Tag Archives: COVID-19

Three Ways Policymakers Can Expand Educational Options for Students

Children across the country are living through a tumultuous two years that have had an undeniable impact on their education and development. But the effects haven’t been felt evenly by all students. Declines in K-12 reading and math performance have been more pronounced in schools that serve lower-income communities and in schools that largely serve Black and Latino students. 

These inequities predate 2020, but it’s clear that the range and severity of student learning needs amid the pandemic are significantly more complex than they were before COVID-19. America’s K-12 education system needs to respond with options that are diverse, flexible, and accessible to meet the varied educational needs of students and families moving forward. 

As described in Expanding Educational Options: Emergent Policy Trends by co-authors Lynne Graziano, Brian Robinson, Juliet Squire, and me, policymakers in states across the country have made meaningful progress to create and expand learning options for students on three fronts, but more must be done to make those opportunities equitable and accessible to all.

1. Expand Traditional School Choice Options

The first and most traditional front for expanding educational options is through expanded access to school choice options. This includes policies that increase opportunities within the public school system through charter schools and open enrollment. It could also take the form of policies that provide access to full-time learning options outside of the public sector through vouchers, tax credit scholarships, or policies to support home-schooling.

Recent legislation expanding access to school choice options tends to focus on increasing funding for private school choice programs and/or expanding student eligibility criteria for those programs. One example of this is Florida’s HB 7045, which both increased funding and expanded student eligibility for private school choice programs.

2. Provide Equitable Access for All Students

Second, policymakers are enacting legislation to reduce barriers that stand between students and already-available educational opportunities beyond their residentially assigned public school. 

States like Tennessee and West Virginia passed bills to reduce administrative barriers to improve the transparency and accessibility of open enrollment opportunities. Other states, like Arizona and Texas, passed legislation to reduce transportation barriers to improve student access to educational options. 

3. Enact More Flexible Learning Options

Finally, there is increasing policy support for more flexible learning options that provide students with opportunities to replace or supplement full-time schooling. Most recently, this has taken the form of states passing or expanding Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) that provide families with flexible funding to support tuition, tutoring, or other educational services for their children, like West Virginia’s HB 2013

Other states, like Georgia, have passed legislation to protect a pandemic-era innovation: learning pods. And Montana’s HB 246 creates opportunities for students to participate in and earn credit for work-based learning.

These policy innovations are welcome developments for families and students looking for more flexible and customized learning options, but much more needs to be done to ensure that these opportunities are available to all families. For instance, families need accurate and accessible information on the array of schooling options available for their children, and how to take advantage of them. Transportation and other logistical barriers still serve as insurmountable barriers for far too many families. And as more students are educated by an increasing number of providers, policymakers must consider how the ecosystem of K-12 educational entities can securely share data with one another to support a child’s success. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the complex and urgent needs students face; families deserve access to a wider range of educational opportunities to meet the specific needs of their children. Policymakers must act to better serve students’ needs moving forward.

An “Abundance Agenda” Must Include K-12 Schooling

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Scarcity is a familiar concept to economists, but most Americans don’t need to crack open a textbook to understand its impact right now. Walking through my local grocery store, there are barren produce displays and freezers with only a fraction of the products they typically stock. And I’ve had to scour the greater Louisville, Kentucky region to find at-home COVID-19 tests for sale.

In a thought-provoking new piece for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson argues that the problem of scarcity isn’t just limited to grocery stores and pharmacies it’s a societywide challenge that we ought to address.

“Altogether, America has too much venting and not enough inventing. We say that we want to save the planet from climate change — but in practice, many Americans are basically dead set against the clean-energy revolution, with even liberal states shutting down zero-carbon nuclear plants and protesting solar-power projects. We say that housing is a human right — but our richest cities have made it excruciatingly difficult to build new houses, infrastructure, or megaprojects. Politicians say that they want better health care — but they tolerate a catastrophically slow-footed FDA that withholds promising tools, and a federal policy that deliberately limits the supply of physicians.”

But there’s a significant sector missing from Thompson’s analysis of our scarcity challenge: K-12 education.

Public schooling is supposed to be a public good that provides equitable access to educational opportunities for all children, in the same way that public parks provide everyone with an opportunity to enjoy natural beauty in our communities.

For many families, however, access to a quality public education is an unfulfilled promise.

Scarcity in K-12 schooling is a much more opaque phenomenon than in higher education. We can easily monitor the ever-rising cost of college tuition, but most parents don’t pay tuition for K-12 schools. Instead, the “price” of attending public schools is embedded in rent or mortgage payments.

Affluent families have an abundance of educational options: they can afford to pay for tuition at private schools, buy a home in sought-after school districts, and provide their children with supplementary learning opportunities like tutoring, music lessons, and athletic programs.

Lower-income families face many more barriers to educational opportunity. Public schools are often their only educational option. As my colleagues and I showed in Priced Out of Public Schools, they also face scarcity in public schooling opportunities due to a combination of where affordable rental housing is located and how school district boundaries are drawn.

Thompson argues for a national “abundance agenda” to address problems created by scarcity. In K-12 education, that could mean an expansion of educational opportunities, particularly for lower-income families.

There are systemic ways to achieve abundance in educational opportunities. We could tackle reforms to update district boundaries more frequently — similar to how we engage in redistricting for legislative seats — to provide better, more equitable access to public K-12 schooling opportunities. Other efforts could expand access to nonpublic education options, as 18 states did in 2021.

Reformers can also expand educational opportunities within the public school system more incrementally through public charter schools. A recently-announced $750 million grant-making effort to support the expansion of public charter schools could serve as a catalyst for a broader reinvigoration of the charter sector, as my colleague Andy Rotherham notes in his latest for The 74.

For too long, families have not had access to the schooling options their children deserve. An “abundance agenda” for educational opportunity has the potential to garner support from the left, right, and center of our increasingly polarized nation and, more importantly, to provide children with equitable access to the public schools they deserve.

ICYMI: 2020-21 Notable Field Research Roundup

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Aside from the requisite holiday gatherings and family time (be it virtual or in person), the end of any year is often a time to tie up loose ends and, if you’re lucky, to catch up on things you might have missed. As we close the books on 2021 — yet another year marred by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — Bellwether did some of that work for you. 

If, like many of us, you could barely keep up with your own inbox, you might have missed some thought-provoking research in the education sector. Bellwether assembled five of the most insightful, interesting, and notable third-party research reports of 2020-21. (Think of it as an “envy list” from folks on the Bellwether team. This is work we really thought was important and kind of wish we’d done!) 

Tag this email, bookmark the page, and save it for a (snowy) day this holiday season: Here, in no particular order, are five notable research reports from 2020-21 authored by external researchers and organizations, covering everything from the impact of COVID-19 on Black students to voter trends and more. 

Black Education in the Wake of COVID-19 & Systemic Racism: Toward a Theory of Change & Action

Black Education Research Collective (BERC) | July 2021
Guided by two key questions — 1) what is the impact of COVID-19 on the education of Black children and youth in the U.S.?, and 2) how should educators and community leaders respond to calls for change and action? — BERC researchers synthesized nationwide qualitative and quantitative data collected from January to May 2021. Key findings of the mixed-method study amplify the impact of the pandemic and systemic racism on Black education, including increased racial trauma and mental health issues. Click here to learn more.

The College Payoff: More Education Doesn’t Always Mean More Earnings

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) | October 2021
Is college ‘worth it’? Georgetown’s CEW conducted an analysis exploring how career earnings vary by education attained, degrees pursued, occupation, industry, gender, race and ethnicity, and location. A key finding: more education doesn’t always equate to higher earnings. Click here to find out why.

Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology

Pew Research Center (Pew) | November 2021
Nonpartisan Pew examined the current political landscape and where voters are at. Although partisanship is a dominant factor in politics, Pew created a political typology — classifying the public into nine groups based on ideological and political values and attitudes — to do a deeper-dive analysis within partisan coalitions. The results carry interesting implications for our current political environment as well as the upcoming fall 2022 midterm elections. Click here to examine Pew’s political typology.

When “Tried and True” Advocacy Strategies Backfire: Narrative Messages Can Undermine State Legislator Support for Early Child Care Policies

Evidence for Action | July 2021
Researchers engaged more than 600 state legislators across the country to read different advocacy messages that were in favor of increasing investments in early child care and education. One message simply asked legislators to support these investments, while another message included a personal narrative about a young couple struggling to secure child care in their community. The findings demonstrate that legislators were more likely to support early child care policies when accompanied by a simple pro-policy message, over a personal narrative. Legislators who identified as conservative were less likely to support either type of message, especially messages that included a personal narrative. Findings point to the efficacy of message-testing among a broad audience in advocacy efforts. Click here to read the analysis.

Connecting Social-Emotional Development, Academic Achievement, and On-Track Outcomes 

City Year and the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education | May 2020
Researchers examined the mounting statistically significant evidence that an integrated approach to social, emotional, and academic development provides the best pathway for students to accelerate learning and graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary and adult success. As the pandemic continues, this research amplifies important, ongoing issues facing U.S. students. Click here to unpack the findings.

Are there other 2020-21 third-party studies and analyses we missed? Engage with us on Twitter @bellwethered to share your selections!

Education Innovator Q&A: Jordan Meranus on Elevating English Learners to Thrive

With the 2021-22 school year well underway across the country, we have continued to reach out to education leaders and innovators on where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what their organizations are doing to weather the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and serve students. Visit these posts for a few recent back-to-school reflections. 

Jordan Meranus is an entrepreneur with deep roots in launching and leading high-impact education companies and nonprofits. Early in his career, he co-founded Jumpstart, a national nonprofit providing intensive early literacy, language, and social-emotional programming to children in under-resourced communities in dozens of cities across the country. He was also a partner at NewSchools Venture Fund where he assisted entrepreneurs in developing innovative organizations in public education. Currently, Meranus is co-founder and CEO of Ellevation Education, a web-based ed tech software platform that provides solutions to improve educational outcomes for multilingual learners by increasing educator effectiveness and scaffolding student learning. Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham was an advisor to the company. 

I caught up with Meranus in a wide-ranging conversation focused on English Learners (ELs), how school systems and teachers can be better equipped to serve them, and how language matters. 

Yoshira Cardenas Licea:
I’m curious about what Ellevation Education does, the WHY behind your everyday work, and how it has evolved since its founding. Can you tell me a little bit about the organization? 

Jordan Meranus:
Ellevation Education is a mission-driven software company exclusively focused on multilingual learners and the educators who serve them. My co-founder (Teddy Rice) and I had been supporting and investing in education organizations and companies focused on underserved populations and struggling students for years. We’d spent significant time asking educators across the country about their most acute challenges. And we routinely heard that they were struggling to meet the needs of ELs in increasingly linguistically diverse classrooms. We quickly learned that ELs were the fastest growing population of students in the U.S., with an achievement gap wider than race and income at the time. We also quickly learned that school leaders and teachers were in dire need of resources to better serve EL students.

A decade ago, we started Ellevation Education to address this problem at scale. Our work ensures that educators have the tools to meet the needs of ELs and multilingual learners. Initially, we focused on school administrators, but have since grown to directly serve classroom teachers and EL students. 

YCL:
What does that work look like in practice in a classroom setting?

JM:
Today, we have about 150 Ellevation team members serving over 1,100 school districts in nearly every state in the country. Our work initially focused on administrators, with early products centered on data, workflows, and the challenges that pull educators away from instructional preparation and time for intervention. We soon realized, though, that to truly address EL needs, we had to expand to serve teachers and students. So we launched Ellevation Strategies to help classroom teachers understand the strengths and needs of their EL students and engage them in rigorous content. More recently, we launched Ellevation Math to help EL students develop the vocabulary and academic language needed to access content and actively engage in classroom instruction.

For example, let’s say you’re an eighth grade math teacher planning a lesson on parabolas. If you have EL students, it’s highly likely that they may not fully grasp some of the language and vocabulary that you’ll use in your lesson (e.g., vertex, slope, symmetry). How might that impact their experience in your classroom? Ellevation Math provides short lessons to teach students that vocabulary so that they’ll be able to participate and complete the rigorous standards-based work.

YCL:
What do you identify today as the biggest challenge facing ELs?

JM:
You can’t boil it down to ONE challenge, it’s too multifaceted. 

First, I think it’s important to realize that ELs have to do double the work. It’s an oft-used phrase but ELs have to learn content and language — all while navigating the social and cultural world in their schools and communities. Put yourself in their shoes, it’s a lot to ask of K-12 students. 

Next, layer in the fact that many families of EL children may lack a deep understanding of education in the U.S., especially now navigating complicated choices around schooling amid the pandemic. 

Mix in challenges with inadequate teacher training for educators — who increasingly have to be a teacher of both language and content — and there are enormously unmet professional development needs. Recent research that we’re seeing shows that teachers are increasingly worried about whether they and their schools are effectively meeting EL needs. Something like 64% of teachers don’t feel they’re getting enough PD to accomplish this.

This mix of EL student challenges and teacher training constraints adds up to a very challenging environment for 5+ million EL students in U.S. schools. 

YCL:
As a former teacher in rural south Texas with a high EL student population, I can’t imagine teaching in this context. What does the average person not appreciate about ELs?

JM:
I love the question, and it’s something I think about a lot. Either because of how the press covers this student population or test scores, most people approach this question thinking about deficits and not about the assets EL students bring to the classroom: 

  • ELs are well on their way to being multilingual, which the majority of native-born Americans won’t be. Participating in immersive language programs is something a lot of parents clamor for.
  • ELs demonstrate perseverance and grit on a daily basis, including many whose families endured obstacles and trauma to get to this country.
  • Most people don’t fully appreciate that being an EL is a moment in time. With the right supports, schooling, interventions, and trained teachers, ELs are on a path to being proficient and achieving outcomes as strong or often stronger than their non-EL peers.

Language is important. We had a recent guest on our Highest Aspirations podcast who’s started using the language of the “emergent bilingual.” It’s asset based, and focuses on where EL students are heading. Compare that to the standard “limited English proficient” language that’s so deficit based. These kinds of changes matter and I hope more and more that we’ll start to see a powerful shift in language around ELs.

YCL:
We think a lot about school culture at Bellwether in our work with educators and clients. What do you think are key steps more schools should take to create an inclusive school culture for ELs?

JM:
It’s critical to recognize and use the asset-based mindset we were just discussing. Community and family engagement are also critical levers to learn what assets and challenges families and EL students bring, and to welcome them and better serve them in a school setting. We also have to create language-rich environments: EL students work best when engaging with teachers and peers and in project-based learning with a lot of opportunities to practice. Teacher preparation is also a huge piece of a good school culture for ELs so that those welcoming and engaging classrooms are commonplace within a school. I also think students need to be and feel seen. As a society, we need to do much more to preserve and showcase students’ home languages and cultures.

YCL:
We’ve been through a lot since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. What are you most worried about?

JM:
As EL students achieve proficiency, they’re reclassified. If this happens by the eighth grade, ELs tend to achieve on par with or above their non-EL peers. I worry about those ELs who don’t get reclassified before eighth grade or high school. Data show that students who are not reclassified by this time are much more likely to fall further behind, be less engaged, and even drop out.

Prior to the pandemic, there was increasing evidence that the number of long-term ELs, or those that do not get reclassified, was on the rise. I’m concerned that COVID-19 has exacerbated this by depriving kids of in-person school environments and critical opportunities to experience rich language learning. I think by the end of 2021, we might see concerning numbers that require a larger focus on investing resources to ensure that these long-term EL students don’t drop out and are being adequately supported and engaged in their learning.

YCL:
On the flip side of that question, what excites you about Ellevation’s work and about EL students?

JM:
We’re clearly in an incredible period of disruption, with educators, families, and children — especially EL students — feeling a great deal of sustained stress. Ellevation’s mission, products, and services are designed to alleviate some of that stress. We’re well positioned to be a terrific asset for schools, educators, and students to meet this moment. 

YCL:
In closing, what personally calls you to this work?

JM:
Growing up, I knew what it was like to feel and live in a tumultuous environment and to feel vulnerable. That’s what led me to focus in part on education. I also worked at a residential camp for kids with severe emotional disturbances (victims of abuse and neglect). The experience gave me a unique window into how profoundly these kids were struggling but also the tremendous assets these same kids possess. They needed adults and communities to be there for them. So I helped start Jumpstart and focused my work on how to ensure we do the best we can to support struggling students in underserved communities. Ellevation gives me the opportunity to marry each of these things — focusing on underserved students, building a mission-oriented organization and team, and having an opportunity to impact and serve EL students and teachers — every day.

YCL:
Having grown up in a Spanish-speaking family and teaching ELs, thank you for your work.

Revisiting Missing in the Margins: Recommendations for Resource Allocation

In October 2020, Missing in the Margins: Estimating the Scale of the COVID-19 Attendance Crisis estimated that as many as 3 million K-12 students across the country were at high risk of experiencing minimal or no educational access from spring through fall 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Fast-forward one year later, and available data on 2020-21 enrollment, attendance, and engagement suggest massive missed learning opportunities, especially among the most marginalized students.

Changes to practices, policies, and resource allocation can help support all students — especially those with limited access to learning opportunities in 2020-21. In this concluding third blog in a series, we expand upon our updated practice and policy recommendations for 2021 by focusing the necessary resources to fund these changes.

Sufficient funding is key in order for schools to implement effective practices to meet the needs of students with disrupted learning experiences. Additional funding is also a key component of implementing significant policy change. As leaders and policymakers seek to encourage and implement new practices and policies, they must also allocate sufficient, sustainable resources to support the work underway. 

Thankfully, flexible federal stimulus funds of more than $120 billion, directed at districts and states based on the low-income students they serve, could go a long way toward meeting that funding need. To put this amount of money in context, this infusion of federal funds represents almost 16% of pre-pandemic annual nationwide K-12 education expenditures.* 

Some of the few requirements for district spending of federal stimulus funds include:

  • At least 20% must be used to address learning loss, including academic, social, and emotional needs.
  • Funding should especially target subgroups of students who are more likely to be deeply affected by COVID-19 disruptions, such as students experiencing homelessness, and students in foster care. 

Although stimulus funds might make districts feel flush in the short term, there are still reasons to be concerned in the longer term. There are many competing priorities for using these funds, like expanding technological capacity for remote learning or renovating facilities. Some districts are simply relying on stimulus funds to make up for shortfalls in state and local funding. And, in 2024, stimulus funds will expire

Also, using stimulus funds for direct student supports can be complicated because many of the best practices are people- and relationship-driven, which might require investments in new staff and more staff time. Students with disrupted educational experiences benefit greatly from strong relationships with a caring adult with the means to help them navigate support services, but if districts fund new staff positions with time-limited federal funds, those positions could be at-risk when funding expires.

Providing the services students need, while still planning for a sustainable financial future, means that schools and districts should lean on collaborative models. Community-based organizations with complementary skill sets could help expand schools’ capacity for non-instructional support without expanding in-school staff. For example, a homeless-services organization could partner with a school district to make sure students and families experiencing homelessness have their basic needs met. Or a community-based college support organization can supplement the work of school-based counselors. These partnerships take work to be aligned and effective, but for students with deeper needs they can be transformational — particularly if they can evolve in response to changing student needs over time. 

As district leaders make school spending plans for learning recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic, state and federal policymakers also have work to do. Many traditional state and federal funding streams are not as flexible as stimulus funds, and now could be the perfect time to re-examine state school funding policies with greater equity in mind. Meanwhile, advocates at the local and state level can help support students at the margins by demanding transparency about local and state spending to support learning recovery, and keeping the pressure on districts and states to put the needs of students with the greatest unmet needs front and center. Policymakers must plan now to help schools avoid a fiscal cliff as stimulus funds expire, to allocate resources where they can be most effective for students, and to keep effective local work going long after stimulus funds run out. 

To read the Revisiting Missing in the Margins blog series in its entirety, click here

*In 2017-18, total U.S. K-12 spending across local, state, and federal governments totaled over $760 billion annually.