Category Archives: School Governance

Misinformation About California’s Special Education Systems and Enrollment Trends Won’t Help the Fiscal Crisis

Many California school districts are in financial trouble. Teacher pensions consume an increasing share of K-12 spending, and inflexible collective bargaining agreements and declining enrollments stretch district budgets.

In this strained financial environment, some of the complexity of California’s school finance system is lost, leading to simplified analyses and incomplete solutions. Addressing the financial shortfall requires a comprehensive understanding of the many different ways funding works in the state.

cover of Bellwether report cover of Bellwether report

 

 

 

 

 

 

To that end, we released new issue briefs yesterday that provide needed context and clarity on important issues in the state: special education financing and school enrollment trends and facilities. These issues have become part of the financial policy debate, but there are misunderstandings that unnecessarily fan the flames of tension between traditional and charter schools. For example, misleading analyses of enrollment trends and their impact on district finances make it more difficult to accurately assess facilities needs for districts and charter schools. And, since charter schools often enroll fewer students with disabilities, many can mistakenly believe that they are not contributing their share to special education.

But this isn’t quite right. Our hope is that a sober examination of these systems will point to reforms that can help schools of all types better serve students.

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School Leaders Can’t Screw Up Like the Fyre Festival Organizers Did

If you’ve heard anything about Fyre Festival, the failed luxury music event co-founded by Ja Rule and Billy McFarland, you have a sense of what a debacle it was. In May 2017 festival-goers arrived on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma expecting to spend a weekend enjoying live music, private cabanas, and gourmet catering; instead, they got prerecorded EDM, soggy tents, and cheese sandwiches. A few hours into day one, the festival was canceled and everyone went home. In the aftermath, two tell-all documentaries have been released, nearly a dozen lawsuits have been filed, and countless internet postmortems have exposed the salacious details behind the misadventure.

So what does the Fyre fiasco have to do with a school’s approach to strategic decision-making? What can school leaders learn from the Fyre founders’ mistakes? While there are many reasons Fyre Festival flopped (unchecked greed and blatant fraud chief among them), a common theme was the lack of strong decision making. It’s clear that the festival organizers didn’t have a process to regularly pause, review, and decide whether to move forward with the event.        

This process is also known as greenlighting, a core concept we cover with schools and networks looking to expand their impact. In our context, greenlighting refers to the process by which school leadership decides to move forward with plans to serve more students (or make other significant investments of time and resources). It is a tool to aid decision making. We have found that seasoned schools and networks use a greenlighting framework to honestly and iteratively answer two questions:

  • Are we ready to move forward with our plans to grow?
  • If yes, what are the key milestones we must hit to ensure success?

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Six Lessons on Education Governance from Rhode Island, the Ocean State

Those who govern our schools (e.g., members of elected and appointed school boards) make and enact policies that are local in scope and potentially enormous in impact. They choose how resources are allocated to support staff and implement programs; they weigh in on decisions being made by district and school leaders that drive day-to-day activities; and they ensure the work being done for kids is aligned to federal and state policies and enacted in keeping with local priorities.

We assume boards make a difference for how our districts and schools function and ultimately, how well kids learn and develop. But what do we actually know about the link between board effectiveness and school quality?

Bellwether has conducted some important research on this very connection. In our 2016 study “Charter Boards in the Nation’s Capital,” we described the relationship between board characteristics, practices, and school quality in Washington, DC, one of the most robust charter sectors in the country. In collaboration with Colorado Succeeds, we developed an evidence-based framework for evaluating school board effectiveness. And in 2018, we received a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to help leaders at the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) understand if there was a relationship between its different governance models, their practices, and the performance of their schools across the Ocean State.

Rhode Island has six school governance models, described in the table below, which communities may choose from to suit their local contexts and goals. (For more detail on the state’s historical approach to education governance, see this new report from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.)

Bellwether’s mixed-methods approach to learning more about these models included researching state code and regulations on governance models, reviewing research on best practices for board governance, conducting interviews with RIDE staff and other state leaders, designing and administering a survey to governing boards and school leaders throughout the state, and analyzing student achievement results. Our findings include feedback from over one-third of the governing board (called “school committees” in Rhode Island) members and superintendents across the state, primarily representing the two largest governing models: traditional districts (52% of respondents) and independent charters (39% of respondents). We had few respondents from the other school types.

Six takeaways from this research, listed below, may provide insights for state education agencies, school boards, and charter boards both inside and outside Rhode Island about why people serve on boards, how governance is consistent and how it is different across districts and charters, and why observing boards in practice may be critical to understanding links between their decisions and consequences for families and children: Continue reading

Should Indianapolis Be Our Ninth City?

While we were doing research for our Eight Cities project, I was frequently asked which cities we’d be including. To take the temperature of the sector, I’d turn the question into a nerdy parlor game and ask people to guess which cities they thought made the list.

Indianapolis frequently came up, but it’s not one of our eight cities. Now I’m starting to have second thoughts. Here’s why.

The criteria for being one of the eight cities in our publication was that there was a strategy put in place based on the beliefs and pillars below — and saltatory gains in achievement and reductions in gaps.

Eight Cities Beliefs and Strategic PillarsIndianapolis scores high on the first criterion. They have a school performance framework, unified enrollment system, influential quarterback organization, broad (but not universal) citywide school choice, and a high-quality authorizer.

On the academic front, things are a bit more complicated.

Indianapolis Public Schools’ (IPS) scores on the state’s iStep test have declined from 29 percent in 2014 to 23 percent in 2018. This isn’t good news for the state’s largest school district, but the city’s families are fortunate to be able to choose one of the city’s 35 charter or 20 Innovation Schools (IPS schools with charter-like autonomies).

Indy’s charter school sector, which enrolls 28 percent of students, has performed well for years in large part because the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office is an effective authorizer. For instance, in 2017, the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office had “the greatest percentage of A and B schools within their portfolio, and the lowest percentage of D and F schools” compared to other authorizers in the state. Continue reading

Ten Lessons from Eight Cities

Over a year ago, I began an ambitious project to tell the stories of cities that implemented citywide school improvement strategies and saw student achievement increase — and to share these stories as lessons for other system leaders. The result was Eight Cities, a beautiful and information-rich website that does just that. It was a rare project that put my team in the fortunate position of listening to some of the brightest, most committed, and humble education professionals in the country. It’s difficult not to learn a lot under such circumstances.

Legacy Charter school building in Chicago with students and crossing guard outside

Legacy Charter School in Chicago. Photo credit: Alexander Drecun.

While each one of our eight stories provides a deep dive into different cities, there were a lot of macro lessons that emerged. Here are ten that I think are particularly salient for state leaders, mayors, superintendents, board members, charter leaders, and funders interested in exploring a similar approach:

1. Language matters. One of our first challenges was choosing a term that simultaneously described a complex citywide education reform strategy with many local nuances without creating a target for people who wanted to reduce it to a single word. What should we call these systems of public schools which shared central beliefs and strategic pillars and saw schools as the unit of change? These were widely referred to as “portfolio districts” until 2017, when the term was weaponized by opponents who took issue with the approach. The Texas Education Agency has adopted the term “Systems of Great Schools.” While I occasionally use “portfolio” as shorthand, I prefer the term “dynamic systems of schools” because it describes the core mechanism of systemic improvement: high-performing or high-potential schools replacing schools that have failed generations of students. But this phrase hasn’t caught on. After much discussion, the Eight Cities team decided to avoid labels and simply tell the stories we encountered. Whatever term is used, the reality is that language matters in rhetorical and political battles but rarely in the day-to-day work of students and parents.

2. There’s no one best way to implement a dynamic system of public schools. Washington D.C. and Newark have dual public education systems comprised of traditional district schools and charter schools, yet D.C. is under mayoral control and Newark was under state control but is now governed by an elected school board. Camden has 15,000 students and a neighborhood charter takeover model with relaxed accountability. New York City has 1.1 million students and moved quickly to give autonomy to all its schools and hold them accountable, while phasing out large failing high schools to make room for new small schools of choice. Denver Public Schools saw consistent leadership from an elected school board and single superintendent for a decade. Continue reading