Quality Choices

Nationally and in Ohio, we strive to develop policies and practices leading to a lively, accessible marketplace of high-quality education options for every young American (including charter schools, magnet schools, voucher programs, and online courses), as well as families empowered and informed so that they can successfully engage with that marketplace.

Resources:

Our many choice-related blog posts are listed below.


Fordham’s choice experts:


NOTE: This is the introduction to Fordham Ohio's latest report—Pathway to Success: DECA prepares students for rigors of college, realities of life—researched and written by former Dayton Daily News editor and journalist Ellen Belcher. You can read the full report here. It is the first in a series of charter school student profiles.

Too much of what we hear about urban public schools in America is disheartening. A student’s zip code—whether she comes from poverty or economic privilege—often predicts her likelihood of educational (and later-life) success. Motivated by this unacceptable reality, some schools have worked relentlessly against the odds to deliver excellent educational opportunities to students no matter their background. Charter schools in particular have played a role in creating high-quality choices for urban students. Many are led and staffed by incredible visionaries who hold high expectations for all students and have made it their mission to ensure that more inner-city kids make it to (and through) college. When we hear about these schools, it behooves us to pay attention—to celebrate them, study them, and do our damnedest to support them. While there’s no silver bullet for fixing what ails urban public education, there are common undercurrents of

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This is the second in a series of essays marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of America’s first charter school law. These commentaries are informed and inspired by our forthcoming book (co-authored with Bruno V. Manno), Charter Schools at the Crossroads: Predicaments, Paradoxes, Possibilities, to be published in October by Harvard Education Press. We kicked off the series by paying homage to the trailblazers of chartering. Here we address its diverse models and their varying success.

Supporting charter schools requires tough love. It isn’t enough to create them and let kids attend them. They also need to be run with integrity; their books need to balance; their pupils must be safe; and above all, their academic achievement has to be strong, especially when gauged by student growth.

Some of America’s highest-achieving schools are charters, but so are some of its worst. Averaging across all 6,800 of them, some critics declare that their performance is roughly equal to their district counterparts. But such a superficial analysis ignores their variability—the reality that they range from dismal to superb. Let’s look a little more closely.

State variance

A quarter-century in, charter schools are still absent from seven states, and seventeen other jurisdictions have fewer than fifty each. Forty-four...

Earlier this week, the Ohio Department of Education announced a new award for schools that exceeded expectations for student growth, the “Momentum Award.” Any school or district earning straight As on the state’s value-added measures was eligible, assuming it had at least two value-added subgroups (an idea my colleague Aaron explored last year). One hundred and sixty-five of Ohio’s 4,200 schools earned the recognition in its inaugural round.[1] The state also recognized schools and districts earning all As on every report card measure—forty-six schools and two districts achieved this outstanding feat.

We’re most excited about the Momentum Award because it gives credit to schools that make significant contributions to student growth regardless of where students enter in terms of raw achievement. In addition to earning an overall A, winning schools made gains with at least two of the following subgroups: students with disabilities, students who are low-achieving, and gifted students—populations that are often underserved or overlooked.  

It’s been said time and time again that growth measures are essential to any state’s accountability system because they show the contribution a school makes to individual student learning and because they...

  • At the same time we wrapped up our Wonkathon on parental choice under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews published a column on the new law’s implications for school accountability. With authority ostensibly withdrawn from the Department of Education, he wonders which measures—particularly non-academic ones—state-level officials will use to determine whether schools and districts doing right by their students. It’s a question that we originally asked in our accountability system design competition this February, yielding novel proposals for student satisfaction questionnaires, school climate surveys, and the tracking of chronic absenteeism, among others. Mathews’s take is no less rewarding.
  • Meanwhile, developments in Denver are also providing a real-time examination of issues we’ve been exploring this month in our national commentary. District officials there have unveiled a new, three-phase framework for initiating the shuttering of underperforming schools, echoing the recent debate between Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and the University of Arkansas’s Jay Greene on the utility—or futility—of relying on test data for closures. (Jay struck a deeply skeptical note on “distant authorities” using such information to overrule parental demand, while Mike was more bullish on what regulators can learn from test scores.)
  • ...

A new policy brief from the National Alliance for Public Charter schools takes up the contentious issue of “backfilling”—the practice of enrolling new students when existing ones leave. Should charter schools be engaged in backfilling? If so, when do they enroll those students? At prescribed entry points? At will? Or never?

The paper highlights a range of existing approaches to backfilling taken by states, authorizers, and charter operators. Massachusetts passed legislation requiring all charters in the state to fill any vacancy up to February 15 except seats in the second half of a school’s grade span. For example, if a Bay State K–5 charter school has a vacancy in grades K–2 before February 15, they are compelled to fill it; if a seat goes empty in grades 3–5, it’s at the school’s discretion. Washington, D.C. is playing with a new funding model that creates strong financial incentives to backfill. “The goal is to allow for multiple membership counts at all public schools so schools can be compensated for the students currently enrolled, as opposed to those who never showed up or who left mid-year,” the report notes. At the authorizer level, Indiana’s Public Charter School Board requires charters to use...

A new study by Pat Wolf and a few of his graduate students is a formal meta-analysis of the impacts of voucher programs on math and reading achievement. It attempts to set the voucher record straight in the face of conflicting messages coming out of academia, think tanks, and the press.

The authors go through a litany of prior reviews of voucher achievement effects and deem them insufficient, primarily because they include less rigorous studies or omit relevant, rigorous studies. Moreover, they result in divergent conclusions, vacillating from no effect to positive effect to a mix.

Wolf’s meta-analysis, however, includes only experimental studies or randomized control trials—the “gold standard.” They include all such studies ever conducted on voucher programs (both inside and outside the United States) that focused on participant effects and measured test score outcomes in either math or reading, which they found primarily through a comprehensive search of library databases and Google Scholar. (Studies that used outcomes such as graduation rates and college attainment were excluded, as were those not published in English or with English translations.) Included programs could be publicly  or privately funded, or funded indirectly via tax credit scholarships. Ultimately, nineteen studies representing eleven programs met these...

Last week, we received eleven responses to Fordham’s third annual Wonkathon prompt on ESSA and parental choice:

Many observers credit No Child Left Behind with contributing to the significant expansion of parental choice in American education over the past fifteen years. It wasn't necessarily the school choice provisions contained in the law (which were limited and poorly designed), but what its passage did to shine a spotlight on school failure and create a sense that better schools were desperately needed.

Likewise, some in the school choice movement are disappointed that the new Every Student Succeeds Act doesn't do much legislatively to promote choice. But are they overlooking the law's potential? What do you think are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity?

This year’s posts offered a wide range of great ideas from some of the wonkiest wonks in education reform. The competition was close, but there can only be one Wisest Wonk.

Without further ado, the winner of Fordham’s 2016 Wonkathon is Christy Wolfe, whose “School choice and Section 1003(b): It's in there!” came in with 19 percent of the...

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 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 alternatives do academic harm to those “left behind.”

The report also examines whether school choice’s ability to exert market pressure decreases 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...

Ohio’s student growth measure—value added—is under the microscope, which provides a good reason to take another look at its important role in school accountability and to see if there are ways it can be improved. On April 19, state Representatives Robert Cupp and Ryan Smith introduced House Bill 524, legislation that calls for a review of Ohio’s value-added measure. In their sponsor testimony, both lawmakers emphasized that their motivation is to gain a strong understanding of the measure before considering any potential revisions.

The House Education Committee has already heard testimony from the Ohio Department of Education and Battelle for Kids; it is expecting to hear from SAS, the analytics company that generates the value-added results, on May 17. In brief, value added is a statistical method that relies on individual student test records to isolate a school’s impact on growth over time. Since 2007–08, Ohio has included value-added ratings on school report cards, though data were reported in years prior.

As state lawmakers consider the use of value added, they should bear in mind the advantages of the measure while also considering avenues for improvement. Let’s first review the critical features of the value-added...

Alex Medler

Editor's note: This is the final post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Prior entries can be found herehereherehereherehereherehere, here, and here.

I nominate one of the smallest pieces of the ESSA as a potential high-leverage point for choice. Hidden in the Charter School Program (CSP) amid language shaping the grants administered by State Education Agencies (SEAs) is a little provision that could eventually lead to big changes regarding school choice. States can now spend 7 percent of their grants on system-level changes to support charter school expansion and quality.

Most everyone in the charter world knows that the CSP received more than $330 million this year. The biggest portion of that money goes to SEAs in the form of grants (which underwrite the sub-grants the SEAs themselves award to would-be charters in order to meet start-up costs). Let’s consider how a small bit—if people are smart about how they use it—could drive big change.

The SEA grant program traditionally allowed...

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