April 3, 2019

Key Lessons for Effective School Boards

This is the second post in a series about Bellwether’s recent work on school governance and school board effectiveness. The first post can be read here.

The members of elected and appointed school boards play an important role in governing schools and allocating resources. But beyond these practical responsibilities, a growing body of research suggests that what school board members believe, know, and do can set the conditions for effective classroom instruction and higher levels of student achievement.

For some recent projects, Bellwether reviewed the evidence base on school board effectiveness. Research indicates that effective school boards focus on student learning, make decisions informed by data, and build strong relationships with leadership and the community. Based on this evidence, important practices for effective school boards emerge across five domains.

  1. Beliefs and priorities: Research shows that it is important for boards to hold beliefs and priorities that focus on student learning rather than school management. In addition, a 2006 meta-analysis of 27 studies found that districts with higher levels of student achievement had boards, districts, and schools that were clearly aligned in their efforts to support non-negotiable goals. This further underscores that it is important for boards to clearly codify their beliefs and priorities.
  2. Data use: Boards in districts experiencing academic improvement tend to use more data more often to inform their decisions. For example, a notable study by the Iowa Association of School Boards found that board members in improving districts received data about exemplary programs and practices, test scores, dropout rates, and other measures on a regular basis from superintendents, curriculum directors, principals, and teachers, as well as sources outside the district.
  3. Strategic planning and goals: Effective boards craft strategic plans that are clear and reflect district and community input, and they hold themselves accountable for meeting goals and improving student learning. For example, a study of 10 school boards in British Columbia found that boards in districts with higher levels of student achievement and lower costs were more knowledgeable about district programs and practices and had a clearer sense of their goals. In addition, these districts shared firm values and beliefs about students and learning, and also deliberately articulated and discussed these values and beliefs among themselves and with their communities, suggesting that strategic planning must work in concert with board practices in other domains in order to be most effective.
  4. Communications and community engagement: Research has found that effective boards often have strong community partnerships and cooperative relationships between staff and the community. They also have strong structures in place to ensure clear communication with stakeholders like teachers, parents, and the media. In addition, case studies of school boards from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that business leaders, in particular, can play a critical role in supporting effective school board governance and reforms that improve student achievement.
  5. Effective relationships with district or school leadership: Strong working relationships between school boards and superintendents are important for district and student success. For example, a study of 10 districts across five states found that “strong, collaborative leadership by local school boards and school superintendents is a key cornerstone of the foundation for high student achievement,” and a study of Texas school districts suggests that there is a link between improved student achievement and high levels of trust between the superintendent and school board. Additionally, multiple studies have shown that stable leadership is correlated positively with student achievement. However, research from the Brookings Institution found that superintendents have relatively little influence on student achievement, and that student achievement does not improve with the longevity of superintendent service, suggesting that some turnover among board members and superintendents may be healthy and lead to more effective policies.

Research shows that effective school boards can play an important role in overall school quality. This research has informed Bellwether’s recent work, including developing a framework for evaluating school board effectiveness with Colorado Succeeds, as well as surveying school board members in Washington, DC and Rhode Island. As they look for ways to improve student learning, districts and charters alike should ensure that school boards are using effective practices and prioritize supplying adequate training and support for board members.


April 1, 2019

Announcing a New Series of Bellwether Ventures

Here at Bellwether, we’re all about innovative, provocative, and forward-looking ideas to address different aspects of the education world. One area we’ve always cared about is ensuring healthy food for kids — our 16 for 2016 collection included pieces on local, quality food for school lunches, for example.

Now we’ve taken it a step further. After incubating a series of entrepreneurs-in-residence, today we’re happy to announce a new line of service offerings: Bellwether cafes. Continue reading


March 20, 2019

Why Is Charter School Growth Slowing? New NACSA Research Offers Insights — But No Easy Answers.

 After growing rapidly for the past decade, the pace of charter school growth has slowed in recent years, provoking consternation among some charter school supporters — as well as debate about causes and responses. As my Bellwether colleagues noted in a recent report on the state of the charter sector, there are multiple potential factors influencing this shift, and it can be difficult to know which are at play because recent trends and the different factors influencing them vary considerably across states and geographies.

Ultimately, however, the pace of charter school growth is a function of just a few factors:

  • How many individuals, organizations, and groups apply to establish new schools?
  • What percentage of those applications are approved?
  • Are existing schools growing, and by how much?
  • What percentage of charter schools are closed?

Charter school authorizers (which I was one of when I served on the DC Public Charter School Board) are the entities entrusted in state law to approve and oversee charter schools. These bodies are uniquely positioned to shed light on the first two questions.

Reinvigorating the Pipeline,” a new report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), explores what authorizer data can tell us. NACSA (on whose board I now serve) reviewed nearly 3,000 charter applications to authorizers in 20 states who oversee more than two-thirds of charter schools nationally. The report surfaces some interesting insights:

  • There is wide variation in the types of schools that charter applicants propose to create, including classical, “no excuses,” inquiry-based or child-centered, vocational, alternative/credit recovery, blended/hybrid, STEM, and arts schools.
  • Applications for some types of schools are much more common than others, and approval rates also vary widely across types of schools created. Schools proposing to implement classical or “no excuses” models are more than twice as likely to be approved than those proposing arts-focused, gifted-education, and single-sex models.
  • The percentage of charter applications for schools using “no excuses” models declined considerably in the past five years, as did the percentage of “no excuses” schools approved.
  • The majority of charter applicants are for stand-alone schools not affiliated with a charter network or management organization. Indeed, despite common perceptions that networks dominate the charter sector, the percentage of applications for free-standing schools is at a five-year high. Schools affiliated with nonprofit charter management organizations (CMOs) are more likely to be approved than free-standing schools, but, because there are more applications from free-standing schools, CMO-run and free-standing schools each account for about 40% of approved applications. Schools run by for-profit education management organizations, which have attracted considerable criticism in recent years, account for only about 20% of approved schools, and applications for EMO-run schools have declined dramatically.
  • The types of schools that applicants propose to create vary widely across states. Applications for blended or hybrid models, for example, account for more than a quarter of proposals in Arizona, D.C., and Illinois, while authorizers in Connecticut and Minnesota received no applications for this type of model. Conversely, proposals for child-centered models such as Waldorf or Montessori accounted for a much larger share of applications in some states (e.g., Minnesota and Georgia) than others. And groups associated with EMOs accounted for a meaningful percentage of applicants in only a few states but were a big percentage in Florida, Ohio, and Arizona. All of this suggests that what the “charter sector” looks like varies widely across states and communities, a factor that bears remembering in national dialogue about charters.

In some ways, the report raises more questions than it answers. It can’t tell us, for example, why some types of charter applications are much more common than others, or why authorizers are more likely to approve certain types of schools. Further, it’s not easy to tell whether trends in the number of applications for different types of schools reflect intrinsic demand and interest of prospective founders and their communities, or whether perceptions of political and other barriers (such as lack of access to facilities), authorizers’ openness to certain types of models or to approving new charter applications at all, and other political and policy factors are influencing the pipeline of applications that authorizers receive.

These are questions that deserve further inquiry. And given the high level of state and local variation in charter growth and pipelines, many of these questions need to be explored at the state and local level, not just nationally.

But by bringing this data to bear, NACSA is helping to shed empirical light on key questions facing the charter movement — and also countering some common misperceptions about the charter sector. I hope that this work provokes further dialogue and inquiry for the field.


March 19, 2019

Three Myths I Often Hear About the Dreaded Financial Model

This is the sixth blog post in our #SGInstitute series, led by our Strategic Advising practice on lessons learned from advising schools, networks, and districts on growth and expansion.

Most people groan when they think about financial modeling, but it’s the part of strategic planning that I look forward to most. To be fair, I was the kid in math class who found it incredibly satisfying to see how numbers fit together in a clean and orderly way. A prime number is ALWAYS only divisible by one and itself. The angles in a triangle ALWAYS add up to 180. Algebra is like a riddle whose answer you can ALWAYS figure out — just isolate the X! (I know this makes me a nerd, but I embrace it.)

In my adult life, I get the same satisfaction from a good financial model that pieces together all the parts of a strategic plan in a logical way. For those new to the process, a financial model is basically a big, usually Excel-based, spreadsheet that lays out all the costs and revenue streams associated with a strategic plan, as well as the relationships between them, to calculate a total funding need. This spreadsheet can then be used as a “model” that helps you test various decisions associated with plan implementation, just like a blueprint is a model that guides construction of a new house or building.

Financial models help growing schools or networks understand their funding need, plan for the future, and justify budgets to potential funders. What I like about financial modeling is that it makes a strategy feel concrete. Before you get to modeling in the strategic planning process, the various goals, priorities, and action steps that make up your school’s plan for growth or improvement can feel like vague ideas. Once they’re in Excel and defined by real-world cost estimates, the ideas come to life.

For instance, let’s say you want to build out your data systems to support a growing organization. Okay, but what does that actually mean? Translating your ideas into spreadsheet form will require you to think through what the work will look like on the ground and what specific resources you will need to accomplish various tasks. You’ll probably need to invest in new or upgraded software, train your staff to use it, and perhaps bring a data expert on board to manage it. If you can make some informed guesstimates about how many of each thing you’ll need, when you’ll buy them, and how much they’ll cost, with a bit of math you can get to a reasonably realistic estimate of investment size.

Then you can use that estimate to adjust your strategic plan to better fit the reality of your day-to-day.  Back to our data systems example: Don’t think you can afford an investment of that size? To save costs, perhaps you can find less complex software, limit licenses to a few key staff members, or allocate time from a current resource to data management rather than hiring a new staff member. If you flex the inputs in the model to reflect those changes, what happens to the final number? I, for one, feel much more comfortable making decisions armed with numbers.

Now you’re probably thinking: “But financial modeling requires a skillset I don’t have (and don’t really have the time to build)!” Yes, you need to be comfortable with Excel, but I promise that comes with a little practice — and there are simple video tutorials readily available the internet. Beyond that, it’s much more approachable than you think.

Here are three common myths I hear about financial modeling from people unfamiliar with the process: Continue reading


March 18, 2019

Media: “This County Made History and Elected Its First School Board Member of Color” in Education Post

Gwinnett County, the second most populous county in the state of Georgia, recently made history when it elected its youngest and first school board member of color in 2018. Gwinnett has a diverse student population, and more than 50 percent of students are students of color. Why has that level of diversity not been reflected in the local school board?

I wrote about this in Education Post:

Gwinnett County is not alone. A 2018 study by the National School Boards Association found that across the country, 78 percent of board members are White, while only 10 percent are Black, and 3 percent are Hispanic. These numbers are truly stunning and reveal that school boards do not reflect the growing diversity of the nation’s K-12 student population.

School board diversity is important because it allows more voices at the table to inform critical decisions about education policy and practice. All students can benefit when school boards represent the racial, economic, and gender diversity of the students they serve. Read my piece here.