Category Archives: Education Innovation

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.

Media: “Everyone’s job but no one’s responsibility” in The Hechinger Report

Some of our country’s most vulnerable students get too little from too many people. Read more from me and Kelly Robson over at The Hechinger Report:

Approximately five million students who are served by public care agencies have multiple official adults in their lives — judges, lawyers, therapists, volunteers, teachers, counselors, case managers, social workers and more — people paid to support them when they experience significant life circumstances like homelessness, foster care or incarceration.

That five million does not include those students who experience instability resulting from uncounted experiences like evictions, parental arrests, prolonged family medical crises, migrant work and other major life disruptions. These are generally not students who are “falling through the cracks” and being served by no one. Quite the opposite — they are instead being served by everyone.

Bellwether is currently partnering with California’s El Dorado County to address education fragmentation. Our Hechinger piece is a great story about the folks we’ve been working with and the impact this work can have. For more context, check out our recent report: “Continuity Counts: Coordinated Education Systems for Students in Transition.”

Announcing a New Series of Bellwether Ventures

Here at Bellwether, we’re all about innovative, provocative, and forward-looking ideas to address different aspects of the education world. One area we’ve always cared about is ensuring healthy food for kids — our 16 for 2016 collection included pieces on local, quality food for school lunches, for example.

Now we’ve taken it a step further. After incubating a series of entrepreneurs-in-residence, today we’re happy to announce a new line of service offerings: Bellwether cafes. Continue reading

Why This School Founder Symbolizes the Best of the Eight Cities Project

via @StokesSchool on Twitter

Last month I saw a tweet that Ms. Linda Moore’s famous Kindergarten tea parties had resumed at the Elsie Whitlow Stokes School Brookland* campus. In an instant I was transported back to our interview with Moore, who founded and named the school after her mother. We captured her voice in our Eight Cities project.  To be honest, I felt a little left out that I didn’t get to attend either her school or one of her tea parties. In all the cities we visited to research stories of dramatic educational gains, we interviewed many inspirational school leaders and educators, but Moore was one of my favorites. Leaders like her are the foundation that enables change — after all, systemic reform means nothing if kids don’t have a good school to attend.

On an almost-balmy March day last year, my colleague Tanya Paperny and I climbed the daunting hill leading to the Stokes Brookland campus. It is a modern, high-ceilinged former seminary housing over 300 pre-Kindergarten to fifth grade students. We both broke a sweat by the time we entered a small conference room, yet it was nothing compared to the warmth we felt when Moore (known to her students as Ms. Moore) entered the room.

Our conversation was less an interview, and more a travelogue of the journey she embarked on two decades ago, when she made the decision to start a dual-language school for students in her D.C. neighborhood. Moore recognized that “having schools that were founded by local people makes a difference to the people in our city.” Indeed, part of Washington D.C.’s secret sauce is the large percentage of charter schools opened by local residents, a contrast from cities like Camden, where transformation came with help from national charter networks. Moore’s idea to teach students in either French and English or Spanish and English seemed almost crazy at the time; thankfully, she persevered.

While our eightcities.org site is named for the places we profiled and their ability to get more students into better schools faster, it is really about the people who believe every child can learn and succeed. (We hope our site’s use of original photo portraiture made this obvious.) I got to meet people like Jamar McKneely in New Orleans, Chief Executive Officer at InspireNOLA charter schools. While two of their schools are “A” rated, McKneely pledges that they “will not stop until all our schools have reached their highest potential.” In Denver, Allegra “Happy” Haynes inspired us with her career-long commitment to the city and its students. Early in her Denver Public Schools career, she was tasked with telling parents how the system was failing them and their kids. Today, as the district continues to improve, Haynes believes a key lever was empowering “schools to be the real unit of change.” Supporting and improving school leadership is central to driving student achievement gains. Continue reading

Ten Lessons from Eight Cities

Over a year ago, I began an ambitious project to tell the stories of cities that implemented citywide school improvement strategies and saw student achievement increase — and to share these stories as lessons for other system leaders. The result was Eight Cities, a beautiful and information-rich website that does just that. It was a rare project that put my team in the fortunate position of listening to some of the brightest, most committed, and humble education professionals in the country. It’s difficult not to learn a lot under such circumstances.

Legacy Charter school building in Chicago with students and crossing guard outside

Legacy Charter School in Chicago. Photo credit: Alexander Drecun.

While each one of our eight stories provides a deep dive into different cities, there were a lot of macro lessons that emerged. Here are ten that I think are particularly salient for state leaders, mayors, superintendents, board members, charter leaders, and funders interested in exploring a similar approach:

1. Language matters. One of our first challenges was choosing a term that simultaneously described a complex citywide education reform strategy with many local nuances without creating a target for people who wanted to reduce it to a single word. What should we call these systems of public schools which shared central beliefs and strategic pillars and saw schools as the unit of change? These were widely referred to as “portfolio districts” until 2017, when the term was weaponized by opponents who took issue with the approach. The Texas Education Agency has adopted the term “Systems of Great Schools.” While I occasionally use “portfolio” as shorthand, I prefer the term “dynamic systems of schools” because it describes the core mechanism of systemic improvement: high-performing or high-potential schools replacing schools that have failed generations of students. But this phrase hasn’t caught on. After much discussion, the Eight Cities team decided to avoid labels and simply tell the stories we encountered. Whatever term is used, the reality is that language matters in rhetorical and political battles but rarely in the day-to-day work of students and parents.

2. There’s no one best way to implement a dynamic system of public schools. Washington D.C. and Newark have dual public education systems comprised of traditional district schools and charter schools, yet D.C. is under mayoral control and Newark was under state control but is now governed by an elected school board. Camden has 15,000 students and a neighborhood charter takeover model with relaxed accountability. New York City has 1.1 million students and moved quickly to give autonomy to all its schools and hold them accountable, while phasing out large failing high schools to make room for new small schools of choice. Denver Public Schools saw consistent leadership from an elected school board and single superintendent for a decade. Continue reading