Bellwether 2020:
Our Year in Review

Letter From Mary

2020 was a year like no other. At Bellwether, we know the ripple effects from the pandemic, economic recession, racial injustices, and related crises over the past year will be felt for years to come — but we also know that we must push forward. In fact, as we emerge from a year full of uncertainties, one thing is undeniably true: Students must continue learning, connecting, and growing, and adults must find better ways to support them, now more than ever.

Although more intense, 2020, like all years, required us to focus on meeting immediate needs while building a more resilient future. At Bellwether, this looked like leaning into our unique vantage point to help provide better solutions and support for America’s young people:

As we emerge from a year full of uncertainties, one thing is undeniably true: Students must continue learning, connecting, and growing, and adults must find better ways to support them, now more than ever.
  • We work at every layer of the education system, including with local, state, and federal government; school districts, charter schools, private schools, and school networks; and supportive community nonprofits, intermediary organizations, foundations, and advocacy groups. In 2020, we relied on this experience and visibility to track and explain complicated federal legislation; host webinars with superintendents, education researchers, and nonprofit leaders; and collaboratively launch a nationwide initiative to deliver virtual summer learning with master teachers. We don’t just work with every kind of organization — we also listen closely to notice patterns, make connections between layers, and bring people together to solve problems.

  • We don’t have one-size-fits-all resources or rigid political agendas. While we keep our eyes focused on dismantling inequities, we also know that complex problems won’t be solved with generic or ideological solutions. No existing set of tools was sufficient to address the challenges of 2020. By engaging directly with families, community leaders, system leaders, and policymakers, we were able to build several practical resources, including a widely used customizable tool for school reopening, an online portal for families with special needs students, and a data dashboard to understand specific needs of first-generation students.

  • We are committed to working directly with leaders on the ground to solve problems locally. Our team is distributed across the country, allowing us to understand — and enhance — a community’s unique context. In 2020, we created case studies of virtual learning in 12 districts and charter networks; offered concrete advice on evaluating student engagement during the pandemic; and embedded with districts in Texas to meet urgent needs around staffing, curriculum, and learning loss. When the cancellation of classroom visits and travel meant we suddenly had staff time to repurpose, we offered as much pro bono support as we could.

Throughout all this, we remained dedicated to our core values and to creating a workplace where our team members thrive. In 2020, we gave staff additional sick days, offered flexibility to those caretaking for children and family or volunteering in their communities, extended project timelines when possible, and offered (and strongly encouraged) multiple self-care days. Our Strategic Advising and Policy & Evaluation teams continued the work despite numerous hurdles, and our Operations team kept the ship afloat and made sure Bellwether had strong and equitable policies in place to support staff. We took multiple opportunities to better equip our team to talk about the outsized role race and racism continue to play in education — both internally and with our clients.

We look ahead with uncertainty about the future but clarity regarding Bellwether’s role in making sure underserved students — especially Black, Hispanic, low-income, and other students who have been historically denied opportunity — receive the education they deserve. We’ll continue working to meet the needs of every student, from early childhood through college and career; helping clients deliver more equitable solutions for students who have been historically denied opportunity; and propelling innovative ideas out to the broader field.

You can read about some of our 2020 work below. Let us know if we can support your work in any way, and thank you for your continued support.

 

Mary K. Wells Best,
Mary K. Wells
Co-Founder and Managing Partner

What We Do

Supporting every layer of the system

Because Bellwether works with the most diverse cross-section of organizations of any education firm, we’re able to build connections that others might not see. We can spot national trends and emerging issues, understand how federal policy lands in different jurisdictions, and build a more seamless sector so well-meaning adults work in concert instead of at cross purposes. We understand deeply how to make change happen by bringing unlikely allies together in service of those most marginalized.

We understand deeply how to make change happen by bringing unlikely allies together in service of those most marginalized.

We know that policymakers must be informed by researchers and communities, researchers need to be informed by teachers and families, foundations should be informed by their grantees, and all layers of the American education system must be in conversation with one another. In our work, we synthesize content knowledge and expertise with our deep networks to make sure the right people are set up to act on our findings and advice.

You can view a selection of our field-facing work and analysis from 2020 below:

Building customized and practical tools

In education there are no simple and magically effective solutions that, if implemented everywhere, will immediately erase gaps between low-income students and their wealthy peers, or solve every classroom challenge facing teachers. When we provide support to school leaders, district staff, or funders, we tailor our work to respond to those affected by program and policy decisions. When we conduct research and present findings, we create deliverables that meet the needs of the end user, whether that’s a printable workbook, one-page tip sheet, or short video. We approach our work with questions, not answers, and remain flexible and adaptable throughout every client project.

When we conduct research and present findings, we create deliverables that meet the needs of the end user, whether that’s a printable workbook, one-page tip sheet, or short video.

For instance, when Basta asked our Policy & Evaluation team to improve a survey distributed to all their incoming fellows, we knew that even the best mathematical formulas and algorithms couldn’t capture how first-generation students envisioned their future careers. Through a collaborative process, we built a diagnostic tool and simple visual dashboard that helps Basta offer customized coaching to their NYC-based students of color and ultimately close the employment gap.

You can read more about our other practical resources from 2020 below:

Working Within Local Context

Customization matters. What’s successful and durable in one place might not stick or, worse, might reinforce inequitable or racist systems elsewhere. Bellwether team members are spread out across urban, suburban, and rural communities and understand this reality deeply. In our lives outside of work, we serve as volunteers, fill appointed political roles, and teach in the places we’ve built our lives. We focus our recommendations on improving education and life outcomes for young people furthest from opportunity while reflecting specific local needs.

We focus our recommendations on improving education and life outcomes for young people furthest from opportunity while reflecting specific local needs.

In 2020, members of our team virtually embedded with six different school districts across Texas to assist their ongoing COVID-19 response. We built close relationships in each district and adapted when circumstances shifted. In the end, we helped amazing principals get better at coaching their teaching staff virtually, generated senior leader plans that kicked off right away, and co-built teacher supports for a virtual academy bringing together all elementary schools in one district. Bellwether advised local leaders during an incredibly hard year without sacrificing nuance, practicality, or impact — and offered lessons that will serve Texans long beyond the crisis we’re living through.

You can read more about our localized work and resources from 2020 below:

Who We Work With

What Our Clients Say

For 10 years, clients have looked to Bellwether to provide thoughtful, non-ideological analysis and strategies that prioritize serving disadvantaged children — and Bellwether continued to deliver on this promise, even in a tumultuous year that changed the state of education overnight. Whether working with individual schools, charter networks, school districts, or community organizations, we helped our clients keep the focus on doing the greatest good for kids.

Tulsa Public Schools logo

The Bellwether team was so knowledgeable and supportive, and had a real gift for taking big ideas and thoughts in our heads and making them into real, actionable items on paper. They were flexible and extended so much grace to our team as we’ve navigated going back to school during COVID-19, which was greatly appreciated.

Jessica Stittsworth
Program Manager, Tulsa Public Schools
Cullen Foundation

We have consistent quality from Bellwether. They’re excellent listeners and have taken the time to learn about our community and what makes us unique, including our challenges. Their team is also sensitive to our board members and have built trusting relationships with them, making our discussions more productive.

Florine Luhr
President, Cullen Foundation
Project Basta

When we asked Bellwether to build the Career Readiness Diagnostic, we knew we’d be working with a partner known for their excellent partnership and quality of work. What we hadn’t anticipated was how much the team would roll up their sleeves alongside us to tackle the unexpected challenges and questions that came along the way. Bellwether didn’t just deliver an excellent product, they helped create an even better one through their collaborative approach and commitment to helping us build a first-of-its-kind tool.

Sheila Sarem
Founder, Project Basta

Our Impact

Bellwether as a Trusted Source

Bellwether is known in the field for producing data-informed insights and analyses rather than pushing organizational positions. This allows us to recruit an ideologically diverse team; serve as a trusted and reliable source for local, state, and national media; and influence conversations across our sector. Here are some pieces from 2020 that quoted our staff and work:

Our Insights and Commentary

While Bellwarians share many traits — deeply passionate and caring, talented at work and beyond, tenacious in the fight for educational equity and excellence — we don’t collectively believe in one single way to improve education. Our team’s varied skills, backgrounds, and perspectives help us find the best possible answers for our partners and the field, and shine through in our diverse (and often divergent) commentary on education’s most urgent issues. Here are some of our op-eds from 2020:

By the Numbers

different projects
pro bono hours during the pandemic
different organizations served
%+
projects that were repeat clients
#1
most downloaded resource in Bellwether’s history: the COVID-19 toolkit
#1
most read post on Eduwonk: Bellwether’s statement on solidarity
million+
views of Bellwether blog content
+
times that Bellwether was cited in the media daily on average
followers across platforms
webinars/panels Bellwether participated in or hosted
published reports and resources
total team members
new hires
states where Bellwarians live
%
of Bellwarians identify as women
%
of Bellwarians agree that Bellwether is making progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion
new team pets added to the Bellwether family
New hobbies that our team exploredice skating|watch repairing|snowshoeing|gardening|perfecting the art of bread, pizza, and cocktail making|TV marathon-ing

What Bellwarians Say

With Bellwether staff already embedded in communities across the country, our organization understands the terrain of remote work. However, the pandemic presented new challenges, limitations, and responsibilities for everyone and pushed our team to lean into one of our most treasured core values: flexibility. As we took on and adapted to new ways of work — with clients and one another — Bellwarians left 2020 with a renewed sense of commitment, curiosity, and excitement about the future of how we best serve students.

Lauren Miller

During a year when millions of women have been forced to drop out of the workforce to take care of their children, I’m deeply grateful for Bellwether’s support as I figured out how to balance my work and family needs. I’ve been able to adjust my schedule so I can take care of my daughters, and continue supporting my clients and working toward my professional goals. I couldn’t have done this without Bellwether’s commitment to flexibility and the new policies to support the team during the pandemic.

Lauren Miller
Associate Partner, Strategic Advising
Matt Repka

I felt compelled to write an op-ed about the pressure on schools to carry on with the school year despite our collective failure to contain the pandemic...and one of the greatest things about that experience was getting feedback on my writing that pushed my thinking and the framing of my argument. People come to Bellwether from all kinds of different backgrounds — local government, state government, district schools, charter schools, research…having access to that span of knowledge has been tremendous for my personal growth and has improved the quality of my work and writing.

Matt Repka
Senior Analyst, Policy & Evaluation
Ebony Lambert

The pandemic has been hard to live through and watch, and we’ve seen the inequities it’s exacerbated for Black and Brown students and other marginalized groups. At Bellwether, I’m heartened by our push to keep equity at the center of what we do. Our team has so much experience, and we’re able to draw on our knowledge of what has worked in the past to consider what change is possible now and in the future. We’re pulling together best practices and strategies to think critically about how to restructure education on behalf of the students who are owed the most.

Ebony Lambert
Senior Analyst, Policy & Evaluation
Mike Boone

Educators are in a unique position of having made some significant shifts as a result of the pandemic. This includes regrounding in equity in teaching and learning, and getting really creative and innovative to address the challenges they’ve faced over the last year. I’m excited to see how schools will keep that creativity and innovation alive as they work diligently to support students, and use these as opportunities to springboard toward closing achievement gaps, educating all groups of students equitably, and building resilience in their work.

Mike Boone
Consultant, Strategic Advising

Photos courtesy of Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action and Pexels.com.