Category Archives: Research

Facing School Budget Cuts? Targeted Universalism Can Help

As education leaders plan for the fall, they face increased costs to meet pandemic mitigation guidelines and simultaneous reduced budgets. This seems like an impossible proposition, but the concept of targeted universalism can help.

Targeted universalism is a way to develop strategies that help all groups reach a shared or universal goal through a deep focus on equity when choosing and designing interventions and in understanding progress and outcomes. The concept emerged from collaborations between researchers john a powell, Angela Blackwell, and Manuel Pastor, who studied urban policy solutions that focused solely on cities while ignoring surrounding and interconnected suburbs. 

Targeted universal strategies typically start with a focus on deeply understanding and addressing challenges for group members on the margins (e.g., students with disabilities who are severely under- or over-performing compared to the average) and then designing solutions that meet their needs — but which are then applied to all members of the group (e.g., all students with disabilities) and sometimes an entire population (e.g., all students). The example commonly used to illustrate targeted universalism is of curb cuts, the ramps cut from the top of a sidewalk down to the adjoining street. While originally designed and promoted by advocates in wheelchairs, curb cuts ultimately benefited the majority of pedestrians who use curb cuts for strollers, carts, bikes, and simple convenience. (One architect found that 90% of unencumbered pedestrians went out of their way to use a curb cut in a shopping mall). 

In the world of education, this could look like focusing on those for whom COVID-related learning losses are greatest: those who are economically disadvantaged, English language learners, students with disabilities, youth in foster care, those involved with the juvenile justice system, or young people experiencing homelessness. A recent survey from NWEA projects that students will return to school in the fall with only 70% of a typical year of learning in ELA and 50% in math, and the effect is likely more significant for traditionally underserved students. To address the needs of those most affected by school closures, education leaders must consider the unique challenges and assets of these students and their families. For example, leaders must figure out how to ensure all students have educational resources. Schools with limited funds to purchase student devices can provide students with printed materials. This in turn can support homeless students who may not have a reliable source of power to charge devices and students with disabilities preventing extended computer use.  Continue reading

How Students and Adults Experienced COVID-19 Disruptions

Alieyyah Lewis is an intern with Bellwether’s Policy & Evaluation team.

Like many current students, I experienced disruption due to COVID-19. I’m a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, where I study Public Policy & Management. I was enjoying my spring break in March when my program informed us four days before classes were scheduled to resume that they would be switching to an entirely virtual model for the remainder of spring semester.

This was stressful and shocking. I was concerned with how my professors would switch to a virtual format, how assessments would be administered, whether my professors would provide my accommodations with fidelity, and whether professors would still hold office hours.

But unlike many students across the country, I did not have to worry about lacking access to technology to complete my coursework. I am fortunate to have reliable Wi-Fi at home, and even if I didn’t, my school’s academic buildings remained open for students to use Wi-Fi or printing services.

It is no surprise that students in K-12 schools experienced disruptions much more severe than mine, ranging from lack of adequate school supplies to homelessness. The findings of a recent national survey conducted by Bellwether, which I helped analyze, brought the challenges faced by adults who serve youth into sharper focus.

Our new brief looks at how leaders across systems of care — including schools, nonprofit organizations, social service agencies, juvenile justice systems, and foundations — supported special populations of students before and during COVID-19. Special populations of students include those within foster care, juvenile justice, or special education systems. The analysis sought to understand how time was spent on five priorities before and during COVID-19:

  1. Communication and coordination
  2. Education technology and school supplies
  3. Academic support
  4. Well-being
  5. Collaboration with other entities

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Black Superwoman Syndrome: What It Is and How Organizations Can Better Support Their Black Female Leaders

In my late 20’s, working as a school leader, I had two surgeries to remove benign tumors despite having an impeccable health record and no family history of tumors. Over my entire career in leadership, I have watched other Black women — leaders I’ve supported, peers, mentors, clients, and friends — struggle with serious physical and mental health challenges, including anxiety, hair loss, eating disorders, depression, and auto-immune diseases.

With the spotlight on issues faced by Black employees during this new racial reckoning, it’s important to elevate Black Superwoman Syndrome. Coined by Dr. Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombe, professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill School of Nursing, the phenomenon includes five major behaviors demonstrated by Black women leaders: obligation to manifest strength, obligation to suppress emotions, resistance to being vulnerable or dependent, determination to succeed despite significantly limited resources, and an obligation to help others. 

This Superwoman-like behavior can be both an asset and a necessary liability to ascend in predominantly white-led workplaces. The relentless drive to dispel negative stereotypes of Black women as “lazy” or “incompetent” has enabled many Black women to thrive in leadership in these spaces. However, once in these leadership roles, Black women often find themselves to be one of the few or only people of color at decision-making tables, which may continue to feed the syndrome. 

The pressure on Black women to juggle and be perfect at all things because of unequal expectations at the intersection of race and gender-based oppression takes a physical and emotional toll. Amani M. Allen (formerly Nuru-Jeter) of the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health describes the toll as “the slow deterioration of our bodies.”

Many articles on this topic list tips Black women can follow to “put down their capes,” but this syndrome is not Black women’s sole responsibility to address. Leaders of organizations can identify the “Superwomen” hiding in plain sight and create the conditions that better support them.

Tresha Ward, partner at Bellwether Education Partners, quote: "Organizational leaders need to reckon with the reality that they may have cultivated a culture where it’s uncomfortable for Black women to express emotions other than contentedness in the name of “professionalism.”

Here are ways I’ve seen this syndrome manifest itself: 

Obligation to manifest strength

There is an expectation to put on a “strong face” even when Black female leaders don’t want to or have the energy to do so. To do otherwise could cause others to question their capabilities. This looks like powering through the day without breaking a sweat; handling crisis after crisis and meeting after meeting; and solving every problem that walks through the door — alone — because that is the expectation many have of them.    Continue reading

New National Data on Preschool Programs Particularly Important Due to COVID-19

Most state-funded pre-K programs, like most schools, are closed due to the coronavirus. But most states do not have the same state constitutional obligation to provide pre-K as they do for K-12 students, so pre-K programs can be particularly vulnerable to state budget cuts when tough economic times reduce state revenues. 

As states begin to face the fiscal and economic consequences of COVID-19, the National Institute for Early Education Research released its State Preschool Yearbook, which provides the most comprehensive and accurate information available on enrollment in, funding for, and features of state-funded pre-K programs.

Cover of the National Institute for Early Education Research 2019 State Preschool YearbookNIEER’s current report looks at data from the 2018-19 school year and finds that: 

  • State pre-K programs enrolled 1.63 million children in 2018-19. Most of these children (about 85%) are 4, with far fewer 3-year-olds served.  
  • The number of children served in state-funded pre-K increased slightly (by about 3%) from the 2017-18 to 2018-18 school year, with most of that increase for 4-year-olds. 
  • Taking into account Head Start and special education preschool, about 44% of 4-year-olds and 17% of 3-year-olds attend some type of publicly funded program.* This has stayed largely level even as state pre-K enrollment has increased, in part because some Head Start slots have shifted to serve infants and toddlers, particularly in places with high pre-K enrollment. 
  • Access to state pre-K varies widely by state: Only 10 states serve more than 50% of 4-year-olds and 5 serve 70% or more. Twelve states with preschool programs serve 10% or less of 4-year-olds, and six states have no state-funded pre-K. Only 7 states and the District of Columbia serve more than 10% of 3-year-olds. 

During and in the wake of the 2008 Recession, states cut spending on pre-K and other early childhood programs. While pre-K enrollment levels continued to grow, per-child funding decreased, as states sought to stretch less funding across more kids, with detrimental impacts on program quality.  Continue reading

Evaluators Bring Superpowers to Your Federal Grant Application

Yesterday, my colleague Lina Bankert wrote about three new federal grant competitions that have just been posted. Those who are new to federal grant competitions may find the evaluation requirements and research-design options (explained below) overwhelming. Federal grant applications typically require:

  • An evidence-based rationale for the proposed project’s approach, such as a logic model
  • Citations of prior research that support key components of a project’s design and meet specific thresholds for rigor specified by the What Works Clearinghouse
  • Expected outcomes and how applicants will measure those with valid and reliable instruments
  • Explanation of how the proposed project will be studied to understand its impact

Proposals may be scored by two kinds of individuals: reviewers with programmatic expertise and reviewers with evaluation expertise. Sections of the grant are allocated a certain number of points, all of which total to a final score that drives which proposals receive awards. The evaluation section of these proposals can represent up to 25% of the total points awarded to applicants, so having a strong one can make or break an application. 

red letters that say "KAPOW" coming out of a blue and yellow comic-style explosion

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Writing these sections requires a sophisticated understanding of research methodology and analytical techniques in order to tie the application together with a consistent and compelling evidence base. Our evaluation team at Bellwether has partnered with a number of organizations to help them design programmatic logic models, shore up their evidence base, and write evaluation plans that have contributed to winning applications to the tune of about $60 million. This includes three recent partnerships with Chicago International Charter School, Citizens of the World Charter Schools, and Grimmway Schools — all winners in the latest round of Charter School Program (CSP) funding for replication and expansion of successful charter networks.

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