Charters & Choice

  • If you ask a thoughtful question, you may be pleased to receive a smart and germane answer. If you post that question in your widely read newspaper column on education, you’ll sometimes be greeted with such a torrent of spontaneous engagement that you have to write a second column. That’s what happened to the Washington Post’s Jay Matthews, who asked his readers in December to email him their impressions of Common Core and its innovations for math: Was it baffling them, or their kids, when they sat down to tackle an assignment together? He revealed some of the responses last week, and the thrust was definitively in support of the new standards. “My first reaction to a Common Core worksheet was repulsion,” one mother wrote of her first grader’s homework. “I set that aside and learned how to do what [my son] was doing. And something magical happened: I started doing math better in my head.” The testimonials are an illuminating contribution to what has become a sticky subject over the last few months. Common Core advocates would be well advised to let parents know that their kids’ wonky-looking problem sets can be conquered after all.
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We’ve learned a few lessons about school choice over the past few decades. Key among those lessons are that quantity does not equal quality and that conditions must be right for choice to flourish. Good intentions only take you so far; sturdy plants grow when seeds are planted in fertile ground. 

We learned as much five years ago when we teamed up with Rick Hess on America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform, a study that explored the ideal conditions for school reform at the city level. We found that too few of our big cities possessed the talent, leadership, infrastructure, culture, and resources to beckon enterprising reformers and then help them succeed.

But we also found some innovators on that list of cities, many of which served as “proof points” and role models for stodgier places. (Especially notable were New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and New York City.)

Now we’re back with a “spinoff,” America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Choice, which focuses on school choice specifically and considers many additional questions—but again demonstrates the spectrum of receptivity to fundamental education reform when one looks across cities.

Priscilla (Penny) Wohlstetter, a distinguished research professor at...

In May 2015, a coalition of stakeholders from business, philanthropy, and education organizations in Cincinnati announced a new public-private partnership called Accelerate Great Schools (AGS). AGS’s goal is to grow the number of high-quality seats in Cincinnati by developing and expanding schools and models that deliver outstanding results for kids. On Wednesday afternoon, AGS announced the recipients of its first two grants.

The first, worth $128,000, will support Cincinnati Public Schools’ (CPS) work with TNTP (formerly known as The New Teacher Project) on attracting, supporting, and developing school principals and assistant principals. As we’ve written before, school leadership is critically important, especially given how difficult it is to recruit and select strong candidates. At an event in October, we heard from Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Lori Ward that it’s particularly difficult for large urban districts to recruit and retain effective principals. Heather Grant, from the Aspiring Principals Program in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, emphasized the importance of ongoing support and development. Thanks to AGS, principal recruitment and development are about to get a whole lot better in Cincinnati. The new CPS grant will assess how the district handles recruiting,...

Robin Lake and Michael DeArmond

At CRPE, we believe strongly in taking a city-wide view of education. The reality of urban education these days is a complicated mash-up of schools run by districts, charter providers, independent private schools, and sometimes even state agencies. It’s usually the case, however, that research reports (e.g., the NAEP TUDA, the CREDO studies, the Brookings Choice report) focus only on a small portion of that picture. We were therefore happy to see that Fordham’s new study on school choice took a specifically urban view to identify the most “choice-friendly” cities in the country. As Rick Hess described it, the report is basically a gardener’s guide: Through an exhaustive array of indicators, the authors have developed a list of soil components that they believe should make for a healthy choice environment.

We produced our own city-wide indicators a few months ago. In Measuring Up: Educational Improvement and Opportunity in 50 Cities, we assessed all public schools on a variety of outcomes: what share of schools were performing above other schools with similar demographics, how quickly all the cities’ schools (both charter- and district-run) were improving compared to other schools in the state, what percentage of low-income students had access to high-performing schools,...

National School Choice Week (NSCW) may fall in January (rather than December), but it seems to herald a season of hope this year. Signs of progress can be seen in the week’s sudden prominence (the first NSCW featured 150 events, while 2016’s features over sixteen thousand) and in the long list of mayors and governors officially recognizing it. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Over the last few years, political will seems to have coalesced around the issue. Families and educators are taking to the streets to defend their schools, and local leaders are responding to that pressure with action. As more voters come to value their educational options, it’s starting to feel like every week is School Choice Week.

Still, we should be wary of spiking the football prematurely, given how much work remains to be done in some parts of the country. At the end of last year, Fordham published one of the biggest studies in its history, and certainly the most detailed and wide-ranging survey of urban school choice ever conducted: America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Choice. Using an array of indicators touching on everything from funding disparities to the tone of local media...

As my Fordham colleague David Griffith wrote late last year in a post accompanying the release of The Best (and Worst) Cities for School Choice, resistance to the spread of parental choice in education is futile. The genie is out of the bottle, and there’s no going back. That’s not to say that political resistance from some quarters will simply die down, or that we’ll proceed without setbacks. Far from it. But as choice in general and charter schooling in particular continue to grow, they build formidable constituencies. Nobody is marching across the Brooklyn Bridge to defend Common Core or standardized testing. But parents whose children benefit from choice are not going to surrender it without a fight.

The most important questions about school choice are no longer “whether,” but “how” and “where” and “which kinds” and “how many.” And the most interesting debates are no longer waged between choice advocates and opponents, but within the school choice movement itself. Just like the raging family feuds within each of our political parties, the divisions are real. And they run deep. That’s because the movement’s “big tent” now has factions in its various folds and corners that agree on parental choice but little...

Education Cities is a nonprofit network of thirty-one city-based organizations in twenty-four cities that works to “dramatically increase the number of great public schools across the country.” As a practical matter, that means they champion, convene, and court high-quality charter schools to open or come to their respective burgs. They call the local folks who do the courting “harbormasters.” Like their nautical namesakes, these figures “facilitate safe and cooperative navigation in a challenging space.” Thus, this report functions as advice. It seeks to answer a few questions: “What do operators want? What roles and activities of local harbormasters are most, and least, helpful to those running great schools?” The answers, although not particularly surprising, are worthwhile. Good charter operators want to go where there’s a need, where they are wanted (e.g., a pro-charter political climate), and where they can reliably attract talent in the form of both teachers and leaders. Funding support, either directly or through opened doors, doesn’t hurt either.

So what does an education harbormaster do, exactly? One or more of the following: They invest in high-quality school growth, strengthen talent pipelines, advocate for choice-friendly policies, and/or rally community support. The report is based on interviews with eighteen...

  • Career and technical education is one of the best weapons in the reformer’s arsenal. It’s a proven gateway to post-secondary credentials and skilled jobs, which can’t be taken for granted when so many of our high school graduates find themselves unprepared for college and career. The Gadfly was apoplectic when Arizona Governor Doug Ducey green-lit $30 million in cuts to the state’s CTE programs last year, reducing their funding by nearly 50 percent. These classes obviously benefit the ninety thousand students they serve annually, but they’re also a boon to the local and regional economies, which profit immensely from a domestic source of coveted technicians and tradesmen. It’s great news for all, therefore, that veto-proof majorities in both houses of Arizona’s state legislature are ready to pass legislation repealing the cuts. If ever there was a case of government electing to be pennywise and pound-foolish, it was this.
  • Republicans and teachers’ unions have always been like peas in a pod. We’re not sure where the love affair started, but it was probably when they spent all those decades impugning and seeking to destroy one another. Okay, kidding aside, we’re all aware of the historic tensions existing between unionized teachers and the
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The Snowzilla edition

In this week's podcast, Mike Petrilli and Brandon Wright explain the schisms in the school choice movement, defend career and technical education programs, and discuss Eva Moskowitz’s big speech on school discipline. In the Research Minute, Amber Northern describes the effect of teacher turnover and quality on student achievement in District of Columbia Public Schools.

Amber's Research Minute

Melinda Adnot, Thomas Dee, Veronica Katz, and James Wyckoff, "Teacher Turnover, Teacher Quality, and Student Achievement in DCPS," NBER (January 2016).

I’ve dedicated a big part of my career to expanding school choice. I think it’s the right thing to do for kids, families, educators, neighborhoods, civil society, and much else. In fact, I’m convinced that years from now, students of history will be scandalized to learn that we used to have a K–12 system defined by one government provider in each geographic area.

“Do you mean,” they’ll ask, “that kids were actually assigned to schools based on home address, even if those schools were persistently underperforming?”

But probably the most important lesson I’ve learned over the last fifteen years—the reason why school choice progress moves so slowly—is this: An education system without school choice makes perfect sense from the point of view of central administrators.

In fact, the district-based system (a single public sector operator of schools) that we’ve had for the last century is extraordinarily rational when viewed from above. A city has lots of kids, and those kids need to be educated. A central schooling authority will take care of it.

The central authority looks at a map and partitions the city into similarly populated sections, each with its own “neighborhood school.” For simplicity’s sake, those schools can be named...

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