Category Archives: Federal Education Policy

Can Better Data Infrastructure Prevent School Violence? We Think So.

Some states want to use federal grant money to put more guns in schools in order to prevent another episode of violence like the one that we saw in Parkland, Florida. It’s a controversial idea and one that favors grand drama over real thoughtful solutions. While it won’t grab national headlines, we could actually prevent more violence and protect more students for less money with investments into information-sharing technology.

There’s no way to know with certainty what could have prevented the tragedy in Parkland, but we do know one thing: there was enough information out there to paint a troubling picture of a young person in crisis with a desperate need for supportive services. Nikolas Cruz, who  returned to his high school armed and killed seventeen people in six minutes, was known to adults as a child in need of additional support and services.

Acting on that information is a different story. Alarmingly, we have recently learned that the adults (like psychiatrists, teachers, and law enforcement officials) who held pieces of Cruz’s story weren’t talking to each other, and there was no system in place for them to share information securely, quickly, and accurately.

Part of the problem is legal: health care, education, and child welfare privacy laws constrain the ways in which systems can share personally identifying information about young people in their care. At school safety panels earlier this summer, the Attorney General and other federal leaders suggested that these statutes are interpreted too broadly and that restricted information-sharing impedes the ability of local authorities to quickly deliver services to students in crisis.

But an important — and overlooked — part of the problem is technical. Even where there are data-sharing agreements in place, and high-quality service programs available to meet every need (and enough resources to go around), databases that track services for young people are quite literally disconnected from each other and unable to connect those services to the kids who need them. Legacy data warehouses within care agencies and schools create data silos that are nearly impenetrable. Not only do systems not talk across their bureaucratic borders, they are often incompatible with their counterparts in the next city or a neighboring county.

And even where the technical infrastructures are more modern, they rarely hold all of the information that exists or hold it in a way that is useful for providers. In fact, many systems still keep paper records or require hard copies of requests for information. As a result, direct-care staff, like nurses and school counselors, end up spending much of their days tracking down paperwork, faxing things back and forth, and cold-calling other offices instead of working with young people. Continue reading

Civics Education Isn’t About Content or Activism — It’s Both.

Today is Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, observed each year to commemorate the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787 and “recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens,” according to the Library of Congress. It makes for a good occasion to reflect on the state of civics education in America, a topic that has received renewed focus since the 2016 presidential election.

One question that is often debated in this conversation is whether civics education should focus on teaching content and critical thinking skills, or encouraging civic engagement and activism. This presents a false choice, as schools should be responsible for ensuring that students are both adequately informed and sufficiently engaged — not one or the other.

One side of this debate contends that civics education should first and foremost provide students with a basic understanding of how the American political system works and teach them how to think about political issues. Under this approach, students should develop a well-informed understanding of all sides of an issue, including the underlying facts and proposed solutions, only venturing into political activism once they have mastered the necessary knowledge and skills.

This approach is well intended: it is important to cultivate a citizenry capable of robust debate that honestly grapples with the benefits and tradeoffs associated with each issue. And improvement is certainly needed, based on students’ poor performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics assessment, which measures “the civics knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are critical to the responsibilities of citizenship in America’s constitutional democracy.” According to the most recent civics assessment, last administered in 2014, only 23 percent of eighth grade students scored at or above the proficient level. In 2010, when NAEP last tested high school seniors in civics, only 24 percent scored at or above the proficient level.

However, neither of these results has changed significantly since 1998, and it’s not as if older voters — who vote at much higher rates than younger voters — are necessarily bastions of civic knowledge. For example, according to the most recent results from the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s annual civics survey, released last week, fewer than one third of Americans can correctly name all three branches of government, and many also lack important knowledge about how each branch functions.

Source: Annenberg Public Policy Center

Additionally, civic engagement, particularly voting, is not just about making a well-reasoned choice between two or more options. It’s also a way of demonstrating political power. When young people aren’t engaged, they are leaving their figurative voice out of the political conversation, meaning the issues they care about may receive less attention, and policies that affect young people may be enacted without their input. Our education system should have a strong interest in empowering young people and starting them on a path of self-advocacy.

Source: United States Elections Project

While the goal of civics education should be to both adequately inform students and get them engaged in the political process, it’s clear that we aren’t doing a good enough job on either front. This isn’t surprising when you consider how little time is spent on civics education. Based on a recent analysis from the Center for American Progress, 40 states require coursework in U.S. government or civics. While nine states require one year of such coursework, 31 only require a half-year, and 10 states have no requirement at all.

If we want to ensure that the next generation of citizens is sufficiently prepared for civic life, we need to commit the necessary time and resources — certainly more than one semester. We should view this Constitution Day and Citizenship Day as an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the civic mission of schools.

Since Janus Isn’t a Simple “Win/Lose,” What Else Are the Justices Deciding?

current U.S. Supreme Court Justices

via Franz Jantzen, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court has yet to announce its decision in Janus v AFSCME, the case that will decide the fate of agency fees — fees paid to unions by non-members to support collective bargaining activities. So while you’re waiting (and studying up on the history of unions using our recently released slide deck), here are three things you need to know about the Court’s decision-making process:

  1. There is a range of possible rulings.

The Supreme Court’s decision is not going to be a simple “win/lose.” While Janus will, in fact, either “win” or “lose” his case, the Court’s written interpretation is what will shape future law and policy. And this written interpretation could be very narrow, quite broad, or fall somewhere in the middle. A very narrow finding, for example, could be to affirm the lower court’s ruling. Under this ruling, nothing would change. On the other end of the spectrum, the Court could go beyond the agency fee question presented in the case and find more broadly that exclusive representation is also unconstitutional.

  1. In its decision, the Court will likely reference a long history of precedents on agency fees and free speech.

The Court has been ruling on the issue of agency fees for decades. Analysts and commentators most frequently cite the 1977 Abood case, which endorsed the current agency-fee arrangement. But there are others cases that could be just as important. For example, the 1968 Pickering v Board of Education case dealt with a teacher who was fired after writing a letter to a local newspaper that was critical of some of his school board’s financial decisions. The Court found in Pickering’s favor that his right to freedom of speech was violated when he was fired for writing this letter. In making its decision, the Court had to balance the interests of Pickering, who was a citizen speaking on matters of public concern, and those of the government (in the case, the school board) as an employer seeking to provide efficient public services. This balancing of interests has become known as the Pickering test.

The Court could apply the Pickering test to Illinois’ law, which would require them to balance the interests of Janus speaking as a citizen on a matter of public concern with those of the government as an employer. The Court could find either that the state’s interests as an employer outweigh Janus’ free speech interest (meaning that Janus would lose) or that Janus is speaking as a citizen on a matter of public concern and that this free speech interest outweighs the state’s interests as his employer (meaning that Janus would win).

Another case the Court may reference is the 1991 Lenhert v Ferris Faculty Association case, which defined the activities for which unions can compel agency fees from non-members. These activities must 1) be “germane” to collective bargaining, 2) be justified by the government’s interest in maintaining labor peace, and 3) not add to the burdening of free speech.

The Court could decide that agency fees are legal, however it could revisit the definition of the expenses for which unions can charge non-members.

  1. The Court will avoid a constitutional question whenever possible.

Canons of construction are principles that provide guidance to the courts as they interpret statutes. One of these principles is to “first ascertain whether a construction of the statute is fairly possible by which [a constitutional] question may be avoided.” In other words, if there is a reasonable interpretation of the statute that does not conflict with the Constitution, the Court will adopt this interpretation.

This could be the case for Janus: The Court could find that there is an equally reasonable interpretation of Illinois’ law that does not raise a First Amendment free speech issue. The Court would have to adopt this interpretation, and Janus would lose.

While the Court’s decision is expected in the coming days, there’s no way to predict what it will be. So in the meantime, check out our deck on the history of unions and the implications of the Janus decision here.

Do Incarcerated Youth Have Equal Access to Education? Let’s Look at the Data.

Although we regularly assess student learning and evaluate the effectiveness of teachers in traditional schools, there is almost no hard data on the quality of education in the schools that serve students held in juvenile justice facilities. These facilities tend to only collect data focused on safety and security. What kind of education do these students receive?

Based on the first year of available data from the U.S. Civil Rights Data Collection, we conducted a national analysis to answer some simple questions:

  1. How many youth are enrolled in juvenile justice schools across the U.S.?
  2. To what degree do they have access to math and science courses (the only courses on which we have data)?
  3. How often do they enroll in these courses?

What we encountered on the way – before even answering the latter two questions – was troubling.

At the start of our analysis, we needed to set up a rudimentary fact base. How many juvenile justice schools are there in each state, and how many kids are enrolled in each? Basic questions, it would seem. Thankfully, the U.S. Department of Education collects public school enrollment nationally. In the 2013-14 data set, the first one made available, they decided to include juvenile justice schools in their definition of “public.” After adding up the number of students in juvenile justice schools for each state, we found that the number was suspiciously low. For example, Arkansas reported only six students enrolled in one juvenile justice school – in the entire state. South Carolina reported no juvenile justice schools at all.

We found it hard to believe that only six students were incarcerated in all of Arkansas, so we compared the enrollment data to another data set – the number of incarcerated youth in each state for the year 2013. If all was well in the world of data quality and educational access, we would expect the data sets to somewhat align, meaning the number of enrolled youth would account for about 100% of incarcerated youth. That, in turn, would give us a fairly accurate picture of educational opportunity for incarcerated youth in each state.

However, we found that in the majority of states, the enrollment numbers of juvenile justice schools didn’t remotely match up with the number of incarcerated youth for the same time frame. In only 18 states did the number of enrolled students somewhat account for the number of youth in placement (that is account for 70% – 130% of youth). In the other states, that alignment ranged from 0% (South Carolina) to 940% (Delaware). 940% means that way, way more youth were reported enrolled in juvenile justice schools than actually incarcerated. What seems mathematically impossible is more likely the result of schools being mislabeled as serving incarcerated youth or schools reporting cumulative enrollment (how many kids enrolled in a year) instead of snapshot enrollment (how many kids were attending school on one day).

Without accurate data, it’s hard to make state-by-state comparisons about access to education in these facilities. Good data matters. Without it, we don’t know whether the thousands of kids who are reported as incarcerated, but not enrolled in a school, are actually getting an education. They deserve better.

Check out our other findings in the full slide deck, Measuring Educational Opportunity in Juvenile Justice Schools.

Alexander Brand was an intern at Bellwether in the spring of 2018.

Students Served by Multiple Systems of Care Deserve Better

At any given point in time, about 5 million kids are served in one or more of our nation’s child service agencies. These young people are living through traumatic and disruptive experiences ranging from homelessness to foster care placement to incarceration.

As I wrote in this piece nearly two years ago, these children are navigating a fragmented world of adults, programs, and agencies, often operating as the only central point among all of the services.

In our latest publication, Continuity Counts, Hailly Korman and I offer our recommendations for addressing this fragmentation and improving cross-agency coordination. However, our project differs significantly from most other policy papers because we approached our research using human-centered design. This means that we started by talking to the very people who are impacted by agency fragmentation: the children and youth served by these agencies. We also talked to the direct-care providers working in various agencies. The goal of these interviews was to better understand the needs, wants, and constraints of both the youth and the care providers, in order to build a set of recommendations that addresses the challenges they face.

Through our human-centered design approach, we identified two key levers for change: continuity of people and continuity of information. By identifying a single adult to operate like a child’s “chief of staff,” we can mitigate the need for a child to interact with a myriad of adults. By improving data collection, sharing, and storage, we can reduce the burdens on youth and their caregivers that result from missing or incorrect information.

The silos that exist among agencies did not appear overnight and will not disappear quickly. However, just because agencies have always operated in relative isolation from one another does not mean it must always be like this. Eliminating, or at least substantially reducing, the fragmentation that exists among schools, government agencies, nonprofits, and community-based organizations is possible with deliberate and concerted effort over a long period of time. And doing so is necessary if we ever hope to provide youth with a cohesive, streamlined system of support throughout their education trajectories.

Read our full report here or our op-ed in The 74 here.