Category Archives: Education Governance

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.

Preparing for Dynamic Systems of Schools

While traditional school districts are characterized by a relatively unchanging stock of schools, performance-based systems with effective parental choice mechanisms and rigorous school oversight are defining the changes taking place in places like New Orleans, DC, and Denver. These systems have one unique common denominator: dynamism, a central concept in modern economics that explains how new, superior ideas replace obsolete ones to keep a sector competitive.

The process happens through the entry and exit of firms and the expansion and contraction of jobs in a given market. As low-performing firms cease to operate, their human, financial, and physical capital are reallocated to new entrants or expanding incumbents offering better services or products.

Too little dynamism and underperformers continue to provide subpar services and consume valuable resources that could be used by better organizations. Too much dynamism creates economic instability and discourages entrepreneurs from launching new ventures and investors from funding them.

Dynamism, however, rarely comes up in discussions about education policy despite a growing number of urban education systems closing chronically underperforming schools and opening new, high-potential schools as a mechanism for continuous systemic improvement.

New Orleans’ system of schools has operated in this reality since Hurricane Katrina. And others like Denver and DC are implementing their own versions of dynamic, performance-based systems. To illustrate, below is a graph of charter school dynamism in DC between 2007 and 2018.

But it’s a novel study on Newark’s schools that provide the field’s best research on a dynamic system in action. Continue reading