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It’s Time to Reimagine the Road to Graduation

Meet Mel. Mel is a junior in high school in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Her older sister started at a two-year college to avoid taking on excessive debt, and now Mel is wondering if she should follow the same path especially now that COVID-19 has created even more financial pressure on her family:

“I was planning to go to a four-year school but now I’m reconsidering,” says Mel. “If I have to learn online at a four-year school it’s going to be additional stress. And a two-year school will be financially better, too.”

One challenge Mel has faced in the wake of COVID-19 is the switch to online coursework. Sometimes she doesn’t realize when her assignments are due, and it’s hard to keep on top of everything. “COVID-19 is like a reset,” says Mel. “I need to find new ways of studying. It’s like an uphill battle but there is nothing I can do.”

Mel is also grappling with the unrest in her community following George Floyd’s death. Tensions and violence have intensified, and many students fear for their physical safety. “I was interested in criminology before, but the death of George Floyd reinforced that. My mom worries about the police and the justice system. But to start the change you have to be involved and be educated.”

As Mel tries to balance the competing demands of school, work, family, and life, she must also figure out her path to college. The biggest question on her mind is: “How can I find a college that is affordable and will set me up for my long-term goals to serve my community?”

Millions of students across the country are just like Mel: grappling with the unique responsibilities and challenges of their daily lives while trying to make choices around attending college — often with limited support. This is especially true for low-income students, first-generation students, rural students, and students of color who face some of the greatest hurdles in navigating the postsecondary path.

In Reimagining the Road to Graduation: The Need for Extraordinary Systems to Get Students to and Through College, the Bellwether Education team spoke with dozens of young people and the adults in their lives to understand how students are making decisions to stay on a postsecondary pathway amid a global pandemic. Along with Mel, this new resource tells the stories of Anna, Xavier, Frankie, and Alejandro — and offers more than 30 recommendations for K-12 systems, colleges and universities, support organizations, and funders to work together to create a system where getting to and through college isn’t an extraordinary trek that young people have to make alone. 

Visit to learn more.

Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic: Building Redesign Muscles for Durable, Equity-oriented Change

Photos courtesy of Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

Imagine a team of teachers and school leaders reviewing recent student data from math coursework and progress assessments:

“We see a significant difference between the data for Black male scholars versus other students. What can we do to close these gaps?”

In the education reform world, we often think of pursuing a problem like this through one of two approaches: continuous improvement (“Let’s get better at doing what we’ve planned to do”) or innovation (“It’s time to do things differently”). We often do both of these things on a sporadic basis, through large-scale, formal planning processes and/or the design and launch of new programs and schools. 

COVID-19 has made it obvious that we don’t have the luxury of choosing one or the other. The education sector needs to change the conditions for its core programs AND discover new solutions to pervasive and persistent injustices. System leaders have to act with a dual focus on durable improvement of existing programs and on innovation in bold new directions, right now.

So how might we make the act of redesign in support of equity a continuous, sustainable, and repeatable practice? Last spring, the Bellwether Education and Learning Accelerator teams were in the early throes of the pandemic and compelled to explore this question. To do so, we launched a new networked learning community called the Strategy Lab, to support seven school districts representing 299 schools and serving 163,000 students. Our challenge to these districts was this: Pick one significant problem of equity in your system to tackle. We didn’t ask systems to pick a reform model or solution, or to go into a comprehensive strategic planning process. Rather, core teams committed to a common process, working to identify and engage in deep inquiry of meaningful challenges and design and execute pilots. We learned alongside them as they tackled getting back to learning while pursuing new practices that could make their work with students more equitable and the systems more resilient. 

The work has humbled us, but we’ve learned a few things about building muscles for durable, meaningful change.

Inclusion Is Not a “Nice-To-Have”: Effective, Urgent Redesign Requires Authentic Engagement With Those Closest to the Problem

In response to the question posed at the beginning of this piece, many teams would dig even more deeply into learning data to identify an action step. “Let’s double-down on intervention time using tool XX and see if that helps.” 

But what if the problem isn’t insufficient intervention? What if the data only show us part of the story? In the past, our need for speed has led us to exclude important voices from research efforts. Education leaders might justify skipping interviews or other types of engagement because “parents are too busy,” “we have data from the student survey,” or “the recent research report tells us what we need to know.” But we’ve learned that problems of equity are often far more nuanced than what quantitative data show. Developing understanding, quickly and deeply, to solve the right problem from the data means bringing together and meaningfully engaging an authentically inclusive group of people to discover and examine the systems they rely on for support and understanding the faults in those systems.

In our example, let’s assume, instead of defining a solution during the weekly data review that the team instead intentionally paused and decided to speak directly to its Black male scholars and the teachers working with them. While maintaining urgency, they undertook a set of empathy interviews (an essential part of processes like Liberatory Design): 

“In conversations with students and teachers, we’ve learned that the math program we use is not engaging Black male scholars for sustained periods of time; they find the program we’re using boring and easy to game. When they need help (from teachers or peers), scholars don’t have positive experiences asking for it.” 

Developing a richer understanding might take a little more time, but likely brings significant payoff. In one Strategy Lab district, leaders brought together teachers, families, and students to explore how to increase a sense of belonging in school. They brought these voices to their board, which increased overall understanding of the challenge and built a stronger mandate for change.

Going back to our example, the team might now pilot a very different solution to the challenge than they might have imagined simply based on the math data:

“Based on what we know now, we have a hunch that making changes to our schedule to accommodate extended individual engagement and support for Black male scholars could be impactful, let’s learn from others about how they do this.”

“Doing” Is a Good Place to Start

Mechanisms for designing change, such as strategic planning or innovation cycles, often feel daunting, complicated to do well, and hard to sustain. In an early conversation with one Strategy Lab district, one team remarked: “We want to move towards competency-based learning, but we don’t know when we’ll have time to really plan for that big of a change.”

Have we let perfect be the enemy of good? What if we prioritized the small, doable changes that could get us on a pathway for learning more about the problem? Rather than waiting until the next marking period, break, or the summer, what if teams could identify one intentional practice to start learning more about the problem? In the case of the school team this might look like the following: 

“For the next four weeks, Mr. Hynes will conduct 1:1 weekly conferences with Marcus, Samuel, and Joseph. He will use those conferences to learn more about needs and interests with a view to developing individualized homework feedback.” 

Systems can make small and intentional tweaks to the things already underway, especially when there is a new and sharper focus on achieving outcomes that advance equity. Rather than getting paralyzed with tackling everything, and armed with better understanding, teams can hone in on meaningful changes to try now.

That Strategy Lab leader? Instead of planning for planning, we encouraged them to identify a small point of trial grounded in a specific equity challenge that could help inform future stages. They did.

Pursuing Small, Incremental Changes for Some Students Can Help Move Meaningfully Towards the Transformative

Working in the context of the reform movement has often meant that change needed to be big, bold, or innovative, and discouraged incremental or smaller-scale change as not enough.  A consequence of this is that we have implemented tools, resources, and practices that are, in theory, scalable, but in practice and impact are not. 

We are reminded of a leader we worked with over the summer, during the height of reopening planning. They felt discouraged that a change they’d made didn’t feel big enough given the scope of the changes that needed to happen for system success. Our conversation together helped us to realize that what the leader saw as a small change in the scheme of their larger system was, in fact, a humongous one for the students who most needed it the intended beneficiaries of the work. 

These small changes on behalf of some students (those most in need) can set a foundation for deeper work in the longer term and could down the road lead to more comprehensive strategic planning. Returning one last time to our school team, they settled on a deeper engagement model for their Black male scholars that built directly on learnings from the pilot: 

“Based on the learning from the conferences pilot, we will begin using a ‘point person’ check-in model with all Black male scholars who are facing challenges balancing work and school. Ultimately, we want to find ways to deepen engagement for all students.”


The COVID-19 era has taught us that small-scale change can positively change mindsets and habits, and can put systems on a path to larger scale, sustainable change. 

The Strategy Lab work has helped us recognize that redesign is a real-time process, not a single, disconnected act. The gaps in equity are more significant than our teams had imagined, as are the challenges to truly changing existing systems as designed. Yet, the passionate commitment and skills of districts gives us hope about the future. 

We’ve captured additional lessons about this change process, as well as stories from districts, in toolkit form here.

Beth Rabbitt is CEO of The Learning Accelerator and Gwen Baker is Chief Operating Officer and Partner at Bellwether Education Partners. 

Sharing Bellwether team news

Today, Bellwether is excited to announce three new senior leaders are joining our team and to share information about new opportunities for two of our longtime senior leaders. 

  • Akisha Osei Sarfo, Ph.D., recently joined Bellwether as Senior Associate Partner on the Policy and Evaluation team. Sarfo’s work focuses on program evaluation, experimental and quasi-experimental research design, urban education, race and equity in education, education policy, teacher quality, and school accountability. Prior to joining Bellwether, Sarfo served as Chief Performance Officer at Guilford County Schools in North Carolina, the 47th largest school district in the country.

  • Thomas Gold recently joined Bellwether as Senior Associate Partner on the Policy and Evaluation team. For the past two decades, Gold’s work has been driven by the urgency to utilize research and evidence to advance social change and greater equity in education. In recent years, he has focused on advancing global innovation and entrepreneurship in education through programs and research. Previously, as the Vice President for Research at the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), Gold helped to lead the organization to support college and career readiness in under-resourced communities across the U.S.

  • Anson Jackson will join Bellwether in May as Senior Adviser, Academic & Program Strategy on the Strategic Advising team. A long-time educator and instructional leader, Jackson will join our team having previously served as the Deputy Chief of Schools for Uplift Education, and as the Superintendent for Summit Public Schools in the Bay Area. 

We’re excited for Sarfo, Gold and Jackson to grow Bellwether’s impact with their passion and expertise, and to help lead us toward our mission of dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved children. 

We also have bittersweet news about two longtime team members. 

After four years with Bellwether, Tresha Ward will leave her role as Partner overseeing our Academic and Program Strategy team later this spring and join Brooklyn Prospect Charter Schools as Chief Executive Officer. In addition, after more than eight years helping to lead Bellwether’s strategic advising work, Jeff Schulz will transition from his role as Partner this fall to pursue opportunities as an operator.  

These are great and impactful professional opportunities for both Ward and Schulz, but we’re sad to see them go given their contributions to Bellwether and its clients. Ward has grown Bellwether’s academic advising practice area, and served as an important leader in Bellwether’s diversity, equity, and inclusion work. During his time at Bellwether, Schulz has built our work in both early childhood education and post-secondary, and strengthened our business development practices.

“I’m excited and honored to take on the role of CEO at Brooklyn Prospect Schools. It’s an opportunity to join an incredible school community that aligns with my personal mission of delivering outstanding outcomes for all kids and doing that work with a strong equity focus,” says Ward. “I’m looking forward to taking the experiences and learnings from my nearly four years at Bellwether to provide direct support to kids and families in my neighborhood. I’m grateful for the time I’ve spent here, supporting and learning alongside diverse leaders across the country through our Academic Program Strategy work, and I’m especially proud of Bellwether’s efforts to support leaders from the start of the pandemic in getting strategic and targeted about academic response and recovery.” 

“At Bellwether, I’ve had the privilege of working with more than 50 diverse education organizations to tackle a wide range of strategic issues, many of them related to growth,” says Schulz. “I’ve learned a tremendous amount from the leaders and teams I’ve supported, and I have a ton of respect for those teams that wake up every day focused on building and scaling solutions through a particular product, service, or approach. I’m energized thinking about a role with a mission-driven team where I can dig deep to tackle a specific education challenge in a scalable and high impact way, and that’s what I’ll be spending the next several months identifying.”

Bellwether’s team of partners and senior leaders will take over both Schulz and Ward’s workstreams to ensure a seamless transition, and Bellwether will announce additional senior hires later this year. 

“We’ll miss Jeff and Tresha greatly, and all that they’ve added to our work and culture. But we’re also excited for them to begin these new chapters,” says Bellwether Managing Partner Mary Wells. “We are proud to have built an organization where people can learn and pursue their interests while furthering our mission, and then also pursue those interests in other roles. As Bellwether continues to grow, we’re heartened that Jeff and Tresha will continue being partners in our work from afar, and that we’re all working toward a common goal to transform education for underserved kids and communities.”

Relief at last? Join Bellwether on March 17 to discuss what Biden’s first major law means for schools.

Last week, the Biden Administration signed its first major law — and it’s a big one: $1.9 trillion in spending with additional stimulus checks going to millions of Americans, child tax credits for families, and funding to pull millions of Americans out of poverty. It also includes a lot of funding for schools that could be transformative — or just absorbed as business as usual. Whether and how America’s students benefit from the aid package is an open question. How should states, cities, and schools use this funding to go from pandemic to progress? How can education leaders use this boost in funding to innovate and support students, especially those who live on the margins? And what are the key lessons from the last big education recovery bill during the Great Recession in 2009.

On Wednesday, March 17, at 2 p.m. ET, join Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham and education leaders to discuss the possibilities for schools.


  • Phil Bredesen, Chairman of the Board and President, Clearloop and former Governor of Tennessee, 2003-2011
  • Lillian Lowery, Vice President of Student and Teacher Assessments, Educational Testing Services and former State Superintendent of Schools, Maryland and Secretary of Education, Delaware
  • Deborah Gist, Superintendent, Tulsa Public Schools
  • Ken Wagner, Senior Advisor for AnLar, NCTQ, and kmkwagner Advisory, and former Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, Rhode Island
  • Andy Rotherham, Co-Founder & Partner, Bellwether Education Partners (moderator)


Please click here to register for this event. Live captioning will be available.

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Questions? Contact us.

Puerto Rican students during the COVID-19 pandemic: Data update and Q&A with Carlos Rodríguez Silvestre

In October 2020, “Missing in the Margins: Estimating the Scale of the COVID-19 Attendance Crisis” estimated that approximately 3 million American students had experienced minimal to no formal education since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The analysis focused on the most educationally marginalized students in the country — English learners and students with disabilities, in foster care, experiencing homelessness, and/or eligible for the Migrant Education Program. But the original 50 state and D.C. estimates left out Puerto Rico, the Bureau of Indian Education, and other U.S. territories. These students have been just as affected by the pandemic, if not moreso, and deserve more attention. 

Missing in the Margins data estimates now include data from Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Education. Other U.S. territories did not have sufficient comparable data on the population groups in our original estimates, but we are hopeful that this expanded version paints a more comprehensive picture. 

The estimates emphasize the scale of the challenge before state and local education agencies as they work to begin the recovery process. As before, estimates are based on student population numbers from educationally marginalized groups, not on 2021-22 enrollment numbers. Those enrollment numbers, where available, track with our earlier estimates: enrollments are down around 2-3% on average, with much larger reductions concentrated in kindergarten. But even this far into the 2020-21 school year, we still do not have a clear enough picture of who these unenrolled students are or where they have gone: private school, home school, work, or elsewhere. 

In 2017, public school enrollment in Puerto Rico was approximately 350,000 students, but economic crises, natural disasters, and the COVID-9 pandemic have all contributed to fast enrollment declines. Local estimates suggest enrollment is now closer to 280,000. We estimate up to 25,000 children on the island may have had little or no access to education due to the pandemic.

To learn more, we sat down virtually with Carlos Rodríguez Silvestre, Executive Director of the Flamboyan Foundation in Puerto Rico, where he oversees all aspects of the Foundation’s mission-driven work and programmatic strategy in Puerto Rico, to ensure students most impacted by inequity are prepared to succeed in school and beyond. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

  • Carlos Rodriguez SilvestreHow are students in Puerto Rico faring during the COVID-19 school closures and virtual learning? How have the effects of COVID-19 interacted with other disaster response efforts, including the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Maria?

COVID-19 compounded trauma for students in Puerto Rico. The end of in-person classes last March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic is the latest in a series of interruptions to the education system in Puerto Rico, including Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 and earthquakes in early 2020. We estimate that students in Puerto Rico already lost up to 159 days of school between 2017 and 2020. \Adding on lost instructional and socialization time related to the pandemic further deepens challenges for students, families, and educators. 

Taken together, these disasters have had a profound effect on the physical, social, emotional and academic wellbeing of students. Any resolutions will need to take into account the compounded nature of trauma on students and the uniqueness of Puerto Rico’s context. 

  • Are there experiences or considerations that may be unique to Puerto Rican students and schools? 

Yes. The compounded impacts of multiple disasters present unique challenges for Puerto Rican students and schools. 

A crippling economic crisis had left the island bankrupt in 2006 and 15 years later recovery has not been realized. Schools and island infrastructure were already under-resourced as a result.  Continue reading