Forward Thinking. Forward Moving.
Bellwether’s 2023 Annual Report
Education’s New Normal
Recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures is the focus of leaders at every level of the education system. Yet three years from the height of the pandemic, it’s clear our education system hasn’t experienced a disruption to “recover” from. Instead, we’re experiencing a new normal in education — one in which in addition to the staggering learning loss from the pandemic the longstanding problems and inequities exacerbated by COVID are proving to be more stubborn than ever and prompting demands from families to rethink the status quo.
As schools open their doors for a new year, leaders and policymakers are grappling with the pressure of this new normal on several fronts:
Persistent Learning Loss
Education’s Fiscal Cliff
Simmering Political Tension
Meeting Parent Demand
Growing Postsecondary Concerns
This is a daunting list filled with plenty of uncertainty. The good news is that across the country, state agencies, districts, charter networks, and nonprofit organizations are working every day to tackle these urgent challenges.
Bellwether was fortunate to work with many of those groups during this past school year — more than 135 across more than 25 states and Washington, D.C. — with a focus on expanding opportunities for systemically marginalized young people. We helped school leaders take instruction in their classrooms to the next level. We helped philanthropic and nonprofit leaders analyze the results of key initiatives and make plans to reach more students despite an uncertain economic and policy landscape. We helped policymakers identify ways to make education funding more equitable in their states so that schools will have the resources to support every student’s unique learning needs.
Over the past year, we shared what we’ve learned in more than 30 reports, resources, and toolkits that offer practical insights for leaders and practitioners across the sector. And through our new Beta initiative, we’re partnering with diverse groups of stakeholders to tackle some of the sector’s most complex challenges.
Along the way, we grew our team to more than 100 full-time professionals, added new part-time advisers and sponsored fellows who are innovators and leaders in the sector, and expanded our expertise in key areas like academic and program strategy, evaluation, and governance to better support our partners.
We’ll continue all this work in the year ahead to move the field forward — because the need for fresh ideas, viewpoint-diverse thinking, and tailored support for leaders and practitioners has never been greater.
Our team of full-time experts — half of whom are people of color — is now more than 100 strong, with deep expertise at all levels of the education system and across the public and private sectors. We’ve continued to build our expertise in key areas to serve a wider range of school systems and organizations. To meet field demand, we’ve grown our team by 82% since fiscal year 2020.
Growing Our Team
Growing Our Expertise
Meet Our Team
Here are just a few of the team members who joined Bellwether over the last year.
Kristen is an associate partner in Bellwether’s Policy and Evaluation practice area. She’s a researcher who specializes in helping education leaders use data to guide decisions and create change — by improving data collection and infrastructure, establishing key performance indicators, and evaluating program effectiveness. This year at Bellwether, she co-authored an analysis designed to help leaders understand and use research on math curriculum effectiveness and a snapshot of student well-being in Washington, D.C. based on student survey data.
Judy Tang Nguyen
Judy is a senior adviser on the Academic and Program Strategy team in Bellwether’s Strategic Advising practice area. She has worked in the education field for more than 16 years and is passionate about coaching and developing leaders to create and sustain healthy ecosystems for excellent and equitable schools to flourish. Most recently, she served as the deputy chief of schools at KIPP Public Schools Northern California, where she led the principal manager team in a region of 17 schools spanning seven cities and served more than 5,000 students. This year at Bellwether, Judy’s work included supporting founding school leaders and current operators to open high-quality charter schools in their local communities in Texas. She also partnered with Education Forward DC to support charter schools that opened during the pandemic with school health assessments and the creation of their 3-year strategic plan. And leveraging her talent systems expertise, she worked with a Georgia-based K-8 charter school to design a school and network leadership model in preparation for their strategic growth plans.
Carrie is a senior adviser and Governance leader in Bellwether’s Strategic Advising practice area. In 2010 she co-founded Charter Board Partners (later known as Education Board Partners, or EBP), the only national nonprofit focused on strengthening the boards of public charter schools and education nonprofits. In 2023, EBP became part of Bellwether — and Carrie now leads Bellwether’s Governance practice, working with staff and clients to raise awareness of the importance of effective boards and provide support for executives and board members nationwide.
Director of Knowledge Management
Brianna is Bellwether’s director of knowledge management on Bellwether’s Core team. She facilitates strong information sharing across the organization by developing systems and resources that ensure team members have easy access to the information they need to do their work — a critical part of ensuring the organization’s stability and success as we grow. Brianna joined Bellwether after serving as chief of staff at College Possible, a national college access and success organization.
The breadth of our work, combined with our national reach, sets Bellwether apart in the education sector. We’ve partnered with more than 600 clients across the country since our founding in 2010. In the last year alone, we worked with more than 135 organizations on more than 225 projects spanning more than 25 states and Washington, D.C. We worked in some of the nation’s largest cities and in rural areas. Our partners included individual schools, charter networks, traditional school districts, state education agencies, region-based intermediaries, funders, advocacy organizations, and nonprofits.
Through advising and planning, strategy development, research and analysis, and implementation support, we supported clients on a wide range of issues — including curriculum and instruction, standards and accountability, educator pipelines, funding policy and strategy, advocacy and engagement, flexible learning opportunities, evaluation and continuous improvement, and postsecondary career education.
Our work continues to generate high levels of satisfaction from our clients, with a net promoter score that significantly exceeds professional services benchmarks.
We also shared what we’re learning in more than 30 publications — research, resources, and toolkits across 10 issue areas that helped lead the field forward. Our team presented at conferences and convenings about our work more than three times each month. More than 120,000 people used our full library of insights during the past year. Bellwether’s work was featured in the media more than three times a month and our experts were called on to provide commentary and analysis across the issues areas we work on.
What Sets Bellwether Apart?
- We’re a nonprofit consulting organization that focuses exclusively on education — from early childhood, to K-12, to postsecondary and workforce readiness.
- We provide direct services to clients and actionable insights for the entire field, helping leaders design and implement evidence-based solutions and policies.
- We offer unmatched expertise and experience across strategy, instruction, and policy. Our team has worked at every level of the education system and has been trusted advisers to school and system leaders, executives, and board members.
- We’re constantly learning, using data and evidence to understand our impact and drive improvement — and helping leaders do the same for their organizations.
- We create customized solutions, developed through an inclusive, viewpoint-diverse process, that meet our clients’ unique needs.
- We prioritize helping systemically marginalized young people — those furthest from opportunity today.
“I can’t imagine covering this beat without relying on Bellwether’s experts to sharpen the context of our reporting. They shape our coverage — but more importantly help guide how we think about and view the wider industry.”
—NATIONAL EDUCATION EDITOR
Our work this year helped education leaders and policymakers rise to the challenges of the current moment and work toward a future where all young people have access to an equitable and excellent education.
Accelerating Academic Recovery
During the last school year, state and national test scores showed that students have lost a staggering amount of learning since 2021 — and that students who were already struggling the most experienced the steepest declines. Millions of students whose educational experiences were upended by the pandemic are running out of time to get back on track so they’ll be ready to pursue their dreams as adults.
Over the last year, Bellwether worked side-by-side with school and system leaders to meet this challenge. Our Academic and Program Strategy team provided coaching and support to more than 60 schools, districts, and CMOs to help them identify and implement improvements to their instructional strategy. The team facilitated six regional and national cohorts focused on strategic planning, continuous improvement, governance, and charter school growth.
Under the leadership of Akeshia Craven-Howell, a partner at Bellwether with more than 15 years of school system leadership experience, we’ve expanded our support for traditional school districts — providing wide-ranging support in areas including instructional practices, talent and staffing strategies, use of time, organizational effectiveness, department-specific strategic planning, and developing and executing an instructional vision.
We also released timely, practical research and analysis to support academic recovery efforts across the country. We published ”Creativity From Necessity”, a toolkit with practical ideas and resources to help school leaders address teacher shortages, based on input from more than 40 experts and practitioners nationwide. And our Evaluation team analyzed survey data to shine a light on student mental health and well-being in Washington, D.C., with lessons relevant to school and district leaders nationwide.
SPOTLIGHT: Understanding Achievement Gaps in Albemarle County, Virginia
Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS), located in Charlottesville, Virginia, hired Bellwether to conduct an instructional practices audit focused on improving outcomes for the district’s students of color. Our team visited 11 schools; interviewed more than 350 students, families, teachers, school leaders, and central office staff; and analyzed relevant quantitative data. We synthesized our findings in three reports that identified root causes of achievement gaps in ACPS and offered practical recommendations. Our presentation of the analysis to the ACPS school board generated significant local media coverage, and the district is implementing many of the recommendations.
Preparing for Education’s Fiscal Cliff
The post-pandemic rebound in public school enrollment that many leaders and policymakers hoped for hasn’t materialized, and long-term demographic trends will continue to push enrollment lower in many districts for years to come. This declining enrollment, combined with the expiration of federal emergency aid over the next year, is straining school budgets at a time when students have more needs than ever. Bellwether is leading the way in helping policymakers understand and address these challenges. Education finance experts in our Policy and Evaluation practice area authored a suite of reports and case studies to help state policymakers and advocates address the immediate challenges of declining enrollment, sunsetting federal aid, and an unpredictable economy — and move the ball on policy changes to make school funding formulas more equitable. Since 2021, we’ve also provided direct training and support for leaders and advocates in 14 states to analyze their school funding formulas and model equitable policy solutions. This multi-year initiative has directly led to policy changes being proposed and passed across the country. And we’re supporting school districts, charter schools and networks, and nonprofits as they prepare for the fiscal cliff — helping them find ways to expand their impact through mergers, expansion, and strong strategic plans.
SPOTLIGHT: Lessons for Advocates on Bold Education Finance Reform
Improving state education finance systems can be a daunting task. But advocates across the country have shown that it’s possible, even in the face of significant political barriers. In ”Making Change: A State Advocacy Playbook for Equitable Education Finance”, Bellwether shared lessons from advocacy leaders in six states — California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, and Nevada — on the conditions that paved the way for positive changes in their education finance systems. We identified five common conditions across these states: coalitions, champions, research, economics, and litigation. The playbook is helping advocates learn from successful efforts across the country so that they can pursue funding reform in their communities.
Leading Viewpoint-Diverse Solutions to Tough Challenges
Political controversies continue to buffet schools as they grapple with other challenges. As politicians on both sides of the aisle argue about topics like book bans, gun safety, and LGBT rights — often without common definitions for the issues at hand — fundamental problems in the sector go unaddressed.
Last August, we launched Beta by Bellwether to help fill this gap in viewpoint-diverse problem-solving. Beta brings together diverse stakeholders to design bold solutions to the most pressing challenges facing our education system. The first two Beta challenges focus on helping families access more flexible educational options that are more responsive to their children’s needs (Assembly), and building a more effective and equitable postsecondary education system (Admission). In Beta’s inaugural year, we released eight publications and hosted three webinars to help the field better understand the lay of the land on both challenges — with much more to come over the next year as we push toward solutions.
SPOTLIGHT: Assembly Advisory Group
Throughout our work on Assembly, a 16-person Advisory Group — representing a diversity of views and roles across the sector — helped pressure test our analyses of the opportunities and challenges in creating more flexible and dynamic learning ecosystems. Through group discussions and debate, feedback on draft materials, and public webinars, the group’s expertise and perspectives helped surface and prioritize solutions to the greatest barriers that stand between families and the educational options that can best meet their children’s needs. We also collaborated with our Advisory Group to engage with a range of partners working to increase access to flexible learning options, including through our Assembly Grant Program.
“It was a great discussion and a great group! I love calls where I can contribute and learn at the same time.”
—ASSEMBLY ADVISORY GROUP MEMBER
Understanding Parent Preferences
Enrollment is declining not just because of demographics, but because families are searching for more flexible educational options that are more responsive to their children’s needs. Some families who switched to charter schools, private schools, or home-schooling out of necessity during the pandemic have yet to return to traditional public school. The proliferation of Education Savings Accounts in many states may accelerate this trend in the years ahead — but questions remain about how to ensure that all families have equitable access to educational opportunities that meet their children’s needs. This year, we cut through the contentious debate about “parents’ rights” in education to help leaders understand what families really want from the education system. Our Parent Perception Barometer synthesized polling data on key issues over time, revealing that many parents need better information on their children’s academic progress and on the supplemental educational opportunities available to them. Through our Filling the Gap program, we partnered with six organizations across the country working to connect families to supplemental learning options — providing a combined $700,000 in grants, leading a cohort experience, and spotlighting their work for others to learn from. And in ”Building Parent Power”, we shared lessons from five organizations across the country that are helping parents exercise their individual and collective power to make change in their school systems.
SPOTLIGHT: Convening Leaders to Discuss New Learning Options For Families
As part of our Beta Assembly initiative, Bellwether hosted a series of webinars that brought together researchers, system leaders, and advocates to discuss what it will take to help families navigate a growing landscape of flexible educational options — from expanded tutoring programs to community-based extracurricular programs to alternative school formats. These conversations helped hundreds of leaders and policymakers better understand evolving parent preferences in the wake of the pandemic, the barriers to meeting them, and the support families need from every level of the education system right now.
Building Stronger Postsecondary and Career Pathways
The rising cost of college and prominent debates about student loans have put questions — and misconceptions — about the value of a traditional four-year degree front and center. Bellwether tackled this issue head-on this year through our second Beta initiative, Admission. In the initial phase of this work, we published a landscape analysis showing that while a college degree, on average, holds a lot of value, the return on investment is inconsistent and opaque — turning postsecondary education into a high-stakes gamble for many students. We identified three factors — clearer information, better navigation support, and more high-quality pathway options — that could be the basis for a more equitable and effective postsecondary system, and we’ll be working with a diverse group of stakeholders to expand on that vision over the next year. We’re also helping to build more coherent links between the K-12 system, the postsecondary system, and other career and workforce readiness programs. This work includes examining career pathways programming in key states, providing strategic planning support for college access organizations, advising multiple funders on their grantmaking strategies in this space, and conducting a multi-year project examining state higher education funding, among others. And we published a report, ”Expanding Opportunity”, spotlighting career pathways initiatives in three states and offering recommendations for policymakers nationwide working to create and grow these programs.
SPOTLIGHT: Supporting Career Readiness in Chicago Public Schools
Bellwether partnered with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to reimagine how the district supports career awareness, exploration, and preparation — a key component of its three-year blueprint. We worked with the district’s Office of College and Career Success and key leaders across the district to create a strategic plan for the work based on an analysis of the career education landscape, lessons from other large urban school districts, and stakeholder input. We also helped CPS create a vision and plan for integrating “NEXT” (non-college, enlistment, experience, and trades) pathways into existing postsecondary advising experiences for students. And we worked with the district to develop a yearlong cohort experience for postsecondary advising teams across 15 high schools, including summer training and workshops throughout the school year. We’re now helping CPS scale this program to every high school in the district.