April 29, 2021


About Last Night

The old joke used to be “don’t forget to talk about education” when a politician was giving an education-focused speech. They were not common. The gag wouldn’t work last night because President Biden is very focused on education. This fact sheet gives you an overview of what he wants to do. Also, and my bias will show here, despite the staggering sums of public money we’re talking about and the masks and sparse attendance it was nonetheless all just so refreshingly normal. I’m not normie on everything but I do like my presidents and government that way. Couple of quick random thoughts.

The barbell is here. It’s hard to miss that while K-12 schools are getting a lot of money it’s mostly being left on a stump for them to grab as they like. Biden’s plans for expanding access to college and expanding early education will spark policy and political fights and show how much the political and policy load will be on the beginning and end of the education continuum rather than the middle. That’s good for Democrats because the politics work better for obvious reasons, but it’s not so good if you think K-12 schools need sustained attention as well.

Programs or personalized? Robin Lake asked about the merits of a four year flexible spending fund parents could choose to spend on early education or post-secondary. It’s an interesting point I’ve wondered about. From where I sit Franklin Roosevelt was one of our absolute best chief executives (yes, I know, but overall) but is the project now recreating the New Deal or creating a new one? That’s the ‘a program for every problem’ approach. Or should we be thinking about how to create flexible and more personalized and portable supports for every American – for instance baby bonds or more robust educational savings accounts that could be spent in different ways? Expanding access to early education and higher education seem like national priorities to me and smart investments in America’s future, but we’d do well to debate the best policies for making those investments in a dynamic way.

Does school reopening have any political traction? I haven’t compared the texts but watching both speeches it seems like Senator Tim Scott talked about opening schools more than President Biden didn’t. That seems interesting if indeed parent frustration here does not dissipate or morph into other issues as the party gets going.

2022/2024 Preview. Scott also seemed to test some lines of attack I suspect we’ll hear more of – especially the culture war issues around schools. It was Biden’s night but we got a preview of the 2022 and maybe 2024 lines of attack from both parties in the two speeches. Scott had a really weak hand to play – with his style and personality Biden hasn’t left a lot on the table for the Republicans to attack – but Scott played that hand reasonably well.* Some education implications there, again unfortunately some of them of the culture war variety.

*Yes, mixed metaphors galore.


April 28, 2021

Don’t Leave Virginia Alone: The New Approach To Math Could Erode Rather Than Advance Equity

Years ago Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent Bud Spillane had a plan to collapse early grades K-2 into an ability group approach. He went around the Virginia county explaining the approach to parents. They generally liked it because it offered customization and a more individualized experience.

Then, at some point parents starting asking, ‘but how will I know when my kid is in the first grade?” And pretty soon the idea fell apart. What Tyack and Cuban call the “grammar of schooling” is indeed potent. People like conceptual approaches, they like knowing when their kid is in first grade more.

I suspect the same fate will befall this idea in Virginia to change the sequence and scope of middle and high school math in the name of “equity.” It sort of already is. As soon as the idea made contact with parents and media the state superintendent submarined it and the Department of Education overhauled their website. (The Washington Post wrote a somewhat credulous story about the whole thing largely blaming the confusion on conservative media, that’s the lede. They changed the website! (Democracy updates the html in darkness?) This Virginia Mercury story has more texture. If you have no hobbies here and here are some video discussions of the issues you can watch. Weirdly, an idea floated to do away with the state’s advanced studies diploma hasn’t set off the same firestorm.

Anyway, it’s unfortunate because the core idea of pathways math is not all bad. It’s hard to argue with helping more students see themselves in math and as math users. And the idea that students need math to sort through information and misinformation they are bombarded by is something I think is pretty on point. Plus, there is an argument that we should rethink math. Thinking about different ways to sequence content makes a lot of sense. Inertia is powerful in schooling. We should talk about this.

The problem here, instead, seems three-fold. Substantively this approach opens the door to further walk back rigor and increase in the opacity of what’s being taught- something that has been happening for a decade in Virginia with all the goal post moving on standards and school accreditation. Politically, it’s going to freak out parents. It’s a misreading of what happened to think this is just unpopular among conservatives. On top of all that, the whole pathways math seems unlikely to actually solve the state’s basic education equity problem despite being billed as equity math or an equity focused approach to math or math through and equity lens.

Here’s the deal. Virginia, like most states, has serious achievement gaps. They show up on the state’s own tests, on national measure like the NAEP, and in various outcome measures like high school diplomas and post-secondary attainment. If you know anything at all about Virginia history this shouldn’t be surprising.

What is surprising is how efforts to address these issues mostly focus on public relations. The state has a long and embarrassing track record of trying to obscure these gaps. Former governor (and current candidate for governor) Terry McAulliffe was more concerned about the stigma of lousy schools than improving the schools. Current governor Ralph Northam campaigned saying that it was unfair to hold “diverse” schools to the same standards as other schools. Under Governor Tim Kaine the state tried via a string of waiver requests to stay one step ahead of No Child Left Behind’s requirements to avoid calling attention to these inequities.

Though the state is starting to disaggregate data Virginia’s own school accreditation/accountability system (which is obviously and understandably on pause given the pandemic) still pays insufficient attention to achievement gaps and is designed more as a public relations gambit for the schools than a serious accountability scheme. The state superintendent describes it here. For their part, Governors Warner and McDonnell tried to do some reforms, made a few dents, but generally ran into an education establishment whose posture toward reform ranged from no, to hell no, on the big stuff.* Now, Republicans are basically awol on the issue, Dems won’t cross adult special interests.

Basically, over the past decade there has been a mostly steady decline in accountability through changes to how the state accredits schools and changes to cut scores on the various tests. All this in a state where 16% of Black and 19% of low-income 8th-graders are proficient in math on the NAEP (for context it’s 46% for white and for Asian 65% so plenty of work to do overall). Meanwhile, state leaders take pride in their ability to fend off reforms of various kinds, especially anything that involves empowering parents.

So here we are. Now, rather than equity strategies aimed at raising the floor – for instance actually focusing on students who are furthest from opportunity, addressing the state’s inequitable school finance system that harms low-income communities, providing parents more choices, and, you know, actually holding schools accountable for educating students – the idea was/is instead that the courses are the problem. If the idea is that equity should be about giving more students a shot at opportunity – especially those denied it – then it’s hard to see this as progress absent a broader set of reforms.

Look, if you want more kids to be able to access math, see themselves as math people, take advanced classes then move that 8th-grade number in the right direction. Dramatically. Those are kids the school system has had, most of them, since kindergarten – more than eight years. And there are plenty of schools that show it can be done. That’s equity – giving kids what they need to succeed. Instead, we’re going to argue about whether or not calculus is exclusionary. Of course it is if you’re shutting the door to it for kids before they’re even out of middle school.

And that’s the problem with State Superintendent Lane’s quick capitulation to kill this story off during a political season**. Lane says the state will keep advanced classes and do some sort of  pathways reform. That’s not a recipe for inclusion or equity. It’s a formula for tracking and making it harder not easier to see just how poorly some Virgina students are being served.

At the end of the day you either believe that as a general matter all kids – across income, race, ethnicity – can achieve if given access to good teachers with high expectations, adequately resourced schools, and a system that expects results as a matter of course not as an exception or you don’t. If you do then you fight to make sure those conditions exist. If you don’t then you fight to change the yardsticks, the rules of the game, and all that. This is about yardsticks.***However you do math, if we don’t have that belief system in what’s possible at the core, the results will be inequitable and disappointing.****

Given how this is being put in a frame of equity and math equity, my fear is that when the dust settles the lesson people will take away is that “equity” is a fraught issue rather than an understanding of the ample work Virginia has to do in order to create a more equitable school system that genuinely gives all students – especially Black, Hispanic, poor, and rural students who are too often an afterthought in a state that fetishizes its  “world class” suburban school systems – a shot.

Preparing a lot more students from more diverse backgrounds to be rocket scientists isn’t actually rocket science. We just keep coming up with new ways not to do it.

*I was on the commonwealth’s Board of Education from 2005-09 and the losing end of votes over a raft of issues about disaggregating by race for accountability.

**Despite Virginia’s history as being a tough off-year election for the party that won the White House in the previous year, in 2021 the governors race looked like a layup for Democrats. And it should be. The state is trending blue as its suburbs grow. A Republican front runner actually cheered on the January 6th insurrectionists. That kind of thing. Yet stunts like this are the kind of issue that could create a backlash and traction. Parents are already frustrated after a year of pandemic disruption. Some are frustrated with school boards they feel are more interested in renaming schools than educating kids in them. Debates about selective school admissions are sharp. And the current governor is seemingly more focused on making everyone forget he was once into racist cosplay and moonwalking than improving the schools. Seems combustible and probably why the walk back was so swift.

***That’s not a left-right thing as much as you might think. Plenty of “woke” lefties now tout ideas about race and math or precision that a few years ago would have been widely derided as racist. 

****It’s not my view, but for the thoughtful counterpoint on that belief system, it’s hard to do better than The Cult of Smart.



April 27, 2021

Odds & Ends: Yellow Hat Charged, Early Ed, Wokelash?

OK, the indictment. Where to start? Well, let’s start with the obvious: 2.5% is a really great rate on a jumbo mortgage.

Also, don’t do crime. Don’t do crime if you’re a leader in education. And also don’t do crime while wearing your signature yellow hat. It will feature in the indictment for sure. There will be pictures. From the indictment:

d. Based on my involvement in this investigation, I have learned that the Yellow Hat is essentially ANDREW’s “calling card.” The Yellow Hat signifies a tie to School Network-1 and his leadership of it. Indeed, the Departure Email answered the question “Who, [in light of ANDREW’s departure from School Network-1] will wear the Yellow Hat?” The emailed answered, “we ALL wear the Yellow Hat!” Publicly available photographs of ANDREW often depict him wearing the Yellow Hat.

Democracy Prep statement here. Not exculpatory. 

The reactions today – and a lot of emails blowing up – range from, WTF?, to wow!, to yup. Some folks pretty quickly rushing to distance (the RIMA episode was bonkers as I recall). And a lot of frustration in the vein of, ‘in roles like that  you have a responsibility not to do certain things.’ If the indictment turns out to be true, then this is certainly one of those things. Right now, though, the plea is not guilty, media outlets are reporting.

Also, context, of course. Every time something like this happens it’s, ‘school superintendents are corrupt’ or ‘teachers union leaders are corrupt,’ or ‘charter leaders are corrupt,’ etc…education is a big sprawling field with a lot of people and a lot of money, this stuff happens.

Elsewhere, Bret Stephens and Gail Collins debating early ed makes you crave percocet. Stephens isn’t wrong that middle schools are sort of a muddle but the idea that we should put emphasis there rather than early-ed (instead of doing both) is the kind of thing you get from undergraduates studying ed policy. Also a lot of framing around how it can help working families (it’s infrastructure now, rube) rather than something that can help kids have an equitable shot at opportunity. To Collins’ credit she gets to some of the research later, but it seems like if you want to get somewhere on early ed framing it as an educational intervention rather than a welfare state issue is a good place to start?

Early ed is great education policy and can help families sounds like a better message than early ed is great for working families and maybe is good ed policy.

Erika Sanzi says a wokelash is coming.


April 26, 2021

WSJ on Rosenwald Schools

The Wall Street Journal features a photo essay on Rosenwald Schools. Highly recommend.

If you’re interested in this period you might also check out The Educaiton of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 by James Anderson. It’s a seminal work that, in my view, should be a fixture of ed school programs. And also Dangerous Donations by Eric Anderson and Alfred Moss.

James Anderson visited with Bellwether at a recent team retreat, terrific experience. This Bellwether deck on education in the American South gets at some of the history as well.


Bob Slavin

Sad news from Baltimore. Slavin had an enormous impact on reading instruction, keen insights and practices on the importance of buy-in at the school level, and positively impacted a lot of lives.


Ed Policy Movie Mashup

In 2016, in advance of the presidential election, Bellwether put out a set of ideas for the next administration. 16 for 16 the pub was called. As it turned out, the next administration didn’t do a lot of education policy. But they’re ideas on a range of issues from food to finance and have national and state applicability. You could do some of them with ARP dollars. Call them the policies that lived.

In 2021 we released “Pandemic to Progress,” a set of ideas about how to actually build back better. Call that a new hope.


April 23, 2021


Odds & Ends: Florida Arrests, LAUSD, Culture Wars…

“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.” Happy Birthday William. Kids like him! He’s relevant today!

If there is a policy issue you really want to tackle Emma Vadehra is organizing the next cohort of Next100.

Security experts generally agree the 2018 Parkland massacre, where 17 people were killed in a school shooting, was a preventable tragedy. The shooter telegraphed his intentions and security protocols at the school were not followed. The South Florida Sun Sentinel won a Pulitzer for its critical coverage – coverage that deviated from the posture a lot of media and education advocates took toward the school administration. Even accounting for the understandable confusion around an event like this, there was some reason to believe the district leadership was not being forthcoming about all aspects of what happened – particularly the discipline history of the shooter and awareness of risk. The debate since has largely been blue v. red despite the seriousness of the stakes and despite the facts that are known not actually fitting cleanly into the various political narratives.

Now the superintendent and a school board member are indicted for perjury as part of an investigation into the shooting. They were arrested late this week. There is a big difference between a perjury charge and a conviction, but this seems likely to invite more scrutiny into what happened.

In Rhode Island it’s blue on blue as education politics there heat up.

Local pollster Joe Fleming, who has advised McKee in previous elections, said in an interview that he expected voters to judge the governor mostly by his performance in guiding Rhode Island through the vaccination and reopening process, noting that the massive infusion of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan had put him in an enviable position. But he could also face further dissension in his own ranks.

“Obviously, the General Assembly knows that if they pass it, it’s going to be vetoed by the governor,” Fleming said. “At that point, it becomes more of a political decision if they have the votes to override a veto and if they want to go that route. But the unions are really pushing the [charter school] moratorium, and there are a lot of union-affiliated people in the General Assembly.”

So you want to run LAUSD?  Here’s your chance.

Significant student free speech case coming up at the SCOTUS. Real First Amendment implications and also jurisdictional questions for schools in terms of the scope of their authority and responsibility. As these student free speech cases usually have, bonus fun fact pattern.

Culture wars…here’s a dispatch from the front in AZ. I’m not a fan of this Florida transgender athlete bill and wouldn’t vote for it if I were in the legislature there, but it’s being mischaracterized in the media based on advocates’ claims and an echo chamber about what it says. Read it for yourself here.