May 17, 2018

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.


May 15, 2018

Do Incarcerated Youth Have Equal Access to Education? Let’s Look at the Data.

Although we regularly assess student learning and evaluate the effectiveness of teachers in traditional schools, there is almost no hard data on the quality of education in the schools that serve students held in juvenile justice facilities. These facilities tend to only collect data focused on safety and security. What kind of education do these students receive?

Based on the first year of available data from the U.S. Civil Rights Data Collection, we conducted a national analysis to answer some simple questions:

  1. How many youth are enrolled in juvenile justice schools across the U.S.?
  2. To what degree do they have access to math and science courses (the only courses on which we have data)?
  3. How often do they enroll in these courses?

What we encountered on the way – before even answering the latter two questions – was troubling.

At the start of our analysis, we needed to set up a rudimentary fact base. How many juvenile justice schools are there in each state, and how many kids are enrolled in each? Basic questions, it would seem. Thankfully, the U.S. Department of Education collects public school enrollment nationally. In the 2013-14 data set, the first one made available, they decided to include juvenile justice schools in their definition of “public.” After adding up the number of students in juvenile justice schools for each state, we found that the number was suspiciously low. For example, Arkansas reported only six students enrolled in one juvenile justice school – in the entire state. South Carolina reported no juvenile justice schools at all.

We found it hard to believe that only six students were incarcerated in all of Arkansas, so we compared the enrollment data to another data set – the number of incarcerated youth in each state for the year 2013. If all was well in the world of data quality and educational access, we would expect the data sets to somewhat align, meaning the number of enrolled youth would account for about 100% of incarcerated youth. That, in turn, would give us a fairly accurate picture of educational opportunity for incarcerated youth in each state.

However, we found that in the majority of states, the enrollment numbers of juvenile justice schools didn’t remotely match up with the number of incarcerated youth for the same time frame. In only 18 states did the number of enrolled students somewhat account for the number of youth in placement (that is account for 70% – 130% of youth). In the other states, that alignment ranged from 0% (South Carolina) to 940% (Delaware). 940% means that way, way more youth were reported enrolled in juvenile justice schools than actually incarcerated. What seems mathematically impossible is more likely the result of schools being mislabeled as serving incarcerated youth or schools reporting cumulative enrollment (how many kids enrolled in a year) instead of snapshot enrollment (how many kids were attending school on one day).

Without accurate data, it’s hard to make state-by-state comparisons about access to education in these facilities. Good data matters. Without it, we don’t know whether the thousands of kids who are reported as incarcerated, but not enrolled in a school, are actually getting an education. They deserve better.

Check out our other findings in the full slide deck, Measuring Educational Opportunity in Juvenile Justice Schools.

Alexander Brand was an intern at Bellwether in the spring of 2018.


May 10, 2018


May 9, 2018

How Can DC Public Schools Keep Its Best Teachers? Give Them Encouragement, Flexibility, and a Chance to Lead.

It’s National Teacher Appreciation Week! Time to celebrate and thank teachers across the country. Weeks like this are important, but they are not enough to keep our best teachers in the profession. Retaining great teachers also requires targeted efforts by school districts to make teachers feel supported and engaged. In a new Bellwether analysis, we looked at teacher exit survey data from DC Public Schools (DCPS) to better understand why their best educators leave the district and how to retain them. cover of new Bellwether analysis, "Retaining High Performers: Insights from DC Public Schools’ Teacher Exit Survey"

It turns out, commonly promoted retention strategies such as better pay, more classroom resources, or reforming teacher evaluation aren’t the most promising ways to address the turnover of DCPS’ high-performing teachers. Here are three areas to focus on instead:

  • Work-life balance: For high-performers in DCPS, work-life balance was the top job-related factor in leaving DCPS. But directing all efforts towards decreasing teacher workload might not be the most effective solution. Instead, get creative with scheduling. High performers who left for better work-life balance said more schedule flexibility, especially part-time and extended leave options to spend time with family, would have made them stay.
  • Recognition from school leadership: Of the high-performing teachers who said DCPS could have retained them, 45 percent said more encouragement or support from school leadership would have made the difference. In fact, one in three high-performing teachers who left due to school leadership said they would have liked more recognition and encouragement.
  • Opportunities for teacher leadership: After work-life balance and school leadership, the most common reason highly effective teachers left DCPS was to pursue a leadership opportunity elsewhere. Notably, teachers of color reported more leadership and growth opportunities as the top effort that would have kept them in the district. While most teachers continued working in a traditional public school after leaving DCPS, high-performing teachers who left for a leadership opportunity were more likely to switch to a charter school.

The recent turmoil surrounding DCPS makes retaining teachers as crucial as ever. But the district needs to be strategic in targeting its most effective teachers. And these lessons on teacher retention can also indicate strategies for other urban districts.

Check out the full analysis here.

Alexander Brand was an intern at Bellwether in the spring of 2018.


May 1, 2018

What Japan’s Rental Family Industry Can Teach Us About Child Care in the United States

When I started reading Elif Batuman’s recent New Yorker piece on Japan’s rental family business, I expected it to be fascinating. What I didn’t expect was that it would offer striking insights on the current debate over credentials and compensation for early childhood workers in the United States. You should really read Batuman’s whole piece, but the key paragraph is here:

In a sense, the idea of a rental partner, parent, or child is perhaps less strange than the idea that childcare and housework should be seen as the manifestations of an unpurchasable romantic love. Patriarchal capitalism has arguably had a vested interest in promoting the latter idea as a human universal: as the Marxist psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich pointed out, with women providing free housework and caregiving, capitalists could pay men less. There were other iniquities, too. As [19th Century Utopian feminist Charlotte Perkins] Gilman observed, when caregiving becomes the exclusive, unpaid purview of wives and mothers, then people without families don’t have access to it: “only married people and their immediate relatives have any right to live in comfort and health.” Her solution was that the unpaid work incumbent on every individual housewife—nursery education, household-work management, food preparation, and so on—should be distributed among paid specialists, of both genders. What often happens instead is that these tasks, rather than becoming respected, well-paid professions, are foisted piecemeal onto socioeconomically disadvantaged women, freeing their more privileged peers to pursue careers.

Ultimately, this is the core of what the debate over early childhood teacher compensation and credentials is about: As I’ve written in the past, too often these debates still reflect a kind of assumption that childcare is a manifestation of “unpurchasable” love (and that because of that, people who care for children don’t deserve to be well-paid).

Due to that assumption and an unwillingness to confront the real costs of caring for children (and really, for one another), our society is unwilling to accord people who care for and educate young children the professional status or economic value they deserve. The resulting system works well for no one, but it means the costs of professional opportunity for the educated and affluent are born disproportionately by low-income, less-educated, often racial and ethnic minority women. The resulting high rates of early educator turnover in many settings are harmful for children’s development.

Changing this system is crucial to children’s development, gender equity, and social justice for early care and education workers. But in order to do so, we must confront both the underlying history and attitudes that continue to affect thinking about the value of caring for young children, and the economic/financing challenge of how to pay fairly for work society has historically expected to get free or at a great discount by oppressing women.

Until we can honestly engage both, we cannot expect anything meaningful to change.