July 22, 2020

6 Takeaways — and Video — From Our Webinar on Accountability

The bipartisan coalition that originally supported standards-based accountability is not as strong as it once was, but on Monday afternoon, we saw a glimpse of a revitalized and refocused effort to ensure student learning remains at the core of education policy decisions. To extend our recent work on the past, present, and future of accountability, Bellwether hosted a conversation with three national leaders with deep experience in accountability policy and systems: Jeb Bush, former Florida Governor; John B. King, Jr., CEO of The Education Trust; and Carissa Moffat Miller, Executive Director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). (Watch the full conversation below or read a complete transcript here.)

Each of these leaders approach education policy from different positions and political perspectives: the panel included a former Republican governor, a former cabinet member of the Obama administration, and a representative of states’ top education leaders. Nevertheless,panelists agreed on the enduring value of the core tenets of accountability, while stressing the need to adapt  systems to meet the current challenges facing schools.

I observed six key takeaways for policymakers as they adjust accountability systems for next school year and beyond:

  • Accountability is vital, even during a pandemic
  • Accountability can and should adapt
  • Accountability needs to be more than testing and school ratings
  • Better testing could improve accountability systems
  • Choice can add value to accountability systems
  • We can and should make next year count

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July 16, 2020

It’s Time For a National Teachers’ Strike

Schools closed in March in order to give federal and state governments the time to implement a public health response to COVID-19. They have failed miserably to do so. With case counts exceeding three million and deaths approaching 150,000, the United States is unique in the world for its near-total abdication of responsibility for its people in the midst of the worst global pandemic in a century. And now, in the face of rising case numbers, uncontrolled community transmission, and a culture growing increasingly numb to six-figure death rates, people are clamoring for school buildings to reopen

This is an absurd proposition. No teacher should risk their life because the government refuses to address a solvable problem.

Arlington County (VA) signage during COVID-19 outbreak — photo via dmbosstone on Flickr

School districts’ plans for the fall are a mix of in-person, hybrid, and online learning plans —- with heated debate about which approach is best. But this debate is fundamentally misplaced: We do not have a learning problem, we have a public health problem. Schools were closed because the world confronted a lethal and highly transmissible virus with no vaccine and few effective treatments, and that problem still exists.

There was a time, back in March, when doctors and nurses across the country were forced to treat patients without adequate PPE. They protested and they complained, but the few who flat-out refused found themselves out of jobs. What would have happened if they’d all refused? How quickly would the federal government have marshalled its resources and authority to manufacture and distribute all needed PPE if medical professionals decided that without it, they would strike?

Teachers (and other school-based staff) are now facing that same question. What would happen if they simply refused to go into school buildings until the federal government created a school reopening plan aligned with CDC guidance? What if teachers only offered virtual schooling until districts committed to allowing public health experts to guide reopening decisions? Even regions where the virus appears to be “under control” for the moment are always at risk of outbreaks in a country with porous borders. Take Hawaii, for example: It is the most remote population center in the world and it cannot get its infection rates to 0. This is a national problem in need of a national response.

Schools can still plan for instruction using imperfect remote learning models, and teachers will still do their much-needed jobs. But it is time for a national teachers’ strike against in-person programming. No teacher should go back into a school building anywhere in the country until the federal government adopts a meaningful public health plan to address the real problem that we’re all facing: the unchecked spread of a deadly virus.


Now Is Not the Time to Roll Back Accountability Systems

This spring presented a massive challenge to educators, students, and families. A global pandemic caught our schools by surprise and forced them to quickly adapt to distance learning — a shift that exacerbated the inequities in our school system

Unfortunately, we’re already seeing signs that some states seem to be giving up on accountability for student outcomes during the 2020-2021 school year. That would be a mistake. Today’s accountability systems are by no means perfect, and they may well need to adapt to the moment, but now is not the time to abandon the only mechanism that provides information on how every school is serving every student.

For the past two decades, we’ve relied on standards-based accountability as a safeguard for equity. Now that schools face new challenges and greater inequities, will policymakers be able to adapt accountability for a new set of circumstances or will they relinquish this key lever for equity? 

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July 15, 2020

Tips and Tricks for School Leader Decision Making: A Tool

School leaders are faced with a variety of decisions each and every day, from the most fraught and challenging decisions navigating COVID-19, to day-to-day decisions pertaining to operational management. Some decisions feel easy and minor, informed by past experience and quality data. Other decisions are more daunting, requiring leaders to make difficult calls with incomplete information in a context that is rapidly changing.

This is especially true today. For instance, a decision about whether to buy devices to support remote instruction could go off-track if the manager of the I.T. department and the school executive director both think the other has the final say on which devices to purchase and how many are needed. And it’s not hard to imagine a well-meaning leader soliciting input from a multitude of stakeholder groups about how best to make meals safely available to students, and then feel overwhelmed by the volume of conflicting viewpoints. 

I’ve created a simple tool to share how to tackle strategic decisions for your organization, and offered some details and examples to support you and your team as you build your decision-making muscle. You’ll note that the process I map out is deeply aligned with a couple of planning toolkits my colleagues and I have shared over the past several months. I’ve chosen an example that is likely familiar to many school leaders for the sake of clarity, but the recommendations below are especially applicable in the current moment. In addition to the details and examples below, you can also download a simple, printable version of these steps here.

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July 14, 2020

The Power of Partnerships: Supporting Districts in Postsecondary Success

As elevated in our recent report and tipsheet series, school districts across the country are beginning to be more proactive in supporting K-12 students to achieve postsecondary success.

But what happens if districts don’t have capacity to develop a strategic vision and then actually offer college advising support? In these cases, we’ve identified concrete roles that funders and college access organizations can play. With the support of these external partners, districts can accelerate their progress towards supporting all students on their paths to postsecondary success. Cover of "Equitable Postsecondary Advising Systems Expanding access to help close the degree divide" tip sheet for districts, by Bellwether Education Partners June 2020

KIPP*, a high-performing national charter network, has always supported its students on their journey to college. In 2008, KIPP launched “KIPP Through College” to provide more structured and intensive support for students to increase the likelihood of postsecondary success. The model helps students to decide what colleges are the best fit for them using a user-friendly online match tool that leverages data and logic to build a list of colleges and universities for a student to apply to. In addition, KIPP has defined a set of milestones to track and measure success (e.g., FAFSA completion). As a result: in 2018, 80% of KIPP graduates enrolled in college, compared to the national average of 66% and the low-income student average of 46%. 

Recognizing that KIPP had a successful approach, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation* provided a grant for KIPP to adapt their model for three urban districts who were eager to prioritize college advising: Miami-Dade County Public Schools, New York City Department of Education, and Newark Unified School District. 

KIPP helped the three districts set a vision with milestones, customized their “match and fit” framework and online tool, and conducted in-person training and virtual coaching to support implementation. Early results are promising, and uptake has been strong: all three districts adopted KIPP’s approach after the 18-month program. KIPP is expanding the program to 13 additional schools in New York and 9 additional schools in Miami, as well as offering a summer training for staff using KIPP’s approach.

We profiled KIPP, and other organizations, districts, and intermediaries doing great work to support students on their postsecondary journeys, in our recent study on the postsecondary support landscape. Read it here.

*Former client/funder of Bellwether. We maintained full editorial control of this post.