May 10, 2022

Expand Supplemental Learning Options with the Filling the Gap Fund

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages.

Bellwether Education Partners, in partnership with the Walton Family Foundation, is excited to announce the Filling the Gap Fund. This new grant opportunity is designed to help families and students leverage public policy to find and engage in supplemental learning opportunities.  

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to expand how families and students think about education. The pandemic disrupted students’ learning experiences, often with enormous consequences for those furthest from opportunity. But it also disrupted the long-held belief that education only happens between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. within the walls of a school building. Faced with immense challenges since March 2020, families and educators created innovative, flexible approaches to supplemental learning designed to address the impact of the pandemic on students. 

Policymakers have taken notice of family and student interest in supplemental learning options. Across the country, state leaders are creating policies to help families access supplemental learning opportunities. These policies — from part-time enrollment to parent-directed education spending — enable families and students to access a wide range of supplemental educational options that best meet their needs. 

The problem, however, is that these policies are often underused or don’t reach students furthest from opportunity. The grants made through our request for information (RFI) will seek to fill this gap. 

We encourage public schools, tribal schools, school systems (e.g., school districts or charter networks), and nonprofit organizations to apply through a request for information (RFI) if:  

  • Your organization has a new or early-stage idea about how to provide families with information and support that will help them leverage public policies and access supplemental learning options. 
  • Your organization is well-positioned to support families and students furthest from opportunity.  

Excited? We are, too. There are several ways to be a part of this work! 

1. Learn more.  

You can learn more about this opportunity by reading the full RFI. You can also join our mailing list to stay in the loop about deadlines, frequently asked questions, and our applicant webinar, which will take place in mid-May. 

2. Apply! 

Responses to the RFI are due no later than 11:59 p.m. PDT Monday, June 6, 2022, after which Bellwether will invite select organizations to submit proposals for funding. Grants will range from $50,000 to $300,000, depending on the opportunity for impact and the maturity of the project. 

We’re interested in learning about new or early-stage ideas for providing families with the information, resources, and support they need to leverage public policies and access supplemental learning options. We particularly encourage applications from organizations who are well-positioned to support families and students furthest from opportunity. 

3. Share this opportunity with others. 

Share the Filling the Gap RFI with schools and organizations who you think might be a good fit. Be sure to let them know that in addition to broad exposure and recognition for their work, grantees will participate in a cohort in which they’ll learn from one another, receive support from experts, researchers, and other partners, and plan for sustainability and scale. 

Questions? Reach out via proposals@bellwethereducation.org. Don’t miss this opportunity! 


May 4, 2022

Tracking Parents’ Complex Perspectives on K-12 Education

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Every policy wonk loves a good poll, and education policy wonks are no exception. Polls give added depth and dimension to an array of current (and shifting) public opinions, attitudes, and needs. But too often, wonks tend to over-index on the latest, flashiest data point as new polls are released — making it difficult to examine the broader context of other polls analyzing similar data points, or to contextualize prior administrations of the same poll.

The recency bias associated with new polling data is a persistent problem in fully understanding how parents think about K-12 education across the country. Contrary to media-driven hype, parents have diverse viewpoints that don’t fit broad narratives offered by pundits. Just as children and circumstances change over time, so do parents’ opinions on what their child needs. And to say that the COVID-19 pandemic brought change to parents and to their children’s educational needs is an understatement — one that underscores the need for a deeper examination of how parents’ views on K-12 education have (or haven’t) changed since March 2020.

Alex Spurrier, Juliet Squire, Andy Rotherham, and I launched the Parent Perception Barometer to help advocates, policymakers, and journalists navigate the nuance of parents’ opinion about K-12 education. The interactive barometer aggregates nationwide polling and other data on parents’ stated and revealed preferences regarding their children’s education. The first wave of polling data indicates that parents are largely satisfied with their child’s education and school, but many have specific concerns about their child’s academic progress as well as their mental health and well-being. As parent opinions aren’t static, the barometer will be updated on a regular basis with the release of new polling data.

There are multiple benefits of aggregating this polling data in the barometer: 

  • First, it allows us to examine emerging or persistent trends in the data. Looking at the same question asked over multiple time periods as well as similar questions asked from different polls separates signal from noise. 
  • Second, it shapes a holistic consideration of a body of relevant data, tempering the pull of recency bias that comes with each new poll’s release. 
  • Third, by analyzing similar poll questions, we identify data points that may be outliers. For instance, if three polls asking a similar question all indicate that parents strongly favor a particular policy, and a fourth poll indicates otherwise, we may look more closely at that poll’s language wording and be more cautious about the types of statements or conclusions we make.

The Parent Perception Barometer provides several ways to support a comprehensive analysis of parents’ perceptions. For those most interested in exploring data on a single topic across multiple sources, the Data Visualization tab provides a high-level summary of recent trends in parents’ stated and revealed preferences. For those looking for more technical background on the polls and data, information about specific polling questions, possible responses, and administration dates can be found within the Additional Detail tab. The barometer also allows users to view and download underlying source data. 

The Parent Perception Barometer is a valuable resource to ground policy and advocacy conversations in a nuanced, contextual understanding of parents’ opinions — bringing clarity and context to the K-12 education debate.


May 2, 2022

Celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week: Team Reflections

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages.

We’re celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week May 2-6. In honor of educators who have shaped all of us at Bellwether, we asked a few team members to reflect on a specific teacher who had a direct and lasting impact on their lives. 

Michelle Croft, senior analyst, Policy and Evaluation

My favorite teacher, Mr. Todd Black, is retiring this year. Mr. Black was my junior high and high school band director. I’ll always be grateful for his time, patience, and encouragement. Through my involvement in band, I had a creative outlet surrounded by a wonderful community (that Mr. Black fostered), and I learned perseverance that would serve me well in life and in my ongoing love of playing music. 

As an adult, I’ve also grown to appreciate how Mr. Black sacrificed evenings and a few weekends away from his family each year to take us to area colleges for honor band. As a first-generation college student, these trips were invaluable, not only for the musical experience, but for the exposure to different colleges.  

Thank you, Mr. Black, and congratulations on your retirement!  

Liz McNamee, associate partner, Strategic Advising

Ms. Rush had a tremendous impact on my life. She taught economics and also supervised our high school newspaper. Ms. Rush inspired me to examine and understand current events — and sharpened my writing so I could report on issues with depth and nuance. I enjoyed her classes so much that I strongly considered a career in journalism. Even though I didn’t become a reporter, my life trajectory would not have been the same without her mentorship. 

I appreciate Ms. Rush for her impressive tenure as a public school teacher, for her use of humor to make economics a fun subject, and for her guidance as I pursued my academic passions. 

DaWana Williamson, partner and chief operating officer

I had two favorite teachers growing up — my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Thompson, and my seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher, Mr. Freddy Prinz.

Mr. Prinz is the teacher who had the biggest impact on my career choice to become an engineer. He made science exciting and fun, and no two days were ever the same. Mr. Prinz had a way of engaging a bunch of hormone-raging teenagers that felt authentic and so amazingly respectful, unlike so many of our teachers at that time! As I think back, Mr. Prinz must have had a great understanding of the teenage brain and what he needed to do to get the most from us. He was witty, energetic, and so much fun!

There are some teachers you experience so fully that you wish you could bottle the feeling you had when you were in their classrooms and share it with every teenager you know. Not only do I think it would give them a great love and appreciation for science, but I think it would change their lives. I know that’s what Mr. Prinz did for me. 

Katrina Boone, associate partner, Policy and Evaluation

Ms. Ashby was my drama teacher. Her class was rigorous, but she knew how to make things fun. She taught me how to do improv, read iambic pentameter, run the lights for a show, be a stage manager, and chase down the perfect piece of furniture for a set (before Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace).

I frequently stopped by her classroom after school to chat, and she always made time for me. She put down the papers she was grading or the lesson she was planning, looked into my eyes, and listened. I was a kid who desperately needed to be seen, to be listened to, and she was always there to see and listen to me. When I ended up on the other side of the desk as a teacher, I did my best to be that person for my students. (Also, she taught me about Simon & Garfunkel, and that is priceless.)


April 4, 2022

Why Aren’t States Innovating in Student Assessments?

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

In the next few weeks, students across the country will begin taking their state’s end-of-year assessment. Despite rhetoric over the years about innovations in assessments and computer-based delivery, by and large, students’ testing experience in 2022 will parallel students’ testing experience in 2002. The monolith of one largely multiple-choice assessment at the end of the school year remains. And so does the perennial quest to improve student tests. 

On Feb. 15, 2022, the U.S. Department of Education released applications for its Competitive Grants for State Assessments program to support innovation in state assessment systems. This year’s funding priorities encourage the use of multiple measures (e.g., including curriculum-embedded performance tasks in the end-of-year assessment) and mastery of standards as part of a competency-based education model. Despite the program’s opportunity for additional funding to develop more innovative assessments, reactions to the announcement ranged from unenthusiastic to crickets. 

One reason for the tepid response is that states are in the process of rebooting their assessment systems after the lack of statewide participation during the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Creating a new assessment — let alone a new, innovative system — takes time and staff resources at the state and district level that aren’t available in the immediate term. Although historic federal-level pandemic funds flowed into states, districts, and schools, political support for assessments is not high, making it difficult for states to justify spending COVID relief funding on developing and administering new statewide assessments.  

Another reason for the lackluster response is the challenges states have in developing an innovative assessment that complies with the Every Student Succeeds Act’s (ESSA) accountability requirements. Like its predecessor, No Child Left Behind, ESSA requires all students to participate in statewide testing. States must use the scores — along with other indicators — to identify schools for additional support largely based on in-state rankings. 

The challenge is that in developing any new, innovative assessment unknowns abound. How can states feel confident administering assessments without a demonstrated track record of student success and school accountability for scores?  

ESSA addresses this issue by permitting states to apply for the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA). Under IADA, qualifying states wouldn’t need to administer the innovative or traditional assessments to all students within the state. However, states would need to demonstrate that scores from the innovate and the traditional assessments are comparable — similar enough to be interchangeable — for all students and student subgroups (e.g., students of different races/ethnicities). The regulations provide examples of methods to demonstrate comparability such as (1) requiring all students within at least one grade level to take both assessments, (2) administering both assessments to a demographically representative sample of students, (3) embedding a significant portion of one assessment within the other assessment, or (4) an equally rigorous alternate method.  

The comparability requirement is challenging for states to meet, particularly due to unknowns related to administering a new assessment and because comparability must be met for all indicators of the state’s accountability system. For instance, one proposal was partially approved pending additional evidence that the assessment could provide data for the state’s readiness “literacy” indicator. To date, only five states have been approved for IADA.  

When Congress reauthorizes ESSA, one option for expanding opportunities for innovative assessments is to waive accountability determinations for participating schools during the assessment’s pilot phase. But this approach omits comparability of scores — the very problem IADA is designed to address and an omission that carries serious equity implications. Comparability of scores is a key component for states to identify districts and schools that need additional improvement support. It’s also a mechanism to identify schools serving students of color and low-income students well to ensure that best practices are replicated in other schools.  

In the meantime, states should bolster existing assessment infrastructure to be better positioned when resources are available to innovate. Specifically, states should:  

  • Improve score reporting to meaningfully and easily communicate results to educators and families. Score reporting is an historical afterthought of testing. A competitive priority for the Competitive Grants for State Assessments is improving reporting, for instance by providing actionable information for parents on the score reports. This provides an opportunity for states to better communicate the information already collected.
  • Increase efforts to improve teacher classroom assessment literacy. End-of-year assessments are just one piece of a larger system of assessments. It’s important that teachers understand how to properly use, interpret, and communicate those scores. And it’s even more important that teachers have additional training in developing the classroom assessments used as part of everyday instruction, which are key to a balanced approach to testing.  

Given the current need for educators and parents to understand their student’s academic progress — especially amid an ongoing pandemic that has upended education and the systematic tracking of student achievement — comparability of test scores may outweigh the advantages of innovative end-of-year assessments. By focusing on comparability, states can better direct resources to the students and schools that need them most.  


March 29, 2022

Honoring Women’s History Month: A Q&A with Prospect Schools’ Tresha Ward

We’re asking education leaders to reflect on their many contributions to the sector. From the “why” behind their work and what calls them to serve school communities, to where they draw everyday inspiration from and more, we’re featuring leaders’ perspectives on Ahead of the Heard in a series honoring Women’s History Month. 

Tresha Ward is a longtime educator, school and network leader, and a Bellwether alumna. Today, she serves as CEO of Prospect Schools, an intentionally diverse network of six K-12 charter schools based in Brooklyn, New York. With an International Baccalaureate, college-prep focus and a school community model rooted in antiracism, diversity, equity, and inclusion, Prospect is poised for growth and impact. I discussed her current role, approach to education, and what grounds her in this work over Zoom.* 

Mary K. Wells:
It’s so great to reconnect. Let’s start with you: Tell our readers a bit about how your identity and experiences shape your career and work at Prospect Schools. What calls you to this work?

Tresha Ward:
My identity, race, and gender are really formative to who I am. Growing up in the Bronx in New York City, I was fortunate to have parents who prioritized education and emphasized going to school. Despite that focus as a kid, I really struggled in college and it was a big turning point in my life. I didn’t want kids who looked like me or came from similar backgrounds to make it to college and realize that they didn’t have the tools needed to pursue their dreams. 

That turning point launched my passion for and focus on education. I started out as a teacher and then became a school leader before moving into other roles focused on impacting kids. In all that I’ve accomplished, there’s been a clear through-line to kids from similar backgrounds as mine. Direct alignment to a mission and to serving kids is at the core of who I am personally and professionally. I strive every day to live up to two guiding principles: 1) to make sure kids like me have an amazing education and can live a life full of choice and opportunity, and 2) to be cognizant of my role as a leader — often the only Black female leader in decision-making spaces — and how it can inspire others.

Over time, I’ve grown in my awareness of the impact many of my roles have had on other women of color and on kids that I didn’t know were watching. It’s a blessing to have opportunities to sit in a room and be a role model for underrepresented groups. But it’s also heavy. Though I’m excited to see more Black women and people of color in CEO roles, and have a contingent of colleagues I can reach out to, it’s still a heavy weight. Navigating spaces can be difficult as the sole Black female leader at times, but it’s ultimately an honor to be in a position of influence and to advocate for kids. It keeps me going.

MKW:
Tell us about Prospect Schools and how you’ve helped your team navigate the ongoing pandemic. How are you building a strong school culture with your team, families, and students?

TW:
I joined Prospect Schools in June 2021, after the team had already been through one year of COVID-19 and dealt with the ups and downs of figuring out in-person versus hybrid versus virtual schooling, and more. We have six K-12 schools in our network, and in the first year of the pandemic, some were fully remote, some were in-person, and some were hybrid learning environments. It was so hard for everyone in the Prospect community, especially for families with kids in different schools trying to make it all work. 

Heading into the 2021-22 academic year, we set three themes to guide our school experience: 1) emerge from COVID-19 as safely as possible by opening schools with in-person, consistent learning for students, families, and the team; 2) work on relationships and connections to rebuild our community, including adults within our network of schools; and 3) set up systems for future growth, while ensuring a strong base of operations.

So far, it’s been an up-and-down school year with some wins and some misses. We started to open for in-person schooling amid the Delta variant, rode that wave, and then the Omicron variant hit in winter, which was really hard on everyone. Our team has been resilient and focused on our kids and families but it hasn’t been easy. I’m proud that we’re maintaining a commitment to in-person learning in admirable ways despite ongoing challenges. 

In terms of culture, it’s been difficult to hold some of the special events and in-person staff gatherings that strengthen a community. Ultimately, everyone is looking forward to getting together in the next few months before the end of the school year now that things are starting to open up again. It’s not going to be how things were pre-pandemic, but hopefully we can return to a place of “normalcy” as we continue to navigate COVID-19. 

MKW:
When you think about growth at Prospect, what does it look like? What are you excited about?

TW:
We recently finished our growth plan and took time to step back and reflect on what it will look like coming out of COVID-19, especially as a network that added two schools during a pandemic (moving from four to six schools). As a network team, we’re focused on supporting our existing school sites and students, strengthening our foundation, and positioning ourselves for more impact on the horizon. 

We want to be thoughtful about growth as we emerge from the pandemic, and focus on growth that strengthens our current schools. So first-wave growth means a tight focus on our academic model at the elementary, middle, and high school level; ensuring that we are fiscally and programmatically strong; and ensuring that more of our high school students are set up to graduate with International Baccalaureate diplomas, among other things.

Through any growth, alignment around a thoughtful timeline is critical. We’ve been engaging a steering committee of key stakeholders from our schools to dig into Prospect’s growth plan and are including different voices and perspectives in our planning. We’re focused on that at the moment.

MKW:
We’ve been asking this question of a few women leaders in the sector in honor of Women’s History Month: Is there a particular woman who’s inspired you? Who and in what way? 

TW:
If you asked me that question a few years ago, I probably would have picked someone like Michelle Obama. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about my mom. 

It’s so easy to take your mom for granted. My mom sacrificed so much for me when I was little. She was also my first teacher — I have pictures of us as I was growing up, surrounded by her handmade posters on the wall with multiplication tables and letters. My mom actually changed careers, too. When I became a teacher, she became a teacher. And when I became a principal, she became a principal. She’s still a school administrator today. The older I get, the more moved I am by her influence in my life and by our parallel paths in education. I’m recently noticing that I constantly do things or say things that remind me of her, I call them my “mom sayings.” I’m so grateful for her sacrifice and all of her sayings that I didn’t fully appreciate growing up. Not to mention her persistence, stubbornness, and the example she still sets for me to this day.

MKW:
Do you have advice for other school or district leaders in the field? 

TW:
I think a lot about how to be true to yourself doing this work. It’s taken me a long time to see what that feels like and how to lead and make decisions based on what I believe. To women in similar roles, or those aspiring to lead schools and systems, figure out early on how to be true to yourself and have a clear vision for how you lead with your values. Find your voice and use it. And deliver that every day to your team.

MKW:
Tresha, thank you so much for sharing your perspective with our readers.

Read more in Ahead of the Heard’s Women’s History Month series. 

*(Editor’s note: Tresha Ward is a former Bellwarian.)