Category Archives: COVID-19

Lessons for Policymakers from Frustrated Parents

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

As another challenging school year winds down, parents are starting to reflect on what worked well for their child, what didn’t work well, and what their child needs to succeed in the school year ahead. Nationwide polling of parents indicates that while many parents say they’re generally satisfied with their children’s school, most are also concerned about their children’s academic progress and emotional well-being. Polling helps build an understanding of important parts of this story, but more detailed, nuanced information is needed to answer deeper questions about why parents are concerned and how they would like education leaders and/or policymakers to respond.  

In New Solutions for Frustrated Parents: How Education Leaders Can Help, we’re joined by Juliet Squire and Andy Rotherham in an examination of data from online parent journals conducted by Benenson Strategy Group earlier this year with 35 parents from across the country who expressed some frustration with their children’s experience with schooling during the pandemic. While we caution against over-interpreting the lessons from such a small sample size, it does provide key insights into how parents think about their children’s education and what they want moving forward. 

Parents’ open-ended responses in the online journals provide more visibility into the specific pain points they encounter in K-12 schooling. For instance, parents identified challenges around a lack of communication from their child’s school or a lack of personalized education. The journals also provide insight into why parents may be hesitant to change their child’s educational setting, even though they have frustrations with their child’s current school. Parents expressed concerns about the many uncertainties involved in switching schools as well as identified barriers to making those changes such as cost or transportation.  

These insights should help policymakers and education leaders shape policy to respond to the needs of parents in this moment. Our report offers several recommendations:  

  • Work with parents to better understand their needs: Policymakers and education leaders must increase efforts to reach out to families to better understand their needs.  
  • Increase the number of educational options available to families: Policymakers should provide families with educational options both during and beyond the regular school day. These options, in addition to school choice, should include more flexible and supplemental learning options like after-school programs, tutoring, and summer activities.  
  • Inform families about educational options that could meet their child’s needs: Policymakers and advocates should redouble their efforts to provide families with clear, reliable information to better inform their education decision-making. 
  • Reduce barriers to access: Policymakers should work with parents to identify barriers to educational opportunities in their communities and tailor solutions to mitigate or eliminate them. 

Policymakers don’t have to start this work from square one — our report identifies organizations that are already making progress on these fronts. This includes A for Arizona’s work to reduce transportation barriers and National Parents Union’s work to amplify parent voices.   

By listening to, elevating, and supporting the priorities and needs of parents, policymakers and education leaders can ensure that kids across this country are able to get what they need to succeed in the upcoming school year and beyond.  

Understanding Parents Requires More Than a Single Poll Result

In statistics, it’s often said that “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” When it comes to polling parents on K-12 schooling, it’s similarly true that while no single result may be “right” it can be useful –– particularly when considered in the context of other polls. 

It’s always important to consider how new polling data points fit into longer-term trends –– something that’s exceptionally true in public opinion research. Bellwether’s new Parent Perception Barometer aggregates national polling data to provide a more nuanced perspective on parents’ complex opinions. It’s also a tool to mitigate against the temptation to put too much emphasis on the most recent poll.

A recent NPR/Ipsos survey about parents’ thoughts on schools provides an excellent reminder of why context matters when considering the results of new polls. This particular survey asked parents how much they agree with the following statement: “My child has fallen behind in school due to the pandemic.” Thirty-two percent of parents agreed with the statement. 

By just looking at this isolated data point, we may infer that two-thirds of parents don’t think the pandemic has negatively impacted their child’s academic progress. But examining this data in the context of other polls changes its interpretation. 

Recent polls tracked in the Parent Perception Barometer consistently indicate that a majority of parents have been concerned about their child’s academic progress throughout the pandemic. As of March 2022, data from National Parents Union/Echelon showed 66% of parents worry “a lot” or “some” about their child staying on track in school.

Data visualization courtesy of Bellwether’s Parent Perception Barometer.

Using the barometer, we can more easily identify key differences in the phrasing of the NPR/Ipsos poll that help inform how we interpret the its data, along with the results of other polls:

  • Wording matters. A key distinction between the NPR/Ipsos poll and others is the difference between a parents’ “perception of” their child’s academic performance (NPR/Ipsos) and parents’ “general worry or concern about” their child’s academic performance (National Parents Union/Echelon). There are multiple explanations why these two constructs may produce different results. A parent could be concerned about their child’s academic progress while also believing that their child isn’t falling behind. Cognitive biases may also limit parents’ willingness to tell a pollster that their child has fallen behind in school. Examining the nuances in survey item phrasing can help tease out when different polls are testing similar –– or in this case, different –– phenomena.
  • Reference points are important. Survey questions often ask about abstract concepts. For example, asking parents if their children have “fallen behind” or “are off track,” may mean different things to different parents. Should “falling behind” in school be interpreted as a comparison to others in their peer group, to the state’s academic standards, or to where the child would have been academically absent a pandemic? Some polls try to define the reference point by asking “compared to a typical school year” or “ready for the next grade,” but others (like the NPR/Ipsos poll) leave more room for interpretation by respondents, which can muddle results.
  • The timing of surveys can influence responses. In addition to what is asked in a survey, when the survey is administered can influence results. In the chart above, there’s a noticeable trend where parents report less concern about their child’s academic progress during the summer, only for those concerns to rebound during the academic year. A USC poll asked parents about how “concerned” or “unconcerned” they are with the amount their child learned this year compared to a typical school year. In a survey administered in April through May 2021, 64% of parents reported being concerned, compared to only 50% in June through July 2021. National Parents Union/Echelon polls illustrate similar declines over the summer in parent worry. This is less relevant for the NPR/Ipsos poll, but is worth considering as new data are released.

Given these considerations, which poll is “right”? The truth is, absent obvious flaws in the survey design — like biased phrasing or leading questions — most polls provide some useful information. When polls ask slightly different questions on a given topic, understanding the relationships between item phrasing and response data can help analysts derive more robust insights. 

Differing results among polls aren’t a flaw, but a feature. Tools like the Parent Perception Barometer separate the signal from the noise in assessing what parents actually think about K-12 schooling.

Expand Supplemental Learning Options with the Filling the Gap Fund

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages.

Bellwether Education Partners, in partnership with the Walton Family Foundation, is excited to announce the Filling the Gap Fund. This new grant opportunity is designed to help families and students leverage public policy to find and engage in supplemental learning opportunities.  

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to expand how families and students think about education. The pandemic disrupted students’ learning experiences, often with enormous consequences for those furthest from opportunity. But it also disrupted the long-held belief that education only happens between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. within the walls of a school building. Faced with immense challenges since March 2020, families and educators created innovative, flexible approaches to supplemental learning designed to address the impact of the pandemic on students. 

Policymakers have taken notice of family and student interest in supplemental learning options. Across the country, state leaders are creating policies to help families access supplemental learning opportunities. These policies — from part-time enrollment to parent-directed education spending — enable families and students to access a wide range of supplemental educational options that best meet their needs. 

The problem, however, is that these policies are often underused or don’t reach students furthest from opportunity. The grants made through our request for information (RFI) will seek to fill this gap. 

We encourage public schools, tribal schools, school systems (e.g., school districts or charter networks), and nonprofit organizations to apply through a request for information (RFI) if:  

  • Your organization has a new or early-stage idea about how to provide families with information and support that will help them leverage public policies and access supplemental learning options. 
  • Your organization is well-positioned to support families and students furthest from opportunity.  

Excited? We are, too. There are several ways to be a part of this work! 

1. Learn more.  

You can learn more about this opportunity by reading the full RFI. You can also join our mailing list to stay in the loop about deadlines, frequently asked questions, and our applicant webinar, which will take place in mid-May. 

2. Apply! 

Responses to the RFI are due no later than 11:59 p.m. PDT Monday, June 6, 2022, after which Bellwether will invite select organizations to submit proposals for funding. Grants will range from $50,000 to $300,000, depending on the opportunity for impact and the maturity of the project. 

We’re interested in learning about new or early-stage ideas for providing families with the information, resources, and support they need to leverage public policies and access supplemental learning options. We particularly encourage applications from organizations who are well-positioned to support families and students furthest from opportunity. 

3. Share this opportunity with others. 

Share the Filling the Gap RFI with schools and organizations who you think might be a good fit. Be sure to let them know that in addition to broad exposure and recognition for their work, grantees will participate in a cohort in which they’ll learn from one another, receive support from experts, researchers, and other partners, and plan for sustainability and scale. 

Questions? Reach out via proposals@bellwethereducation.org. Don’t miss this opportunity! 

Tracking Parents’ Complex Perspectives on K-12 Education

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Every policy wonk loves a good poll, and education policy wonks are no exception. Polls give added depth and dimension to an array of current (and shifting) public opinions, attitudes, and needs. But too often, wonks tend to over-index on the latest, flashiest data point as new polls are released — making it difficult to examine the broader context of other polls analyzing similar data points, or to contextualize prior administrations of the same poll.

The recency bias associated with new polling data is a persistent problem in fully understanding how parents think about K-12 education across the country. Contrary to media-driven hype, parents have diverse viewpoints that don’t fit broad narratives offered by pundits. Just as children and circumstances change over time, so do parents’ opinions on what their child needs. And to say that the COVID-19 pandemic brought change to parents and to their children’s educational needs is an understatement — one that underscores the need for a deeper examination of how parents’ views on K-12 education have (or haven’t) changed since March 2020.

Alex Spurrier, Juliet Squire, Andy Rotherham, and I launched the Parent Perception Barometer to help advocates, policymakers, and journalists navigate the nuance of parents’ opinion about K-12 education. The interactive barometer aggregates nationwide polling and other data on parents’ stated and revealed preferences regarding their children’s education. The first wave of polling data indicates that parents are largely satisfied with their child’s education and school, but many have specific concerns about their child’s academic progress as well as their mental health and well-being. As parent opinions aren’t static, the barometer will be updated on a regular basis with the release of new polling data.

There are multiple benefits of aggregating this polling data in the barometer: 

  • First, it allows us to examine emerging or persistent trends in the data. Looking at the same question asked over multiple time periods as well as similar questions asked from different polls separates signal from noise. 
  • Second, it shapes a holistic consideration of a body of relevant data, tempering the pull of recency bias that comes with each new poll’s release. 
  • Third, by analyzing similar poll questions, we identify data points that may be outliers. For instance, if three polls asking a similar question all indicate that parents strongly favor a particular policy, and a fourth poll indicates otherwise, we may look more closely at that poll’s language wording and be more cautious about the types of statements or conclusions we make.

The Parent Perception Barometer provides several ways to support a comprehensive analysis of parents’ perceptions. For those most interested in exploring data on a single topic across multiple sources, the Data Visualization tab provides a high-level summary of recent trends in parents’ stated and revealed preferences. For those looking for more technical background on the polls and data, information about specific polling questions, possible responses, and administration dates can be found within the Additional Detail tab. The barometer also allows users to view and download underlying source data. 

The Parent Perception Barometer is a valuable resource to ground policy and advocacy conversations in a nuanced, contextual understanding of parents’ opinions — bringing clarity and context to the K-12 education debate.

We are still failing to support our most vulnerable students

In October 2020, Bellwether Education Partners’ estimate that as many as 3 million students were missing in the margins and were receiving no formal education at all became a national shorthand about the severity of the pandemic for America’s young people. More than one year later, and with the direct and indirect consequences of the pandemic wreaking havoc, we still don’t know how many of our most vulnerable students are missing from K-12 schools

Our recent analysis estimates that there are 1.3 million fewer students nationwide enrolled in public pre-K through 12 schools between 2018-19 and 2020-21. This decline doesn’t include kids enrolled but not attending regularly or engaged in learning, which data from school districts suggest is a significant issue.  

As we pass the two-year mark in this pandemic, a lack of accurate, shareable, and even knowable data on where young people are highlights an even more fundamental issue: The design of systems meant to support young people is failing them.

For example, we know that one in 500 U.S. children lost a caregiver due to COVID-19. This kind of deep loss will change a young person’s life trajectory. Our communities aren’t ready to support them or their peers who have experienced other significant losses and disruptions.

In most places, schools, foster care agencies, juvenile justice systems, and other organizations were never designed to look across the totality of a young person’s life to understand and meet their needs — and that problem is more visible now than ever. Snap impressions, red tape, and confusion abound. 

Young people experiencing disruptions (such as homelessness, being placed in foster care, involvement with the juvenile justice system, an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, or the loss of a caregiver) must navigate a byzantine network of ever-changing adults to get the services they need. They are left to keep track of their own paperwork, follow up with adults, and retell their most painful stories. Missteps navigating these systems can lead to suspension or expulsion from school, incarceration, job loss, or all of the above. 

While adults working in these systems often fail to communicate or collaborate, they are also frustrated by not having enough information or resources. Staff turnover is high and caseloads are unmanageable. Resources are scarce. Patchworked attempts at improvement within one agency or one organization yield marginal results for young people.

Ultimately, poorly designed or implemented systems leave lasting effects on young people, including challenges to finishing high school or college, shortchanging their ability to live a healthy, happy, and gratifying life — all at great cost to communities. 

These are big, but solvable problems. And they start with better practices, policies, and resource allocations.

In practice, communities can start by listening to young people to better understand their unmet needs in order to remove the barriers to delivering programs and services. At best, decision-makers merely go through the motions of asking young people about their experiences and perspectives. Yet the young people who are still struggling to thrive are the only experts in how the pandemic has affected them holistically: their schooling, mental health, economic futures, housing status, and more. 

In-person schooling this year is a big step in the right direction when COVID-19 safety protocols are followed and new variants don’t pose an additional public health risk. But students need more than the standard learning time. 

Prioritizing more time for all kinds of learning for marginalized student populations, such as support outside of the traditional school day and school year, is a start. More evening and weekend instructional time with a teacher or well-trained tutor would allow students to get needed time to build knowledge and skills. In addition to one-on-one time, small, cohort-based acceleration academies could allow students to focus on targeted skill gaps during holidays, summer breaks, and weekends. 

A school, however, is only part of the solution to missed learning time. Schools can build structured partnerships with communities and families, collaboratively setting goals for students, bringing a sense of urgency and ownership for every adult in a child’s life. In these spaces, schools can also become supporting partners for the delivery of other services, helping to knit together the threads of care surrounding their most vulnerable students. 

Policy should follow practice and remove barriers to learning. In addition, a focus on data transparency could better enable schools and stakeholders to understand where students missing in the margins are in real time: across enrollment in school at all, daily attendance, and engagement in learning. Our data systems were not working well before the pandemic and they clearly no longer serve our needs; students were always lost in the system, but now the problem is too big to ignore. 

These kinds of systemic practice and policy changes require better long-term resource allocations. Federal stimulus funding is a huge, but temporary, start. A more sustainable funding model can be designed on a collaborative foundation of partnerships with community-based organizations, expanding the current capacity for support. For example, a homeless-services organization might be well positioned to identify families (or unaccompanied youth) who need education support but don’t know how to get connected with the programs that meet their needs.

As we come to the close of yet another school year amid the pandemic, even more young people are in crisis and support from adults is even more strained. But communities can use this moment to build a coherent system with processes and policies designed around what young people actually need. The question is, how will we prioritize doing that hard work?