Category Archives: Federal Education Policy

Media: “Kamala Harris’s Flawed Proposal to Help Teachers Could Make Problem Worse” in The Hill

Last month, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) introduced a plan for a federal-state partnership to boost teacher salaries. In a new op-ed for The Hill, I write that Harris’ proposal relies on flawed data on teacher pay and ignores the real factors holding teacher salaries back — namely, the rapidly rising costs of teacher benefits like pensions and health care:

Of course, teachers can’t use their health care or pension plans to pay their mortgage or buy groceries, but total compensation is still the only apples-to-apples way to analyze across sectors — especially because deferred compensation through pensions is such a fundamental aspect of teacher compensation today.

Failing to accurately account for pensions and health care obscures the extent to which these costs are crowding out resources for teacher pay. To give one example from Sen. Harris’s home state, in Los Angeles, where teachers recently went on strike, spending on teacher salaries increased 24 percent over the past decade, whereas health care and pensions increased 138 percent. Overall compensation is rising even if teachers don’t see it in their paychecks or the supports they receive in their classrooms.

While Harris’ proposal is well-meaning, it would not address the root causes for why teacher salaries have been flat for so long. Without more meaningful attempts to control benefit costs, teachers are likely to see a growing disconnect between their take-home pay and their total compensation package.

Are You a Presidential Candidate With a Child Care Proposal? Pay Attention.

As candidates put forward their visions for 2020, potential Democratic frontrunner Elizabeth Warren has chosen to make childcare a centerpiece of her campaign to rebuild the middle class. Warren’s announcement builds on recent arguments that child care is a vehicle to increase women’s workforce participation and, therefore, economic growth. Warren’s proposal has since stimulated a good deal of coverage and debate about both the merits of her plan and the value of early childhood education more generally.

One overlooked factor in this debate is the debt that Warren’s plan owes to Head Start, which Warren acknowledges in the unveiling of the plan. Head Start, the country’s largest pre-K program, is a federally funded child development program that supports local early childhood programs to provide early learning, family engagement, and comprehensive supports for nearly one million preschoolers in poverty and their families every year.

Warren is smart to seize on Head Start as a model. Research shows that Head Start students overall make meaningful gains in school readiness during their time in Head Start, and that the quality of Head Start programs is better than many other early childhood settings. But other research shows that the quality of Head Start programs varies widely, with some programs producing much bigger school readiness gains than others.

My Bellwether colleague Sara Mead and I have spent the last three years studying five of the highest performing Head Start programs in the country, programs that have produced significant learning gains for the children they serve. We examined every aspect of these programs in an effort to understand what practices led to their effectiveness and how, as a field, we can leverage their successes to improve the quality of all early childhood programs — Head Start and otherwise.

After closely analyzing these programs’ practices, we produced a series of publications called “Leading by Exemplar,” released today. This research is the first of its kind to do such an in-depth study of program practices. It offers lessons for other Head Start programs and for policymakers — including Warren — who want to expand access to quality learning in the early childhood world.

So what is the “secret sauce” that contributes to these programs’ successes? Three practices stand out: Continue reading

1.3 Million Students Are Homeless. What’s the Good News?

Federal data released earlier this month indicate that more than 1.3 million students enrolled in public schools during the 2016-17 school year were homeless. This represents a 7 percent increase in the number of homeless students over a three-year period and a 70 percent spike in the last decade.

These numbers are troubling for many reasons: Homelessness is associated with a host of challenging life outcomes, including difficulty staying in and graduating from school.

But there’s some potentially good news here. First, though tough economic conditions, high housing costs, and other factors likely led to real increases in the number of students experiencing homelessness, it’s likely that some of the increase is due to school districts simply getting better at identifying their homeless students. That’s a good thing. Schools can’t support students experiencing homelessness if they don’t know who they are.

Second, the data captured in this report only include those students who are enrolled in public schools. That means that all of the 1.3 million homeless students are still enrolled in school. Their attendance may well be spotty, but they haven’t dropped out. They are known to a set of adults who work in a system that can provide them with the academic support they need and can connect them to other services. That’s hugely important.

As my colleague and I have written, the education system can be a powerful through-line for young people experiencing homelessness or any other destabilizing life event. As the place where the vast majority of children go every day and interact with adults, schools provide a natural central point for connecting services that can support a child’s education and meet their other needs.

Want to learn more? We’ve written about the human-centered design policies and methods that take into account the real needs of students who experience disruptions to their educational trajectories. We’ve also addressed the promise of technology to support students in transition and launched a game to help build empathy and understanding about the challenges young people face as they navigate destabilizing events like homelessness, incarceration, or foster care placement.

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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