Category Archives: Accountability

It’s Time to Stop Overlooking Juvenile Justice Education Policy

Just as juvenile justice education programs are commonly overlooked in mainstream educational equity conversations, they are also left behind in state education policy. The consequences for students are dire.

Juvenile justice education programs, as Bellwether Education Partners defines them, serve students in the court-ordered custody of a local or state agency. Settings can include short-term detention centers, long-term secure facilities, residential treatment centers, or other publicly and privately run facilities. The best estimates tell us that nearly a quarter of a million students were detained or committed to such facilities in 2019, where they had extremely limited access to education opportunities of all kinds including online learning, differentiated coursework, tutoring, dual-credit courses, career technical education, and work-based learning.

Our latest report finds that the governance, accountability, and finance policy designs are convoluted, inconsistent, and in some cases entirely absent in juvenile justice education programs. We reviewed state policy in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico and uncovered what advocates have long suspected: a mess of dizzying policies, contradictory regulations, and exceedingly complex statutes. Despite the best efforts of well-meaning and devoted educators, these incoherent policies mean that the vast majority of juvenile justice education programs fall short of anything resembling a “school.”

Students in juvenile justice education programs are unlikely to be offered education opportunities aligned with their needs while locked up — and more often than not, they will never enroll in school again when they’re released. 

If state leaders structure policy reforms around coherence within and among these three policies (governance, accountability, and finance), they can meaningfully improve the education provided to students in their care.

Governance

Governance policies define who is responsible for providing (or ensuring the provision of) education services to youth in custody. In at least 26 states, the agency responsible for providing education services in local detention centers is not the same as the agency responsible for education in state-run facilities. In some states, one agency is responsible for providing direct instruction in a juvenile facility, while another agency controls the funding. In California, only youth detained or committed for offenses considered most serious or violent are held at the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice facility, which operates separately from facilities run locally by county boards of education. 

A class-action lawsuit from 2014 shows how inconsistent governance policies can lead to finger pointing and ultimately the abdication of responsibility for student learning. In Contra Costa County, California, the county probation agency was responsible for discipline policy but the county office of education was responsible for educational services. The two entities disagreed on who was responsible for education in restrictive security programs, leaving teachers unable to provide students in solitary confinement with the same modality, quantity, or quality of instruction as their peers. 

Even trying to find and confirm governance policies for our research illustrated the problem: we had to call numerous offices in individual states to cross check competing information. 

Accountability

Accountability policies determine how programs are evaluated and what happens when they aren’t delivering. In traditional districts, agencies use assessment and attendance data, teacher evaluations, school visits, and other data-collection strategies to ensure schools provide a high-quality education. Each education agency then defines the interventions that follow when a program does not meet expectations.

To measure school success, education agencies need to decide on their “measuring stick,” or the kind of data they will evaluate. While traditional educational policy conversations still grapple with these questions and acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, juvenile justice education programs are light years behind altogether.

Given the governance structures described above, it’s no surprise that juvenile justice education programs interact with many government agencies and are often required to submit data to offices with competing and incompatible goals, requirements, and processes.

Imagine this common reality: Mr. Dewan has students at a 9th-grade and 12th-grade level in his classroom. Some stay for a few days or weeks, while others stay for a few months — he never has the same group twice. Most of his students arrive without academic transcripts, so he relies on their recollection of past coursework and grades while awaiting prior records from any number of institutions. Over time, some students get shuffled to another facility without notice, while others attend a mandatory court date and never come back. Mr. Dewan doesn’t always know when a student has left the program, so he cannot plan for assessments in advance. The security or probation officers on staff periodically come in and remove a student from Mr. Dewan’s classroom, even when he has no concerns about safety. 

Having worked in and with such constraints, we respect how difficult it is to collect data, measure student and school success, and implement effective interventions. That said, a necessary component of any accountability system is defining how programs will be evaluated and what happens when they aren’t delivering for students. Our survey indicates that unlike nearly every other kind of education setting, most states have not defined in statute how juvenile justice education service providers are held accountable. 

Finance

Finance policies explain how states allocate funding to the agencies responsible for operating juvenile justice education programs. The people responsible for overseeing or operating these programs are best positioned to know where funding is needed the most. 

But our research shows that time and time again, the agency in control of finance is not the same as the one held accountable for results, creating a disincentive to allocate the resources necessary for high-quality programming. The greater the disconnect between finance and governance, the greater the chance that funding is not allocated for the right things. 

Beyond defining agency responsibility, there is little transparency about dollar amounts that actually make it to these educational programs. We know very little about how much states allocate for per-pupil funding in juvenile justice education programs. The reality is that students generally arrive at juvenile justice education programs lagging behind academically, in addition to potentially having significant unmet mental, behavioral, and physical health needs. State finance policies must take this reality into consideration and fund juvenile justice education programs accordingly. 

For this population of students, the stakes are too high not to get the fundamentals right. A child in the custody of a state agency is entrusted to the care of the government, creating a heightened moral responsibility (and arguably a legal one) for policymakers to provide that student with the highest-quality educational opportunities.

Read our new report here or view this resource to find out your specific state’s current policies. 

Updating Data Systems is a Critical Piece of State-Improved ESSA Plans

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

For the last two years, state-level Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accountability plans ​​— which provide critical information about student achievement and school culture — have either been modified or essentially on pause due to COVID-19-related school closures. From canceling statewide assessments to variability in how attendance was taken, the lack of high-quality and reliable data made it difficult for states to follow their original ESSA accountability plans. 

However, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) signaled that states must restart ESSA accountability plans and identify their lowest-performing schools in fall 2022. Recognizing the impact that COVID-19 has had on schools’ and states’ ability to use indicators like test score growth and attendance, the DOE guidance specified that states can make one-year or longer-term changes to their accountability plans. The guidance also noted that in fall 2022 states’ Report Cards must contain all the data as required under ESSA, including for the 2021-22 school year (e.g., access to advanced coursework, suspension rates, math and reading proficiency, graduation rates, chronic absenteeism, and per-pupil school funding).  

These may seem like easy tasks since states already developed and implemented ESSA accountability plans and report cards. However, not all state data systems are created equal. Prior to the pandemic, Washington, D.C. and all 50 states were missing at least one data point required under ESSA. Furthermore, many ESSA accountability plans used inconsistent data and methodology to identify schools for support — particularly as it relates to English language learners, students with disabilities, students of color, and low-income students. A 2017 Bellwether analysis found that only 10 of 51 ESSA plans indicated they would incorporate student subgroup performance into rating and identifying schools for support. And, of those 10 only three — Louisiana, Minnesota, and Tennessee — provided data and information about what that would mean in practice. The other states provided broad assurances. 

Whether because of antiquated data systems, underfunding, or a lack of political will to use certain metrics, these gaps in state-level ESSA accountability data are problematic. They leave huge voids in understanding how students are doing, what’s working, and which students need support, and also hinder a state’s ability to engage in effective short- and long-term planning. 

And the problem persists over time. A 2021 analysis found that many states still don’t report on mandated metrics like participation in advanced coursework, teacher credentials, per-pupil school spending, and chronic absenteeism. Nearly 25% of states don’t include spring 2021 assessment data on their Report Cards. 

Given the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on the U.S. K-12 education system, it’s critical that states step up. We need intentional, collaborative, and thoughtful planning in order to address everything from unfinished learning to student disengagement. But this can only be done if states have access to comprehensive data that is accurate, transparent, and current. 

States are in an optimal position to invest in data system upgrades and state report cards as they rethink accountability plans. Although this kind of infrastructure investment might seem like a lesser priority, schools’ access to accurate and updated data is critical and a cost-effective investment that pays dividends in the long run. Through three major COVID-19 federal stimulus packages, state departments of education received billions of dollars to help with pandemic recovery which can include updating data systems. A May 2021 DOE FAQ gave permission and encouraged states to use COVID-19 American Rescue Plan (ARP) Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) dollars to improve their data systems. 

Many states are taking advantage of the federal funding. A June 2021 analysis found that 29 states designated some money to improve data systems and analysis capacity to better support students. For example:

  • Arkansas is using ARP dollars to launch SmartData Dashboards, an automated early warning and intervention dashboard that will help districts identify students who are off-track from graduation and implement the appropriate interventions. 
  • Connecticut is using ESSER funds to establish the COVID-19 Education Research Collaborative — a partnership with researchers from the University of Connecticut and other state universities, local representatives, and educators. The Collaborative is a long-term investment that utilizes statewide data to track the efficacy of programs and provide accurate information to the public. 
  • Minnesota is investing $6 million in ARP dollars to update Ed-Fi, a new statewide data system that will consolidate multiple data systems into one. This will allow the state to track student data in a more timely manner and identify trends in student experiences and outcomes. 
  • Missouri is using $4.3 million in Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act dollars to update its 15-year-old longitudinal data system, which will increase its capacity to collect and analyze data on individual students. 

These state-level data improvements are a step in the right direction. However, it’s critical that data system upgrades and accountability plans center all students’ needs — particularly for historically marginalized student populations. The federal funding and policy window is there to pave the way. Will states seize the opportunity?

Opinion: Get Michigan’s Thousands of Missing Kids Back in School This Fall

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

As schools nationwide look ahead to the start of the 2021-22 school year and spend federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, there’s a group of students at risk of being overlooked: those who didn’t show up in public schools last year. In most states, these missing students outnumber the largest school districts

Michigan is no exception, where Alex Spurrier argues that its public schools, along with other states and communities across the country, must identify and meet the needs of missing students this fall:

“In Michigan, more than 61,000 students didn’t enroll in public school between 2019-20 and 2020-21. That’s more students than make up Detroit Public Schools. And Michigan isn’t alone: Washington State saw enrollment declines of 55,000 students — more than students enrolled in Seattle Public Schools. Maine, Missouri and Vermont also have total enrollment drops greater than their largest school district. In seven other states, the size of the enrollment drop was only eclipsed by the largest school district.

The scale of disruption to children, families and school communities is massive. It’s also widely dispersed within each state, which can obscure the magnitude. Policymakers must respond to the staggering but disparate problem of enrollment declines.”

Will leaders act urgently to meet missing students’ needs, even as everyone is exhausted and just wants a return to normal?

Support local journalism by reading more from Alex Spurrier’s op-ed featured in The Detroit News here.

Opinion: K-12 Schools Should Focus Federal Recovery Funds on Equitable Initiatives to Support Students

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 includes $123 billion to K-12 education through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and $39 billion for higher education through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. 

Ahead of the upcoming 2021-22 school year, state and local education officials nationwide are beginning to spend funds on a wide range of programs in K-12 and postsecondary education. 

Bellwether’s Alex Spurrier argues that Louisville, Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public School system is making a $75 million mistake by using pandemic relief funds to give every permanent district employee a $5,000 bonus.

Every dollar spent on bonus payments to address a phantom teacher retention problem is a dollar that won’t go toward supporting the needs of the kids who attend JCPS schools — a mistake JCPS is making 75 million times over. Should JCPS’ limited education recovery funding really be used to further expand economic and racial inequality in our city?

A more targeted retention bonus program could have been modeled after successful efforts to retain effective educators in high-needs schools. Or it could have focused on specific positions for which vacancies are an issue, such as custodial and food service positions. Instead, most of this blanket windfall of cash will end up subsidizing a relatively affluent segment of our community that didn’t once have to worry about their next paycheck — something few families can relate to in a district where 66% of students are economically disadvantaged.”

Read more from Alex Spurrier’s recent Louisville Courier-Journal op-ed, here.

New Mexico and a Tale of School Accountability

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This guest post is in response to a new series of briefs from Bellwether, From Pandemic to Progress, which puts forth eight ambitious but achievable pathways that leaders and policymakers can follow to rebuild education – and student learning and well-being – as the country begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It seems that nowadays just the mention of school accountability elicits groans of frustration and hopelessness. For many working to improve education in our country, school accountability has been a critical tool, but one that — as Bonnie O’Keefe lays out in her recent brief,  “Redesigning Accountability has been fraught with implementation challenges and political toxicity. Equally as important as acknowledging the shortcomings of school accountability is highlighting stories of success. 

New Mexico, my home state, may not have a lot to brag about when it comes to education outcomes, but we do have a story that I think all advocates for school accountability can learn from. 

In late 2017, New Mexico became the first state in the country to assign schools under the Every Student Success Act’s new designations, including identifying schools as in need of “More Rigorous Intervention” (MRI). Identification of a state’s worst performing schools was not required by ESSA until 2021, but New Mexico recognized the urgency of school turnaround and acted immediately. Four elementary schools were identified for more rigorous intervention after earning five or six consecutive “F” letter grades in New Mexico’s school grading system. This meant that an elementary school student could have attended a failing school for their entire elementary school experience, beginning to end. 

Each school was provided four options: 

  1. Closure: Close the school and enroll the students who attended that school in other schools in the surrounding area that are higher performing. 
  2. Restart: Close the school and reopen it under a charter school operator that has been selected through a rigorous state or local authorizer review process. 
  3. Champion & Provide Choice: Champion a range of choices in an open system that focuses on new approaches to learning; one that keeps the individual student(s) at the center of accessing options that best support their learning path. 
  4. Significantly restructure and redesign the vision and systems at a school including extending instructional time, significantly changing staffing to include only educators earning highly effective ratings and above, state-selected curriculum approaches, and/or personalized learning models for all students. 

As predicted, each elementary school chose to redesign and restructure, which resulted in a months long back and forth between the Public Education Department and the administration of Albuquerque Public Schools, which oversaw three of the four schools identified. Ultimately, then Secretary of Public Education Christopher Ruszkowski held the line in demanding serious reforms to the schools including extended learning time and eventually the department and the district agreed on plans to redesign each school, unlocking approximately  $1 million of support for each school over the three-year MRI period. If a school did not improve over the three-year period, it faced closure from the state. 

Anyone reading the local paper or watching local news saw play out what advocates know all too well: the department was vilified for “labeling schools” and “threatening closure.” In fact, a lawsuit was filed to fight against the identification of one of the schools. But eventually, as time passed and the reforms were implemented with financial support from the department of education, something amazing happened – the schools improved! In fact, Hawthorne Elementary saw a 10.4 percentage point increase in their reading proficiency scores in a single year, which was the largest improvement in the district. 

I wish the story stopped here. This is the story we are all striving for, the story in which struggling schools are identified, given a timeline to implement rigorous changes, supported with funding and motivated by a sense of urgency, and ultimately improve learning outcomes for children before it’s too late. But that’s now how this story ends. 

In 2019, New Mexico’s newly elected Governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham took office and on day one, she decoupled student assessments from teacher evaluations and removed New Mexico from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARC) consortium. Soon after, the legislature enacted changes to New Mexico’s school accountability system, doing away with the A-F ratings and the Department of Education submitted an amendment to the state’s ESSA plan removing “MRI” designations from the four previously identified schools. 

This was a win, right? It was problematic to put such heavy pressure on perpetually underperforming schools and threaten closure, wasn’t it? 

While the move may have earned political favor, it brought with it disappointing news for the schools that were seeing results from their new plans–no MRI designation, no funding. Instead, the schools were re-identified as “Comprehensive Support Intervention,” which came with less financial support, thus leaving the district to self fund the continued programming that was bringing success and increased enrollment, to the schools targeted for turnaround. It was a political win that brought devastating financial consequences. 

In my opinion, a state’s education department has one primary responsibility: accountability. It is uncomfortable and fraught with political landmines but it is necessary and absolutely worth it. School accountability is challenging to execute well but it is necessary in the fight towards equity. Oftentimes the worst performing schools serve a state’s most vulnerable students and allowing them to flounder in schools with single-digit proficiencies for five or more years in a row, as was the case for New Mexico’s first MRI schools, is an abandonment of our moral responsibility to do right by our students. Our students deserve more.  

I hope that as each state grapples with school accountability in the years ahead, we recognize that while it is not easy, it is possible to implement school accountability systems grounded in equity, transparency and data -informed action to improve outcomes for students. We did it once in New Mexico and I hope we find the courage to do it again.

Amanda Aragon is the Executive Director of NewMexicoKidsCAN.