Category Archives: Accountability

What Does it Take to Be a Quality Authorizer?

The autonomy-for-accountability bargain at the heart of the charter movement rests, crucially, on the effectiveness of the entities — known as authorizers — that have the ability to approve charter schools and the responsibility for holding them accountable. If authorizers are lax in their responsibilities — approving weak applications, failing to effectively monitor or assess school performance, or refusing to close low-performing schools — the accountability part of the bargain isn’t held up. But if they overstep their bounds, by limiting the kinds of schools they will approve, being overly prescriptive about requirements for school approval, or trying to micromanage schools they oversee, the autonomy part of the bargain goes missing. Getting the right balance between holding schools accountable and protecting their autonomy is a crucial question, both for authorizers and the charter movement as a whole, and since the start of the charter movement, it’s been the subject of heated debate — one that has intensified in recent years.

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Best in Bellwether 2017: Our Most Read Publications and Posts

Below are the most read posts from Ahead of the Heard and our most read publications in 2017! (To read the top posts from our sister site,, click here.)

Top Ten Blog Posts from Ahead of the Heard in 2017

1.) Anything But Equal Pay: How American Teachers Get a Raw Deal
By Kirsten Schmitz

2.) Exciting News
By Mary K. Wells

3.) Some Exciting Hires and Promotions
By Mary K. Wells

4.) Where Are All The Female Superintendents?
By Kirsten Schmitz

5.) An Expanded Federal Role in School Choice? No Thanks.
By Juliet Squire

6.) Teacher Turnover Isn’t Always Negative – Just Look at D.C. Public Schools’ Results
By Kaitlin Pennington

7.) Georgia Addressed Its Teacher Shortages With This One Trick
By Chad Aldeman

8.) A Day in the Life: Bellwether Analyst Andrew Rayner [Andrew’s now over at Promise54!]
By Heather Buchheim & Tanya Paperny

9.) Welcoming Our New Senior Advisers
By Mary K. Wells

10.) How Will States Handle New Title I Powers with Minimal Federal Oversight?
By Bonnie O’Keefe

Top Five Publications & Releases from Bellwether in 2017

1.) An Independent Review of ESSA State Plans
Chad Aldeman, Anne Hyslop, Max Marchitello, Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, & Kaitlin Pennington

2.) Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century
Jennifer O’Neal Schiess & Phillip Burgoyne-Allen

3.) Michigan Education Landscape: A Fact Base for the DeVos Debate
Bonnie O’Keefe, Kaitlin Pennington, & Sara Mead

4.) Voices from Rural Oklahoma: Where’s Education Headed on the Plain?
Juliet Squire & Kelly Robson

5.) The Best Teachers for Our Littlest Learners? Lessons from Head Start’s Last Decade
Marnie Kaplan & Sara Mead

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Under ESSA, Subgroup Accountability is like Gotham Without Batman

When something is wrong in Gotham, Commissioner Gordon puts up the bat signal and a powerful spotlight projects Batman’s symbol into the night sky. It’s a simple idea, really: make it crystal clear that there is a problem and alert the person who can do something about it.

This was the basic concept of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The law required states to shine a spotlight on schools where individual groups of students were struggling — in order to reveal a problem. And with the problem revealed, schools, districts, and states were required to do something to solve it.

The attention to subgroup performance was the most popular aspect of NCLB. When the law was finally reauthorized in late 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) created an accountability system in which states must report inequities, but in the vast majority of cases, aren’t required to do anything about them. In lieu of NCLB-style accountability, the hope was that states and districts would create systems to act as Batman, and respond with additional support tailored to meet the needs of struggling schools and students. Barring that, since the law only requires states to identify the lowest of the low-performing schools, ESSA relies on transparency to encourage schools to improve.

Unfortunately, however, our new analysis of the accountability plans from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. found systems that were unambitious, uncreative, and, in some instances, unfinished. The worst part is that, in 41 out of the 51 state plans, subgroup performance will have no bearing on the ratings most schools receive.

This would be akin to Gotham police shining a plain spotlight into the night sky in the hopes that someone — anyone — would respond or that the bright light alone would stop crime.

Across the board, state accountability plans follow more or less the same pattern. They promise to report subgroup achievement across their selected indicators; but, when a school’s overall rating is calculated, it will be based solely on school-wide averages. Under this approach, schools can appear to be at least average while hiding massive achievement gaps.

In most cases, subgroups only truly matter in a few schools in which the performance of a group of students is as low as the worst performing 5 percent of schools in the state. And even then, it’s not clear that states have an effective strategy to improve struggling schools. In short, these plans will shine a light on a still-undetermined number of schools, and do little to resolve them.

There are very few exceptions to these retrograde policies.

In Tennessee, for example, 40 percent of a school’s score is based on subgroup achievement. Under this model, subgroup performance actually matters since the state uses these ratings to determine the schools that will receive additional support and resources. Minnesota takes a different tact to ensure that its schools are held accountable for subgroups: Instead of taking a school-wide average, the state first looks at the average performance for each subgroup and then combines that number into an overall average for the school. This model ensures that all subgroups count equally in the accountability system.

In Gotham, the bat signal works because the medium carries the message, leading Batman to show up and take care of the problem. Although imperfect, that’s how NCLB worked: states revealed problems and they then had to take steps to address them. Under ESSA, that’s no longer the case.

A public school serving mostly poor or non-white students is not a dystopian city like Gotham. Nevertheless, it is a place rife with injustice, where kids have been failed habitually by public institutions. These students don’t need a superhero to save them. What they need are state education systems designed to ensure that they are not misrepresented, underserved, under-resourced, or over-policed. They need access to all of the tenets of a high-quality education that they have so long been denied. And that takes real and intentional action, not just a bare spotlight.

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.

Our New Reviews of California and New York’s Draft ESSA Plans

Last spring, Bellwether partnered with the Collaborative for Student Success to convene an independent peer review of the first round of ESSA state plans. We brought together a bipartisan, nationally esteemed group of education policy experts to review the plans from 16 states and the District of Columbia.

We will do full reviews of the remaining 34 state plans after they’re submitted to the U.S. Department of Education next month. In the meantime, we decided to review the draft plans put out for public comment by California and New York, given the outsized importance of these two states in education policy and politics.

You can read our interim reviews of the California and New York plans here. Given the size of California and New York’s diverse student populations, as well as their geographic diversity, we believe feedback on their draft plans is important in not only strengthening these state’s final submissions, but also in providing information for other states still writing their plans.

This interim project was intended as a quick-turnaround, rapid-response analysis, and we did not use the full quality peer review process we used in round one — and which we will use again in round two. We recently received some feedback from California policymakers working on the plan about a few mistakes that were made in haste. We’ve made some edits as a result, and the reviews you’ll see on our website now incorporate these edits.

As one example, we wrote that, “at the indicator level… California has not yet specified definitions for chronic absenteeism…” While California has adopted a definition of chronic absenteeism for data collection purposes, their plan states they won’t know how they’re going to turn it into an indicator for accountability purposes until fall 2018. Our review could have been clearer about this distinction, and we’ve since updated it. As another example, we wrote “December 2018” where we should have written “January 2018,” and have since fixed this. In another place, we rephrased our comments about California’s exit criteria for low-performing schools. We had initially understood California’s proposed exit criteria to be normative, implying a school could exit simply if it improved its relative standing in the rankings. After taking another look, we have removed that language from our review. These revisions are now reflected in the online versions.

At the same time, there are also places where state policymakers may simply disagree with our goals behind this project, and hence our reviews of their plans. In comments to EdSource about our review, David Sapp, the deputy policy director and assistant legal counsel for California State Board of Education, referred to the state’s ESSA plan as “an application for federal funding.” While this is literally true — the plans are required to unlock each state’s share of federal Title I funding — this comment downplays the importance of these plans. We’re not just talking about a a small grant program; Title I is a $15 billion program nationwide and California alone receives about $2 billion a year from it. Title I traces its roots back more than 50 years, and Congress has stated that Title I’s purpose is to “provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps.’’

Those are the reasons we committed to this project in the first place, and it’s why we intend to once again conduct full reviews of all second-round states, including California and New York, following their final submissions in September. We’ll be fully transparent about that process, as we were in round one, and you can look for the results of that work later this fall.