Category Archives: Federal Education Policy

Seriously, Stop Asking If Head Start “Works”

Last month, yet another study came out examining the effects of Head Start on children’s long-term outcomes. The findings were lackluster: Depending on the cohort of children and outcomes you’re looking at, the effect of Head Start was either negative or non-existent. 

This study is noteworthy for a few reasons. It uses the same analytical approach as a high-profile 2009 study on Head Start, conducted by Harvard economist David Deming, which found Head Start had unquestionably positive results. And in a twist I’m definitely reading too much into, a former Deming student is one of the lead co-authors on this new study. People are also paying attention to this study because the findings go against a truly massive body of evidence on Head Start, which largely shows that Head Start has positive effects on children and families. 

But what snagged my attention is the fact that the research question at the heart of this study is irritatingly useless. It asks, essentially, “Does Head Start work?” That’s a question we answered a long time ago. And the answer is: It depends.

Again, the existing research on Head Start overall is positive. But we also know that there is wide variation in quality between individual Head Start providers. It’s a valuable federal program that can get better.  Continue reading

A Poor People’s Campaign for Education Reform? What We Can Learn from LBJ and MLK

On April 11, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson sat in front of a one-room schoolhouse in Stonewall, Texas — the rural setting where he received his formative education — and signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). By his side was his former teacher, an elderly white woman bedecked in pearls and cat-eye glasses, and a group of Mexican-American former students he had taught in the Texas border town of Cotulla. This framing was no accident: the undercurrents of Civil Rights policy were in the air as Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the previous summer. And to further spotlight race equity in the ESEA, the date was selected to fall nearly 100 years to the day that the Civil War concluded.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on April 11, 1965. Photo by Frank Wolfe / LBJ Library

Johnson was staunch about his commitment to education. In a March 1965 conversation with newly inaugurated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Johnson said: “Don’t ever argue with me. I’ll go a hundred million or a billion on health or education….Education and health. I’ll spend the goddamned money.” With ESEA’s role in providing significantly expanded resources (like library books, special education centers, and college scholarships) to vulnerable students, Johnson served as a human bridge between underserved populations: rural students, minorities, and immigrants. Looking at Johnson’s cleverly staged ESEA photo makes me think there are again opportunities for underserved student interests to unite in their demand for access to educational and economic equality. Identifying the intersection of class interests — as LBJ did — might have powerful political ramifications for the U.S. school system. 

A few years after the signing of the ESEA, Martin Luther King, Jr. carried the racial and economic unity torch forward. In 1968 he initiated the Poor People’s Campaign, which sought economic justice for the American poor. The first march of the Campaign included an interracial group of protestors — and would be King’s last. At his famous speech directed at striking Memphis sanitation workers, he urged:

We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves.

But what if the photo opp Johnson arranged in Stonewall or the Poor People’s movement King envisioned stepped off the pages of history? What would a united populist movement for education and economic equality look like? How would it affect the classrooms our children fill each morning and the neighborhoods they return to each afternoon? As schools begin de facto resegregating, how might a united front across all underrepresented classes and underfunded schools provide a more equal education for all? Continue reading

5 Things You Need to Know About School Transportation

Even though school transportation receives little attention in the broader education debate, it actually plays a vitally important role in America’s school system. After all, to access the public education system, students must get to school safely and on time and be ready to learn. But providing transportation services that meet the needs of families continues to be a challenge for districts with limited time and resources. 

Yesterday, Bellwether released our newest slide deck, “The Challenges and Opportunities in School Transportation Today,” which offers a deep fact base in an area that’s ripe for improvement and innovation. Based on our research, here are five things you need to know about school transportation:

1. There are nearly 480,000 school buses in operation in the United States, making school transportation the country’s largest form of mass transit.

2. The cost of school transportation is rising. For example, the average per-pupil cost of transporting a student at public expense grew from under $600 in 1980 to nearly $1,000 in 2015. This increase in cost is due in part to the decreasing share of public school students who receive transportation services. Continue reading

Media: “Better Ways To Measure Student Learning” in GOVERNING Magazine

I have a new piece out in GOVERNING Magazine discussing innovation in state assessments, and why local and state officials should invest in improving their assessment systems instead of cutting back. I highlight work underway in New Hampshire and Louisiana, which have both received waivers from the federal government to do something different with their tests. Just as the piece came out, Georgia and North Carolina got approval from the Department of Education for their own innovative assessment plans. But there’s a lot states can do even without special federal approval.

An excerpt of my op-ed:

“Test” has become a four-letter word in schools, as many states face political pressure to cut, minimize or deemphasize their much-maligned annual standardized assessments of student achievement. The most common complaints are that these tests do little to help teachers do their jobs well and can distract from more important aspects of teaching and learning.

But if standardized state tests aren’t useful in the classroom and aren’t informing instruction, that’s a problem that can be fixed even with current federal law mandating annual tests in math and reading. Instead of indiscriminately cutting back on statewide testing, states need to think about approaching them differently and look beyond typical end-of-year tests. Reducing investment to the barest minimum could leave students and schools worse off, without good information on achievement gaps, student growth, or college and career readiness.

Read the full piece at GOVERNING, and learn more about innovation in state assessment in “The State of Assessment: A Look Forward on Innovation in State Testing Systems,” by my colleague Brandon Lewis and me.

3 Things Head Start Programs Can Do Right Now to Improve Their Practice

Research tells us that, overall, Head Start has positive effects on children’s health, education, and economic outcomes. But there is wide variability in quality from program to program — and, as a field, we don’t understand why. 

Earlier this year, Sara Mead and I tried to figure that out. We published an analysis, conducted over three years, of several of the highest performing Head Start programs across the country. We specifically looked at programs that produce significant learning gains for children. Our goal was to understand what made them so effective.

As part of this project, we provided detailed, tactical information about exemplars’ design and practices. We hope to serve as a resource and starting point for other Head Start programs interested in experimenting with something new and, potentially, more effective.

Here are three action steps that Head Start programs can take right now to improve their practice:  Continue reading