Category Archives: Student Data

Kids Are Counting On Us: A Q&A With Bellwether’s New Academic Strategy Senior Advisers

Many organizations in the education sector seek our advice to deepen and broaden their impact in service of kids. Since our foundation, Bellwether has worked with CMOs and districts to set strategic priorities and build out detailed plans to accomplish these priorities from an operations, talent, and finance perspective.

headshots for Bill Durbin and Tresha Francis WardWe often get inquiries about whether we can help improve the academic performance of a subset of schools, or all schools in a network or district. We’re happy to announce that we’ve filled this missing piece: In 2017, we brought on Bill Durbin and Tresha Francis Ward as academic strategy senior advisers. In the Q&A below, we talk about their backgrounds and how they help schools drive the kinds of outcomes that all kids deserve.

Tell us a bit about your backgrounds. How will your work and life experiences translate to offering academic strategy advice?

Bill Durbin: Over the past 18 years, I have been a teacher, school founder, and school leader manager at both YES Prep Public Schools in Houston and DSST Public Schools in Denver. Through these experiences, I have developed a deep appreciation for the coordinated effort it takes across a school and network team to run highly effective schools. A school’s success relies on adults aligning around a common vision and executing strategies that are clear and which reinforce that vision for student success.

Whether the school is a public charter school or a traditional public school, teachers and leaders want to work in a place where they know what is expected of them to reach the desired outcomes for kids. I have supported various types of schools in aligning their outcomes, strategies, and practices, and I look forward to doing that even more as we continue to work with schools across the country.      

Tresha Francis Ward: I’m a first-generation college student, born and raised in the Bronx, NY. My own experiences with schools and in college are the primary reason I got into education. I have spent the last 13 years working in, around, and with schools as a teacher, school founder, director, and manager of schools, all serving historically underserved black and brown students. It’s my personal desire to ensure more kids that look like me have access to great schools and educators.

I started my career on the Southeast side of Houston at De Zavala Elementary School as a Teach For America corps member. The neighborhood was 99.9% Latino, so in addition to learning how to teach, I also had to overcome language barriers and find ways to build trust with my students and their families.

After four years of teaching, I was accepted to KIPP’s Fisher Fellowship, where educators found and lead new high-performing KIPP schools. In the fall of 2010, I opened KIPP Legacy Preparatory School on the Northeast side of Houston, serving a different population of students. Being a founding school leader was the most challenging and yet most rewarding thing I have ever done. It took time and a lot of iteration, but I’m proud of the culture we built. It’s a culture that still thrives, where our kids feel loved, cared for, and still held to high expectations in a respectful way.

After several years as a school leader, I joined the KIPP Foundation, where I was responsible for the professional learning of 200+ school leaders and for helping to implement academic initiatives across their campuses. After a few years at the Foundation, I missed being in schools, so I returned to my home city of New York to manage a K-8 turnaround campus in Brooklyn. That experience reiterated the importance of building relationships as a key part of a school’s success.

When I coach school leaders or work with them, I never forget how hard the job is — and I never forget how rewarding it is either.

Can you share a defining “a-ha” moment from your past academic leadership? How does that experience inform you today? Continue reading

The Day I Was Reminded LGBTQ Students Still Don’t Feel Safe in Schools

Recently, I co-facilitated a session with Lora Cover at a conference for school leaders of color, where we focused on creating more diverse, equitable, and inclusive education institutions. In the session, we conducted an activity (one which our Talent Advising team created in partnership with Erin Trent Johnson and Xiomara Padamsee) where we asked participants to name times in their lives when parts of their identities were either on the mainstream — seen as “normal” — or in the margins — seen as “other” — and to explore when and where certain identities potentially shifted between the two.

Then we listed some demographic identifiers that could describe a member of their school community — a teacher, parent, student, or even a school leader — and asked participants to physically place themselves on a spectrum from “IN” on one side of the room to “OUT” on the opposite side of the room depending on how that person might feel in the context of their school and work environment.

Most prompts yielded relatively balanced spreads across the “IN” or “OUT” spectrum, indicating a fairly evenly split between those that were struggling and succeeding in creating inclusive environments for different types of students, family members, and staff. However, when we came to “a student who identifies as LGBTQ,” every individual in the room with the exception of two non-school based leaders went to the “OUT” side of the room. The striking implication: not one school leader in that room felt as though their school was inclusive for LGBTQ youth.

I was heartbroken. As both a person who identifies as LGBTQ and a former teacher, to see a room full of school leaders all express that their school environments were non-inclusive for students who identify as LGBTQ was horrifying. However, it painted what I believe to be an accurate picture of the majority of schools in America. Despite the fact that gay marriage is legal across the country and that there is increased visibility and representation for LGBTQ people in the public sphere, individuals who identify as LGBTQ — particularly our children — do not feel protected, safe, or like they belong. They are not able to live as their full selves.

I have distinct memories of not feeling safe in high school as a closeted teenager. I never felt I could act as my “full” self. I pretended to like all the things the other boys liked, including girls. For a while, I was incredibly unhappy. When I finally came out in my early twenties, I felt as though a burden had been lifted. Even still, as a teacher, I never came out to my students for fear of causing some kids discomfort, backlash from parents, and even potentially losing my job. This is the greatest regret of my professional career thus far. I frequently think to myself: “When is the next time my black and brown students are going to have a gay man of color in front of them to show them that that we do exist, that we do have value, and that we can be proud of who we are?”

Unfortunately, recent data underscore that things have not gotten better in our schools for young people who identify as LGBTQ.

Continue reading

New Bellwether Analysis on Michigan Education Provides Facts for DeVos Debate

When President Donald Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to serve as his Secretary of Education, she was not well known on a national scale: her behind-the-scenes advocacy and philanthropic work has concentrated on her home state of Michigan. But DeVos’ nomination put a national spotlight on education in Michigan, and her critics and boosters alike have been making a variety of claims about Michigan that are confusing and contradictory.

Slide1To address this, Bellwether just released a fact base on education in Michigan to inform the conversation about DeVos’ work there and what it might mean for the Department of Education if she is confirmed.

Our slide deck report addresses a number of key questions: How are Michigan students performing, and what do achievement gaps look like for low-income students and students of color? Do charter schools in Michigan produce better results than district-run public schools, and if so, by how much? Why does Michigan have so many charter schools operated by for-profit companies?

Among the things we found:

  • Michigan typically ranks in the lowest third of states in terms of student proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and state assessment results show wide achievement gaps by racial/ethnic group and income level.
  • Educational authority in Michigan is highly decentralized, with multiple state governing entities and over 40 charter school authorizers.
  • About 150,000 Michigan students attend public charter schools, making up 10 percent of the student population.
  • Another 200,000 students, or 13 percent, take advantage of inter-district choice options to attend schools outside of their home district.
  • On average, students attending charter schools learn more than comparable students attending district-run schools. However, producing greater learning gains compared to schools serving similar students is a low bar because most Michigan charters are in Detroit, one of the lowest-performing large, urban school districts in the country.
  • Repeated reform efforts to improve Detroit Public Schools (DPS) have not produced academic improvements for students or solved the ongoing financial crisis in the school district. A new law reinstates local control over DPS, limits charter school expansion to nationally accredited authorizers, and creates an A-F accountability system for both charter schools and traditional public schools.

Through data analysis and a deeper dive into the context of the Michigan education landscape, we hope to inform the ongoing debate about DeVos and give new insight into education in Michigan. The state has been a laboratory for school choice and educational reform efforts, and demands a more complete context and deeper analysis than sound bytes can provide. Read the full report here and let us know what you think.

Diving Deeper into Michigan Data in Betsy DeVos’ Confirmation Hearing Last Night

During her confirmation hearing last night, Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, fielded questions from members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee. As we predicted, several committee members asked DeVos about her involvement in education policy and politics in her home state of Michigan and in Detroit Public Schools (DPS). In particular, Senator Bennet (D-CO) and Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) used Michigan and DPS data to press DeVos on accountability, charter school oversight, and school improvement.

In many cases, however, the questions and answers both misrepresented or oversimplified the data. To be fair, the time constraints and pressure of a confirmation hearing make it difficult to fully dig into the nuance of an entire state’s complex education history. To help analysts, journalists, policymakers, and practitioners accurately evaluate DeVos, we are releasing a fact-base about the education policy landscape in Michigan after the Inauguration. But until then, here are explanations for a few Michigan data points mentioned in last night’s hearing (note: all speakers’ talking points have been paraphrased for clarity): Continue reading

Questions for Betsy DeVos Inspired by Education Outcomes in Michigan

Tonight is Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing to become the next Secretary of Education. Because DeVos doesn’t have a track record as a government official or leader within the public school or higher education system, as most of her predecessors do, analysts are looking at her role as a funder, GOP donor, and board member of education organizations to understand what she might do as Secretary. This scrutiny has drawn particular attention to DeVos’ engagement in education advocacy and political causes in Michigan, where her donations and advocacy have touched many major education policy decisions over the past 20 years.

In many ways, the education system in Michigan is a microcosm of the challenges and opportunities facing the broader U.S. education system — and the next Secretary of Education. In both Michigan and the U.S. as a whole, there are large, persistent achievement gaps for disadvantaged student groups; rural, suburban, and urban schools with unique (sometimes competing) needs; and a long history of hotly debated education reforms that have had mixed success. To help analysts, journalists, policymakers, and practitioners make sense of the education landscape in the Wolverine State — and what it suggests about the perspective and positions DeVos would bring to the role of Secretary — Bellwether has compiled a comprehensive fact base about the education policy landscape in Michigan that we will release next week after the Inauguration.

In the meantime, here are a few Michigan fast-facts to know as you watch tonight’s hearing:

Demographics of Michigan K-12 students by race/ethnicity, family income. Source:

Demographics of Michigan K-12 students by race/ethnicity and family income. Source:

  • There are over 1.5 million students in Michigan and nearly half of them qualify for free and reduced-price lunch; more than 33 percent are students of color.
  • Michigan ranks 41st in 4th grade reading performance in the U.S. and 42nd in 4th grade math.
  • 35 percent of Michigan 11th grade students are college-ready according to the SAT; there are substantial gaps in college-readiness rates among black, Hispanic, English language learner, and low-income students.
  • Michigan has one of the nation’s largest charter sectors, with 10 percent of students enrolled in charter schools, about 300 charter schools, and over 40 charter authorizers.
  • Over 70 percent of Michigan charter schools are operated by for-profit education service providers.
  • Detroit is the lowest performing urban school district in the country.
  • Detroit charter schools generally outperform Detroit Public Schools, but there are still concerns about the overall quality of the sector.

Given the above facts, here are a few questions we’d like DeVos to answer at tonight’s confirmation hearing:

  • What should be the role of the federal government in addressing longstanding achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color, like those that exist in Michigan?
  • As you know, Detroit students have struggled academically and gone through numerous failed reform efforts over several decades. Given your work in Detroit, what turnaround strategies would the Department of Education encourage for chronically low-performing school districts?
  • What did you learn from advocating for expanded school choice measures in Michigan and how might you enact those measures at the federal level as Secretary of Education?
  • The presence of multiple charter school authorizers in Michigan has decentralized charter responsibility in the state. What quality-control and accountability measures are necessary for charter school authorizers? What should be the federal role in setting that bar?
  • What has your experience and observation of school choice and school turnaround efforts in Michigan taught you about potential strategies for improving low-performing schools? How would those lessons be applied to this spring’s review of states’ Every Student Succeeds Act plans?

Betsy DeVos’ hearing begins at 5pm and can be watched here. Check back here tomorrow for a recap of major events (and anything about Michigan education that needs a fact check).

To read our other coverage of Betsy DeVos, click here.