure students have access to supportive, high-quality school counselors. We know that these supports could improve high school graduation and college attendance. Or we could provide incentives to push back high school start times, in keeping with research that suggests doing so would improve academic outcomes.

Beth: Exactly Cara! Let’s take what we know works and provide the resources needed to implement it. In addition to later start times for high schoolers, how about free breakfast and lunch for all students? Students who come from food insecure homes have a hard time focusing in school, and this leads to poor behavioral and academic outcomes. Free breakfast and lunch would remove this obstacle from their education.

Cara: I hope we’ll hear more about education in the December debate. Stay tuned!

When It Makes Sense to Experiment on Students — or “The Zone of RCTs”

The Nobel Prize was recently awarded to economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of MIT and Michael Kremer of Harvard. NPR described the researchers’ work as “applying the scientific method to an enterprise that, until recently, was largely based on gut instincts.”

An enterprise based on gut instincts? That sounds like education! The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the arm of the U.S. Department of Education charged with providing reliable information about the effectiveness of education programs, is not even old enough to vote. It was not until 2015 that evidence was given much attention in federal education law, and state plans submitted under the Every Student Succeeds Act “mostly ignored research on what works,” according to Pemberton Research founder Mark Dynarski.

But attention to experimental evidence has been growing. The Nobel Prize press release specifically mentioned the use of Randomized Control Trial (RCT) experiments to inform social policy intended to alleviate poverty. RCTs are studies that randomly assign individuals to an intervention group or to a control group in order to measure the effects of the intervention (for a visual, see here). RCTs are considered the strongest form of evidence by IES and under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Examples of RCTs in the education field include some of the Nobel prize winners’ work in India, and IES’s What Works Clearinghouse, which catalogues the evidence base for education interventions. 

Questions on causality — that is, when we want to know if some policy or program causes some outcome — are best served by experiments, at least for narrowly defined research questions. Yet the idea of experimenting on students (especially low-income or low-achieving students) can make people feel queasy, and so it is worth asking in what circumstances it makes sense to conduct an experimental study.

An experiment might make sense if we believe a policy or practice has some positive impact on people, but we’re not sure about the size of the impact. Researchers should not experiment if they have reason to believe a policy or practice to be harmful, because the students in the “treatment” group would be harmed. Nor should researchers experiment if they are fairly confident that it is beneficial; in that case, students who were assigned to the “control” group would be harmed by being deprived of the treatment. See my simple graphic explanation below:

Inspired by a tweet from Vinay Prasad, Associate Professor of Medicine at Oregon Health and Science University

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