Category Archives: Politics of Education

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

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.

Bellwarians React: Is P.E. Class Terrible?

Last week, Atlantic staff writer Alia Wong lifted the lid on the often-satirized state of physical education. Despite all the gym class parodies, Wong points to a real problem: sometimes gym class is so bad that kids skip school to avoid it.

So I asked our team: what are some of your most salient P.E. memories? (As a place that champions ideological diversity and doesn’t take organizational positions, Bellwether encourages staff to share — and to disagree.)

Here are a few quick takes from across the Bellwether team:

Alyssa Schwenk, director of development:

P.E. at my high school was designed as a student-herder: you basically got dropped into whatever class worked with the rest of your schedule. One-seventh of the school was in P.E. at any given period, and this meant that a.) it was an enormous group of kids, and b.) you were probably friends with very, very few of them. It was democratizing and bewildering and generally barely tolerated.

Once all 200 kids were in the gym complex, you selected a couple of sub-units for the semester, like yoga, volleyball, or Billy Blanks videos. At some point I selected “aerobic activity,” which consisted of lapping the indoor track and keeping your heart rate above a certain level. But the heart-rate monitors were calibrated based on your age and weight, not fitness levels…and I was on the swim team. And had been since I was seven.

So while the true purpose of signing up was to walk and talk with the people you knew, I suddenly realized I would need to be running sub-eight minute miles for forty minutes every other day to pass. I hated running then (like, really hated running) but was simultaneously terrified that I would get a C in gym and wreck my GPA, therefore ruining any and all chances at getting into college.

Eventually I managed to wheedle and cajole enough that I was allowed to participate without the heart-rate monitor, and everyone involved agreed that I was getting “aerobic activity” via swimming three hours a day after school. GPA disaster averted. Continue reading

Teachers’ Strike: Long Live Unions, Unions Are Dead

More than 30,000 teachers are still striking in Los Angeles, so clearly the Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. ASFCME didn’t kill the unions yet. Will it ever? Maybe someday — and maybe soon.

I wrote about the unions’ legal road ahead for The Hill last month:

Janus has teed up a challenge to how employees become members of a union in the first place — and if that challenge is successful, its effects will be seismic. On its face, the question is straightforward: If non-members now have to opt in to paying agency fees, then why don’t employees have to opt in to joining the union in the first place?

I don’t have a prediction for how this strike will resolve, but it’s unlikely to have any effect on the long-term prognosis for the unions.