Category Archives: State Education Policy

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

New Report Reveals Messy Teacher Shortage Data

What types of subject-area teacher shortages do states experience? Are there major trends across states in chronic subject-area teacher shortages? How different are subject-area teacher shortages between states?

These were some of the questions my colleague Justin Trinidad and I sought to answer in our new report “Nuance in the Noise: The Complex Reality of Teacher Shortages.” We dove into a national data set on teacher shortage areas submitted by states and territories to the U.S. Department of Education. This data set is one of the best sources we have to analyze trends in subject-area shortages across the country and for each particular state.

Given this fact, were were shocked by just how messy the data were. We quickly found that there is no standard reporting framework that states must use. This means each state defines their own subject areas as they see fit. For example, Colorado reports its science shortages under the multiple categories of “Science,” “Natural Science, “Natural Sciences (Grades 7-12),” and “Natural Sciences (Kindergarten-Grade 12),” while Georgia uses the categories of “Sciences,” “Sciences (K-Grade 6),” and “Sciences – Secondary.”

This lack of standardization meant we had to create our own methodology in order to analyze the data, and even then, cross-state comparisons were difficult! That was annoying and a ton of work, yes, but it also spoke to a larger trend we see in teacher supply and demand data: they are hard to understand and often tell an incomplete story. What states report to the feds is often not the same thing they list on their state education websites.

However, frustrations with data didn’t stop us from finding some interesting and important information in our analysis. In fact, what we found challenges a widely held belief: that there is a generic, national teacher shortage. It turns out that teacher shortage needs vary widely across states. States even have varying experiences with the more chronic shortage areas like mathematics.

As the below map shows, California reported mathematics shortages less than 20 percent of the time of our analysis, while four states — Louisiana, Maine, North Carolina, and Texas — reported mathematics shortages all 20 years of our analysis.

Continue reading

Media: “How Bad Are the Nation’s Teacher Shortages? With All the Conflicting and Unreliable Data Out There, We Don’t Really Know” in The 74

While discussions of a national teacher shortage crisis have taken place over decades, a generic shortage has yet to materialize. To get a clearer picture of trends in teacher subject-area shortages across the country, Kaitlin Pennington McVey and I analyzed national data on teacher shortage areas submitted by states and territories to the U.S. Department of Education.

I wrote about our recent findings for The 74 today.

Our analysis indicates that subject areas with teacher shortages vary significantly by state and time period, even among the top shortage areas. But there are also very real chronic shortages — in some states, lasting as much as 20 years — that yet have been unresolved because poor data has led to ineffective policies.

We can never fully address teacher shortages if we lack consistent and accurate data about the actual challenges. Without better data, we are wasting time and resources developing misdirected policies that may further hurt the teaching workforce.

Ideas for Idaho: Fairness for School Facilities Funding

On both state and national tests, Idaho’s public charter school students exceed the academic performance of their district counterparts, including students from traditionally underserved communities. With such strong student achievement results, shouldn’t these schools receive the same amount of money as traditional public schools to build new buildings or rehabilitate old ones? Unfortunately they don’t. On average, in fact, they receive roughly a third of what district schools do, and they are having to come up with creative ways to cover that gap.

Our latest report, Fairness in Facilities: Why Idaho Public Schools Need More Facilities Funding, finds that while district schools receive $1,206 on average per student from state and local funding facility streams, Idaho charter schools receive just $445 in state funding, without any local funding. As Fairness in Facilities details, lower charter school facility funding forces school leaders to make difficult choices, like cutting extracurriculars or support services, or making creative arrangements with other nonprofits to share facilities.

And in Idaho, the nation’s fastest-growing state, the problem is not going away. Enrollment in Idaho public K-12 schools has increased by nearly 50,000 students over the last 15 years. In the charter sector, enrollment has doubled from roughly 11,000 in 2008 to around 22,000 in 2018, with those students attending one of 52 Idaho charter schools. Thousands of students are on Idaho charter school waiting lists, adding to the demand for new facilities.

State- and local-level policy changes are necessary to alleviate this inequity. Fairness in Facilities makes a few concrete charter-specific recommendations: Continue reading

All I Want for Christmas Is for People to Stop Using the Phrase “Education Reform”

In a recent opinion piece at The 74, Robin Lake casts off the label of educator reformer, arguing that “to imply that they are some monolithic group of reformers is ridiculous.” I agree, not so much because education reform has lost its meaning but because it never had a single definition in the first place. At the heart of reform is an acknowledgement that the educational system isn’t serving all kids well, but agreeing that the system could be improved is far from agreeing on how to get there.

definition of educationTo some people “education reform” is about holding schools and districts accountable for student outcomes, which can be viewed as either a means of ensuring that society doesn’t overlook subgroups of students, or as a top-down approach that fails to account for vast differences in school and community resources. To others education reform is shorthand for increasing school choice, or requiring students to meet specific academic standards to be promoted or graduate from high school, or revising school discipline practices that disproportionately impact students of color. Each of these ideas has supporters and detractors, and I suspect that many people who are comfortable with one type of reform vehemently disagree with another.

To take a specific example, consider teacher evaluation reform. One challenge in debating this particular education reform is that there are multiple ways teacher evaluation could change outcomes: one way is by providing feedback and targeted support to educators; another is the identification and removal of low-performing teachers. So even when “education reform” types favor a policy, they might have very different views on the mechanisms through which that policy achieves its goals. In the case of teacher evaluation reform, the dueling mechanisms created trade-offs in evaluation design, as described by my Bellwether colleagues here. (As they note, in redesigning evaluation systems, states tended to focus on the reliability and validity of high-stakes measures and the need for professional development plans for low performing teachers, devoting less attention to building the capacity of school leaders to provide meaningful feedback to all teachers.)

I personally agree with those who argue that teacher evaluation should be used to improve teacher practice, and I have written previously about what that might look like and about the research on evaluation’s role in developing teachers. In a more nuanced conversation, we might acknowledge that there are numerous outcomes we care about, and that even if a given policy or practice is effective at achieving one outcome — say, higher student achievement — it might have unintended consequences on other outcomes, such as school climate or teacher retention.

Instead of broadly labeling people as “education reformers,” we need to clearly define the type of reform we’re discussing, as well as the specific mechanisms through which that reform achieves its intended goals. Doing so provides the basis for laying out the pros and cons of not just the overall idea, but of the policy details that transform an idea into action. Such specificity may help us avoid the straw man arguments that have so often characterized education policy debates.