February 26, 2021

From pandemic to progress? Yes, now is the time for a national Institute for Education Improvement.

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This guest post is in response to a new series of briefs from Bellwether, From Pandemic to Progress, which puts forth eight ambitious but achievable pathways that leaders and policymakers can follow to rebuild education – and student learning and well-being – as the country begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As part of Bellwether’s new series of briefs, From Pandemic to Progress, Allison Crean Davis makes the case to establish a national Institute for Education Improvement (an IEI), stating the need for continuous improvement across the American education system. Davis says, “If the U.S. education sector is to dramatically improve outcomes for students, it needs large-scale, consistent, and sustained organizational support for continuous improvement.”

Hopefully soon, our students will be coming back to in-person learning, but now is not the time to come back to the way things were pre-pandemic. We have a new administration in Washington, and with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, an educator in the White House. Now is the time to stop jumping from one disconnected education policy initiative to the next and focus our national efforts on evidence-based policies and measurable indicators that actually matter for student success.

Continuous improvement is not about creating the next policy but instead focusing on improving what’s happening in the classroom and helping teachers and administrators do their work more effectively.

Continuous improvement is happening in education—look to our cities for lessons learned.

Davis notes that “continuous improvement is not new,” citing decades of continuous improvement in industry and healthcare. Continuous improvement is also happening in education at the city and district levels. Research-practice partnerships all over the country, including our own partnership between the University of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools, have led to policies and practices that build capacity for systemic school improvement.

In 1998, just over half of Chicago Public Schools students graduated from high school. By 2019, the graduation rate increased to 82 percent. A 30-percentage-point increase in graduation rates is an incredible achievement, accomplished through rigorous attention to data and dedication to continuous improvement within the district.

When we started to look at what matters most for high school graduation, there were numerous competing hypotheses, including an assumption that Chicago’s students were academically unprepared for high school. Many of those assumptions turned out to be false. What matters is supporting students through the shifting context and changing responsibilities that occur in the transition to high school. By monitoring progress of grades and attendance during freshman year, using the Freshman OnTrack indicator, we formed a research base that educators could use in practice.

Through annually evaluating rates of Freshman OnTrack, high school graduation, college enrollment, college persistence, and college graduation, we have seen consistent progress in educational attainment. These improvements are possible because schools have access to research on what matters most for high school and college attainment, and data to monitor whether their strategies are working. Supporting more students to earn college degrees must include their entire education experience, and recently we’ve expanded our research-practice partnership to include City Colleges of Chicago to support Chicago’s students from pre-k through post-secondary success.

We’re asking questions and testing assumptions to learn what matters most for college success. For example, there is a misconception that GPAs are inconsistent across high schools, and that standardized test scores, like the ACT, are neutral indicators of college readiness. In fact, we found that students’ high school grades are five times stronger than their ACT scores at predicting college readiness and graduation, regardless of which high school a student attends, while ACT scores have different relationships with college graduation depending on a student’s high school.

Five Lessons We’ve Learned at the City Level

  1. Improvement comes from a back-and-forth between practice and research. Collaboration between research and practice allows practitioners to know what is working and how it’s working, and allows researchers to understand issues in nuanced ways so they can conduct studies that are useful to practice.
  2. Create metrics for things people believe are important but lack the data to measure progress. The Chicago partnership not only led to the development of Freshman OnTrack measures, but annual data on school climate and organization so we know if students feel safe, challenged, and supported, and how those factors are affected by different policies. It led to the creation of a post-secondary tracking system so schools could see whether their efforts to prepare students for college were really working.
  3. Identify where educators DON’T need to put their attention. Educators have a lot on their plates. Instead of piling on more with new policies and programs, it’s vitally important to know what they can take off their plates and what is critical. Many policies and programs do not show benefits for students, even as they increase the burden on educators—spending time preparing students for standardized tests is one example.
  4. Test assumptions to learn what’s most important for student success and what levers schools can use to affect change. Improvement requires change, and change can only occur with evidence that things are not working the way people think they should. When we began developing the Freshman OnTrack indicator, there was an assumption that students were struggling in ninth grade because they were academically unprepared. In reality, some students have difficulty transitioning to high school because it’s a new environment with increased responsibility.
  5. Pay attention to more student outcomes than test scores—students’ work effort, engagement, and experience of school as a learner are much more important for their long-term outcomes. Is this a school environment where students feel their work is meaningful? Is this school a place where students feel that they belong to a community of learners? Do students feel adults in the school believe in their ability? Do students believe they can succeed? Social-emotional factors are critical for students’ long-term outcomes.

Change the narrative we’re telling our students—and our educators.

There is a lot of emphasis right now around the risk of a “lost generation” of students resulting from remote learning during the pandemic. But what might this message inadvertently tell our students about their ability to succeed in the face of the odds? Research tells us that students are resilient, that learning loss may not be as insurmountable as we think, and what students will need when they return to school is a safe, supportive, and challenging environment in which they believe they can succeed.

Elaine Allensworth is Director and Jenny Nagaoka is Deputy Director at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

February 19, 2021

New Mexico and a Tale of School Accountability

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This guest post is in response to a new series of briefs from Bellwether, From Pandemic to Progress, which puts forth eight ambitious but achievable pathways that leaders and policymakers can follow to rebuild education – and student learning and well-being – as the country begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It seems that nowadays just the mention of school accountability elicits groans of frustration and hopelessness. For many working to improve education in our country, school accountability has been a critical tool, but one that — as Bonnie O’Keefe lays out in her recent brief,  “Redesigning Accountability has been fraught with implementation challenges and political toxicity. Equally as important as acknowledging the shortcomings of school accountability is highlighting stories of success. 

New Mexico, my home state, may not have a lot to brag about when it comes to education outcomes, but we do have a story that I think all advocates for school accountability can learn from. 

In late 2017, New Mexico became the first state in the country to assign schools under the Every Student Success Act’s new designations, including identifying schools as in need of “More Rigorous Intervention” (MRI). Identification of a state’s worst performing schools was not required by ESSA until 2021, but New Mexico recognized the urgency of school turnaround and acted immediately. Four elementary schools were identified for more rigorous intervention after earning five or six consecutive “F” letter grades in New Mexico’s school grading system. This meant that an elementary school student could have attended a failing school for their entire elementary school experience, beginning to end. 

Each school was provided four options: 

  1. Closure: Close the school and enroll the students who attended that school in other schools in the surrounding area that are higher performing. 
  2. Restart: Close the school and reopen it under a charter school operator that has been selected through a rigorous state or local authorizer review process. 
  3. Champion & Provide Choice: Champion a range of choices in an open system that focuses on new approaches to learning; one that keeps the individual student(s) at the center of accessing options that best support their learning path. 
  4. Significantly restructure and redesign the vision and systems at a school including extending instructional time, significantly changing staffing to include only educators earning highly effective ratings and above, state-selected curriculum approaches, and/or personalized learning models for all students. 

As predicted, each elementary school chose to redesign and restructure, which resulted in a months long back and forth between the Public Education Department and the administration of Albuquerque Public Schools, which oversaw three of the four schools identified. Ultimately, then Secretary of Public Education Christopher Ruszkowski held the line in demanding serious reforms to the schools including extended learning time and eventually the department and the district agreed on plans to redesign each school, unlocking approximately  $1 million of support for each school over the three-year MRI period. If a school did not improve over the three-year period, it faced closure from the state. 

Anyone reading the local paper or watching local news saw play out what advocates know all too well: the department was vilified for “labeling schools” and “threatening closure.” In fact, a lawsuit was filed to fight against the identification of one of the schools. But eventually, as time passed and the reforms were implemented with financial support from the department of education, something amazing happened – the schools improved! In fact, Hawthorne Elementary saw a 10.4 percentage point increase in their reading proficiency scores in a single year, which was the largest improvement in the district. 

I wish the story stopped here. This is the story we are all striving for, the story in which struggling schools are identified, given a timeline to implement rigorous changes, supported with funding and motivated by a sense of urgency, and ultimately improve learning outcomes for children before it’s too late. But that’s now how this story ends. 

In 2019, New Mexico’s newly elected Governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham took office and on day one, she decoupled student assessments from teacher evaluations and removed New Mexico from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARC) consortium. Soon after, the legislature enacted changes to New Mexico’s school accountability system, doing away with the A-F ratings and the Department of Education submitted an amendment to the state’s ESSA plan removing “MRI” designations from the four previously identified schools. 

This was a win, right? It was problematic to put such heavy pressure on perpetually underperforming schools and threaten closure, wasn’t it? 

While the move may have earned political favor, it brought with it disappointing news for the schools that were seeing results from their new plans–no MRI designation, no funding. Instead, the schools were re-identified as “Comprehensive Support Intervention,” which came with less financial support, thus leaving the district to self fund the continued programming that was bringing success and increased enrollment, to the schools targeted for turnaround. It was a political win that brought devastating financial consequences. 

In my opinion, a state’s education department has one primary responsibility: accountability. It is uncomfortable and fraught with political landmines but it is necessary and absolutely worth it. School accountability is challenging to execute well but it is necessary in the fight towards equity. Oftentimes the worst performing schools serve a state’s most vulnerable students and allowing them to flounder in schools with single-digit proficiencies for five or more years in a row, as was the case for New Mexico’s first MRI schools, is an abandonment of our moral responsibility to do right by our students. Our students deserve more.  

I hope that as each state grapples with school accountability in the years ahead, we recognize that while it is not easy, it is possible to implement school accountability systems grounded in equity, transparency and data -informed action to improve outcomes for students. We did it once in New Mexico and I hope we find the courage to do it again.

Amanda Aragon is the Executive Director of NewMexicoKidsCAN.

February 9, 2021

From Pandemic to Progress: Eight Bellwether briefs set long-term visions for education policy and practice

Today, we and several of our Bellwether colleagues released From Pandemic to Progress: Eight Education Pathways for COVID-19 Recovery, making the case for the the education sector to recenter and rebuild after the disruptions caused by COVID-19. At some point — hopefully soon — vaccines will become broadly available and students and teachers everywhere will return to full-time, in-person learning. School, system, and sector leaders will pause and take a breath. Then they quickly will turn their attention back to many of the questions that have simmered in the background for the past year, but that are quickly coming back to a boil.

In the wake of COVID-19, leaders and policymakers will need ambitious but achievable pathways to re-engage in complex policy questions and rebuild education. From Pandemic to Progress draws on the breadth of Bellwether’s expertise and a diversity of viewpoints across our team in a series of briefs — each with a take on what we will need in the years ahead to create a sector that can provide students with the high-quality education and supports they need and deserve to be successful.

Here are the issues and areas where we believe the sector should not go back to normal:

Redesigning Accountability: Bonnie O’Keefe grounds the debates on assessment and accountability back in core principles and practicalities. She doubles down on the need for transparent data and subgroup reporting, but also challenges policymakers to create systems that are aligned to the realities of classroom instruction and school-based decision making.

Supporting a Diverse Choice Ecosystem From the Bottom Up: Alex Spurrier lays out a vision for fostering choice and enabling a diversity of educational approaches, by seeding consortia of assessments, similar to Advanced Placement, that ensure the quality but not the homogeneity of options.

Prioritizing Equity in School Funding: Jennifer O’Neal Schiess pinpoints the inequities in school funding and explains why it should be decoupled from the real estate market, with local property taxes playing a minimal or vastly different role in the funding of schools.

Establishing Coherent Systems for Vulnerable Students: Hailly T.N. Korman and Melissa Steel King stay laser-focused on students who have experienced homelessness, foster care, pregnancy, or other disruptions to their education and call on public agencies to address the confusing fragmentation of social services so students can receive comprehensive and streamlined support.

Creating an Institute for Education Improvement: Allison Crean Davis makes a case for changing the way we change, calling for a standalone entity that can champion and support the education sector in rigorous, data-driven approaches to continuous improvement.

Diversifying the Teacher Workforce: Indira Dammu reminds us of the research that links a diverse teacher workforce to improved student outcomes, and makes recommendations for how policymakers can support the recruitment and retention of teachers of color.

Building on the Charter Sector’s Many Paths to Impact: Juliet Squire acknowledges headwinds facing charter school growth, but reminds policymakers and practitioners of the many ways — beyond increasing enrollment — that charter schools can expand their impact.

Bringing Home-Based Child Care Providers Into the Fold: Ashley LiBetti shines a spotlight on the critical role that home-based child care providers play in caring for the country’s youngest children, a role that the pandemic further dramatized; she makes the case for policies that address the important role that home-based child care plays in the early childhood ecosystem.

Whether addressing a long-standing issue that has shaped the education reform debates for decades, or an issue that has yet to garner the attention it deserves, each brief lays out a long-term vision for success and pathways to get there.

The education sector is far too familiar with the cycle of faddish policies and knee-jerk reactions when reforms don’t immediately produce increases in student proficiency. And certainly the last year has rightfully concentrated attention and resources on addressing the most urgent and basic student needs. But when the crisis subsides, education policymakers and practitioners will need a point on the horizon to aim for. We hope these briefs inspire and inform long-term visions for serving America’s kids.



February 5, 2021

How to Jumpstart Education’s Innovation Engine

Former Bellwarian Jason Weeby, who helped to develop and lead our work around education innovation, offers a series for Ahead of the Heard that makes the case for maintaining some pandemic-era education innovations. Learn more about Bellwether’s work here. Read more posts in this series here.

Can policymakers, funders, and education system leaders come together to find, foster, and spread new ways of teaching, learning, and organizing schools that came out of pandemic-era schooling?

I’m an optimist, so I can’t help but say yes. But I’m also a realist, so I think the most likely path to advancing innovation across the education sector is to link it to a broader plan to help students recover from pandemic-related learning loss. I outlined five strategies for building the conditions for pandemic-era innovations to thrive in my last post; two of them stand out as critical to jumpstart the process: federal leadership and bold philanthropy

Ideally, fostering new schooling approaches would be part of any plan that President Biden and Secretary Cardona hatch for attacking learning loss. The need for a robust pandemic response provides Cardona justification to create the muscular and sophisticated innovation infrastructure at the Department of Education that dates back to at least 2007. High-profile federal leadership would also give big foundations, colleges and universities, and nonprofits something to rally around, especially if it were bipartisan. A clear and compelling vision, realistic goals, a roadmap for action, and a framework for collaboration with foundation heads, scholars, nonprofit leaders, and labor and parent unions, would go a long way toward rebuilding the trust in the federal government that the last administration lost.

Education philanthropy has moved away from K-12 in favor of pre-K and post-K in recent years. The fallout from the pandemic should force them to reconsider that move. Ideally, big national foundations would coordinate their funding efforts toward a campaign against learning loss, as they did in 2010 to support the i3 program. Suppose there’s no government effort with which to coordinate. In that case, funders could create a collective time-bound fund that supports proven efforts like expanded learning time and high-dosage tutoring in addition to more exploratory programs and models. The fast, no-strings-attached, equity-focused, big money brand of philanthropy that MacKenzie Scott has exemplified should inspire funders to be bold and swift.

Fortunately, it looks like these conversations have already begun. The Walton Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Zoom, and private donors have teamed up to pilot high-dosage tutoring to stem learning loss. And a BIPOC-led coalition of organizations including Digital Promise, Camelback Ventures, Education Leaders of Color, Pahara Institute, Surge Institute, and UnidosUS has formed with the goal of developing “an aggressive action agenda” to mitigate learning losses for Black and Brown students.

To curry support for his American Rescue Plan, President Biden tweeted yesterday: “The risk in this moment isn’t that we do too much — it’s that we don’t do enough.” The same sentiment applies to rebuilding and improving our education system once the pandemic subsides. 

If we don’t do enough to seed, foster, and share ideas that can improve schools, our collective desire to return to normal and the gravitational pull of the status quo will keep education innovation on the fringe. Students who desperately needed better schools before the pandemic will simply be relegated back to them with more academic ground to make up.

When it comes to making our schools more effective and equitable through innovation, federal policymakers and philanthropists play an outsized role in jumpstarting some much-needed movement. 

February 4, 2021

Three leaders on schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic

It’s been almost a full year since the pandemic transformed our nation’s schools, and we find ourselves in yet another time of rising COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Schools have seen nearly every possible iteration of virtual, in-person, and hybrid learning, but the leaders we work with have proven incredibly adaptable and graceful in the face of constant changes and stress.

Back in April 2020, we interviewed four leaders who piloted some of our tips and shared these video conversations. We recently followed up with two of those leaders and engaged a third to ask about their progress and lessons learned.

Watch our new three-part series with short videos from Jessica Nauiokas of Mott Haven Academy Charter School, Daniela Anello of D.C. Bilingual, and Jennifer Benavides of Fox Tech High School. What will they leave behind — and take away — from this incredibly challenging year?

Here are a few lessons from these inspiring women:

Ask how students feel before assuming they are ready to learn

Especially in schools that serve populations of predominantly low-income students and/or students of color, students may be under intense stress. They may have family members newly sick, out of work, or experiencing housing insecurity. Students may have more people under one roof than ever before, making it difficult to focus on learning. The adults in their lives are likely stretched thin and worried about events in the news.

All three leaders spoke of their intentional efforts to understand and address students’ emotional state and wellness regularly. For D.C. Bilingual, this meant checking in weekly on each family from March to June 2020, and doing so on a biweekly basis during this new school year. For Mott Haven, this has meant capturing students’ written and spoken feelings about dealing with the uncertainty in the world.

Fox Tech is piloting the Rhithm app to get a quick snapshot of how students are feeling and who has optimal capacity for learning. The tool allows the school to direct counselors or district social workers to those most struggling.

Some aspects of school or instruction may remain virtual even after the pandemic

For Nauiokas and her team, student-teacher conferences during COVID have seen higher rates of attendance and levels of parent engagement. Students can participate from home “at a time that’s convenient for the family,” she says, and the adult team can all join the line at the same time, helping students see the collective effort supporting their success. Mott Haven expects to keep these conferences virtual moving forward.

At DC Bilingual, Anello and her team are attentive to making sure students get a developmentally appropriate amount of screen time. She also believes that overall, student exposure to and mastery of technology will be beneficial in the long term. “It can help [students] navigate state tests that are on the computer,” offers Anello, in addition to giving them a chance to practice sharing their knowledge using slide decks and presentations, skills that will be useful throughout their schooling and careers.

Students need to be talking to one another

The loss of peer engagement and socialization is particularly tough for the youngest learners, so schools need to create ways for students to engage not just with teachers but with one another. These leaders have tried different virtual platforms for student-to-student engagement. Benavides’ teachers host break out rooms on Zoom or Google Classrooms, encourage students to leave comments on others’ work, and use the web application Pear Deck to allow students to engage back and forth.

Our video series is live here. If our team can support your school with curriculum, instruction, culture, or assessment planning, please contact us.