Charters & Choice

On the Rocketship: Expanding the high-quality charter school movement

VIDEO: On the Rocketship: Expanding the high-quality charter school movement

Richard Whitmire’s forthcoming book, On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope, is “the best account yet of what is happening with charters,” says the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews. But big questions still abound: Can Rocketship and other high-performing schools scale up quickly, a la the “Fibonacci sequence”? Can charters do so without falling into the pitfalls of the past? Will struggling urban areas embrace this form of school choice? And what about smug suburbs?

Join the Fordham Institute for a conversation with Whitmire and a panel of experts about his book, the Rocketship network, and the future of charter schooling. 

While some folks are busy marching and complaining and “going to war” over ed reform and school choice efforts. And while pundits are looking for the next big thing to boost student achievement and promote the best and brightest in teaching and accountability, there is one place where the arguments are already settled.

I found a little bit of peace last week in this place - an oasis where all school choice is fait accompli. All options coexist happily and productively, geography doesn’t matter much, and student success is the only thing on folks’ minds.

Where is this Shangri-la? The school uniform store.

In this serene place, charter schools commingle with district schools and with private schools of all stripes (Catholic, Christian, nonsectarian). Schools from a 25-mile radius are all represented there with no turf battles or rivalries, even though their various sports gear is side-by-side.

The staff of the store is friendly and helpful to all who come in, whatever school they have chosen, and they are knowledgeable about the requirements for all those schools and make sure that parents know that this skirt is required and that top is optional. To them, it’s all about the right fit. Literally.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could substitute the word “uniform” for “options” and everything else stay the same?...

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The Rocketship charter network, founded in San Jose in 2006, has had a growth trajectory worthy of its name: it already operates nine schools, and its goal is to educate 25,000 students by 2017. Benefiting from  unrestricted access to its board and schools for a year, journalist Richard Whitmore presents us with an engaging read that provides a history of the Rocketship education project, set in the context of America’s growing charter-school sector. The story features two protagonists: John Danner, the Silicon Valley victor who now aims to reduce America’s achievement gap, and Preston Smith, a more traditional educator and supporter of Danner’s lofty goal. The pair pinpointed three factors necessary for success. First, talented educators: recruiting heavily from Teach for America, they retained these teachers in unusually high numbers by fast tracking their careers. Second, a blended learning model: they used adaptive software to deliver individualized instruction to all students while also reshaping traditional school staffing and budget arrangements. And third, reach the parents—mainly from low-income and minority backgrounds—and prod them to become education activists. The gains in Rocketship’s first school were unparalleled. However, the model proved challenging to replicate, and early expansion efforts faltered, forcing the founders to reassess their goals. But as Whitmire pointed out in a recent interview with EdNext, Rocketship has a unique ability to fix problems on the fly (“when they hit a wall, they reinvent themselves”). And having tweaked their learning model, school test scores—and replication—are back on track again. Throughout the...

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USA! USA! USA!

Brickman and Victoria talk principal hiring, Common Core moratoriums, and charter accountability. Dara tells us about barriers to improving schools.

Amber's Research Minute

Policy Barriers to School Improvement: What's Real and What's Imagined? by Lawrence J. Miller and Jane S.Lee, (Seattle, WA: Center for Reinventing Public Education, June 2014).

Fordham has long been a supporter of results-based accountability for private-school choice programs. In January, we released a “policy toolkit” that recommended, among other measures, that all students who receive a voucher (or tax-credit scholarship) be required to participate in state assessments and that those results be made publicly available at the school level (except when doing so would violate student privacy).

This rustled a few libertarian and conservative feathers: the folks at Cato called this “the Common Coring of private schools,” James Shuls yelled “Don’t Test Me, Bro!,” and Jay Greene reversed his lifelong commitment to standards-based reform.  (Many wonks opined in support of our accountability recommendations, too.)

While we didn’t agree with the all of the arguments forwarded by our friends, we did come to see the risk to private-school autonomy and innovation that a test-based accountability system could create. We also understood the particular sensitivity around using Common Core tests for this purpose. So in April, in the National Review, we offered an olive branch:

Without backing away from our commitment to the inseparability of the two tracks of education reform, we see room for compromise on specifics. Yes, some degree of transparency and accountability is essential for all choice schools. We don’t buy the argument that we should leave it to “parental choice alone”; experience in the real world demonstrates (here as in every other market that we know of) that some external quality control is needed if

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In which Michelle admonishes Governor Jindal

Michelle and Brickman discuss pausing accountability while states transition to the Common Core, the perils of playing politics with Eva Moskowitz, and Governor Bobby Jindal’s Common Core bluster. Amber schools us on teacher prep.

Amber's Research Minute

2014 Teacher Prep Review: A Review of the Nation’s Teacher Preparation Programs by Julie Greenberg, Kate Walsh, and Arthur McKee, (Washington, D.C.: National Council on Teacher Quality, June 2014).

Over the past three weeks, Fordham’s Flypaper blog hosted the charter school wonk-a-thon, an exercise in punditry and policy analysis that exceeded all expectations. (Congrats to our winning wonk,Joe Siedlecki of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.) Let me ambitiously attempt to synthesize the major arguments into a unified theory: the Wise Wonks’ Hierarchy of Charter School Quality.

At the bottom of our pyramid are Charter States in Name Only. These are the ones with nominal charter laws but very few actual charter schools. That’s because they only allow entities to authorize charter schools that don’t like charters (i.e., traditional school districts) and/or because they provide paltry funding and/or because they don’t offer schools the autonomy that would make starting a charter worth the effort.

One level up, we find Bad Charter Sectors. These are the states at the bottom of the heap when it comes to test-score gains as measured by CREDO* and other sophisticated analyses. (No, test scores and score gains aren’t everything, but let’s assume for now that these indicators relate to the other stuff we also care about, such as long-term student success.) Their charters mostly falter because of some combination of low-quality authorizers (unselective when handing out charters, unwilling to shut down low performers) and mediocre funding. (In a few cases, such as Arizona, there were major problems in...

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Ladies and gentlemen, the voters have spoken and the wisest wonk in the land is…

Joe Siedlecki of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, edging out Michael Goldstein of Match Education, 35 to 27 percent. It’s the biggest upset since Brat beat Cantor! (Granted, that just happened Tuesday.)

Stay tuned for my take on the wonk-a-thon, coming early next week. Until then, Joe, enjoy the sweet, sweet victory, and blast this song around your home all weekend long.

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The World Cup vs. Underwear Models

Amber and Michelle talk teacher tenure, selective high schools, and the stunning upset of Eric Cantor. Dara takes over the Research Minute with a study on whether vouchers "cherry pick" the best students.

Amber's Research Minute

Contexts Matter: Selection in Means-Tested School Voucher Programs,” by Cassandra M. D. Hart, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 26(2), June 2014: 186–206.

A common gripe among choice kvetchers is that private schools that participate in voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs “cherry pick” the best students. This research by University of California professor Cassandra Hart finds evidence to the contrary. After comparing the 2,764 elementary-aged students who applied to the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) scholarship program (participants) to the 555,271 students who were eligible but chose not to apply (nonparticipants), Hart found that participants disproportionately came from public schools with lower academic quality and higher rates of violence than nonparticipants. What’s more, participating students had significantly lower math and reading scores than their nonparticipating peers, giving the lie to the “cherry-picking” argument. Interestingly, Hart also found that, relative to students who did not participate in the voucher program, participants were more likely to attend school in areas with stronger private-school options and weaker charter and open-enrollment alternatives. This suggests that, rather than looking for religious or private schooling in particular, many parents are searching for a better alternative than their zoned school and might avail themselves of quality public-school choices, if such existed. 

SOURCE: Cassandra M. D. Hart, “Contexts Matter: Selection in Means-Tested School Voucher Programs,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 26(2), June 2014: 186–206.

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