10 Years of Bellwether:
A Case for Nuance

Letter from the Partners

Bellwether staff photo

The world and its problems are complicated — and solutions are loaded with trade-offs. The education challenges America faces are similarly challenging, yet the nuance needed to find common ground, new and interesting ideas, and the most durable solutions to complex problems is often lacking. Conversations about our schools and the students who are most underserved by them take place in a world of tweet-sized takes, short attention spans, and political polarization.

Nuance can be exhausting and frustrating, but it’s how we create stress-tested solutions that hold up in school buildings and statehouses across the country.

When we started Bellwether Education Partners 10 years ago, there was more agreement that our school system needed massive improvements, and there was some bipartisan support for ideas like school choice, teacher evaluations, and rigorous, aligned curriculum.

Those are complicated reforms and sometimes not approached with sufficient nuance, as Bellwether and others pointed out at the time. But today’s climate, fueled by political backlash to change, is even more bereft of attention to the complexities of this work.

Nuance can be exhausting and frustrating, but it’s how we create stress-tested solutions that hold up in school buildings and statehouses across the country.

We have been committed to nuance rather than factionalism since our founding — it’s how we try to resist the faddishness that pervades the education sector.

Bellwether’s team is united around the imperative of improving our schools but diverse in how its members think about doing that.

Bellwether’s team is united around the imperative of improving our schools but diverse in how its members think about doing that.

In this annual report, we look back at 2019 and the entire first decade of our work. We hope you see how nuance permeates our work.

Our Approach

Mission-oriented nonprofit

Bellwether Education Partners is a national nonprofit focused on dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved students. We work with a wide range of mission-driven organizations to answer complicated education policy, evaluation, and strategy questions. Our clients span the ideological spectrum and operate in different parts of the education ecosystem, from school districts and local family foundations to national advocacy organizations and post-secondary intermediaries. We have supported more than 500 organizations since 2010, working with the most diverse cross-section of education organizations in the field. We are proud to share insights from these projects with leaders and practitioners at conferences, in mainstream media, in case studies, and on our blog, Ahead of the Heard.

Leading with Synergy

Synergy is one of the core values that guides how we do our work. Bringing together different approaches in one organization is also our greatest strength and differentiator.

In the last 10 years, we have built both a leading strategic advising practice and a sharp policy and evaluation practice.

In the last 10 years, we have built both a leading strategic advising practice and a sharp policy and evaluation practice.

Depending on the question, we have a variety of qualitative and quantitative ways to help clients find answers using data and structured processes.

Our team of strategic and academic advisers help organizations answer their thorniest questions about sustainability, growth, and culture, while our team of policy analysts and evaluators determine if and how policies, programs, and practices are improving outcomes for kids. These two teams are supported by a core team that ensures our people have the appropriate resources, skills, and tools they need to deliver the high-quality work we’re known for.

Together, our unique blend of approaches alongside our expertise and insights fuel an unparalleled ability to recognize patterns quickly and tailor solutions to the local context in which our clients work.

Nuanced Solutions

Many education debates quickly devolve into false choices among often good, seemingly competing arguments and ideas. We take those ideas and expand them to find solutions that accelerate outcomes and work in various contexts. We've also found that some of best vehicles for our ideas aren't always policy reports or white papers. They can show up in games, multimedia websites, case studies, and toolkits. Take a look at some of our most influential analyses in various formats during the last 10 years.

Lasting Impact

10 Years a Bellwether:
Early Childhood Education

In the last 10 years, early childhood care and education has enjoyed a significant boost in funding and attention at the local and national level. As practitioners, advocates, philanthropic funders, and policymakers focus their efforts on expanding access to quality early care and education, our team has helped them build the organizational capacity and systems-level supports needed to sustain a thriving sector that serves young children and their families well. We’ve also brought together K-12, early childhood, and post-secondary education leaders to leverage shared expertise and build a more sustainable, aligned pipeline that helps children realize their potential.

We envision a stronger early childhood sector, with a well-trained, well-paid workforce; well-funded, well-run providers; and the public policies, systems, and financing that enable families to access high-quality programs. Currently, compensation and prestige of early childhood workers is low, which means that individuals who complete their early education teacher preparation often end up in jobs that pay less than a livable wage. This has significant equity implications, because 92% of early childhood educators are women and 40% are women of color. However, efforts to increase the qualifications (and, commensurately, pay) could reduce teacher diversity if they are not accompanied with supports for current early educators to earn degrees. Bellwether’s work engages these tensions while maintaining a focus on excellent outcomes for children, especially our nation’s most underserved.

Join our new quarterly early learning newsletter to follow along.

Video

Ashley LiBetti on Charter Schools and Pre-K Programs

10 Years a Bellwether:
Charter Schools

The start of the decade saw a boom in the growth and quality of charter schooling. New school models, teacher and leader support organizations, and new efforts to support student success beyond K-12 appeared. But challenges with funding inequity and school buildings persisted, while new concerns about school discipline and declining public and political support for charter schools emerged. As charter growth slows and the sector matures at the top of 2020, we face knottier questions about how to maintain the progress the sector has made and adjust to changing demographics and politics — while continuing to pursue quality, innovation, and equity for kids.

Educating 3 million students across 7,000 schools, charter schools are a permanent fixture in the education landscape. We have used our experience supporting charter and district leaders, engaging with advocacy and community organizations, and advising policymakers to establish a credible, nonpartisan voice about the potential and drawbacks of this alternative model.

10 Years a Bellwether:
Teacher Pensions

In 2010, few people saw teacher pensions as a costly crisis that would affect nearly every American. More importantly, few realized how poorly pension systems worked for teachers themselves. Since then, teacher strikes over wages, an increasingly unaffordable healthcare system, and a drastically aging population retiring at record rates have all put teacher retirement benefits in the national spotlight. Mentions of teacher pensions in the news have gone from hundreds to thousands in 10 years, and we're proud to have helped lead that conversation, explaining the relationship between growing retirement costs, stagnant teacher salaries, and shrinking school budgets.

10 Years a Bellwether:
Commentary

Bellwether has been widely published and cited, appearing in the media more than 8,000 times since 2010. We have become a trusted source on education happenings for a wide range of local, national, and education trade outlets. That's because we don’t take organizational stances. Instead, we share diverse data-driven and sometimes divergent opinions from our staff. The dissonance makes our ideas stronger and ensures that you’re always getting fact-based, level-headed, and stress-tested ideas and commentary.

Nuanced Perspectives and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Our team members come to Bellwether with deep, varied expertise in education, having taught in classrooms, been on charter school authorizing boards and charter school boards, served in state and federal government, worked at advocacy organizations, and led mission-driven education ventures. They live in different places around the country, from the South to the Midwest to the Western mountains to both coasts in urban, rural, and suburban communities.

More than a third of our team identifies as people of color, working to create better outcomes for students in underserved communities who often look like them. Others identify as LGBTQ, politically conservative, and as first-generation college students, pushing us to consider solutions that are inclusive of students often overlooked in our field. Some of our teammates are parents, taking active roles in local school issues that impact their children.

Many organizations are at a crossroads regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) — and we are no different. We're wrestling with a number of questions: How do we elevate the diverse voices on our team in a genuine way? How can we push and engage one another on topics of DEI? How can we truly bring a DEI lens to our client partnerships, from our first meeting to our last? With whom do we need to partner and learn from to better interrogate our practices?

Over the last two years, we have pushed ourselves beyond the foundational DEI steps of diversifying our team or having a DEI agenda item during team meetings by advancing a culture of inclusion. Some of this internal work was originally led by team members who are now part of an independent organization, Promise54.

Last spring, led by an internal working group, we partnered with OneTILT, an organization dedicated to promoting inclusivity. To evaluate our progress and gaps, we conducted a staff survey about perceptions of equity and inclusion within our organization and used the results to develop a guiding DEI vision statement. This dynamic document is a touchstone for how we own our collective responsibility to create a more equitable and inclusive organization and change systems, policies, and practices within Bellwether.

In some ways, we have made progress, and in many ways, we still have a lot of work to do. But we remain committed to becoming the kind of organization that doesn’t just talk about DEI but breathes it every day.

A Great Place to Work

Bellwether was founded on the principle that it’s not good enough to do great work — you also have to create a great workplace to support your efforts. For us, that means putting a premium on flexibility so our team can support clients and the field while making life decisions that make sense for them. Flexibility, trust in people to get the work done, good benefits, and a mix of identities, ideas, and geographies make us unique and give us a competitive edge.

On a scale of 1 to 10 about whether they would recommend Bellwether to a friend, our team averages 9.5, and our staff also report feeling challenged, interested, and recognized in their work. All this is part of why Bellwether was named one of Washington, D.C.'s 50 best places to work by Washingtonian magazine.

Video

Why We Love Working at Bellwether

Bellwether by the Numbers

There's no shortage of nonprofits and consultants interested in education. That makes it difficult to stand out, have something new and interesting to say, and manage to keep the lights on. Luckily, when we started Bellwether 10 years ago, we had a group of founding partners with decades of experience and long-lasting, trusted relationships.

We are thrilled to now have a staff of over 60 people who have worked on more than 800 projects since 2010. We're grateful to our clients, philanthropic partners, and Bellwarians (old and new) who have contributed to building the field's leading education strategy firm.

%
of our leadership team is female
%
of our board members are people of color
Clients Served
Media Hits
Blog Posts Written
Products Created
Strategic plans
Employees
followers across platforms
.5/10
Rating Bellwether Receives from Employees

Testimonials

Galileo logo

Partnering with Bellwether provided us with the analysis that helped develop our vision. And all along the way, Bellwether’s passion for our success provided inspiration to keep us going.

Glenn Tripp
Chief Executive Officer, Galileo Learning
Harmony logo

As a large, statewide school system, it is critical that we foster a collaborative culture within which students, parents, teachers, school leaders, and community members all work together to improve the academic outcomes of our students. Bellwether has allowed us to create communication channels and internal structures that bring the strengths of these stakeholders into alignment to improve the educational experience for our students and help set strategic priorities for long-term growth and success.

Umit Alpaslan
M.Ed., Deputy Superintendent of Schools, Harmony Public Schools
Thornburg Foundation logo

Bellwether was instrumental in helping change the early childhood conversation in New Mexico. Thanks to their methodical approach and engagement with diverse stakeholders, our state crafted an early childhood business plan that has proven to be a roadmap for dynamic growth for the New Mexico's early childhood system. In the two years since the project, our state created a stand-alone early childhood department as well as an early childhood trust fund to sustainably support programs.

Michael Weinberg
Early Childhood Education Policy Officer, Thornburg Foundation