Ohio Policy

Too much of what we hear about urban public schools in America is disheartening. A student’s zip code—whether she comes from...
NOTE: This is the introduction to Fordham Ohio's latest report— Pathway to Success: DECA prepares students for rigors of college...
Earlier this week, the Ohio Department of Education announced a new award for schools that exceeded expectations for student...
Ohio’s student growth measure—value added—is under the microscope, which provides a good reason to take another look at its...
Last month, Attorney General Mike DeWine toured Citizens Academy, one of the eleven charter schools in the Breakthrough Schools...
Auditor of State Dave Yost
I am a conflicted man. Professionally, I lead Ohio’s auditing staff, a team of financial experts whose job it is to verify that...
The passage of comprehensive charter school reform in the form of House Bill 2 was supposed to move charters past the...
In K–12 education, states have historically granted monopolies to school districts. This tradition has left most parents and...
Since their inception in 1999, Buckeye charter schools have grown rapidly. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter...
Since the passage of House Bill 2 , much attention has been paid to how Ohio’s charter sector can build on policy reforms and...
When Mayor Nan Whaley came into office in 2014, she showed great political courage in making education a top priority, something...
Editor’s note: This is the second post in a series about the performance of Ohio’s urban high schoolers. The first post examined...
If you follow Ohio education news, you’ve likely seen coverage of the breakout success of College Credit Plus (CCP). Local papers...
Regular Gadfly readers know that we usually rely on two metrics when analyzing school performance—Ohio’s performance index and...
On February 25, 2016, Ohio released report cards for the 2014-15 school year—the first in which the state administered next...
Management sage Peter Drucker once said, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” In recent years,...
The 2015 Fordham Sponsorship Annual Report is our opportunity to share the Fordham Foundation’s work as the sponsor of eleven...

“In a private meeting at the White House in 2014, Mr. Obama told a group of young black activists that change was ‘hard and incremental,’ one participant said at the time. When some activists at that meeting said they felt that their voices were not being heard, Mr. Obama replied, “You are sitting in the Oval Office, talking to the president of the United States.”

—“Obama Says Movements Like Black Lives Matter ‘Can’t Just Keep on Yelling,’” The New York Times, April 23, 2016

At the opening plenary session of the New Schools Venture Fund meeting in San Francisco earlier this month, CEO Stacy Childress promised attendees that the meeting was going to “push” them to explore issues of race, equity, and education. For some, it was a face push. The session featured a panel discussion between a top Teach For America executive active in the Black Lives Matter movement, an activist concerned with the plight of undocumented youth, and a USC sociology professor who brought half of the audience to its feet with a remark (as paraphrased by someone in the room) that “the story of America is the story of progressive social movements, government, affirmative action, the GI bill, and Obamacare.”

“There were moments when I wondered, ‘Are we going to talk about anything but personal narratives and how terrible structural racism is?’” asked this attendee, a senior executive at a national education nonprofit. “When are we going to talk about education?”

A few days later, a piece ran in Education Post with the headline “How an Elite Education Reform Conference Felt More Like a #BlackLivesMatter Rally.” It was a compliment, not a complaint.

Like the proverbial frog in a pot, education reformers on the political right find themselves coming to a slow boil in the cauldron of social justice activism. At meetings like New Schools Venture Fund and Pahara (a leadership development program run by the Aspen Institute), conservative reformers report feeling unwelcome, uncomfortable, and cowed into silence. There is an unmistakable and increasingly aggressive orthodoxy in mainstream education reform thought regarding issues of race, class, and gender. And it does not include conservative ideas.

Signs of the leftward lurch are unmistakable. Senior leaders within ostensibly mainstream reform organizations like Teach For America are comfortable publicly embracing controversial movements like Black Lives Matter. TNTP’s CEO Dan Weisberg wrote in a blog post last year claiming that “organizations like ours have not been vocal enough about the obvious—that issues of racism, poverty, justice, and education are interconnected.” Henceforth, he promised, TNTP would “speak up more loudly about the many barriers—inside and outside our schools —that stand in the way of success for too many American children.” Reformers are routinely pilloried as racists and bigots if they deviate from narrowly cast views on race, gender, income inequality, and other elements of the social justice agenda.

One veteran conservative education reformer describes himself as “furious and frustrated” by the increasing dominance of social justice warriors in education reform and the marginalization of dissenting views. “It's an existential threat,” he notes. “Any group that only associates with likeminded people is susceptible to becoming extreme, inflexible, self-righteous, and losing its ability to see its own weaknesses.” This opinion was echoed in a series of interviews with other prominent reformers—most right of center, though not all—in the past week. One sign of the dominance of the new orthodoxy: Almost none were willing to be quoted on the record. “I'm involved in too many fights,” says one. “I can't pick another.”

Some will surely dismiss this as mere whining by “voices of privilege” who find themselves on “the wrong side of history.” But that would be a serious strategic mistake, as ideas from the right have a lot to contribute to the reform conversation. Conservative theories of action are based on strong evidence of two claims: that markets have taken more people out of poverty than any force in history, and that full membership in civil society gives individuals and their groups power, builds social capital, and enables communities to thrive and express themselves fully. These are ideas that need no apology and merit a full hearing. “We conservatives do not cede the moral high ground,” one reformer told me. “If the social justice warriors are convincing themselves that to be conservative means not caring about the disadvantaged, then they don't understand conservatism.”

As a purely practical matter, if education reform is widely perceived as aggressively left-leaning or politically militant, there could also be a steep legislative price to be paid. At the state level, charter schools, choice, school and teacher accountability, and other standard elements of the education reform agenda depend heavily on support from Republican governors and conservative legislators. “The people who have led and continue to lead for school choice and charter schools, for teacher performance and accountability, are conservative,” says Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform. “They’re not going to embrace [the social justice agenda]. If that’s what reformers lead with, they will lose.”

Another longtime reformer, a political independent, agrees. “What could really become a problem is the spread of any ideology that essentially says, ‘Hate is so baked in that it’s futile for us—people of color, trans people, whoever—to cooperate with you any further,’” he said. “I’d hate to lose the next Howard Fuller because people believe you can’t be a social justice warrior and also be a pragmatist who can make alliances and get victories.”

One of the few identifiably right-leaning reform figures willing to go on the record about reform’s drift is Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, who has written often about the informal agreement holding the left-right education reform coalition in place. Conservatives who see education as “the foundation of an opportunity society and a path to eventually shrinking the welfare state” have “accepted a massive increase in federal authority, an expansion of race-conscious accountability systems, and a prohibition on talk of parental responsibility and the virtues of the traditional family,” Hess wrote in the National Review last October. Liberal reformers didn’t have to bend quite so far, he noted. “They mostly toned down their demands for new public programs and took care not to accuse their conservative allies of bigotry.”

This informal agreement has collapsed. A cursory glance at social media is all the proof needed that social justice warriors in education no longer feel any compunction about accusing their conservative brethren of racism and worse. Liberal reformers “have decided that it’s a mistake to separate education from the Left’s broader economic and social agenda,” Hess notes. More and more, he notes, “They suggest a school reformer’s stance on immigration, gay marriage, transgender bathroom access, and urban policing are the measure of his seriousness.”

In many ways, the emergence of a dominant social justice orientation within reform is utterly unsurprising. The work naturally attracts the idealistic young people deeply moved by calls to make the country more equitable and fair. They eagerly sign up for Teach For America and have filled the classrooms of inner city charter schools for a generation. As they grow within the movement, surrounded by other like-minded souls, the conditions are ripe for an intellectual monoculture to take root. It mirrors a phenomenon that New York University professor Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, has described and warned against within the context of college social sciences departments. “I was getting more and more concerned about how I began to see the social sciences as tribal moral communities becoming ever more committed to social justice, and ever less hospitable to dissenting views,” he said in a recent interview.

Haidt’s phrase—a tribal moral community less hospitable to dissenting views—is an apt description of the brand of reform on display at gatherings like New Schools and within Pahara. “You only get to go to those things if you’re invited. And you’re only invited if you know people who are in the clique,” notes a senior executive at an education policy nonprofit. “If you’re the head education policy advisor for the Senate Education Committee in Texas, chances are that you don’t know anyone who is part of this clique. You don’t get invited to Pahara or New Schools. And those things just end up promoting the groupthink.”

The risk is that, left unchecked, “groupthink” could rot reform from within. For years, resistance to reform efforts has coalesced around the idea that it is impossible to make meaningful difference in outcomes for low-income children of color until or unless we “fix poverty first”—a view firmly rejected by a generation of reformers on both Right and Left. It seems conceivable that among education reform’s emergent tribe of social justice warriors, “Fix structural racism first” will become the new “Fix poverty first,” creating a deep and irreparable schism. However earnest, honorable, and sorely needed, there is a point at which a conversation about race, gender, poverty, health care, and immigration is no longer principally about improving schools. Education reform’s social justice and school improvement wings may eventually have to reach a new unspoken agreement: that they are simply in different lines of work.

Some on the Right are convinced that social justice warriors need right-wing reformers more than the other way around. “The best and longest-lasting education reforms across the charter and choice space are those that were forged by once-strange-bedfellow coalitions of Right and Left,” said Allen. “It requires alliances with people who, by virtue of not being tied to the traditional Left coalitions of unions and those who believe money is the answer, can actually get laws get passed that buck the status quo.”

In the meantime, there’s a lot of sitting silently and seething. “I remember finding these reform-y gatherings self-congratulatory a decade ago, but at least they were talking about doing worthwhile things—starting great schools and organizations to improve educational outcomes for poor kids,” says one NSVF attendee. “There is almost contempt for that idea now."

Is there a more annoying manifestation of our political and cultural divisions than the debate over school discipline? On the Left is the “restorative justice” crowd, clamoring for an end to “exclusionary” practices before critical questions about the impact of this step have been answered; on the Right are the “no-excuses” folks, asserting the necessity and efficacy of suspensions based on the blithe assumption that they promote order and safety.

At times, both sides seem to view dialogue and consequences as mutually exclusive, even though common sense suggests they might be usefully combined. Any decent parent penalizes bad behavior and insists on an apology when one is warranted (as do many educators). Yet at the policy level, in loco parentis is too bipolar for that. For the discipline doves, disparate suspension rates are proof not just of racial bias (which is only part of the story), but of the indefensible and counterproductive nature of punishment generally. (Never mind that this logic would obviate the need for courts and prisons if applied outside the schoolhouse.) For the hawks, no policy is too shortsighted and socio-emotionally indifferent to rationalize by invoking the sanctity of the learning environment. The possibility that suspended students might return to class less engaged and more disruptive troubles them not.

As a former teacher, I see the problem—and our moral obligations—from a hawkish perspective. Disruption is a utilitarian’s nightmare, and the damage it inflicts on other poor kids should give Rawlsians pause. Yet when it comes to solutions, I am dovish, if only because some hawks exhibit so little imagination. “Out-of school-suspension" isn’t a synonym for "consequences,” and it’s a poor deterrent for kids who struggle with attendance. Moreover, the very notion of deterrence is problematic for students whose past trauma makes impulse control a challenge.

What’s my solution? Nothing that could be described as groundbreaking, I’m afraid. Unfortunately, there’s no rigorous evidence linking any discipline system to improved student outcomes. Still, two points seem reasonably clear to me: First, disruptive students have a negative impact on their peers. Second, out-of-school suspension is harmful to the suspended student. (Contrary to popular perception, the evidence on this latter point is almost entirely correlational, though it’s hard to see how time away from school could be beneficial.)

Assuming both of these points are accurate, the implications seem straightforward: We should separate disruptive students from their peers when their behavior becomes unmanageable. But when this happens, one of two things should occur, if at all possible: Either a student’s education (broadly defined) should continue elsewhere in the building or he or she should be expelled or counseled out to an alternative placement so that it may continue outside of it. The second of these options should be reserved for extreme cases, while the first might be implemented using any of the following: a “cooling off” room where students could go when their behavior is disruptive; some form of in-school suspension entailing a longer separation from the rest of the student body (for serious offenses); or a common schedule for chronic disruptors so that their impact is confined to one classroom.

All of these strategies share the same goal: enlightened triage. In an ideal world, such triage would be truly enlightened because every warm-bodied adult in the building would be part of an organized rehabilitation effort, making “time-out” or “suspension” more like group tutoring or therapy. But I won’t hold my breath.

Like the alternatives, this approach has risks. Minimizing out-of-school suspensions means keeping more disruptive students in the building, while embracing triage means trusting educators to be judicious—even though the marginal student always makes life more difficult. Still, I suspect that many “tough” schools already pursue some version of the strategies I’ve described (at least informally); if keeping kids in the building is the goal, they are all but inevitable. For example, when Chicago Public Schools limited the use of out-of-school suspensions between 2009 and 2014, in-school suspensions for African American students spiked.

This sort of district action is preferable to federal meddling. In practice, however, the process would ideally be even more localized because “in-school suspension” could mean almost anything in our compliance-driven system. A decline in out-of-school suspensions is most likely to benefit students if it’s achieved from the bottom up.

To that end, I think it’s time for a broader and more honest conversation about alternatives to suspension that honor the majority’s right to an education. For the hawks, that means accepting that disruptive kids should remain in the building if at all possible; for the doves, it means admitting that these kids won’t always be in a regular classroom and that some disparities are probably inevitable (at least in the short run).

How can we end the discipline wars? The way all unwinnable wars must end: with a truce.

BRIEFLY NOTED

  • Education reformers are right to prioritize the closing of “achievement gaps”—the disparities in academic outcomes separating comparatively advantaged (and primarily white) students from their low-income and minority peers. But there’s such a thing as prosecuting the achievement gap beyond its proportion, as this Hechinger Report story on Kentucky schools illustrates. While surveying the state’s testing progress since its (propitiously early) adoption of the Common Core, author Luba Ostashevsky focuses heavily on the fact that white third graders have increased reading proficiency by twice the amount that their black classmates have (4 percent vs. 2 percent). It’s certainly true that we’d like to see those gains realized equitably, but it’s also worth highlighting—and celebrating—the fact that both groups are doing better than they were previously. Regardless of their background, most elementary schoolers know enough math to understand that achievement isn’t a zero-sum proposition.
  • The political challenges around reform can be enough to make you pine for a benevolent education dictator to establish rigorous academic standards, ample choice in schooling, and unlimited recess for all. But put down that scepter, Jefe Duncan—most of the truly important policy decisions are still made at the state level, and that’s why it’s so important to elect good governors. In Governor Nathan Deal, Georgia has an executive wise enough to push for an updated school funding formula and an improved teacher compensation model. But after shooting down two controversial Republican proposals on guns and gay marriage, Deal has lost much of his capital with his own party. Now, GOP state legislators are threatening to block his schooling agenda, potentially endangering a long-awaited plan to create a localized version of Louisiana’s Recovery School District. What’s the point of electing the right guy when he’s not allowed to do the right thing?
  • The New York State Senate is debating whether to extend mayoral control over New York City Schools to Mayor Bill de Blasio. They should extend it, period—executive prerogatives over big urban districts are critical, and the Big Apple derived particular benefit from the system under previous Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But as Manhattan Institute scholar Marcus Winters writes in the Daily News, Mayor de Blasio’s record on education isn’t without blemishes. Quite aside from his demonstrated wish to stab at Eva Moskowitz even from Hell’s heart, de Blasio has made some disquieting moves away from accountability, such as abandoning letter grades for schools. His administration also reportedly plans to eliminate annual student testing growth from school quality reports. With or without mayoral control, New York can do better than that.
  • The average American voter basically knows nothing. Deprived of meaningful instructional time spent on history or social studies during his academic career, he pulls the lever every four years based on no particular sense of what the nation’s leaders should actually be expected accomplish in matters foreign or domestic. Personal attacks win his support; uncommonly punctuated candidate logos leave him cold. That’s why Washington Post contributor David Harsanyi has called for ignorant voters to be purged from the rolls through the use of the citizenship civics test. After all, if you can’t name the current vice president, you shouldn’t be allowed to vote for the next one, right? Well, no, actually—that’s insane. We definitely should not implement a de facto poll tax in the twenty-first century, and here’s hoping Harsanyi’s modest proposal was meant solely in jest. But it’s worth wondering what else we might want to use the citizenship exam for.

A new study uses twenty-five years of data on the Milwaukee voucher program to examine the extent to which factors like school newness, institutional affiliation, market share, and regulatory environment put voucher schools at risk of failure.

Examining data for every private school that participated in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) between years 1991 and 2015, analysts find that 41 percent of the 247 schools that participated for at least one year failed—meaning that they were terminated via regulatory action or else voluntarily shut their doors. Another 11 percent either merged with another school or converted to a charter school. The analysis includes information on both the likelihood of leaving the program and the risk of failing.

Start-up voucher schools and those unaffiliated with a religious institution have comparatively higher risks of failure over time. Simply being a start-up increases the risk of failure by 332 percent, and the risk of leaving MPCP for any reason increases it by about 218 percent. (The average time to reach failure for a failed start-up is 4.3 years, compared to 8.7 for existing schools.) On average, start-up MPCP schools enroll 90 percent of their students via vouchers.

Having a religious affiliation, however, reduces the risk of failure (Lutheran affiliation, for example, reduces the risk of failure by about 67 percent). Market share also matters, as schools are less prone to fail if they increase their enrollment numbers. Analysts also find evidence that some regulation—specifically a cap on enrollment—increases the likelihood that a school would leave the voucher program but not fail. They speculate that some schools chose to convert to charter status as opposed to having their enrollments capped.

These data on start-ups—which make up 80 percent of the failures—are sobering, especially for secular schools. Analysts remark that schools likely benefit from the “corresponding institutional supports and social capital that flow from an archdiocese or religious order.”

Opening schools is an inherently risky business, as is closing them (though we saw positive results in our home state of Ohio). But the risk is worth taking, especially in places where traditional schools stink.

SOURCE: Michael R. Ford and Fredrik O. Andersson, "Determinants of Organizational Failure in the Milwaukee School Voucher Program," Policy Studies Journal (May 2016).

In economics, it’s commonly accepted that specialization maximizes productivity. As Adam Smith preached, specialized workers are better able to hone their skills, become more efficient, and require less transition time between tasks. When Henry Ford divided automobile production into many smaller tasks along an assembly line, for example, output improved significantly.

A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) applies this philosophy to education, exploring whether teacher specialization (strategically assigning teachers to fewer subjects like math, reading, science, and/or social studies) improves productivity in elementary schools. Proponents of specialization argue that sorting teachers by areas of strength allows them to master subject content and spend more time on lesson planning. It may even increase teacher retention rates. In addition, some argue that early specialization might also ease the transition into middle and high school, where single-subject teaching in norm. Others caution that while specialized instructors teach less content, they teach it to a larger number of students. When specialized teachers aren’t able to get to know their students as well and tailor instruction accordingly do learning outcomes suffer?

Author Roland Fryer explores these potential tradeoffs by randomly assigning fifty elementary schools in Houston to treatment and control groups (using a “matched-pair randomization” controlling for students’ prior math and reading scores). “Treatment” schools strategically assigned teachers to subjects in which they demonstrate effectiveness (based on value-added scores, principal observations, and/or other recommendations), while teachers in control schools continued with business as usual—where typically teachers remained with the same set of students all day.

The results were a surprise: Fryer finds that, rather than improving academic outcomes, two years of teacher specialization negatively impacted student achievement in both reading and math. On average, specialized teachers were about 6 percent less effective as their non-specialized peers (as measured by student scores on state tests in math and reading). (Results were even worse for special education students and students with more inexperienced teachers). Students in treatment schools were also suspended at slightly higher rates and had marginally worse attendance.

Fryer speculates that the benefits of sorting teachers based on comparative advantage might be negated by “inefficient pedagogy due to having fewer interactions with each students,” more transition time required between classes, and other coordination-related costs. But most important, he argues, is the fact that specialized teachers have more students and are less able to modify individual instruction effectively.

Before we write off specialization entirely, however, we should note that the study has several important limitations. It was only conducted in one large, urban district, so results aren’t applicable to elementary school students in all districts and states. Participating students were predominantly minorities and had lower achievement scores than other students in the Houston Independent School District. And as Fryer himself explains, schools were only able to reallocate teaching assignments within any given grade at their school; many were limited by the number of staff members teaching certain grades.

Although these findings suggest that the benefits of teacher specialization in elementary schools may not outweigh the loss of individualized instruction, more research should be done to better understand the tradeoffs.

SOURCE: Roland G. Fryer, Jr, “The 'Pupil' Factory: Specialization and the Production of Human Capital in Schools,” National Bureau of Economic Research (April 2016). 

In theory, competition has the potential to boost quality and lower prices. But how is this theory working in education? This report from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice provides an overview of the research on competition in American K–12 education and offers suggestions to enhance the competitive environment.

The report finds that competition in the form of charters, vouchers, and tax credits does indeed inspire competitive gains. But these gains are relatively small. An in-depth literature review reveals that forty of the forty-two studies on the impact of competition on public school students’ test scores find neutral-to-moderately-positive effects. These findings run counter to one of the most common arguments against choice programs—namely, that school choice does academic harm to those “left behind” at traditional public schools.

The report also examines whether school choice acts as a lever to exert market pressure and decrease educational costs. While the answer to that question is unclear, the report did note a discrepancy in the efficiency—defined as effectiveness per dollar—between traditional public and choice options. Charter schools appear to be doing more with less. Although they receive about 28 percent less funding per student than local district schools, they are achieving greater student gains. According to a study by Patrick Wolf and his colleagues, charter schools were able to generate seventeen more NAEP points for every $1,000 in spending.

To increase healthy competitive pressures, the report advocates for attaching funding to individual students and allowing families to freely choose where their educational dollars are spent (the concept behind “backpack funding”). This arrangement has the potential to improve the education system as a whole as parents “vote with their feet” and their education dollars favor the most sought-after providers. Meanwhile, providers that cannot attract the support of families will naturally go out of business. The authors suggest that the best way to realize this form of funding flexibility is through the use of educational savings accounts (ESAs). These accounts give parents the ability to apply public dollars toward their children’s education as they see fit. They can also be used to save for higher education tuition, making parents more conscious of educational costs.

ESAs don’t offer much in the way of accountability for results, though they may increase the market pressures recommended the authors. Until it can be determined whether the savings accounts really do boost student achievement, ESA proponents will face worries about lax accountability and lower educational outcomes.

Overall, the report reveals that observed gains to district schools are modest given the current state of competition and calls for greater action to ratchet up competition—and, ostensibly, student outcomes. The recommendations demand greater innovation, creativity, and flexibility for both district and charter schools—all of which should be taken to heart by policy makers.

SOURCE: Patrick Wolf and Anna Egalite, “Pursuing Innovation: How can Educational Choice Transform K-12 Education in the U.S.?,” Friedman Foundation (April 2016). 

On this week’s podcast, Robert Pondiscio and Alyssa Schwenk look at the radical Left’s attempted takeover of education reform, Common Core’s impact on the achievement gap, and the difficulty in measuring charter school quality. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines whether a teaching exam predicts educator effectiveness.

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