August 21, 2014

Edujob @ Pahara Institute

Pahara Institute runs highly regarded fellowship programs in the education sector for teacher leaders and other educational leaders as well as next generation leaders. Originally launched by Bellwether co-founder Kim Smith Pahara is now an independent organization based in California.

They’re growing and hiring for a few roles, in particular for a director for their next generation network. More details through those links but it’s a great role for someone interested in both growth and sustainability of innovative solutions in the sector.

August 20, 2014

Virginia Tries To Boil A Frog: The School Accreditation – Performance Disconnect Emerges Again

A lot of handwringing in Virginia over the prospect that the percent of schools with full accreditation from the state may drop again this year as standards rise (modestly).  The percent of schools that are accredited matters a lot. Because that figure has until recently been in the high 90s it has long functioned as the way the state’s iron-triangle of interests opposed to reform has fended-off efforts to improve the schools. ‘We don’t need reform, 96 percent of schools are fully accredited’ goes the argument.  It also matters because Virginia has no other accountability system, so accreditation is the whole ballgame. It also, of course, matters as a proxy for student learning.

A few thoughts on all this:

Virginia is fortunate that it has relatively few schools that are genuine fiascos. Schools where 10 percent of the students are proficient, for instance, are rare. That’s not the case in many other jurisdictions. There are pockets of acute problems, yes, but Virginia starts from a better place than many states.

But the commonwealth does have a pervasive problem of middling performance and big achievement gaps. That’s been obscured by an accreditation system which does not disaggregate by student subgroups (for instance racial and ethnic minorities or children with special needs) and only requires about 7 in 10 students to pass the state’s reading and math tests at an unambitious level of performance in order for a school to be accredited. Meanwhile, national media indexes that overweight inputs (income levels in Virginia for example) and underweight outputs (actual school outcomes) have created a culture of complacency.

This explains why Virginia could at once have an impressive number of schools accredited and such a feel good spirit about educational quality when at the same time only 17 percent of black students are proficient in reading by 8th-grade on the National Assessment of Education Progress (a college and career ready standard of performance as opposed to what constitutes passing under Virginia’s assessments). Just 17 percent of poor students reach that standard. And only 45 percent of white students. In math the numbers are no better, 17 percent of poor students, one in four Hispanic students, and just 15 percent of black students are proficient by 8th-grade across the commonwealth.

Bottom line: It’s safe to say that at best half of Virginia students are not leaving school at a genuine college/career ready level of performance. In last year’s graduating class 49 percent of students received the “advanced studies diploma,” which is the best approximation of a college/career ready standard of course taking and achievement. Slightly more than half of white students received that diploma, about a third of minority graduates did.

Reconciling this discrepancy – perceived high-performance and actual problematic performance – is as much a political problem as a substantive one. For a long time the prevailing ethos has been one emphasizing good news and happy talk rather than an honest accounting about educational performance. The embarrassment about Virginia’s absurdly low-expectations for some students as part of is No Child Left Behind waiver was an awkward light on all that.

Today, that even a modest bump in performance expectations can cause consternation and potentially cause so many schools to fall out of full-accreditation speaks volumes about where things are, the fragility of the quality myth and the enormous leadership challenge facing state policymakers to bring about genuine improvements aligning the reality of Virginia’s schools with the rhetoric about them.

August 18, 2014

New Class Of Pahara-Aspen Fellows for Fall 2014

Great group comprising the next cohort of Pahara-Aspen fellows. Learn more about them and the fellowship here.

Will The Reformer Who Thinks Only Test Scores Matter And Schools Should Run Like Businesses Please Report To The Front Office

I usually find David Kirp’s writing to be interesting but his weekend op-ed in The Times was full of straw men and an unfortunate exception. Kirp writes that,

TODAY’S education reformers believe that schools are broken and that business can supply the remedy.

The first part of that sentence is generally true (and is true for generations of reformers across a range of social policy issues, if something is working, why reform it?) but the second part? You hear this claim a lot but a more accurate rendition would be something along the lines of, ‘and reformers believe there are lessons to be learned from other sectors, including business, the non-profit sector, the military, medicine, and other professions.” I hear businesspeople sometimes say that schools should run like businesses but you rarely hear it from someone actually in the education world.  Later in the piece Kirp points out places schools could learn from business.

He then writes,

“High-stakes reading and math tests are treated as the single metric of success, the counterpart to the business bottom line.” 

That would be a stronger point with an example of someone actually saying it. That’s going to be hard though because no one really does. The simultaneous and ongoing criticism of reformers for favoring choice and competition and for wanting test scores included in accountability systems show’s why this is a strawman. To varying degrees reformers believe that accountability systems can’t capture everything that matters about schools and the best way to capture those other elements is by giving parents choice. For some that means choice in the public sectors, for others via public charter schools as well, and for others (on the right and left) those options  and/or  private school choice is the remedy they see is optimal with test scores used for informational purposes or not at all. In fact, the only people essentially arguing that test scores or similar metrics alone are the only way to judge schools are those supporting high metric but low-choice policy models. They believe that more centralized systems, like those often found in Europe, provide more coherence and that choice is a distraction. And you know where you generally find people who believe that’s the best approach? Hint: It’s not the reform world.

All this is too bad because Kirp points up two important issues: Human endeavors like schools are messy and policy must find ways to account for that messiness, including just getting out of the way of it at times. And technology isn’t going to render those issues obsolete.  But those ideas won’t get the hearing they should because I know a lot of people who stopped reading after those first few caricaturing lines.

Update: Neerav Kingsland with additional thoughts. 

No Win On New York Tests!

Big NY Post story over the weekend about adjustments to New York’s tests based on this year’s results. 

It’s a no win situation because if the state doesn’t adjust the cut score to reflect differences in difficulty in the questions used then they get attacked for trying to make the schools look bad (to privatize then, natch). If they do adjust the scores then they get attacked for goosing the scores for political reasons. And what’s really fun about education today is that it’s the exact same people who will attack you either way.

The bigger problem, it seems to me, is the pervasive lack of transparency around assessments and the process that derives cut scores in the first place (pdf). States could save themselves a lot of headaches if they were more upfront about all this in the first place and just explained clearly how decisions were made and their effect.

Less noticed, unfortunately, is an interesting NY pilot using Race to the Top dollars to help schools move away from traditional tests in some non-core subjects. ”Tests” get lumped together but the majority of assessments a student sees over the course of the year are driven by state, district, or school policies. Federal requirements are just reading and math, grades 3-8 (and in high school). Federal policy explicitly does not require stakes to be attached to those tests for students. Lost in all the back and forth about testing is that issue and steps that could be taken to clear away a lot of the underbrush.

August 15, 2014

Weekend Reading: Unschooling

Interesting and edgy article on unschooling in Outside Magazine.

How broadly applicable is this? It is hard to do well but easy to do badly? A triumph of aesthetics over education? Or a needed correction for formal schooling?

Michelle Rhee Announced She’s Leaving StudentsFirst…You’ll Never Believe What Happened Next!

OK, sorry, actually you will believe it. And that headline is absolute click bait. But, here are five things to consider about Rhee’s impending departure from StudentsFirst, announced this week:

1) The most interesting implication here isn’t about Rhee’s future, it’s about what this means for her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s, future.  The former NBA All-Star is considered a political star on the rise. Lots of speculation about what office he might pursue next and in the zero sum world of politics this move benefits him – not least because StudentsFirst was giving money to a lot of Republicans and the intramural fight over ed policy among Dems is heating up again.

2) All the blind quote dart throwing at Rhee in the articles about this move didn’t reflect all that well on the sector. Under certain conditions blind quotes are defensible, but just not wanting to offend or protecting funding prospects hardly seems to meet the bar. Especially for critical quotes. Was this Page Six or news? If you want to criticize her (see below, it’s certainly fair game) then put your name on it. It’s also a bummer that a lot of Students First staffers found out for sure that their founder is leaving via news reports courtesy of leakers in and around StudentsFirst. At a human level that sucks.

3) Rhee’s biggest failure at StudentsFirst was to not broaden the organization’s profile beyond her. There is a half-life to the personality-driven organization and StudentsFirst will face a big test now as a result in terms of where it goes from here (interesting question is where some of the talent there, and there is a lot, goes).  Because it was about Rhee every dust-up about her (and her critics cross the line into obsessive-compulsive about her to be sure) became about the organization by default. To some extent that’s unavoidable but some of the errors here were unforced. And I’m not sure I buy the argument that she drew fire away from other groups. Rather, it seemed like everything got lumped together in the public debate.

4) But she did accomplish a lot there, nonetheless. For starters, even if she didn’t draw fire she certainly expanded the field, as they say in sports. All the critics now saying she didn’t accomplish much were not saying that prior to this announcement. Hell, they couldn’t shut up about her. Back then (last week) she was the Princess of Darkness doing all sorts of allegedly terrible things via StudentsFirst. The American Federation of Teachers, a large labor union with a long history was concerned enough to literally go to social media and political war with one person, Rhee – something they don’t do a lot. And some of what Rhee accomplished isn’t visible because of the nature of politics. In some cases even the threat that she might come into a state with StudentsFirst was enough to start or stop some policy action. Not a lot of people or organizations had that kind of leverage. Oh, and by the way, you may have noticed that while hardly high-performing the District of Columbia Public Schools are far from the basket case they were before Rhee arrived on the scene and are making improvements. Not all Rhee, but she had a big hand in it.

5) If after hearing the news that she was joining the board of directors for Miracle-Gro you did one of the following things – researched the company, planned a boycott, told your friends to stop using it etc… – please consider getting a hobby or donating some time to a charity or reading to kids. Seriously.

August 14, 2014

New Whiteboard Advisors Education Insiders Survey

New data out from the Whiteboard Education Insiders survey (pdf). Includes federal legislation and Common Core assessment tracking, Jindal and Common Core, Duncan job approval, and higher ed policy.  Survey results plus open-ended responses from Insider panel.

August 13, 2014

Goldberg On Cherry Condition

David Goldberg, the founder and CEO of Core Skills Mastery (and past BW client) responds to yesterday’s post:

I wanted quickly to respond to your Eduwonk post this morning. I think that you’re right on, but missing some important ideas and context. We’re still in the education game with CSM, but increasingly turning to the business world, as well – this year, we’ll have direct contact with dozens of Chief Learning Officers and Executive Directors of Talent Development at large corporations, and the story is a bit more complex both from the employer and the education side.

· Every employer, bar none, is interested in high performance, whatever the task. At entry-level, low-skilled positions this might mean that you show up on time, but the larger importance of high performance is true at every position, in every business function (production, logistics, HR, finance, sales, marketing, etc.). What companies really, truly care about is solid math and literacy, problem-solving, ability to learn independently, and performance traits like persistence, attention-to-detail, self-efficacy. This is what you want when you hire at Bellwether, and this is what the farmer wants.

· What the rest of the world hears is that employers are interested in job-specific skills. This is at best half-right. Companies don’t have a single voice, and the HR functions of hiring tend to be narrowly focused on checklists of skills. However, job-specific skills by their very nature are the minimum requirements for adequate performance – everyone in the companies must have these. But when you go to the learning/talent development departments and to the operational people, the issue is really about high performance.

· The problem with our education system isn’t that it doesn’t teach high performance, it’s that it unintentionally, but actively, instills low performance. That is, while on the job, A-level performance is the only acceptable performance, education is the only place in America where mediocre, C-level, passing performance is just fine with everyone. Students learn that no one else cares, and that they shouldn’t either. In many cases, this is the only lesson that sticks (from what we see in test scores, it’s not math or literacy).

· The issue in some ways is function of classrooms, where the whole class moves as one and some students will always be left behind. Educational technology has the potential for addressing this, but the definition of competency in competency-based education is really 50-70% on a multiple-choice test (GED, Common Core, Accuplacer, and most of the conventional learning systems). This is a terrible lost opportunity for changing the system.

· The more insidious problem, I think, is that in the policy sphere, whenever there is a tension between “more” and “better”, “more” almost always wins. As students are asked to do more math, and at earlier ages, it shouldn’t be a surprise that more students are left with poor performance. Yes, we can say that we want more students at the “proficient” and “advanced” levels, but how many states have recently instituted algebra 2 requirements (which are flatly ridiculous, even in a STEM-based economy)? We should first fix the “better” at whatever level a student is at, before we stretch for “more”.

The cherry farmer (manufacturer, retail store, Bellwether) wants high performance, not algebra. The schools teach algebra and low performance. Do the math…

August 12, 2014

Cherry Condition: College, Career, Life Skills, And Schools

is13-1338844622-15037In July Bellwether’s partner team spent a week in upstate Michigan on Old Mission Peninsula. It’s a lovely place in the summer. Warm but not too hot and cool in the evenings. Surrounded on three sides by Caribbean-hued water that’s gentle for children and inviting for adults. And it’s especially lovely when the cherry harvest is happening because the landscape is dotted with cherries of differing hues across rolling hills.  The retreat was a productive and energizing blend of work and play and included some time on the cherry farm where one of our partners grew up.

In my experience old farms tell stories through their history, status quo, and their people. This one told a few stories about agriculture today, how it’s evolving, and the challenges facing family farms. But it also told education stories. One of those is an obvious one. Where once a crew of 100 picked cherries during the harvest, a team of five can do the work now. The farm isn’t shrinking but automation has revolutionized the harvest. The cherry trees are literally shaken by machines that free the cherries to fall into collectors for processing. Fast and efficient. Because most cherries are used in applications like yogurt, fills, or dyes bruising is not an issue. Only fruit sold for retail is picked by hand.

The second story is more complicated: Finding those five people.  The work is hard, the days long, and the machines take a trained hand to operate effectively and without damaging trees, wasting fruit, or hurting someone. It’s not high-skilled work. The farmer handles the big high-stakes decisions that set the harvest up for success or failure early in the season. What he needs in his workers, he told me, are people who can show up on time, in a condition ready and prepared to work, and who can take direction, learn, and function as part of a fast-moving team. In a state with official unemployment at 7.4 percent and actual unemployment much higher you’d think finding them wouldn’t be a problem. But it is.

With the obvious caveat that our schools need to be a lot better overall and especially for persistently under-served populations, I groan when I hear business leaders bemoan the training they have to do for employees and blame the public schools for it. In my view it’s not the job of the schools to prepare students for business, it’s to prepare them for life as an educated person.  Yet what that farmer was talking about was not discreet skills that employers should be prepared to teach or that students and workers can learn through specialized training. Rather, it’s closer to what was once quaintly called deportment.  Or it’s life skills or “mega skills” that the late Dorothy Rich championed. Put more plainly it’s ‘how you do things the right way.’ Whatever you want to call it, it’s a set of attributes that people once were introduced to in school, through apprenticeships or unions, in the armed forces, or most often through their families. Participation in all of those institutions, except school, is down in terms of percent of the population involved. That has consequences.

The issue is remerging in the policy and education world through a debate about schools like KIPP and ideas like “grit.” But that is only one aspect and discussion about it is predictably politicized and unproductive with ridiculous caricatures. The debate about college versus careers, meanwhile, obscures these issues because (not unlike the education levels one needs for both) these skills are largely universal paths to self-sufficiency regardless of the vocation or educational path one chooses. It’s also not an issue linked to class or education level. Plenty of affluent college-educated young people struggle with the routines of work as well.

I don’t have a clear answer here except that I hear this kind of complaint a lot, from trades people, builders, and farmers like this one, when the subject of education and employment comes up. I hear it from colleagues in professional services work as well. There is something to it. When people in the trades say career or college ready they’re not talking about ability with textual analysis or proficiency at math (both important skills) but rather something more basic and lacking for a lot of Americans. Shouldn’t we talk more frankly about it in the education context because these days, if not schools, who?

*Photo courtesy of

August 11, 2014

Vanishing Neighbor

Marc Dunkelman’s book, The Vanishing Neighbor, has an education angle, and is well-worth reading.  It’s a fascinating and original look at the fraying that is changing how we interact and has profound implications for our politics and lives.

Kristof On Poverty – And Implications For Schools

Strong Nicholas Kristof column about poverty and the implicit issue that many people don’t like to acknowledge how much luck plays a role in life. In education, though, we seem to have an acutely hard time talking about the role that schools can play to help address these issues.

August 7, 2014

Edujob @ Building Hope

Building Hope is a national not for profit that helps with charter school finance. They’re seeking an ed tech advisor to help with technology infrastructure finance issues. Great opportunity or someone with the right skill set. If that’s you then JD and more information here (pdf).

August 5, 2014

Teachers And Legal

Mike Antonucci has a good post about the legal protections teachers unions offer to their members. He gets at the misconceptions many teachers have about this benefit (that most never need anyway). Namely many teachers think the protection is akin to an insurance policy when in practice the union can decide whether or not to provide someone legal representation. In addition, it can be confusing for teachers to parse out what activities they’re protected for anyway and which they could have legal exposure in the first place. Even in our litigious society they’re not as exposed as many think.

Return To Normal Order

I hope you enjoyed the great guestblogging by the Bellwether team. If you liked it keep an eye out for the new Bellwether blog starting later this year. Posting has been light the past few days because I was out of the office for the Pan Mass Challenge, but am back now and we’ll return to normalcy.

July 29, 2014

Edujob @ SIIA

Want to do research, analysis, and outreach on some leading edge and hot issues? The Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) is looking for an Education Policy and Programs Manager. More information and how to apply via this link.

A Third Way on Teacher Pensions?

Third Way has a new brief suggesting three steps the federal government could take immediately to improve retirement security for all teachers. To address widespread under-funding, state and local pension plans have made it harder for teachers to qualify for a retirement benefit, raised contribution rates, and changed benefit formulas to penalize teachers not willing to commit to a full career in one spot. They note that teacher pension plans are actually moving in the opposite direction of workers in the private sector:

So while the vast majority of American workers are being afforded greater retirement security under federal law—and better assurances that they will get to keep the money their employers are contributing off the top of their salary—teachers have found themselves at the whim of state legislators that in most cases are making it harder for them to qualify for even a minimum pension.

Their solutions are sensible: 1. Have the IRS lay out clear guidelines outlining what constitutes an acceptable alternative plan; 2. Require state governments to either offer Social Security to their workers or provide more teachers with at least a minimal retirement benefit; and 3. Update federal guidelines to ensure state and local pension plans offer retirement benefits that are at least as generous as those of non-public-sector plans. Read the full brief here.

–Chad Aldeman

July 28, 2014

The Pre-K–Charter disconnect

This fall, charter schools in New York City will offer pre-k for the first time. Charter schools were previously barred from offering pre-k, but legislation earlier this year expanded the state’s investment and allowed charter schools to offer pre-k.

This is good news for New York City, and for places, like Indiana and Seattle, that are looking to offer pre-k to additional students. One challenge with with opening or expanding a state pre-k program is ensuring that there are high-quality providers with enough slots to serve the newly-funded children.

Charter schools seem like an obvious source of additional slots, particularly in states or cities with robust charter sectors and rigorous quality monitoring systems. But it’s complicated. State charter school policy and pre-k policy generally developed in two distinct streams – so even though the two align well in theory, the result in practice is often conflicting policies.

In Ohio, for example, charter schools effectively cannot offer pre-k. The state charter school legislation says that charter schools’ admission criteria can only be open to students between the ages of five and 22. As a result, charter schools receive state funding for K-12 students, not pre-k students. There is a demand for pre-k, however, so charter schools will often co-locate a space with a pre-k program. Yet once children complete that pre-k program, they are not guaranteed spots in the charter schools’ kindergarten programs, but have to enter the school’s lottery, despite having spent a year just yards away.

This disconnect also occurs in states that explicitly permit charter schools to offer pre-k. Up until recently, Georgia students enrolled in charter school pre-k programs couldn’t automatically pass into kindergarten. Legislation* now allows charter schools to give enrollment priority to students who completed the charter school’s pre-k program. While it’s an improvement, there are unnecessary complexities for both schools and parents; assuring enrollment priority is not the same as seamlessly moving students from 1st to 2nd grade. Students are not guaranteed entrance, and schools must orchestrate a new pre-k lottery each year, with the right students at the right weights. New York City takes a similar approach for its charter schools offering pre-k this fall.

Sara Mead and I have learned about these challenges and more while researching the Byzantine world of pre-k and charter sector policy for a paper that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute will publish next year. With recent data showing the appeal of early ed across party lines (slide 11 here), the time is right to prioritize high-quality slots for more pre-k students.

*Links to O.G.C.A. LexisNexis database – search 20-2-2066 for appropriate legislation.

–Ashley LiBetti Mitchel

July 25, 2014

Head Start Round 2 Designation Renewal Results Announced

Late on a Friday afternoon, the Administration for Children and Families released the list of 114 grantees selected in the second round of Head Start designation renewal. HHS also released the names of winners from several Cohort 1 competitions in which no award was made, as well as two unrelated competitions. These grantees will begin serving Head Start students under their new grants next month.

Since I’ve been following designation renewal closely, I’ll be taking a closer look at these results in the near future. Two quick takeaways for now: 1) As in the first round of designation renewal, many of the agencies that were required to compete appear to have managed to keep their grants. 2) ACF’s list released today does not name a grantee in the competition for Orleans Parish, Louisiana, a particularly complex re-competition situation. Given that the list of grantees released today is shorter than the list of those required to compete, there are likely additional communities where no grantee was announced today–I’ll update with more info later.

Court Deals Blow to Ohio’s Authorizer Autonomy

To have a high-quality charter school sector, a state needs high-quality authorizing. This depends mostly on getting the right policies and practices in place. But a recent ruling by Ohio’s Hamilton County Common Pleas Court demonstrates how the judicial branch can frustrate the efforts of legislators and practitioners.

Cincinnati’s VLT Academy (VLT) serves approximately 650 students in grades K-12, 98 percent of whom are African American and 99 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged. In 2013 VLT earned a D on its state report card. While 62 percent of eighth graders scored proficient or higher on the state’s 2012-2013 reading assessment (compared to 75 percent of district students), just 15 percent did so in math (compared to 65 percent of students in Cincinnati City Schools). Only 46 percent of VLT’s class of 2013 graduated in four years, compared to 74 percent in Cincinnati’s district schools.

Charter school authorizers, or “sponsors” as they’re called in Ohio, are charged with holding schools accountable, and this includes closing schools that persistently fail to live up to expectations. Because of the school’s ongoing academic and financial troubles, VLT’s sponsor, the Education Resource Consultants of Ohio, chose not to renew the school’s contract. VLT sought a new sponsor, which is permitted under Ohio’s charter school law. However, all sponsors to which VLT applied—including the Ohio Department of Education (ODE)—declined.

The authorizing community was sending a message, loud and clear. Nevertheless, VLT appealed ODE’s rejection—again as permitted under Ohio law. Judge Nadine Allen upheld VLT’s appeal, forcing ODE to both sponsor the school and give VLT nearly $300,000 to ensure the school’s teachers and staff continue to be paid. Ohio’s First District Court of Appeals has since issued a stay of Judge Allen’s ruling.

There are more than 60 sponsors in Ohio; the levels of oversight and support they provide vary greatly.  A new sponsor report card will go into effect January 1, 2015 and rank all of Ohio’s sponsors on three metrics: the academic performance of the students enrolled in the schools they authorize; adherence to “quality practices” outlined by ODE; and compliance with applicable laws regarding sponsorship.

Holding sponsors accountable for the performance of the schools they authorize is intended to incentivize the adoption of quality authorizing practices, including a rigorous screening process for the schools they choose to authorize and a willingness to close schools that underperform persistently.

If the VLT ruling is upheld, it may compromise the ability of sponsors to hold their schools accountable for results. Closing any school—even a poorly performing one—is terribly difficult, so authorizers have a tough job even under the best of circumstances. This precedent would make it even tougher.

- Kelly Robson

Five Totally Doable Things to Improve Head Start

A lot of what’s needed to improve early childhood education costs money–lots of it. These costs are one of the major barriers to progress in improving access to quality preschool. But there are several things that policymakers could do now to help improve Head Start that wouldn’t cost much. Not all of them would make a huge different, but they offer some ways to move now on improving early childhood outcomes even without additional money:

1. Make Head Start Performance Monitoring reports available online–and make them useful to stakeholders. Every three years, Head Start conducts and on-site monitoring report of each Head Start grantee’s compliance with the Head Start performance standards. Because the performance standards are so extensive, they produce a wealth of information about the quality of Head Start providers–and the most recent reports also include measures of the quality of teaching in Head Start classrooms. HHS has recently started posting these reports on its website, but they are hard to find, only available for some grantees, and the reports themselves are mind-bogglingly bureaucratic and hard to understand even for wonks like me. HHS should make all the reports available on its website, and include in each report and user-friendly cover page that outlines key strengths and weaknesses of each Head Start program, as well as any serious findings, in a way that is easy for parents, community members, and local policymakers to understand. By making Head Start grantee strengths and weaknesses more transparent to the people who care most about them, this would help spur improvement.

2. Analyze data collected by the Head Start enterprise system to learn about what program features correlate with improved quality. HHS collects a wealth of data on Head Start grantees, from budgets, to staff qualifications, the curriculum and assessments they use. But it doesn’t currently do much to analyze that data or generate lessons for the field. With the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, Head Start now has a common, agreed upon metric of program quality that is supported by research (although it also has limitations, which I discuss here). Researchers could use CLASS and other data collected by Head Start to analyze the curriculum, budgets, and other features of the highest performing grantees, or to analyze relationships between quality and these same factors, in order to generate lessons for the broader field and help other grantees improve.

3.Make the designation renewal process more transparent. In contrast to high-profile, highly transparent Department of Education grant competitions like Race to the Top and i3, the Head Start designation renewal process, in which providers who fall short of quality standards are required to compete to retain their grants, is highly lacking in transparency. While HHS published a list of winners of the first round of designation renewal, it did not share information about who else applied for grants, guidance given to reviewers, or the scores received by winners and other applicants. This time around it hasn’t even publicly released a list of selected grantees. Making the process more transparent would increase accountability and ultimately encourage more high-quality providers to apply.

4. Allow grantees to seek performance standards waivers. Head Start’s 2,400 performance standards limit grantees’ flexibility to innovate and make it hard to strategically focus resources in ways that are likely to have the greatest impact for kids. Federal policies should enable grantees to receive waivers from performance standards requirements if they can present a compelling argument that increased flexibility would enhance their ability to serve children and families. Waivers could be limited to grantees with good CLASS scores and a track record of strong performance and should be offered only for a limited number of years (possibly in conjunction with 5-year grant renewals) with extension contingent on performance. Ideally, HHS could collect information on they types of waivers that grantees request, to inform future revision of the performance standards.

5. Revise the performance standards. Ok, this is not exactly an easy lift. It’s, well, a Joe Biden quote. But it doesn’t cost money, it can be done with existing regulatory authority and doesn’t require Congressional action, and it’s the number one thing that is necessary to help improve Head Start.

–Sara Mead

July 24, 2014

The Politics of Teacher Evaluation Formulas

As states revamp their teacher evaluation systems, they continue to search for that magic number: the percentage of a teacher evaluation rating that should be based on student academic performance. Here’s how this has played out over the past month:

  • The Ohio State Legislature voted to lower the weighting for student growth from 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to 42.5 percent. Why the seemingly random choice of 42.5 percent? Because the state Senate wanted it revised downward to 35 percent and the House wanted to keep the weighting at 50 percent. Legislators compromised on 42.5 because it lies smack dab in the middle of 35 and 50.
  • In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie signed an executive order mandating that statewide exams account for 10 percent of a teacher’s evaluation this upcoming school year rather than the previously decided upon 30 percent. It will climb to 20 percent in 2015-16.

The issue here isn’t whether 10 or 35 or 50 percent is the right amount of student growth in teacher evaluations. No one knows for sure what that number is, and no one knew it when states set their initial student growth weightings either.

Ironically, we have better evidence now than we did when states made their initial decisions. The 2013 MET Project report found that weighting student growth between 33 and 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation score would provide the best combination of predictive power and year-to-year stability. The MET Project is by no means definitive and we could certainly use more research in this realm. But before seeing any results or carrying out their own analyses, states are pre-emptively lowering their student growth weighting. And instead of using the evidence that does exist, states are allowing political battles to drive their decisions.

–Chad Aldeman and Carolyn Chuong

Edujob: Director Of Communications @ IDEA Pubilc Schools

IDEA Public Schools (Bellwether client) is a successful network of high-peforming public charter schools operating in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.  They’re seeking a Director of Communications, great role at an innovative education provider. More details and how to apply via this link.

10 Questions To Ask Anyone Proposing to Block Grant Head Start

Proposals to block grant Head Start are much like Lamar Alexander’s long-running “Pell Grants for Kids” proposal—a perennial conservative education policy idea that can be used year after year because it never goes anywhere politically. The idea of giving states a greater role in Head Start is not without merit—after all, states are responsible for K-12 education and have significantly ramped up their role in early childhood education over the past 20 years. But block granting is only one—highly simplistic—approach to doing this—and one that’s nowhere near as simple as it sounds. Here are a few key questions that any policymaker who supports block granting Head Start should carefully think through—and that journalists should ask any legislator offering a proposal to shift Head Start to the states.

  1. Why? This may sound like a flippant question, but it’s not. There are a variety of reasons one might want to give states a greater role in running Head Start. For example, one possible reason to increase the state role in Head Start might be to enhance collaboration and coordination between state-administered childcare and preschool programs and Head Start, or between Head Start and the K-12 education system, which is the responsibility of states. Another reason might be to allow states to combine funds from Head Start, childcare, state preschool, and other early childhood funding streams to create a more integrated system, improve quality, or serve more children. Another reason might be a belief that 1,400 Head Start grantees are too many for the federal government to oversee, and that shifting responsibility to the states would lead to better oversight of Head Start. Yet each of these potential reasons for shifting more responsibility for Head Start to the states has its own, distinct policy implications—some of which are in conflict. And it would be possible to design a Head Start block grant policy that would address none of these issues. So, if someone wants to block grant Head Start, they need to be able to first explain what they hope to accomplish by doing so.
  2. How would you ensure that states use Head Start funds to improve early learning rather than supplant existing funds?  Perhaps the greatest objection to block granting Head Start is the concern that states, given control of Head Start funds, would use them to reduce their own investments in early learning rather than better serving kids. Given many states’ track records of under-investing in early childhood education, and of cutting early childhood funds dramatically whenever fiscal times get tough—as happened in many states during the most recent recession—this concern seems well-founded. There are ways to design federal policies to reduce the risk that states would use Head Start funds to reduce, rather than supplement, their own resources, but designing effective policies here is challenging. Any one proposing to block grant Head Start needs to outline a clear policy to prevent states from using federal Head Start funds to reduce their own.
  3. What kind of flexibility would states have to set their own performance standards?  Head Start is a famously bureaucratic program: the Head Start Performance Standards include some 2,400 distinct requirements grantees must meet. Reducing these burdensome requirements should be a policy goal. But that doesn’t mean that states should be left entirely to their own devices to set Head Start standards—many states have set standard for preschool teacher credentials and other key quality factors that are lower than those in Head Start, and research suggests that the average quality in state-funded pre-k is somewhat lower than the typical Head Start classroom. Policymakers who propose transitioning Head Start to states need to be clear about what elements of the program standards states will need to maintain, and where they will have flexibility. In addition, states should be prevented from imposing their own sets of burdensome additional requirements on Head Start grantees.
  4. What about comprehensive services? In addition to quality standards for early learning, the performance standards also include requirements for Head Start grantees to offer services—such as health, nutrition, and family supports—that address the comprehensive needs of poor families. Typical state pre-k programs do not provide all these services. Would state-administered Head Start programs still be required to ensure Head Start-eligible children received these comprehensive services? Would states simply be accountable to ensure that children received comprehensive services through existing state health, mental health, nutrition and other programs (but not necessarily through their preschool program)? Or would comprehensive services cease to be part of Head Start?
  5. How would the federal government hold states accountable? If the federal government were to transfer Head Start to the states, it would need a mechanism to monitor how effectively states were administering Head Start funds and to hold them accountable for how they served young children. Head Start has an existing monitoring system, but that system is designed for grantees, not entire states. Two factors would make federal monitoring of state use of Head Start funds particularly challenging: First, one of the major reasons to provide states greater control of Head Start funds would be to enable them to combine these funds with other state funding streams to serve more kids, lengthen the day, or improve quality. But states were to combine funds in this way, it would create a question about  who the feds should hold states accountable for: just children served with Head Start funds? Just Head Start eligible children? All children served with state or federal early childhood funds? The overall quality of early learning in the state? Second, measuring outcomes in early childhood education is more challenging in K-12 education, which would make accountability more challenging, and potentially require the use of other, harder to assess, measures such as classroom instructional or environmental quality.
  6. How would the transition work? Block granting Head Start would create an enormous logistical challenge. Head Start isn’t simply a program or a funding stream: it’s a network and system of providers and centers. Block granting Head Start would require terminating the contracts of existing grantees, transferring their funds and other real assets (such as buildings and buses, which in many cases were purchased with federal funds and may be federal property) to the state, reallocating those funds and assets from the state to providers, and maintaining services for eligible children over the course of this transition. Currently, this process happens in microcosm whenever a current Head Start grantee is terminated or loses its grant to another organization in designation renewal—and it’s hugely complicated and painful for the providers, educators, and families involved. Now multiply that times 1,400. Explain how you’d do it.
  7. Who would be the providers in state-administered programs? The really crazy thing about the transition process outlined above is that, in many cases, existing Head Start grantees would continue to be the providers serving children in a state administered program. Many current state pre-k programs rely on existing Head Start grantees as pre-k providers, and this would continue to be the case if states gained control of Head Start funds. Even if states wanted to engage new providers, the supply of high-quality early childhood providers is limited, and other providers might not exist in many places. Ultimately, the quality of early learning services children receive is far more depend on the quality of the provider than whether it’s under state or federal oversight, so the onus is on block grant proponents to explain what change would occur at the provider level as a result of their proposals—and, if it’s not much, why such massive disruption is necessary at all?
  8. How will we learn from inter-state variations? One of the major arguments for decentralizing social services to the states is the opportunity for the states to serve as “laboratories of innovation,” who, by taking a variety of approaches, enable the field as a whole to learn what works, what doesn’t and to replicate different practices. If Washington were to delegate control of Head Start to states, and give them greater flexibility in how they run the program, how would federal policymakers ensure that we capture the lessons of states’ varied experience in order to identify effective and ineffective approaches, replicate what works, stop doing what doesn’t, and improve overall knowledge and quality?
  9. Which states do you expect will do the best job? Proponents of block granting Head Start should be able to offer at least one example of a state that they believe would use greater control of Head Start funds well, and to explain what that state would do/change if it had control of Head Start funds, and how those changes would result in better early learning outcomes for more kids. If they can’t offer an example, why should anyone believe this is a good idea?
  10. What do you think is the appropriate federal role in early childhood education generally? Currently, the federal government provides about 10% of funding for K-12 education, but a much larger percentage of public funding for early childhood (as well as postsecondary) education, due to federal funding for Head Start, as well as the fact that the federal government provides the majority of funding for state childcare subsidies. Ultimately, any case for block granting Head Start should be part of a larger, coherent narrative about the appropriate federal, state, local, nonprofit sector, and family roles in early learning, and how/why those roles should be different from or similar to the roles in K-12 and postsecondary education.

As my recent paper on Head Start argues, there are good reasons to think about increasing the state role in Head Start, but block granting Head Start is not the only—and probably not the best—way to do that. Unfortunately, the specter of poorly thought through calls to block grant Head Start has made it difficult to have any kind of thoughtful conversation  about how federal policies might more productively and effectively engage states in Head Start.

–Sara Mead

Americans Stink at Math (But We’re Much Better Now)

Elizabeth Green’s story for Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” is a must-read. Green illustrates our national struggles with math in numerous and at-times painful ways–in particular, read about how customers preferred McDonald’s 1/4-pound hamburger over A&W’s 1/3-pound patty because they thought it had more meat. Her piece is entertaining and seamlessly brings in education topics like teacher preparation, the structure of the school day, poorly aligned textbooks, Common Core, etc. It’s easy to forget she’s writing about math.

But for all the time Green spends documenting the ways Americans stink at math, she never mentions that we’ve gotten much better. That’s unfortunate, because the math results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are one of the brightest spots in education. Between 1973 and 2012, the long-term trend scores of 9-year-olds rose 25 points. Due to Simpson’s Paradox, where the size of the group can mask aggregated data, the scores of white students, black students, and Hispanic students all gained more than the national average. Scores improved across all performance levels and achievement gaps narrowed. The same trends hold true for 13-year-olds. Across both ages and all groups of students, math achievement in 2012 was higher than it had ever been.

It’s worth noting that the scores for 17-year-olds have been flat overall, although the scores of white, black, and Hispanic students have all risen and achievement gaps have narrowed over time.  Still, the results of 9- and 13-year-olds would have been the most relevant for Green to include because her article mainly focuses on the basic math skills students learn in elementary grades.

No one knows for sure why math achievement has risen so rapidly, but it’s likely some combination of standards-based reforms, rising education expenditures, and falling class sizes. It may also be due to the curricular and instructional changes Green documents; I just wish she’d done a little more math.

–Chad Aldeman


July 23, 2014

Shortchanging Teachers

Shortchanged, a TNTP report released last week, takes a harsh look at current “lockstep” teacher pay systems, which reward teachers for time in the classroom and advanced degrees rather than actual performance. The report argues that these practices pushes out high performers and incentivize poor performers to stay in the classroom—with costly consequences: TNTP estimates that last year alone, districts spent $250 million on automatic pay increases for ineffective teachers.

TNTP proposes new teacher compensation systems that focus less on years of experience and master’s degrees and instead focus on actual teacher performance. Research on teacher quality peaks offers other reasons to support this argument.

Research shows that teachers develop the most in their first few years of teaching. After three to five years, though, most teachers peak. So to a certain extent, schools can predict early on how effective a teacher is going to be for the rest of his or her career. Yet under current policies schools must continue paying ineffective teachers the same automatic raises as highly effective teachers, year after year. This creates an incentive for poor performers to stay and for high performers to leave – which they do. TNTP’s own research shows that 40 percent of teachers with more than seven years’ experience are not as effective as the average brand new teacher.

Compensation structures in most other professions are designed to reward employees for logarithmic growth – they assume that employees will make large gains in the beginning of their career then taper off later on. Doctors and lawyers, for example, quickly ascend to peak earnings in the first ten years of their career, then plateau at that salary level for the next ten to 25 years. With teaching, it’s the opposite. Teachers’ growth is ignored when they’re actually improving, and they’re rewarded after they’ve plateaued. As TNTP points out, that creates a whole host of problems.

–Ashley Libetti Mitchel

Renewing Head Start’s Promise

Today, Bellwether and Results for America are releasing a new paper I wrote on Head Start. The paper looks at the results of the reforms made to Head Start in the 2007 reauthorization–specifically the designation renewal process that requires underperforming grantees to compete to retain their grants, and the use of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System as a quality measure for Head Start grantees. I find that, while there has been real progress, and there are also places where the 2007 reforms have come up short. This isn’t primarily an indictment of the 2007 reforms, however, but a reflection of more fundamental issues in Head Start–such as a lack of clear goals and over-focus on compliance rather than performance. The paper offers recommendations both to increase the effectiveness of the 2007 reforms, and to address the more fundamental challenges facing Head Start. Check it out here.

–Sara Mead

July 22, 2014

Ain’t No Party Like a Common Core Party But a Common Core Party May Stop

K-12 education is planning a Common Party (Theme: College- and Career-Ready Standards.) The party’s been planned for years. States, districts, schools, teachers, and parents have spent countless hours and billions of dollars on the planning committee. The RSVP’s are mostly in (although Indiana, Louisiana, and others are getting cold feet). There’s even a punchbowl in the corner.

But what if the guest of honor, colleges and universities, don’t come? Colleges have said they’re interested—who doesn’t like parties or high standards in the abstract?—but they won’t make any promises. Without their admissions or remediation policies, the party won’t be the same.

As Lindsey Tepe writes in a fantastic report from New America, we’re at a real risk of exactly this scenario playing out. Although higher education leaders participated in the drafting of the Common Core State Standards and have expressed support for them generally, they have so far stopped short of adopting policies to ensure that a student deemed “proficient” at the K-12 level qualifies for college-level coursework. The awkward truth is that colleges determine what “college-ready” means. Read Tepe’s report for the implications.

–Chad Aldeman

Five Reasons Education Reformers Should Care About Head Start

On Wednesday, Bellwether and Results for America are going to publish a new paper I’ve written on how to renew Head Start’s promise for disadvantaged preschoolers. Head Start doesn’t get a lot of press or public attention, and it’s also largely overlooked by education reformers. This is a huge mistake. Here’s why:

1. It’s a big program that serves a lot of kids. Head Start serves more than 903,000 students–roughly 40 percent as many children as all children served in charter schools nationally.

2. It focuses on the most disadvantaged children. By law, Head Start focuses on children living below the poverty line (programs may serve some children with family incomes up to 130% of poverty). In enrolling children, Head Start programs must prioritize those with the greatest need factors. Thus, Head Start focuses on the very population of poor children about whom education reformers care most.

3. It’s a dysfunctional, entrenched system in need of reform. Education reformers have focused on tackling the dysfunction and entrenched interests of large urban school systems. Head Start faces many of the same challenges–extensive and burdensome regulatory requirements; a focus on compliance over performance; entrenched providers of mediocre quality (but also some really exemplary Head Start providers doing awesome things for kids!)–that education reformers have tackled in the K-12 space. Moreover, because Head Start already spends some $8 billion a year in federal education funds, this is one place in early childhood education where there’s potential to drive improved outcomes by improving the effectiveness with which existing funds are used.

4. It’s one place in education where federal policy changes can make a huge difference. Because Head Start is a direct federal to local program, governed by federal policies, its one of the areas in education where federal policy changes can make a big difference. In K-12 education, federal policies must trickle down by placing requirements on states, that in turn place requirements on districts, that in turn eventually impact schools and classrooms. Recent federal policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have simultaneously pushed the boundaries of federal authority in education and illustrated its severe limitations as a driver of real change at the school level. In Head Start, by contrast, the 2007 federal reauthorization led to significant changes–such as mandating use of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System as a measure of teaching quality–that were felt across all Head Start programs nationally. Federal executive branch officials have the regulatory authority to rewrite the Head Start Performance Standards without requiring Congressional action.

5. Effective early learning can change the trajectory of kids’ lives. This is the biggest reason that education reformers should care about Head Start. Research shows that achievement gaps begin well before children enter the schoolhouse door. It also shows that high-quality pre-k programs can significantly narrow those gaps, enabling disadvantaged children to start school on an even footing with their peers. On average, Head Start programs aren’t producing those kinds of results right now, but the examples of high-performing providers, both in Head Start and other publicly funded early childhood programs, suggest it’s possible.

By ignoring Head Start, education reformers are missing a huge opportunity to change the trajectory of millions of children’s lives and to fundamentally change the game for K-12 schools seeking to put disadvantaged kids on track for success in college and careers.

–Sara Mead

July 21, 2014

The “Test and Punish” Trap

An old theme of education debates has grown increasingly incessant in recent months, most recently in a resolution at the annual AFT convention: Rather than a “test-and-punish” approach to education reform, we need “support and improve” approach that shifts focus from testing, labeling, and punishing  schools and educators to providing them with support to improve.

This argument seems designed to infuriate supporters of standards-based reform. The primary cause of this fury is inaccuracy: As the New America Foundation’s Anne Hyslop eloquently noted in a recent column,

the “punish” part of “test-and-punish” doesn’t exist. At least not right now. Thanks to the Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers, there don’t have to be stakes, for anyone, on upcoming state tests. None.”

Yet for all of the explanations that NCLB hasn’t resulted in large scale “punishment” of educators and schools; that NCLB includes no financial penalties for low-performing schools but in fact gives them additional money; that the number of teachers who’ve lost their jobs as a result of NCLB ranges from precious few to nil—I can’t help but thinking of this paragraph from Nixonland:

“Nixon himself had voted exactly as [liberal Congressman] Marcantonio had in the triple digits himself. Douglas tried to point this out. It didn’t matter. The explanations were complicated. The smear was simple.….This was not the time for nuance.” (emphasis and link added)

Supporters of standards-based reform can argue until they’re blue in the face that the “punish” aspect of “test-and-punish” is largely a myth. But they can’t win the argument when a significant subject of the audience believes that “testing” inherently means “punishment.” In the screwed up dynamics of our current education reform debate, the very act of trying to objectively measure student learning is seen as penalizing students and teachers.

This has created a major liability for proponents of standards-based reform. Yet it also demonstrates the bankruptcy of arguments for “support and improve” as an alternative to “test and punish.”

Proponents of “support and improve” may claim that they are simply calling for fairer ways of measuring school performance, for increased support for educators, and for more comprehensive responses to the range of challenges that face children living in poverty. Yet the subtext of their rhetoric, and the underlying sentiment within their base of support, is that objectively measuring school performance constitutes punishing educators.

And this is dangerous.

The belief that it is possible to objectively measure the results of actions, to make judgments, and to adjust future behavior based on that measurement, is the foundation of modern scientific progress. To be sure, education is far more complex than many areas of human endeavor and inquiry. Yet when we mistake this complexity for immeasurability, we are in trouble.

Whatever the faults—and they are real—of current systems of standards and assessment, they provide a common frame of reference for understanding what it happening in education, and useful tools for improvement. Commonly understood, objective measures allow us to identify gaps and areas in need of improvement, to make informed decisions about where and how to focus our efforts, to gauge progress over time, and to identify successful models from which to learn.

Without some objective measures to frame our understanding, and provide a common ground for discussion and action, we are left with the subjective forces of emotion, sentiment, and affinity to guide our judgments and decisions.  This why the narrative of “test and punish” has gained the force of fact despite the objective reality that few educators or schools have actually been “punished” under current accountability regimes. When subjective perception and experience become the sole arbiter of truth, the objective reality of punishment (or lack thereof) matters less than individuals’ subjective perceptions that they are being persecuted.  Until supporters of standards-based accountability fully confront this narrative—not just by noting the lack of punishment, but by engaging the emotional realities at play and offering viable counter-narratives—they will be on the losing end of this debate.

–Sara Mead