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Tracking Parents’ Complex Perspectives on K-12 Education

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Every policy wonk loves a good poll, and education policy wonks are no exception. Polls give added depth and dimension to an array of current (and shifting) public opinions, attitudes, and needs. But too often, wonks tend to over-index on the latest, flashiest data point as new polls are released — making it difficult to examine the broader context of other polls analyzing similar data points, or to contextualize prior administrations of the same poll.

The recency bias associated with new polling data is a persistent problem in fully understanding how parents think about K-12 education across the country. Contrary to media-driven hype, parents have diverse viewpoints that don’t fit broad narratives offered by pundits. Just as children and circumstances change over time, so do parents’ opinions on what their child needs. And to say that the COVID-19 pandemic brought change to parents and to their children’s educational needs is an understatement — one that underscores the need for a deeper examination of how parents’ views on K-12 education have (or haven’t) changed since March 2020.

Alex Spurrier, Juliet Squire, Andy Rotherham, and I launched the Parent Perception Barometer to help advocates, policymakers, and journalists navigate the nuance of parents’ opinion about K-12 education. The interactive barometer aggregates nationwide polling and other data on parents’ stated and revealed preferences regarding their children’s education. The first wave of polling data indicates that parents are largely satisfied with their child’s education and school, but many have specific concerns about their child’s academic progress as well as their mental health and well-being. As parent opinions aren’t static, the barometer will be updated on a regular basis with the release of new polling data.

There are multiple benefits of aggregating this polling data in the barometer: 

  • First, it allows us to examine emerging or persistent trends in the data. Looking at the same question asked over multiple time periods as well as similar questions asked from different polls separates signal from noise. 
  • Second, it shapes a holistic consideration of a body of relevant data, tempering the pull of recency bias that comes with each new poll’s release. 
  • Third, by analyzing similar poll questions, we identify data points that may be outliers. For instance, if three polls asking a similar question all indicate that parents strongly favor a particular policy, and a fourth poll indicates otherwise, we may look more closely at that poll’s language wording and be more cautious about the types of statements or conclusions we make.

The Parent Perception Barometer provides several ways to support a comprehensive analysis of parents’ perceptions. For those most interested in exploring data on a single topic across multiple sources, the Data Visualization tab provides a high-level summary of recent trends in parents’ stated and revealed preferences. For those looking for more technical background on the polls and data, information about specific polling questions, possible responses, and administration dates can be found within the Additional Detail tab. The barometer also allows users to view and download underlying source data. 

The Parent Perception Barometer is a valuable resource to ground policy and advocacy conversations in a nuanced, contextual understanding of parents’ opinions — bringing clarity and context to the K-12 education debate.

Celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week: Team Reflections

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages.

We’re celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week May 2-6. In honor of educators who have shaped all of us at Bellwether, we asked a few team members to reflect on a specific teacher who had a direct and lasting impact on their lives. 

Michelle Croft, senior analyst, Policy and Evaluation

My favorite teacher, Mr. Todd Black, is retiring this year. Mr. Black was my junior high and high school band director. I’ll always be grateful for his time, patience, and encouragement. Through my involvement in band, I had a creative outlet surrounded by a wonderful community (that Mr. Black fostered), and I learned perseverance that would serve me well in life and in my ongoing love of playing music. 

As an adult, I’ve also grown to appreciate how Mr. Black sacrificed evenings and a few weekends away from his family each year to take us to area colleges for honor band. As a first-generation college student, these trips were invaluable, not only for the musical experience, but for the exposure to different colleges.  

Thank you, Mr. Black, and congratulations on your retirement!  

Liz McNamee, associate partner, Strategic Advising

Ms. Rush had a tremendous impact on my life. She taught economics and also supervised our high school newspaper. Ms. Rush inspired me to examine and understand current events — and sharpened my writing so I could report on issues with depth and nuance. I enjoyed her classes so much that I strongly considered a career in journalism. Even though I didn’t become a reporter, my life trajectory would not have been the same without her mentorship. 

I appreciate Ms. Rush for her impressive tenure as a public school teacher, for her use of humor to make economics a fun subject, and for her guidance as I pursued my academic passions. 

DaWana Williamson, partner and chief operating officer

I had two favorite teachers growing up — my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Thompson, and my seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher, Mr. Freddy Prinz.

Mr. Prinz is the teacher who had the biggest impact on my career choice to become an engineer. He made science exciting and fun, and no two days were ever the same. Mr. Prinz had a way of engaging a bunch of hormone-raging teenagers that felt authentic and so amazingly respectful, unlike so many of our teachers at that time! As I think back, Mr. Prinz must have had a great understanding of the teenage brain and what he needed to do to get the most from us. He was witty, energetic, and so much fun!

There are some teachers you experience so fully that you wish you could bottle the feeling you had when you were in their classrooms and share it with every teenager you know. Not only do I think it would give them a great love and appreciation for science, but I think it would change their lives. I know that’s what Mr. Prinz did for me. 

Katrina Boone, associate partner, Policy and Evaluation

Ms. Ashby was my drama teacher. Her class was rigorous, but she knew how to make things fun. She taught me how to do improv, read iambic pentameter, run the lights for a show, be a stage manager, and chase down the perfect piece of furniture for a set (before Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace).

I frequently stopped by her classroom after school to chat, and she always made time for me. She put down the papers she was grading or the lesson she was planning, looked into my eyes, and listened. I was a kid who desperately needed to be seen, to be listened to, and she was always there to see and listen to me. When I ended up on the other side of the desk as a teacher, I did my best to be that person for my students. (Also, she taught me about Simon & Garfunkel, and that is priceless.)

Why Aren’t States Innovating in Student Assessments?

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

In the next few weeks, students across the country will begin taking their state’s end-of-year assessment. Despite rhetoric over the years about innovations in assessments and computer-based delivery, by and large, students’ testing experience in 2022 will parallel students’ testing experience in 2002. The monolith of one largely multiple-choice assessment at the end of the school year remains. And so does the perennial quest to improve student tests. 

On Feb. 15, 2022, the U.S. Department of Education released applications for its Competitive Grants for State Assessments program to support innovation in state assessment systems. This year’s funding priorities encourage the use of multiple measures (e.g., including curriculum-embedded performance tasks in the end-of-year assessment) and mastery of standards as part of a competency-based education model. Despite the program’s opportunity for additional funding to develop more innovative assessments, reactions to the announcement ranged from unenthusiastic to crickets. 

One reason for the tepid response is that states are in the process of rebooting their assessment systems after the lack of statewide participation during the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Creating a new assessment — let alone a new, innovative system — takes time and staff resources at the state and district level that aren’t available in the immediate term. Although historic federal-level pandemic funds flowed into states, districts, and schools, political support for assessments is not high, making it difficult for states to justify spending COVID relief funding on developing and administering new statewide assessments.  

Another reason for the lackluster response is the challenges states have in developing an innovative assessment that complies with the Every Student Succeeds Act’s (ESSA) accountability requirements. Like its predecessor, No Child Left Behind, ESSA requires all students to participate in statewide testing. States must use the scores — along with other indicators — to identify schools for additional support largely based on in-state rankings. 

The challenge is that in developing any new, innovative assessment unknowns abound. How can states feel confident administering assessments without a demonstrated track record of student success and school accountability for scores?  

ESSA addresses this issue by permitting states to apply for the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA). Under IADA, qualifying states wouldn’t need to administer the innovative or traditional assessments to all students within the state. However, states would need to demonstrate that scores from the innovate and the traditional assessments are comparable — similar enough to be interchangeable — for all students and student subgroups (e.g., students of different races/ethnicities). The regulations provide examples of methods to demonstrate comparability such as (1) requiring all students within at least one grade level to take both assessments, (2) administering both assessments to a demographically representative sample of students, (3) embedding a significant portion of one assessment within the other assessment, or (4) an equally rigorous alternate method.  

The comparability requirement is challenging for states to meet, particularly due to unknowns related to administering a new assessment and because comparability must be met for all indicators of the state’s accountability system. For instance, one proposal was partially approved pending additional evidence that the assessment could provide data for the state’s readiness “literacy” indicator. To date, only five states have been approved for IADA.  

When Congress reauthorizes ESSA, one option for expanding opportunities for innovative assessments is to waive accountability determinations for participating schools during the assessment’s pilot phase. But this approach omits comparability of scores — the very problem IADA is designed to address and an omission that carries serious equity implications. Comparability of scores is a key component for states to identify districts and schools that need additional improvement support. It’s also a mechanism to identify schools serving students of color and low-income students well to ensure that best practices are replicated in other schools.  

In the meantime, states should bolster existing assessment infrastructure to be better positioned when resources are available to innovate. Specifically, states should:  

  • Improve score reporting to meaningfully and easily communicate results to educators and families. Score reporting is an historical afterthought of testing. A competitive priority for the Competitive Grants for State Assessments is improving reporting, for instance by providing actionable information for parents on the score reports. This provides an opportunity for states to better communicate the information already collected.
  • Increase efforts to improve teacher classroom assessment literacy. End-of-year assessments are just one piece of a larger system of assessments. It’s important that teachers understand how to properly use, interpret, and communicate those scores. And it’s even more important that teachers have additional training in developing the classroom assessments used as part of everyday instruction, which are key to a balanced approach to testing.  

Given the current need for educators and parents to understand their student’s academic progress — especially amid an ongoing pandemic that has upended education and the systematic tracking of student achievement — comparability of test scores may outweigh the advantages of innovative end-of-year assessments. By focusing on comparability, states can better direct resources to the students and schools that need them most.  

A Tragic Loss For The Bellwether Community

We are devastated to share that last Saturday, Bellwether teammate Aurelia Twitty died unexpectedly at 52.

Aurelia embodied the best of Bellwether. She joined the team in 2016 as an executive assistant, was promoted to office manager, and ultimately grew her role into our first-ever administrative manager. Her influence and reach extended across the entire organization through the team of administrative professionals she led and projects she worked on. Aurelia was often the first person new team members worked with as they onboarded.

She was a beloved teammate, always ready with help, advice, or a kind word. Her discipline and no-nonsense style was leavened with grace and wisdom. Aurelia was instrumental in shaping Bellwether’s approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion — leading workshops and infusing conversations with her thoughtful perspective. She won our “Honey Badger” award in 2017, given annually to Bellwether’s MVP, in recognition of her many contributions.

Aurelia lived life unabashedly. She was a learner with deep curiosity about others, their lives, and points of view. And she was fun — dancing whenever the spirit moved her, full of light, warmth, and laughter.

Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Warwick, New York, Aurelia was an accomplished collegiate track athlete. That drive continued. Over the years, she trained for road races and was starting to cycle. She died this past Saturday while running in the Selma to Montgomery Relay and Bike Ride, a race she was especially excited to run given its symbolism, alignment with her beliefs, and the people she would meet.

Aurelia lived out our mission professionally and personally. She was an active education volunteer in the Washington, D.C. area, a trustee of a public charter school, and a devoted foster parent. Aurelia discussed her foster care work in The 74 and described some of her community volunteer work in this 2017 interview.

She loved her family, lighting up when talking about her husband, Anthony, her three children, and her seven (soon-to-be eight) grandchildren. We offer them our condolences and support.

Aurelia leaves a rich and lasting legacy at Bellwether. More than that, she touched a multitude of people beyond her immediate circles. Some people create ripples of positivity and change lives far beyond their own. She was one.

We miss her so much.

Mary K. Wells & Andy Rotherham
Co-founders, Bellwether Education

Updating Data Systems is a Critical Piece of State-Improved ESSA Plans

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

For the last two years, state-level Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accountability plans ​​— which provide critical information about student achievement and school culture — have either been modified or essentially on pause due to COVID-19-related school closures. From canceling statewide assessments to variability in how attendance was taken, the lack of high-quality and reliable data made it difficult for states to follow their original ESSA accountability plans. 

However, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) signaled that states must restart ESSA accountability plans and identify their lowest-performing schools in fall 2022. Recognizing the impact that COVID-19 has had on schools’ and states’ ability to use indicators like test score growth and attendance, the DOE guidance specified that states can make one-year or longer-term changes to their accountability plans. The guidance also noted that in fall 2022 states’ Report Cards must contain all the data as required under ESSA, including for the 2021-22 school year (e.g., access to advanced coursework, suspension rates, math and reading proficiency, graduation rates, chronic absenteeism, and per-pupil school funding).  

These may seem like easy tasks since states already developed and implemented ESSA accountability plans and report cards. However, not all state data systems are created equal. Prior to the pandemic, Washington, D.C. and all 50 states were missing at least one data point required under ESSA. Furthermore, many ESSA accountability plans used inconsistent data and methodology to identify schools for support — particularly as it relates to English language learners, students with disabilities, students of color, and low-income students. A 2017 Bellwether analysis found that only 10 of 51 ESSA plans indicated they would incorporate student subgroup performance into rating and identifying schools for support. And, of those 10 only three — Louisiana, Minnesota, and Tennessee — provided data and information about what that would mean in practice. The other states provided broad assurances. 

Whether because of antiquated data systems, underfunding, or a lack of political will to use certain metrics, these gaps in state-level ESSA accountability data are problematic. They leave huge voids in understanding how students are doing, what’s working, and which students need support, and also hinder a state’s ability to engage in effective short- and long-term planning. 

And the problem persists over time. A 2021 analysis found that many states still don’t report on mandated metrics like participation in advanced coursework, teacher credentials, per-pupil school spending, and chronic absenteeism. Nearly 25% of states don’t include spring 2021 assessment data on their Report Cards. 

Given the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on the U.S. K-12 education system, it’s critical that states step up. We need intentional, collaborative, and thoughtful planning in order to address everything from unfinished learning to student disengagement. But this can only be done if states have access to comprehensive data that is accurate, transparent, and current. 

States are in an optimal position to invest in data system upgrades and state report cards as they rethink accountability plans. Although this kind of infrastructure investment might seem like a lesser priority, schools’ access to accurate and updated data is critical and a cost-effective investment that pays dividends in the long run. Through three major COVID-19 federal stimulus packages, state departments of education received billions of dollars to help with pandemic recovery which can include updating data systems. A May 2021 DOE FAQ gave permission and encouraged states to use COVID-19 American Rescue Plan (ARP) Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) dollars to improve their data systems. 

Many states are taking advantage of the federal funding. A June 2021 analysis found that 29 states designated some money to improve data systems and analysis capacity to better support students. For example:

  • Arkansas is using ARP dollars to launch SmartData Dashboards, an automated early warning and intervention dashboard that will help districts identify students who are off-track from graduation and implement the appropriate interventions. 
  • Connecticut is using ESSER funds to establish the COVID-19 Education Research Collaborative — a partnership with researchers from the University of Connecticut and other state universities, local representatives, and educators. The Collaborative is a long-term investment that utilizes statewide data to track the efficacy of programs and provide accurate information to the public. 
  • Minnesota is investing $6 million in ARP dollars to update Ed-Fi, a new statewide data system that will consolidate multiple data systems into one. This will allow the state to track student data in a more timely manner and identify trends in student experiences and outcomes. 
  • Missouri is using $4.3 million in Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act dollars to update its 15-year-old longitudinal data system, which will increase its capacity to collect and analyze data on individual students. 

These state-level data improvements are a step in the right direction. However, it’s critical that data system upgrades and accountability plans center all students’ needs — particularly for historically marginalized student populations. The federal funding and policy window is there to pave the way. Will states seize the opportunity?