October 22, 2020

Are Microschools Going Macro?

Around the country it’s hard to miss a string of test-based admissions public schools under pressure to adopt different admission schemes in an effort to increase student diversity – for instance lottery-based or enrollment slots allocated by feeder school. (At one level it’s a useful reminder that contra the rhetoric, many public schools are not open-admissions for all students. The system is more textured than the rhetoric about it.)

The debate in New York City over the city’s selective high schools was pretty high-profile. More recently, in Fairfax County the nationally known Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, or “TJ” to locals, just changed its admission scheme after a contentious debate. San Francisco’s Lowell is moving that direction. Definitely a trend.

It’s not hard to see why this is happening. The slow difficult work of ensuring equitable access to resources, teachers, curriculum, and the other ingredients of high quality and inclusive schooling is a politically contentious slog fought at every step by a variety of people for a variety of reasons – and not just the people you might think. Meanwhile, the very structure of the system is often not set up to support equity. There is of course resistance to changing admissions requirements, too, but it’s more easily defeated, especially right now.

Most agree kids don’t have an equal shot at these coveted schools in some places. The core question is whether the best solution is to change the specific schools or change the system of schools and other supports leading to the outcomes we see. Politically, the schools’ admission methods are obviously the weaker link. And while there is a temptation to frame this all in purely racial terms, in all of these places the debates don’t break down so cleanly. Possible outcomes don’t either. In the case of Thomas Jefferson there is a reasonable chance, depending on who uses the lottery, the school will end up being whiter after these reforms while also having fewer Asian students and more Black and Hispanic students than today.

Perhaps this will usher in a new era of schooling with benefits we’re not realizing right now. That’s the ‘lottery admissions for Harvard’ case and it’s not crazy. Assuming every critic of these schools is caught up in a 2020 Marxist fervor of wokeness misreads the landscape. The debates about this kind of school are long running. So are conversations about the various tradeoffs. Advocates of change are just wisely sensing that this is a good moment to make a move.*

Alternatively, it might also, if history is any guide, drive some parents to seek options elsewhere. These magnet options are highly coveted. Where might parents go? Obviously private is one place but not an accessible option for everyone. Charters are also an option where they exist, they’re free and sometimes theme focused as well. BASIS is a good example of a specialized school in this vein that appeals to a set of parents looking for specific attributes in a school around academics.

Another option I’d keep an eye on is low-cost privates and microschools. Pods seem to be more of a phenomena on social media than in communities, but it’s not hard to envision microschools and low-cost privates being more attractive to a lot of parents after the pandemic – and more sustainable. Here’s an analysis on those schools from Julie Squire, Melissa Steel King, and Justin Trinidad.

Let’s assume for a moment Joe Biden wins the White House in two weeks and Democrats take control of the Senate plus a workable majority of seats. One theory is that there would then be enough centrist senators that charter policy would be sort of sleepy. Another theory is that charter schools are a place where there will be a lot of pressure given dynamics inside the Democratic party and what Democrats see as an imperative to rollback a series of blows to organized labor, not the least of them Janus in our sector. If this comes to pass it will fuel the idea that schools operating outside the system and its regulatory and political reach, low-cost private options, are the place system disrupters should focus their energy.

And they will find a willing audience. At Bellwether earlier this month we asked 1234 adults about whether the pandemic experience with schools had made them more, less, or the same in terms of their openness to greater school choice in their community. Almost half of parents (49%) and half of women (47%) said more. Other polls indicate some frustration here. I’d watch that, too, especially if post-election a bidding war breaks out among Republican 2024 hopefuls around school choice and the idea gets airtime.

If all this results in more quality options for kids, that’s great. But if it lessens the pressure and urgency to improve the public system overall and drives parents from it, then this may be one more reason we don’t look back fondly at 2020.

*Bonus edutrivia: I am pretty sure Dave Grohl’s (of Scream, Nirvana, and Foo Fighters fame and occasional ed commentator) mom was among the teachers who fought the initial conversion of TJ into a magnet back in the 1980s, which was controversial at the time.

Note: Apologies for the really sloppy early draft that ended up inadvertently posted earlier. No substantive changes but this version cleaned up.

October 21, 2020

Missing Kids, Missing Time, Politics, Podcasts, More…

Several new things out of the Bellwether world. I talked with Kevin Kosar about non-profits, education, and public service. 

Chad Aldeman takes a look at learning loss this year:

The projected learning loss for students is staggering. Los Angeles, Clark County, Wake County and New York City all plan to deliver less than half of a normal school year’s worth of instruction for students of all ages. That translates into 433 lost hours for a fifth-grader in New York City and 558 hours in Los Angeles. Depending on the length of a school day, these losses are the equivalent of 60 to 100 days of lost learning time.

Hailly Korman, Bonnie O’Keefe, and Matt Repka take a look at all the kids missing from school since March:

By mid-March 2020, most American schools had shut their doors, and about half remain fully or partially closed to in-person learning today. For approximately 3 million of the most educationally marginalized students in the country, March might have been the last time they experienced any formal education — virtual or in-person.  (To see how we estimated 3 million, click hereTo see a state-by-state breakdown of these estimates, click here.)


We’ve talked about this before, and I know it’s hard to believe in the education sector, but politics might be influencing the school reopen / close conversation:

The latest evidence, released this month as a working paper through Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, indicates that partisanship — as exhibited by the share of voters in a given county who supported Donald Trump in 2016, as well as the strength of local teachers’ unions — drove reopening plans “far more” than public health conditions.

Big community college gift.

October 13, 2020


If you invest in the silver bullet market there is a buy opportunity coming in tutoring.  Not just any tutoring, high-dosage tutoring. The word itself sounds exciting – high-dosage!

It’s hard to miss a convergence around the idea that high-dosage tutoring is “the thing.” The research does favor it, Buzzy Kettleman lays out a good case here. (And the rich do it, which in 2020 makes it at once desirable and very bad).

Yet here is how these things tend to go: New idea – or not new but reintroduced idea – widely implemented through a funding and think piece gold rush. And widely implemented in uneven ways with little fidelity to the research because of the haste and good intentions coupled with lack of capacity around the field.

End result, good idea gets discredited because, on average, it shows little if any impact. You see this around the ed tech sector, class size, teacher evaluations, some reading initiatives, charter schools, teacher evaluation, are just some of the examples.

What all those ideas have in common with tutoring is a lot of promise. That’s all the more reason to be intentional, focus on equity, and not, to mix one more metaphor, spread everything around like peanut butter.

BTW – if questions about research and efficacy interest you here are two roles to consider – this senior associate partner gig at Bellwether and this ED one at Knowledge Alliance.

October 12, 2020

Edujob: President and CEO of Knowledge Alliance and Senior Advisor to Penn Hill Group

Here’s a really interesting edujob: CEO of the Knowledge Alliance and a Senior Advisor at the influential DC-based Penn Hill Group. Highlights:

Knowledge Alliance is a non-profit, non-partisan organization focused on learning and applying what works to dramatically improve K–12 public education. As an association comprised of leading education organizations from across the nation, we advocate for the greater use of research-based knowledge in education policy and practice at the federal, state, and local levels. Knowledge Alliance member organizations are dedicated to solving some of the biggest problems facing our schools today through the development and use of high-quality, relevant research, analytics, measurement, and technical support.

The Knowledge Alliance President/CEO works closely with an executive committee made up of members from the board of directors to craft and execute on a work plan designed to increase federal support for a robust, comprehensive system of support that helps states, districts and schools provide evidence-based teaching and learning environments that improve results for all students. The President/CEO has primary responsibility for leading the Alliance’s advocacy work, managing a membership board with diverse perspectives, and building a national presence for the Alliance and its mission. Penn Hill Group provides both policy and administrative support for the President/CEO.

Penn Hill Group is a leading bipartisan consulting and government relations firm focused on helping clients advance federal education and workforce policy. In this role, the individual is responsible for working closely with the leadership team at Penn Hill Group to provide senior-level support for a limited number of clients on education and workforce issues that include strategic advice, writing, research, policy and lobbying.

More information on the role here. Interested individuals should send a letter of interest and current resume to KAJobs@pennhillgroup.com by COB on October 23, 2020

October 11, 2020

Are We Getting Reopening Wrong?

Alan Gottlieb looks at outdoor school. A not-inspiring aspect of the politicized reopening debate has been the lack of imagination from school leaders about and lack of support from policymakers for ways to operate schools. Instead we’ve had a debate whether or not to have school at all.

Emily Oster reports on more evidence that we may have also looked at schools the wrong way in the context of reopening. School opening is not the risk to communities, rather community behavior is the risk to schools being able to open. In other words, if you want school then wear a mask and be willing to forgo some other activities.

October 9, 2020