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Expand Your Ed Policy Toolkit with Human-Centered Design

Design Methods for Education Policy Website

Design Methods for Education Policy Website

In February, I released a white paper making the case that policy professionals can create better education policies by using human-centered research methods because these methods are informed by the people whose lives will be most affected.

Yesterday, we released a companion website (https://designforedpolicy.org/) that curates 54 human-centered research methods well-suited to education policy into one easy-to-navigate resource. We took methods from organizations like IDEO, Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, and Nesta and organized them by the phases of a typical education policy project. We included brief explanations of how each method might be applied to your current work.

To be sure, you probably already use some human-centered design methods in your work, even if you don’t think of them that way. Interviews and observations are commonplace and provide highly valuable information. What the design world brings is a mindset that explicitly and deeply values the lived experiences of the people who are most impacted by problems and an array of methods to capture and analyze that information. It also adds a heavy dose of creativity to the process of identifying solutions. And despite a common misconception, when done well, human-centered design methods are very rigorous, fact-based, and structured to root out assumptions and biases.

When combined, common policy analysis methods and human-centered design methods can result in a powerful mix of quantitative and qualitative, deductive and inductive, macro and micro, rational and emotional elements. Continue reading

High School Sucks for Many Queer Youth — I Was Lucky

photograph of author Jeremy Knight in high school

photo courtesy of the author

The common narrative is that for many queer-identified people, high school is a time of awkwardness, isolation, or fear. As young queer people come into their own identities and expressions, they navigate building supporting friendships while being true to themselves, and may even experience taunting or violence.

But during those years which most of my queer friends bemoan, I actually flourished.

Sure, coming out is difficult, and it’s particularly difficult as a black man. There were very few public examples of queer identity, same-sex love, and men bucking traditional forms of masculinity, especially ones that included men of Caribbean descent like myself.

But as I came out during my sophomore year in high school, I actually found solace in school. Antithetical to the schoolyard bullying that many face, all of my teachers, administrators, and peers loved me for who I was. Business went on as usual — I still got parts in our theater productions, kept all my friends, managed to date, and was even elected student body president. All without issue. And, importantly, all while getting a rigorous education.

I owe a lot of that to my environment — I spent my middle and high school years in a pretty racially mixed, middle-class suburb outside of Atlanta after spending my early years in a black, working class community in the city. My mother moved us to the suburbs because the schools I was zoned for were notoriously dangerous and had poor academics. Even in elementary school, I had instances with teachers questioning my academic ability.

Had I stayed in the schools I was zoned for in Atlanta, my story would likely be very different. It’s hard for me to imagine getting the same emotional and academic support.

I owe a lot to my high school teachers and administrators. They created a school environment that felt safe, inclusive, joyful, and deeply rooted in strong academics. It was this environment that encouraged me to think about pursuing a career in education. When I got to college, I began taking a few education courses and joined Students for Education Reform, a student organizing group advocating for better K-12 schools, and realized policy and advocacy could be an avenue to make large-scale changes that affect more than one school building. After graduating, I led and supported successful campaigns to raise teacher pay in North Carolina, elect a school board member in Los Angeles, and get better supports for English language learners in Massachusetts.

This passion started because I wanted to help design a school that was as supportive and enriching as my school in the suburbs — but for kids in neighborhoods like mine in Atlanta. I want a world where black kids can be challenged, supported, and realize their limitless potential in a loving school community — no matter what identities, interests, or experiences they bring into the classroom. I’m encouraged by the progress major urban districts have made this past decade, and look forward to the next generation of young, queer school advocates who will continue to lead with equity and intersectionality in mind.

New Hires & Promotions

We’ve built a whip-smart staff here at Bellwether; pooling our experiences from past lives as teachers, nonprofit leaders, and congressional staff to deliver sharp insights and solutions that dramatically improve outcomes for kids. It’s what makes us special.

And it makes sharing hiring and promotion updates that much sweeter. I’m thrilled to announce a new hire to the Bellwether team and a number of promotions that will increase our ability to deliver on the ambitious goals we’ve committed ourselves to for kids:


First, I am excited to share that Alyssa Schwenk will be joining our team as Development Director. Alyssa comes to us by way of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she led external relations for the organization after managing fundraising and partnerships for some time. Alyssa is a former teacher and Teach For America corps member and taught at a public charter school in D.C. We’ve built a successful and sustainable organization without focused attention to development, so I’m really excited about what we can do with her leading this work for us.


On the promotions front, Gwen Baker recently took on the role of Chief Operating Officer and Senior Adviser. Gwen is drawing off of her experience as an entrepreneur, supporting me and our team of partners in driving progress on our new strategic plan. She will continue to serve clients, helping Bellwether develop its growing expertise in technology as a driver of learning and business effectiveness — something Gwen knows a lot about. She joined our team last year after many years as the co-founder of CoreSpring, Inc., whose mission is to provide the field with access to high-quality formative assessment content and digital authoring tools.


I’m also delighted to share that we have promoted Katie Rouse to Principal. Katie joined us about a year ago; she was previously the COO at DC Prep, a successful charter network. She has also held positions in Chicago Public Schools and Bain & Company. At Bellwether, Katie quickly distinguished herself for leadership on client projects, including leading strategic planning for charter schools, launching new organizations and initiatives, and supporting innovative strategic plans at complex nonprofits. In addition, she brings experience in developing talent systems and processes to our leadership team, and serves as an amazing coach for our Strategic Advising team.

Evan Coughenour has been promoted to Associate Partner on our Strategic Advising team! Evan joined us over 3.5 years ago and has served a wide range of clients, from start-up organizations to long-standing nonprofits to charter networks. Most recently he has helped develop our cohort-based strategic advising work that has been integral to delivering growth solutions to districts and charter networks looking to expand and in driving the continuous improvement of our approach to advising these clients. Over his years here, Evan has also offered his time to many of our team members to build their financial modeling skills.

Justin Trinidad has been promoted from Research Assistant to Analyst on our Policy & Thought Leadership team. Justin quickly absorbs all the content we throw at him and is on his way to becoming an expert in teacher prep, juvenile justice, and the inner workings of teachers’ unions and legislation. His insight, thoughtfulness, and poise are adding value to the projects he works on and to our policy work overall. Justin joined the Bellwether team with years of experience in Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) advocacy, having spent time with the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates.


Starr Aaron has been promoted to Executive & Business Systems Assistant. Over the last two years, Starr has provided expert support to some of our busiest senior staff. In this new role, Starr will continue to support some of those folks, while taking on new work in supporting our entire team with systems and technology. Prior to coming to Bellwether, Starr received her masters in education and spent almost two years as a technical trainer on proprietary banking software, where she developed and produced webinar tutorials, edited complex and highly technical training materials, and trained clients on new systems.

I’m so proud of our entire staff and their unwavering commitment to delivering smart, tailored solutions to our clients and recommendations for the field at large. If you’re interested in joining our team, please check out our open roles here.

Three Reasons to Expect Little on Innovative Assessments — and Why That’s Not Such a Bad Thing

Photo by Josh Davis via Flickr

Next week is the deadline for states to submit an application for the innovative assessment pilot to the U.S. Department of Education (ED). If you missed this news, don’t worry, you haven’t missed much. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) allows ED to grant assessment flexibility to up to seven states to do something different from giving traditional end-of-year standardized tests. The best example of an innovative state assessment system is New Hampshire, which allows some districts to give locally designed performance-based assessments. These assessments look more like in-class activities than traditional standardized tests, and are developed and scored by teachers.

Two years ago, Education Week called the innovative assessment pilot “one of the most buzzed-about pieces” of ESSA because it could allow states to respond to testing pushback while still complying with the new federal law. But now only four states have announced they will apply, and expectations are subdued at best.

Why aren’t more states interested an opportunity to get some leeway on testing? Here are three big reasons:

  1. Most states are playing it safe on ESSA and assessments are no exception

When my colleagues at Bellwether convened an independent review of ESSA state plans with 45 education policy experts, they didn’t find much ambition or innovation in state plans — few states went beyond the requirements of the law, and some didn’t even do that. Even Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has approved the majority of state plans, recently criticized states for plans that “only meet the bare minimum” and don’t take full advantage of the flexibility offered in the law.

Several states responded that they were actually doing more than they had indicated in their plans. As my colleague Julie Squire pointed out last year, putting something extra in an ESSA plan could limit a state’s options and bring on more federal monitoring. If most states were fairly conservative and compliance-based with their big ESSA plans, there’s little reason to think they’ll unveil something new and surprising in a small-scale waiver application.

Additionally, the law includes several requirements for an innovative assessment that might be difficult for states to meet. For example, innovative tests have to be comparable across school districts, they have to meet the needs of special education students and English learners, and the pilot programs have to be designed to scale up statewide. If states have any doubts they can meet that bar, they probably won’t apply. Continue reading

Education Policy, Meet Human-Centered Design

In a lot of ways, the worlds of education policy and human-centered design couldn’t be more dissimilar. The former relies heavily on large-scale quantitative analysis and involves a long, complex public process. The latter is deeply qualitative, fast moving, creative, and generative. Policy professionals come up through the ranks in public agencies, campaigns, and think tanks. Deep issue expertise and sophisticated deductive reasoning are highly valued. Designers come from an array of backgrounds — the more unorthodox the better. Success for them comes from risk-taking, novel ideas, and synthesizing concepts across time, space, and sectors.

figure from Creating More Effective, Efficient, and Equitable Education Policies with Human-Centered Design comparing policy and design methods

figure from Creating More Effective, Efficient, and Equitable Education Policies with Human-Centered Design

I’m fortunate to have spent some time in both worlds. They each appeal to different parts of my personality. Policy analysis affords me order and confidence in answers based on facts. Design lets me flex my creative muscles, fail fearlessly, and have confidence in answers based on experience.

So when a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York gave me the opportunity to write a paper about bringing these two worlds together, I jumped at the chance — I knew that each could benefit from the other.

Creating More Effective, Efficient, and Equitable Education Policies with Human-Centered Design makes the case that policy practitioners can use human-centered methods to create better education policies because they are informed by the people whose lives will be most affected by them.

The underpinning hypothesis is that 1) co-designing policies with constituents can generate more accurate definitions of problems and more relevant solutions, 2) human-centered design can generate a wider variety of potential solutions leading to innovation, and 3) the process can mitigate or reverse constituent disenfranchisement with the lawmaking process.

Human-centered policy design is still a new practice, however, and there are still important questions to work out, like how to make sure the process is inclusive and where exactly human-centered design methods can enhance policy research and design.

Luckily, SXSW EDU, a huge national conference focused on innovation in education, is a perfect place to test new ideas. So I reached out to Maggie Powers, director of STEAM Innovation at Agnes Irwin School and member of IDEO’s Teachers Guild, and Matt Williams, vice president of Education at Goodwill of Central Texas, to explore what it would look like to apply human-centered design to policies that affect high school students whose education suffers because of lost credits when they transfer schools. Our session will pressure test some of the ideas that emerged in the paper. The results will inform the next phase of this work, which will help policy practitioners implement human-centered design methods. Keep an ear to the ground for that!