Category Archives: Education Innovation

Bellwether Recognized For Core Value of Synergy as Key Partner in $20 Million Grant

Collaborating across teams sounds simple, but it’s not easy, and it has even been described as “dangerous.” 

When organizations and individuals join forces with those outside their immediate circles, they do so to reach common goals, recognizing that their combined efforts, if synergistic, can create greater impact than their separate ones. But because human beings, and the groups with which we affiliate, bring our cultures, jargon, preferred solutions, and power dynamics to collaboration, synergy is not inevitable — or easy. It requires deliberate effort, a willingness to work outside of one’s typical patterns, and a desire to meld together the best of various disciplines to provide holistic solutions for complex problems. 

Synergy matters because education is complex: its problems are not one-dimensional, so its solutions can’t be either. 

Entering our tenth year as a nonprofit, Bellwether has long harnessed our organizational superpower of synergy — and in fact it’s one of our core values. We intentionally bring together people with different specialties, work experiences, identities, political affiliations, and approaches to advance a shared mission of dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved students. Some of my colleagues are former teachers who think through the lens of facilitation and skill-building when working with adults. Some, like myself, come from the background of evaluation, and reference the scientific method when we approach problems. Others have a business or consulting background and think about making organizations more effective and joyful places to work. Still others within Bellwether think about the policy contexts in which these organizations operate. 

This approach is getting some recognition. In late September, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a five-year grant worth $20 million to a collaborative partnership involving Bellwether Education Partners, Westat (the lead grantee), RMC Research, and Academic Development Institute to support a National Comprehensive Center (“National Center”) aimed at improving educational outcomes for all students, closing achievement gaps, and enhancing the quality of instruction. Through this work, we’ll get to take synergy to the next level by leveraging skill sets within our team and across these partnering organizations. 

Some context: Since 2002, regionally based comprehensive centers (RCCs) have been quietly providing capacity-building services to education agencies across all 50 states and territories. Funded by the Department of Education, RCCs are intentionally focused on the specific needs of the state and local education agencies they serve, which can vary based on local priorities, policies, and student populations. 

Until now, the benefits and lessons from this targeted support have remained largely within the states and regions being served. The Comprehensive Centers have done important work, but they have lacked the synergy superpower. Continue reading

The Innovations That Charter Schools Were Supposed to Spur Are Finally Taking Root

Remember way back when charter schools were new and people thought that their innovations — and lessons from those innovations — would transfer to traditional districts, and all schools would improve? Then for the next two decades, nothing even remotely like that seemed to happen?

Today, policies in several states allow for autonomous districts schools, inspired, in part, by charter schools. Sometimes called “in-district charters,” these new models allow districts to use some of the same freedoms that public charter schools enjoy while remaining part of the district and receiving a range of district services. Autonomous district schools are cropping up all over the country, including Springfield, MA; Indianapolis, IN; Denver, CO; San Antonio, TX; and Los Angeles, CA — you can learn more about them in our new resource released last week.

Map of districts around the country experimenting with autonomous district schools, sometimes called "in-district charters"

A recent report by PPI suggests that when autonomous district schools benefit from enough autonomy, they can outperform traditional public schools. Although this report shows that autonomous district schools in the regions studied do not perform as well as charters, early evidence indicates that these types of schools can be a promising strategy for improving student outcomes.

Why are these schools gaining traction in such diverse geographies? Through autonomous schools, districts can:

  • Utilize the same freedoms that charters have enjoyed to enable educators to innovate and make decisions that better serve the diverse needs of students and families;
  • Bring programmatic decision-making closer to schools; 
  • Retain students and families who might otherwise enroll in charter schools (thereby keeping enrollment and financial resources inside the district);
  • Unleash the creative potential of the large pool of diverse leaders within districts; and
  • Expand the reach of talented leaders to more students and retain these leaders in the district.

Tresha Ward, Lina Bankert, and I spent much of the last two years supporting the design and launch of autonomous district schools across the state of Texas, in Denver, and in St. Louis. Based on what we’ve seen, we are excited about the potential of these types of schools to improve outcomes for students. But we also know that doing this work well is difficult: it requires significant skill-building and support for district principals and strong and unwavering support from district leadership and school boards. 

We see five key contributors to the success or failure of these initiatives that we will explore in a series of blog posts over the next couple of months:

Continue reading

Media: “Four lessons I learned from California’s Hollister prep on closing learning gaps” in EdSource

Earlier this year, I got to visit to Hollister Prep, a public charter school in  California which serves a racially and socioeconomically diverse student population and achieves remarkable results, partly through its use of data-driven instruction. You can read about the lessons from my visit in an op-ed published this week in EdSource:

Many schools collect and track data, but too often, there’s a lag between data collection and reporting — or teachers simply don’t know how to use data. At Hollister Prep, data collection and analysis are constant, ongoing, and used to drive near-term instructional decisions.

I watched students complete personalized math lessons via fun online curriculum that included a cute jumping frog. But this rigorous program also provided teachers robust, real-time data (versus the quarterly benchmark reports or laborious exit tickets other teachers might rely on).

The data told teachers what types of problems a student encountered in the session and what scaffolds and supports he needed. Another teacher tracked students’ mastery of the multiplication lesson of the day to know who needed re-teaching during the intervention block.

The full op-ed is available here. You can also the report that my colleagues Gwen Baker and Amy Chen Kulesa and I released last month, “Unfinished: Insights From Ongoing Work to Accelerate Outcomes for Students With Learning Gaps,” which synthesizes research on the science of learning to inform efforts to help students close gaps and meet grade-level expectations.

Stop Pitting Personalized Learning Against Academic Rigor: We Need Both

TNTP recently found that in 40% of classrooms serving a majority of students of color, students never received a single grade-level assignment. How can education accelerate learning if grade-appropriate assignments aren’t even being made available?

For several years, education innovators have debated which approach to take in response to this problem: technology-driven learning designed to meet students where they are — or whole-course curriculum that assumes students are already performing at grade-level. To put it more simply: personalized learning versus academic rigor. 

But instead of debating these innovations and their efficacy, the educational equity movement should advance a collective effort to meaningfully lead to equitable outcomes for Black, Latino, and Native students, and students affected by poverty. The reality is that any solution to address learning gaps will require a concerted combination of efforts, not siloed approaches.

Last spring, a team at Bellwether Education Partners deeply researched the shifts that need to occur in the field so that students with significant learning gaps access educational systems, schools, and classrooms that enable rigorous, differentiated learning. 

And in a new resource I co-authored with Lauren Schwartze and Amy Chen Kulesa, we show that there is no silver bullet. It will take time, energy, focus, innovation, and collaborative efforts across the sector that involve: Continue reading

Three Lessons From Our New Briefs on School Transportation and Safety, Choice, and the Environment

Safe, reliable, and equitable school transportation is essential for a strong education system. But too often transportation is sidelined in education policy discussions.

yellow sign reading "SCHOOL BUS STOP AHEAD"

This is a major oversight. Here’s why:

  1. Strong school transportation systems are absolutely essential for equitable access to schools. The average distance between students and schools has grown since the days of walking uphill both ways to school, and we know that low-income families are less likely to have access to a car or the scheduling flexibility to accompany students to and from school every day. Without safe, reliable school transportation solutions — whether that’s the bus, walking, biking, public transit, or something else — low-income students are more likely to be absent or late from school, spend more time on school commutes, or be put in unsafe situations.
  2. Building strong school transportation systems will require new kinds of collaboration that go outside of schools’ typical partners. For example, the success of electric school bus pilots so far has depended on extensive collaboration among willing schools and districts, bus vendors, transportation operators, and public utilities. And for safe walking and biking routes to school to thrive, infrastructure investments from local leaders and public works agencies are essential. Forging these new partnerships will extend school transportation opportunities, but might also add more to schools’ plates.
  3. New technologies and methods, like alternatively fueled buses and data-driven methods for mapping school commutes, show a great deal of potential. However, some of the most effective solutions are also costly, and the resources available for school transportation in many states and communities are simply insufficient to bring promising innovations to scale without compromising on educational essentials. Ultimately, substantial, focused investment will be necessary to bring about real innovations in the world of school transportation.

This week, Bellwether releases three new policy briefs to make sure school transportation gets the attention it deserves in wider education policy conversations: Continue reading