Tag Archives: state education policy

Better Buses: Three Ways to Improve School Transportation, in Under 3 Minutes

When I was a high school teacher, my sophomore and junior students routinely told a tired joke: What’s big, yellow, and full of freshmen? The school bus. There was a stigma attached to riding the school bus. For students who fancied themselves on the cusp of adulthood, the school bus was a vestige of childhood, and they avoided it if they could.

That attitude contrasts with the reverence my own elementary school-aged children have for the bus. All things transit fascinate them, but the school bus holds a special status. It is as magical as Ms. Frizzle, and the bus driver is a superhero. She arrives each day with a big smile and a wave, greeting her tiny charges with their oversized backpacks, and maneuvering her iconic vehicle down darkened city streets.

These conflicting views of school buses symbolize a conflict in school transportation. School buses and school transportation are at once a nostalgic and iconic symbol of American education and a challenged system that often fails to serve students, schools, and communities as well as it could.

Today we release “Better Buses: Three Ways to Improve School Transportation, in Under 3 Minutes,” a short animated video that encapsulates the challenges and complex considerations we must grapple with to improve our school transportation systems so that they meet the needs of students, families, schools, and communities. Watch it below:

This video pairs well with Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century, our 2016 paper which dug into the structure, function, successes, and challenges of school transportation systems across the country.

In spite of dramatic changes in transportation (e.g., Uber, Hybrids and electric vehicles, and self-driving cars?) and in schools themselves, school transportation systems haven’t changed much in decades. Addressing school transportation challenges isn’t simple, though. These systems must balance competing, important priorities and interests like student safety, cost, equity, environmental impact, and other factors.

Please watch, enjoy, and share. And Magic School Bus fans should look for the subtle homage to Ms. Frizzle’s world.

Supporting Teachers and Leaders in Minnesota and Beyond

Minnesota is a fascinating place when it comes to education. Student populations are increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse, especially in the Twin Cities. Overall child outcomes have been historically high relative to national averages, but wide and persistent achievement gaps reveal unacceptable disparities by race, ethnicity, immigration status, and income. Local education leaders, funders, and advocates are increasingly seeking change in policy and educational programs. In this environment, it’s interesting to zoom in on work happening at a local level, to identify lessons that can be applied elsewhere in Minnesota, and in other schools, states, and cities.

Today we release Supporting Minnesota Educators, a new website from Bellwether Education Partners. This project began by looking at the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative, which aimed to improve pre-K to third grade reading outcomes in seven schools in Minnesota’s Twin Cities via formative assessments, educator professional development, and leadership supports for principals. McKnight and its partners began with bold ambitions to support significant improvements in student learning, but those gains haven’t materialized in most participating schools. These results show how complicated school improvement work can be, and also point to how policymakers can better set schools and principals up for success.

In examining evaluation results and speaking with initiative stakeholders, we found three key lessons that can inform future efforts:

  1. Foster stability among educators and leaders to allow for instructional and school culture changes to take hold
  2. Build leadership teams in schools focused on improving teaching and learning
  3. Improve training for educators so they have the knowledge and skills to provide excellent instruction for all students

Supporting Minnesota Educators expands on all three of these lessons, and brings together results from the Initiative with national research and resources. The website will also serve as a home for more resources to come on these topics in the year ahead – you can sign up for updates here. I hope this website will be a helpful resource for leaders, teachers, and advocates and generate conversation about pre-K to third grade and school improvement in Minnesota and elsewhere.

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.

How Teacher Turnover Hurt Improvement Efforts in These Minnesota Schools

This is first 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.

As students come back to school this fall, many will find teachers and principals they’ve never seen before. About 16 percent of teachers leave the profession or change schools every year, and that number is even higher in high-poverty schools, urban schools, and low-performing schools.

How does teacher turnover affect students and schools? The research is not always clear. Several studies in urban districts show a general negative association between turnover and student achievement. One study found negative teacher turnover effects spread even to students with veteran teachers, suggesting turnover can impact schoolwide achievement and morale. But a certain amount of turnover is inevitable, and in some cases, staff changes can improve student scores by exiting ineffective teachers or allowing teachers to take on new leadership roles in schools.

The experience of the Pathway Schools Initiative, a seven-year effort to improve third grade literacy in seven Minnesota elementary schools, sheds further light on how turnover can hurt the momentum of school improvement efforts. With the support of the McKnight Foundation, schools participating in the initiative worked with the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute (UEI) to implement PreK-3rd improvement efforts.

All seven Pathway schools were urban (located in the Twin Cities metropolitan area), relatively low performing, and predominantly low-income. But rates of teacher turnover varied widely between schools and from year to year. The graph below shows the differences in PreK-3rd grade teacher turnover among four participating schools over a two-year period.

Ultimately, schools in the Initiative struggled to make significant progress in improving PreK-3rd grade instruction and literacy outcomes. An independent evaluation conducted by SRI International identified teacher turnover as one of the major challenges, among many, facing schools in their professional development and instructional change efforts. Evaluators also found some cases where newly hired teachers were associated with lower student performance, but results were inconsistent by school and by year.[1] Overall, professional development was a huge component of the initiative, and when large numbers of teachers left, that institutional knowledge and investment left too. As one teacher told evaluators, “We’ve had so much turnover among the staff that we’re reinventing the wheel every year.”

Data collected by SRI International, from SRI 2016-17 Pathway Schools Initiative Annual Report. Note: Data were not available in this time period for every school in the Initiative.

School improvement efforts like the Pathway Schools Initiative, which focused on assessment, instruction, and professional development, need a certain level of stability to succeed. But chronic educator turnover in high-need schools should not be viewed as an inevitable reality. In blogs to come in this series, we’ll continue digging into data and stories from these schools to look at the impacts of teacher and leader turnover and examine potential action steps schools, districts, and states can take to ensure turnover is not a roadblock to school improvement.

– – –

[1] Schmidt, R.A., Chen, W., Torre, D., Woodworth, K., and Golan, S. (2017, April). The Role of Student and School Characteristics in Predicting Early Literacy Gains. Poster Presentation at the annual conference of the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), Austin, TX, and Pathway Schools Initiative Phase 1 Case Study

3 Reasons Why Teacher Pensions Are Critical to School Funding Equity

Money spent on public teacher pensions is often left out of analyses of school finance equity. Rather than a being seen as an issue affecting students’ education, pensions are often viewed as a budgetary dilemma for state legislators. Yet, both of these approaches overlook the effect pension spending can have on increasing the funding gap between schools based on students’ race.

Last week I released a new report, “Illinois’ Teacher Pension Plans Deepen School Funding Inequities,” that shows just how much pension spending in Illinois affects the state’s finance equity. The results are startling and reveal that teacher pensions are yet another example of how states and districts underinvest in the education of low-income students, and the educations of black and Hispanic students.

Here are three key reasons why teacher pensions should be thought of as a key part of the push to ensure educational equity:

  1. Class-based gaps grow by more than 200 percent after accounting for pension spending. Teacher salaries comprise the lion’s share (roughly 80 percent) of school expenditures. And, unfortunately, the most experienced and highest paid teachers are unevenly distributed across schools. In Illinois the salary gap between the schools serving the highest and lowest concentrations of low-income students is on average around $550 per pupil. After factoring in pensions, however, the disparity jumps to over $1,200 per student.
  2. Race-based gaps increase by more than 250 percent after accounting for pension spending. In Illinois, the average teacher salary-based gap is $375 between schools serving predominantly white students and those serving predominantly nonwhite students. But after accounting for money spent on teacher pensions, the inequity increases to nearly $950 per pupil.
  3. States are investing more money in their pensions (because they’re in significant debt), and that will widen the gaps even further. From an educational equity point of view, the Illinois pension system is the problem. Since pensions are paid as a percentage of teachers’ salaries, which are unevenly distributed across the state, funneling more money into the system may help to decrease unfunded liabilities, but it also will result in even larger funding disparities.

Illinois is widely considered to operate one of, if not the most, inequitable school finance systems in the country. Yet, many prior analyses underestimated the problem because they have not always included money spent on teacher pensions. This problem is not unique to Illinois. On the contrary, pensions will increase funding disparities in any state with an uneven distribution of teachers. The effect will likely be greater and more closely resemble Illinois in states, such as Missouri and New York, where large urban cities operate separate pension funds.

There are a couple of steps states can take to mitigate the increase in education funding disparities due to pension spending. Those states with more than one retirement system should consider folding the district plans into the state fund. The state has greater resources and almost always contributes to the pension fund at a higher rate. This would ensure that schools in the district — which disproportionately serve low-income students and students of color — receive pension payments at the same rate as other schools.

As it stands now, low-income students and students of color receive far less than their fair share in school funding. To change that, states must address the structure of their teacher pension systems as well as their school funding formulas. Teacher pensions are a key feature in the broader education equity debate.