Category Archives: Federal Education Policy

Bellwether Recognized For Core Value of Synergy as Key Partner in $20 Million Grant

Collaborating across teams sounds simple, but it’s not easy, and it has even been described as “dangerous.” 

When organizations and individuals join forces with those outside their immediate circles, they do so to reach common goals, recognizing that their combined efforts, if synergistic, can create greater impact than their separate ones. But because human beings, and the groups with which we affiliate, bring our cultures, jargon, preferred solutions, and power dynamics to collaboration, synergy is not inevitable — or easy. It requires deliberate effort, a willingness to work outside of one’s typical patterns, and a desire to meld together the best of various disciplines to provide holistic solutions for complex problems. 

Synergy matters because education is complex: its problems are not one-dimensional, so its solutions can’t be either. 

Entering our tenth year as a nonprofit, Bellwether has long harnessed our organizational superpower of synergy — and in fact it’s one of our core values. We intentionally bring together people with different specialties, work experiences, identities, political affiliations, and approaches to advance a shared mission of dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved students. Some of my colleagues are former teachers who think through the lens of facilitation and skill-building when working with adults. Some, like myself, come from the background of evaluation, and reference the scientific method when we approach problems. Others have a business or consulting background and think about making organizations more effective and joyful places to work. Still others within Bellwether think about the policy contexts in which these organizations operate. 

This approach is getting some recognition. In late September, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a five-year grant worth $20 million to a collaborative partnership involving Bellwether Education Partners, Westat (the lead grantee), RMC Research, and Academic Development Institute to support a National Comprehensive Center (“National Center”) aimed at improving educational outcomes for all students, closing achievement gaps, and enhancing the quality of instruction. Through this work, we’ll get to take synergy to the next level by leveraging skill sets within our team and across these partnering organizations. 

Some context: Since 2002, regionally based comprehensive centers (RCCs) have been quietly providing capacity-building services to education agencies across all 50 states and territories. Funded by the Department of Education, RCCs are intentionally focused on the specific needs of the state and local education agencies they serve, which can vary based on local priorities, policies, and student populations. 

Until now, the benefits and lessons from this targeted support have remained largely within the states and regions being served. The Comprehensive Centers have done important work, but they have lacked the synergy superpower. Continue reading

#DemDebates: Another Nothingburger on Education?

Two members of Bellwether’s Policy & Evaluation team, Cara Jackson and Beth Tek, watched Wednesday’s debates for any mention of education. They didn’t get what they were looking for, but there’s still plenty to discuss. 

Beth Tek: I have to say, while I was disappointed about the lack of education-related talk during the Democratic debate last night, I’m also not surprised.

Cara Jackson: Yup, I’m guessing no one got education bingo. But several candidates did discuss social supports that impact children, such as child care, paid maternity leave, and housing.

stack of empty burger buns, photo by Marco Verch

Photo by Marco Verch

Beth: That’s true. Elizabeth Warren talked about childcare, universal pre-K, and the exploitative wages of childcare workers. And Andrew Yang mentioned the fact that close to 75% of school outcomes are determined by what happens to children at home.

Cara: Yes, we know that out-of-school factors explain much of the variation in student achievement. This has been demonstrated since the 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity report by James Coleman and colleagues, and by more recent work too. 

And candidates rightly addressed housing policy, which directly impacts education policy! Tom Steyer commented that housing determines where your kids go to school. Warren noted that her housing plan includes 3.2 million new housing units for lower-income families and middle-class renters in communities with severe housing supply shortages. She aims to mitigate the long-term impacts of redlining, the segregation created by refusing loans to black families, which continues to impact neighborhoods, and by extension schools, to this day.  

There’s also evidence of long-term academic benefits for children from low-income families who attend universal pre-kindergarten programs, so the debate certainly had implications for education.

Beth: And it’s not like these candidates don’t have education plans! I would have liked to hear Warren talk about her proposed infusion of Title I funding. Schools could use that money to provide more wraparound supports for America’s students, which would go a long way to educate the “whole child.” We know that Millennials (approximately ages 24 to 38) and Generation Zers (currently in K-12 and early adulthood) are reporting the highest percentages of anxiety and depression of any age group. And schools are trying to do more to address and support mental health.

Cara: Yes! I’d love to see some of that additional funding used to ensure students have access to supportive, high-quality school counselors. We know that these supports could improve high school graduation and college attendance. Or we could provide incentives to push back high school start times, in keeping with research that suggests doing so would improve academic outcomes.

Beth: Exactly Cara! Let’s take what we know works and provide the resources needed to implement it. In addition to later start times for high schoolers, how about free breakfast and lunch for all students? Students who come from food insecure homes have a hard time focusing in school, and this leads to poor behavioral and academic outcomes. Free breakfast and lunch would remove this obstacle from their education.

Cara: I hope we’ll hear more about education in the December debate. Stay tuned!

Cory Booker’s Move on Charter Schools is Both Political — and Good

A prodigal son of the charter school sector returned home on Monday, when Senator Cory Booker voiced support for charter schools in the New York Times, a notable shift from his criticism of charter schools back in May.

It was a bold move in some ways, especially given the precariousness of his presidential bid and the inevitable price he will pay with the teachers unions. It was also a strategic move to the middle as centrist Michael Bloomberg joins the race and underdog Pete Buttigieg builds steam.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker speaking with attendees at the 2019 Iowa Federation of Labor Convention hosted by the AFL-CIO at the Prairie Meadows Hotel in Altoona, Iowa. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker, photo by Gage Skidmore

It’s not hard to see the politics at play, but Booker deserves credit for calling out the Democratic party for being unresponsive to many constituents who support charter schooling. Booker takes fellow Democrats to task for not listening to the families who face “impossible choices” in favor of the more “privileged voices” in the party, a veiled reference to the omnipotent teachers unions, whose favor Senator Elizabeth Warren courted with her anti-charter education plan a few weeks ago.

Recent survey data on charter schools illustrates the misalignment between Democratic Party leadership and many of its key constituent groups, with higher levels of charter school support from African American and Hispanic subgroups than from Democrats and teachers.

Continue reading

Warren Wants to Slash the Program I Evaluate — But I’ve Seen It Work

Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren released her education plan, where she proposed slashing federal funding for the expansion of public charter schools by ending the Charter School Program (CSP). Warren claims that the CSP is an “abject failure,” citing a report by an anti-charter organization that the federal government has wasted up to $1 billion on charter schools. (The report’s lack of substance and evidence has already been raised by others.)

U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren visiting Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa. She spoke to a group of about 400 students to outline her K-12 education plan, answer questions, and pose for selfies.

Photo of Elizabeth Warren via Flickr user tabor-roeder

I know Warren is wrong firsthand. As part of my work at Bellwether Education Partners, I serve as an external evaluator for three CSP grantees (as my colleague Cara mentioned yesterday). Our unbiased, rigorous, and data-driven evaluations indicate that when implemented well, high-quality charters use their CSP funds to improve their model and successfully serve more students. These charter schools are the reason their students experience gains in achievement beyond their traditional public school peers. 

Let me step back. The CSP began in 1994 as an amendment to the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It has three goals:

  1. To create promising new public charter schools,
  2. To replicate high-quality public charter schools, and
  3. To disseminate information about effective practices within charter schools.

In 25 years, CSP has awarded close to $4 billion to charters serving disproportionately more low-income and diverse students than traditional public schools. The average award is about $500K. In exchange for CSP replication funds, the schools expand to serve more students. CSP replication grantees are required to evaluate their progress, and it is strongly recommended that they use an external evaluator to do so. The evaluation must demonstrate that the grantee is doing what it said it would do and compare the achievement of its students to students attending nearby traditional public schools for evidence of impact. This is how the CSP holds grantees accountable. 

My colleagues and I use advanced statistical modeling techniques to compare charter-attending students to similar students attending nearby traditional public schools on a 1:1 basis. In the model, when all things are considered, the difference in achievement found can be attributed to the school. In fact, an emerging trend in our current data analysis suggests that the longer a student attends a well-implemented, high-quality charter school, the larger the gains in achievement over their traditional public school student peer become. Continue reading

New State Policies Enable Teacher Residences: A Q&A with Tamara Azar of the National Center for Teacher Residencies

As my colleagues and I have shown over and over again, teacher residencies, which closely tie teacher preparation coursework with a year-long (frequently longer) classroom experience, are a promising way to prepare a strong and diverse cohort of new teachers. And recent progress in state and federal policy — including additional flexibility from ESSA on how states use Title I, II, and III and IDEA money for teacher professional development — is making it easier for states to implement the teacher residency model.

The National Center for Teacher Residencies (NCTR)*, an organization that provides strategic guidance to its national network of teacher residency programs, is at the center of advocacy for high-performing residency programs. Their programs have a strong track record of working in partnership with high-need schools and districts: 97% of graduates from NCTR network programs teach in Title I schools, which primarily serve kids from low-income backgrounds and kids of color.

I spoke with Tamara Azar, NCTR’s Chief External Relations Officer, about the progress of state policies and the future of teacher residency programs.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What state policy approaches enable teacher residency programs to proliferate?

We’ve seen at least four different approaches. The first uses policy as the initial driver. I would put Louisiana, West Virginia, and South Dakota in this group. Louisiana launched the Believe and Prepare pilot with a small amount of funding and focused on changing policy first. West Virginia has written policy requiring teacher preparation programs to offer a teacher residency pathway, and given institutions of higher education (IHEs) the flexibility to identify what works within their systems to accomplish this goal. Continue reading