Category Archives: Equity

School Behind Bars: A Q&A with Nebraska’s Randy Farmer

There are nearly 2,600 schools across the country providing education to young people who are held in secure justice facilities. One of them is a short-term facility in Nebraska called the Pathfinder Education Program, and I spoke with its educational director, Randy Farmer, to learn more about what his job is like and what he wishes more people knew about how best to support students like his.

Pathfinder provides education services for young people detained for legal offenses in Lancaster County, Nebraska and awaiting court decisions about their need for services. The program is operated by the Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska, and Farmer’s role is similar to that of a school principal. He has worked with the National Partnership for Juvenile Services (NPJS) the last twelve years as an advisor, board member, and Education Council president, and he has worked with the Nebraska Department of Education on a standing committee to improve educational services for youth in out-of-home placements.

Tell us a bit about your role and what you do. What’s a typical day like?

The Pathfinder Education Program supports a unique and diverse population of youth who are experiencing serious traumatic life events. We offer educational services as an opportunity to renew a love of learning and provide a continuation of their path toward graduation, and we follow up with transition supports in collaboration with the community and juvenile justice system. These are bright, curious, and creative young people — they can be a tremendous asset to society when given an appropriate and supportive way to positively connect with their school and community.

I work with a wonderful staff of experienced and dedicated professionals, and a school district willing to provide exceptional support.

A typical day starts at a 6 a.m. morning briefing with detention staff. I then spend time responding to emails, organizing daily activities for the program, and greeting the arriving staff and students. Throughout the day I respond to youth who are disengaged from the classrooms, and problem solve with teachers and officers to find ways to return them to school. I visit with teachers, observe classes, and offer support where needed. If things are running smoothly, I can find time for data collection, budgeting, program design, and professional development, as well as district appraisal requirements.

What would you say has most surprised you about working in a secure facility? 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.

Practice Makes People: Why Schools Need High-quality Music Education

Elementary school students from Staten Island’s PS 22 perform at the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. Video courtesy of PS22 Chorus.

From visits to my elementary school by members of the Richmond Symphony orchestra to conducting my own group of students as a project in high school, music education has been —and still is — deeply embedded in my life. Music enhanced my creativity and curiosity and taught me patience and how to overcome failure. As a student musician who played the cello from sixth grade to the end of college, music opened up many opportunities for me. I can’t imagine anyone being deprived of an education enriched by music.

Students are hungry for music education, but unfortunately, many do not have access. Currently, more than 1.3 million elementary school students and about 800,000 secondary students fail to get any music education. High-poverty schools with greater proportions of students of color, in particular, are less likely to expose students to music education.

For example, in the Detroit area, only 31 percent to 60 percent of schools with high concentrations of students of color offer any music instruction at all. Access is limited by the number of curricular and extracurricular course offerings or an insufficient amount of staff dedicated to musical instruction. While research has shown that the cost for a basic music education can average as low as $187 per student annually, school districts serving predominantly low-income and students of color have competing priorities and limited access to necessary resources.

A number of studies have demonstrated the benefits of music education. Elementary school students who take part in high-quality music education programs have significantly improved scores on standardized tests — including 22 percentage points higher in English and 20 percentage points higher in math scores — than students in low-quality music programs. Furthermore, musical training has a number of benefits for cognitive and language development for young children.

Beyond these facts and figures, I strongly believe music in and of itself is incredibly valuable. Music is an important avenue for self-expression and a vehicle for the preservation of culture. Without a high-quality music education, students can miss out on an opportunity to understand and appreciate something so integral to us as humans.

While tax-funded, school-based music instruction is ideal for large-scale support of music and arts education, school districts facing budget cuts may take years to prioritize and adequately fund music education. Rather than waiting, young students should be able turn to smaller scale community-based interventions.

One program in East Los Angeles, the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra (BHCYO), provides free music education to students aged six to fourteen in response to cuts in public school music education funding. Based on Venezuela’s El Sistema model in which underserved students are provided with free instruments and individual and group music instruction, the BHCYO provides a free classical orchestral training for low-income students. The youth take part in weekly rehearsals and a six-week intensive summer program. The orchestra relies on community partners such as the local Boys and Girls Club and the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs for resources and rehearsal space.

Community-driven organizations, such as BHCYO and the Silver Lake Conservatory in Los Angeles, or the Opportunity Music Project in New York City, dynamically enhance and supplement students’ learning needs and help them access the music education they crave and deserve.

If you’re interested in advocating for music education, you can view resources and toolkits from the National Association for Music Education or the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM).

A Day in the Life: Bellwether’s Justin Trinidad

Justin Trinidad joined the Bellwether Policy and Thought Leadership team earlier this year, where he has supported research and data collection on a range of projects, including ones that cover teacher preparation programs and human capital efforts.

We’ve been so excited to get to know Justin and his impressive past experiences, so we’re sharing a little more about him with all of you!

Just in time for Filipino American History month, Justin talks with us about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) and their access to education and public service.

How did you get inspired to work in education after working in broader civil rights issues?

I strongly believe that education and civil rights go hand in hand. In my previous work at OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates, I focused on advocating for various educational issues affecting the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, ranging from AAPI data disaggregation in ESSA to providing access to federal financial aid for DACA recipients. I wanted to build on my understanding and expertise in education. Moving into the education policy world seemed like a fitting transition, and it’s important to me that Bellwether especially seeks to help the most underserved students.

You’ve held many roles — both professionally and as a volunteer — in the Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. What from that work continues to inform and shape you today?

One of the main reasons I love working with the AAPI community, in particular AAPI youth, is to help develop the pipeline of youth who enter public service and increase representation in the leadership of government and nonprofits. Growing up, I was unaware of career paths to public service and only learned about such careers later in my college experience.

One of the highlights of my AAPI community experience is developing and planning the Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership (CAPAL)’s Scholarship and Internship Program this past summer. I recruited and placed interns in several federal agencies and nonprofits, developed the curriculum, and facilitated workshops for 30 undergraduate and graduate students to educate participants on pathways to public service and the necessary skills to access those pathways.

That’s awesome! Do you have other success stories from your work?

One of the most rewarding projects from my time at the White House Initiative on AAPIs was planning the White House Filipino American History Month, which took place exactly a year ago. The celebration brought together Filipino American federal agency representatives, elected officials, advocates, entrepreneurs, and community members to discuss the most important issues of the Filipino-American community. As a Filipino American, it was incredibly empowering and inspirational to bring my community together in a room, especially one in the White House.

Speaking of which, happy Filipino American History Month! Can you tell us a little about your immigration story as it relates to education?

My family and I immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in the 1990s when I was four years old. One of the main reasons my parents were willing to leave their family behind and start a new life was to provide us with access to opportunities in education that they never had. In the Philippines, the only way to access a high-quality education was to attend the top and most expensive private schools. However, in the U.S., my parents were optimistic that we would be able to study in great public schools and, later, attend the world’s best colleges and universities to increase our chances at tapping into the economic opportunities they never had.

I’d also like to add a little more about Filipino American History Month (FAHM). Filipino Americans were the first Asian Americans to arrive in the U.S. in Morro Bay, California in 1587. FAHM acknowledges and celebrates the many ways that Filipino Americans have contributed significantly to American History ― from serving alongside the U.S. in World War II to strengthening our labor movement in the Delano Grape Strike in the 1960s.

What are some things you wish multiracial education organizations knew about AAPI students?

AAPI students tend to be overlooked in discussions of education equity. Because of the way data is collected, the category “Asian” lumps over 100 ethnic groups into a single demographic and masks the disparities faced by various ethnic groups. Different groups have had vastly different immigration histories, ranging from refugees seeking asylum to those who arrive under the H-1B visa. For example, a number of Southeast Asian American students face higher rates of poverty and lower levels of educational attainment than other Asian American communities. However, when discussions of educational equity are held, the focus is often solely on Hispanic and African American students. It’s vital to collect nuanced data and disaggregate it to fully understand the extent of educational inequities in our country.

Now that you’ve brought your expertise to the Bellwether team, is there anything that stands out for you about the work environment here?

In addition to everyone’s passion and dedication to working on education issues, I am constantly impressed by everyone’s hobbies. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with people with such a diverse group of interests. From beer experts to marathon runners, to avid campers and world travelers, I’ve been inspired to try new things to see what fun I can have out in the world.

Three Things to Know about Courts, Schools, and Discipline

About 2.8 million k-12 students are suspended from school in a given year. And about 150,000 are expelled. Both suspension and expulsions are forms of “exclusionary school discipline,” the catch-all term for school discipline policies that remove students from their classrooms or schools.

On this subject, The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges just published a new report: The Intersection of Juvenile Courts and Exclusionary School Discipline. It’s a helpful primer on the history of suspension and expulsion policies coupled with advice for those in schools and in the judiciary working to build partnerships to better support students who misbehave in school.

There are three big takeaways from this report:

  1. Most exclusionary discipline policies can be traced back to 1994’s Gun-Free School Zones Act. That law requires all schools receiving federal funds to develop policies for referring incidents of weapons on campus to law enforcement. Experts cited in this report believe this law has not reduced school violence and has, in fact, made communities less safe.
  2. Exclusionary school discipline costs states millions of dollars a year. Spending even just  30% of that on supportive diversion programs — like community-based intervention or mentoring — cuts costs and keeps kids on track towards productive community participation. (The report provides examples of several successful models.)
  3. In many communities, juvenile court judges have used their credibility and influence to take on leadership roles in supporting schools to minimize the contact that young people — especially students of color and students with disabilities — have with law enforcement and the justice system. Other judges can do this by convening cross-agency teams, promoting alternative approaches, and encouraging policy change.  

While none of these points are major revelations, it’s helpful to see them lined up together in order to better illustrate the complex inter-agency dynamics that continue to hold these harmful policies in place.