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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!

Quick Hit: More on Community Colleges and Early Childhood

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!

A Day in the Life: Bellwether’s Kirsten Schmitz

Kirsten Schmitz headshotThere’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.