A New Initiative to Tackle Education’s Big Problems

Rotherham: For all the rhetoric around 'reimagining' and 'reinventing' schooling, there’s precious little to show for it. There's another way


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It’s not news that the education sector is stuck. After several years of often disastrous COVID-19 policies, students and families need American education’s best and most urgent effort. But for all the rhetoric around “reimagining” and “reinventing” schooling, there’s precious little to show for it. Instead, experts operate in silos to find solutions, reform and pandemic fatigue abound, and dysfunctional reactionary politics define various debates. 

When I first started doing policy work, a more heterodox and collaborative approach  was often the norm. Behind the scenes, people worked together to find common ground, even when it wasn’t easy. It was not unusual to be in a room with people you disagreed with on a variety of issues but could find ways to get things done on particular ones. That’s rare in today’s culture, where toxic partisanship, pervasive fears of getting piled on social media or just quietly shunned by colleagues constrain intellectual life and keep the sector in a rut. Even when there are glimmers of progress, it’s more often because of blunt political force than real efforts at consensus. You can’t run a school system or the country on 50% + 1-style politics. 

There’s a better path forward.

Beta by Bellwether, launching today, is a new initiative bringing viewpoint- and background-diverse experts together to tackle big problems and develop blueprints, strategies and tools that can help communities address structural educational problems. We’re building on our 12 years of work at Bellwether bridging policy and practice with a perspective that should be mundane but in this climate seems radical: the belief that the best ideas often lie between different perspectives and are strengthened through serious debate. No faction owns solutions, good ideas or virtue. 

We’re starting with an initiative called Assembly, examining how America can ensure that families and students have equitable access to an array of flexible learning options like tutoring and pods and extracurricular activities like sports. Three briefs we’re releasing today explain what Assembly is, as well as its potential benefits and pitfalls; recount how public schools came to serve so many student needs; and describe the existing landscape and emerging trends.

Among our findings:

  • As the school year gets underway and results from spring testing are finally being made available, it is clear that both parents and educators want better opportunities for learning.
  • Parents now spend more than $200 billion annually on supplemental educational opportunities for their children — an enormous sum even in the context of the more than $750 billion dedicated to public education by local communities, states and the federal government. Though assembling an array of services isn’t new, the amount families are spending has skyrocketed. Much of that $200 billion is the affluent wrapping support around their kids, not help for middle- and lower- income families trying to make sure their children have what they need.
  • There’s enormous promise in assembling a more customized approach to schooling, but also real risks to ensure quality and equitable access to services and support. One area of particular interest is Arizona, where landmark finance reforms in Arizona may have tremendous ramifications for a more assembled education.

Today is just the start. Ultimately, the work of Assembly will lead to actionable tools and policies that empower families to build  a more customized “assembled” education for their kids.

In addition to Assembly, in the near term, Beta by Bellwether will focus on two other entrenched challenges in education. We plan to help find new, sustainable and politically realistic ways to address redlining and how the U.S. housing market inequitably drives the public school system. And we will investigate ways to equitably expand access to quality postsecondary college and career opportunities. Longer term, we are looking at additional projects and ideas. 

Each Beta project will produce bold ideas for the field and ultimately share tailored solutions with entities and partners best positioned to drive them forward, including education and community leaders, policymakers, advocates and service providers — or some combination thereof. We will develop this work by bringing together a group of experts with diverse takes on the problem as well as different backgrounds, experience and perspectives on it. By tackling issues this way, we hope Beta will provide a path toward resolving enduring challenges as a sector. Like so many, we’re exhausted with reflexive partisanship — not every problem has an exclusively Democratic or Republican solution to it. We’re hungry to come together in search of new ideas and equitable solutions are not just theories, but can be put in place to improve schooling now.

Why is Bellwether taking this on? For more than 12 years, our team, now 90 full-time professionals, has bridged policy and practice. But perhaps even more importantly, we’ve bridged the factions that have come to dominate the nation’s education debate. We have progressives, liberals and conservatives on our team. We have members who see great power in school choice and others who are skeptical that choice can deliver more equitable outcomes. On many complicated and contested questions, you’d get 90 slightly or substantially different answers from our team. That’s because we believe in both viewpoint diversity and an empirical, evidence-based approach to education questions. In other words, we appreciate the essential role of openness to debate, error and learning, and thoughtful dissent in driving progress. We’ve held to that approach even as it has come under pressure and fallen out of fashion. It makes our work better and is the only path to durable solutions that avoid the latest policy and political fads. 

All this matters far beyond Bellwether or this Beta initiative. Whether the future of public education is energetic and innovative or a dreary slide into mediocrity and irrelevance is up to all of us. Beta by Bellwether won’t solve these problems by itself, but we want to do our part to tip the balance toward a genuinely reimagined future.

Disclosure: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Joyce Foundation, Overdeck Family Foundation, Charles and Lynne Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Stand Together Trust and The Walton Family Foundation provide financial support to Bellwether and The 74.

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