Category Archives: State Education Policy

Silenced But Not Complacent: Limited English Proficient Parents

This week, Bellwether staff share their perspectives on family and parent engagement. Follow Ahead of the Heard from now until Friday for a series of blog posts that tackle common misconceptions about engaged parents, working with multilingual families, and more. Click here to read other posts in the series thus far.

Parents and advocates at the June 2016 Fresno AAPI stakeholder engagement session. Photo courtesy of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.

Plenty of research demonstrates improved student outcomes from robust parent engagement, yet not enough has been done to make sure that limited English proficient (LEP) parents are engaged.

In June 2016, I helped coordinate a series of stakeholder engagement sessions for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) parents and advocates in Sacramento, Fresno, and Long Beach, CA. I was a Civil Rights Fellow at OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates working on K-12 education issues, and the sessions were designed to allow parents and advocates to tell state and local education agency officials their major concerns around engaging with teachers and schools.

Many of the people we spoke to were limited English Proficient (LEP). In fact, there are an estimated 4.6 million students in the U.S. who are LEP. Among the 8.3 million Americans aged five or older who speak an Asian or Pacific Island language, approximately one in three are LEP. Coupled with difficulties in communicating and engaging with schools, the LEP population is less educated and more likely to live in poverty.

Attendees of the stakeholder engagement sessions identified with refugee backgrounds, were low-income, and spoke a variety of different languages at home, including Khmer (Cambodian), Hmong, and Vietnamese. Here’s what we learned:

When local leaders do not reflect the communities they serve, they may overlook specific language needs. In Long Beach, CA, the school board was unaware of the need for language interpreters in Khmer (Cambodian), and as a result, Khmer-speaking parents were unable to effectively engage with teachers and schools. School robo-calls and important paperwork sent home with students were only available in English or Spanish. These barriers persisted due to lack of diversity and representation on school boards and other levels of school leadership.

Community liaisons are important resources, but they are not prioritized in district budgets. Community liaisons can act as a bridge between schools and LEP parents. Liaisons assist students, staff, teachers, and community members by providing and conveying important information on school resources and programs while also gathering input to address student and parent needs. For immigrant families, community liaisons provide culturally competent services, and may also act as translators. However, at these stakeholder convenings, parents expressed that the number of community liaisons had been downsized due to budget cuts, leaving the district with only 2-3 liaisons. As a result, LEP parents had limited access to the information schools provided.

Limited translated materials make it nearly impossible to navigate the college application process. When the time comes for students to transition to higher education, LEP parents are limited in their ability to help with the college application process, much less to navigate the complex systems of financial aid. Currently, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has only been translated into Spanish, preventing a number of first-generation students from successfully completing the application and receiving federal financial aid.

Immigrant students are legally entitled to equal educational opportunities, but failing to provide the translation and interpretation services shuts students and their families out from those opportunities. As a result, the cycle of exclusion from resources and services vital to student success continues, leading first-generation immigrant students to face higher barriers to entry when pursuing higher education. Furthermore, when such language and cultural obstacles exist, parental engagement tends to become focused on resolving the issues students experience rather than preventing these issues from occurring in the first place.

The number of parents and students affected by poor LEP parental engagement are significant, yet there are not a lot of schools that actively address these barriers. Schools and teachers looking to meaningfully engage with LEP parents can consult the U.S. Department of Education’s English Learner Toolkit and Teaching Tolerance.

Can You Name the Branches of Government? Most Americans Can’t.

Today is Constitution Day, a holiday commemorating the formation and signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787 — 230 years ago. As “a nation of immigrants,” America’s national identity is largely tied to our founding documents, endowing the Constitution with a unique importance in American culture. However, many Americans know little about this document that we are supposed to support and defend.

Last week, the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania released its Constitution Day Civics Survey, with dismal results. Only one in four respondents were able to name all three branches of government, a 12-point decline since 2011. Shockingly, 33 percent could not name a single branch.

The survey also asked respondents to identify which rights are guaranteed by the First Amendment. While nearly half (48 percent) were able to name “freedom of speech,” only 15 percent could name “freedom of religion.” Even fewer respondents identified the other rights (freedom of the press, right to petition, and right of assembly). Thirty-seven percent couldn’t name any.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of APPC, expressed her concern: “Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are. The fact that many don’t is worrisome.”

Perhaps, in prior years, this warning may have seemed overblown. But in the Trump era, amid a seemingly constant slew of anti-democratic rhetoric, it feels right on the nose. For example, when asked whether those who are in the country illegally have any rights under the Constitution, 53 percent of APPC’s respondents disagreed. In this context of widespread ignorance and misinformation, the United States has seen an uptick in hate crimes associated with the rise of President Trump, beginning in 2015, persisting into 2016 and 2017, and culminating in the violence of the “Unite the Right” rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville last month.

Luckily, some states are taking action to bolster the civic knowledge of their students. For example, over the past three years, 17 states have adopted a “citizenship test” requirement for high school students. In eight of those states, students must receive a passing score on the test to receive a high school diploma. The questions are drawn from the the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) naturalization civics test, which immigrants must pass to become legal U.S. citizens.

This is a good first step, but it is far from sufficient. The test is not designed to be a high school civic literacy exam. It sets a low bar, with basic multiple-choice questions that ask test-takers to identify one branch of the government, or know how many amendments have been made to the Constitution. The simplicity is reflected in the initial test results, with very high passage rates and few students failing to pass the test after repeated attempts.

However, such a test is only one tool available to policymakers. They can design and administer higher quality civics assessments; implement robust standards and curricula for civics instruction; and provide real-world, project-based opportunities for students to learn about government and civic engagement. For example, New Hampshire passed legislation in 2016 requiring a civics test. But, rather than simply implementing a citizenship test for high school students, the legislation allows for the creation of locally developed assessments that can include a broader range of questions. Additionally, the state created a recognition for students who pass the required test by authorizing school districts to issue civic competency certificates.

New Hampshire Senator Lou D’Allesandro, a former civics teacher who sponsored some of the state’s legislation, summarized the issue well: “We always complain, ‘people don’t know anything about the system, they don’t get involved, they don’t vote.’ Well, they don’t vote because they don’t understand the importance of voting and how meaningful it is to participate in the process.”

If America wants to protect our constitutional rights and democratic ideals, we must ensure that our next generation of citizens are knowledgeable and engaged. That starts in the classroom.

How Teacher Turnover Hurt Improvement Efforts in These Minnesota Schools

This is first in a series of blog posts and resources to offer lessons and reflections for school leaders, district officials, and education policymakers using data and stories from the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. The series is supported by a grant from the McKnight Foundation.

As students come back to school this fall, many will find teachers and principals they’ve never seen before. About 16 percent of teachers leave the profession or change schools every year, and that number is even higher in high-poverty schools, urban schools, and low-performing schools.

How does teacher turnover affect students and schools? The research is not always clear. Several studies in urban districts show a general negative association between turnover and student achievement. One study found negative teacher turnover effects spread even to students with veteran teachers, suggesting turnover can impact schoolwide achievement and morale. But a certain amount of turnover is inevitable, and in some cases, staff changes can improve student scores by exiting ineffective teachers or allowing teachers to take on new leadership roles in schools.

The experience of the Pathway Schools Initiative, a seven-year effort to improve third grade literacy in seven Minnesota elementary schools, sheds further light on how turnover can hurt the momentum of school improvement efforts. With the support of the McKnight Foundation, schools participating in the initiative worked with the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute (UEI) to implement PreK-3rd improvement efforts.

All seven Pathway schools were urban (located in the Twin Cities metropolitan area), relatively low performing, and predominantly low-income. But rates of teacher turnover varied widely between schools and from year to year. The graph below shows the differences in PreK-3rd grade teacher turnover among four participating schools over a two-year period.

Ultimately, schools in the Initiative struggled to make significant progress in improving PreK-3rd grade instruction and literacy outcomes. An independent evaluation conducted by SRI International identified teacher turnover as one of the major challenges, among many, facing schools in their professional development and instructional change efforts. Evaluators also found some cases where newly hired teachers were associated with lower student performance, but results were inconsistent by school and by year.[1] Overall, professional development was a huge component of the initiative, and when large numbers of teachers left, that institutional knowledge and investment left too. As one teacher told evaluators, “We’ve had so much turnover among the staff that we’re reinventing the wheel every year.”

Data collected by SRI International, from SRI 2016-17 Pathway Schools Initiative Annual Report. Note: Data were not available in this time period for every school in the Initiative.

School improvement efforts like the Pathway Schools Initiative, which focused on assessment, instruction, and professional development, need a certain level of stability to succeed. But chronic educator turnover in high-need schools should not be viewed as an inevitable reality. In blogs to come in this series, we’ll continue digging into data and stories from these schools to look at the impacts of teacher and leader turnover and examine potential action steps schools, districts, and states can take to ensure turnover is not a roadblock to school improvement.

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[1] Schmidt, R.A., Chen, W., Torre, D., Woodworth, K., and Golan, S. (2017, April). The Role of Student and School Characteristics in Predicting Early Literacy Gains. Poster Presentation at the annual conference of the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), Austin, TX, and Pathway Schools Initiative Phase 1 Case Study

Our New Reviews of California and New York’s Draft ESSA Plans

Last spring, Bellwether partnered with the Collaborative for Student Success to convene an independent peer review of the first round of ESSA state plans. We brought together a bipartisan, nationally esteemed group of education policy experts to review the plans from 16 states and the District of Columbia.

We will do full reviews of the remaining 34 state plans after they’re submitted to the U.S. Department of Education next month. In the meantime, we decided to review the draft plans put out for public comment by California and New York, given the outsized importance of these two states in education policy and politics.

You can read our interim reviews of the California and New York plans here. Given the size of California and New York’s diverse student populations, as well as their geographic diversity, we believe feedback on their draft plans is important in not only strengthening these state’s final submissions, but also in providing information for other states still writing their plans.

This interim project was intended as a quick-turnaround, rapid-response analysis, and we did not use the full quality peer review process we used in round one — and which we will use again in round two. We recently received some feedback from California policymakers working on the plan about a few mistakes that were made in haste. We’ve made some edits as a result, and the reviews you’ll see on our website now incorporate these edits.

As one example, we wrote that, “at the indicator level… California has not yet specified definitions for chronic absenteeism…” While California has adopted a definition of chronic absenteeism for data collection purposes, their plan states they won’t know how they’re going to turn it into an indicator for accountability purposes until fall 2018. Our review could have been clearer about this distinction, and we’ve since updated it. As another example, we wrote “December 2018” where we should have written “January 2018,” and have since fixed this. In another place, we rephrased our comments about California’s exit criteria for low-performing schools. We had initially understood California’s proposed exit criteria to be normative, implying a school could exit simply if it improved its relative standing in the rankings. After taking another look, we have removed that language from our review. These revisions are now reflected in the online versions.

At the same time, there are also places where state policymakers may simply disagree with our goals behind this project, and hence our reviews of their plans. In comments to EdSource about our review, David Sapp, the deputy policy director and assistant legal counsel for California State Board of Education, referred to the state’s ESSA plan as “an application for federal funding.” While this is literally true — the plans are required to unlock each state’s share of federal Title I funding — this comment downplays the importance of these plans. We’re not just talking about a a small grant program; Title I is a $15 billion program nationwide and California alone receives about $2 billion a year from it. Title I traces its roots back more than 50 years, and Congress has stated that Title I’s purpose is to “provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps.’’

Those are the reasons we committed to this project in the first place, and it’s why we intend to once again conduct full reviews of all second-round states, including California and New York, following their final submissions in September. We’ll be fully transparent about that process, as we were in round one, and you can look for the results of that work later this fall.

3 Reasons Why Teacher Pensions Are Critical to School Funding Equity

Money spent on public teacher pensions is often left out of analyses of school finance equity. Rather than a being seen as an issue affecting students’ education, pensions are often viewed as a budgetary dilemma for state legislators. Yet, both of these approaches overlook the effect pension spending can have on increasing the funding gap between schools based on students’ race.

Last week I released a new report, “Illinois’ Teacher Pension Plans Deepen School Funding Inequities,” that shows just how much pension spending in Illinois affects the state’s finance equity. The results are startling and reveal that teacher pensions are yet another example of how states and districts underinvest in the education of low-income students, and the educations of black and Hispanic students.

Here are three key reasons why teacher pensions should be thought of as a key part of the push to ensure educational equity:

  1. Class-based gaps grow by more than 200 percent after accounting for pension spending. Teacher salaries comprise the lion’s share (roughly 80 percent) of school expenditures. And, unfortunately, the most experienced and highest paid teachers are unevenly distributed across schools. In Illinois the salary gap between the schools serving the highest and lowest concentrations of low-income students is on average around $550 per pupil. After factoring in pensions, however, the disparity jumps to over $1,200 per student.
  2. Race-based gaps increase by more than 250 percent after accounting for pension spending. In Illinois, the average teacher salary-based gap is $375 between schools serving predominantly white students and those serving predominantly nonwhite students. But after accounting for money spent on teacher pensions, the inequity increases to nearly $950 per pupil.
  3. States are investing more money in their pensions (because they’re in significant debt), and that will widen the gaps even further. From an educational equity point of view, the Illinois pension system is the problem. Since pensions are paid as a percentage of teachers’ salaries, which are unevenly distributed across the state, funneling more money into the system may help to decrease unfunded liabilities, but it also will result in even larger funding disparities.

Illinois is widely considered to operate one of, if not the most, inequitable school finance systems in the country. Yet, many prior analyses underestimated the problem because they have not always included money spent on teacher pensions. This problem is not unique to Illinois. On the contrary, pensions will increase funding disparities in any state with an uneven distribution of teachers. The effect will likely be greater and more closely resemble Illinois in states, such as Missouri and New York, where large urban cities operate separate pension funds.

There are a couple of steps states can take to mitigate the increase in education funding disparities due to pension spending. Those states with more than one retirement system should consider folding the district plans into the state fund. The state has greater resources and almost always contributes to the pension fund at a higher rate. This would ensure that schools in the district — which disproportionately serve low-income students and students of color — receive pension payments at the same rate as other schools.

As it stands now, low-income students and students of color receive far less than their fair share in school funding. To change that, states must address the structure of their teacher pension systems as well as their school funding formulas. Teacher pensions are a key feature in the broader education equity debate.