Category Archives: Education Policy

State ESSA Plans Are in the Eye of the (Viewpoint) Holder

There has been a lot of discussion of state ESSA plans since the remaining 34 states submitted their plans earlier this fall, with various efforts assessing state plans against a set of common metrics. We wonks can go back and forth all day niggling on the metrics and indicators in each analysis (did it place enough emphasis on student subgroup performance, or on state’s long-term goals for growth and proficiency?), but that masks another important — and deeper — question:

How do states view the purpose of their state ESSA plans?

Among the American public and among state education leaders, there are vastly different perspectives on the role of the federal government in education. Whether you agree or disagree with the additional leeway that states enjoy under ESSA, the reality is that state leaders who believe that states should drive education policy will approach their ESSA plans with an orientation very different from state leaders who believe that the federal government should play a dominant role. Continue reading

Under ESSA, Subgroup Accountability is like Gotham Without Batman

When something is wrong in Gotham, Commissioner Gordon puts up the bat signal and a powerful spotlight projects Batman’s symbol into the night sky. It’s a simple idea, really: make it crystal clear that there is a problem and alert the person who can do something about it.

This was the basic concept of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The law required states to shine a spotlight on schools where individual groups of students were struggling — in order to reveal a problem. And with the problem revealed, schools, districts, and states were required to do something to solve it.

The attention to subgroup performance was the most popular aspect of NCLB. When the law was finally reauthorized in late 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) created an accountability system in which states must report inequities, but in the vast majority of cases, aren’t required to do anything about them. In lieu of NCLB-style accountability, the hope was that states and districts would create systems to act as Batman, and respond with additional support tailored to meet the needs of struggling schools and students. Barring that, since the law only requires states to identify the lowest of the low-performing schools, ESSA relies on transparency to encourage schools to improve.

Unfortunately, however, our new analysis of the accountability plans from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. found systems that were unambitious, uncreative, and, in some instances, unfinished. The worst part is that, in 41 out of the 51 state plans, subgroup performance will have no bearing on the ratings most schools receive.

This would be akin to Gotham police shining a plain spotlight into the night sky in the hopes that someone — anyone — would respond or that the bright light alone would stop crime.

Across the board, state accountability plans follow more or less the same pattern. They promise to report subgroup achievement across their selected indicators; but, when a school’s overall rating is calculated, it will be based solely on school-wide averages. Under this approach, schools can appear to be at least average while hiding massive achievement gaps.

In most cases, subgroups only truly matter in a few schools in which the performance of a group of students is as low as the worst performing 5 percent of schools in the state. And even then, it’s not clear that states have an effective strategy to improve struggling schools. In short, these plans will shine a light on a still-undetermined number of schools, and do little to resolve them.

There are very few exceptions to these retrograde policies.

In Tennessee, for example, 40 percent of a school’s score is based on subgroup achievement. Under this model, subgroup performance actually matters since the state uses these ratings to determine the schools that will receive additional support and resources. Minnesota takes a different tact to ensure that its schools are held accountable for subgroups: Instead of taking a school-wide average, the state first looks at the average performance for each subgroup and then combines that number into an overall average for the school. This model ensures that all subgroups count equally in the accountability system.

In Gotham, the bat signal works because the medium carries the message, leading Batman to show up and take care of the problem. Although imperfect, that’s how NCLB worked: states revealed problems and they then had to take steps to address them. Under ESSA, that’s no longer the case.

A public school serving mostly poor or non-white students is not a dystopian city like Gotham. Nevertheless, it is a place rife with injustice, where kids have been failed habitually by public institutions. These students don’t need a superhero to save them. What they need are state education systems designed to ensure that they are not misrepresented, underserved, under-resourced, or over-policed. They need access to all of the tenets of a high-quality education that they have so long been denied. And that takes real and intentional action, not just a bare spotlight.

Better Buses: Three Ways to Improve School Transportation, in Under 3 Minutes

When I was a high school teacher, my sophomore and junior students routinely told a tired joke: What’s big, yellow, and full of freshmen? The school bus. There was a stigma attached to riding the school bus. For students who fancied themselves on the cusp of adulthood, the school bus was a vestige of childhood, and they avoided it if they could.

That attitude contrasts with the reverence my own elementary school-aged children have for the bus. All things transit fascinate them, but the school bus holds a special status. It is as magical as Ms. Frizzle, and the bus driver is a superhero. She arrives each day with a big smile and a wave, greeting her tiny charges with their oversized backpacks, and maneuvering her iconic vehicle down darkened city streets.

These conflicting views of school buses symbolize a conflict in school transportation. School buses and school transportation are at once a nostalgic and iconic symbol of American education and a challenged system that often fails to serve students, schools, and communities as well as it could.

Today we release “Better Buses: Three Ways to Improve School Transportation, in Under 3 Minutes,” a short animated video that encapsulates the challenges and complex considerations we must grapple with to improve our school transportation systems so that they meet the needs of students, families, schools, and communities. Watch it below:

This video pairs well with Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century, our 2016 paper which dug into the structure, function, successes, and challenges of school transportation systems across the country.

In spite of dramatic changes in transportation (e.g., Uber, Hybrids and electric vehicles, and self-driving cars?) and in schools themselves, school transportation systems haven’t changed much in decades. Addressing school transportation challenges isn’t simple, though. These systems must balance competing, important priorities and interests like student safety, cost, equity, environmental impact, and other factors.

Please watch, enjoy, and share. And Magic School Bus fans should look for the subtle homage to Ms. Frizzle’s world.

The Teacher Diversity Funnel Starts in K-12 Schools

EdTrust-NY Report Cover – “See Our Truth”

This week, The Education Trust–New York released a report highlighting the lack of teacher diversity in the state’s schools. Specifically, the report reveals that one-third of all New York state schools have zero Latino or Black teachers. New York State is not alone. Lack of teacher diversity is a national problem. As the EdTrust report details, teacher diversity can improve achievement for students of color. So what can be done to address the problem?

The EdTrust report’s recommendations include, but are not limited to: creating more robust data collection systems and practices, improving recruitment and hiring strategies, and focusing on teacher retention. All of these are smart recommendations, but the focus on shorter-term solutions ignores one key part of the problem: teacher diversity problems start long before college students consider entering the teaching profession.*

The issue begins with the fact that black and Hispanic students graduate high school at lower rates than their white and Asian peers. In New York State, 89 percent of white students and 86 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students graduate high school compared to 68 percent of black students and 68 percent of Hispanic students. When fewer black and Hispanic students graduate high school, there are simply fewer students from these backgrounds entering college to pursue the preparation necessary to become a teacher.

Furthermore—as the Urban Institute explains in a recent report that found this funnel problem to be prevalent across the country—teacher diversity issues are also exacerbated in the next step of the pipeline: getting to and through college. In New York State, 44 percent of white students and 51 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students graduate high school earning a Regents diploma with “advanced designation” – the state’s diploma “recommended for students who plan to attend college after high school.” According to the most recent data, just 10 percent of black students and 14 percent of Hispanic students in New York State graduate with an advanced designation diploma.

In short, until the K-12 education system does a better job of ensuring that black and Hispanic students are college ready, there will continue to be a huge diversity gap between the nation’s public school students and the teachers who educate them – especially in diverse areas like New York State. To be fair, fully addressing teacher diversity will likely require a combination approach with long-term and short-term solutions.  But the importance of K-12 schooling  cannot be forgotten.

* Report authors recognize that New York must to do a better job of educating students of color so that they’re better prepared for college and career. The Education Trust has a plethora of reports detailing this issue.

Looking at Leadership to Combat Teacher Turnover and Sustain School Improvement

This is the third in a series of blog posts and resources to offer lessons and reflections for school leaders, district officials, and education policymakers using data and stories from the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. The series is supported by a grant from the McKnight Foundation.

Photo by Eric E. Castro via Flickr

In recent blog posts, I’ve been looking at the impact of teacher turnover on school improvement efforts and ways schools, states, and districts can address this challenge. But what about turnover in leaders, such as principals, district leaders, and superintendents? Leaders can have a huge impact on the culture, priorities, and strategies of their schools and districts. Recent studies have found that principals had a significant effect on teachers’ overall job satisfaction, and that the quality of administrative support could strongly influence teachers’ decisions to leave or stay. Given this reality, efforts to address teacher turnover should not overlook leaders.

Despite the demonstrated importance of strong, stable leadership, leaders in urban schools and districts continue to turn over at high rates. Leadership turnover can be caused by some of the same factors as teacher turnover, such as retirement, performance issues, or competitive offers elsewhere. A single change in leadership can reverberate through a school or district, for better or worse.

Principals in the Pathway Schools Initiative were fairly stable over the course of the Initiative. Of seven schools participating in the Initiative, three retained the same principal throughout all five years of the initiative, and two experienced only one change in principal leadership. This is unusual for high-poverty, urban schools, where principals turn over even faster than teachers. Nationally, 22 percent of public school principals and 27 percent of principals in high-poverty public schools leave annually. Two schools in the initiative, however, experienced more frequent leadership transitions — including one elementary school that had a new principal almost every year of the initiative.

Even when principals stayed the same, changes in district leadership had an impact on schools. All three of the traditional school districts in the Initiative changed superintendents and reorganized district leadership at least once. This is not surprising based on national trends: The average urban superintendent lasts barely three years, and the role of an urban superintendent is increasingly high pressure and politicized. These people were key liaisons between the Initiative partners, schools, and districts, and every time a district leader changed, it took time for their successors to build working relationships and learn about the Initiative.

Churn in district leadership is also frequently accompanied by changes in district strategies, and teachers and principals in Pathway Schools reported to SRI International evaluators that this sometimes hindered progress at the schools. Especially in the larger districts involved in the Initiative, Pathway Schools had to negotiate for the flexibility to pursue their goals differently from what other elementary schools in their districts were doing. With changes in leadership and accompanying changes in district strategies, this process had to be repeated, creating potential uncertainty and mixed messages for principals and teachers.

A change is leadership isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a district or a school — like teachers, leaders change for all kinds of reasons. Still, districts should take every possible step to retain high-performing and high-potential leaders where they can, and to simultaneously plan for succession and create a pipeline of new leaders from within their staff. Potential solutions to consider include: building a complete district framework for principal talent management, instituting school leader residencies to create effective new leaders, and facilitating smooth transitions with extra support for new leaders. Schools and students shouldn’t start from scratch when leadership changes occur.