Category Archives: Talent

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My Slow-Motion Catholic School Epiphany

I am not Catholic and I have never worked in a Catholic school. I’d always known there are urban Catholic schools with a mission very similar to Bellwether’s, but the schools themselves were somewhat of a black box to me. I haven’t been for or against Catholic schools — just indifferent (or agnostic?). Knowing that Catholic schools are by far the largest group of private schools in the world, this felt like a miss.

However, I’ve been on a sort of Catholic school pilgrimage over the past two years. I’ve built a close relationship with Bellwether client Partnership Schools (PNYC), a nonprofit organization (somewhat akin to a CMO) that manages seven New York City Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx. I’ve also worked with EdChoice and Brilla Public Charter Schools, and collaborated with colleagues who’ve written a whole lot about Catholic schools. 

P012506PM-0291 Youngsters from the Cathedral Church of St. John react as they watch the arrival of Marine One to the South Lawn of the White House with President George W. Bush aboard Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006. White House photo by Paul Morse

Photo by Paul Morse

As I learned more, a few things immediately surprised me about Catholic schools in general and PNYC’s schools in particular:

  1. Many (sometimes most) kids who attend PNYC schools aren’t actually Catholic! The primary goal of urban Catholic schools isn’t to create little Catholics — it’s to serve those in need. As one PNYC team member put it (echoing what others have said): “We teach our kids because we are Catholic, not because they are.”
  2. While connected to a massive international church (and sometimes an operator like PNYC), Catholic schools are strongly committed to local control because of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which suggests that decisions be made by the smallest, lowest, or least-centralized competent authority.
  3. While PNYC schools are tuition-based, many of their students receive scholarships that significantly reduce or even eliminate the cost of attendance.
  4. Few PNYC teachers are nuns (or have any formal connection to the church). Most teach for reasons similar to other teachers — a belief in the transformative power of education, a desire to serve, and a love of children. The key addition in the case of PNYC is the faith-based motivation that inspires many to choose Catholic schools over their charter or district-run peers.
  5. PNYC’s teachers are unionized. While this is rare in the private school sector, there are actually a few different Catholic educator associations operating nationwide.  

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Leading an Autonomous School — and How That’s Different From Being a Traditional School Principal

A handful of districts across the country are launching in-district autonomous schools, where schools remain part of the district but are granted some degree of autonomy, similar to what is typically granted to charter schools. As my colleague Mary Wells explained, there are a number of ingredients necessary for success in these schools, one of which is the leader in the building itself. 

Leading an autonomous school is very different from a typical building principal role. As one San Antonio-based autonomous school leader Brian Sparks put it: “This role is not for everyone, and what made you a successful principal may not help you be a successful [autonomous school] leader.” 

I’ve supported fourteen autonomous school leaders in four districts and have noticed that they typically have a few things in common:

Results orientation

Successful autonomous school leaders are driven by delivering better outcomes for their students. Maintaining a laser-like focus on this goal gives them courage to do things differently, such as creating year-round learning for their students or pushing their teams to leverage data to provide tailored support for students.  Continue reading

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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Media: “Four lessons I learned from California’s Hollister prep on closing learning gaps” in EdSource

Earlier this year, I got to visit to Hollister Prep, a public charter school in  California which serves a racially and socioeconomically diverse student population and achieves remarkable results, partly through its use of data-driven instruction. You can read about the lessons from my visit in an op-ed published this week in EdSource:

Many schools collect and track data, but too often, there’s a lag between data collection and reporting — or teachers simply don’t know how to use data. At Hollister Prep, data collection and analysis are constant, ongoing, and used to drive near-term instructional decisions.

I watched students complete personalized math lessons via fun online curriculum that included a cute jumping frog. But this rigorous program also provided teachers robust, real-time data (versus the quarterly benchmark reports or laborious exit tickets other teachers might rely on).

The data told teachers what types of problems a student encountered in the session and what scaffolds and supports he needed. Another teacher tracked students’ mastery of the multiplication lesson of the day to know who needed re-teaching during the intervention block.

The full op-ed is available here. You can also the report that my colleagues Gwen Baker and Amy Chen Kulesa and I released last month, “Unfinished: Insights From Ongoing Work to Accelerate Outcomes for Students With Learning Gaps,” which synthesizes research on the science of learning to inform efforts to help students close gaps and meet grade-level expectations.

Media: “NM’s $10 million bet on teacher recruitment” in the Albuquerque Journal

I have a new op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal about New Mexico’s recent teacher recruitment bills. The state struggles with teacher shortages, specifically teachers of color. Six in ten students of color will go through their entire schooling without having a teacher who looks like them. As you’ve read in Katrina Boone, Justin Trinidad, and Cara Jackson‘s work, that’s a BIG problem.

The state is investing $10 million in two new programs to address this shortage, but I argue that they’re divvying up their dollars the wrong way:

The bulk of this investment is going to the Teacher Preparation Affordability Act, which targets new prospective teachers. A much smaller amount of money is allocated to the Grow Your Own Teachers Act, which focuses on current education assistants. But this is the wrong way to divvy up the pot: The state should be banking more on current education assistants and less on prospective teachers.

Education assistants are the perfect population to recruit from to address teacher diversity and retention concerns. Nationally, paraeducators – like New Mexico’s education assistants – are more likely to be bilingual, born outside the U.S., and nonwhite than current teachers. And they’ve already demonstrated their interest in working in schools. This type of locally focused recruitment strategy isn’t new: Former Public Education Secretary Karen Trujillo, whose dismissal was announced last month, led one such program out of New Mexico State University. But the Grow Your Own Act is particularly promising; it could be the incentive that pushes education assistants into lead teacher positions. According to a recent survey of current New Mexico education assistants, the primary barriers to completing licensure positions are time and money. But if each education assistant enrolled in the program uses the full scholarship amount available to them, that’s only enough to prepare 17 new teachers. By way of comparison, last year, New Mexico had 740 teacher vacancies. The state needs to do much more to recruit teachers of color, and this plan isn’t it.

Read the full piece in the Albuquerque Journal.

This op-ed is part of a series on teacher residencies. Read Bellwether blog posts in the #ResidentExperts series here.