Category Archives: Federal Education Policy

Little Kids, Big Progress: New York Times’ Head Start Coverage

It’s not often that early childhood stories make the front page of the New York Times. But this week, the paper featured an article by Jason DeParle about Head Start, a federal early childhood program that serves nearly 900,000 low-income children, and how the quality of the program has improved over the past several years.

DeParle’s article is a great example of journalism that moves past the common (and relatively useless) question of “does Head Start work?” and goes deeper into exploring how the program has improved  its practices, including changes related to coaching, teacher preparation and quality, use of data, and the Designation Renewal System (all of which Bellwether has studied and written about previously). This type of reporting contributes to a more productive conversation about how to create high-quality early learning opportunities for all children that can inform changes to early childhood programs beyond Head Start.

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

As DeParle points out and the data clearly show, while there is wide variation between individual programs, overall the quality of teaching in Head Start is improving. But while this trend is undoubtedly positive, it raises some questions: What effect will these changes ultimately have on children’s academic and life outcomes? And what can Head Start programs do to their program content and design to even better serve children?

Next month, Bellwether will release a suite of publications that tries to answer those questions. We identified five Head Start programs that have evidence of better-than-average impact on student learning outcomes and thoroughly examined these programs’ practices to understand how they contributed to their strong performance. I visited each program, conducted in-depth interviews with program leadership and staff, reviewed program documents and data, hosted focus groups with teachers and coaches, and observed classroom quality using the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, CLASS (the measure of teaching quality on which DeParle notes Head Start classrooms nationally have shown large quality improvements). By better understanding the factors that drive quality among grantees and identifying effective practices, we hope to help other programs replicate these exemplars’ results and advance an equity agenda.

As the New York Times front page recently declared, Head Start’s progress offers a ray of hope in a dysfunctional federal political landscape. But there is still room for progress. Looking at what high-performing programs do well can help extend the reach and impact of recent changes to produce even stronger outcomes for young children and their families.

New Report Reveals Messy Teacher Shortage Data

What types of subject-area teacher shortages do states experience? Are there major trends across states in chronic subject-area teacher shortages? How different are subject-area teacher shortages between states?

These were some of the questions my colleague Justin Trinidad and I sought to answer in our new report “Nuance in the Noise: The Complex Reality of Teacher Shortages.” We dove into a national data set on teacher shortage areas submitted by states and territories to the U.S. Department of Education. This data set is one of the best sources we have to analyze trends in subject-area shortages across the country and for each particular state.

Given this fact, were were shocked by just how messy the data were. We quickly found that there is no standard reporting framework that states must use. This means each state defines their own subject areas as they see fit. For example, Colorado reports its science shortages under the multiple categories of “Science,” “Natural Science, “Natural Sciences (Grades 7-12),” and “Natural Sciences (Kindergarten-Grade 12),” while Georgia uses the categories of “Sciences,” “Sciences (K-Grade 6),” and “Sciences – Secondary.”

This lack of standardization meant we had to create our own methodology in order to analyze the data, and even then, cross-state comparisons were difficult! That was annoying and a ton of work, yes, but it also spoke to a larger trend we see in teacher supply and demand data: they are hard to understand and often tell an incomplete story. What states report to the feds is often not the same thing they list on their state education websites.

However, frustrations with data didn’t stop us from finding some interesting and important information in our analysis. In fact, what we found challenges a widely held belief: that there is a generic, national teacher shortage. It turns out that teacher shortage needs vary widely across states. States even have varying experiences with the more chronic shortage areas like mathematics.

As the below map shows, California reported mathematics shortages less than 20 percent of the time of our analysis, while four states — Louisiana, Maine, North Carolina, and Texas — reported mathematics shortages all 20 years of our analysis.

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Media: “How Bad Are the Nation’s Teacher Shortages? With All the Conflicting and Unreliable Data Out There, We Don’t Really Know” in The 74

While discussions of a national teacher shortage crisis have taken place over decades, a generic shortage has yet to materialize. To get a clearer picture of trends in teacher subject-area shortages across the country, Kaitlin Pennington McVey and I analyzed national data on teacher shortage areas submitted by states and territories to the U.S. Department of Education.

I wrote about our recent findings for The 74 today.

Our analysis indicates that subject areas with teacher shortages vary significantly by state and time period, even among the top shortage areas. But there are also very real chronic shortages — in some states, lasting as much as 20 years — that yet have been unresolved because poor data has led to ineffective policies.

We can never fully address teacher shortages if we lack consistent and accurate data about the actual challenges. Without better data, we are wasting time and resources developing misdirected policies that may further hurt the teaching workforce.

There Are No Schools In New Carolina

In the imaginary state of New Carolina, there are no public schools. The citizens and the state legislature have decided that general public education is not a worthwhile use of limited resources, so they’d rather not be bothered with it. Anyone who wants to go to school has to go to a private school or get a tutor. The state will have to pass up any federal education dollars, but that’s okay: there aren’t any schools to fund with it so it’s a wash anyway.

Under the United States Constitution, New Carolina isn’t doing anything wrong.

The Constitution is the articulation of our country’s fundamental rights and the basis upon which we hammer out the contours of those rights by litigating individual cases in federal courts. In these cases, the role of the courts is to interpret the language of the Constitution: What exactly is included in the right to vote? When do you have a right to a jury trial? What’s covered by a right to privacy? States are free to add protections in their own constitutions, they just cannot sink below the minimum guaranteed in the federal constitution.

A 1972 school finance case, San Antonio v. Rodriguez, established that there is no federally protected fundamental right to education in the United States. Rodriguez has been challenged over and over again, but it’s a durable Supreme Court precedent.

Two cases, one in Michigan and one in Rhode Island, have taken up unique but related arguments in favor of recognizing a fundamental federal right to education.  The first, in Michigan, argues that while there may not be a right to education, there ought to be a right to basic literacy. In Rhode Island, the lawsuit argues that the federal courts should recognize a right to the minimum skills needed for basic civic participation. In both cases, the plaintiffs — students challenging the inadequacies of their states’ education programs — are aiming to get federal recognition of a baseline for what schools must provide. A win in a case like this would mean that New Carolina would have to find a way to provide all of its young people with some minimum standard of education, a standard that many existing school systems struggle to meet.

Both cases are moving through the federal courts, and it remains to be seen whether one (or both) will make it up to the U.S. Supreme Court for review. In any case, both cases have the potential to radically alter the relationship between state and local school systems and the federal constitution.

It’s important to note that some real New Carolinas do, in fact, exist. There are a number of places in this country where some of our most vulnerable students are legally denied access to the education programs that they would otherwise be able to participate in: juvenile justice facilities and immigration detention. In some of these places, education programs are diluted versions of local schools. In many of them, “education” consists of a packet of worksheets or some online tutorials. And in others, there is simply no school at all.

If the plaintiffs in either Michigan or Rhode Island prevail, that may change.

New Juvenile Justice Law Heads to The President’s Desk: What Does It Do?

Last week, Congress finally passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). I wrote about this legislation two years ago as part of our ongoing work to improve education access and quality in juvenile justice facilities. Nearly 50,000 kids are attending school behind bars today, and most of them aren’t getting the kind of education experiences that will prepare them to return to their schools and communities ready to thrive.

My blog post talked about how JJDPA closes loopholes in ESSA and gaps in state statutes to improve the consistency and continuity of education opportunities for young people who are attending school in secure facilities:

The statute requires that juvenile justice agencies coordinate with education agencies so that education agencies can comply with their federal mandates . . . .This might sound straightforward — and it is — the important point is that it’s new.

I fully expect this statute to be signed by the President — but access isn’t enough. I hope that we then quickly move to the next step: ensuring that these education opportunities are actually good ones.