Tag Archives: COVID-19

Puerto Rican students during the COVID-19 pandemic: Data update and Q&A with Carlos Rodríguez Silvestre

In October 2020, “Missing in the Margins: Estimating the Scale of the COVID-19 Attendance Crisis” estimated that approximately 3 million American students had experienced minimal to no formal education since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The analysis focused on the most educationally marginalized students in the country — English learners and students with disabilities, in foster care, experiencing homelessness, and/or eligible for the Migrant Education Program. But the original 50 state and D.C. estimates left out Puerto Rico, the Bureau of Indian Education, and other U.S. territories. These students have been just as affected by the pandemic, if not moreso, and deserve more attention. 

Missing in the Margins data estimates now include data from Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Education. Other U.S. territories did not have sufficient comparable data on the population groups in our original estimates, but we are hopeful that this expanded version paints a more comprehensive picture. 

The estimates emphasize the scale of the challenge before state and local education agencies as they work to begin the recovery process. As before, estimates are based on student population numbers from educationally marginalized groups, not on 2021-22 enrollment numbers. Those enrollment numbers, where available, track with our earlier estimates: enrollments are down around 2-3% on average, with much larger reductions concentrated in kindergarten. But even this far into the 2020-21 school year, we still do not have a clear enough picture of who these unenrolled students are or where they have gone: private school, home school, work, or elsewhere. 

In 2017, public school enrollment in Puerto Rico was approximately 350,000 students, but economic crises, natural disasters, and the COVID-9 pandemic have all contributed to fast enrollment declines. Local estimates suggest enrollment is now closer to 280,000. We estimate up to 25,000 children on the island may have had little or no access to education due to the pandemic.

To learn more, we sat down virtually with Carlos Rodríguez Silvestre, Executive Director of the Flamboyan Foundation in Puerto Rico, where he oversees all aspects of the Foundation’s mission-driven work and programmatic strategy in Puerto Rico, to ensure students most impacted by inequity are prepared to succeed in school and beyond. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

  • Carlos Rodriguez SilvestreHow are students in Puerto Rico faring during the COVID-19 school closures and virtual learning? How have the effects of COVID-19 interacted with other disaster response efforts, including the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Maria?

COVID-19 compounded trauma for students in Puerto Rico. The end of in-person classes last March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic is the latest in a series of interruptions to the education system in Puerto Rico, including Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 and earthquakes in early 2020. We estimate that students in Puerto Rico already lost up to 159 days of school between 2017 and 2020. \Adding on lost instructional and socialization time related to the pandemic further deepens challenges for students, families, and educators. 

Taken together, these disasters have had a profound effect on the physical, social, emotional and academic wellbeing of students. Any resolutions will need to take into account the compounded nature of trauma on students and the uniqueness of Puerto Rico’s context. 

  • Are there experiences or considerations that may be unique to Puerto Rican students and schools? 

Yes. The compounded impacts of multiple disasters present unique challenges for Puerto Rican students and schools. 

A crippling economic crisis had left the island bankrupt in 2006 and 15 years later recovery has not been realized. Schools and island infrastructure were already under-resourced as a result.  Continue reading

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.



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. 

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.

How to Tack Against the Four Headwinds to Pandemic-Era Education Innovations

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.

To make a sailboat tack to sail into a headwind, the sailor must execute a specific set of motions in sequence to avoid being hit by the swinging boom or tipping over. On large sailboats, multiple crew members must act in concert to change directions successfully. The same is true for education leaders who want to create an environment where good ideas that emerged during the pandemic can be proven out and, hopefully, benefit the students who need them the most.

For any changes to schools and systems to take root and remain durable, district and charter leaders, policymakers, parents, and funders will need to act in concert over the next 6-12 months. Here’s a proposal for where to begin.

Start With the Needs and Desires of Students and Families

For innovations to stick, they can’t just be different from the status quo: they have to confer some advantages over it. The best advantage that we can hope for is improved academic and life outcomes for low-income, Black, and Latino students.

We should be conducting empathy interviews to understand what parts of school families are eager to go back to, what’s surprised them, what could be better with a little improvement, and what they’d happily leave behind once the pandemic is under control. (Look for a toolkit on the topic coming from The Learning Accelerator this month.) It’s in these answers that a new normal will emerge. We should extend our human-centered inquiry to create education policies informed directly by the people that will be most affected by them. Educators and innovators choose to spend their time and energy should stem from students and families’ needs and desires rather than pre-baked agendas, efficiency ploys, educator convenience, flashy ideas, or funders’ whims.

This approach has two distinct advantages. First, we’ll articulate more accurate definitions of problems and more relevant solutions through regular interactions with students and families. Second, it builds trust with a constituency that has a massive influence on determining which innovations are adopted, leading me to my next tack.

Activate and Organize a Natural Constituency — Parents — to Influence Policies

A few months before the pandemic, I attended a meeting of San Francisco parents advocating for better schools in Southeast San Francisco. Through an interpreter translating Spanish to English, I heard a common frustration of an inability to know the quality of curricula and instruction in their children’s schools. Principals and teachers were keeping parents at arm’s length to avoid scrutiny. Now, those parents and millions more like them have been exposed to their children’s education as lessons occur in their living room and instructional materials are a click away. Parents unhappy with the level of communication, quality of instruction, or rigor of curricula will be looking for better opportunities for their kids.

More privileged parents used private schools, pods, or online platforms to curate the kind of personalized learning experience they wanted for their children. It may have been the first time they had to confront their opportunity hoarding as they accessed resources out of reach for other families.

Both cases point to a natural constituency just waiting to be activated and organized.

And organization is key. As Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham recently put it, “A basic rule in politics is organized and focused power beats disorganized sentiment most of the time.” States, districts, and teachers’ unions are organized and focused in most places. With the exception of some community-based organizations and newer outfits like the National Parents Union, parents are not. Harnessing the energy from parents who want to improve school systems will require them to have their own organizations. Reformers will have to broaden their tent to include them, engage them in authentic dialogue, seek common ground, and act together where there are common interests.

In their seminal book on the history of education reform, Tinkering Toward Utopia, David Tyack and Larry Cuban note that many challenges to traditional schooling fail because proposed changes are too “intramural.” That is, they’re popular among reformers but lack political sway and are out of touch with families and the broader citizenry. This has been the education reform community’s blind spot for decades as well-intentioned, highly educated, and mostly white people tried to create better education opportunities for students who did not share their advantages.

Genuine inclusion requires patience, a characteristic not usually demonstrated by funders and leaders who love to say that they are driven by urgency. This tension introduces the risk of tokenizing parents and students to advance an agenda that can erode trust and stymie promising improvement efforts. However, when done well, parents and educators working together can create more responsive schools and systems and build a powerful bloc for future political battles.

Advocate for Federal and State Governments to Lead on Education Innovation

In its first days, the Biden administration is trying to pass a massive $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package that includes $130 billion to help K-12 schools reopen safely and “meet students’ academic, mental health and social, and emotional needs in response to COVID-19.” Despite its massive price tag, Biden’s proposed relief package is a short-term solution that will only cover costs through the summer. Even so, Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Education Miguel Cordona should require SEAs to set aside 1% of current and future coronavirus relief funding to find, test, and spread promising education innovations, and provide them with guidance for how to do it. Districts should be encouraged to do the same.

Relief bills are necessary to meet the crisis’s needs. Still, schools will need more federal leadership to address the learning loss that will affect millions of students for years — an Operation Warp Speed for education.

An obvious place to start would be to provide clarity and guidance to SEAs addressing which flexibilities they will retain for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. Without it, states and districts can’t plan thoughtfully for recovery and for leveraging innovations. Unless and until they have the confidence and funds to continue to innovate, the implicit message will be to wait for the pandemic to subside and default to pre-pandemic schooling.

The origins of Biden’s campaign slogan, “Build Back Better,” could provide a helpful roadmap for a larger initiative. The phrase dates back to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction adopted by the United Nations in 2015. The concept of building back better is “an approach to post-disaster recovery that reduces vulnerability to future disasters and builds community resilience to address physical, social, environmental, and economic vulnerabilities and shocks.” In other words, it’s foolish to rebuild the same infrastructure in the wake of a disaster; the next version should be an improvement. Applying this approach to America’s schools would necessitate fostering innovation or running the risk of building back an inequitable school system.

Cordona could make innovation a priority of his new agenda by beefing up the Education Innovation and Research program and finally starting up the much talked about but never actualized ARPA-ED R&D initiative. The Department of Education could play a lead role in creating shared principles, language, standards, and framework for education innovation and provide SEA’s with guidance on how to implement innovation practices. If Biden triples Title I funding as he’s promised, SEA’s could use their school improvement set-aside for innovation activities. Additionally, they can play more of a support role by waiving onerous regulations that constrain innovation activities and creating strategic partnerships with organizations that can provide technical support for finding and rigorously testing new ideas.

Building the federal innovation and R&D apparatus so that it’s responsive and rigorous is a challenging task by itself. Results from the Investing in Innovation program (i3) were mixed and translating an approach that works in health care and defense isn’t straightforward. Even so, if the administration is up for the challenge and goes in eyes wide open, it could leverage the Democratic in control of Congress, increased federal funding, and the country needing new ways to accelerate student learning to build the federal engine for education innovation.

Step Up Philanthropic Investments in Innovation and R&D

Private foundations could be playing a much larger role in education innovation than they are. In fact, funding R&D and innovation is one of the main roles of philanthropy in a democracy. According to Paul Vallely, author of Philanthropy – from Aristotle to Zuckerberg, philanthropy has three vital functions: “It can support the kind of higher-risk research and innovation generally avoided by government and business. It can plug gaps left by market failure and government incompetence. And it can fund the nonprofits that mediate between the individual, the market, and the state.” Yet most philanthropies fund established nonprofits, essentially ignoring people with novel ideas who need support to test and refine them. This isn’t a new observation.

In 2015, Matt Candler pointed out that philanthropy was largely neglecting the first three stages of innovation: defining good problems, testing new solutions, and going to market. Not much has changed in the last five years. Without more foundations out there providing $1,000 to $250,000 “dream capital” grants, good ideas will die on the vine. Teachers who have developed new methods during the pandemic will never have a chance to share them. Principals who want to pilot new school models that combine the best of distance and in-person learning won’t have the chance to prove their concepts.

The good news is there are already good examples of effective seed funders who can help build the capacity of the sector, such as NewSchools Venture Fund, New Profit, and the Draper, Richards, Kaplan Foundation. An established foundation allocating 10% of their giving to seeding the sector with new ideas with follow-on funding for those that prove effective would catalyze education’s innovation engine.

Private philanthropy should also fund R&D projects that combine basic research, applied research, and experimental development. When ARPA-Ed failed to materialize under the Obama Administration, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation teamed up to launch the $50 million EF+Math Program, which provides grants for multi-year projects to “co-design and develop new approaches to build math-relevant executive function skills during high-quality math instruction.” Endeavors like this are more complex and time-consuming than funding entrepreneurs with promising ideas, so they require big money and patience.

Act While the Overton Window is Open

Although the timing for any effort precipitated by a public health crisis is difficult to describe as “good,” we’re at a moment when ideas that were politically or socially unacceptable only a year ago are now safe for system leaders and politicians to pursue. In other words, the Overton Window is open. In less than a year, the concept of learning from anywhere at any time has moved from being radical to acceptable and even sensible for many families. Educators should be advocating to carry over innovations into the post-pandemic world now as vaccines roll out, scientific consensus builds for returning to in-person instruction, districts are planning for the fall, and new practices have had enough time to show some evidence of improving achievement, equity, or efficiency.

The popularization of new practices and their enshrinement in public policies will likely take much more time, familiarity, and evidence. That’s okay. In the short-term, the focus should be on maintaining the conditions that can allow teachers and principals to test new ideas. Securing waivers from local, state, and policies that give schools the freedom to experiment while holding the line on evidence of success and accountability is an immediate commonsense goal. The broader political landscape matters a lot here. It may be difficult for education issues to earn legislators’ attention while the pandemic rages; childcare, healthcare, and economic stability are at the forefront of people’s minds; and racial divisions deepen. Again, linking education initiatives to these issues will be important for their success.

When it comes to clearing a path for promising education innovations, time is clearly of the essence. A common aim, communication, cooperation, and action are all necessary too. Can policymakers, funders, and education system leaders come together to make it happen? I look into it in my final post of the series.

You can read more from this series here.