Category Archives: Education Innovation

Affordable Private Schools? There’s a Will — and a Way

Surveys show that 40% of Americans would like to send their children to a private school, yet only 10% actually do so. With an average tuition of $11,450, it’s no surprise that low- and middle-income families are unable to afford private schools.

Many schools try to be more affordable to families by subsidizing costs with public funds, such as vouchers or tax-credit scholarships, or by securing private donations and endowments to provide financial aid. While these revenue sources certainly help, they are limited.

Over the past several years, a number of private schools have come up with alternative and creative ways to fund their schools without passing the buck to parents. In a new report, we’ve profiled schools and networks such as Cristo Rey and Build UP that use work-study models to make private school education more affordable while also providing skills development and asset-building opportunities for students.

Cristo Rey Network

Founded in 1996, the Cristo Rey Network* has provided low-income students with a college preparatory education complemented by their Corporate Work Study Program experience. For five days a month, students complete a full day of work in a corporate environment such as a law firm, bank, or consulting firm, doing anything from general office work to translation services.

Partnerships with local businesses not only provide students with early exposure to important professional development skills, but also significantly subsidize tuition costs. Rather than paying students wages, students’ earnings go directly to the school to supplement tuition. Half of Cristo Rey Schools’ revenue comes from the Corporate Work Study Program, and families only have to pay a small tuition ranging from $1,000 to $2,500 depending on family income. Family contributions make up 10% of Cristo Rey’s revenues, and the remaining 40% comes from fundraising or publicly funded school choice programs.

Build UP

Build UP in Birmingham, AL provides low-income students with a high school and postsecondary education along with job skills and home ownership, while also contributing to the renewal of blighted communities. Over the course of six years, Build UP students earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree while renovating abandoned homes through paid apprenticeships. Splitting time between coursework in financial literacy, entrepreneurship, and justice-based leadership, students receive an educational stipend of $15 an hour, half of which goes toward their tuition. Families are only obligated to contribute $1,500 in tuition annually.

Graduates take over the deed of an owner-occupied home and a rental property, and can earn passive income as a landlord after they meet one of the following conditions: Begin a high-wage job with a salary of at least $40,000 annually, enroll in a four-year college degree program, or launch their own business. So far, Build UP — which launched in 2018 — has grown to serve 70 students and has plans to expand even more. By gaining workforce skills and a guaranteed pathway to home ownership, Build UP seeks to create a social and economic safety net for the students and communities it serves. Continue reading

Media: “Teachers Should Design Tests. But They Need to Learn How” in Education Week

I have a new piece out in Education Week that focuses on teacher-designed assessments. In it I argue that while teacher designed assessments can be more beneficial to student learning than commercially prepared assessments, teacher survey data suggests that most teachers don’t feel they have the appropriate skills to design high-quality assessments:

National teacher polling data suggest that I was not alone. A 2016 Gallup poll found that roughly 30 percent of teachers do not feel prepared to develop assessments. Less than 50 percent of teachers in low-income schools reported feeling “very prepared” to interpret assessment results, and less than 50 percent of teachers said they’d received training on how to talk with parents, fellow teachers, and students about assessment results. More alarming is that no state requires teachers to be certified in the basics of assessment development, so it’s likely that many teachers have never had any formal assessment training.

I highlight work underway in New Hampshire and Michigan to make significant investments in assessment literacy training for educators. More states should follow the lead of these exemplars and commit to equipping all educators with the tools to develop high-quality, rigorous assessments.

Read the full piece at Ed Week, and learn more about innovation in state assessment in “The State of Assessment: A Look Forward on Innovation in State Testing Systems,” a new report by my colleague Bonnie O’Keefe and me.

Media: “Better Ways To Measure Student Learning” in GOVERNING Magazine

I have a new piece out in GOVERNING Magazine discussing innovation in state assessments, and why local and state officials should invest in improving their assessment systems instead of cutting back. I highlight work underway in New Hampshire and Louisiana, which have both received waivers from the federal government to do something different with their tests. Just as the piece came out, Georgia and North Carolina got approval from the Department of Education for their own innovative assessment plans. But there’s a lot states can do even without special federal approval.

An excerpt of my op-ed:

“Test” has become a four-letter word in schools, as many states face political pressure to cut, minimize or deemphasize their much-maligned annual standardized assessments of student achievement. The most common complaints are that these tests do little to help teachers do their jobs well and can distract from more important aspects of teaching and learning.

But if standardized state tests aren’t useful in the classroom and aren’t informing instruction, that’s a problem that can be fixed even with current federal law mandating annual tests in math and reading. Instead of indiscriminately cutting back on statewide testing, states need to think about approaching them differently and look beyond typical end-of-year tests. Reducing investment to the barest minimum could leave students and schools worse off, without good information on achievement gaps, student growth, or college and career readiness.

Read the full piece at GOVERNING, and learn more about innovation in state assessment in “The State of Assessment: A Look Forward on Innovation in State Testing Systems,” by my colleague Brandon Lewis and me.

3 Things Head Start Programs Can Do Right Now to Improve Their Practice

Research tells us that, overall, Head Start has positive effects on children’s health, education, and economic outcomes. But there is wide variability in quality from program to program — and, as a field, we don’t understand why. 

Earlier this year, Sara Mead and I tried to figure that out. We published an analysis, conducted over three years, of several of the highest performing Head Start programs across the country. We specifically looked at programs that produce significant learning gains for children. Our goal was to understand what made them so effective.

As part of this project, we provided detailed, tactical information about exemplars’ design and practices. We hope to serve as a resource and starting point for other Head Start programs interested in experimenting with something new and, potentially, more effective.

Here are three action steps that Head Start programs can take right now to improve their practice:  Continue reading

What This Washington Post Opinion Piece Got Wrong on Charter Schools

Over the weekend, the Washington Post Outlook section ran a frustrating cover story on charter schools that offered a narrow and biased picture of the charter sector and perpetuated a number of misconceptions.

Jack Schneider’s “School’s out: Charters were supposed to save public education. Why are Americans turning against them?” argues that the charter sector as a whole isn’t living up to its promises, leading public support for the schools to shrink. Schneider is correct that the charter school hasn’t lived up to all of its most enthusiastic boosters’ promises, but his piece flatly misrepresents data about charter quality. For example, Schneider writes that “average charter performance is roughly equivalent to that of traditional public schools.” This is simply inaccurate, as my colleagues indicated in a recent analysis of charter data and research (slide 37 here). The full body of currently available, high-quality research finds that charters outperform traditional public schools on average, with especially positive effects for historically underserved student groups (a recent Post editorial acknowledged this as well).

slide from Bellwether's "State of the Charter Sector" resource, summarizing research on charter sector performance

To be clear, research also shows that charter performance varies widely across schools, cities, and states — and too many schools are low-performing. Yet Schneider cherry picks examples that illustrate low points in the sector. He cites Ohio, whose performance struggles — and the poorly designed policies that led to them — Bellwether has previously written about. He also (inexplicably, given where his piece ran) overlooks Washington, D.C., where charters not only significantly outperform comparable district-run schools, but have also helped spur improvement systemwide. Over the past decade, public schools in D.C. (including both charters and DC Public Schools, DCPS) have improved twice as fast as those in any other state in the country, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). DCPS was the nation’s fastest growing district in 4th grade math and among the fastest in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math. These gains can be partially attributed to the city’s changing demographics, but are also the result of reforms within DCPS — which the growth of charters created the political will to implement. Over the past decade, Washington, DC has also increased the number of high-performing charter schools while systematically slashing the number of students in the lowest-performing charter schools. When I served on the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board from 2009-2017, I had the chance to observe these exciting changes firsthand, so it was particularly disappointing to see a major feature in our city’s paper overlook them.

It’s frustrating that this biased and narrow picture drew prime real estate in one of the nation’s leading papers, because the charter sector does have real weaknesses and areas for improvement that would benefit from thoughtful dialogue. For example, as Schneider notes, transportation issues and lack of good information can prevent many families from accessing high-quality schools. In cities with high concentrations of charters, such as Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, there is a real need to better support parents in navigating what can feel like a very fragmented system. And despite progress in closing down low-performing charter schools, too many remain in operation. Schneider could have referenced the real work charter leaders are undertaking to address these lingering challenges (more on this in slide 112 of our deck).

Schneider is correct that public support for charters has waned in recent years, due in part to some of the challenges he references, but also because of orchestrated political opposition from established interests threatened by charter school growth. Given the increasingly polarized political environment around charter schools, the need for nuanced, balanced, and data-informed analysis and dialogue about them is greater than ever. Bellwether’s recent report on the state of the charter sector, and our past work on charter schools more broadly, seeks to provide that kind of analysis. Unfortunately, Schneider’s piece falls short on that score.