Category Archives: Politics of Education

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.

poster for film: “Can We Talk? Difficult Conversations with Underrepresented People of Color: Sense of Belonging and Obstacles to STEM Fields”

“Can We Talk?” What Inclusion Means For Those of Us Who Count As “Diverse”

In many cases, “diversity” has become a code word for hiring or simply acknowledging historically marginalized groups such as people of color or women. This can range from boasting hiring statistics to low-effort activities such as participating in a career fair at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) when looking to recruit talent. Once the diversity targets are met or there are one or two “diversity success stories,” then that is it. Mission accomplished. And, let’s be honest, people feel great when they can spout off statistics that illustrate the strides their workplace or academic institution has made in the name of “diversity.”

But what does that mean for those of us who are the “diverse” population? Belonging and feeling welcomed is another beast that is often overlooked in diversity efforts. I recently got to watch the documentary “Can We Talk? Difficult Conversations with Underrepresented People of Color,” which examines inclusion in the Science, Technology, Math, and Science (STEM) fields and features raw and unfiltered conversations about the struggles of “diverse” individuals on their paths to success.

While the film focused on the experiences of those in STEM, I think the lessons extend to education organizations generally. As “Can We Talk?” highlighted (and as I have experienced personally), many organizations fall short when they believe that diversity is an end-game in itself. The reality is that this is only the beginning. Being accepted or hired into an organization is one thing, but being accepted (and understood) by your peers is another. The film highlighted several powerful themes in the experiences of people of color who were made to feel as though they did not belong. A couple of moments that stood out to me:

“Oh, this is very well-written. Did you have help?”

Days after completing her qualifying exams, these exact words were spoken to an African-American female student studying Neuroscience by her professor. Whether or not that was his intention, the words made the student feel as though she wasn’t competent. Continue reading

Bellwarians React: Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 Billion Donation to Johns Hopkins University

photograph of Michael BloombergEarlier this month, Michael Bloomberg announced a $1.8 billion donation to his alma mater of Johns Hopkins University (JHU) to officially make the university “need-blind” forever. The largest donation to an individual college in history, the funds will also support other policies to make the campus more affordable for low- and middle-income families.

Internet and social media erupted with reactions, ranging from excited to skeptical to angry. Bellwarians, including two JHU alumni, took to Salesforce Chatter, our internal social media and collaboration tool, to weigh in. As a place that champions ideological diversity and doesn’t take organizational positions, Bellwether encourages staff to share — and to disagree. (More broadly, by maintaining an environment where divergent perspectives are freely expressed, we are able to generate creative solutions to our clients’ problems without falling into pre-baked camps or agendas. It’s something we’re proud of.)

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

Starr Aaron, executive & business systems assistant:

I am pleased to see these efforts. When I was at Hopkins, it was not known as particularly generous with financial aid. Some of the skepticism I’ve witnessed is from classmates who wonder if the money will reach those who need it. Others wonder if Bloomberg is running for President (maybe he is, but he’s been generous a long time). Some are smirking while they remember the time he gave a relatively small amount to “upgrade” all the walkways on campus to brick paths and how the university hopped right to it.

The current tuition is eye-poppingly high — I’ve already warned my own children that if they feel Hopkins-bound, well, good luck with that!

Bonnie O’Keefe, associate partner:

I think the skepticism and anger come from two places. One, a frustration that so many public and private institutions depend on the largesse of billionaires to fulfill what should be essential parts of their mission. Second, the idea that so much money is going to an elite institution where a billionaire has a personal connection — an institution that doesn’t serve the most at-risk students and could operate a lot more equitably with the resources it already has. (Full disclosure: I went to Hopkins for grad school and my husband worked there for several years).

All things being equal, I agree with Michael Bloomberg that alumni should direct donations to financial aid. Especially at highly selective and expensive schools, this seems much more urgent than rec centers or fancy buildings. And Bloomberg has done plenty in education outside JHU, so I don’t think he could be credibly accused of focusing only on his own alma mater. The backlash seems more symbolic of where elite colleges and billionaire philanthropy sit today than anything specifically bad about this particular donation.

Cara Jackson, associate partner:

Students who gain admission to JHU are probably going to succeed in life regardless of which college they choose to attend. And if Bloomberg wanted to target resources to help low-income students access higher education, he’d spend the money at a community college or cover the living expenses of low-income students attending public universities. My (admittedly skeptical) take is that this mainly benefits JHU…which is not to say that Bloomberg wasn’t well-intentioned.

Hailly Korman, senior associate partner:

I think it’s complex and I don’t disagree with anything that folks have raised so far, but it also makes me think about how Bloomberg got so much money in the first place. If we look under the hood, what are the links between the policies and systems that support that kind of wealth accumulation and the things that make low-income families low-income to begin with?