Category Archives: Rural Education

Join Us May 2nd at Union Station (with a Yellow Bus!)

The largest system of mass transit in the U.S. isn’t the airline industry. Nor is it trains, or city buses, or even all those things combined. The largest mass transit system in America is made up of the nearly 500,000 school buses transporting students to and from school each day.

Despite innovations in technology, developments in clean fuels, and big changes to the way schools work in many communities, in most places, school transportation operates much as it has for decades.

But should it?

On May 2nd, Bellwether will host a discussion of the role of transportation in education, its many challenges, and some innovations and possible solutions. We hope you’ll join us at Union Station in Washington, D.C. for a light breakfast at 8:45, followed by a lively discussion. At the end of the event, for that dose of nostalgia, we’ll even take you back to work on a yellow school bus!

Seating limited, RSVP today.

The discussion, moderated by Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham, will feature:

  • Cindy Stuart, District 3 representative on the Hillsborough County, Florida school board since 2012, and current board chair. She also represents the school board as a voting member of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization, the federally-established transportation planning body for the Tampa metropolitan area. This cooperative relationship between the school district and the broader regional transportation planning infrastructure is unique across the country and holds promise for a more coordinated approach to meeting the needs of communities and schools.
  • Mike Hughes, Assistant Director of Transportation at Boston Public Schools (BPS). BPS provides transportation to district, charter, and private schools in the Boston area — navigating a complex cross-sector system of education. Facing escalating costs and other pressures, the district has taken innovative steps to address significant challenges.
  • Joel Weaver, Director of the Chief Tahgee Elementary Academy (CTEA), a charter school located on the Fort Hall Reservation, owned by the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, in rural southeastern Idaho. CTEA serves students dispersed over a large geographic area, representative of the challenges many rural schools face in transporting students in safe, efficient, and cost-effective ways.
  • Kristin Blagg, a research associate in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC, where she focuses on education policy. She recently co-authored “Student Transportation and Educational Access” with Senior Fellow Matthew Chingos, a paper that explores the role of student transportation in school choice, profiling five choice-rich cities.

We rarely discuss school transportation, but its impact reverberates through the entire school system — raising issues of educational equity, student safety, cost-effectiveness, and environmental impact. Please join us as we explore these issues.

Rural Communities Don’t All Agree on the End Goal of Public Education

Should schools push all students to go to college or are alternatives like career and technical education (CTE) appropriate? The debate is far from settled. As the “college for all” mantra has taken hold over the last decade, CTE has gotten a bad rap as a dumping ground for underachieving kids. But critics of “college for all” point out that, done well, CTE can motivate students and help them build skills needed in the labor market. Nowhere is this debate more salient than in America’s rural schools.

For a recent report, Voices from Rural Oklahoma, Juliet Squire and I spent two weeks traveling throughout Oklahoma, conducting focus groups with members of rScreen Shot 2017-02-22 at 3.12.57 PMural communities across the state. We covered a lot of ground in these conversations, touching on issues like education funding, high school students’ course options, post-high school opportunities, and school consolidation. In each and every focus group, participants conveyed uncertainty and disagreement about what Oklahoma’s rural schools ought to be preparing students to do once they graduate.

In some cases, aversion to “college for all” was rooted in fear — fear that sending kids away to school would mean they wouldn’t return home, thus hurting their communities. There is evidence that suggests this does happen, that it is often the best and brightest that leave rural areas, leaving behind those with less education who are less prepared to help their communities prosper. A participant in one of our focus groups explained it this way: “If you drive them to college, they may have to go to Kansas City…You know, you’re setting them up to go away [rather than] return and develop our economy.”

Other participants’ views about about the necessity of higher education were shaped by the realities of their communities. We heard many stories about families who needed a welder or a plumber or an electrician — but none exist in their communities. In others, high school graduates working in the oil fields or wind farms were able to make a real, living wage without higher education. One participant told us: “A large percentage of our kids need to have a trade — be it carpentry, welding, plumbing, heat and air — ‘cause I know in our area, we don’t have enough of any of those.”

But these stories were far from universal. We also heard from parents desperate to send their kids to college, a desire stemming from their own struggle securing employment. One participant told us his story:

Just from my experience, I’ve been a welder for 16 years. I’m currently unemployed because of the market falling, bottom falling plum out of it. My boy, since he was big enough to follow me around, was putting my welding hood on. And I tell him, “You better get an education.” […] My dad grew up doing construction. I grew up doing welding. That’s no longer — not going to be available for very much longer. So education is very high and especially with us, you know, I’m telling my kids, “You got to get an education. You got to go to college.”

The economic realities of rural communities have changed significantly in recent decades, and in Oklahoma they fluctuate with the volatility in oil and gas markets. Community members may know well what skills and education credentials are necessary to get a job in their small town. But they have less information about what is needed to be employable in a different city or state, and even less understanding of the skills and knowledge that will be needed ten years from now.

Thankfully, rural communities don’t need to choose between “college for all” and high-quality CTE. Instead, state policymakers, business leaders, and education leaders can work together to help students and families understand and navigate their options. This includes listening to and accounting for the perspectives of students and parents, as we sought to do in our report. But it also involves a broader understanding of where the economy is, where it’s headed, and what skills and education will be necessary for students to thrive. With thoughtful coordination among the various actors and decision-makers in rural communities, students and families can be better positioned to make informed decisions about their educations and careers.

Finding and Financing Facilities Remains a Barrier for Idaho Charter Schools

Finding and financing school facilities continues to be a major barrier for charter schools. Many states have created programs to help ease the burden, including loan programs, per-pupil facilities allocations, and provisions to help charters access unused facilities.

But no state has fully equalized facilities access for charter schools. Idaho is no exception.

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 4.45.23 PMIn a new report, Juliet Squire and I present the results of a survey of Idaho’s charter school leaders. We asked charter leaders about their facilities-related expenditures, and what amenities (like auditoriums, gyms, and libraries) their facilities have. We then collected data points like the square footage and seat capacity of schools’ current facilities.

These data enabled us to quantify the stark discrepancy in access to state and local facilities funding sources between district and charter schools. On average, districts have access to approximately $1,445 per pupil of state and local funding. Charter schools get less than one-quarter this amount: $347.

Organizations like Building Hope and foundations like the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation (a Bellwether client) have helped close this gap for some charter schools. Others have been able to access tax-exempt bonds through the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. And the state has recently enacted a debt reserve fund and a small per-pupil facilities allocation (about $335 this year). Even so, most charter schools rely heavily on their per-pupil funds to cover facilities-related expenses.

The data from our survey suggest that, despite these avenues for facilities funding, accessing financing remains a major barrier to securing an adequate facility. Moreover, charter leaders struggle to find property suitable for their school, and often have to make significant tradeoffs — like forgoing a gymnasium or using cheaper materials to build. When facilities are inadequate, charter leaders indicate that it is difficult to provide the educational programming they envision for their students.

But perhaps the most telling finding is that, despite the financial constraints they face, charter leaders are doing extraordinary work securing facilities for their schools. In fact, they are able to build schools at a fraction of what traditional school districts spend. Continue reading

Five Takeaways for Education Reform From Tuesday’s Election

Over the next few weeks, there’s going to be a lot of discussion of “what the election means for X.” As my colleague Kaitlin has written about previously, given the very limited attention to education policy issues during question-1332054_640this campaign, and the fact that Donald Trump has released few specific policy details on any issue, it’s hard to say right now in a practical sense what Trump’s election is likely to “mean for education,” though Chad highlighted some potential implications earlier. More broadly, I think that the election as a whole, and Tuesday night’s results specifically, offer a few broad themes that those seeking to improve education policies and options for low-income kids should heed as they think about how to move forward in the current political climate:

1. The center-left consensus no longer defines the parameters of political debate. The parameters of our national policy debates over the past quarter century have been largely defined by a center-left consensus that valued globalism over tribal and national identity politics; viewed economic growth as a driving force for progress; saw free markets, innovation, and use of data and evidence as key to enabling that growth; viewed meritocracy as a positive goal; and saw education as a crucial tool for advancing inequity and helping buffer the rough edges and disruption created by market and innovation forces. The education reform movement of the past two decades largely emerged from and was shaped by that consensus, and its arguments reflect many of the same assumptions and values. It’s been clear for some time now that that center-left consensus was fraying — last night’s results, however, make it impossible to ignore. If education reformers are going to continue to make progress towards their goals for kids and schools, they are going to need to find ways to frame arguments for a new political dynamic.

2. The ascendancy of tribalism. One of the biggest ways in which this election breaks with the 90s-era consensus is in the elevation of tribal and national identity politics as driving political features. This quote from political journalist Molly Ball is particularly compelling:

This is not an election about policy. Possibly none of them have been, and we’ve all been fooling ourselves our whole lives. I feel like that’s been one of my learning experiences — that elections were, maybe, never about ideas. Maybe they were always about issues of identity and tribe and people’s sense of where the interests of their group lie and who they identify with.

George Packer makes similar points in a recent New Yorker article. The education reform movement has historically given short shrift to the power of tribal identities in driving behavior. The movement argued that privileged Americans should look against their narrow interests to support policies and investments that improve the educational and life outcomes for poor children from minority racial and ethnic backgrounds. There’s been a lot of attention lately to the ways that education reformers have at times been tone deaf or worse on issues of racial and class identity.

More broadly, however, the education reform movement has sought to build its case on appeals to logic, evidence, data, and abstract ideals while paying too little attention to the role that a much broader array of identities and allegiances play in shaping how most citizens actually judge issues and agendas. Consider Diane Ravitch: both her past academic historical work and her most recent blogging and advocacy reveal an approach to the world that is fundamentally grounded in and driven by issues of identity, allegiance, and personal loyalties. She’s certainly no Donald Trump. But they share a common rhetorical strategy of dividing the world into good people who agree with them and bad people who don’t. Labeling opponents “corporate reformers” isn’t about criticizing their ideas — it’s about guilt-by-association tied to allegiance and identity. And the huge following Ravitch has built illustrates the power of that framework for driving how people judge education issues. Unless education reformers pay more attention to the power of tribe, allegiance, and identity — in all its various forms — they’re forever going to struggle to win minds while losing hearts.

3. The decline of data, evidence, and evaluation. As noted above, education reformers have set a lot of stock in data, evidence, and evaluation — both as tools to inform decisions about educational practice and policy, and to make the case for their proposed policies. Tuesday’s results illustrate the declining efficacy of data-based arguments to inform voters, however. A huge number of Americans voted for a candidate whose blatant disregard for facts and data earned him a historically unprecedented number of PolitiFact “Pants On Fire” ratings and the first ever “King of Whoppers” title from FactCheck.org. The defeat of Massachusetts’ charter school referendum — preventing expansion of charter schools in a state where there is powerful evidence that they produce phenomenal results for kids — shows the declining power of evidence to sway voters’ views on education issues.

4. Fear of loss is a more powerful driver than hope for the future. When people write the post-mortem on this election, they’re likely going to talk about an enthusiasm gap between Clinton supporters and Trump supporters, or between Democrats and Republicans who held their noses as they voted for their parties’ candidates. I was particularly struck by last night’s data showing high levels of turnout in rural counties that went overwhelmingly for Donald Trump.  I’m not an expert, but part of what I think we’re seeing here is that Clinton supporters were motivated by both fear of Trump and excitement about electing the first woman president — but they weren’t existentially convinced that their way of life was under attack. That’s part of why so many Clinton supporters were shocked when Trump won. Many Trump voters, on the other hand, do believe that their way of life and the America they know is fundamentally under attack by feminists, immigrants, and others who hold different values than they do — and that came through in the results.

There’s much economics and psychology literature on how the prospect of losing what you currently have is more motivating to people than the prospect of future gain. People who believe that their way of life and deeply held values are under existential attack are always going to be more motivated than people who are driven primarily by hope for future progress. That’s always going to be a challenge for progressives. But it’s also a challenge for education reform: People who fear that proposed changes are going to cause loss — whether it’s through job loss, closures of schools that have historically served their communities, or loss of privileges that come with being able to buy into a wealthy school zone — are going to be very motivated. Whereas the people with the most to benefit from those changes are often diffuse, not well organized, and may not be confident the changes will actually produce promised results. And there’s some reason to believe that this dynamic–specifically suburban voters’ fears that charters would threaten their privileged local schools–contributed to opposition to the Massachusetts charter referendum. More broadly, education reforms are inherently facing an asymmetric fight and need to plan accordingly.

5. Pay more attention to rural communities. I’m as sick as anyone of the endless articles attributing Trump’s success to the economic woes of white working class men harmed by trade. Data during the campaign clearly showed that Trump supporters had higher incomes than the national average or than Clinton supporters, and were not disproportionately from areas affected by trade or immigration. Trump’s margin among college-educated white voters Tuesday should also put that to rest. That said, we shouldn’t write an important topic off just because people are paying attention to it for the wrong reasons. This election has brought much-needed attention to the very real challenges facing the rural, white, working class in Appalachia and the Rust Belt. Many of those issues are deeply embedded in education — both in the sense that economic and family instability create challenges for schools educating students, and in the sense that schools have at times contributed to and must play a role in addressing some of the challenges these communities currently face. As research by my Bellwether colleagues notes, there are significant gaps in educational attainment and aspirations for rural students, and rural schools face unique issues. But rural education has been largely ignored by education reform efforts and in debates over education policies. As a result, many recent policy strategies are largely designed with assumptions of an urban or suburban context. Going forward, I hope that this increased recognition of the challenges facing rural, white working class families can also translate into new, smart thinking about how to best help rural schools meet the needs of these children and families.

What a Cluster! Dispatch from #EdClusters16

WaterFire - Providence, RI

via http://waterfire.org/

Last week, Digital Promise, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating innovation in education, hosted its fourth convening of Education Innovation Clusters in Providence, Rhode Island (#EdClusters16).

According to Digital Promise, “Education Innovation Clusters are local communities of practice that bring together educators, entrepreneurs, funders, researchers, and other community stakeholders (families, local government, non-profits) to support innovative teaching and learning in their region. By working together, these partners form a network that is uniquely positioned to design, launch, iterate on, and disseminate breakthrough learning practices and tools.”

The goal of the convening was to share best practices and address common challenges among clusters. One of those challenges is research and measurement of innovation efforts so I was there to share our recently released U.S. Education Innovation Index Prototype and Report (USEII).

I gave the whole presentation with my eyes closed (false) & there was more than one person listening (true!). Photo credit: @johnbaldo.

I was thrilled to be invited because there are only a handful of people in the education sector who are diligently working to push the envelope of schools. This group of entrepreneurs, funders, school leaders, and accelerator leaders were refreshingly aware of the current everyday realities of students, teachers, and principals, but thinking five to ten years into the future.

There was another reason that I was excited about joining this convening. Clusters are prototypical innovation-supporting institutions, structures that specifically aim to increase and improve innovation activities. The clusters facilitate social connections, help practitioners solve problems, and serve as hubs for the diffusion of new ideas. Because of this research-backed lesson, cities that are part of one of Digital Promise’s innovation clusters score higher on the USEII than those that don’t. Convenings of cluster leaders like this one create a superstructure for the diffusion of knowledge within and between clusters. It’s one thing to research networks like this, it’s quite another to be swept up in the debate, discussion, and energy for education innovation.

Here are a few observations on the convening and what it signals for education innovation: Continue reading