Category Archives: Politics of Education

Should We Strive for More Generalists and Fewer Specialists in Education?

I’ve been thinking about generalists and specialists lately, and I’m beginning to think that the education field has fetishized specialists and forgotten about the value of generalists.

My thinking on this question has been prodded by a few articles on health care. In January, Atul Gawande published a moving article in The New Yorker about the “herosim of incremental care.” Gawande, a surgeon by training, explains a debate he had with his friend Asaf, an internist, about the relative merits of generalists versus specialists:

[Asaf] showed me studies demonstrating that states with higher ratios of primary-care physicians have lower rates of general mortality, infant mortality, and mortality from specific conditions such as heart disease and stroke. Other studies found that people with a primary-care physician as their usual source of care had lower subsequent five-year mortality rates than others, regardless of their initial health. In the United Kingdom, where family physicians are paid to practice in deprived areas, a ten-per-cent increase in the primary-care supply was shown to improve people’s health so much that you could add ten years to everyone’s life and still not match the benefit…. Further, the more complex a person’s medical needs are the greater the benefit of primary care.

Gawande spends the rest of the article trying to figure out how this works, and he spends time visiting his friend’s clinic:

“It’s the relationship,” they’d say. I began to understand only after I noticed that the doctors, the nurses, and the front-desk staff knew by name almost every patient who came through the door. Often, they had known the patient for years and would know him for years to come. In a single, isolated moment of care for, say, a man who came in with abdominal pain, Asaf looked like nothing special. But once I took in the fact that patient and doctor really knew each other—that the man had visited three months earlier, for back pain, and six months before that, for a flu—I started to realize the significance of their familiarity.

For one thing, it made the man willing to seek medical attention for potentially serious symptoms far sooner, instead of putting it off until it was too late. There is solid evidence behind this. Studies have established that having a regular source of medical care, from a doctor who knows you, has a powerful effect on your willingness to seek care for severe symptoms. This alone appears to be a significant contributor to lower death rates.

Observing the care, I began to grasp how the commitment to seeing people over time leads primary-care clinicians to take an approach to problem-solving that is very different from that of doctors, like me, who provide mainly episodic care.

The summer issue of The Washington Monthly gave more evidence in the case for generalists through Samuel Jay Keyser’s personal story: a sophisticated surgical procedure saved his life, but a team of generalists really helped him take steps toward a productive life.

I find these arguments compelling.

Both Keyser and Gawande point to the growing body of research that health care patients are often better off with a close relationship to one generalist than they are to a poorly coordinated network of specialists. We see this especially in end-of-life care. Patients with hospice and palliative care live longer and cost less to keep alive than those who receive the usual cocktail of specialists and hospitalizations.

Education, however, keeps trending in the opposite direction. There’s been an ever-increasing push to ensure teachers are given specialized training and licenses to fill specialty roles within schools. As a field, we’ve been operating as if more and more specialization will be a good thing, but hardly any of this is linked to actual outcomes for kids. Still, that hasn’t stopped us.

There’s very little evidence behind the specialist trend, and one study I’m aware of points in the opposite direction. When Houston experimented with creating specialized teacher roles in elementary schools, the generalist elementary school teachers who spent all day with their students helped their students learn more than their peers who specialized in only one subject. The author of the study theorized that the generalist teachers who spent more time with their students could better tailor their instruction. We also see this in other studies of teacher credentials, where deeper content knowledge is far from a guarantee of more effective teaching.

To be sure, there are some elements of schooling where having a specialist is clearly better. If one of my children was being tested for a hearing or learning disability, I’d want a specialist to perform the test. But from my conversations in the education space, I’m worried we’ve taken this concept too far and applied it to everything a school does. Whether that’s a good thing or not is worth further investigation.

All Parents Have High Hopes: A Recap

At Bellwether, we spent last week talking about family engagement strategies and busting the myth that poor parents don’t invest in their kids’ education.

Just in time, new data released today by the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that parents across income brackets have high hopes for their kids, and that they match that expectation with action.

For context, here’s a recap of our conversation:

Day 1 // September 19

  • Justin Trinidad writes that limited English proficient parents are underserved but not complacent about their kids’ education
  • Kirsten Schmitz interviews classroom teacher Christian Martínez-Canchola and offers five ways teachers can engage multilingual families

Day 2 // September 20

  • Melissa Steel King writes about the assumption that parents are only engaged if they come to school events or volunteer

Day 3 // September 21

  • Marnie Kaplan argues that we can learn from the long history of including parent engagement in early childhood education
  • Lynne Graziano urges school leaders to ensure that requests for family involvement are simple, streamlined, and supportive

Day 4 // September 22

  • I interview Bellwether’s own Jeff Schulz to get some pro tips on family engagement strategies and organizational planning
  • Allison Crean Davis stresses that the lack of equal opportunities for kids of different backgrounds means that schools have to work to live up to parent expectations

You can read the whole series here!

Building Momentum For Family Engagement: A Q&A With Bellwether’s Jeff Schulz

This week, Bellwether staff share their perspectives on family and parent engagement. Follow Ahead of the Heard from now until Friday for a series of blog posts that tackle common misconceptions about engaged parents, working with multilingual families, and more. Click here to read other posts in the series thus far.

 

At Bellwether, we believe that schools are most successful when families and parents are engaged. But despite decades of research on family and parent engagement strategies, there is still little consensus about meaningful family involvement in a child’s education: what does it look like, how does it translate into student achievement, and what is a school’s role in facilitating it?

To get some answers, we spoke to Bellwether principal Jeff Schulz, who has been a member of our Strategic Advising team since 2013 and has helped school districts, charter management organizations, and service providers address a wide range of strategic issues. In the Q&A below, Jeff talks about a recent project advising a major client on family engagement work and what he’s learned.

How do you define family engagement? How does this work look on the ground in different communities? 

The Flamboyan Foundation – which does some of the best work nationally in this area – defines family engagement as “the collaboration between families and educators that accelerates student learning.” I like this definition because it encompasses so much more than ice cream socials or “donuts with dad” and gets at the essential role of schools.

This collaboration can take on many different forms:

  • Providing timely information to families about student performance, and creating multiple opportunities for parents to interpret and act on that data (e.g., progress reports, parent-teacher conferences, report card nights, regular email/writtencommunication)
  • Welcoming parents into classrooms to advance learning (e.g., reading with younger kids, talking about their profession, helping teachers prepare learning activities)
  • Seeking input from families on key school decisions (through surveys, focus groups, or a standing group like a parent teacher association)
  • Supporting parents to advocate for resources and supports for their schools (e.g., speaking to local, state, or national representatives about critical issues)

What do you take away from the research on family engagement?

The research on family engagement is not as well developed as some other areas (for example, the What Works Clearinghouse has a whole collection of research around literacy and dropout prevention). However, there is research that suggests a correlation between better student performance and more engaged families. Here are a few key findings from a recent summary:

  • Schools instituting high-quality family engagement programs have higher attendance rates than similar schools without such programs
  • 71% of teenagers interviewed in one study said that more communication between parents and schools might have prevented them from dropping out of high school
  • Meta-analyses of 40+ studies found a significant association between family engagement and the academic achievement of urban elementary and middle school students

To be clear, these findings point to a correlation between effective family engagement and student success, not a causal link. Stronger research on the impact of effective family engagement, and what “effective” actually looks like in practice, is an area we’d really benefit from as a field.

Tell me about a recent family engagement client project: What was the problem and what was Bellwether’s proposed solution?

This year, we partnered with a large and rapidly growing multi-region charter management organization (CMO). The client believed that effective family and parent engagement was critical to its continued success, and it invested significantly in surveying parents, creating parent curricula, and developing an advocacy approach.

While they saw a positive impact from their investments, the work was not clearly aligned to an organization-wide strategy or set of metrics. On top of that, the work was often distributed among different teams in multiple regions, making it difficult to assess the overall impact.

That’s where Bellwether came in: our Strategic Advising team was asked to support the development of a five-year family engagement strategy. We interviewed people from across the organization – including central office staff, school leaders and teachers, and parents – to understand what was working well and what gaps needed to be addressed.

We developed a family engagement vision, set of shared beliefs, and measurable goals to guide the work. This provided a framework that everyone could understand and rally around even as specific strategies and activities evolved over time. The three overarching goals we identified were:

  • Engage families in classroom and school activities
  • Build family knowledge and skills
  • Empower families to take action on issues that affect their child’s education

With goals in place, it was easier to identify specific initiatives that aligned and could be measured, including: planning for a family liaison program, a parent advisory committee at each school, and a “parent university”; better utilizing existing tools to communicate student performance; and supporting parents to organize and advocate for their schools’ needs.

What are the biggest misconceptions about family engagement?

The biggest misconception I see is that there is a tradeoff between focusing time, energy, and money on family engagement versus direct support to students. In fact, when done well, family engagement is in direct alignment with student success. It is not an either/or but a both/and.

A second misconception, which relates to the first, is that family engagement is a “nice to have” and not a “must have.” For students to succeed, families must be engaged and supportive partners. This is particularly true when students leave school for college or other transitions. At that point, the school’s sphere of influence ends or is greatly diminished.

In what ways do racial blind spots or biases affect family engagement efforts?

Different cultures have different norms: whereas some parents are perfectly comfortable visiting a school and asking tough questions about their child’s experience, other parents might be more deferential to teachers and less likely to proactively advocate for their child. There are also parents who have had bad past experiences with schools or witnessed a revolving door of school leadership, resulting in low trust. This divide is especially prominent in urban schools, where teaching staff are commonly much less racially diverse than the communities they serve. Schools must proactively build a welcoming and non-judgmental culture for parents, encourage them to visit the school, and create space for those types of conversations.

Are there any big picture best practices around family engagement you can share from your work? What makes a winning family engagement strategy?

Through our research and benchmarking, we’ve identified five design principles that inform successful family engagement strategies:

  1. Successful family engagement requires a shared organizational mindset that deeply values and respects family contributions.
  2. To achieve buy-in among staff, the top leaders must emphasize the importance of family engagement.
  3. Principals should be the focal point of training efforts so they become champions of family engagement in their schools – without their support, family engagement will remain sporadic and transactional.
  4. Track results and publicize them. This will build excitement around familyengagement.
  5. Make family engagement as easy as possible for campuses to implement, with easy and customizable resources, strong program design, and staff support at the central office.

What’s your advice for an organization looking to invest in family engagement?

  • Start with families and parents. Understand their needs and desires. If you’re a parent, think about what you want from your child’s school, and then think about how to make sure all parents have that.
  • Don’t make it “one more thing.” Think explicitly about how family engagement can support other goals and priorities. For example, if a school has a goal aroundincreasing reading achievement, engage parents through starting and operating a book fair, leading a book drive, or volunteering in classrooms or the library.
  • Support teachers and administrators. School staff are busy. If you’re going to ask them to increase time and energy on family engagement, think about how to take other non-essential tasks off their plates (e.g., paperwork) and provide them with ready-to-use resources and supports.

To learn more about Bellwether’s Strategic Advising team and how we can partner with you on family engagement strategies or other work, email contactus@bellwethereducation.org.

“I’d Better Bring Home An A”: The Power Of Parent Expectations

This week, Bellwether staff share their perspectives on family and parent engagement. Follow Ahead of the Heard from now until Friday for a series of blog posts that tackle common misconceptions about engaged parents, working with multilingual families, and more. Click here to read other posts in the series thus far.

 

It’s the beginning of the school year, and I’m already behind on my assignments — that is, the flurry of forms to fill out, orientations to attend, and Back-to-School nights to add to the calendar. As an education researcher, I applaud all the efforts to engage me in what’s going on at school — and I love hearing about what my kids are learning — but as a working parent of a middle schooler and a high schooler, I admit I groan a little trying to fit it all in.

Often, parent involvement gets framed as caregivers’ level of interaction with the school — coming to school events and volunteering with the PTA, for example. While such activities may present minor scheduling headaches for me, many caregivers face much bigger obstacles, including lack of childcare, language barriers, or working multiple jobs. Framing engagement around school-based activities can lead to the assumption that the parents who don’t appear, especially low-income parents, are apathetic about their children’s education.

But that assumption is off the mark. A parent or guardian can have a powerful impact on a child’s achievement even if they never set foot in the school. A 2013 meta-synthesis of research on parental involvement drives this point home: out of a wide variety of types of involvement explored in many different studies, parents’ expectations for academic achievement had the strongest impact on students’ academic performance.

A student I met once in a focus group at a large city high school made this point even more succinctly. When asked her thoughts on parent involvement during high school, she said emphatically: “My mom is working in another city right now, so she’s not at home. But I know I better bring home an A, or else!” Even though they were physically separated, her mother’s expectations for high achievement were a very real motivating factor.

Ultimately, a central goal of family engagement is to increase the alignment between home and school in support of each child’s education. One way to do that is by inviting caregivers to the school, but there are many other ways to provide families with the tools they need to champion learning at home. For school leaders and policymakers seeking to engage a wider range of families, below are several examples of strategies that empower parents and guardians to reinforce high expectations for academic achievement, even if they are not able to physically come to the school. Continue reading

Assets, Not Barriers: 5 Ways Teachers Can Connect With and Empower Families Across Language Barriers

This week, Bellwether staff share their perspectives on family and parent engagement. Follow Ahead of the Heard from now until Friday for a series of blog posts that tackle common misconceptions about engaged parents, working with multilingual families, and more. Click here to read other posts in the series thus far.

 

We know that parent engagement makes a difference. Students whose family members are involved in their education, regardless of their background or income, have better attendance, higher grades, and more rigorous course schedules.

But what if a language barrier keeps schools from fully connecting with parents and families?  English Language Learners are the fastest growing segment of the student population — in 2014, 11.8 million students spoke a language other than English at home. It’s imperative for schools and teachers to collaborate in support of students and families across languages. Not only that, but embracing and encouraging multiple languages and cultures (in the classroom) can be an educational asset. In order to get there, teachers must be willing to engage.

Christian Martínez-Canchola, photo via author

I spoke with my friend and former colleague, Christian Martínez-Canchola, about the best strategies teachers can employ to connect across language barriers. Christian currently serves as the Primary Years Programme Dean at Uplift Grand Preparatory in Dallas, Texas. As a classroom teacher, Christian led her bilingual students to outstanding outcomes — they consistently outperformed district averages by 30-point margins on district, state, and national assessments.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, Christian suggests five ways teachers — regardless of their language abilities — can engage multilingual families and communities in a partnership for student success:

  1. Establish trust: Speaking in a language you aren’t comfortable with is a vulnerable experience; building a trusting relationship with students and families should be one of a teacher’s first priorities. To foster this, Christian is a proponent of starting the year off with a bilingual parent survey. The outreach effort signals immediate investment to parents, and allows teachers an early look into their students’ lives. Questions range from basic contact information, to more personal inquiries. “I ask parents to describe their child’s strengths, their weaknesses, what they want to be when they grow up,” says Christian. “These are the people who know their children best.”
  2. Listen and then act: It can be easy for teachers and school staff to make well-intentioned assumptions even without a language barrier — when communication is challenging, the danger for misdiagnosis intensifies. Make conscious contact with parents and community members to identify needs.“There are always parents talking to one another. Leverage conversations with those key stakeholders — you may think parents would benefit most from a car seat drive, but in reality, they may need assistance calling the electric company or accessing dental care instead.”
  3. Redefine what engagement looks like: A narrow definition of family engagement can lead otherwise interested parents to count themselves out. Says Christian, “the parents who typically volunteer in classrooms can afford the time. For most parents though, that’s a privilege. I found that there was this misconception that parents had to physically be in the school to help, when that wasn’t the case at all.” Family members, regardless of language, can assist teachers in other ways. Classroom support can happen at home, from cutting out math manipulatives to assembling packets and leveled books. Christian adds: “Parents want to be involved. Even something small, like sending home classroom materials to be cut out, allows them to have a role in the success of their kids.”
  4. Prioritize intentionality and structure: Home visits and back-to-school nights can provide opportunities to establish trust and build partnerships. At the same time, Christian stresses the importance of planning these interactions and of not allowing them to be too ad-hoc. “If they’re intentional, [home visits] can be really impactful, but they lose all power when flimsily done,” she says. “I like when they’re structured, when schools or even outside agencies provide [teachers with] training on their actual impact and the logistical needs a bilingual home visit requires.”
  5. Empower teachers with existing resources: Districts and school leaders can connect their teaching staff with free and low-cost tools to make translation easier. Many large districts, including District of Columbia Public Schools, New York City Department of Education, and Dallas Independent School District, have translation hotlines, where teachers can reach interpreters and teams dedicated to translating documents. In addition, the Google Translate app has text translation for over 100 languages, and can translate bilingual conversations for 32 others. While not a true replacement for face-to-face translation, these tools can serve as a point of entry.


Christian’s work is fueled by a fervent desire to exemplify the strength and power of her students and their families. As one of the few Latinx and bilingual school leaders in her network, Christian says she is passionate about building a pipeline of educators who both reflect the communities that they serve and driving transformational, sustainable change. We can borrow lessons from her work empowering teachers to connect across lines of differences in the pursuit of positive outcomes for all children.