Charters & Choice

On today's Room for Debate series at the New York Times, participants from the education community address the thorny question of disruptive behavior and discipline in charter schools. Essayists included Tim King of the Urban Prep Academies, Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter of the Century Foundation, and New York school principal Carol Burris. Here's Fordham's own Mike Petrilli on the critical benefits of behavioral codes in charters.

It’s not a particularly new or radical idea that schools need to be orderly places. Great teaching and learning takes focus and concentration; constant disruption and anxiety due to chronic violence are the enemies of that.

What is new, or at least newly controversial, is the notion that that we need to prioritize the needs of the vast majority of childrenthe ones who come to school wanting to learn. Yet the needs of these students are often overlooked in today’s debates, as some advocates focus narrowly on the consequences for disruptive kids. To be sure, we should worry about the “school to prison pipeline,” and shouldn’t suspend or expel students any more frequently than necessary. But we also shouldn’t allow disruptive students to hold...

Editor's note: This post first appeared in a slightly different form on Watchdog.org.

Republicans are still gleeful after their 2014 victories in the U.S. Senate and statehouses across the nation. They should be, but they should also take heed.

A CNN exit poll shows that, despite historic wins, Republicans still lost with women voters, voters under forty, non-white voters, low-income voters, and more.

On top of it, as many commentators have noted, the U.S. Senate map is much tougher for Republicans in 2016 than it was in 2014, and Democratic enthusiasm and turnout are sure to be substantially higher in a presidential election year than they were on Nov. 4.

To win in two years, Republicans simply must develop new coalitions of voters. As Woody Allen said, “Showing up is 80 percent of life,” and the Republican Party is beginning to do just that by starting conversations with traditionally Democratic voters. The efforts have yielded some results, too, with positive signs in Florida, Texas, Colorado, and elsewhere.

Conservatives surely need to continue the getting-to-know-you phase, but they must then move the conversation with persuadable voters to concrete policy proposals that can help reduce poverty and open paths to the American Dream.

As I’ve ...

Charter schools are quickly becoming a defining feature of Ohio’s public-education landscape, educating over 120,000 children statewide. Also known as “community schools” in Ohio, charter schools have several distinctive characteristics: They are schools of choice, they operate independently of traditional districts (and some state regulation), and they are held contractually accountable for their results by a charter school authorizer.

The “theory of action” behind charters is fairly simple. Empower parents with choice, give schools greater freedom, and hold schools accountable to a contract—and higher student achievement, more innovation, and stronger parental engagement will follow.

But how does theory stack up against reality? Are Ohio charters actually producing better results than their district counterparts? One way to answer this question is by analyzing student achievement data, and since 1999, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) has been the nation’s foremost independent evaluator of charter school performance. 

Today, CREDO published a report on the academic performance of Ohio charter schools. It found that Buckeye charters, taken as a whole, continue to produce mediocre results. With state test scores in math and reading from the 2007–08 to 2012–13 school years used as the outcome measure, the study found that,...

The charter school sector in the United States encompasses forty-two states and the District of Columbia, with 6,400 charter schools serving 2.5 million students. More than 1,000 authorizing entities oversee these schools, working under state laws that (ideally) balance the twin goals of school autonomy and accountability for results. This report, produced by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), examines the quality of those laws. NACSA has identified eight policies that facilitate the development of effective charters, including performance management and replication, default closures, and authorizer sanctions. States are awarded points based on the strength of each of these policies in their charter school laws. Since each state has a unique charter-authorizing landscape, NACSA has divided the states into three groups based on their similarities and then ranked states within each group. The groups are: 1) district authorizing states, 2) states with many authorizers, and 3) states with few authorizers. Ohio—with its 70 authorizers—was placed in group two along with four other states (Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, and Michigan). NACSA awarded Ohio a score of 18/27, enough to tie for third in its group (along with Missouri). While Ohio earned top marks for its default closure policies and...

Jack Schneider

Editor's note: This post is the second entry of a multi-part series of interviews featuring Fordham's own Andy Smarick and Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at Holy Cross. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Education Week's K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric blog. The first entry can be found here.

Schneider: We ended our previous conversation with some skepticism on my part—about whether the charter model itself (rather than particular charter schools) would be any better than district governance. I'm wondering if you can articulate the theory of action there.

Smarick: My theory of action began with a hypothesis about the problem. The more I studied urban districts, the more I became convinced that there must be a systemic explanation for why none of these entities could muster the results we wanted. A number of books helped me piece together an initial answer, including Kolderie's Creating the Capacity for Change; Hill's Reinventing Public Education; Chubb and Moe's Politics, Markets, and America's Schools; and New Schools for a New Century, which Diane Ravitch edited with Joe Viteritti. 

I also looked outside of education, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the same themes surfacing. I found Osborne and Gaebler's ...

Jack Schneider

Editor's note: This post is the first entry of a multi-part series of interviews featuring Fordham's own Andy Smarick and Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at Holy Cross. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Education Week's K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric blog.

Schneider: I see a place for some charters in the K–12 system, created under particular conditions, and governed by a specific process. 

Some, however, claim that we'd be better off with a system entirely composed of charters

You're a charter booster. Where do you land on this question?

Smarick: In short, I envision a future where all or nearly all of a city's public schools are charter schools. (Note that I'm only discussing city school systems here.)

Though I'm generally disinclined to fundamentally alter longstanding institutions, urban districts have, for fifty years, proven themselves wholly incapable of producing the results our kids deserve. And we're talking about tens of millions of low-income kids who have been assigned to schools in these persistently failing institutions. While I admire the people who have tried their best to improve urban districts, the results fall miles short of what's needed. So we need a dramatic break from how things have been done.

Now, I remain open to the idea of the...

Last week, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute teamed up with the London-based Education Foundation to host a conference, “School Leadership: Lessons from England”; to publish a new paper by University of Pennsylvania professor Jonathan Supovitz and the Center for Policy Research in Education, Building a Lattice for School Leadership: The Top-to-Bottom Rethinking of Leadership Development in England and What It Might Mean for American Education; and to release a short documentary, Leadership Evolving: New Models of Preparing School Heads.

The catalyst for all three was the aggressive reform effort of the English government over the past decade to revamp that country’s approach to school leadership. At the center of the reform is the eminently sensible idea that school leadership needs to be a team endeavor.

No, it’s not a new idea. There’s been plenty of discussion about “distributed leadership” on both sides of the pond for years. But while we’ve mostly jawboned the idea, the Brits got busy doing it.

What they did in particular was clarify and formalize three levels of...

I recently wrote about exciting new charter school results in Washington, D.C.. More kids are in high-performing charters, the number of high-performing charters is growing, and the number of struggling charters is shrinking.

But why?

For lots of reasons; D.C. has great school operators that are expanding; the charter law is quite good; the city has valuable support organizations; and public support has helped insulate the sector from unfounded attacks.

But among the most important factors is strong authorizing. That’s why you should read the new case study of the D.C. Public Charter School Board (PCSB).

By way of background, PCSB is regarded as one of the nation’s ablest authorizers. It’s a “single-purpose entity,” meaning that it only does charter authorizing, and its schools educate nearly half of D.C.’s public-school students. (And my Bellwether colleague Sara Mead is a member of its board.)

The report provides solid information on PCSB’s history, structure, schools portfolio, activities, processes, budget, staffing, and governance. Charter authorizing across the nation would improve (and charter performance would improve as a result) if PCSB’s lessons were widely adopted.

Even if you’re not as devoted to...

As my Bellwether colleague (and D.C. Public Charter School Board member) Sara Mead wrote last week, new information on the performance of the Washington, D.C. charter school sector is extremely encouraging. And while the strong and improving achievement scores are terrific news for kids and families in the city, they also offer even more reason to believe that chartering—if done smartly—can replace the district system for delivering public education in America’s cities.

First, the basics and headlines: For several years now, PCSB, the only active charter authorizer in the nation’s capital, has made public the results of its “performance management framework.” This school-assessment tool provides a comprehensive set of information about schools in PCSB’s portfolio. And, more than ever, that information should give us all cheer.

Each school is rated across a number of indicators (and all of that data is accessible), but it is also placed in one of three categories, with “Tier 1” reserved for schools that are excelling and “Tier 3” for schools performing well below expectations.

In 2014, nearly 12,500 students attended twenty-two Tier-1 schools; that was a...

Flanner House Elementary, an Indianapolis charter school, closed just weeks into the 2014–15 school year by a vote of its board (under heavy pressure from the mayor’s office, which was the school’s sponsor) after an investigation revealed widespread cheating on tests in previous years. This seems like a prudent course of action, given the information known and despite the havoc it wreaked on the lives of its students. A protracted closure process would have been far worse for them.

The most striking thing about this story is the praise received by the mayor’s office in the wake of the closure decision. As reported in Education Week

[The Indianapolis mayor's office]…assigned charter-office employees to communicate with parents on a biweekly basis.

"We had a tracker that listed when we called families, the nature of that communication, next steps that we agreed to, and then we worked with those families to meet their needs," which included buying school supplies and new uniforms, Mr. Brown said.

The mayor's office also hosted two enrollment fairs where parents could talk with leaders from nearly 30 schools and could enroll their children on the spot.

"What we saw is that...

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