Author Archives: Sara Mead

What This Washington Post Opinion Piece Got Wrong on Charter Schools

Over the weekend, the Washington Post Outlook section ran a frustrating cover story on charter schools that offered a narrow and biased picture of the charter sector and perpetuated a number of misconceptions.

Jack Schneider’s “School’s out: Charters were supposed to save public education. Why are Americans turning against them?” argues that the charter sector as a whole isn’t living up to its promises, leading public support for the schools to shrink. Schneider is correct that the charter school hasn’t lived up to all of its most enthusiastic boosters’ promises, but his piece flatly misrepresents data about charter quality. For example, Schneider writes that “average charter performance is roughly equivalent to that of traditional public schools.” This is simply inaccurate, as my colleagues indicated in a recent analysis of charter data and research (slide 37 here). The full body of currently available, high-quality research finds that charters outperform traditional public schools on average, with especially positive effects for historically underserved student groups (a recent Post editorial acknowledged this as well).

slide from Bellwether's "State of the Charter Sector" resource, summarizing research on charter sector performance

To be clear, research also shows that charter performance varies widely across schools, cities, and states — and too many schools are low-performing. Yet Schneider cherry picks examples that illustrate low points in the sector. He cites Ohio, whose performance struggles — and the poorly designed policies that led to them — Bellwether has previously written about. He also (inexplicably, given where his piece ran) overlooks Washington, D.C., where charters not only significantly outperform comparable district-run schools, but have also helped spur improvement systemwide. Over the past decade, public schools in D.C. (including both charters and DC Public Schools, DCPS) have improved twice as fast as those in any other state in the country, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). DCPS was the nation’s fastest growing district in 4th grade math and among the fastest in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math. These gains can be partially attributed to the city’s changing demographics, but are also the result of reforms within DCPS — which the growth of charters created the political will to implement. Over the past decade, Washington, DC has also increased the number of high-performing charter schools while systematically slashing the number of students in the lowest-performing charter schools. When I served on the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board from 2009-2017, I had the chance to observe these exciting changes firsthand, so it was particularly disappointing to see a major feature in our city’s paper overlook them.

It’s frustrating that this biased and narrow picture drew prime real estate in one of the nation’s leading papers, because the charter sector does have real weaknesses and areas for improvement that would benefit from thoughtful dialogue. For example, as Schneider notes, transportation issues and lack of good information can prevent many families from accessing high-quality schools. In cities with high concentrations of charters, such as Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, there is a real need to better support parents in navigating what can feel like a very fragmented system. And despite progress in closing down low-performing charter schools, too many remain in operation. Schneider could have referenced the real work charter leaders are undertaking to address these lingering challenges (more on this in slide 112 of our deck).

Schneider is correct that public support for charters has waned in recent years, due in part to some of the challenges he references, but also because of orchestrated political opposition from established interests threatened by charter school growth. Given the increasingly polarized political environment around charter schools, the need for nuanced, balanced, and data-informed analysis and dialogue about them is greater than ever. Bellwether’s recent report on the state of the charter sector, and our past work on charter schools more broadly, seeks to provide that kind of analysis. Unfortunately, Schneider’s piece falls short on that score.

Media: “Full-day, not part-day, programs should be the default for Head Start” in The Hill

In late March, with little to no public attention, the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services proposed new regulations that would undo a major component of Obama-era rules that improved quality in Head Start programs. As I argue in a new piece at The Hill today, this is a bad idea:

A few weeks ago, as President Trump tweeted attacks on “failed” media coverage of the Russia investigation, his administration quietly proposed new regulations that would undermine learning for low-income preschoolers…The Trump administration claims its proposal would give programs flexibility to meet local needs, and prevent reductions in Head Start slots. Both these explanations are incorrect.

A little bit of background: Continue reading

Is Idris Elba the Reason You Can’t Find Affordable Child Care?

Idris Elba should be the next James Bond. But even as the “sexiest man aliveteased that prospect in recent appearances, his latest role — as a failed DJ who becomes a nanny for his successful friend’s daughter in Netflix’s Turn Up Charlie — seems an odd choice for a prospective 007.

actor Idris Elba

Actor Idris Elba

Or maybe not: There’s a surprisingly robust history of movies featuring action stars playing comedic roles as caregivers of young children: Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop, Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Baby, Hulk Hogan in Mr. Nanny, Eddie Murphy in Daddy Day Care, and Vin Diesel in the Pacifier. (Even Sean Connery worked as a “babysitter” in real life before hitting it big.)

When you think about it, the prevalence of movies built around the premise of tough guys taking care of little kids is actually pretty weird. I can’t help but wonder what that says about how our culture values and views the work of caring for young children. Continue reading

Why Is Charter School Growth Slowing? New NACSA Research Offers Insights — But No Easy Answers.

 After growing rapidly for the past decade, the pace of charter school growth has slowed in recent years, provoking consternation among some charter school supporters — as well as debate about causes and responses. As my Bellwether colleagues noted in a recent report on the state of the charter sector, there are multiple potential factors influencing this shift, and it can be difficult to know which are at play because recent trends and the different factors influencing them vary considerably across states and geographies.

Ultimately, however, the pace of charter school growth is a function of just a few factors:

  • How many individuals, organizations, and groups apply to establish new schools?
  • What percentage of those applications are approved?
  • Are existing schools growing, and by how much?
  • What percentage of charter schools are closed?

Charter school authorizers (which I was one of when I served on the DC Public Charter School Board) are the entities entrusted in state law to approve and oversee charter schools. These bodies are uniquely positioned to shed light on the first two questions.

Reinvigorating the Pipeline,” a new report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), explores what authorizer data can tell us. NACSA (on whose board I now serve) reviewed nearly 3,000 charter applications to authorizers in 20 states who oversee more than two-thirds of charter schools nationally. The report surfaces some interesting insights:

  • There is wide variation in the types of schools that charter applicants propose to create, including classical, “no excuses,” inquiry-based or child-centered, vocational, alternative/credit recovery, blended/hybrid, STEM, and arts schools.
  • Applications for some types of schools are much more common than others, and approval rates also vary widely across types of schools created. Schools proposing to implement classical or “no excuses” models are more than twice as likely to be approved than those proposing arts-focused, gifted-education, and single-sex models.
  • The percentage of charter applications for schools using “no excuses” models declined considerably in the past five years, as did the percentage of “no excuses” schools approved.
  • The majority of charter applicants are for stand-alone schools not affiliated with a charter network or management organization. Indeed, despite common perceptions that networks dominate the charter sector, the percentage of applications for free-standing schools is at a five-year high. Schools affiliated with nonprofit charter management organizations (CMOs) are more likely to be approved than free-standing schools, but, because there are more applications from free-standing schools, CMO-run and free-standing schools each account for about 40% of approved applications. Schools run by for-profit education management organizations, which have attracted considerable criticism in recent years, account for only about 20% of approved schools, and applications for EMO-run schools have declined dramatically.
  • The types of schools that applicants propose to create vary widely across states. Applications for blended or hybrid models, for example, account for more than a quarter of proposals in Arizona, D.C., and Illinois, while authorizers in Connecticut and Minnesota received no applications for this type of model. Conversely, proposals for child-centered models such as Waldorf or Montessori accounted for a much larger share of applications in some states (e.g., Minnesota and Georgia) than others. And groups associated with EMOs accounted for a meaningful percentage of applicants in only a few states but were a big percentage in Florida, Ohio, and Arizona. All of this suggests that what the “charter sector” looks like varies widely across states and communities, a factor that bears remembering in national dialogue about charters.

In some ways, the report raises more questions than it answers. It can’t tell us, for example, why some types of charter applications are much more common than others, or why authorizers are more likely to approve certain types of schools. Further, it’s not easy to tell whether trends in the number of applications for different types of schools reflect intrinsic demand and interest of prospective founders and their communities, or whether perceptions of political and other barriers (such as lack of access to facilities), authorizers’ openness to certain types of models or to approving new charter applications at all, and other political and policy factors are influencing the pipeline of applications that authorizers receive.

These are questions that deserve further inquiry. And given the high level of state and local variation in charter growth and pipelines, many of these questions need to be explored at the state and local level, not just nationally.

But by bringing this data to bear, NACSA is helping to shed empirical light on key questions facing the charter movement — and also countering some common misperceptions about the charter sector. I hope that this work provokes further dialogue and inquiry for the field.

Walking While Chewing Gum: Why Curriculum and Quality Teaching Are Both Crucial To Improving Children’s Learning

Are high-quality teachers the key to improving student learning? Or is curriculum more important? Early in the last decade, reformers, persuaded by research that “teachers are the most important factor in a student’s school experience,” pushed for teacher evaluation, performance pay, and other teacher-focused reforms. As these reforms have fallen out of favor, however, a growing contingent of education leaders argue that curriculum, rather than teacher quality, should be the focus of improvement efforts.

It shouldn’t be either-or. In our new paper, Ashley LiBetti and I argue that the real key to improving children’s learning may lie not in curriculum or teacher quality alone, but in how schools or early childhood programs integrate curriculum with supports for quality teaching to deliver high-quality learning experiences for children.

logos of five Head Start programs profiled in Bellwether Education Partners' case studies

Earlier this week, as a part of the new report package, we released our study of five Head Start programs that produce significant learning gains for children they serve. We identified cross-cutting themes and common practices across the five programs that contribute to their impressive results. What we found underscores the importance of both teachers and curriculum for success.

All of these programs place a high priority on quality teaching. They hire teachers with more training than Head Start requires, pay them more than the typical preschool program, and support them with coaching and professional development. At the same time, they also pay careful attention to curriculum by adopting evidence-based curricula, adapting it to their needs and communities, supporting teachers to implement it with fidelity, and regularly testing and or piloting new curricula or enhancements in an effort to further boost children’s learning and results. And they constantly use data — including ongoing formative assessments of children’s learning — to improve teaching practices and differentiate learning for individual children. These practices related to curricula, assessment, and teacher quality and support offer models that other early childhood programs can learn from.

The  real “secret sauce,” however, isn’t in these programs’ approaches to teaching or curricula on their own, but the way they carefully and intentionally integrate these components. We call this careful integration of curriculum, expectations for what quality teaching looks like, and support for teachers an “integrated instructional model” — and it’s the key to these programs’ success.

This intentional, integrated approach isn’t as sexy as “silver bullet” solutions. It requires skilled, thoughtful leadership willing to constantly reassess and refine practice, and a lot of work from teachers, the coaches who support them, and program leaders. That makes it much harder to replicate or scale than curriculum or teacher credential requirements. But it’s crucial to improving learning results, particularly for the most at-risk students.

Rather than continuing to debate whether teacher quality or curriculum matters more for improving educational results, education leaders should take a page from these exemplary Head Start programs and focus on how to help more schools develop and implement integrated models of curriculum, assessment, and supports for quality instruction.