Category Archives: Research

Stop Pitting Personalized Learning Against Academic Rigor: We Need Both

TNTP recently found that in 40% of classrooms serving a majority of students of color, students never received a single grade-level assignment. How can education accelerate learning if grade-appropriate assignments aren’t even being made available?

For several years, education innovators have debated which approach to take in response to this problem: technology-driven learning designed to meet students where they are — or whole-course curriculum that assumes students are already performing at grade-level. To put it more simply: personalized learning versus academic rigor. 

But instead of debating these innovations and their efficacy, the educational equity movement should advance a collective effort to meaningfully lead to equitable outcomes for Black, Latino, and Native students, and students affected by poverty. The reality is that any solution to address learning gaps will require a concerted combination of efforts, not siloed approaches.

Last spring, a team at Bellwether Education Partners deeply researched the shifts that need to occur in the field so that students with significant learning gaps access educational systems, schools, and classrooms that enable rigorous, differentiated learning. 

And in a new resource I co-authored with Lauren Schwartze and Amy Chen Kulesa, we show that there is no silver bullet. It will take time, energy, focus, innovation, and collaborative efforts across the sector that involve: Continue reading

Story-driven Education Reform — That Doesn’t Burden the Storyteller, Part Two

As I recently wrote, I’ve spent the last two years leading a body of work here at Bellwether that focuses on the experiences of young people most affected by education fragmentation. These students are served by multiple public systems, change schools frequently, and may not have a single consistent adult to help them navigate a complex web of services and programs. 

Our team has interviewed dozens of people directly impacted by these systems. While existing story collection efforts often require struggling people to be vulnerable in front of powerful strangers — which can sometimes cause unintended harm — we were committed to doing things differently. 

Check out this behind-the-scenes footage to hear more from me on our approach: 

Here are six key strategies we used to collect digital story materials while minimizing the burden on the storytellers:

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School Board Demographics Don’t Match Student Demographics  — And That’s a Problem

This post is part of a series about Bellwether’s recent work on school governance and school board effectiveness.

Today’s average public school board member is a white male with a family income of over $100K a year. 

The majority of today’s public schools students, on the other hand, are female, students of color, and very likely to be from low-income families. Many are first-generation Americans navigating their own lives while also serving as de facto interpreters for their parents. 

If school board members don’t look like the students they represent, how can boards understand and value the needs of our most underserved students — and make decisions through an equity lens?

Bellwether recently completed research on Rhode Island’s governance practices, including how  school boards operate. Similar to the findings of a 2018 National School Boards Association report, we found that more than 60% of board members in Rhode Island are white and have advanced degrees, while fewer than 6% grew up in poverty or received special education or English language learning support. In contrast, 49% of Rhode Island’s public schools’ students are people of color: 31% are Hispanic/Latinx and close to 10% are Black/African American. 40% of these students are from low-income families, almost 20% are identified as having a disability, and almost 10% are English language learners.

Rhode Island is not alone. A recent study of Ohio’s school boards illustrates how lack of representation and understanding hurts underserved students. In the case of Ohio, citizens from more affluent areas run for school board and are elected, and then amplify the voices of families from their neighborhoods. As a result, affluent students and their schools receive greater resources.

For more equitable school board decision making, here are three suggestions for state departments of education, school boards, and leaders:

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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

Teacher Residencies Can Translate Into a More Diverse Workforce, But Who Will Bear the Expenses?

A growing number of studies have documented the benefits of teacher diversity, as my colleagues have previously discussed (see here and here). And research drawing on data from the Measures of Effective Teaching project found that all students preferred teachers of color. Yet despite the value of diversifying the teaching workforce, Black teachers remain underrepresented. They made up around 7 to 8 percent of all teachers between school years 1999-2000 and 2015-2016, while Black students accounted for between 16 to 17 percent of all students in the same time period. The proportion of Hispanic public elementary and secondary school teachers appeared to be increasing slightly, but not nearly as fast as the proportion of Hispanic students, as seen in the figure below.

Proportion of Hispanic students and teachers over time

As my colleague Katrina has noted, a number of barriers to diversifying the teacher workforce exist, including the considerable cost to become a teacher. Traditional preparation programs have high out-of-pocket and opportunity costs (i.e., limited income while enrolled in a program). As Ashley LiBetti and Justin Trinidad describe in their recent report, these costs limit the pool of teacher candidates:  

In the traditional model, candidates must invest more than $24,000 and 1,500 hours to become a teacher…This upfront financial and opportunity cost limits the pool of candidates to those who can afford the risk, effectively cutting out nontraditional candidates, low- and lower-middle-income candidates, and career-changers.

Given well-documented racial disparities in wealth, the high cost of becoming a teacher is likely to have a disproportionate impact on the career decisions of people of color. Alternate routes to teaching may be an attractive option for prospective teachers who are sensitive to costs. As seen below, teachers from alternate routes tend to be more racially diverse than teachers from traditional teacher preparation programs. 

Racial/ethnic diversity for tradition route and alternate route teachers

Yet alternate routes have proven controversial, even when evidence suggests that alternatively certified teachers are equally or more effective at increasing student achievement on standardized tests, relative to their counterparts. In Houston, for example, school district trustees recently voted to end the district’s contract with Teach For America, citing concerns about teacher turnover. 

Teacher residency programs have emerged as perhaps a more politically viable alternative certification route than “fast-track” programs, by emphasizing on-the-job training prior to becoming a teacher of record. Because residents are typically paid a stipend during their apprenticeship period, entering teaching through a residency tends to cost less than entering through a traditional route. However, residencies typically pay a stipend that is less than what a teacher of record would earn. As a result, the cost of entering the profession through a residency program is higher than the cost of entering through a fast-track alternative certification program.  Continue reading