Category Archives: Uncategorized

Deep into the new school year, we’re still missing a lot of students

An empty elementary school classroom

Source: Wikimedia

Educators, parents, and policymakers have been concerned about the effects of the pandemic on student learning ever since it forced the abrupt end of in-person instruction in March. In October, my colleagues and I estimated that 3 million students were at high risk of having had little to no education since then. NWEA, the organization that runs the popular MAP Growth exam, estimated in April 2020 that learning loss due to spring school closures and the “summer slide” would set students back, on average, by 30% of a year in reading and more than half a year in math.

The new school year has brought about new data on student performance, and the early returns seem less dire than those original projections — with a major caveat. In a new brief with fall data, NWEA found that students in their test sample started the 2020-21 school year in roughly the same place in reading compared with similar students at the start of 2019-20, and about 5-10 percentile points lower in math. This was a huge sample of 4.4 million students spanning grades 3 through 8, so relatively minor slowdowns in math progress seems worth celebrating.

But these findings are not all good news. The authors note that many of the observable declines were concentrated disproportionately among Black and Hispanic student populations. Biggest of all, fully 25% of students who took the MAP last year didn’t take it this year. In a “normal” year, that rate of dropoff is more like 15%, which suggests that there are many students missing from this year’s data. These could be new homeschoolers or private school enrollees, or they could be disconnected from the school system altogether.

This aligns with other early state-level estimates of enrollment declines. Connecticut’s fall 2020 enrollment is down roughly 3%; so is that of Washington and Missouri. Georgia’s state enrollment numbers are down 2.2%. Most of those declines are concentrated in kindergarten and pre-K, often in double digits. Each of these newly available data points seem to provide evidence of a big picture that is potentially devastating: as many as three million students missing from school.

It’s important to consider here that these missing students — missing from school, and missing from the NWEA MAP data — include those most likely to be deeply affected by the pandemic. In an addendum to the NWEA brief, authors Angela Johnson and Megan Kuhfeld warn that these new learning loss estimates must be considered with this in mind: that the students being tested now are on average less racially diverse (and whiter) and attending socioeconomically more advantaged schools. This is emblematic of what we have seen playing out across the country all year. Generally speaking, more well-off students and their families have the resources to withstand the pressure of the pandemic to an extent that their lower-income peers do not, resulting in two increasingly divergent education systems: one where frequent testing, hybrid learning, and private tutoring are available — and one where they are not.

While this challenge is immense and likely to be with us for some time to come, there are action steps policymakers can take immediately that will better position states and districts for the long haul. The new enrollment figures underscore an urgent need for improved attendance and enrollment data and faster reporting that will enable schools to be responsive and flexible in tracking down “missing” students. There is also a need for attendance intervention strategies that start with an informed understanding of students’ unmet needs, and for collaboration with social service organizations and other community-based organizations that can work to meet those needs. And states can start by providing the funding that can make these interventions possible.

For more on the 3 million students missing in the margins, you can read Bellwether’s report here.

A Very Different Back-to-School Season — and What We Can Learn from It

This post was co-authored with Jenee Henry Wood of Transcend, a national nonprofit working with communities to build and spread extraordinary, equitable learning environments.

As anyone in education knows, the first few weeks of school are absolutely critical. The relationships, routines, and community established in those early days serve as a foundation for the rest of the year. We also know that this year, most of America’s school communities had a dramatically different type of start. 

Over the summer, in response to the unprecedented challenges leaders and schools were facing due to the coronavirus pandemic, the teams of Transcend and Bellwether began brainstorming opportunities to combine our respective organizations’ expertise and resources (see, for example, Bellwether’s COVID resource page and Transcend’s COVID resource Library). 

In this blog post, our two organizations share insights from our experiences working closely with schools on how three common back-to-school priorities (relationship-building, routine creation, and teacher supports) have looked for their school-based partners during the COVID-19 crisis, and consider how these real-time innovations might help us rethink the way we do things in school moving forward.

Here are more details on these three priorities, with concrete examples and lessons for the future:

Relationship building with students and families

Students need to feel known and seen before they can learn effectively. Because of this, relationship building has always been a priority for the first several weeks of school.

How it looks during COVID-19

  • One-on-one meet ups with students outside of the building or via Zoom
  • Facilitated e-intros between last year’s teacher and this year’s
  • “Looping” with the same students from one year to the next (i.e. teachers stick with the same students they had last year)
  • Every student receives regular, one-on-one touchpoints from an assigned staff member
  • Targeted outreach to students who miss class to troubleshoot barriers early on
  • Virtual, daily student advisories (adult-facilitated small groups for students)

Exemplar from the field

Statesman College Prep Academy for Boys in Washington, D.C, is ensuring no student falls through the cracks by using daily 1:1 check-ins with students and families to build relationships, support well-being, and foster engagement in virtual learning. 

Considerations for the future 

Is relationship-building in schools too confined by traditional structures like the academic calendar year, grade bands, and staff organizational charts? Moving forward, how might we move past these constraints to make sure every student feels supported by a trusted adult at school?

Routine setting with students and families

The first six weeks of school are essential for establishing schedules, routines, and procedures that help classrooms run efficiently and effectively throughout the year. 

How it looks during COVID-19

  • Increased student agency to determine routines around when, where, and how to learn
  • User-friendly, visual schedules to orient students and families to expectations
  • Pre-recorded videos of how to use online platforms, submit work, etc.
  • Regular office hours to troubleshoot/answer questions
  • Daily morning and end-of-day emails to students and families sharing all relevant links and assignments from the day’s lessons 
  • Differentiated expectations (i.e. multiple schedules, flexible timelines for work completion) based on family and student needs 

Exemplar from the field

Van Ness Elementary, a DC Public School and an exemplar in integrating social-emotional learning, has seen great success in translating many of its practices into a virtual setting. Van Ness’ Strong Start Rituals and their First Weeks of School Virtual Learning tools can readily be adopted by teachers.

Considerations for the future

To what extent are our traditional routines and expectations designed for compliance rather than the creation of a strong learning community? Moving forward, how might we reimagine routines and expectation-settings to be more student-centered, inclusive of families, and differentiated by need?  

Holistic staff supports

Teachers and staff (like employees everywhere) must feel supported as people and professionals in order to perform at the highest level and meet the diverse needs of young people. In the current context, even more attention must be paid to supporting adults who are dealing with added stress and trauma and are working under entirely new job expectations and conditions. 

How it looks during COVID-19 

  • Connections to peer counseling and advising for staff, as needed
  • Small-group adult mindfulness activities 
  • Professional development that is responsive to teachers’ real-time needs, and which often utilizes teachers with in-house expertise as leaders 
  • A bank of rotating “off time” to provide days off for rest and recovery 
  • Differentiated staff schedules and expectations to accommodate demands of personal life during a pandemic
  • Innovative staffing models that allow for increased efficiency and specialization

Exemplar from the field

Pop Consulting has partnered with Transcend to put out a Trauma & Recovery Series designed to support teachers holistically. 

Considerations for the future

Where are there opportunities to rethink teacher roles to increase flexibility, autonomy, and innovation? Moving forward, how might we structure supports that create space for sustainability and self care and allow teachers to be the best professionals they can be?

– – –

The innovations we have observed during this unusual back-to-school season are both inspiring and a call to action. As school leaders and teachers continue to navigate this ongoing crisis, it is imperative that the broader field find ways to create the time, space, and resources for these practitioners to capture lessons learned and consider what those lessons might mean for the future of school. 

During this pandemic, the Bellwether and Transcend teams have partnered to bring the best expertise of our two organizations to support leaders thinking about school differently. If you are interested in supporting further collaboration between our organizations, please email Tresha Ward ( and Jeff Wetzler (

Tips and Tricks for School Leader Decision Making: A Tool

School leaders are faced with a variety of decisions each and every day, from the most fraught and challenging decisions navigating COVID-19, to day-to-day decisions pertaining to operational management. Some decisions feel easy and minor, informed by past experience and quality data. Other decisions are more daunting, requiring leaders to make difficult calls with incomplete information in a context that is rapidly changing.

This is especially true today. For instance, a decision about whether to buy devices to support remote instruction could go off-track if the manager of the I.T. department and the school executive director both think the other has the final say on which devices to purchase and how many are needed. And it’s not hard to imagine a well-meaning leader soliciting input from a multitude of stakeholder groups about how best to make meals safely available to students, and then feel overwhelmed by the volume of conflicting viewpoints. 

I’ve created a simple tool to share how to tackle strategic decisions for your organization, and offered some details and examples to support you and your team as you build your decision-making muscle. You’ll note that the process I map out is deeply aligned with a couple of planning toolkits my colleagues and I have shared over the past several months. I’ve chosen an example that is likely familiar to many school leaders for the sake of clarity, but the recommendations below are especially applicable in the current moment. In addition to the details and examples below, you can also download a simple, printable version of these steps here.

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A Statement on Solidarity

Friends of Bellwether, 

Right now we are searching for the words to describe what we are feeling: anger, frustration, and also a deep sense of urgency that America must be better than this. This most recent crisis comes in the midst of a pandemic that has robbed many children, often the ones who need great schools the most, of one-third of their learning this year. And on top of all that, Black communities are still being called to demand basic human rights that most Americans take as a matter of course. 

The most recent horrific acts of racist violence against Black citizens are heartbreaking and a painful reminder of the endless ways our public institutions and systems fail Black people and communities. What our country is experiencing is neither new nor unexpected. It’s important to be clear: The killing of George Floyd in Minnesota is not a random event that sparked a sudden or inexplicable backlash; it is part of an inexcusable pattern that must stop.

Our systems of education likewise systematically disenfranchise Black children as well as other historically marginalized students. Even as Bellwether works to address these issues, we believe more radical and broad-based change is required to realize the vision of an equitable and just society.  

We are making space for the visceral pain of our Black teammates and colleagues, and standing with communities across the nation, especially those most targeted by racial injustice. We stand with those fighting to address the ways racism destroys individuals and communities. They do not stand alone — it’s incumbent on all Americans, especially white Americans, not only to speak out, but to act.

COVID-19: Pro Bono Advising Available Now

Like many nonprofits, Bellwether’s operations are impacted by COVID-19. In particular, the academic advising, strategic planning, and evaluation work we do inside schools is paused, and we’ve shut down team member travel.

Short term, this means we have unexpected surplus capacity which we’d like to make available, pro bono, to school districts and charter school networks that are figuring out how to address a variety of issues related to operations, strategy and decision-making, state and federal policy guidance, curriculum and instruction, and financial planning.

Across our team of more than 60 full-time professionals, we have former school leaders, nonprofit leaders, media professionals, and experienced strategy consultants. Our team members have worked at the Department of Education, The White House, top-tier management consulting firms, and state education agencies around the country. Three-quarters of our staff have worked in the classroom, and some still teach part-time now.

To learn more, please tell us about your district or network and what you need. We cannot service all requests but will take on as many as possible and farm others out to peers as we are able.

If you’d like to share this news with someone in your network, we also posted this update on LinkedIn.