Author Archives: Kelly Robson and Jennifer Schiess

How Autonomous Schools Should Be Held Accountable — It’s Complicated

Across the country, many states and local districts are establishing autonomous school policies, which delegate to principals and school leaders significant authority over school operational decisions that are traditionally held by district central offices. This theory reflects part of the charter school theory of action, which relies on granting increased autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. 

However, the accountability side of this bargain is much murkier for autonomous schools and so are the outcomes, raising questions about the extent to which these policies are able to capitalize on lessons learned from successful charter sectors. 

cover of Bellwether report "Staking out the Middle Ground: Policy Design for Autonomous Schools from Feb 2020, features graphic of three school buildings with different but overlapping colors

The strongest charter sectors have pretty clear and consistent approaches to accountability: charters are managed to a performance contract that has specific goals for outcomes. They are subject to periodic renewal based on a data-based assessment of progress on those goals. The consequences for not meeting those goals are clear, often culminating in non-renewal or closure.

Autonomous school policies vary significantly from place to place, and even sometimes within the same city, in ways that create thorny questions about the best structures for holding schools accountable. There tend to be two ways that districts keep autonomous schools accountable to high performance, as we outline in our new report

  1. Autonomous schools are subject to the same accountability structure as every other district-run school
  2. Autonomous schools are subject to possible revocation of autonomy if they fail to meet the expectations outlined in their school plans

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Bleak Pictures of Rural Communities Are Not the Full Story

From lobsters to bikes to HBCUs, Bellwether has covered a breadth of topics tied to rural education over the last six years. While we are by no means the first group to do in-depth research on rural schools and communities, we were among the first in the education reform community to begin thinking critically about policy solutions for rural schools. And as more and more of our peers have turned their attention to the rural context, we’ve realized that there’s a lack of basic understanding of the facts about rural schools and communities. 

To help address that problem, we’ve put together a new resource: “Wide Open Spaces: Schooling in Rural America Today.”

This deck pulls together data and research on education, economic development, and more into a coherent fact base to explain the current state of rural communities and schools. It begins with an overview of the variation of communities within the rural designation in terms of their locations, economies, strengths, and challenges. For example, resort communities like Eagle County (Vail), Colorado and impoverished communities like many along the Mississippi Delta are both considered rural but have dramatically different geographic, economic, educational, and social contexts. Continue reading

Media: “A summit of states turned around US education 30 years ago — it’s time for another” in The Hill

Thirty years ago today, former president George H.W. Bush convened the nation’s governors in Charlottesville, VA for the nation’s first, and to date only, education summit. At this summit, the governors agreed to six national education goals. These goals have been the foundation for state and national education reform efforts over the last three decades.

I have a piece in The Hill today that argues it’s time for a second summit:

America’s education outcomes are largely stagnant. Gaps across subgroups remain a challenge. International test scores put American students behind their peers in other developed nations like Australia and the UK. Given this, it’s time for the nation’s governors to reconvene and create a new set of national education goals that reflect what we’ve learned and define where we want to go.

Read the full piece here. You can also learn more about the origins of this summit — and how states have worked to improve their education systems — in our resource on the American South here.

Media: “Three Factors Critical to Rural Charter Schools’ Success” in EducationNext

As of the 2017-18 school year, 809 rural charter schools nationwide serve approximately 256,000 students. Though that’s only about one tenth of all charter schools and students nationwide, it represents substantial growth over the last decade.

Despite the growth, charter schools aren’t always a viable solution to a rural community’s education needs. They can negatively impact the enrollment and finances of local school districts, resulting in the closure or consolidation of long-standing community institutions.

But that’s not always the case. There are some rural communities where charters can and do work.

My team and I recently conducted in-depth case studies of four rural charter schools that are outperforming state and district averages in reading and math. Each of these schools serve a diverse student body. I have a piece in EducationNext today that discusses three factors that seem to facilitate the success of these rural charter schools:

  1. The founders, leaders, and/or board members of these schools have deep ties to the local community.
  2. These rural charter schools were founded as an explicit remedy to a gap in the community’s education offerings.
  3. These rural charter schools maintain consistent leadership and/or engagement with school founders.

Read the full piece at EdNext and learn more about rural charter schools on our new website, ruralcharterschools.org.

Media: “Education donors ought to give attention, money to rural Georgia” in Atlanta Journal Constitution

Yesterday, my colleagues and I published Education in the American South: Historical Context, Current State, and Future Possibilities. Our hope is that this report sparks a conversation about the need for greater attention to and investment in education in the South, particularly outside of major cities.

In an op-ed published yesterday in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, I look at Georgia’s student enrollment and test score data to argue that funders need to focus on the communities outside of metro Atlanta if they want to improve education for a lot of high-need kids:

Of the 1.8 million students enrolled in Georgia public school districts, just 52,400 of them – less than 3 percent – are enrolled in Atlanta Public Schools. Even throwing in the school systems surrounding APS – Clayton, Cobb, Douglas, DeKalb, and Fulton Counties – accounts for just 439,306 students, or 25% of all students statewide. 

That means that three out of every four public K-12 students in Georgia goes to school outside of metro Atlanta.

And yet policymakers and philanthropists involved in education continue to disproportionately focus on Atlanta. Philanthropic funders spend $453 per person in metro Atlanta, compared to $329 per person in other parts of the state. Students and schools throughout Georgia’s mid-sized cities, small towns, and rural communities aren’t getting the attention they need and deserve. 

For more detail about how this dynamic plays out across the South, take a look at our report here. And you can read my full piece in the Atlanta Journal Constitution here.