Category Archives: Research

The Logic Behind School Choice — And Three Ways To Strengthen It

In recent weeks, Democratic presidential candidates’ views on education, specifically on school choice and charters, have come under scrutiny. And a recent EdNext poll indicates that Democrats are deeply divided on school choice topics. 

The usual debate on school choice asks “does it work,” but rarely do I hear discussion about how it’s intended to work in the first place.

Some people view school choice as a public good in and of itself, in that it provides options for families. For this group, evidence of student achievement, educational attainment, and other outcomes is secondary. It is the availability of and access to educational options — on their own — which validate the need for and merit of school choice.  

Others, myself included, view school choice as a potential means to an end: a way to improve educational opportunities not just for the students whose families are willing and able to choose, but for those students who remain in their traditional public schools as well. In theory, competition pressures schools to improve quality in order to retain their “customers,” i.e., students.

In order to get from point A (offering school choice) to point B (improved outcomes), what has to happen? The logic model below outlines the theory behind my perspective:  Continue reading

Bleak Pictures of Rural Communities Are Not the Full Story

From lobsters to bikes to HBCUs, Bellwether has covered a breadth of topics tied to rural education over the last six years. While we are by no means the first group to do in-depth research on rural schools and communities, we were among the first in the education reform community to begin thinking critically about policy solutions for rural schools. And as more and more of our peers have turned their attention to the rural context, we’ve realized that there’s a lack of basic understanding of the facts about rural schools and communities. 

To help address that problem, we’ve put together a new resource: “Wide Open Spaces: Schooling in Rural America Today.”

This deck pulls together data and research on education, economic development, and more into a coherent fact base to explain the current state of rural communities and schools. It begins with an overview of the variation of communities within the rural designation in terms of their locations, economies, strengths, and challenges. For example, resort communities like Eagle County (Vail), Colorado and impoverished communities like many along the Mississippi Delta are both considered rural but have dramatically different geographic, economic, educational, and social contexts. Continue reading

“Quiet Rooms” and Other Forms of Exclusionary Discipline Are Not Evidence-Based Practices

Every time a reformer proposes a new idea in education, critics and skeptics demand evidence. Our state and federal laws prefer evidence-based practices and reward the adoption of practices backed by valid and reliable research. But when defending the status quo, no one ever seems interested in the evidence. 

Last week’s Chicago Tribune piece on the disturbing use of “quiet rooms” as a behavior management strategy indicated that these euphemistically named rooms are in use across the state of Illinois. Children are routinely placed into isolation when they misbehave, under the pretense of behavior management or time to reflect. These rooms are isolation masquerading as quasi-in-school suspension, and there is, of course, no evidence to support them. In fact, the evidence runs in the opposite direction: “time-outs” actively harm children. That doesn’t seem to stop schools from using them.

A student in Utah sits alone outside his classroom

A student in Utah sits alone outside his classroom. From Bellwether’s Rigged series.

Beyond the extreme example of Illinois’ “quiet rooms,” isolation and other exclusionary discipline practices are pervasive and, for many, noncontroversial. This includes suspensions and expulsions, which enjoy mainstream support from teachers and policymakers. Stories of suspension and expulsion don’t carry the same visceral horror as these examples from Illinois, but they’re all based on the same fundamentally flawed premise: that you can compel any individual to behave well by demanding obedience through force and deprivation.

The problem with our easy comfort with exclusionary discipline is that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in schools — and it doesn’t work in any other context either.  Continue reading

Bellwether Recognized For Core Value of Synergy as Key Partner in $20 Million Grant

Collaborating across teams sounds simple, but it’s not easy, and it has even been described as “dangerous.” 

When organizations and individuals join forces with those outside their immediate circles, they do so to reach common goals, recognizing that their combined efforts, if synergistic, can create greater impact than their separate ones. But because human beings, and the groups with which we affiliate, bring our cultures, jargon, preferred solutions, and power dynamics to collaboration, synergy is not inevitable — or easy. It requires deliberate effort, a willingness to work outside of one’s typical patterns, and a desire to meld together the best of various disciplines to provide holistic solutions for complex problems. 

Synergy matters because education is complex: its problems are not one-dimensional, so its solutions can’t be either. 

Entering our tenth year as a nonprofit, Bellwether has long harnessed our organizational superpower of synergy — and in fact it’s one of our core values. We intentionally bring together people with different specialties, work experiences, identities, political affiliations, and approaches to advance a shared mission of dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved students. Some of my colleagues are former teachers who think through the lens of facilitation and skill-building when working with adults. Some, like myself, come from the background of evaluation, and reference the scientific method when we approach problems. Others have a business or consulting background and think about making organizations more effective and joyful places to work. Still others within Bellwether think about the policy contexts in which these organizations operate. 

This approach is getting some recognition. In late September, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a five-year grant worth $20 million to a collaborative partnership involving Bellwether Education Partners, Westat (the lead grantee), RMC Research, and Academic Development Institute to support a National Comprehensive Center (“National Center”) aimed at improving educational outcomes for all students, closing achievement gaps, and enhancing the quality of instruction. Through this work, we’ll get to take synergy to the next level by leveraging skill sets within our team and across these partnering organizations. 

Some context: Since 2002, regionally based comprehensive centers (RCCs) have been quietly providing capacity-building services to education agencies across all 50 states and territories. Funded by the Department of Education, RCCs are intentionally focused on the specific needs of the state and local education agencies they serve, which can vary based on local priorities, policies, and student populations. 

Until now, the benefits and lessons from this targeted support have remained largely within the states and regions being served. The Comprehensive Centers have done important work, but they have lacked the synergy superpower. Continue reading

Warren Wants to Slash the Program I Evaluate — But I’ve Seen It Work

Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren released her education plan, where she proposed slashing federal funding for the expansion of public charter schools by ending the Charter School Program (CSP). Warren claims that the CSP is an “abject failure,” citing a report by an anti-charter organization that the federal government has wasted up to $1 billion on charter schools. (The report’s lack of substance and evidence has already been raised by others.)

U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren visiting Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa. She spoke to a group of about 400 students to outline her K-12 education plan, answer questions, and pose for selfies.

Photo of Elizabeth Warren via Flickr user tabor-roeder

I know Warren is wrong firsthand. As part of my work at Bellwether Education Partners, I serve as an external evaluator for three CSP grantees (as my colleague Cara mentioned yesterday). Our unbiased, rigorous, and data-driven evaluations indicate that when implemented well, high-quality charters use their CSP funds to improve their model and successfully serve more students. These charter schools are the reason their students experience gains in achievement beyond their traditional public school peers. 

Let me step back. The CSP began in 1994 as an amendment to the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It has three goals:

  1. To create promising new public charter schools,
  2. To replicate high-quality public charter schools, and
  3. To disseminate information about effective practices within charter schools.

In 15 years, CSP has awarded close to $4 billion to charters serving disproportionately more low-income and diverse students than traditional public schools. The average award is about $500K. In exchange for CSP replication funds, the schools expand to serve more students. CSP replication grantees are required to evaluate their progress, and it is strongly recommended that they use an external evaluator to do so. The evaluation must demonstrate that the grantee is doing what it said it would do and compare the achievement of its students to students attending nearby traditional public schools for evidence of impact. This is how the CSP holds grantees accountable. 

My colleagues and I use advanced statistical modeling techniques to compare charter-attending students to similar students attending nearby traditional public schools on a 1:1 basis. In the model, when all things are considered, the difference in achievement found can be attributed to the school. In fact, an emerging trend in our current data analysis suggests that the longer a student attends a well-implemented, high-quality charter school, the larger the gains in achievement over their traditional public school student peer become. Continue reading