Governance

Opt-Out or Cop-Out? A Debate on 'New' Accountability Systems

Opt-Out or Cop-Out? A Debate on 'New' Accountability Systems

Growing numbers of parents, educators, and school administrators are calling for a local "opt-out" from state tests and accountability systems.

Is this opt-out a cop-out? Or would students benefit from a system that their own teachers and principals devised? Should all schools be offered an opt-out alternative, one in which they propose to be held accountable to a different set of measures? What about opt-outs for high-achieving schools or schools with good reason to be different? Would such a system move us toward or away from the goals of the Common Core? As for charter schools, must they continue to be tethered to uniform statewide accountability systems? Or should we rekindle the concept of customizing each school's charter and performance expectations?

The Washington Post profiled Josh Powell, a homeschooled young man, who—having never written an essay or learned that South Africa was a country—had to take several years of remedial classes at a community college to get back on track with his peers. Citing worry for his eleven younger siblings, all still being homeschooled by their parents, young Mr. Powell (now a Georgetown undergrad) urges that homeschooling to be subject to accountability. But just what kind of accountability? That’s a tricky question. This is a fascinating case—and a very touchy subject.

There’s a waiting list of about 1,000 students who want to take part in Louisiana’s new Course Choice program, which currently allows 2,000 youngsters to shop around for courses, virtual and otherwise, that are not offered in their home school. State Superintendent John White says that 100 applications pile in every day and that, to accommodate everybody, he’ll have to scrounge for money. The state Supreme Court has already ruled that a constitutionally protected source of public funding is off limits. White estimates that he’ll need another $1.5 million just to meet the current demand.

After reaching a long-awaited teachers’ contract in April, Hawaii’s $75 million Race to the Top grant, awarded in 2010, has finally been cleared of its “high-risk” label. Essentially, this means that the state will no longer have to endure stricter reporting requirements—and, as noted by Education Week, it is a big confidence boost as the...

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Chuck Edwards

With the passage of the House GOP’s version of the ESEA reauthorization, we have begun to see more public protest against one its key provisions: repeal of Title I’s longstanding maintenance of effort (MOE) requirement, which—in its current form—mandates that school districts each year spend state and local resources equivalent to 90 percent of the previous year’s level or suffer a proportionate cut in their ESEA grants.

Despite House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline’s (R-Minnesota) years-long campaign against MOE, I so far have seen only tepid opposition from the left. (The Center for American Progress has been on the issue for a while.) But MOE featured prominently in the Obama administration’s recent veto threat, which warned that elimination of MOE “could reduce overall investment in public education.” Perhaps this will spark more attention—but the game is not worth the candle. MOE’s teeth were pulled in 1981 by Ronald Reagan. In its modern form, MOE simply can’t do what its advocates say it will do—i.e., maintain a consistent level of state and local investment in education. And, at least in the current political climate, there is no real chance of restoring its bite.

The history

Enacted as part of the original ESEA back in 1965, MOE was one of the original Title I provisions designed to ensure equitable funding for poor kids. To see what MOE was actually intended to achieve, it is helpful to step back in time and review the poisonous...

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Few can deny that Washington and many a state capital are gridlocked today by political partisanship, posturing, and peevishness. Tons of problems aren’t getting solved or attended to because elected officials find themselves unable to reach common ground and have forgotten the art of compromise.

Congress
Washington and many a state capital are gridlocked today by political partisanship, posturing, and peevishness.
Photo by VinothChandar

The highest-visibility version of this takes the form of Republicans and Democrats glaring at each other. Sometimes, however, the main friction is within a party, mostly when strong-willed ideologues on either party’s fringe make trouble for its centrists. All this is exacerbated by the twenty-four-hour news cycle, by everybody’s ability to tweet or blog or otherwise scream in unfiltered fashion what’s on their mind, and by recent redistrictings of legislative and Congressional seats, as well as the proclivity of Americans nowadays to move into politically homogeneous communities. When either party locks up a district or Senate seat, all the political action moves into the primaries, hence into duels within parties, erasing all incentive to negotiate across party lines in order to get anything accomplished. “Avoiding a primary challenge” generally translates into “never compromise with the other team.”

Deal making used to be the norm in legislative bodies....

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StudentsFirst has made a thoughtful contribution to the burgeoning literature on school governance with its new policy brief Change the Leadership, Change the Rules: Improving Schools and Districts through Mayoral and State Governance. In it, the group argues that school boards have been largely ineffective in urban areas and examines two main alternatives: mayoral control and state control—the latter preferably via the “recovery district” model. It’s a short and snappy synopsis.

The Brookings Institute’s Hamilton Project has produced another worthy read: Thirteen Economic Facts about Social Mobility and the Role of Education is organized around three theses: inequality is on the rise against a backdrop of low social mobility; the U.S. is experiencing a growing divide in educational investments and outcomes based on family income; and education and smart interventions can help—such as those outlined in Caroline Hoxby’s Expanding College Opportunities project and Ben Castleman’s Summer Melt study. While the facts themselves are not new, the report offers an accessible and logical assemblage. Dig in!

On Monday, Michigan governor Rick Snyder chose finance expert Jack Martin to succeed Roy Roberts as emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools (DPS). Martin enters the ring with four decades of private- and public-sector experience under his belt, including stints as CFO of the U.S. Department of Education and emergency manager of Highland Park Schools (another troubled school district in the Detroit metro area). What’s more, he is himself a DPS graduate. Martin is surely well credentialed and...

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My friend Jay Mathews, the Washington Post’s longtime education reporter and columnist, has a spectacular history of identifying and profiling great teachers, including but not limited to Jaime Escalante, David Levin, Mike Feinberg, and Rafe Esquith. He is right to find and laud them. His latest tribute to Esquith and Esquith’s newest book, however, turns into another Common Core slam—and another example of idiotic professional development (inflicted, apparently, by some “presenter” on teachers during a “training” at Esquith’s school in Los Angeles). Ugh. Yuck. Sorry about that.

Praise the exception, but remember the rule
Without good policy, we end up with a series of workarounds intended to make a sluggish horse run faster.
Photo by Eduardo Amorim

But there’s an enormous underlying problem that Mathews understands full well, though he doesn’t mention it in this particular column: If American K–12 education contained three million Esquiths and Escalantes, we wouldn’t need Common Core or NCLB or KIPP or choice or value-added teacher evaluations or anything else. But it doesn’t. And it isn’t going to anytime soon. (For starters, as the NCTQ recently documented, even those with promise have miserable preparation programs inflicted upon them.) So we end up with a series of workarounds, must-dos, and compensatory arrangements intended to...

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A first look at the most important education news from this weekend and today:

Fordham's latest

"Be all you can be and become a board member," by Miles Caunin, J.D., Ohio Gadfly Daily

The latest issue of the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics’s annual report on the well-being of America’s children is out, with mostly positive findings. (Inside School Research)

Today, Jack Martin—a finance expert—will replace Roy Roberts as emergency manager of the troubled Detroit Public Schools. (Detroit News)

The Boston School Department refused to release teacher-evaluation ratings to the Boston Globe.

Officials in South Carolina plan to expand the online course offerings of the state’s virtual school. (Digital Education)

In an editorial, the New York Times argues that testing has become overemphasized and that we ought to pay more attention to teacher preparation and implementing the Common Core; the piece also contends that Congress ought to retool school evaluations by adding some weight to indicators other than test scores....

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The charter school movement has inspired a lot of enthusiasm for multi-school networks and their ability to expand, but now it’s time to talk more about how these networks are governed.

Ben Gamla Charter School Clearwater
Why is the successful Ben Gamla Charter closing its doors after one year?
Photo from the Jewish Press of Pinella County

To be sure, it’s less exciting to talk about the configuration and operation of governing boards than it is to talk about scaling up successful charter school models. But this much is true: It’s no fun dissecting the breakdown in governance that has led to a charter school’s closure.

That’s the current reality in Clearwater, Florida. There, the Ben Gamla Charter School is closing its doors after one year of operation not because it performed poorly (most of its fifty students scored well on the state assessment) or because of financial problems (it was thousands of dollars in the black) but because it wrested too much control from its parent foundation.

The National Ben Gamla Charter School Foundation said as much. The South Florida–based foundation has opened eight Hebrew-immersion charter schools throughout the Sunshine State in the last six years, and members of its own board often have overseen the operations and spending at these schools. The foundation installed a board...

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A British schoolteacher, Daisy Christodoulou, has just published a short, pungent e-book called Seven Myths about Education. It’s a must-read for anyone in a position to influence our low-performing public school system. The book’s focus is on British education, but it deserves to be nominated as a “best book of 2013″ on American education, because there’s not a farthing’s worth of difference in how the British and American educational systems are being hindered by a slogan-monopoly of high-sounding ideas—brilliantly deconstructed in this book.

Photo by Christos Tsoumplekas
There's not a farthing's worth of difference in how the British and American educational systems are being hindered by a slogan-monopoly of high-sounding ideas. 

Ms. Christodoulou has unusual credentials. She’s an experienced classroom teacher, she currently directs a nonprofit educational foundation in London, and she is a scholar of impressive powers who has mastered the relevant research literature in educational history and cognitive psychology. Her writing is clear and effective. Speaking as a teacher to teachers, she may be able to change their minds. As an expert scholar and writer, she also has a good chance of enlightening administrators, legislators, and concerned citizens.

Ms. Christodoulou believes that such enlightenment is the great practical need these days, because the chief barriers to effective school reform are not the usual accused: bad teacher unions,...

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GadflyBusted! The Big Apple’s “transfer” high schools—the city’s schools-of-last-resort for struggling teens—saw more students drop out than graduate in 2011–12—seventy-eight more at the forty-four such schools surveyed, to be exact. By contrast, last year at the same forty-four schools, 619 more students graduated than dropped out. The schools’ principals attributed the flop to midyear changes in graduation requirements (tightened to match state requirements), while city officials—claiming that their own policy changes were “minor”—cited increased Regents standards, instead. For our take, see this week’s Education Gadfly Show.

School districts considering arming their teachers and administrators may need to think twice: Insurance carriers have threatened to raise their premiums or revoke their coverage altogether. This is not universal (Texas, for instance, has made it fairly easy for districts to arm employees and insurance providers have hardly batted an eye—now, whether these employees can actually use their weapons is another matter altogether); nevertheless, it is certainly an important development in the guns-in-schools debate.

As contentious as the New York City mayoral race is, the turbulence in K–12 education facing the new leader is more. New York City public schools must deal with implementation of the Common Core standards and the hard-fought (and still-controversial) teacher-evaluation system—and let’s not forget the conundrums of whether or not to continue the Bloomberg-Kline-era reforms, whether to close the city’s failing schools, whether to allow charters and traditional...

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