Tag Archives: innovation

5 Recommendations to Make “Learning Pods” More Equitable

Born out of desperation, families across the country are looking outside the school system for safe educational options for their children this fall, often partnering with other families to privately finance small-group learning. These “learning pods,” also referred to as “pandemic pods,” have fomented concerns about equity, since only a fraction of Americans can afford to pay a teacher out-of-pocket. 

But “learning pods” need not be inequitable. With the right blend of volunteerism, leadership, and innovation, learning pods can be a tool for increasing equity while traditional school campuses remain closed to students.

Here’s how:

Ask community spaces to donate meeting facilities

The requirements of social distancing demand more space if all students are to get a full education. Meanwhile, there are churches, temples, community centers, office buildings, and storefronts across the country currently sitting empty, as large gatherings are discouraged, adults work from home, and retailers close up shop. Many of those entities would probably be willing to donate their space to small learning communities at no cost, or in exchange for financial relief on their rent or mortgage payments. 

Expand the pool of potential teachers to enable lower student-teacher ratios

Student-to-teacher ratios are lower today than they were 30 or 40 years ago, but still higher than the number of students we might want to share a learning pod in order to minimize public health risks. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average number of students per teacher in 2017 was 16. Including the total number of instructional staff brings that ratio down significantly to 11.7. Add in teachers who have retired or left the profession, substitute teachers, students studying to become teachers, Americorps volunteers, and others and there may just be enough to create learning pods of 10 students or fewer. This could create the conditions for personalized instruction on a scale that’s often been dreamed of but never fully realized.

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What Is a School District Chief Innovation Officer? A Q&A With Margo Roen and David Saenz

Through innovation, organizations can adapt and improve their operations, but in large, complex school districts, who actually defines and pushes innovative efforts forward? 

School districts across the country are increasingly appointing a Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) or similar role to drive transformation in their school systems. What do these leaders actually do? What should superintendents consider before adding a CIO to their leadership team? 

In order to answer these questions, I reached out to Margo Roen, the Principal of Innovative Systems & Schools at Education First, and David Saenz, Senior Officer in Fort Worth (TX) Independent School District’s Office of Innovation and Transformation. (Fort Worth Independent School District is part of Texas’ System of Great Schools Network, which Margo supports, and is a current Bellwether client.)

headshots of Margo Roen, Education First, and David Saenz, Forth Worth Independent School District

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What is a Chief Innovation Officer? What are the main responsibilities and skills?

Margo Roen: CIOs (or comparable roles) are fundamentally focused on creating more high-quality, best-fit schools for the students they serve, but this can look really different across districts depending on local needs.

CIO’s typically: 1) oversee an annual cycle for using data to assess their district’s strengths and gaps; 2) actively look for options to fill those gaps through internal capacity-building or external partnerships; and 3) formalize these strategic partnerships through performance contracts that clearly lay out expectations, autonomies, and supports for partners. 

David Saenz: The work of a CIO is all about change management. They need the ability to manage various projects at once while also being able to communicate effectively with internal and external partners and stakeholders. A CIO needs to have a working knowledge of most of the major areas of a school district: school management, school finance, personnel management, operations, and grant development.

A diverse array of districts have created CIO roles in the last decade or so. How has the role evolved, if at all, since then? Continue reading

Affordable Private Schools? There’s a Will — and a Way

Surveys show that 40% of Americans would like to send their children to a private school, yet only 10% actually do so. With an average tuition of $11,450, it’s no surprise that low- and middle-income families are unable to afford private schools.

Many schools try to be more affordable to families by subsidizing costs with public funds, such as vouchers or tax-credit scholarships, or by securing private donations and endowments to provide financial aid. While these revenue sources certainly help, they are limited.

Over the past several years, a number of private schools have come up with alternative and creative ways to fund their schools without passing the buck to parents. In a new report, we’ve profiled schools and networks such as Cristo Rey and Build UP that use work-study models to make private school education more affordable while also providing skills development and asset-building opportunities for students.

Cristo Rey Network

Founded in 1996, the Cristo Rey Network* has provided low-income students with a college preparatory education complemented by their Corporate Work Study Program experience. For five days a month, students complete a full day of work in a corporate environment such as a law firm, bank, or consulting firm, doing anything from general office work to translation services.

Partnerships with local businesses not only provide students with early exposure to important professional development skills, but also significantly subsidize tuition costs. Rather than paying students wages, students’ earnings go directly to the school to supplement tuition. Half of Cristo Rey Schools’ revenue comes from the Corporate Work Study Program, and families only have to pay a small tuition ranging from $1,000 to $2,500 depending on family income. Family contributions make up 10% of Cristo Rey’s revenues, and the remaining 40% comes from fundraising or publicly funded school choice programs.

Build UP

Build UP in Birmingham, AL provides low-income students with a high school and postsecondary education along with job skills and home ownership, while also contributing to the renewal of blighted communities. Over the course of six years, Build UP students earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree while renovating abandoned homes through paid apprenticeships. Splitting time between coursework in financial literacy, entrepreneurship, and justice-based leadership, students receive an educational stipend of $15 an hour, half of which goes toward their tuition. Families are only obligated to contribute $1,500 in tuition annually.

Graduates take over the deed of an owner-occupied home and a rental property, and can earn passive income as a landlord after they meet one of the following conditions: Begin a high-wage job with a salary of at least $40,000 annually, enroll in a four-year college degree program, or launch their own business. So far, Build UP — which launched in 2018 — has grown to serve 70 students and has plans to expand even more. By gaining workforce skills and a guaranteed pathway to home ownership, Build UP seeks to create a social and economic safety net for the students and communities it serves. Continue reading

Media: “Better Ways To Measure Student Learning” in GOVERNING Magazine

I have a new piece out in GOVERNING Magazine discussing innovation in state assessments, and why local and state officials should invest in improving their assessment systems instead of cutting back. I highlight work underway in New Hampshire and Louisiana, which have both received waivers from the federal government to do something different with their tests. Just as the piece came out, Georgia and North Carolina got approval from the Department of Education for their own innovative assessment plans. But there’s a lot states can do even without special federal approval.

An excerpt of my op-ed:

“Test” has become a four-letter word in schools, as many states face political pressure to cut, minimize or deemphasize their much-maligned annual standardized assessments of student achievement. The most common complaints are that these tests do little to help teachers do their jobs well and can distract from more important aspects of teaching and learning.

But if standardized state tests aren’t useful in the classroom and aren’t informing instruction, that’s a problem that can be fixed even with current federal law mandating annual tests in math and reading. Instead of indiscriminately cutting back on statewide testing, states need to think about approaching them differently and look beyond typical end-of-year tests. Reducing investment to the barest minimum could leave students and schools worse off, without good information on achievement gaps, student growth, or college and career readiness.

Read the full piece at GOVERNING, and learn more about innovation in state assessment in “The State of Assessment: A Look Forward on Innovation in State Testing Systems,” by my colleague Brandon Lewis and me.

Should Indianapolis Be Our Ninth City?

While we were doing research for our Eight Cities project, I was frequently asked which cities we’d be including. To take the temperature of the sector, I’d turn the question into a nerdy parlor game and ask people to guess which cities they thought made the list.

Indianapolis frequently came up, but it’s not one of our eight cities. Now I’m starting to have second thoughts. Here’s why.

The criteria for being one of the eight cities in our publication was that there was a strategy put in place based on the beliefs and pillars below — and saltatory gains in achievement and reductions in gaps.

Eight Cities Beliefs and Strategic PillarsIndianapolis scores high on the first criterion. They have a school performance framework, unified enrollment system, influential quarterback organization, broad (but not universal) citywide school choice, and a high-quality authorizer.

On the academic front, things are a bit more complicated.

Indianapolis Public Schools’ (IPS) scores on the state’s iStep test have declined from 29 percent in 2014 to 23 percent in 2018. This isn’t good news for the state’s largest school district, but the city’s families are fortunate to be able to choose one of the city’s 35 charter or 20 Innovation Schools (IPS schools with charter-like autonomies).

Indy’s charter school sector, which enrolls 28 percent of students, has performed well for years in large part because the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office is an effective authorizer. For instance, in 2017, the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office had “the greatest percentage of A and B schools within their portfolio, and the lowest percentage of D and F schools” compared to other authorizers in the state. Continue reading