Category Archives: Student Data

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

Best of Bellwether 2019: Our Most-Read Publications and Posts

2019 was a busy year at Bellwether and across education in general, and we’re excited to round up our most-read blog posts and publications from the past 12 months. They cover a number of topics, including how school leaders can improve school culture (and reclaim their own time), how to improve the quality of early childhood education, and how to better bridge research and practice. This list also reflects your wide-ranging interests in the myriad issues that Bellwether experts work on across policy and practice. 

For the top posts on our sister site TeacherPensions.org, click here.

We’re excited to bring you more insights in the new decade! To hear updates, you can sign up here to get our newsletter. Thanks for following our work.

Top Ten Blog Posts from Ahead of the Heard in 2019

1.) 3 Things Head Start Programs Can Do Right Now to Improve Their Practice

by Ashley LiBetti 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. 

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Building a School Performance Framework for System Management and Accountability? Lessons From Washington, D.C.

At its core, a school performance framework (SPF) is a data-based tool to support local decision making. An SPF designed for system management and accountability provides data and information about system-wide goals to district- or city-level leaders overseeing multiple schools, helps leaders hold schools accountable for student outcomes, allows leaders to understand which schools are performing well and which are not, and informs system-wide improvement strategies and the equitable allocation of resources. 

Our recent publication “School Performance Frameworks: Lessons, Cases, and Purposeful Design,” a website and report available at SchoolPerformanceFrameworks.org, identifies system management and accountability as one of three primary “use cases” that can shape SPF design decisions. A “use case” (a concept borrowed from the field of technology and design) helps designers think through their end users’ needs. Our work imagines local leaders as designers and considers how the choices they make can meet the needs of different end users, including parents, school principals, and district leaders. Among the five long-standing SPFs we looked at in detail for our project, four prioritized the use case of system management and accountability in their SFP design. 

We also found that too many SPFs try to fulfill multiple uses at once, without clearly thinking through priorities and potential tradeoffs. This post is the third in a series that looks at SPFs through the lens of each use case to highlight design considerations and relevant examples.

SPFs built for system management and accountability can inform consequential decisions made at the district level about which schools should be rewarded, replicated, or expanded, and which ones require improvement, intervention, and possibly closure. These SPFs get the most attention when the data they produce result in school closures or other highly visible consequences. While closures may grab headlines and garner resentment for SPFs, a well-designed SPF can actually inject transparency, equity, and fairness into even the most challenging decisions and increase opportunities for students and families by highlighting success and supporting the expansion of quality school options. 

An SPF created for system management and accountability should include:

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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? 

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