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.

There’s a lot of talk about disruptive innovation these days. It seems hardly a month goes by that we don’t see some sort of exciting new innovation that changes an industry. Sometimes it happens over and over again in the same space. First we had paper maps that were replaced by custom driving directions we could print out from MapQuest (remember those?). Then came some very expensive GPS systems mounted in cars. Those, in turn, were replaced by much cheaper portable GPS systems from companies like Garmin, which were basically made obsolete by free map applications from Apple, Google, and others in nearly all cell phones sold today. All this in a handful of years! Fortunately, paper mapmakers weren’t ultra-powerful on Capitol Hill, or we might still be sitting in our cars trying to figure out how the heck you’re supposed to fold those things.

Unfortunately, the traditional public education system does have an army of apologists, lobbyists and piles of cash to protect itself and resist change.  Public unions are the best funded of these anti-change agents, but they are by no means the only players to resist everything from accountability to online learning to charter schools—none of which are really that radical when you think about it.

A white paper published by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, “Public Accountability for Charter Schools: Standards and Policy Recommendations for Effective Oversight,” follows a familiar path. The ideas, almost certainly by design, would stifle the innovation we...

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Heated debate has erupted over changes to Ohio’s new standards, assessments, and accountability policies. Most significantly, the state’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics has triggered efforts to roll back the new standards and the assessments associated with them. In addition to the Common Core, the state is undertaking other bold but controversial reforms, including the Third Grade Reading Guarantee—aimed at improving early literacy—and evaluations of teachers and principals that factor in student achievement.

These policy reforms reflect a shifting paradigm in K-12 education. For years, it was assumed that schools would provide an adequate education for all students. Since the early 2000s, prodded by federal law, states adopted policies whereby students have been required to meet “proficiency” benchmarks on state tests. This policy framework has moved the achievement needle forward: Disadvantaged students, for one, have demonstrated gains over the past decade on national assessments.

Yet the academic standards in Ohio and in many states across the nation remained too low, and student outcomes mediocre. The minimum expectations for what students should know and be able to do failed to match the demands of colleges and employers. As a result, Ohio and other states are raising academic expectations: “adequacy” and “proficiency” in K-12 education is passé. In its place, a new paradigm aims to ready students for college and career.

None of these big reforms—from Common Core to new assessments to clearer accountability for schools and educators—are stress-free, without complication, or uncontentious. These...

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Ohio’s school and district report cards were released last week, nearly a month later than originally scheduled due to inclement weather….back in February and March. No matter; they’re here now and every education stakeholder is poring over them. But to what purpose are these troves of data being put? 

Out of the gate, stories in the media focused on the “big picture” issues: urban districts (pretty bad, with some rays of hope) and dropout recovery schools (same, minus most of those rays of hope). A single grade for “overall performance” is still not being given this year but should be available in 2016. That left analysts digging through a variety of indicators at all levels. Performance index scores, value-added calculations (very confusing), graduation rates, and other factors were considered, either in isolation or in tandem, producing very different conclusions depending on how the measures were parsed or weighted by the investigators. It is tempting to say that certain foregone conclusions were bolstered by the ways in which data were considered or not considered, but perhaps it is more accurate to say that getting an analysis of such a wealth of information out the door quickly necessitates a narrowing of focus, for better or worse.

We’ve already seen some really excellent investigation of report card data this year, adding the journalist’s touch to what could just be cold recitation of numbers. We hope to see more stories making apples-to-apples comparisons between...

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Over the last month or so, there’ve been a number of notable stories highlighting the passing of the torch from urban districts to urban chartering. The former continue their long, slow decline while the latter experiences the exhilaration and growing pains of emerging adulthood.

A sobering new study from Brookings, “School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant,” finds that district “superintendents are largely indistinguishable” in their ability to improve student achievement. For those who’ve hoped that the half-century struggles of the urban district might finally be remedied by a superhero leader, this has to be deflating. The study finds that district leaders account for an infinitesimal fraction of achievement differences, that hiring a superintendent is not associated with increased learning, and that longevity doesn’t improve a superintendent’s influence.

In recent years, we’ve put an inordinate amount of faith in (and money behind) bold urban district leaders. The continued dispiriting results from NAEP TUDA, the Newark boycott, the LAUSD iPad dust-up, the Atlanta cheating scandal, DC’s “disappointing” 2014 test scores, Chicago’s strike, and much more should force us to take stock. Why exactly do we continue to tell ourselves that these ancient, preternaturally inept institutions are fixable?

It’s probably more than a coincidence that the Broad Prize, designed to call attention to urban-district bright spots, named—for the first time ever—only two finalists this year (instead of the customary four...

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Paul Bruno

photo credit: ChalkbeatNY via photopin cc

With the release last month of the latest round test scores, Success Academy founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz is now a bona fide national-education-reform celebrity. She is also the latest in a line of educator-activists—like Michelle Rhee or Diane Ravitch—who embody, for supporters and opponents alike, one “side” of the education-reform debate. As a result, discussions about the stellar results posted by her schools have generated much more heat than light. Allies are eager to elevate her to exemplar status and critics desperate to prevent her from receiving even a modicum of credit for her students’ success.

The argument breaks down along predictable lines. For advocates of charter schools and education reform more generally, Success Academies demonstrate what can be accomplished when a strong leader with a laser-like focus on student achievement can do when she is free to hire the best teachers for the neediest students.

Critics of charter schools and reform are equally confident that Moskowitz is, in effect, running a scam: skimming the easiest-to-teach students, pushing out the ones who prove difficult later, and claiming all the while to be doing better work than the city’s other educators who are forced to operate without her considerable advantages and educational slight-of-hand.

What neither side is willing or able to admit, however, is how little we really know about why Moskowitz’s students seem to be doing so much better than...

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On September 3, I participated in a launch event for Mike McShane’s new book, Education and Opportunity, a publication of AEI’sValues and Capitalism” initiative. The following are my amended remarks about the book, namely our improved understanding of K12 markets, the downsides of a unitary system of schools, and the intersection of such reform and conservatism.

I want to focus on three elements of this valuable new book. The first two relate to its contributions to our improved thinking about school choice. The third relates to the tension between school choice and conservatism.

First, Education and Opportunity offers a sophisticated view of public school markets, how to understand them, use their strength, and appreciate their limitations.

The book’s thrust is neatly summarized by one of its early sentences: “A vibrant marketplace of education options is the most effective means of developing the schools necessary to meet the needs of students today and in the years to come.”

Many writers on school choice have focused on the importance of options. But note the use of “vibrant” and “developing.” This suggests a portfolio of schools that’s full of energy and dynamism. This is not a minimally diverse set of schools, a collection that exists in perpetuity. In this sentence and throughout the book, Mike describes a portfolio consisting of a wide array of options, a portfolio that continuously improves in quality and evolves to reflect the changing needs of families.

This echoes the great insight from charter...

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Last issue, we told you the twisty story of VLT Academy – a charter school in the Cincinnati area that ended up closing for good before the 2014-15 school year. The saga included unprecedented efforts by the Ohio Department of Education to rein in poor authorization practices, a court challenge, a last-minute stay, and parents left scrambling for schools for their children just days before the school year began.

That chapter of the story ended with a new charter school – Hope4Change Academy—setting up a tent outside the locked doors of VLT, looking to sign up families for their school, even though their own sponsor contract was in question and it was entirely possible they wouldn’t open either.

Fast-forward. Ten days later.

The Ohio Department of Education referred the top two leaders of the Portage County Education Service Center for investigation, saying the agency attempted, as sponsor, to open Hope4Change despite being warned not to due to unsatisfactory vetting procedures. Officials of both entities have since traded barbs in the media, indicating yet another chapter to come.

The heart of the matter is that bad charter school authorization practices must end, or parents and students somewhere else—just like those in Cincinnati—will end up scrambling to find quality schools under pressure when their own are shuttered....

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It’s nearly school report card time in Ohio. One thing to watch for when examining school performance is whether there are conflicting ratings. For the 2013-14 school year, schools will receive ratings along up to ten dimensions of performance, though no overall letter grade. For example, one might observe a school that receives an “F” on the state’s performance index but at the same time, also receives an “A” on the state’s value-added rating. Or vice-versa. How in the world can this happen?

Keep in mind that these two key ratings—a school’s performance index and value-added—are not the same. The performance index is an indicator of raw student achievement, weighted across a continuum of achievement levels. Value-added, on the other hand, is a statistical estimate of a school’s impact on student progress—expressed as learning gains—over time.[1] Although both measures are based on state test scores, they are different creatures: Achievement tells us more about how students perform; value-added provides evidence on how a school performs (i.e., the productivity of the school staff).

Hence, to understand the quality of a school, we really need both measures. Outside observers—parents, taxpayers, and others—should know whether a school’s students, on average, possess literacy and numeracy skills—that’s achievement. And they should know whether a school is contributing to learning over time—that’s progress.

Now back to the question of mixed ratings. How many schools in Ohio have conflicting results, particularly of the low-achievement but high-progress variety?[2]...

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Back in May, Fordham published Expanding the Education Universe: A Fifty-State Strategy for Course Choice, where we explained the idea of “course access,” a system that greatly expands learning options by allowing students to take courses from a number of organizations at once. The brief also provided options for policymakers to consider, including funding, provider and student eligibility, and accountability.

ExcelinEd has now released a white paper, Leading in an Era of Change, which discusses the recent development of these policies in a number of states and summarizes key design principles for future expansion. Where Fordham’s brief laid out the various specific paths a state might take in policy creation, ExcelinEd’s paper functions as a list of essential dos and don’ts, answering questions about how to ensure quality providers, engagement with stakeholders, and more. Still, the brief rightly leavers the specific design up to states and districts themselves. Taken together, these two reports act as a guidebook for expanding course availability and student choice in local schools.

As Jeb Bush writes in his foreword to the report, “having a high-quality education must no longer depend on location…the international stakes are too high to restrict access to great courses based on ZIP code.” Indeed, the flexibility of course access eliminates, or at least diminishes, limitations of individual schools and enables students to take classes in new subjects and with potentially better teachers. Of course, implementation of any real reform comes with a...

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Neerav Kingsland

Marc Tucker is the author of an important new report: Fixing Our National Accountability System. You can find the executive summary here.

Although Marc and I disagree on the promise of Relinquishment (most specifically on charter schools), I agree with much of this thinking.

But, in this report, Marc makes a strategic mistake in dismissing choice-based reforms.

To put it another way: if there is a grand bargain to be made that significantly increases student achievement in the United States, it could look like this:

  • Reduce testing frequency and increase testing rigor
  • Improve the quality of the teaching force
  • Increase charter schools and choice

Why could this bargain work? Because both Democrats and Republicans might actually support all three strategies.

Why might Marc’s vision not be realized without a charter strategy? Because, without charters, his reforms reduce testing accountability and increase spending, without increasing any elements of choice, competition, or entrepreneurship.

This is likely a nonstarter for many Americans, especially centrist and conservative policy makers.

Seventy percent of the public supports charter schools. Urban charter schools outperform traditional schools. And countries such as South Korea have shown that choice and competition can increase student achievement.

Pragmatically, Marc would be much more likely to see his vision realized if he embraced charter schools. And I believe firmly that this would be better for students.

So here’s my plea: Marc, embrace charters and choice in addition to your other excellent...

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