Category Archives: Education Governance

Straight Talk for City Leaders on Unified Enrollment: A Q&A with Shannon Fitzgerald

In many cities across the country, school application and enrollment processes are built like high-stakes obstacle courses, where families with the most time and resources at their disposal tend to come out on top. A unified enrollment system is one way that cities with broad school choice have tried to level the playing field, and make enrollment processes less burdensome and more equitable for families. In cities like D.C., Denver, and New Orleans that have unified enrollment systems, families submit a single application and rank the charter and district schools of their choice. Then each student is matched to a single school via an enrollment algorithm.

These systems can decrease inequities by making enrollment processes for families easier to accomplish and harder to “game,” maximizing students’ likelihood of getting into their top choice schools. Unified enrollment can also decrease budget instability for schools caused by unexpected enrollment changes in the beginning of the year. For city leaders, data from unified enrollment systems can reveal important lessons about family demand for specific schools or programs. But that does not mean there are no risks, speed bumps, or potential problems. There is a lot that has to happen behind the scenes to create an enrollment system that meets families’ needs and avoids unintended consequences.

Shannon Fitzgerald knows what it takes to implement a lasting unified enrollment system. She was one of the first in the country to do it as the Director of Choice and Enrollment for Denver Public Schools from 2008-2013. Now, as an enrollment systems consultant, she works with other cities and districts who are interested in reforming their enrollment systems. I talked with her recently about the lessons she’s learned along the way and her advice for city leaders.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you define a unified enrollment system? What differentiates unified enrollment from other enrollment approaches?

I think about enrollment systems as a spectrum. On one end, you have “wild west” systems. Nothing is coordinated: families have to go all over the place and apply to each school individually, and there are different deadlines. You have students enrolled in multiple schools — who knows where they will show up in September? On the other end, you have truly unified enrollment systems like Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans. They include all public schools in the city, district and charter; they have common tools, a common timeline, and a common application; and every student gets matched to a single school of their choice. In between those two ends of the spectrum are about 50,000 different variations.

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More, Better, Faster: Q&A with the Bellwether Team Behind Eight Cities

Last week, we released Eight Cities, a multimedia website designed to show current and future superintendents, school board members, and state education leaders that it’s possible to go beyond incremental academic improvement even in the largest or most politically charged environments.

The site is visually stunning, and takes a unique story-driven approach to covering education reform in places where leaders are getting more kids into better schools faster than other urban areas. The bulk of the writing and research was done by Bellwether’s own Lynne Graziano, Jason Weeby, and Tanya Paperny. Given the project’s unique approach, I chatted with them to share more about the process of creating Eight Cities.

What was the motivation behind doing this project, and why now?

Jason Weeby: Over the past two decades, multiple cities have been implementing similar strategies to improve their schools. CRPE calls it the “portfolio strategy,” David Osborne calls them “21st century school systems,” and the Texas Education Agency calls them “systems of great schools.” Whatever you call it, the various strategies have common beliefs and pillars, namely that schools should be the unit of change, they need certain freedoms to serve their students, and they should be held accountable for whether their students are learning.

In a lot of the cities where this has been put into practice, student achievement has increased and achievement gaps between low-income students and students of color and their wealthier, whiter counterparts are closing. This project aimed to verify the academic improvements and understand how the strategy evolved by talking to the people who were closest to it. Our goal is to share lessons with current and future superintendents and board members who are interested in the approach that these eight cities took.

You focus on eight big urban districts, all of which have had a flurry of controversy tangled up in their reform and modernization efforts. Why did you choose to explore these cities specifically?

Lynne Graziano: We looked for cities that had several components in place or in the works, things like universal enrollment, a variety of school types with some degree of choice for families, and/or a talent strategy for teachers and school leaders. We also selected cities where research identified strong student achievement gains during the years we studied. While most system leaders would tell you there is more work to be done, we wanted to share stories of dramatic gains made in communities where student gains were previously rare.

JW: Put simply, we were looking for cities that had implemented a citywide improvement strategy based on the beliefs and practices we laid out in our introduction and which have seen more than incremental gains.

This is a really fancy website. Why didn’t you just write a report? Continue reading

Can You Survive When the System Is “Rigged” Against You?

“Make good choices!” We’ve all said it, heard someone say it, or had someone say it to us. And when there’s a clear right and wrong or a better and worse option, making “good” choices can be decent advice. But for the millions of young people navigating tough life circumstances, too often these decisions aren’t so clear. There often isn’t a definitively “good” or “right” choice. So what then?

How do you choose between going to first-period science class and meeting with your court-ordered social worker? Or between meeting your probation officer and going to work your assigned shift? Or studying for that test and caring for your younger siblings? These choices are the reality for far too many young people today.

The more than five million young people who interact with social service agencies for any reason — homelessness, incarceration, foster care placement, etc. — are met with a barrage of adults who demand meetings, phone calls, appointments, and paperwork.

This myriad of adults, caseworkers, social workers, teachers, probation officers, mentors, therapists, judges, and lawyers are all working on behalf of an individual child simultaneously, but likely without coordination. A child’s social worker may not know that the appointment she just rescheduled conflicts with an existing therapy appointment. But the child does, and now must make the choice between seeing his social worker or his therapist.

As the system currently exists, we expect youth to simply figure it out: to hold steady jobs and manage their responsibilities, their relationships, and their health, all while staying focused on graduating from high school.

Can you make good choices that lead you to graduation? Find out in our new game, Rigged, which lets you step into the shoes of a 17-year-old high school student navigating these very demands.

Want to learn more about our work on social service agency coordination? Check out our issue page.

We Don’t Know What the Superintendency Looks Like, and That’s a Problem.

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

We’ve talked a lot this week about the teacher pipeline. My colleagues have dug into issues like innate inequities in teacher hiring and the retention of high-performing teachers. There’s absolutely work to be done to ensure districts recruit, train, and retain high-quality educators, and we’re able to ground these efforts in demographic data, with insight into teacher and principal demographics from the Department of Education’s National Center on Education Statistics’ Schools and Staffing Survey. As we make efforts to diversify and expand our teacher pipeline, it’s valuable to know what our current teacher workforce looks like, especially on a state-by-state level.

First graders answer questions for a project about bees. Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

What we don’t have though, is reliable, state-level data on school superintendent demographics. While we look to improve teacher pipelines, we should not ignore leadership pipelines. And if we don’t know what our existing superintendent pool looks like, it can be challenging to determine how or even if that network could be expanded.

The American Association of School Administrators prints an annual Salary and Benefits Study, which includes survey data capturing school leader demographics. Unfortunately, the survey’s 15 percent response rate prevents it from being truly representative. While we can make broad estimates about the country’s 13,674 districts and their respective leaders based on national figures, there is not, to my knowledge, a publicly available data set of state-level superintendent demographics across race and gender. Anyone know of such a set? I’d love to talk: kirsten.schmitz@bellwethereducation.org.

These roles are powerful, and representation matters. If we can’t analyze broad trends in school leadership at the state level, we miss opportunities to highlight states with diverse administrators, as well as those which may benefit from targeted outreach and recommendations. The same questions we ask about educator diversity — like “is our teacher workforce representative of our student population?” — can be applied to superintendents. We could further answer equity questions around wage gaps, mentoring, and access to leadership opportunities. And finally, as several of the nation’s largest school districts scramble to appoint new superintendents from a finite applicant pool, this field landscaping work becomes especially valuable.

We can and should work to improve our teacher pipeline. But we should also strive to know more about our school leaders. Knowing where we stand is the baseline first step, and it shouldn’t be this challenging to get there.

What High School Applications and Acceptance Offers Tell Us About Chicago’s System of Schools

Before digging into the research on Chicago’s education system and talking to many of the city’s leaders for a current project at Bellwether, I categorized the district as largely traditional with a decent sized charter sector. What I learned was that Chicago has more school types and school choice than I realized, especially at the high school level. It turns out that while most of the headlines regarding the district have been about scandals and violence, a lot of people have been focused on making sure more kids go to better schools faster.

That fact was reinforced when I looked at a recent report from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research on the first round of applications and offers from Chicago’s brand new high school unified enrollment system. Neerav Kingsland provides a good take on the results. I just want to reiterate one point and add a few more observations.

Screenshot of GoCPS

Screenshot via https://go.cps.edu/

Neerav points out that Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) school information and application website GoCPS is easy to use. I can’t reiterate that enough. It’s insanely intuitive and informative. When I was making school choice decisions for my son in San Francisco earlier this year, I had to toggle between Google Maps, a PDF with school information from the district, and school performance information that I collected and analyzed myself. GoCPS has a map-based interface that provides the all information parents need, and it would have given me everything in one place. Why don’t more cities with school choice have a similar platform?

On a different note, the Consortium report notes that CPS has approximately 13,000 surplus seats in the district, an oversupply in other words, which might lead to more school closures and mergers. In addition to creating easier and more equitable enrollment processes for a district, unified enrollment systems provide detailed information about parent demand (and lack thereof). School closures have been painful for CPS in the past. The unified enrollment system now gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson more information to make changes that reflect the preferences of the district’s families and, hopefully, make difficult decisions a bit easier.

Neerav also points out that families rarely rank the lowest performing schools as a first choice — a fact he interprets as families making choices based on school performance. I agree but I see something troubling in the same graph:

Students' Top-Ranked Program by School's SQRP Rating

https://consortium.uchicago.edu/publications/gocps-first-look-applications-and-offers

Low-income students, low-performing students, English Language Learners, students with special needs, and African American students ranked the top-performing schools lower than other subgroups. The Consortium researchers made the same observation and call for more research. I agree. It’ll be important to know whether this difference is because of inadequate communication about school choices or quality, parents preferencing lower rated schools closer to home, or some other reason altogether. (The question is ripe for human-centered investigation.) The answer will help system administrators decide how to allocate scarce resources.

I can’t say this enough: the University of Chicago’s Consortium for School Research is a remarkable institution providing high-quality, actionable, relevant, and timely research for Chicago’s education leaders to use while making high-stakes strategic decisions. Every big city should have a similar outfit.