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Ideas matter. In addition to our work with clients, Bellwether Education Partners generates and gathers ideas and policy solutions, analyzes ongoing reform efforts, and writes about and discusses education and education reform. We believe that the work we do to improve education for all students benefits from thought leadership, analysis, and thoughtful discourse around emerging ideas, in order to help challenge leaders and leading organizations to think differently and improve, to coordinate efforts where possible, to inform policymakers and improve the political and policy context, and to share successful approaches with the public education field at large.


In Pre-K and Charter Schools: Where State Policies Create Barriers to Collaboration, authors Sara Mead and Ashley LiBetti Mitchel examine thirty-six jurisdictions that have both charter schools and state-funded pre-K programs to determine where charters can provide state-funded pre-K.


The American education system is in the midst of a strange paradox. Reading and math achievement levels are increasing for 4th- and 8th-graders, but they’ve barely budged for high school students. High school graduation rates are at all-time highs, and more students are going to and persisting in college, but college dropouts are now a bigger problem than high school dropouts. Meanwhile, overall educational attainment levels in the U.S. have slowed considerably, and we’re now 14th on a measure in which we used to lead the world.

In Mind the Gap: The Case for Re-Imagining the Way States Judge High School Quality, Chad Aldeman argues that new, more multidimensional ways of judging high school quality are essential to break out of this paradox. Current state and federal policies on high schools tend to reward schools that perform well on measures like test scores and graduation rates while forcing changes on those that don’t. Instead of focusing on higher-order skills, challenging coursework, and annual progress toward college and career readiness, schools are encouraged to focus on lower-level skills and to push all students through to a diploma, regardless of what they learn. But while the focus on low-level academic skills and high school graduation rates has proved useful in some ways, it won’t be sufficient to drive dramatic improvements going forward.

Fortunately, the conditions are now in place for a much richer definition of what it means to be a successful high school. With the expansion of educational data sources, a critical mass of new information about school quality now exists and is waiting to be put to good use. There is now enough information to create low-cost but sophisticated portraits of high school quality that include measures of student engagement, challenging coursework, and success in transitioning to college or a career.

Read the full report for Aldeman’s recommendations on how to get there.



In terms of retirement benefits, now is the worst time in at least three decades to become a teacher. After years of expansion, a number of states enacted legislation cutting benefits for workers in response to financial pressures. The cuts fall hardest on new and future teachers, particularly for teachers hired after the recession who do not plan to teach in the same state for 30 or more years.


It’s unlikely that the nation as a whole will ever revert back to the No Child Left Behind Act's highly detailed, inflexible rules. We’re three years into the “Waiver Era” and 83 percent of U.S. students—more than 41 million children—now attend schools in states freed from NCLB. The trend is clear: From NCLB’s strict federal rules to the slightly less-standardized waiver rules to the current congressional proposals for reauthorizing the law, the next federal accountability law will most likely return a substantial amount of discretion to states.

In Pacts Americana: Balancing National Interests, State Autonomy, and Education Accountability, Chad Aldeman, Kelly Robson, and Andy Smarick put forth a proposal for a new federal-state relationship called “performance compacts” that would bridge the gap between NCLB’s heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all accountability and the current inclination to overcorrect.

Under such a system, the federal government would work with each state to establish ambitious student performance goals; each state would develop a comprehensive, contextualized plan for reaching those goals; each state with an approved plan would be freed from federal rules on school and district ratings and interventions; and the federal government would monitor state results, extending the length of compacts with those states making progress and revisiting compacts with states where performance lost ground. Ultimately, the federal government would hold states accountable for student outcomes while leaving the details (content standards, assessments, curricula, interventions, and more) to the discretion of each state.

A system of performance compacts could offer a new, bipartisan path forward on federal K-12 policy, striking a balance among the urgency to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students, the practicality of preserving state autonomy, and the need to hold states accountable for results.


Personalized learning transforms students’ daily experiences so that they are customized to their individual needs and strengths. It is rooted in the expectation that students should progress through content based on demonstrated learning instead of seat time.

By contrast, standards-based accountability centers its ideas about what students should know, and when, on grade-level expectations and pacing. The result is that as personalized learning models become more widespread, practitioners are increasingly encountering tensions between personalized learning and state and federal accountability structures.

This paper seeks to help policymakers enable smart innovation and safeguard key accountability functions. By understanding the development of personalized learning and accountability, and articulating the tensions building between them, policymakers can create future accountability policies that work with personalized learning approaches and not against them.

Read more ...

Read Sara Mead's Op-Ed at U.S. News & World Report.


What is the Urban School System of the Future?
The Urban School System of the Future (TUSSF) is a new approach to delivering, organizing, governing, and continuously improving urban K-12 education. School performance, parental preferences, and community needs take precedence. They work together to expand and diversify the educational options available to families and in the process create dynamic, responsive, high-performing, and self-improving urban systems of schools.


Over the past 15 years, Teach For America has grown to a scale, and at a pace, that is virtually unprecedented in education and the domestic nonprofit sector more generally. From 2000 to 2014, the number of Teach for America corps members rose nearly tenfold, the number of alumni increased even more rapidly, and the organization expanded from a handful of communities to 50 cities and rural areas nationally. In the process, it became both the nation’s largest source of new teachers and the largest single recipient of philanthropic funding for K-12 education. Even as it grew, however, Teach For America also sought to increase the impact of its corps members and alumni by improving its approach to corps member recruitment, selection, preparation, and support, and by supporting alumni to take on increased leadership in education.

The strategies Teach For America used to both grow in scale and improve in quality offer numerous lessons for other education organizations seeking to increase their impact on education, as well as for policymakers, funders, and nonprofits outside of education.

In a new report, Bellwether’s Sara Mead, Carolyn Chuong, and Caroline Goodson describe the history of Teach For America’s growth over the past 15 years, the challenges and opportunities it has faced, the strategies it has adopted in response to those challenges and opportunities, and the lessons it has learned.

Learn more ...


Many administrators and educators in rural America believe federal education policy is not designed for rural districts, and that consideration of policy’s unique impact on rural districts is not a priority.


Retirement savings are often described as a three-legged stool: Social Security, employer retirement plans, and personal savings. For many American workers, Social Security is the most consistent portion of the three-legged model, providing a solid plank of retirement savings.

But nationwide, more than 1 million teachers — about 40 percent of all public K–12 teachers — are not covered by Social Security. In Uncovered: Social Security, Retirement Uncertainty, and 1 Million Teachers, Leslie Kan and Chad Aldeman analyze the consequences of this policy choice. Teachers without Social Security coverage face substantial uncertainty and must rely more heavily on their employer retirement plans (state pensions) and personal savings.

Unfortunately, state pension plans leave too many teachers unprotected. According to an analysis of state pension plans’ own assumptions, half of today’s new teachers will not stay in a single pension system long enough to qualify for a pension when they retire. Even for teachers who do qualify, the existing structures offer minimal benefits even to those who stay for 10, 15, or even 20-plus years. The subsequent reality: many teachers not covered by Social Security are left with inadequate retirement savings from their time in the classroom.

At a time when an increasing number of states struggle with teacher recruitment and policymakers are concerned about retirement security more generally, states should look for ways to provide all teachers with secure retirement benefits. Social Security is not sufficient as a stand-alone retirement program. The authors offer case studies from three hypothetical teachers of varying experience levels to show that all teachers, however, would benefit from Social Security coverage as one component of a comprehensive retirement plan.

Download the full report here, or read a condensed PowerPoint version here.


In 1997, the Buckeye State embraced a new approach to public-education delivery, launching a pilot program of community (charter) schools. Since then, the state's community schools sector has grown tremendously. During the 2013-14 school year, 390 schools served approximately 124,000 students—seven percent of students statewide.