December 10, 2020

Does Lily Eskelsen García Have It In For Special Needs Kids? I Don’t Think So…But The System Does…

If you are someone who thinks empowering low-income Americans with more educational power and choice is a good idea, then there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the prospect of Lily Eskelsen García as United States Secretary of Education and the potential Biden approach to K-12 schools more generally. Both choice itself, including choice through public sector mechanisms like charter schools, and methods for holding schools accountable for performance and sharing information about educational operations and performance transparently with parents and taxpayers seem likely to be under pressure.

But I don’t think the comments Lily Eskelsen García’s made at some DC pay-to-play dinner and awards ceremony are disqualifying. That’s why I had forgotten about this whole thing, but a quick trip in the wayback machine reminded me that I said so at the time:

Disabilities groups were understandably upset because there is a pronounced bias against special education students in many parts of the education world (and society more generally) and people do say things like this more often than you’d think. Except Eskelsen García said afterwards that she misspoke and meant chronically “tardy” and medically as in persistently or chronically, a way it is used in casual conversations.

Nothing has emerged since to show she’s somehow systematically hostile to kids with special needs. As a professional educator she should have been more careful with her language but it seems like she simply misspoke, which anyone who has to speak in public frequently can appreciate.

You can watch the video yourself, here.

This whole thing is being hashed out on social media but it’s noteworthy that even the groups ramping up to go after her potential nomination (for instance this ad in The Wall Street Journal) aren’t highlighting this.

We should discuss her views on holding the system accountable, choice, the role of public sector unions in education, the persistent inequities in education and the role of race and class in those, and a whole host of other issues – including higher ed policy, which is a big part of what the Department of Education does. That’s all fair game.

This remark though, it’s not, as the President-elect might say, a BFD.

About what she said. She has a good point that no one thing is going to fix education and we should stop searching for it.

But public education advocates have a problem at the core of their argument. The basic argument is that public schools serve everyone and do everything and that’s why they should be shielded from the competitive pressures of choice or from measures to hold people or schools accountable and so forth. But it’s simply not true.

For starters, public schools are residentially-based so a more accurate characterization is that they are open to all who can afford to live in particular communities. That’s how millions of Americans exercise choice (ironically both the most reactionary and the most woke amongst them often the most resistant to extending that power to others). Then there are a variety of test-based and other specialized schools. And programs within schools – gifted has long been a de facto segregation strategy in many communities.

So in a technical sense teachers serve whoever shows up in front of them, but that’s not the case at a systemic level at all. And it’s worth noting that special needs students have the worst outcomes of any demographic group, something you don’t hear about enough in the achievement gap conversation.

Which brings us to the ethos, that anyone who has worked long in the field at any level knows well, that some kids are just too hard to reach, not deserving, or whatever else. There are race, class, disability issues tied up there. It bubbles up from time to time but it’s mostly code words and behind doors.

That ethos, it seems to me, and the way it plays out in policy and practice, is far more important to discuss openly than an ill-considered riff at some fancy dinner that doesn’t even seem to say what critics say it does.

Posted on Dec 10, 2020 @ 1:04pm

December 9, 2020

We’re Hiring



December 8, 2020


The Democratic Education Debate And The democratic Education Debate

In The 74 today I take a look at education politics. Couple of points:

– Trump/Republicans did better among Black and Hispanic voters than one might have expected, education not the only piece of that, but a piece. That matters for Democrats.

– The intraparty divide among Democrats on education is often misunderstood. It’s not left v. center, it’s reform versus no and you can find people in both camps on the left and in the center. And the debate is not resources versus accountability, as we’ve discussed here over the years, it’s resources + accountability/choice versus just resources.

– A restless electorate means opportunities for both parties, and risk.

…Long term…resolving the tension at the heart of the Democratic coalition matters a lot more — both for the political fortunes of Democrats and, more importantly, for Americans scrambling to give their kids a fighting chance in an unforgiving economy — than who, specifically, the next secretary of education is. The secretary pick is about who has leverage now; the real question facing Democrats is about the party’s future.

You can read it here at The 74.



December 4, 2020

Odds & Ends

Melody Schopp is a former state ed chief in South Dakota, and more recently has been doing some consulting, podcasting, and other projects. She’s also just a great person to work with. She’s starting a new job for SAS this month.

What’s more, she also moonlights, along with her son, as the proprietor of a pheasant hunting operation in South Dakota. Here’s one of my dogs, Harrison, a rescue mutt who outside of hunting snacks is decidedly not a hunting dog, modeling some of their swag.

A lot of chatter about this Politico story about Lily Eskelsen García’s campaign to become the next Secretary of Education.

Seems like it’s not a done deal but a very real live possibility you should not be surprised to see announced. She’s showing she can work with Republicans and is generally well-liked even by those who don’t agree with her. And while I don’t agree with her on some issues she’s certainly a mainstream pick and is confirmable.

On that, a few contextual notes. First, there are a lot of Republicans in the NEA. Second, the NEA sometimes supports Republican candidates. And third, the NEA is geographically dispersed. In other words, while the AFT is very strong in the cities, the NEA enjoys more broad-based support.

There is a fair amount of agreement on a lot of education issues, from P to post-secondary, among Democrats, more than you’d realize from the attention on the disagreements, but she takes a systems/institutions first view of education, which likely sets up some fights over choice, assessment, and accountability. You do hear some grumbling from higher ed types about how K-12 focused this always is, but this time with a first lady who cares a great deal on higher ed policy it’s a different dynamic for someone considering the role.

What should probably worry K-12 reformers is that the Biden people haven’t been shy about pushing back on various constituencies over personnel – the CBC has a list of concerns, for instance – you haven’t seen a lot of that on anything related to education reform, the opposite actually.

Also, as you my have noticed, the President-elect puts a big premium on “firsts” when it comes to personnel and she would be the first Latina to lead the Department.


December 2, 2020


December 1, 2020

Being Open About Being Open

New York City’s recent decision to close schools, followed by this week’s more recent call to open them again, is thrusting the ‘should schools be open?’ question into the spotlight again.

Bellwether is kind of like an iceberg. You see our public work, publications, blogs, and webinars, toolkits, and so forth, but that’s a small fraction of what we do overall. Most of our work is behind the scenes, research, strategic consulting, ghostwritten work, evaluations, and academic advising. The kind of support that doesn’t end up in the public domain.

What do these two things have to do with one another? Well, I get asked about my take on reopening, from colleagues and friends on school boards, in school leadership, and from clients in various roles. It’s a complicated question that doesn’t lend itself to the fever swamp of social media or partisan politics. When I participated in a national reopening guide project this spring it was framed, appropriately I thought, as issues to consider and questions to ask, not exactly what to do because there is no set menu here.

So what’s below is a modest exercise in transparency around the question of the day. It’s what I’ve basically shared with folks when I’m asked for my advice. It’s a lot of verbatim, I just culled emails for the most part for notes. It’s my view alone, and shouldn’t be ascribed to my colleagues, some of whom will certainly see the situation differently and we don’t have ideological conformity at Bellwether. But here’s my take (it’s a few weeks old at this point but the same questions still persist although live instruction seemed a better bet late summer and early fall in many places than now, the approach of close first and open later seemed backwards in some cases). Nothing revelatory, but how I see it:

– Opening, closing, hybrid decisions are very situational based on local circumstances and case rate – nationalizing it has not helped at all obviously and there are clearly some politics in play, too. There is no one right answer for all communities and case rates vary pretty widely and have throughout this.

– The media coverage has often been unhelpful. Anyone who gets Covid is unfortunate, and every loss of a life a tragedy, but unless you know where and how someone contracted it ascribing it to schools or even linking it because a person happens to be associated with a school just confuses the issue. And a lot of places opened early this fall without a big song and dance, pretty classic if it bleeds it leads kind of approach here. Twitter is just a goat rodeo and other platforms a mess, too.

– Seniors seem most at risk, kids the least, but beware the ecological fallacies in all this. And beware the different ways parents perceive risk when their kids are involved.

– Community spread is the issue. The evidence seems to indicate that schools reflect it but don’t cause it. It’s not just bars, if you want schools open you can’t have house parties and the buffet. Small group transmission a problem, too. Control spread, we can have school. Fail to do that, you’re setting schools up to fail – and setting up to fail to control the spread. Everyone has to do their part.

So that seems to point to:

– Live instruction must be flexible, so smaller classes, using schools differently – eg having everyone K-6 in and using middle and high schools as well to space them out. Outdoor where that’s an option. Leaders with fixed mindsets, eg ‘this is our middle school so only middle school students can go here,’ will struggle. Agility, creativity, and urgency are the watch words. Make sure students can access teachers some way when they need extra help – too much suffering in silence in the spring. Look at the places having success, districts and charter networks, some lessons out there. Happy to share some of the best we’re seeing. Basic proactive steps around contact tracing and seating plans and so forth go a long way.

– If full opening is not a good option, and it’s not everywhere, then the priority has to be on at-risk kids and in general a triage approach based on need. Everyone should obviously have a choice based on family health considerations or just personal choice. Student transitions and reentry are an area to think about. 

– Schools have to figure out which teachers shouldn’t be around kids at all during this (comorbidities, immune issues, or age for instance) and find ways to use their skills to serve the mission – and there are a lot of ways given this situation. Students need tutoring, which can be delivered remotely, everyone needs curriculum that works in an online setting. Hybrid raises all kinds of issues that need managing. But this stereotype that every teacher is in their 60s and at enormous risk is ridiculous, median age is low 40s.

– Online is not the same stuff just over the “web,” as the oldsters call it. Teachers need support to deliver online effectively. The course I teach went online this year because of its size and I’m glad the university provided some support on how to make the pivot. It was a learning experience. That’s playing out millions of times around the country often absent good support.

– If you are open for live instruction you need a plan to shut down again on short notice without the circus of last spring and with continuity of instruction, because if historic patterns hold cases will rise appreciably in the winter and in any event any outbreak will mean spot closures and cluster containment.

– Adequate PPE for teachers is obviously essential but that’s defense. Challenge the community to step up – you can’t have the salad bar or no masks, gatherings, and school. If school is the priority then the community has to come together and be responsible to support that. The lack of leadership on this is shocking, The lack of telling people we’re all in this together and so forth, Rationing and victory gardens this is not. Thankfully this is not the war, we’d be writing in German right now.

– Track students. Way too many students falling through the cracks here. It’s an avoidable catastrophe.


November 30, 2020

Odds & Ends, A CEA Head Who Knows Edu…

Light posting lately, other work projects, apologies, or you’re welcome, depending on your perspective.

This article in Persuasion is excellent: to lead Americans must travel. I have been fortunate to travel a lot but if I have a regret from an education standpoint it’s not doing a study abroad when it was available. The article doesn’t convey the business case and model behind why foreign students come to the U.S. so much, but the general point is a solid one. Perhaps though, we should also encourage more domestic travel. This election further entrenched urban – rural divides in politics, we should seek to transcend them because this is a wildly diverse country end to end, traditionally that’s a strength here not a liability as we see elsewhere.

President-elect Biden announced more appointments. Cecilia Rouse, a Princeton economist, will head the White House Council of Economic Advisors. Rouse has done research on a few education issues, including school vouchers in the heyday of the academic voucher debate in the 1990s, and knows the ed issue, so that’s good news. Biden intends to nominate Neera Tanden to head OMB. It’s a controversial pick but over the years OMB has been led by both budget wonks and politically oriented leaders. Tanden fits in that latter mold and should be a fine OMB head, if confirmed. She ran the Center for American Progress for years so you can get a sense of her education views by looking at their work. Not a lot moved around there without her say so.

One thought on the nominations. Personnel always matters, but context and conditions matter more. The high wire charter schools, for instance, find themselves on is a reflection of a failure to change context and conditions. That’s especially odd given the support charters enjoy in general and among key parts of the Democratic coalition.