Category Archives: State Education Policy

Stop Saying “At Least We’re Not Mississippi”: A Q&A With Rachel Canter of Mississippi First

There’s a tired trope in Southern states: “At least we’re not Mississippi.” The implication is that while one’s state may be underperforming on some measure — poverty, rates of uninsured, education outcomes, etc. — Mississippi can always be counted on to look worse. 

Having grown up, taught school, and worked in education policy across the South my whole life (but not in Mississippi), I’ve heard this statement plenty. I heard it as recently as this fall at a conference, leveled by a national thought leader who ought to know better. 

Last spring, Bellwether released “Education in the American South,” a data-filled report which highlighted, among other things, how the national education reform conversation has largely bypassed the South — a conclusion bolstered by the persistence of this Mississippi myth.

Here’s the thing: While many of us look down our noses, Mississippi has been working hard — and it’s been paying off. In the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores, Mississippi was the only state to see improvements in reading and had the biggest gains in fourth-grade reading and math. Mississippi’s gains have been nearly continuous over the last 16 years and mostly unmatched in the region.

To dig more deeply into what’s gone right in Mississippi, I talked to Rachel Canter, longtime Mississippian and co-founder and Executive Director of Mississippi First, an education policy, research, and advocacy nonprofit working to ensure that every Mississippi student has access to excellent schools.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The most recent NAEP results highlight the progress schools and students in MIssissippi have made, but 2019 isn’t the beginning of this story. When did the tide start to turn and why? Continue reading

GreatSchools Ratings Have a Lot in Common with State and Local Ratings — for Better or Worse

Last Thursday the education world was all a-twitter about an article and analysis on GreatSchools, a widely used nonprofit school rating organization whose 1-10 ratings often show up at the top of search results and on popular real estate websites. Their ratings are known to sway families’ decisions on where to live and send their kids to school.

Photo via Justine Warrington on Flickr

The main thrust of Matt Barnum and Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee’s piece in Chalkbeat is that GreatSchools’ substantial reliance on test score proficiency as a measure of school quality favors schools whose students enter already performing at a higher level. Since these students are more likely to be white and high-income, they argue the GreatSchools ratings may end up exacerbating segregation by influencing families’ housing and school decisions. 

These very same criticisms often come up in debates about local or state school ratings and how best to use test scores in general. In the conversation below, the authors of Bellwether’s recent report and website on school performance frameworks (SPFs) discuss the findings of the GreatSchools report, and how the strengths and weaknesses of GreatSchools’ approach compares to state and local school ratings.

Bonnie O’Keefe:

GreatSchools’ data comes from states, and their metrics and methods aren’t too dissimilar from what we see in many local school performance frameworks, state ESSA ratings, and the No Child Left Behind ratings that came before. Much like many states and districts, GreatSchools has changed their rating system over time as more, better data became available. So the idea that ratings based even in part on proficiency disadvantage schools serving higher-need students isn’t unique to GreatSchools. In fact, a nearly identical critique sunk Los Angeles’ proposed school ratings before they were even created. What is unique is how widely used, influential, and maybe misunderstood GreatSchools’ ratings are among families. 

Brandon Lewis:

The biggest difference I see between the GreatSchools’ school rating system and the local school performance frameworks (SPFs) we profiled for our project is that they have different goals and purposes. GreatSchools is a widely viewed public-facing tool designed to communicate that organization’s particular perspective on school quality. Unlike local SPFs, GreatSchools’ ratings are not tied to any specific goals for students or schools and cannot be used to make any district-level decisions. 

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

Kentucky Has a New Governor. We Hope He’s Not a Jerk About Education Policy.

Although he took more than a week to concede, Kentucky’s 62nd governor, Republican Matt Bevin, will not serve a second term. Experts agree that his provocative and insulting style, particularly his comments about teachers, attributed to his loss. Most notoriously, Bevin called teachers “thugs” and blamed them for the sexual assault of children and the shooting of a seven-year-old girl, after teachers protested the legislature’s sneaky efforts to reform the state’s pension systems. 

We are both Kentucky-based Bellwarians, and in the short conversation below, we discuss why Governor Bevin failed to advance education reforms in the state — and what Governor-elect and Democrat Andy Beshear might be able to accomplish given Kentucky’s Republican-dominated legislature. 

Katrina: I think you and I have some diverging ideas and perspectives about politics in general, and even about some education policies. But is it safe to say that we both think Matt Bevin is, well, a bit of a jerk?

Alex: I think we definitely have some common ground there, although I’d be careful about calling him a jerk — he might label you with a nickname like “Kooky Katrina.” More seriously though, I think a big part of his legacy will be the policy wins he left on the table, due in large part to his incredibly abrasive approach to governing.

Katrina: You’re not wrong about that. I was a fan of some of his policy positions, especially much-needed pension reform and increased school choice. If he had a bit more goodwill and emotional intelligence, he might have been able to demonstrate how those policies could actually help teachers and students.

Alex: Yep, but because of his style, pension reform and school choice are likely off the table for the next four years. And while some may be satisfied with the status quo on those issues, there are a lot of teachers and thousands of students who could benefit from reform to teacher pensions and school choice policies. 

Katrina: So where do you think Beshear has the opportunity to move the ball forward on education policy? 

Continue reading

Kentucky Teachers Just Elected a New Governor — But His Education Policies Might Not Win

Teachers in Kentucky are feelin’ good as hell. Their organizing efforts helped a Democrat — current Attorney General Andy Beshear — unseat the nation’s most unpopular governor in a state that Donald Trump carried by 30 points in 2016. While current Governor Matt Bevin requested a recanvass, educators are enjoying the catharsis of their success, and hoping for a pay raise, higher levels of state funding for K-12 education, and better outcomes for their students. 

photo of Kentucky Governor-elect Andy Beshear visiting a school in the state

Photo of Beshear via his Instagram

Unfortunately, the actual impact of this election on students in Kentucky will be minimal unless Governor-elect Beshear pursues bipartisan cooperation on education issues, which will be a challenge as he works with a Republican-dominated legislature. 

Beshear has promised an ambitious and expensive education policy agenda that includes reducing class sizes and giving a $2,000 pay raise to every teacher. But it’s very likely that in 2020, down ballot voting in Kentucky will remain ruby red and stymie Beshear’s education proposals. Additionally, Kentucky’s legislature will be able to override any Beshear vetoes with a simple majority, as they did several times under Bevin.

We can expect Governor-elect Beshear to make splashy personnel moves, but they may have only limited impact on students. While Beshear can appoint four members to the State Board of Education in 2020, he’s vowed to use a precedent set by Governor Bevin to replace the entire board on day one of his administration, with the hopes that they fire the current Commissioner of Education on day two. This action is sure to provoke a legal challenge by the man replacing him as Attorney General, Daniel Cameron.  Continue reading