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.

After more than two years  of community-wide and bipartisan struggles to raise the bar for everyone in Cleveland schools, a sudden and incongruous shift has dropped expectations to a new low, at least for some of its freshman, just in time for the start of a new school year today.

The Freshman Fresh Start was recently approved by the school board of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD). The resolution allows incoming freshmen to participate in extracurricular activities (sports and clubs) despite low grades that, under the current regulations for all other grades, would make them ineligible. Instead, incoming freshmen are now only required to pass (receive a “D” or higher) a minimum of five subjects in the preceding grading period. (For the first quarter of the year, eligibility would be based on the last quarter of the preceding year.) Formerly, the policy required that students a) not receive a failing grade in the previous grading period, b) maintain a GPA of 2.0 or higher in the previous grading period, and c) maintain a cumulative GPA of 2.0 throughout the year.

It sounds innocent enough, but upon closer inspection, the implications are far-reaching and appalling. Incoming freshmen are now eligible for extracurriculars even if they fail one of their classes—never mind if that class is English language arts or math—in the preceding quarter. Thus, incoming freshmen qualify for extracurriculars even if their fourth quarter report card has all D’s and one F, thereby finishing with a.83...

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In Ohio, like many states across the nation, reading achievement has largely stalled. The state’s reading scores on the domestic NAEP assessments haven’t moved over the past decade: In fourth-grade reading, the state’s average score was 222 in 2003 and 224 in 2013. The story is the same for eighth grade. Meanwhile, on state assessments, reading proficiency rates have improved noticeably in fourth grade (from 77 percent in 2006 to 88 percent in 2013), but fifth- and sixth-grade reading proficiency rates haven’t budged. In fifth grade, for instance, statewide reading proficiency was 75 percent in 2006 and 74 percent in 2013.

Test data suggest that strong and concerted efforts must be made to stem the tide of mediocre reading achievement. The Third Grade Reading Guarantee is one policy initiative aimed at improving early literacy. And in 2010, the state board adopted new English language arts (ELA) standards—part of the Common Core—in order to increase the rigor of what students are expected to know and be able to do when it comes to reading, writing, and grammar.

State leaders have created a policy framework—Third Grade Reading for foundational early-literacy skills and long-term growth under the Common Core—to improve ELA across Ohio. And now, for many Ohio schools, it’s implementation time. This made me wonder: Which schools are already making the biggest impact on their students’ reading achievement? Have any schools consistently helped their students make large gains on state assessments? Of course, past success is no...

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This short review originally ran in Education Gadfly Weekly on July 23, 2014. Here we present the original review with an added Ohio perspective.

This new report from the University of Arkansas compares the productivity of public charter schools and district schools, both in terms of cost effectiveness and return on investment (ROI). For the cost-effectiveness analysis, the authors consider how many test-score points students gain on the 2010–11 NAEP for each $1,000 invested; to measure ROI, the authors used, among other data, student-achievement results from CREDO’s national charter school study (that matched students via a “virtual twin” methodology). The key finding: For every $1,000 invested, charter students across the United States earned a weighted average of an additional seventeen points in math and sixteen additional points in reading on NAEP, compared to traditional district students, controlling for student characteristics such as poverty and special-education status. This translates into charters nationwide being 40 percent more cost effective. Meanwhile, Buckeye State charters are less cost effective than national charters, though still more so than their district counterparts within the state. Ohio charters averaged nine additional NAEP points in both reading and math per $1,000 in funding relative to comparable districts. The researchers calculate ROI by converting the learning gains over time by students in charter and traditional sectors into an estimate of the economic returns over a lifetime and comparing those returns to the revenue amount invested in their education. Using Eric Hanushek’s existing estimates on lifetime earnings and productivity, they find...

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Peet’s Coffee and Tea: We hardly knew you. According to the Columbus DispatchPeet’s coffee shop in downtown Columbus will close after less than a year of operation. (The shop is near where I work.) To quote the company’s spokesperson, the reason for closing the store is “to focus on our top-performing locations.”

If only Ohio’s policymakers, district leaders, and charter-school authorizers just as aggressively closed persistently underperforming schools, and instead directed resources to grow top-performing ones or those demonstrating promise, or to start new schools from scratch. (Of course, there has to be an orderly and responsible process to closing schools.) Rather, too many low-rated public schools, both district and charter, limp along year-after-year, depriving students of a great education on the taxpayers’ dime.

In the business realm, unprofitable entities are shuttered, sold off, or merged to allow the larger organization to thrive. Yet in public education it seems like bad schools are immortal—and that’s not good policy.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: An edited version of this piece appeared as a letter to the editor in the Columbus Dispatch on Saturday, July 19, 2014.

School choice often engenders controversy. From districts arguing amongst themselves about the impact of open enrollment to charter schools and districts squabbling over funding and facilities, the Buckeye state—a national leader in providing education options to parents—is no stranger to the debates that arise about school choice.

In a July 8 editorial (“The law is the law”), the Columbus Dispatch called out two Ohio districts for allegedly circumventing public-records laws in order to prevent families from knowing about their school-choice options. The editorial drew attention to a current lawsuit brought by School Choice Ohio (SCO) against Cincinnati Public Schools and Springfield City Schools. Dispatch editors wrote, “Public schools understandably want to avoid this [losing students to private schools], but they should fight against it by making their schools safer and more effective—not by scheming to prevent families from knowing about their options. Scheming in defiance of state law would be even worse.”

That sums it up quite nicely. The legal and ethical implications of Cincinnati’s and Springfield’s actions are clear: hiding voucher eligibility from students and their families, many of whom are stuck in failing schools, isn’t just dishonest, unfair, and shameful—it’s also illegal. But the most compelling part of the Dispatch’s argument is that if public schools don’t want to lose students to other schools, they must...

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The latest report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) examines how cities with a significant amount of school choice can ensure that it works for more families. Starting with a case study of Detroit, a city where families have a plethora of school options but precious few that could be called high quality, the report paints a picture of the challenges faced by Motor City parents. Testing their observations from Detroit, CRPE expands its focus by surveying 4,000 public school parents in eight cities (including Cleveland). The survey shows that while families from all walks of life are now actively choosing their kids’ schools (55 percent), the majority of parents (61 percent) considered only one or two schools. One explanation might be the barriers parents face when choosing a school: 33 percent had difficulty understanding which schools their child was eligible to attend, 25 percent said they had difficulty getting information about schools, and 26 percent lacked convenient transportation. The report also found that, by and large, disadvantaged, less educated parents and parents of students with special needs are far more likely to experience difficulties in exercising choice. Finally, the report suggests that the fractured governance structure in place in many cities effectively means that no one is focused on overall school quality or removing the barriers faced by parents. Fixing the governance issues this report raises will require city and state-wide action to more efficiently align services and resources across district and charter boundaries—and that could prove...

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The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice recently released results from its latest public-opinion survey. The national survey of 1,007 adults examined their views concerning the state of American education, with a particular focus on school choice, the Common Core, and standardized testing. The survey shows that most Americans—58 percent of those surveyed—tend to think that K–12 education has “gotten off on the wrong track.” Interestingly, those who are white, higher income, residents of rural areas, and older tended to express the least satisfaction with K–12 education. High percentages of respondents support various school-choice reforms. Big takeaways include the following: Charter schools and vouchers are supported broadly across racial, income, and political-party segments. Overall, 61 percent say they favor charter schools, while only 26 percent say they oppose them. Similarly, 63 percent say they support school vouchers, with only 33 percent opposing them. When it comes to accountability for test results, 62 percent of those surveyed say that teachers should be held accountable. But fewer respondents thought principals should be held accountable (50 percent), and just 40 percent thought state officials should be accountable. Finally, half of the respondents expressed support for the Common Core. What the public thinks matters—and in this new survey, the results pose an interesting (if unintended) question: If choice programs have so much public support, why are they so politically controversial?

Source: Paul DiPerna, 2014 Schooling In America Survey (Indianapolis, IN: The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, June 2014)....

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Inter-district open enrollment often flies under the radar in discussions about school choice. It may be that way because it has been around so long (established in 1989 and operating in its current form since 1998); perhaps because it is not universally available or because many of the most-desirable districts do not allow open enrollment; or perhaps because it is choice “within the family” (that is, the traditional district family). Despite its usual low-profile, two recent newspaper stories shined light on the topic of open enrollment, showing a disconnect between those administering this unsung school choice program and those who actually use it.

From a district’s point of view, open enrollment can easily devolve into “just business” – dollars in and dollars out to be accounted for year after year. Just check out this story from Hancock County in Northwest Ohio. Net financial “winners”—those districts that have more open-enrollee students coming in than leaving—seem to be fine with the system, as might be expected. But net financial “losers” are objecting more strenuously as the losses go on. Their objections, however, often have very little to do with why students are attending a school outside of their “home” district. In fact, most of the district officials quoted in this in-depth piece don’t even seem curious as to why large numbers of their residents are opting to go somewhere else when given the opportunity – even when seizing that “opportunity” requires jumping through several hoops.

When long application lines and even...

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Yitz Frank

Earlier this year, two articles published in the Columbus Dispatch claimed that students using vouchers to attend private schools in Ohio perform worse than their peers attending public schools. The focus of the March 8 article and the subsequent March 16 editorial was on extending the third grade reading guarantee to students using vouchers (a measure eventually signed into law). In an effort to bolster this argument, the article referenced data suggesting that 36 percent of third-grade voucher students would be retained compared to only 34 percent of public school students. Other articles in the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Canton Repository made similar comparisons that negatively portrayed the performance of students using an EdChoice Scholarship. However, Test Comparison Summary data released this week by the Ohio Department of Education shows a very different picture of how voucher students are performing. The key is using the right comparison group.

The data used in the articles referenced above incorrectly grouped the results of all public school students in the state, including many affluent public schools, and then compared their results with those of voucher students. However, these scholarships are not available to all students. Students are only eligible for a traditional EdChoice Scholarship if they attended or otherwise would be assigned to a “low-performing” public school. Many such schools are located in Ohio’s less-affluent urban areas. Accordingly, the most accurate comparison is to examine the test results of students receiving EdChoice vouchers with the...

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