Saturday, February 4, 2023

Bellwether's Big Book O'Data Worth A Look

Bellwether  (formerly Bellwether Education Partners) is an education consulting firm, generally located petty solidly along the American Enterprise Institute-Thomas Fordham Institute axis of education reform. Their huge list of "partners" include those two thinky tanks, the CANs, Teach for America, the Broad Foundation, then 74, the Walton Foundation, American Federation for Children, and a host of other choicey reformster outfits. They have some Bain alumni, including co-founder Mary K. Wells, though co-founder Andrew Rotherham, external relations guy and voice of Eduwonk, is the person you more likely run across on line.

While there is no mistaking their particular bent, this outfit is less about lathered-up advocacy and more about actual facts than some of the brethren (looking at you, current version of Manhattan Institute). Rotherham is on my short list of People I'll Probably Disagree With But I Will Still Make It A Point To Read Them. 

All of which is to lead up to my point, which is that Bellwether has put out a publication that is really worth reading.

Common Ground: How Public K-12 Schools Are Navigating Pandemic Disruptions and Political Trends, by Rotherham, Kelly Robson Foster, and Michael D. Corral is a one-hundred-and-page collection of information from a wide variety of sources. The stated goal is "to help the field separate signal from noise and provide context around various issues and trends affecting the sector." And the report delivers lots of information from diverse sources, a little bit of contextualizing, and no real attempt to dictate what should come next.

Our goal is to provide a clear fact base for discussion about complicated issues. It is not to suggest “right” answers on contested questions. We present a great deal of public opinion data not because we believe the majority position is axiomatically the correct one but rather because understanding the landscape is essential. Reasonable people can and will disagree about the best remedies or policies for much of what we describe here. Instead, we seek to establish a common fact base on the premise that understanding the landscape is the first step toward successfully navigating it.

I'm going to skim the sections so you get a sense of what is in here, but this is not one of those times where I can read it so you don't have to. This is a work that is best dug through yourself (especially if, like me, you're a fan of charts and graphs).

The report starts with an executive summary which is a pretty good wrap up of what's to come. Then we're into it.

School Enrollment

A good timeline of pandemic events, then some breakdowns of enrollment changes. The bulk of lost enrollment was in pre-K and K, but I'm surprised to see that from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020 grades 8, 10, 11, and 12 actually gained. The longer schools were closed, the more students they lost, which goes along with larger losses in Blue areas than in Red. Charter enrollment grew as public declined, but (another surprise) Catholic schools have still not made it back to pre-pandemic levels.

And reminder that when looking at polling info, always have your filters on. The report cites an Education Next survey that shows growing support for various school choice options, and I remain unconvinced.

Student Achievement

Some breakdowns here of how open building vs. remote learning played out, and lots of sifting through various testing data, which, as regular readers of this space know, I am unimpressed by. But if you care about that sort of thing, they've got a bunch, and it is handy to see things like the NWEA results separate from NWEA sales pitches.

Student Discipline

This section is gold. The writers take an even-handed look at an issue on which almost nobody is taking an even-handed look. There's a chart looking at reported discipline problems 2009-19 vs. 2019-20 that shows teachers aren't just imagining things. The section places student discipline as a major reason for teacher attrition. It reminds us that student misbehavior echoes a rise in grown-up misbehavior. It looks at how exclusionary discipline techniques and restorative justice techniques are playing out, underlining that this is complex stuff. Many voices are heard here.

Guns and School Safety

This section also does a good job of sticking to the basics while navigating a hot button issue. It tells the story of how people feel about it, the facts of what is actually happening (guns are now the leading cause of death for ages 1-19, but how many mass school shootings there are depends on your definitions), and why nothing gets done. 

Race and Racism

The authors offer a simple summation of events of the past few years. George Floyd's murder leads to more DEI initiatives leads to more tension over those issues leads to the CRT "political catchall" leads to Trump's DEI ban leads to our current mess. 

This section probably includes the most "analysis," and everyone is going to be pissed off about some part of it. On the one hand, as DEI programs spread, "A toxic blend of political opportunism, ideology, and sloppy implementation of DEI work fueled a conservative backlash." On the other hand, they also say, "CRT became a catchall phrase in part through intentional efforts of some conservative activists." And just in case you wonder what they mean, Rufo's infamous tweet is right there on the page.

Polling data shows that CRT panic was unaccompanied by CRT knowledge. One particular telling poll shows that people support CRT as long as you don't call it CRT. And the writers are clear about the problems caused by anti-CRT laws that are vague and difficult to enforce (though on this they do miss the role of giving the public the right to sue any school they think is being naughty). 

They also offer some data to suggest that the disagreement is not as wide or deep as most people think it is, and that other issues are of greater concern.

LGBT Rights

The US has become more accepting of LGBR rights, but there are big disagreements about how that should play out in schools. The report does a good job of breaking down the underlying issues, and if you've been looking for a clear simple source on which states have landed on which policies, there are good resources here. And they end the section with a sobering chart that shows some brutal realities of life for LGBT youth. 


Would you like even more charts and graphs and stuff? Here you go.

Bottom line

I'm still unlikely to agree with Bellwether or their many friends about a multitude of public education policy issues. But I like this report. I like its focus on data and information without bashing me over the head with their policy objectives. I like having these various sources gathered in one place.

Mosty of all, I read this report thinking that this is what it looks like when someone on the choicer side decides not to use culture war issues as a marketing tool for choice policies, but actually looks at the real, serious issues that are being turned into culture war talking points. Children should not be shot. Discipline is hard to manage in a society that values violence and confrontation. Race remains a core issue for our culture. LGBTQ students go through a lot of awful crap. 

In short, the issues that directly affect students and the adults who work with them are real issues that affect real live human beings and it is deeply tiring to watch these human beings' actual problems ignored by political opportunists looking for a win for their squad. 

But I digress. This report is free and online and worth your time. Everything is sourced (no mystery data here) and while you not agree with everything in these pages, there's still plenty that's useful and informative. 


  1. The intrinsic problem with active and passive behaviors that both disrupt classroom teaching and learning lies with the official "codes of conduct" enshrined as BOE policy. They are intentionally written to be vague and overly flexible to the point of being detrimental - and they set no limits on misbehavior (with very rare exceptions). They are filled with "possibilities, ifs, and maybes" but are missing the one thing that students would actually respond to: reasonable, concrete limits including a redemptive component. A kinder, gentler version of a demerit system that only targets the chronically incorrigible, while deterring those that would follow.

  2. Thanks for the summary. I may just have to read this one, or at least parts of it (cause 100 pages is a lot...thanks for trudging through).

    If a large amount of the attrition is kids ending up in homeschool situation (which, based on the huge amount of increase of people asking about homeschooling on the homeschool forums I'm on, and based on private schools not regaining their previous numbers, I am assuming is a large part of it), the high school gains make sense.

    Even among people who PLANNED to homeschool many never planned to homeschool high school. And this is something where the school experience is a large part of it...if you're not getting the actual high school experience because you're distance learning, sure, homeschooling in stead makes sense. But the kids themselves might be driving this, wanting to get back to friends and other things they've looked forward too.

    With younger kids it's easier to provide that social aspect through groups and so forth while homeschooling, and I think parents are more likely to see benefits like a closer relationship with their child than in high school where they might be leaving more for the child to do independently.