February 8, 2019

Little Kids, Big Progress: New York Times’ Head Start Coverage

It’s not often that early childhood stories make the front page of the New York Times. But this week, the paper featured an article by Jason DeParle about Head Start, a federal early childhood program that serves nearly 900,000 low-income children, and how the quality of the program has improved over the past several years.

DeParle’s article is a great example of journalism that moves past the common (and relatively useless) question of “does Head Start work?” and goes deeper into exploring how the program has improved  its practices, including changes related to coaching, teacher preparation and quality, use of data, and the Designation Renewal System (all of which Bellwether has studied and written about previously). This type of reporting contributes to a more productive conversation about how to create high-quality early learning opportunities for all children that can inform changes to early childhood programs beyond Head Start.

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

As DeParle points out and the data clearly show, while there is wide variation between individual programs, overall the quality of teaching in Head Start is improving. But while this trend is undoubtedly positive, it raises some questions: What effect will these changes ultimately have on children’s academic and life outcomes? And what can Head Start programs do to their program content and design to even better serve children?

Next month, Bellwether will release a suite of publications that tries to answer those questions. We identified five Head Start programs that have evidence of better-than-average impact on student learning outcomes and thoroughly examined these programs’ practices to understand how they contributed to their strong performance. I visited each program, conducted in-depth interviews with program leadership and staff, reviewed program documents and data, hosted focus groups with teachers and coaches, and observed classroom quality using the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, CLASS (the measure of teaching quality on which DeParle notes Head Start classrooms nationally have shown large quality improvements). By better understanding the factors that drive quality among grantees and identifying effective practices, we hope to help other programs replicate these exemplars’ results and advance an equity agenda.

As the New York Times front page recently declared, Head Start’s progress offers a ray of hope in a dysfunctional federal political landscape. But there is still room for progress. Looking at what high-performing programs do well can help extend the reach and impact of recent changes to produce even stronger outcomes for young children and their families.


February 7, 2019

Ten Lessons from Eight Cities

Over a year ago, I began an ambitious project to tell the stories of cities that implemented citywide school improvement strategies and saw student achievement increase — and to share these stories as lessons for other system leaders. The result was Eight Cities, a beautiful and information-rich website that does just that. It was a rare project that put my team in the fortunate position of listening to some of the brightest, most committed, and humble education professionals in the country. It’s difficult not to learn a lot under such circumstances.

Legacy Charter school building in Chicago with students and crossing guard outside

Legacy Charter School in Chicago. Photo credit: Alexander Drecun.

While each one of our eight stories provides a deep dive into different cities, there were a lot of macro lessons that emerged. Here are ten that I think are particularly salient for state leaders, mayors, superintendents, board members, charter leaders, and funders interested in exploring a similar approach:

1. Language matters. One of our first challenges was choosing a term that simultaneously described a complex citywide education reform strategy with many local nuances without creating a target for people who wanted to reduce it to a single word. What should we call these systems of public schools which shared central beliefs and strategic pillars and saw schools as the unit of change? These were widely referred to as “portfolio districts” until 2017, when the term was weaponized by opponents who took issue with the approach. The Texas Education Agency has adopted the term “Systems of Great Schools.” While I occasionally use “portfolio” as shorthand, I prefer the term “dynamic systems of schools” because it describes the core mechanism of systemic improvement: high-performing or high-potential schools replacing schools that have failed generations of students. But this phrase hasn’t caught on. After much discussion, the Eight Cities team decided to avoid labels and simply tell the stories we encountered. Whatever term is used, the reality is that language matters in rhetorical and political battles but rarely in the day-to-day work of students and parents.

2. There’s no one best way to implement a dynamic system of public schools. Washington D.C. and Newark have dual public education systems comprised of traditional district schools and charter schools, yet D.C. is under mayoral control and Newark was under state control but is now governed by an elected school board. Camden has 15,000 students and a neighborhood charter takeover model with relaxed accountability. New York City has 1.1 million students and moved quickly to give autonomy to all its schools and hold them accountable, while phasing out large failing high schools to make room for new small schools of choice. Denver Public Schools saw consistent leadership from an elected school board and single superintendent for a decade. Continue reading


February 5, 2019

Bellwarians React: Is P.E. Class Terrible?

Last week, Atlantic staff writer Alia Wong lifted the lid on the often-satirized state of physical education. Despite all the gym class parodies, Wong points to a real problem: sometimes gym class is so bad that kids skip school to avoid it.

So I asked our team: what are some of your most salient P.E. memories? (As a place that champions ideological diversity and doesn’t take organizational positions, Bellwether encourages staff to share — and to disagree.)

Here are a few quick takes from across the Bellwether team:

Alyssa Schwenk, director of development:

P.E. at my high school was designed as a student-herder: you basically got dropped into whatever class worked with the rest of your schedule. One-seventh of the school was in P.E. at any given period, and this meant that a.) it was an enormous group of kids, and b.) you were probably friends with very, very few of them. It was democratizing and bewildering and generally barely tolerated.

Once all 200 kids were in the gym complex, you selected a couple of sub-units for the semester, like yoga, volleyball, or Billy Blanks videos. At some point I selected “aerobic activity,” which consisted of lapping the indoor track and keeping your heart rate above a certain level. But the heart-rate monitors were calibrated based on your age and weight, not fitness levels…and I was on the swim team. And had been since I was seven.

So while the true purpose of signing up was to walk and talk with the people you knew, I suddenly realized I would need to be running sub-eight minute miles for forty minutes every other day to pass. I hated running then (like, really hated running) but was simultaneously terrified that I would get a C in gym and wreck my GPA, therefore ruining any and all chances at getting into college.

Eventually I managed to wheedle and cajole enough that I was allowed to participate without the heart-rate monitor, and everyone involved agreed that I was getting “aerobic activity” via swimming three hours a day after school. GPA disaster averted. Continue reading


New Report Reveals Messy Teacher Shortage Data

What types of subject-area teacher shortages do states experience? Are there major trends across states in chronic subject-area teacher shortages? How different are subject-area teacher shortages between states?

These were some of the questions my colleague Justin Trinidad and I sought to answer in our new report “Nuance in the Noise: The Complex Reality of Teacher Shortages.” We dove into a national data set on teacher shortage areas submitted by states and territories to the U.S. Department of Education. This data set is one of the best sources we have to analyze trends in subject-area shortages across the country and for each particular state.

Given this fact, were were shocked by just how messy the data were. We quickly found that there is no standard reporting framework that states must use. This means each state defines their own subject areas as they see fit. For example, Colorado reports its science shortages under the multiple categories of “Science,” “Natural Science, “Natural Sciences (Grades 7-12),” and “Natural Sciences (Kindergarten-Grade 12),” while Georgia uses the categories of “Sciences,” “Sciences (K-Grade 6),” and “Sciences – Secondary.”

This lack of standardization meant we had to create our own methodology in order to analyze the data, and even then, cross-state comparisons were difficult! That was annoying and a ton of work, yes, but it also spoke to a larger trend we see in teacher supply and demand data: they are hard to understand and often tell an incomplete story. What states report to the feds is often not the same thing they list on their state education websites.

However, frustrations with data didn’t stop us from finding some interesting and important information in our analysis. In fact, what we found challenges a widely held belief: that there is a generic, national teacher shortage. It turns out that teacher shortage needs vary widely across states. States even have varying experiences with the more chronic shortage areas like mathematics.

As the below map shows, California reported mathematics shortages less than 20 percent of the time of our analysis, while four states — Louisiana, Maine, North Carolina, and Texas — reported mathematics shortages all 20 years of our analysis.

Continue reading


February 1, 2019

Media: “The L.A. District May Owe $13.6 Billion for Health Care & Pensions — and the Strike Made Things Worse. Obamacare Is a Way Out” in The 74

The recent teacher strike in Los Angeles was mainly over policy issues like charter schools, class sizes, and other school support staff. But the agreement largely punted on lingering financial questions like what to do about the school district’s $13.6 billion unfunded obligation for retiree health benefits.

In The 74, I argue that the district should look to the Obamacare markets as one way to focus their spending on the workers who need it the most:

This is where the federal Affordable Care Act comes in. Obamacare provides subsidies on a sliding scale to individuals to purchase health insurance, regardless of age; in 2018, a two-member household earning less than $65,840, or 400 percent of the federal poverty level, would qualify for assistance. If we assume that retirees have no income sources other than their pension (teachers in California do not have Social Security), publicly available data suggest that 87 percent of LAUSD retirees could qualify for Obamacare subsidies.

As I note in the piece, there is some precedence for this. In the 1980s, LAUSD began requiring retirees over age 65 to apply for Medicare benefits, making the district benefits more of a perk than a standalone offering. Districts like LAUSD could now do the same thing with the Obamacare markets and retirees under age 65.