Category Archives: School Governance

More, Better, Faster: Q&A with the Bellwether Team Behind Eight Cities

Last week, we released Eight Cities, a multimedia website designed to show current and future superintendents, school board members, and state education leaders that it’s possible to go beyond incremental academic improvement even in the largest or most politically charged environments.

The site is visually stunning, and takes a unique story-driven approach to covering education reform in places where leaders are getting more kids into better schools faster than other urban areas. The bulk of the writing and research was done by Bellwether’s own Lynne Graziano, Jason Weeby, and Tanya Paperny. Given the project’s unique approach, I chatted with them to share more about the process of creating Eight Cities.

What was the motivation behind doing this project, and why now?

Jason Weeby: Over the past two decades, multiple cities have been implementing similar strategies to improve their schools. CRPE calls it the “portfolio strategy,” David Osborne calls them “21st century school systems,” and the Texas Education Agency calls them “systems of great schools.” Whatever you call it, the various strategies have common beliefs and pillars, namely that schools should be the unit of change, they need certain freedoms to serve their students, and they should be held accountable for whether their students are learning.

In a lot of the cities where this has been put into practice, student achievement has increased and achievement gaps between low-income students and students of color and their wealthier, whiter counterparts are closing. This project aimed to verify the academic improvements and understand how the strategy evolved by talking to the people who were closest to it. Our goal is to share lessons with current and future superintendents and board members who are interested in the approach that these eight cities took.

You focus on eight big urban districts, all of which have had a flurry of controversy tangled up in their reform and modernization efforts. Why did you choose to explore these cities specifically?

Lynne Graziano: We looked for cities that had several components in place or in the works, things like universal enrollment, a variety of school types with some degree of choice for families, and/or a talent strategy for teachers and school leaders. We also selected cities where research identified strong student achievement gains during the years we studied. While most system leaders would tell you there is more work to be done, we wanted to share stories of dramatic gains made in communities where student gains were previously rare.

JW: Put simply, we were looking for cities that had implemented a citywide improvement strategy based on the beliefs and practices we laid out in our introduction and which have seen more than incremental gains.

This is a really fancy website. Why didn’t you just write a report? Continue reading

How Do We Incentivize Charter Authorizers to Approve More High-Quality Alternative Schools? A Q&A With Colorado’s Antonio Parés.

Antonio Parés headshot via Twitter

Antonio Parés via Twitter

“Alternative education” is a catch-all term used to describe education programs for students who have not been well-served by traditional classroom environments. It can refer to computer-based rapid credit accrual opportunities, supportive programs for students who are pregnant or parenting, intensive English-language programs for students who have come to the United States with substantial education histories in another language, “second chance” placements for students expelled from traditional public schools, and everything in between. Precise definitions vary by state and school district.

While traditional public school districts have historically offered these alternative programs for their students, more and more state or local charter schools are beginning to offer similar programs. Charter statutes often allow the flexibility that makes room for innovation, which is needed to operate programs that meet the specific needs of some of our most vulnerable students. Yet ensuring appropriate accountability for alternative charter schools — crucial to fulfilling the other side of the autonomy-for-accountability bargain — has proven challenging.

Forward-thinking charter authorizers are contemplating the policies and institutional practices that create strong authorizing and accountability incentives for alternative programs. The right mix of flexibility, autonomy, rigor, and relevance can both ensure that authorizers do not just enable the existence of more alternative schools but that the schools they authorize provide the highest quality programs that best meet the needs of the students they serve. Good authorizing practices can also prevent schools that provide alternative programs from simply relaxing their standards and becoming a catch basin for low performing students.

A primary challenge for authorizers is that accountability metrics typically used to measure the performance of charter schools — such as student achievement or growth on state standardized assessments, student attendance, and four-year graduation rates — may not accurately apply. Alternative charter schools often serve students who enter with unique educational and life challenges or who are already far below grade level because of gaps in their prior schooling. Applying these measures rigidly can create disincentives for operators to open, or authorizers to approve, alternative school models. Conversely, some states create loopholes that allow alternative schools and their authorizers to evade accountability altogether. Some intrepid authorizers have invested significant time and resources in developing fair and accurate ways to measure the performance of diverse alternative schools, however, state laws and regulations do not always align with such approaches.

Colorado has begun a process of convening a cross-agency task force of leaders, experts, and policymakers to modify its authorizing system by improving the rigor and relevance of performance metrics for the state’s alternative education campuses (AECs). 

Antonio Parés, a partner at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, is a board member of the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI), which convened the AEC task force. CSI is Colorado’s only statewide charter school authorizer, and it currently authorizes 39 schools serving over 17,500 PK-12 students across the state. We recently caught up with Antonio to talk about the unique needs of AECs and what that means for authorizers and state education policy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been working with a task force in Colorado to improve the ways that the state holds charter authorizers accountable for the success of their alternative education campuses. Can you tell us about that process and the challenges you’re facing?

Every year or two, CSI works with our alternative education campuses to identify “alternative measurements” for each or all of the schools. Alternative measurements include student perception surveys, in-house assessments such as NWEA or MAPS, or alternative post-secondary paths. CSI convened a statewide taskforce to review and collaborate on best practices when it comes to accountability measurements and outcomes for our alternative education campuses, schools typically serving under-credited and at-risk students. We were trying — and continue to try — to balance both the unique nature of each campus and their student population with the need for consistent, longitudinal, and comparable data points. Our goal was — and continues to be — to develop the best performance metrics and frameworks for every school. Continue reading

An End to “Must-place” Teachers in LAUSD? Almost.

Last month, a quarter of Los Angeles public schools gained new power over selecting teachers to fill vacancies when the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board of Education unanimously adopted a resolution to establish mutual consent hiring. In most districts, teachers are employees of the district, not the school where they work. What that means is that they can be displaced — losing their position at their school — while still remaining employed by the district. A teacher can be displaced for many reasons, like declining enrollment, changing instructional needs, or generalized dissatisfaction with the teacher’s performance. In many districts, a teacher can remain “displaced” with full salary and benefits indefinitely.

But this is starting to change. Districts are beginning to adopt policies that recognize that teachers who are unable to find new placements after a year should not continue to stay on as fully-paid employees.

Los Angeles’ mutual consent hiring policy requires both teacher and school to agree to a teacher’s placement. This means the districts can no longer place teachers unilaterally or require schools to select from the displaced pool rather than making new hires. As of right now, the policy only covers one quarter of LAUSD schools. The remaining three quarters are still obligated to fill vacancies with displaced teachers, a group which includes those who have been unplaced for more than a year (commonly referred to as the “must-place” teachers).

Nick Melvoin championed this policy as the LAUSD school board vice president. Nick was also a witness in Reed v. State of California, a 2010 California constitutional case that aimed to protect students in underperforming schools from catastrophic teacher layoffs. I worked on Reed as part of the legal team that represented the students, including students at the school where Nick taught. Reed was a precursor to its more famous sibling, Vergara v. State of California, a case that led to a California Supreme Court ruling about the need for establishing “inevitability” when linking an education policy aimed at teachers to a constitutional harm to students.

In the Q&A below, I talk with Nick about what this new policy means for LAUSD’s students and teachers. Conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Eight years ago, you and I first met while I was representing students suing LAUSD over disproportionate teacher layoffs in their schools. That included many of the same schools that are now insulated from receiving “must-place” teachers under this new policy — including the school where you taught! That case ultimately settled without clarifying the state’s reverse-seniority layoff laws. Did that experience inform this effort to create a new practice of mutual consent hiring?

Absolutely. Just because litigation isn’t successful, that doesn’t mean that we’ll stop trying. There are two reasons that this policy makes sense. The first and most important one is the impact that this has on children. When I arrived as a teacher at Markham Middle School, I saw a rotating parade of substitutes and learned what that had done to my kids. Some of them didn’t have a history teacher until October, and until then, they were failing interim assessments… History isn’t something you can intuit — someone has to teach you! The administration was going down the list of hundreds of “must-place” teachers, and each one who showed up would leave after a few days. They weren’t the right fit for the school and they didn’t want to be there, but this would go on for months before the school could secure a permanent teacher.

The second reason is that I care about treating teachers as adults and as professionals. I came to the district fresh out of Harvard University, and my classmates were going on to Wall Street and consulting firms. I thought teaching was the most important job in the world, but when I arrived, I was treated like a cog in a machine. Mutual consent is about treating our teachers well and respecting them as professionals who do the most important jobs in the world.

I think that this new policy opens up a new channel for conversation and helps us to move closer to our goal of ensuring that all students in the District have great teachers. Continue reading

School Behind Bars: A Q&A with Nebraska’s Randy Farmer

There are nearly 2,600 schools across the country providing education to young people who are held in secure justice facilities. One of them is a short-term facility in Nebraska called the Pathfinder Education Program, and I spoke with its educational director, Randy Farmer, to learn more about what his job is like and what he wishes more people knew about how best to support students like his.

Pathfinder provides education services for young people detained for legal offenses in Lancaster County, Nebraska and awaiting court decisions about their need for services. The program is operated by the Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska, and Farmer’s role is similar to that of a school principal. He has worked with the National Partnership for Juvenile Services (NPJS) the last twelve years as an advisor, board member, and Education Council president, and he has worked with the Nebraska Department of Education on a standing committee to improve educational services for youth in out-of-home placements.

Tell us a bit about your role and what you do. What’s a typical day like?

The Pathfinder Education Program supports a unique and diverse population of youth who are experiencing serious traumatic life events. We offer educational services as an opportunity to renew a love of learning and provide a continuation of their path toward graduation, and we follow up with transition supports in collaboration with the community and juvenile justice system. These are bright, curious, and creative young people — they can be a tremendous asset to society when given an appropriate and supportive way to positively connect with their school and community.

I work with a wonderful staff of experienced and dedicated professionals, and a school district willing to provide exceptional support.

A typical day starts at a 6 a.m. morning briefing with detention staff. I then spend time responding to emails, organizing daily activities for the program, and greeting the arriving staff and students. Throughout the day I respond to youth who are disengaged from the classrooms, and problem solve with teachers and officers to find ways to return them to school. I visit with teachers, observe classes, and offer support where needed. If things are running smoothly, I can find time for data collection, budgeting, program design, and professional development, as well as district appraisal requirements.

What would you say has most surprised you about working in a secure facility? Continue reading