Building on a new Bellwether report released yesterday about the role of community colleges in preparing, training, and supporting early childhood workers, I have a piece up at U.S. News & World Report arguing that community colleges have the potential to be a powerful tool in boosting the skills and knowledge of early childhood workers — but only if policymakers and early childhood leaders give community colleges the attention and resources they deserve. Read the whole thing here!
There’s this cool thing that sometimes happens when a person gets to know Bellwether as a client or intern and then decides to work here. One shining example is Kirsten Schmitz, an analyst on our Policy and Thought Leadership team who started as a short-term fellow after finishing graduate school. Kirsten got a taste of the Bellwether magic and decided to come back!
Since joining us full-time in 2016, Kirsten has written about inequitable teacher pensions, done live coverage of election issues at the 2016 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, blogged about gender and language barriers, and much more. She brings her journalism chops and teaching experience to the team and always keeps kids in mind as the ultimate mission of her work. Read our short conversation below, where we talk about Kirsten’s journey to Bellwether, her love of the classroom, and why we need to keep examining gender parity for teachers.
Tell me a little about your education trajectory — both your own schooling and how you got involved in teaching and education policy.
I grew up in the Chicago suburbs — Mundelein if you want to get really technical — and was lucky enough to attend strong public and private schools in my community. I studied journalism at the University of Missouri and to this day am still a big news nerd. A large part of my interest in journalism was rooted in social justice, and I still feel the two are closely related. To me, journalism was a means of amplifying the voices and stories of those who had been historically silenced.
I was drawn to Teach For America’s mission early in my undergraduate career, and the organization was my original point of entry to the education equity space. As a 2012 corps member, I taught sixth grade English in Irving, Texas, just outside of Dallas. Being “Miss S” was the greatest privilege of my life, and I miss the classroom fiercely. My students are talented, kind, hilarious, and strong. As you can imagine, leaving was incredibly difficult. Many factors went into my decision to pursue policy, but ultimately, I was eager to find a space that married my journalism background in writing and research with meaningful outcomes for my students and others. Education policy was that intersection for me.
How did you hear about Bellwether? What attracted you to working here?
I started at Bellwether as a summer fellow. I had just finished my master’s in education policy and was assigned to research teacher pensions with Chad Aldeman and Leslie Kan. Pensions were, perhaps unsurprisingly, a topic I knew very little about. That said, I’m nothing if not curious, and Chad and Leslie were generous and supportive with their time and knowledge. By the time my fellowship was complete, I had built up shallow but substantial expertise. More importantly, I had gotten a taste of the Bellwether magic.
No organization is perfect, but Bellwether attracts smart, driven, and thoughtful people. This place is a bit of a talent magnet, and I wanted to soak up as much as I could. After my fellowship, I spent a year working at the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, and then made my way back to Bellwether in the summer of 2016. I don’t always agree with my colleagues, but I admire them all the same. Honestly, I think that’s more important.
Leaving the classroom gutted me. I do think I’ll go back at some point, but until then, Bellwether’s flexible hours allow me to get as close as I can to students, teachers, and communities. I appreciate Bellwether for many reasons, but a work environment that allows me to volunteer (I coach with Girls on the Run and teach at Washington English Center) during typical office hours is invaluable.
You bring a gender lens to your work on our Teacher Pensions team. With the majority of the teaching profession being women, it might seem like a redundant focus. Why do you find it important to look through an explicit gender lens?
I’m actually working on a paper examining gender inequities and how they manifest in teacher retirement systems, and it was important to me to have another female researcher read a draft of my report. But when I pulled up an informal list of researchers in the teacher pensions space to seek out guidance, the overwhelming majority were male. It was disheartening, and it gave me real pause. We know the majority of the teaching profession, 76%, is female. Why is it that the vast majority of people researching their retirement system are male?
At face value, it can feel really redundant to examine gender in education. But I think it’s just the opposite. If we want to examine topics like teacher recruitment, teacher pay, teacher turnover, etc., we are remiss not to consider what it means to be a woman in our larger workforce, and how those dynamics play out in a field dominated in number by females, though still led by men. Here, it’s especially important to consider the intersection of race and gender, too.
What’s an education success story you’re proud of right now?
I’m most proud of my students, whether that’s my original sixth graders from August 2012, my Girls on the Run team who just wrapped their season with a 5k and a service project, or the adult learners who come to night classes at Washington English Center eager to learn even after a full work day.
I was lucky enough to be back in Irving, Texas last week, and I set up coffee dates with a few of my former students. I met Litzy when she was a sixth grader, one who willingly came in on Saturdays to bring up her reading level. Nothing is more powerful than hearing the eleven-year-old you tackled The Outsiders with talk about where she wants to apply to college next year. It gives me goosebumps. I’m proud of the work we do at Bellwether, of course, but listening to Litzy is next level.
Education policy work isn’t always flashy. In fact, I would argue that it’s very rarely flashy. If you’re in this space, it’s because you truly care about positive outcomes for all kids, but especially those who have been historically underserved. I’m here because our current system is objectively inequitable, and I want to do everything I can to change that.
According to tradition, today marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the castle church door in Wittenburg, launching the Protestant Reformation. Numerous books, articles, and museum exhibits this year have explored the ways in which this event shaped Western history, Christianity, and the world we live in today. But what does it have to do with education? Here are three things to consider:
1.Martin Luther was an advocate for education. Luther argued for widespread education, including the education of girls. His doctrine of “sola scriptura” (or scripture alone), as well as the argument that believers needed no intermediary between themselves and God, implied that Christians should be able to read the Bible. But Luther didn’t just advocate education for the sake of Bible reading: he advocated a broad education that included languages, history, music, and mathematics. And he advocated such education not only for boys, but also for girls. In a 1524 pamphlet, he encouraged cities in Germany to establish schools for both boys and girls, using an argument that may sound familiar to many today (though other arguments in the pamphlet will not!):
If it is necessary, dear sirs, to expend annually such great sums for firearms, roads, bridges, dams and countless similar items, in order that a city may enjoy temporal peace and prosperity, why should not at least as much be devoted to the poor, needy youth, so that we might engage one or two competent men to teach school?
(Lest one think Luther only believed men should teach, he also wrote a letter encouraging a former nun to become a teacher at a girls’ school he founded in Wittenburg.)
3. The Reformation and its legacy is a great example of why schools today need to teach students about religion. The Reformation played a crucial role in shaping both Western history and the world we live in today, and students need to learn about it. And to really learn about it, they need to understand at least a little bit about Christian doctrine. If public schools do not teach children about the religious ideas (from a range of faiths and traditions) that have shaped history and the world we live in today, they’re not equipping them to deal with the challenges we face today.
Announcements of new hires and promotions are some of my favorite blog posts to write, because I get to showcase the talent on our team and celebrate our common purpose and passion. New hires also mean we’re continuing to build a nonprofit where we are all proud to work.
Today is no different. We’re excited to announce two promotions on our leadership team:
Allison Crean Davis has been promoted to partner on the Policy and Thought Leadership team, and will lead our growing work around educational program evaluation.
Ali Fuller is now a principal on the Strategic Advising team and will continue to work on — and lead — a range of strategy, business planning, and organizational effectiveness projects.
We’re also pleased to announce two new hires:
Steven Purcell joined us in July as our new chief of staff. He will lead operations and human capital work, including continuing to build strong organizational systems and culture. Prior to Bellwether, Steve worked with the KIPP Foundation, Los Angeles Unified School District, and San Francisco Unified School District.
Tresha Ward is joining us later this month as senior adviser for academic strategy, supporting CMOs and districts as they assess their academic strategies to improve student outcomes. Tresha previously held roles at the KIPP Foundation, KIPP NYC, KIPP Houston, and the Houston Independent School District.
Please join me in congratulating our team for their extraordinary commitment, and help us to welcome our new teammates aboard!
This week, Bellwether staff share their perspectives on family and parent engagement. Follow Ahead of the Heard from now until Friday for a series of blog posts that tackle common misconceptions about engaged parents, working with multilingual families, and more. Click here to read other posts in the series thus far.
We’ve heard the phrase “No Guts, No Glory” (like in this Air Force manual), but when it comes to parents and their children’s academic success, the phrase doesn’t hold true.
Parents can have all the “guts” — hopes, wishes, and high expectations for their kids — but their kids still may not get the “glory” — a great education and high academic achievement.
That’s because too often, kids don’t have equal odds when it comes to educational opportunities.
It’s not because their parents don’t care, as a misguided stigma against poor parents might suggest. A hypothesized culture of despair says that parents with the least financial resources discount their children’s odds for future success and hence invest less into their child’s academic experience.
In fact, parents across demographic characteristics and economic conditions tend to have strong and robust expectations for their children, and these patterns of thought are influential over the course of their children’s academic careers. However, the difference between economically advantaged and disadvantaged parents is in the objective probabilities that their children will succeed as hoped. That is, for parents at the bottom end of the economic spectrum, the gap between their high expectations and their child’s likely reality is much larger than it is for parents with greater economic means. All parents seem to have the guts to dream big, but only some of their children are likely to see the glory of results.
Then what can schools do to support parents in helping their kids? Schools must offer equitable educational opportunities and reinforce mechanisms in the home that drive student achievement. Parental expectations and behaviors can mitigate economic inequities, but schools must deliver the goods through rigorous learning standards and outstanding instruction, which sadly remains not a foregone conclusion.
As schools consider their approach to parental and family engagement, they should understand that high academic expectations don’t necessarily translate into parents attending school events or volunteering their services. Schools should acknowledge and continuously reinforce parental beliefs about their child’s potential, and they should emphasize ways parents can support — through the home environment and through specific behaviors — their child’s learning.
All parents are hopeful about their children’s futures: sometimes against real odds. This provides an opportunity to focus outreach to families. Schools can and should bolster what parents hope and do for their children. Yet they must reach inward too, to ensure what they expect from parents is mirrored by high expectations and excellent teaching during the school day.