Author Archives: Phillip Burgoyne-Allen

Key Lessons for Effective School Boards

This is the second post in a series about Bellwether’s recent work on school governance and school board effectiveness. The first post can be read here.

The members of elected and appointed school boards play an important role in governing schools and allocating resources. But beyond these practical responsibilities, a growing body of research suggests that what school board members believe, know, and do can set the conditions for effective classroom instruction and higher levels of student achievement.

For some recent projects, Bellwether reviewed the evidence base on school board effectiveness. Research indicates that effective school boards focus on student learning, make decisions informed by data, and build strong relationships with leadership and the community. Based on this evidence, important practices for effective school boards emerge across five domains.

  1. Beliefs and priorities: Research shows that it is important for boards to hold beliefs and priorities that focus on student learning rather than school management. In addition, a 2006 meta-analysis of 27 studies found that districts with higher levels of student achievement had boards, districts, and schools that were clearly aligned in their efforts to support non-negotiable goals. This further underscores that it is important for boards to clearly codify their beliefs and priorities.
  2. Data use: Boards in districts experiencing academic improvement tend to use more data more often to inform their decisions. For example, a notable study by the Iowa Association of School Boards found that board members in improving districts received data about exemplary programs and practices, test scores, dropout rates, and other measures on a regular basis from superintendents, curriculum directors, principals, and teachers, as well as sources outside the district.
  3. Strategic planning and goals: Effective boards craft strategic plans that are clear and reflect district and community input, and they hold themselves accountable for meeting goals and improving student learning. For example, a study of 10 school boards in British Columbia found that boards in districts with higher levels of student achievement and lower costs were more knowledgeable about district programs and practices and had a clearer sense of their goals. In addition, these districts shared firm values and beliefs about students and learning, and also deliberately articulated and discussed these values and beliefs among themselves and with their communities, suggesting that strategic planning must work in concert with board practices in other domains in order to be most effective.
  4. Communications and community engagement: Research has found that effective boards often have strong community partnerships and cooperative relationships between staff and the community. They also have strong structures in place to ensure clear communication with stakeholders like teachers, parents, and the media. In addition, case studies of school boards from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that business leaders, in particular, can play a critical role in supporting effective school board governance and reforms that improve student achievement.
  5. Effective relationships with district or school leadership: Strong working relationships between school boards and superintendents are important for district and student success. For example, a study of 10 districts across five states found that “strong, collaborative leadership by local school boards and school superintendents is a key cornerstone of the foundation for high student achievement,” and a study of Texas school districts suggests that there is a link between improved student achievement and high levels of trust between the superintendent and school board. Additionally, multiple studies have shown that stable leadership is correlated positively with student achievement. However, research from the Brookings Institution found that superintendents have relatively little influence on student achievement, and that student achievement does not improve with the longevity of superintendent service, suggesting that some turnover among board members and superintendents may be healthy and lead to more effective policies.

Research shows that effective school boards can play an important role in overall school quality. This research has informed Bellwether’s recent work, including developing a framework for evaluating school board effectiveness with Colorado Succeeds, as well as surveying school board members in Washington, DC and Rhode Island. As they look for ways to improve student learning, districts and charters alike should ensure that school boards are using effective practices and prioritize supplying adequate training and support for board members.

The Traditional Public and Charter School Sectors Aren’t as Separate as You Might Think

The recent strike by the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), which ended after negotiations around teacher pay and class sizes, is but the latest in a long list of tensions between traditional public and charter schools. UTLA expressed opposition to the city’s growing charter sector, so the school board has agreed to put forward a non-binding resolution calling on the state of California to cap the growth of charter schools in the district while the state studies policy changes. This strike, in part, highlights the fact that charter schools compete for students and resources, which can cause pain for traditional public schools.

While it often seems that charter schools and traditional public schools are adversaries, in many places the two sectors are not as separate as one might think. Nationwide, nearly 90 percent of charter school authorizers (the legal entities that grant charters and oversee charter schools) are actually school districts themselves, according to data requested from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). This means that school districts around the country are often the ones making decisions about when charter schools open and close and what expectations they have to meet.

Source: National Association of Charter School Authorizers

Source: National Association of Charter School Authorizers

However, NACSA’s data also show that school districts only authorize roughly 51 percent of all charter schools, as they tend to oversee fewer schools than other types of authorizers. As we show in our new publication, “The State of the Charter Sector,” the average school district authorizes only about four schools. Meanwhile, independent chartering boards (statewide bodies set up for the purpose of granting charters and overseeing charter schools) authorize an average of 51 schools, and state education agencies, typically housed in state departments of education, authorize an average of more than 87 schools.

This unequal distribution of authorizers and authorized schools is due in part to the fact that independent chartering boards and state education agencies are both statewide entities, overseeing a much larger number of students and schools than a single district. It is also affected by the structure of state charter school laws. While 44 states allow charter schools, only 23 states allow charter applicants to apply directly to non-district authorizers. In the other 21 states, applicants must apply to school districts for authorization of their charter. However, in many states, the denial of a charter school application by a school district may then be appealed to a non-district authorizer.

In some places, like in Los Angeles, competition for enrollment and resources is pitting school districts against a growing number of charter schools. But in many more places, charter schools are being overseen by local districts and comprise a much smaller share of overall district enrollment. This means that traditional public and charter schools often need to function as one cohesive sector. In these cases, school districts should ensure they are using strong authorizing practices, such as the list of “essential practices” proposed by NACSA.

Our new slide deck, “The State of the Charter Sector,” provides more of the latest available information on charter schools across the country and analyses of the challenges that charter schools face.

Civics Education Isn’t About Content or Activism — It’s Both.

Today is Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, observed each year to commemorate the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787 and “recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens,” according to the Library of Congress. It makes for a good occasion to reflect on the state of civics education in America, a topic that has received renewed focus since the 2016 presidential election.

One question that is often debated in this conversation is whether civics education should focus on teaching content and critical thinking skills, or encouraging civic engagement and activism. This presents a false choice, as schools should be responsible for ensuring that students are both adequately informed and sufficiently engaged — not one or the other.

One side of this debate contends that civics education should first and foremost provide students with a basic understanding of how the American political system works and teach them how to think about political issues. Under this approach, students should develop a well-informed understanding of all sides of an issue, including the underlying facts and proposed solutions, only venturing into political activism once they have mastered the necessary knowledge and skills.

This approach is well intended: it is important to cultivate a citizenry capable of robust debate that honestly grapples with the benefits and tradeoffs associated with each issue. And improvement is certainly needed, based on students’ poor performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics assessment, which measures “the civics knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are critical to the responsibilities of citizenship in America’s constitutional democracy.” According to the most recent civics assessment, last administered in 2014, only 23 percent of eighth grade students scored at or above the proficient level. In 2010, when NAEP last tested high school seniors in civics, only 24 percent scored at or above the proficient level.

However, neither of these results has changed significantly since 1998, and it’s not as if older voters — who vote at much higher rates than younger voters — are necessarily bastions of civic knowledge. For example, according to the most recent results from the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s annual civics survey, released last week, fewer than one third of Americans can correctly name all three branches of government, and many also lack important knowledge about how each branch functions.

Source: Annenberg Public Policy Center

Additionally, civic engagement, particularly voting, is not just about making a well-reasoned choice between two or more options. It’s also a way of demonstrating political power. When young people aren’t engaged, they are leaving their figurative voice out of the political conversation, meaning the issues they care about may receive less attention, and policies that affect young people may be enacted without their input. Our education system should have a strong interest in empowering young people and starting them on a path of self-advocacy.

Source: United States Elections Project

While the goal of civics education should be to both adequately inform students and get them engaged in the political process, it’s clear that we aren’t doing a good enough job on either front. This isn’t surprising when you consider how little time is spent on civics education. Based on a recent analysis from the Center for American Progress, 40 states require coursework in U.S. government or civics. While nine states require one year of such coursework, 31 only require a half-year, and 10 states have no requirement at all.

If we want to ensure that the next generation of citizens is sufficiently prepared for civic life, we need to commit the necessary time and resources — certainly more than one semester. We should view this Constitution Day and Citizenship Day as an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the civic mission of schools.

NAEP Results Again Show That Biennial National Tests Aren’t Worth It

Once again, new results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that administering national math and reading assessments every two years is too frequent to be useful.

The 2017 NAEP scores in math and reading were largely unchanged from 2015, when those subjects were last tested. While there was a small gain in eighth-grade reading in 2017 — a one-point increase on NAEP’s 500-point scale — it was not significantly different than eighth graders’ performance in 2013.

Many acknowledged that NAEP gains have plateaued in recent years after large improvements in earlier decades, and some have even described 2007-2017 as the “lost decade of educational progress.” But this sluggishness also shows that administering NAEP’s math and reading tests (referred to as the “main NAEP”) every two years is not necessary, as it is too little time to meaningfully change trend lines or evaluate the impact of new policies.

Such frequent testing also has other costs: In recent years, the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), the body that sets policy for NAEP, has reduced the frequency of the Long-Term Trends (LTT) assessment and limited testing in other important subjects like civics and history in order to cut costs. NAGB cited NAEP budget cuts as the reason for reducing the frequency of other assessments. However, though NAEP’s budget recovered and even increased in the years following, NAGB did not undo the previously scheduled reductions. (The LTT assessment is particularly valuable, as it tracks student achievement dating back to the early 1970s and provides another measure of academic achievement in addition to the main NAEP test.)

Instead, the additional funding was used to support other NAGB priorities, namely the shift to digital assessments. Even still, the release of the 2017 data was delayed by six months due to comparability concerns, and some education leaders are disputing the results because their students are not familiar enough with using tablets.

That is not to say that digital assessments don’t have benefits. For example, the new NAEP results include time lapse visualizations of students’ progress on certain types of questions. In future iterations of the test, these types of metadata could provide useful information about how various groups of students differ in their test-taking activity.

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However, these innovative approaches should not come at the expense of other assessments that are useful in the present. Given the concerns some have with the digital transition, this is especially true of the LTT assessment. Instead, NAGB should consider administering the main NAEP test less frequently — perhaps only every four years — and use the additional capacity to support other assessment types and subjects.

Can You Name the Branches of Government? Most Americans Can’t.

Today is Constitution Day, a holiday commemorating the formation and signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787 — 230 years ago. As “a nation of immigrants,” America’s national identity is largely tied to our founding documents, endowing the Constitution with a unique importance in American culture. However, many Americans know little about this document that we are supposed to support and defend.

Last week, the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania released its Constitution Day Civics Survey, with dismal results. Only one in four respondents were able to name all three branches of government, a 12-point decline since 2011. Shockingly, 33 percent could not name a single branch.

The survey also asked respondents to identify which rights are guaranteed by the First Amendment. While nearly half (48 percent) were able to name “freedom of speech,” only 15 percent could name “freedom of religion.” Even fewer respondents identified the other rights (freedom of the press, right to petition, and right of assembly). Thirty-seven percent couldn’t name any.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of APPC, expressed her concern: “Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are. The fact that many don’t is worrisome.”

Perhaps, in prior years, this warning may have seemed overblown. But in the Trump era, amid a seemingly constant slew of anti-democratic rhetoric, it feels right on the nose. For example, when asked whether those who are in the country illegally have any rights under the Constitution, 53 percent of APPC’s respondents disagreed. In this context of widespread ignorance and misinformation, the United States has seen an uptick in hate crimes associated with the rise of President Trump, beginning in 2015, persisting into 2016 and 2017, and culminating in the violence of the “Unite the Right” rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville last month.

Luckily, some states are taking action to bolster the civic knowledge of their students. For example, over the past three years, 17 states have adopted a “citizenship test” requirement for high school students. In eight of those states, students must receive a passing score on the test to receive a high school diploma. The questions are drawn from the the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) naturalization civics test, which immigrants must pass to become legal U.S. citizens.

This is a good first step, but it is far from sufficient. The test is not designed to be a high school civic literacy exam. It sets a low bar, with basic multiple-choice questions that ask test-takers to identify one branch of the government, or know how many amendments have been made to the Constitution. The simplicity is reflected in the initial test results, with very high passage rates and few students failing to pass the test after repeated attempts.

However, such a test is only one tool available to policymakers. They can design and administer higher quality civics assessments; implement robust standards and curricula for civics instruction; and provide real-world, project-based opportunities for students to learn about government and civic engagement. For example, New Hampshire passed legislation in 2016 requiring a civics test. But, rather than simply implementing a citizenship test for high school students, the legislation allows for the creation of locally developed assessments that can include a broader range of questions. Additionally, the state created a recognition for students who pass the required test by authorizing school districts to issue civic competency certificates.

New Hampshire Senator Lou D’Allesandro, a former civics teacher who sponsored some of the state’s legislation, summarized the issue well: “We always complain, ‘people don’t know anything about the system, they don’t get involved, they don’t vote.’ Well, they don’t vote because they don’t understand the importance of voting and how meaningful it is to participate in the process.”

If America wants to protect our constitutional rights and democratic ideals, we must ensure that our next generation of citizens are knowledgeable and engaged. That starts in the classroom.