Tag Archives: Education equity

How Much Do You Know About Rural Education? Part 2: Navigating the Digital Chasm

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Dr. Jared Bigham offers a four-part series for Ahead of the Heard that amplifies issues facing rural school districts, students, and communities. He will highlight key challenges, explore innovative partnerships, and dispel rural myths along the way. Read more posts in this series here.

For the past decade, the issue of high-speed connectivity has gained exponential importance but still resides at the edges of most organization strategic plans or at the top of the want list vs. the need list. The pandemic has laid bare inequities that persist with broadband access in small and remote towns across the country, sparking a renewed sense of urgency to address the digital divide.

Rural America is just now coming out of an infrastructure overhaul that focused primarily on getting schools high-speed connections to meet the minimum requirements for online state assessments. A great deal of money and planning has gone into connecting geographically remote and/or financially challenged rural schools for end-of-year testing purposes, with the ancillary benefit of increasing the capacity for learning experiences for students the entire school year. However, even with a monumental push to get rural schools connected, 12 million students across the country were unable to complete schoolwork because they lacked home internet access the year before COVID-19.

When the pandemic hit the U.S., access and opportunity gaps were on stark display in rural communities and the digital divide looked more like a digital chasm. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 on Brown v. Board of Education, it stated that, “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” In the case of rural students’ education during the pandemic, “equal terms” equates to access to high-speed connectivity.

There’s an old saying, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” This embodies the situation many rural districts across the country have found themselves in. Sure, there were many families without high-speed access before the pandemic a Pew study found that 28% of rural homes have no broadband connection at home but it didn’t become an equal terms issue until schools went to full virtual and/or hybrid instruction. If there has been even a millimeter of a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that it forced an expedited set of additional resources and innovative approaches into this space.

For those unfamiliar with rural geography across our country, you might be asking why hotspots weren’t just parachuted into homes like they were in many urban and suburban school districts. The quick answer: primarily because of an area of mountainous topography that blocks cell signals, or an area of flat topography that is too far removed from the nearest cell tower. Rural communities are located in a diverse array of remote terrains.

People often assume that these communities can simply run fiber (or “glass” as we call it in rural areas), to homes with all the state and federal money that has been coming down the pipe. Again, geography is laughing at us. In urban and suburban areas, fiber lines for the most part can be installed in existing infrastructure. In many rural areas, it takes completely new excavation work, and, as one contractor summed it up, “Yeah, you can get glass to run to the end of that road for a million dollars…as long as you don’t hit rock.” 

Despite the many hurdles, rural districts across the country do what they normally do: take a self-reliant approach for stopgap measures and then innovate for long-term solutions. 

A common stopgap measure last spring was to create community hotspots where families could park and connect for students to download and upload assignments as well as participate in virtual instruction. As far as emergency measures go, it’s not a bad scenario. However, it’s tough enough to learn fractions as a kid, doing it virtually from the back seat of a car without heat or air is a recipe for frustration. On top of the other academic challenges that come with being in a low socioeconomic demographic, here is an additional stressor like none before.   

Eventually, districts started pushing into new areas of innovation, and companies, nonprofits, and other organizations started collaborating to address the issue head-on. One company, Learning Blade, designed a free app for its resources called Learning Blade Backpack that allows students to access robust STEM and Career and Technical Education resources at home by downloading information and assignments when they connect to a hotspot, and then uploading their work at a later date when they next connect. 

A few months ago, Amy Polanowski spoke about the stress her rural, unconnected students felt and how she utilized Backpack to help. Polanowski teaches middle school in Sullivan, Missouri and has been using the Backpack app since last Fall. “Students without internet connection at home stress over being able to complete work on time,” she said. “With the Backpack app, they can download their mission and work anywhere at any time, which helps relieve that stress. Giving intermittent access to connectivity isn’t enough. Students need to be able to also leverage time to learn when they are not connected.” 

Sheila Boyington, CEO of Learning Blade characterized the app as an “equity play. “At the beginning of COVID-19, we knew the digital divide was only going to get bigger. No matter how much stimulus came out, it would take time to have connectivity at all homes,” she said.

Understanding that bringing connectivity to all rural families won’t happen overnight is a common perspective across these communities. Wes Brownfield is executive director of the Arizona Rural Schools Association and superintendent of Chevelon Butte Elementary School District. “I knew the need was not going to be something we could work on incrementally. Strategies would have to be operationalized now,” said Brownfield. To that end, he helped organize The Final Mile Project, a collaborative effort to bring high-speed connectivity to rural families across seven Arizona school districts by leveraging joint resources. “We had a broadband superhighway to our schools but getting internet into homes amounted to tin cans and string in many cases,” according to Brownfield. 

As is common when creating connectivity infrastructure in rural communities, economy of scale becomes an issue. The smallest number The Final Mile Project is working on connects six families in one area, and the largest connects 55 families. These numbers combined would be less than most apartment complexes or a single subdivision in urban and suburban areas, which creates challenges when vying for grant dollars. “Granular successes will eventually aggregate to real change,” according to Brownfield, summing up his team’s pragmatic approach to bridging the digital divide.

These are just some of the ways rural districts are attacking the digital chasm, but there many other examples of rural district innovation, including datacasting, building cell towers on school property, installing micro cell towers, and using the Citizens Broadband Radio Service. No matter the strategy, what shines through across rural communities and school districts is a fierce self-reliance to tackle problems and come up with innovative solutions. “If you’re willing to take the long view and dedicate yourself to internet equity, you can get almost anything done as long as you don’t care who cuts the ribbon,” said Brownfield, summing things up in clear terms.

Dr. Jared Bigham is a fourth-generation rural educator. He serves as senior advisor on Workforce & Rural Initiatives for the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, is board chair of the Tennessee Rural Education Association, and is active in the National Rural Education Association. He is the proud husband to an assistant principal and father of four children.

Media: “Boston schools achievement gap remains wide along racial lines — a troubling sign” in Boston Herald

In February, Bellwether published “An Uneven Path: Student Achievement in Boston Public Schools 2007-2017.” Boston was in the midst of a leadership transition, and we advised the next superintendent to make tough choices in support of equity. Last week, the Boston School Committee chose Dr. Brenda Cassellius, former state superintendent in Minnesota, as the district’s next leader.

Chad Aldeman and I recently spoke to the Boston Herald about the findings in our report, and the challenges Dr. Cassellius will face in her new role:

“Black and Hispanic students have not been making enough progress,” said Chad Aldeman, senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit that recently student achievement in Boston Public Schools, “It’s a troubling sign.”

BPS risks losing its status as a national leader in urban K-12 education if it doesn’t launch innovative strategies to address flattening testing scores, the experts added. “If they want Boston to continue to be a stronger-than-average district, they have to focus on black, Hispanic, and low-income students,” said Bonnie O’Keefe, an associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners.

Bellwether board member Paul Reville also weighed in on Boston’s achievement gaps:

“It’s clearly a major challenge for Boston moving forward,” said Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Paul Reville, a former Massachusetts secretary of education. “They still have a long way to go.”

For more detail on Boston Public Schools’ progress and performance in the past ten years, take a look at “An Uneven Path.” Or read the full Boston Herald piece here.

Straight Talk for City Leaders on Unified Enrollment: A Q&A with Shannon Fitzgerald

In many cities across the country, school application and enrollment processes are built like high-stakes obstacle courses, where families with the most time and resources at their disposal tend to come out on top. A unified enrollment system is one way that cities with broad school choice have tried to level the playing field, and make enrollment processes less burdensome and more equitable for families. In cities like D.C., Denver, and New Orleans that have unified enrollment systems, families submit a single application and rank the charter and district schools of their choice. Then each student is matched to a single school via an enrollment algorithm.

These systems can decrease inequities by making enrollment processes for families easier to accomplish and harder to “game,” maximizing students’ likelihood of getting into their top choice schools. Unified enrollment can also decrease budget instability for schools caused by unexpected enrollment changes in the beginning of the year. For city leaders, data from unified enrollment systems can reveal important lessons about family demand for specific schools or programs. But that does not mean there are no risks, speed bumps, or potential problems. There is a lot that has to happen behind the scenes to create an enrollment system that meets families’ needs and avoids unintended consequences.

Shannon Fitzgerald knows what it takes to implement a lasting unified enrollment system. She was one of the first in the country to do it as the Director of Choice and Enrollment for Denver Public Schools from 2008-2013. Now, as an enrollment systems consultant, she works with other cities and districts who are interested in reforming their enrollment systems. I talked with her recently about the lessons she’s learned along the way and her advice for city leaders.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you define a unified enrollment system? What differentiates unified enrollment from other enrollment approaches?

I think about enrollment systems as a spectrum. On one end, you have “wild west” systems. Nothing is coordinated: families have to go all over the place and apply to each school individually, and there are different deadlines. You have students enrolled in multiple schools — who knows where they will show up in September? On the other end, you have truly unified enrollment systems like Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans. They include all public schools in the city, district and charter; they have common tools, a common timeline, and a common application; and every student gets matched to a single school of their choice. In between those two ends of the spectrum are about 50,000 different variations.

Continue reading

Looking at Leadership to Combat Teacher Turnover and Sustain School Improvement

This is the third in a series of blog posts and resources to offer lessons and reflections for school leaders, district officials, and education policymakers using data and stories from the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. The series is supported by a grant from the McKnight Foundation.

Photo by Eric E. Castro via Flickr

In recent blog posts, I’ve been looking at the impact of teacher turnover on school improvement efforts and ways schools, states, and districts can address this challenge. But what about turnover in leaders, such as principals, district leaders, and superintendents? Leaders can have a huge impact on the culture, priorities, and strategies of their schools and districts. Recent studies have found that principals had a significant effect on teachers’ overall job satisfaction, and that the quality of administrative support could strongly influence teachers’ decisions to leave or stay. Given this reality, efforts to address teacher turnover should not overlook leaders.

Despite the demonstrated importance of strong, stable leadership, leaders in urban schools and districts continue to turn over at high rates. Leadership turnover can be caused by some of the same factors as teacher turnover, such as retirement, performance issues, or competitive offers elsewhere. A single change in leadership can reverberate through a school or district, for better or worse.

Principals in the Pathway Schools Initiative were fairly stable over the course of the Initiative. Of seven schools participating in the Initiative, three retained the same principal throughout all five years of the initiative, and two experienced only one change in principal leadership. This is unusual for high-poverty, urban schools, where principals turn over even faster than teachers. Nationally, 22 percent of public school principals and 27 percent of principals in high-poverty public schools leave annually. Two schools in the initiative, however, experienced more frequent leadership transitions — including one elementary school that had a new principal almost every year of the initiative.

Even when principals stayed the same, changes in district leadership had an impact on schools. All three of the traditional school districts in the Initiative changed superintendents and reorganized district leadership at least once. This is not surprising based on national trends: The average urban superintendent lasts barely three years, and the role of an urban superintendent is increasingly high pressure and politicized. These people were key liaisons between the Initiative partners, schools, and districts, and every time a district leader changed, it took time for their successors to build working relationships and learn about the Initiative.

Churn in district leadership is also frequently accompanied by changes in district strategies, and teachers and principals in Pathway Schools reported to SRI International evaluators that this sometimes hindered progress at the schools. Especially in the larger districts involved in the Initiative, Pathway Schools had to negotiate for the flexibility to pursue their goals differently from what other elementary schools in their districts were doing. With changes in leadership and accompanying changes in district strategies, this process had to be repeated, creating potential uncertainty and mixed messages for principals and teachers.

A change is leadership isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a district or a school — like teachers, leaders change for all kinds of reasons. Still, districts should take every possible step to retain high-performing and high-potential leaders where they can, and to simultaneously plan for succession and create a pipeline of new leaders from within their staff. Potential solutions to consider include: building a complete district framework for principal talent management, instituting school leader residencies to create effective new leaders, and facilitating smooth transitions with extra support for new leaders. Schools and students shouldn’t start from scratch when leadership changes occur.

Local Turnover Challenges Require Locally Tailored Solutions

This is second in a series of blog posts and resources to offer lessons and reflections for school leaders, district officials, and education policymakers using data and stories from the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. The series is supported by a grant from the McKnight Foundation.

Evidence show that high teacher turnover is hurting long-term improvement efforts in many urban schools, and yet the problem remains. To ensure improvement efforts actually take hold, education leaders at the state, district, and school levels must pay closer attention to teacher turnover, examine its causes within their own local context, and develop strategies that will keep highly effective teachers in schools where they are needed most.

Developing effective strategies to retain great teachers in high-need schools first requires confronting some common misconceptions about teacher turnover. First, there is not a nationwide, generalized teacher shortage, and the profession is not shrinking. In fact, the teaching workforce grew by 13 percent over the past four years, while the student population grew by only two percent. Instead, there are acute teacher shortages in specific geographic areas, districts, and subject areas. Second, while turnover tends to be highest in urban, high-poverty schools, not all high-poverty schools have high turnover, which means this challenge can be overcome. Third, higher turnover rates in high-poverty schools are not primarily because of students’ needs. Teachers who leave their jobs because of dissatisfaction often rank organizational factors in schools — such as administrative support, salaries, lack of time, and lack of faculty influence in school decisions — higher than student factors when explaining their decision to leave.

A local program in Minnesota’s Twin Cities is an interesting case study for turnover variation. Minnesota’s teacher workforce is growing overall, though not as much as national trends: Minnesota teachers grew by 5.8 percent in the past seven years, compared with 3.2 percent growth in the number of students. But, like national trends, in many geographic areas and teaching specialty areas, hiring and retaining effective teachers can be extremely difficult. In the first post in this series, I looked at a subset of elementary schools in Minnesota’s Twin Cities that participated in the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. These schools’ populations included high concentrations of students who are low-income (89%), students of color (91%), and dual language learners (50%). As I summarized, teacher turnover varied from year to year and between schools. Even within the small sample of the Pathway schools, some schools had little to no turnover some years, or turnover on par with state averages. The relationship between teacher turnover and student achievement was inconsistent, nevertheless, turnover affected school improvement efforts. 

The chart below, from the Minnesota Department of Education Teacher Supply/Demand report, can give some very broad ideas of why teachers leave the teaching profession or move to another school district in Minnesota, but it provides a limited picture because it does not include teachers who change schools within their districts or change roles within their schools. Moreover, teachers’ reasons for leaving likely look very different in the high-poverty, urban elementary schools in the Pathway Schools Initiative than they do statewide.

Some of the most common reasons for leaving, according to the data available here, are personal reasons, retirement, and interdistrict competition. 40 percent of teachers leave for “personal,” or “unknown” reasons. National data suggest common “personal reasons” could include things like caring for one’s own children or dissatisfaction with school leaders and school culture. Not all these challenges can be solved completely at the school or district level, but some can. Some promising solutions, drawn mostly from national examples, and inspired by conversations with stakeholders involved in the Initiative, are:

  • District Policy Incentives: It’s important for larger districts to consider how their staffing policies can impact teacher assignment and transfers, especially for high-need schools. Teacher contracts and district policies can sometimes encourage teachers to transfer schools within a district, prioritize transfers and placements based on seniority with no input from principals, or set up incentives for effective teachers to transfer away from high-poverty schools. Different district policies and contracts could account for some of the turnover differences among the Pathway schools.
  • School Strategy, Culture, and Leadership: School culture, school strategy, and school leadership are huge contributors to teachers’ job satisfaction in any school. District and school leaders need strategies and tools to track the experiences that teachers and students have in schools and identify implications for turnover, student achievement, and improvement efforts. Taking surveys of school climate or culture offer one way to uncover problems before they cause turnover. The Initiative required participating districts to use the 5Essentials school culture survey across all their schools — and these revealed a wide range of teacher satisfaction and experiences. These results could open up a dialogue that gets to the heart of some stubborn turnover challenges.
  • Targeted Incentives: 16 percent of Minnesota teachers leave their jobs for a teaching job in another school district. Minnesota district hiring leaders say salaries and a competitive teacher job market are their top barriers to teacher retention. To address this challenge, other district leaders could consider various kinds of performance-based pay structures and targeted incentives to retain high-performing teachers in high-need schools and subjects. Action is especially needed to recruit and retain highly effective teachers in hard-to-staff roles, like special education teachers and specialists in teaching English language learners.
  • Hiring and Induction Supports: Hiring and induction supports can be key to breaking cycles of high turnover. Evidence from other school districts suggests that induction supports for newly hired teachers can increase student achievement and improve retention, and in recent years many large districts have reformed their hiring practices to put more decision-making power at the school level.

There won’t be just one solution for teacher turnover in the Pathway Schools, or other schools struggling with teacher retention. But, to move forward, school and district leaders must better understand reasons for turnover and target appropriate solutions, including, but not limited to, targeted incentives; hiring supports; district policies; and school strategy, culture, and leadership, with a strong grounding in school-by-school data.