November 26, 2014

Edujob: Office Manager/Executive Assistant @ Bellwether

New and important role in Bellwether’s D.C. office, great chance to join our team of about 50 professionals (based across three additional offices in Chicago, Bay Area, and Boston as well). More details and how to apply here.

November 25, 2014

Joel Klein On NYC, New Book, And Education Reform

Joel Klein sits down in the Changing Lanes interview car (in this case the Eduwife’s Honda) to talk about his new book and education more generally. 

November 24, 2014

Whitmire: Charters One Day, Cords The Next…

splitterEducation policy’s renaissance man? Richard Whitmire analyzes education policy one day, and then splits a few cords of wood the next. He can also fish (see here and here). His most recent book, about the Rocketship charter network, is here.

November 21, 2014

Where To Find EduLinks

Blogging light today/week because of some other responsibilities. But many links to new reports, studies, and timely news (and a Nick Lowe/Johnny Cash tune) on my Twitter feed. And also RealClearEducation rounds it all up for you comprehensively and viewpoint neutrally twice a day. 

And if you are not already, be sure to check out Ahead of the Heard, the new Bellwether blog.

November 20, 2014

D.C. Leads The Way?

In a RealClearEducation op-ed Richard Whitmire and I take a look at D.C. as a microcosm for broader education trends in light of last week’s new charter data.

A decade ago the debate about Washington D.C.’s public schools turned on school vouchers. How many students in the city’s beleaguered schools should get a lifeline out and how many national Democrats would break ranks and support vouchers? As a new report released last Friday makes clear, the questions now are how fast can the city’s booming public charter school sector grow and how quickly — not if — the city’s traditional public schools can improve as well…

Read the entire thing here.

November 18, 2014

Edujob: Writer At New Schools For New Orleans

New Schools for New Orleans is hiring a writer for an editorial role that also includes comms functions. Great organization doing high impact work to improve the overall quality of educational options in New Orleans. You can learn more about this opportunity here (pdf).

November 17, 2014

Bill Raabe On What’s Next For Teachers Unions

Longtime NEA staffer Bill Raabe reflects on the election and what’s next.

November 14, 2014

Edujob: Vice President, Kern Family Foundation

Innovative and sunsetting (but not for a few years!) foundation seeking a vice president. Terrific role with potential for real impact. Learn more here.

November 13, 2014

Bellwether Education Blog Training – December In D.C.

On the topic of blogging, another Bellwether blogging seminar coming up, December, in Washington, D.C. The session is free and a great chance to work with leading writers and social media experts. Learn more and learn how to apply here.

November 12, 2014

New Edublog: Ahead Of The Heard


Bellwether’s new team blog, Ahead of the Heard, launches today. It’s a place for different team members to share different perspectives about what is happening in the sector.

Ahead of the Heard will be a regular home for commentary, analysis, and original insights from the Bellwether team. To learn more about the name of the blog and what you can expect to see, check out Sara Mead’s welcome post.

You’ve read smart guest posts from Bellwether team members here at Eduwonk in recent weeks — they now have Ahead of the Heard as a platform for ideas and conversations. Eduwonk will still be here but this will be a new way to get content from various analysts and practitioners on Bellwether’s team.

Up now at Ahead of the Heard are posts about how recent elections affect Preschool Development Grants, a landmark school finance ruling in Texas, and the importance of precise legislative language.

Check out the blog here. You can subscribe to get an email digest of posts by clicking here.

November 11, 2014

Aoun On Veterans And Education

At RealClearEducation Northeastern President Joseph Aoun takes a look at veterans and education.

Guest Post: Veterans Are the Education Leaders We Need

Guest post by Bellwether’s Jason Weeby: 

Less than 1 percent of Americans serve in the military and even fewer go to war. For those who do and return home safely, it is a life-altering experience that is incomprehensible to 99 percent of the people that surround them. And for all the visible and invisible wounds that service members incur, they also bring home valuable skills and a unique brand of leadership that the education sector needs.

About a year and a half ago, I launched the Sector Switcher program at Education Pioneers where we recruited mid-career military professionals for leadership roles in education nonprofits. Many of them were veterans of recent wars. Through the process, I was surprised to see how the skills and knowledge they developed during their military service align with what we need in system-level education leaders today.

Military leaders learn to complete a mission within the structure of a bureaucracy and with the people provided to them, limited resources, and significant externalities at play. They learn to be adaptable in ambiguous situations and think in terms of systems. They analyze situations methodically, put a plan in place, pursue it doggedly, and learn continuously. Many are responsible for the safe return of hundreds of subordinates and millions of dollars in equipment. But more importantly, they’re driven by a purpose larger than themselves.

Almost every single service member I talked to said they were interested in pursuing a career in education because they yearned for a job that provided them the sense of service to others they felt as part of the armed forces.

It’s Veterans Day and I want to challenge you to think beyond the platitudes and caricatures that tend to dominate the holiday and consider the tremendous leadership and management capabilities that veterans, today especially those of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, can bring to the civilian workforce when they separate from the military. I know that I’d count myself as lucky to work alongside one.

Jason Weeby is a senior fellow at Bellwether Education. 

November 6, 2014

Education Insiders On The Election

Whiteboard Advisor’s Education Insiders on impact of Tuesday’s election (pdf).

Edujob: Chief Talent Office, UP Education Network

UP Education Network, a rapidly growing non-profit school management organization focused on school turnaround (and a Bellwether client), is looking for a Chief Talent Officer to develop a vision and strategy for talent across both UP’s central office and schools as the organization scales. Great opportunity to play a critical role in helping a great education organization address one of the greatest obstacles to scaling successful education orgs. More information here.

November 5, 2014

Election Reax

Short early reax on the election. Full round-up of education election news at

- Obviously a good night for Republicans. From an education standpoint that’s not as interesting though as what a bad night it was for the teachers unions. They seemed mostly unable to influence targeted races – even in swing states. Their 0-3 record against Scott Walker post the Wisconsin collective bargaining showdown should cause some soul searching.

- That said, in strong blue states they still seem powerful on straight up education issues. The Tuck – Torlakson race is evidence of that. And that has big implications for reform and also portends more Democrat v. Democrat tension on the issue.

- Democratic pension reformers and charter school supporters won in Rhode Island. Coupled with the Massachusetts governor’s race things could get interesting on charters in the northeast. But both those races involved issues beyond education.

-In terms of direct impact on education the governor’s races and continued Republican gains in state legislatures will likely be more consequential than the power shift in Washington.

- You’ll hear some overwrought commentary in the education world in the next few days about what this means in 2016. Looking at the exits and the map Republicans still have a big hill to climb to the White House and depending how things go the next few years probably still face a tough issue environment in that campaign.

- HI pre-k went down. So did the Nevada education tax ballot initiative. Wash State class size too close to call this morning.

Update: Indy school board results.

November 4, 2014

New York City Takes A Turnaround On Turnarounds

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio rolled out his new school turnaround strategy there yesterday.  Key details TBD but it’s hard not to see it as a backing off of the more aggressive approach of the Bloomberg administration.

Key questions:

- Where has this approach worked at any scale?

- Why is it a choice between better supporting students and schools and also taking aggressive steps in cases of persistently low-performance?

- Given the evidence on turnarounds, would these resources have a greater impact if targeted at middling schools while continuing a more aggressive strategy on the lowest-performing ones?

- And, the track record on turning around the lowest-performers is pretty stark. In the context of that evidence base do those parents and children deserve more immediate relief now?

Four Things Watch For On Education On Tuesday Night

A lot going on in the midterm elections, some directly about education and some that will affect education through more general changes in politics. Here’s what I’ll be looking for on Tuesday night:

- Magnitude of Senate outcomes.  Who wins control of the Senate matters, but in a closely divided Senate a majority doesn’t get to just work its will because of how the body operates. So keep an eye on the magnitude of the outcome. Is there a GOP wave? Do Democrats outperform predications? And what’s the margin of victory in some key races, for instance New Hampshire, Colorado, or Georgia and margin of victory for safe seat moderates like Virginia’s Senator Mark Warner. (If you tune into Virginia a few House races worth watching, too, in Northern Virginia swing districts. House control isn’t at issue but those races will offer some important political clues on the nation’s mood.)

- Tuck v. Torlakson. The race for California ed chief is turing out to be a fascinating one. There is stark divide between the candidates – who are both Democrats – about the direction of education reform. It’s a microcosm of a larger point of friction within the Democratic party over education. And while Tuck was initially overmatched financially it looks like in the end both sides had enough money to get their messages out. This is a telling race in a bellwether state and definitely the headliner in the education world.

- Teachers union power.  The unions put a lot of effort into this cycle. They are going after governors they despise (Wisconsin’s Walker, Michigan’s Synder, Florida’s Scott, and Pennsylvania’s Corbett). The PA race is a gimme given Corbett’s performance in office but the others will tell a lot about their power today.  Rhode Island is also one to watch, who wins and the margin of victory in the races for governor and lieutenant governor there – both with Democratic candidates the unions are not happy with in that union stronghold – has implications for moderates and reformers in the Democratic tent.

- Ballot initiatives and school board elections. Down ballot issues should be interpreted with caution because they can be so contingent, but they still also offer some signals. In particular higher education in Oregon, taxes for education in Nevada, and a pseduo-class size initiative in Washington State bear watching. There is also a fascinating pre-K referendum in Hawaii. And  keep an eye on the school board races in Indianapolis.

November 3, 2014

Nazaryan On Klein’s Hope

Joel Klein’s book, “Lessons of Hope,” comes out this week. There will be plenty of chatter about the parts dealing with Diane Ravitch but there is a lot more to it than that (and Klein wisely gets that out of the way in the early going). In Newsweek Alexander Nazaryan turns in a long review with some nuance including a passage that sums up the cause of a lot of the intergenerational education tension today.

Missed Opportunity: The Teachers Unions Lost The Media, Now They’re Losing Everyone?

I try to make a habit of going back to op-eds and columns after a few years to see how they stood up (for instance this one does, I think this one doesthis one I’m not sure). Recently Richard Whitmire reminded me of an October 2009 op-ed we wrote for the Wall Street Journal about the changing media climate facing the teachers unions.  We revisit it today in a RealClearEducation commentary pegged to the California state education chief race.

October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween! Peter Cunningham Says ‘Boo!’ To Randi Weingarten

Former Arne Duncan hand and current EdPost leader Peter Cunningham pens (pixels?) an open letter to AFT President Randi Weingarten in Ed Week. It comes on the heels of a similar piece by TNTP’s Ari Rozman earlier in the week. 

Too much to pull quote, it covers a lot of ground. And it’s worth reading whether you agree or not because it more or less sums up what everyone in the ed policy world who is not professionally vested in the union is saying (and that includes reform skeptics who are nonetheless dismayed by the climate).  More to the point: The kabuki will continue but it seems doubtful that Arne Duncan’s former comms director would make a statement like this without clearing it with his former boss.

Also worth thinking about audience. It’s easy to forget that union leaders are elected officials, too, and so they play in different ways for different audiences. Weingarten, in particular, is very good at code-switching between strident unionist for her members while positioning herself as open-minded on reform for the nation’s elites (remember when ‘everything except vouchers is on the table’ for a DC audience?). But in today’s tech heavy environment where everything is recorded, reported, and lives online there may be a half life to that strategy. Or perhaps not. We’ll see. In any event, only the members vote so the bottom line is clearer than it was a few years ago.

October 30, 2014

Public Opinion

Morgan Polikoff with some tough (but much needed) medicine on public opinion research in education.

October 28, 2014

RealClearEducation Common Core Assessment Map

The RealClearEducation Common Core assessment map – it’s interactive and shows who is doing what – is updated to reflect recent changes. You can view it here.

October 24, 2014

Friday Fish Porn – More Bellwether!

IMG_0045Last week it was Bellwether’s Sarah Kramer with a rainbow trout. This week it’s Bellwether Associate Partner Alison Fuller with an Alaskan salmon.

Not enough fish? Then click here for an archive of Fish Porn pictures back to 2006 with an array of education figures.

October 23, 2014

In Their Own Words: First Generation College Going

First Generation is an insightful film about the challenges of being the first in your family to go to college. Earlier this year I moderated a screening of the film in Washington with a great discussion – including students in the film – of the obvious and subtle barriers to post-secondary success facing these students.  Now, this week,  RealClearEducation is featuring interviews with students in the film.  There is an overview of the issues and the film, then interviews with Cecilia Lopez, and today Soma Leio. More to come tomorrow at RealClearEducation.

October 21, 2014

Proceed with Caution—What the Fordham Institute’s School Spending Data Can’t Tell Us…Guest Post By Jennifer Schiess

Guest post by Jennifer Schiess. Schiess is an associate partner at Bellwether. If you enjoyed this summer’s guest blogging and the recent guest posts then you’ll want to watch for the launch of Bellwether’s new blog the first week of November. 

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Metro DC School Spending Explorer is custom-made for data junkies. It’s fun to click around the school and community information, particularly as a recently arrived DC metro area resident.

Others have already piled on with methodological questions—most vocally about the treatment of charter schools in the analysis. Setting those questions aside, Fordham’s companion analysis points out some sizeable disparities in spending among schools, even among schools in the same district serving very similar student populations. But while these data points may prove headline generating, ultimately what conclusions can we draw? I would argue none.

As a measure of school quality, spending is at best limited and at worst invalid. Research does link higher spending with higher achievement, particularly for some students, but with all sorts of caveats. And those caveats matter. As it turns out, the context of spending matters greatly. How schools spend money and on whom matters, and spending data without that context doesn’t tell you much.

Should we conclude that Jamestown Elementary is “better” than Spring Hill Elementary because it spent $2,300 more per student in 2011-12 serving a similar demographic? It may be better (Go, Jaguars!), but you can’t tell that from spending alone. And including some metric of student achievement with this data would provoke the kind of blunt analysis that does more harm than good. Smart people spend careers trying to answer questions about the relationship between education spending and student achievement. This tool doesn’t answer those questions.

As a measure of funding equity, the data fail to provide a valid picture as well. The site provides a snapshot of a single year’s spending which may not be reflective of any kind of pattern, particularly at the school level. Is the disparity between school A and school B a single year blip or a multi-year trend? Maybe school A’s scheduled refresh of its computer lab occurred that year, or maybe school B is offering enrichment opportunities directly leading to improved educational outcomes for its students. Those are two very different circumstances raising very different questions. Read the rest of this entry »

October 17, 2014

Teacher Rhetoric Meets Teacher Pension Reality

Education is awash in rhetoric and sloganeering – often wildly divorced from the evidence. An interesting aspect of the teacher pension issue is how much these large and complicated retirement systems bump up against much of the rhetoric we commonly hear in the teacher quality debate. Here are three ways and some basic ideas about fixes.

Turnover is bad! Teacher turnover is an evergreen concern. You, of course, want some turnover in any high-performing organization but too much is disruptive and costly. But while we hear a lot of concern about turnover – especially from the teachers unions – no one bothers to mention that today’s teacher pension systems are dependent on turnover to survive.  The basic math of pension systems is that a lot of small losers (people who leave before vesting or collecting end of career benefits) pay for the benefits of those few who survive (pdf).* At the extreme in states like Colorado only 13 percent of teachers earn full benefits. Nationwide only about one in five teachers achieves that mark. If a lot more teachers persisted these pension plans would crack financially.  They need the turnover to survive. They count on it. To be clear, I’m not saying they encourage it, just that they need a fair amount of turnover to function.

Veteran teachers are best! There is a lot of rhetoric about veteran teachers but the data show that while the returns to experience are important to a teacher’s growth they level off after a few years. Nonetheless, the wisdom and experience that 25 and 30 year veterans can bring to schools is very valuable and schools should cultivate effective veterans – especially those who want to continue giving to kids. Yet because of the way teacher pension systems work once someone earns full benefits it becomes economically against their interest to remain in the system. The data show that people respond to this incentive and retire. In other words, despite all the rhetoric about valuing veteran teachers today’s teacher retirement schemes are largely set up to push them out after a certain period of service – and despite whether they still want to teach or their school or district wants them to stay on.

Social Security is sacrosanct! Social Security demagoguery is a pretty effective political tactic and teachers union leaders are pretty good at it. But rarely is it mentioned that 40 percent of America’s teachers are not covered by Social Security. Adding to the retirement insecurity that today’s pension systems create for teachers, teachers in states or districts that do not participate also lose out on this portable and progressive social insurance program. Adding to the perversity, the reason some places don’t participate is because doing so is a bad deal for high-income earners (which teachers are not). I was talking with a state teachers pension fund leader recently who said they were against participating because their state would be sending more money to Washington than it gets back because it has so many high-income earners.  OK, but that progressively is part of what makes Social Security important and it would still be good for their members, and whatever happened to all this concern over the middle class working class Americans? Read the rest of this entry »

Friday Fish Porn – Bellwether Edition

IMG_2364Sarah Kramer is an analyst at Bellwether. She’s west coast based and decided to try her hand at fly fishing. That’s how she ended up on Oregon’s Crooked River couple of weeks ago.  Here she is with a nice rainbow trout, her very first one.

On rainbow isn’t enough for you? Of course it’s not. Click here for more than 100 pictures of education types with fish. Includes vintage images from 2006!

October 16, 2014

Small But Mighty! More Evidence Small Schools Are A Better Strategy Than You Think

New and solid MDRC evaluation of small schools in New York City. “Everybody knows” small schools were a debacle. Except the evidence keeps showing otherwise in places it was down well.  The study and five questions with a key researcher via this link.

Guestpost By Anne Hyslop: Reformers, Annual Testing is not Enough, It Must Be Statewide

Guestpost by Anne Hyslop

The ed policy world has finally agreed on something: there is too much testing. Now it may not win me any Twitter followers, but this consensus makes me nervous. Mostly because it makes hasty, extreme solutions to “over-testing” seem tenable, giving them credibility as a logical response because “this is a crisis.” Is it? Teach Plus has shown that, on average, less than 2 percent of class time is spent on mandated testing. While there are outliers, it looks like the excess is coming from the local level, not state tests. And like my colleague Andy Smarick, I see the virtues in our current testing regime, and the consequences in eliminating it without understanding what could be lost.

So I was glad that large urban districts and chief state school officers are working together to tackle issues of assessment quantity, and quality, while maintaining a commitment to annual testing. Same goes for the Center for American Progress’ work on “better, fewer, and fairer tests.” All common sense responses to the over-testing meme. And given growing numbers, especially on the political left, calling for grade-span testing (see: teachers unions, members of Congress, former President Clinton), it is welcome to see a defense of annual testing–with support from Arne Duncan, and even President Obama.

But are they really defending them? On second glance, I’m not so sure. Even the staunchest supporters of grade-span testing, like Randi Weingarten and Linda Darling-Hammond, would support giving students tests each year, just with a caveat: local assessments without consequences, not statewide. As Darling-Hammond, Gene Wilhoit, and Linda Pittenger describe in a new brief, statewide, grade-span testing merely serves to “validate” the results of the annual local tests–while eviscerating most meaningful accountability systems in the process (not a coincidence).

In other words, the right question to ask is not, “do you support annual testing?” but rather, “do you support annual statewide testing?” And despite outward appearances, CCSSO’s and CAP’s support is more tenuous. That’s because both seem ready to embrace district flexibility (read: opt-outs) of state tests, especially in “districts of innovation.” Their new report “Next-Generation Accountability Systems: An Overview of Current State Policies and Practices” includes multiple examples of district opt-out plans, from New York to Kentucky to New Hampshire, and holds them up as models for the future.

Districts of innovation” is code for districts that are exploring competency-based learning, or project-based learning, or some other (usually) technology-enabled reform to personalize students’ experiences. All good ideas, in theory. But that’s often what they are: just theories. We don’t actually know if they work yet to improve student outcomes. And in order to find out, we must evaluate them. So let’s take the Darling-Hammond approach and use statewide tests as a “validator” of what’s happening at the local level in one of these innovation hotspots.

Located in Danville, Kentucky, Bate Middle School was profiled by NPR’s Anya Kamenetz this year in a piece originally titled “In Kentucky, Students Succeed Without Tests.” Kamenetz paints the picture of an academic renaissance at Bate, which had been slapped with the “needs improvement” label by the state’s accountability system. This renaissance was possible all because Bate chose to forego administering state tests and, instead, tapped into students’ interests with project-based learning and performance-based assessments that were evaluated locally. Except, Bate didn’t get a waiver to skip the standardized tests, as first reported. Read the rest of this entry »

Rural Charter Schooling – Boon Or Bust?

Can charter schools transform rural education? Depends who you ask.

My colleague Andy Smarick sees charter schooling as a boon for rural communities. Matt Richmond thinks pretty much the opposite. It’s a good debate to have because it points up some issues that have implications outside the rural context.  And while I think Andy oversells the possibility of charters in the rural context, the responses to his argument were mostly predictable charter talking points from the usual suspects rather than any real analysis. So I’m grateful to Matt for his seriousness.

My take is that while chartering schooling does have promise for rural schools it’s probably limited in its impact and those limits point up important challenges for rural education.  This is an issue that’s especially important to me. I’ve been fortunate to live full time in rural communities for more than a decade of my life and be involved with rural schools to see the good and the challenges (plenty of both). Rural education should be important to everyone in education rather than the backwater it is. According to federal data 24 percent of American students attend rural schools, while 32 percent of American public schools and 57 percent of school districts are rural

As to chartering, some of the barriers to rural chartering are obvious. Lower-population density mutes the potential for a broad array of brick and mortar schools. Technology can help with this to some extent (although while everyone in the Acela corridor and Bay area seems to think the broadband problem is solved access remains a big issue in many rural communities). But even if the technical problems are addressed not every parent (rural and otherwise) wants this style of education for their child. In addition, even more than their urban and suburban counterparts rural schools often serve multiple roles in a community and people seek attachment to them for reasons beyond academics.

Of course, as with all schools the mainstream rural public schools do not work well for some percentage of students who want or need something different. And it makes sense to ensure that there are mechanisms, and charter schooling is a powerful one, to enable the creation of different and alternative high-quality options for them.  School districts can and should also do more to create cooperative alternative and specialty options for students than they do now. The Virginia virtual Governor’s school is a good example of an option like this. And, of course, there is too much knee-jerk resistance to chartering in the rural sector as there is across much of the education sector.

But the larger issue is the challenge of capacity.  One can argue that rather than more charters, what we have in rural education is too many charter-like schools now. Because of aspects of policy and benign neglect many rural schools enjoy a fairly high degree of flexibility, and by necessity autonomy, today.  Bootstrapping is common because there is more work than personnel to do it. So while the best charter schools increasingly leverage the power of network – basically becoming high-performing but not geographically contiguous school districts – rural schools are left on their own. It’s the romantic ideal of American education and it doesn’t work very well in too many cases.

That’s why a theory of action that posits that what these schools and communities need is more autonomy and flexibility raises some questions.  Several Bellwether colleagues and I recently surveyed rural superintendents in Idaho and while paperwork complaints and funding were common, most of the challenges the superintendents cited had to do with capacity issues and lack of network and support rather than a need for more autonomy. For instance, 58 percent said the biggest obstacle they face in firing a low-performing teacher is finding a suitable replacement.  Meanwhile, two-thirds of these superintendents are involved in service-sharing agreements between districts and more than 9 in 10 saw benefit to such arrangements.

Yes in more urbanized communities creating running room for innovative schooling options seems likely to release a great deal of pent up demand. We are seeing that in communities around the country. A few weeks ago there was a rally in New York to call attention to the potential of charter schools to help students stuck in persistently lousy schools. Just today there is a powerful new study on charter-like small schools in New York City. In cities around the country educators want to do things differently, parents want more options, and entire sectors of promising schools have emerged as a result. Only the paid advocates think that penning up this energy is a good idea.  The recent CREDO report on Los Angeles is an outlier on the high side but New York City, Washington, Boston, Indianapolis, Houston, Denver, and other cities offer compelling examples as well. (That’s why many charter school critics are fast becoming education’s birthers in their inability to engage with any evidence that doesn’t comport with a preconceived worldview). Yet for rural schools the scale of that pent of demand and capacity to meet it are less. There are simply fewer people in play to begin with. There is less demand. And there are fewer resources.

So that brings us back to Matt’s argument that rural charter schools are a bad idea. I don’t think that’s the case. He overstates the issue in the other direction. Besides, many things that were considered impossible in education have proved quite possible so we should be careful about limiting our aspirations. Andy’s encouragement to think boldly  on this and other issues is a valuable push toward bold ambitions. But I do think charters, while playing a role in all this, are just an idea with a lot less applicability in many rural communities. In other words, an idea should be used as much as possible but that at the same time shouldn’t distract us from the core task of improving the effectiveness of today’s rural schools, which by necessity means improving today’s rural schools.