Category Archives: State Education Policy

Education Policy, Meet Human-Centered Design

In a lot of ways, the worlds of education policy and human-centered design couldn’t be more dissimilar. The former relies heavily on large-scale quantitative analysis and involves a long, complex public process. The latter is deeply qualitative, fast moving, creative, and generative. Policy professionals come up through the ranks in public agencies, campaigns, and think tanks. Deep issue expertise and sophisticated deductive reasoning are highly valued. Designers come from an array of backgrounds — the more unorthodox the better. Success for them comes from risk-taking, novel ideas, and synthesizing concepts across time, space, and sectors.

figure from Creating More Effective, Efficient, and Equitable Education Policies with Human-Centered Design comparing policy and design methods

figure from Creating More Effective, Efficient, and Equitable Education Policies with Human-Centered Design

I’m fortunate to have spent some time in both worlds. They each appeal to different parts of my personality. Policy analysis affords me order and confidence in answers based on facts. Design lets me flex my creative muscles, fail fearlessly, and have confidence in answers based on experience.

So when a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York gave me the opportunity to write a paper about bringing these two worlds together, I jumped at the chance — I knew that each could benefit from the other.

Creating More Effective, Efficient, and Equitable Education Policies with Human-Centered Design makes the case that policy practitioners can use human-centered methods to create better education policies because they are informed by the people whose lives will be most affected by them.

The underpinning hypothesis is that 1) co-designing policies with constituents can generate more accurate definitions of problems and more relevant solutions, 2) human-centered design can generate a wider variety of potential solutions leading to innovation, and 3) the process can mitigate or reverse constituent disenfranchisement with the lawmaking process.

Human-centered policy design is still a new practice, however, and there are still important questions to work out, like how to make sure the process is inclusive and where exactly human-centered design methods can enhance policy research and design.

Luckily, SXSW EDU, a huge national conference focused on innovation in education, is a perfect place to test new ideas. So I reached out to Maggie Powers, director of STEAM Innovation at Agnes Irwin School and member of IDEO’s Teachers Guild, and Matt Williams, vice president of Education at Goodwill of Central Texas, to explore what it would look like to apply human-centered design to policies that affect high school students whose education suffers because of lost credits when they transfer schools. Our session will pressure test some of the ideas that emerged in the paper. The results will inform the next phase of this work, which will help policy practitioners implement human-centered design methods. Keep an ear to the ground for that!

All Means All: Q&A About Using ESSA to Improve Education in Juvenile Justice Facilities

For the first time, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) includes new provisions explicitly aimed at supporting students attending school in juvenile facilities. While this is exciting news, it appears that states did not actually have to satisfy those provisions in order to have their plans approved by the federal Department of Education; these provisions were not included in the Department’s official peer review process, and they were also left off the list of provisions that Department staff would review internally. In Bellwether’s own recent review of all state plans (which focused only on the accountability portions of plans), no one saw any reference to juvenile justice facilities.

In order to think through how ESSA can be used to improve education programs in juvenile justice facilities, the American Youth Policy Forum, the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and the National Reentry Resource Center recently collaborated on a policy brief.

I spoke with Nina Salomon at the Council of State Governments Justice Center and Jenna Tomasello at the American Youth Policy Forum to learn more about this report and what they think we still need to do in order to improve education access and quality for young people incarcerated in juvenile justice facilities.

Your new report talks about leveraging ESSA to support the education success for students in juvenile justice facilities. What are some specific ways states should be responding to ESSA in order to serve these students?


ESSA aims to “provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps.” For us, all means all, and we believe ESSA presents an opportunity for states to think about how to develop a statewide accountability system focused on continuous improvement that is inclusive of educational programs and schools serving students in juvenile justice facilities.

In the brief we focus specifically on Title 1, Part A as a leverage point in ESSA, but Title 1, Part D also has new and revised provisions to improve education outcomes of students in juvenile justice facilities. In our conversations with states, and our cursory review of state ESSA plans, it does not seem that juvenile justice stakeholders were at the table for ESSA planning conversations, and that ESSA plans seem to reflect this lack of involvement.

(Bellwether note: States that did use the optional federal template were asked to provide information about the Title I, Part D provisions specific to juvenile justice facilities. A summary and analysis of those responses is forthcoming from our team. Outside of that section, most states did not offer any additional information about education programs in juvenile justice facilities. ) Continue reading

State ESSA Plans Are in the Eye of the (Viewpoint) Holder

There has been a lot of discussion of state ESSA plans since the remaining 34 states submitted their plans earlier this fall, with various efforts assessing state plans against a set of common metrics. We wonks can go back and forth all day niggling on the metrics and indicators in each analysis (did it place enough emphasis on student subgroup performance, or on state’s long-term goals for growth and proficiency?), but that masks another important — and deeper — question:

How do states view the purpose of their state ESSA plans?

Among the American public and among state education leaders, there are vastly different perspectives on the role of the federal government in education. Whether you agree or disagree with the additional leeway that states enjoy under ESSA, the reality is that state leaders who believe that states should drive education policy will approach their ESSA plans with an orientation very different from state leaders who believe that the federal government should play a dominant role. Continue reading

Best in Bellwether 2017: Our Most Read Publications and Posts

Below are the most read posts from Ahead of the Heard and our most read publications in 2017! (To read the top posts from our sister site,, click here.)

Top Ten Blog Posts from Ahead of the Heard in 2017

1.) Anything But Equal Pay: How American Teachers Get a Raw Deal
By Kirsten Schmitz

2.) Exciting News
By Mary K. Wells

3.) Some Exciting Hires and Promotions
By Mary K. Wells

4.) Where Are All The Female Superintendents?
By Kirsten Schmitz

5.) An Expanded Federal Role in School Choice? No Thanks.
By Juliet Squire

6.) Teacher Turnover Isn’t Always Negative – Just Look at D.C. Public Schools’ Results
By Kaitlin Pennington

7.) Georgia Addressed Its Teacher Shortages With This One Trick
By Chad Aldeman

8.) A Day in the Life: Bellwether Analyst Andrew Rayner [Andrew’s now over at Promise54!]
By Heather Buchheim & Tanya Paperny

9.) Welcoming Our New Senior Advisers
By Mary K. Wells

10.) How Will States Handle New Title I Powers with Minimal Federal Oversight?
By Bonnie O’Keefe

Top Five Publications & Releases from Bellwether in 2017

1.) An Independent Review of ESSA State Plans
Chad Aldeman, Anne Hyslop, Max Marchitello, Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, & Kaitlin Pennington

2.) Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century
Jennifer O’Neal Schiess & Phillip Burgoyne-Allen

3.) Michigan Education Landscape: A Fact Base for the DeVos Debate
Bonnie O’Keefe, Kaitlin Pennington, & Sara Mead

4.) Voices from Rural Oklahoma: Where’s Education Headed on the Plain?
Juliet Squire & Kelly Robson

5.) The Best Teachers for Our Littlest Learners? Lessons from Head Start’s Last Decade
Marnie Kaplan & Sara Mead

To hear more, you can always sign up here to get our newsletter. Thanks for following our work in 2017!

Practice Makes People: Why Schools Need High-quality Music Education

Elementary school students from Staten Island’s PS 22 perform at the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. Video courtesy of PS22 Chorus.

From visits to my elementary school by members of the Richmond Symphony orchestra to conducting my own group of students as a project in high school, music education has been —and still is — deeply embedded in my life. Music enhanced my creativity and curiosity and taught me patience and how to overcome failure. As a student musician who played the cello from sixth grade to the end of college, music opened up many opportunities for me. I can’t imagine anyone being deprived of an education enriched by music.

Students are hungry for music education, but unfortunately, many do not have access. Currently, more than 1.3 million elementary school students and about 800,000 secondary students fail to get any music education. High-poverty schools with greater proportions of students of color, in particular, are less likely to expose students to music education.

For example, in the Detroit area, only 31 percent to 60 percent of schools with high concentrations of students of color offer any music instruction at all. Access is limited by the number of curricular and extracurricular course offerings or an insufficient amount of staff dedicated to musical instruction. While research has shown that the cost for a basic music education can average as low as $187 per student annually, school districts serving predominantly low-income and students of color have competing priorities and limited access to necessary resources.

A number of studies have demonstrated the benefits of music education. Elementary school students who take part in high-quality music education programs have significantly improved scores on standardized tests — including 22 percentage points higher in English and 20 percentage points higher in math scores — than students in low-quality music programs. Furthermore, musical training has a number of benefits for cognitive and language development for young children.

Beyond these facts and figures, I strongly believe music in and of itself is incredibly valuable. Music is an important avenue for self-expression and a vehicle for the preservation of culture. Without a high-quality music education, students can miss out on an opportunity to understand and appreciate something so integral to us as humans.

While tax-funded, school-based music instruction is ideal for large-scale support of music and arts education, school districts facing budget cuts may take years to prioritize and adequately fund music education. Rather than waiting, young students should be able turn to smaller scale community-based interventions.

One program in East Los Angeles, the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra (BHCYO), provides free music education to students aged six to fourteen in response to cuts in public school music education funding. Based on Venezuela’s El Sistema model in which underserved students are provided with free instruments and individual and group music instruction, the BHCYO provides a free classical orchestral training for low-income students. The youth take part in weekly rehearsals and a six-week intensive summer program. The orchestra relies on community partners such as the local Boys and Girls Club and the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs for resources and rehearsal space.

Community-driven organizations, such as BHCYO and the Silver Lake Conservatory in Los Angeles, or the Opportunity Music Project in New York City, dynamically enhance and supplement students’ learning needs and help them access the music education they crave and deserve.

If you’re interested in advocating for music education, you can view resources and toolkits from the National Association for Music Education or the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM).