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.

Editor's note: This post first appeared in a slightly different form on Watchdog.org.

Republicans are still gleeful after their 2014 victories in the U.S. Senate and statehouses across the nation. They should be, but they should also take heed.

A CNN exit poll shows that, despite historic wins, Republicans still lost with women voters, voters under forty, non-white voters, low-income voters, and more.

On top of it, as many commentators have noted, the U.S. Senate map is much tougher for Republicans in 2016 than it was in 2014, and Democratic enthusiasm and turnout are sure to be substantially higher in a presidential election year than they were on Nov. 4.

To win in two years, Republicans simply must develop new coalitions of voters. As Woody Allen said, “Showing up is 80 percent of life,” and the Republican Party is beginning to do just that by starting conversations with traditionally Democratic voters. The efforts have yielded some results, too, with positive signs in Florida, Texas, Colorado, and elsewhere.

Conservatives surely need to continue the getting-to-know-you phase, but they must then move the conversation with persuadable voters to concrete policy proposals that can help reduce poverty and open paths to the American Dream.

As I’ve argued before, one obvious policy on which conservatives already have a degree of credibility is school choice. While conservatives are generally very supportive of these policies (rural Republican state legislators are sometimes an exception), they have not seemed to fully grasp their potential as a way to build new Republican...

Charter schools are quickly becoming a defining feature of Ohio’s public-education landscape, educating over 120,000 children statewide. Also known as “community schools” in Ohio, charter schools have several distinctive characteristics: They are schools of choice, they operate independently of traditional districts (and some state regulation), and they are held contractually accountable for their results by a charter school authorizer.

The “theory of action” behind charters is fairly simple. Empower parents with choice, give schools greater freedom, and hold schools accountable to a contract—and higher student achievement, more innovation, and stronger parental engagement will follow.

But how does theory stack up against reality? Are Ohio charters actually producing better results than their district counterparts? One way to answer this question is by analyzing student achievement data, and since 1999, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) has been the nation’s foremost independent evaluator of charter school performance. 

Today, CREDO published a report on the academic performance of Ohio charter schools. It found that Buckeye charters, taken as a whole, continue to produce mediocre results. With state test scores in math and reading from the 2007–08 to 2012–13 school years used as the outcome measure, the study found that, on average, Ohio charter students are falling behind their counterparts in district schools. Students lost, on average, fourteen days of learning in reading and forty-three days in math over the course of the school year.

For those who have followed the Fordham Institute’s commentary and research over the...

The charter school sector in the United States encompasses forty-two states and the District of Columbia, with 6,400 charter schools serving 2.5 million students. More than 1,000 authorizing entities oversee these schools, working under state laws that (ideally) balance the twin goals of school autonomy and accountability for results. This report, produced by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), examines the quality of those laws. NACSA has identified eight policies that facilitate the development of effective charters, including performance management and replication, default closures, and authorizer sanctions. States are awarded points based on the strength of each of these policies in their charter school laws. Since each state has a unique charter-authorizing landscape, NACSA has divided the states into three groups based on their similarities and then ranked states within each group. The groups are: 1) district authorizing states, 2) states with many authorizers, and 3) states with few authorizers. Ohio—with its 70 authorizers—was placed in group two along with four other states (Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, and Michigan). NACSA awarded Ohio a score of 18/27, enough to tie for third in its group (along with Missouri). While Ohio earned top marks for its default closure policies and its (relatively new) authorizer sanctions, it received zero points for its charter-renewal standards. More specifically, current law allows “reasonable progress” to be sufficient evidence for an authorizer to renew a charter. This low standard is particularly worrisome given Ohio charter schools’ “documented history of poor performance.” The report also notes...

Jack Schneider

Editor's note: This post is the first entry of a multi-part series of interviews featuring Fordham's own Andy Smarick and Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at Holy Cross. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Education Week's K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric blog.

Schneider: I see a place for some charters in the K–12 system, created under particular conditions, and governed by a specific process. 

Some, however, claim that we'd be better off with a system entirely composed of charters

You're a charter booster. Where do you land on this question?

Smarick: In short, I envision a future where all or nearly all of a city's public schools are charter schools. (Note that I'm only discussing city school systems here.)

Though I'm generally disinclined to fundamentally alter longstanding institutions, urban districts have, for fifty years, proven themselves wholly incapable of producing the results our kids deserve. And we're talking about tens of millions of low-income kids who have been assigned to schools in these persistently failing institutions. While I admire the people who have tried their best to improve urban districts, the results fall miles short of what's needed. So we need a dramatic break from how things have been done.

Now, I remain open to the idea of the government running a few urban schools, for example a selective-admissions high school or some other specialty program. But, in general, the government should prepare to get out of the business of operating urban public schools and hand that responsibility off to civil society. 

Schneider: You're right that we see persistent...

Emily Hanford

Halfway through my senior year of college, I quit. Why? Because I didn’t want to graduate. I had no idea what I was going to do next.

I was one of those students who did everything she was supposed to do. Good grades, good college, all that. But school was all I had ever known, and not once during my sixteen years of education do I recall anyone ever making an explicit connection between what I was learning in school and what I might actually do for a living once I was done. The goal of high school was to get into college. The goal of college was to get a degree. Then what? I wasn’t at all prepared for that question.

I come from a background of abundant educational privilege. I grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s in an affluent New England town with great public schools. My parents had graduated from college. My grandparents had graduated from college. On my dad’s side even my great grandfather had a bachelor’s degree. I was on the “college track” before I was born.

But there was another track: vocational education. I had friends on that path. Their parents were roofers, hairdressers, secretaries, and janitors. Those kids took basic level academic classes, but their focus was preparing for work. No one expected them to go to college.

Those of us bound for higher education felt like we were on the...

I recently wrote about exciting new charter school results in Washington, D.C.. More kids are in high-performing charters, the number of high-performing charters is growing, and the number of struggling charters is shrinking.

But why?

For lots of reasons; D.C. has great school operators that are expanding; the charter law is quite good; the city has valuable support organizations; and public support has helped insulate the sector from unfounded attacks.

But among the most important factors is strong authorizing. That’s why you should read the new case study of the D.C. Public Charter School Board (PCSB).

By way of background, PCSB is regarded as one of the nation’s ablest authorizers. It’s a “single-purpose entity,” meaning that it only does charter authorizing, and its schools educate nearly half of D.C.’s public-school students. (And my Bellwether colleague Sara Mead is a member of its board.)

The report provides solid information on PCSB’s history, structure, schools portfolio, activities, processes, budget, staffing, and governance. Charter authorizing across the nation would improve (and charter performance would improve as a result) if PCSB’s lessons were widely adopted.

Even if you’re not as devoted to chartering as I am, you might want to give the report a look. Charter market share is significant and growing in most big cities, meaning authorizing will have a major bearing on the future of urban public schooling.

In my view, the report’s key shortcoming is that it ignores The...

From its inception in 1996 with one unusual school in Chicago, the Cristo Rey education model set out to honor its Catholic roots while simultaneously embracing a new way of preparing economically disadvantaged high school students for future success—not an easy balancing act to pull off. A new report from the Lexington Institute profiles the Cristo Rey model and also looks at how its newest school in San Jose is using an innovative blended-learning approach to move the existing model forward. The success of the network to date has been tremendous. Today, Cristo Rey is a nationwide network of twenty-eight private schools serving 9,000 students, including one school in each of Ohio’s three largest cities. Ninety-six percent of network students are minority (largely Hispanic) and 100 percent are economically disadvantaged (defined as families earning less than 75 percent of the national median income). Each student's family contributes an average of $1,000 toward tuition. Employers in the school's corporate work-study program provide most of the balance needed to cover operations. The work-study model requires students to work at least one day a week in the community while keeping up with rigorous high school coursework; in lieu of wages, companies donate money to the schools. (More than 2,000 employers invested upwards of $44 million in the Cristo Rey Network of schools in 2013–14.) Cristo Rey’s school day and year are extended, including a summer preparatory program to get students up to speed on both academic and work life. The results are...

Can a state’s charter school sector improve over time? Yes, finds this new study of Texas charter schools. Using student data collected from 2001 to 2011, a period of explosive charter school growth in Texas, researchers examined trends in the charter-quality distribution, as measured by value-added results on math and reading test scores. They discovered that in the early- to mid-2000s, charter-sector quality fell considerably short of district quality. But by 2011, the charter-quality distribution improved, converging to virtual parity with district quality. The magnitude of the quality shift in Texas charters, note the researchers, is large and substantial (0.11 and 0.20 standard deviations in math and reading, respectively). What is the source of the quality improvement? The main reason is strikingly straightforward: Lower value-added charter schools tended to shutter over time, while higher value-added schools entered the sector. Meanwhile, schools that remained open throughout the whole period also demonstrated improvement over time. The researchers next peel back the layers of the sector-improvement onion. They discover three contributing factors: First, Texas charters have attracted students of higher achievement levels (i.e., positive “selection”), possibly leading to positive peer effects captured in the value-added results. Second, charters have experienced less student turnover as the sector has matured. Third, the analysts find evidence that the growth of schools classified as “no-excuses” charters has propelled overall sector quality. The policy takeaways for Ohio are twofold: One, it takes time for high-quality schools to edge low-quality ones out of the school marketplace. (And authorizers...

Earlier this year, the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) published its annual report on charter quality. Their analysis makes an interesting observation: The school-quality distribution across California charters forms a “u-shaped curve.” In contrast, however, when I look at Ohio charters, a different quality distribution emerges. Instead of u-shaped curve, Ohio has a rectangular-looking distribution. So while California charters are more likely to be very high or low quality, Ohio charters seem to be more evenly distributed across the quality spectrum. The shape of the quality “curves” suggests different policy strategies might be needed to lift overall sector quality in Ohio compared to California.

Let us first look at the school-quality data. Chart 1 displays the distribution of charter quality in California, as reported by CCSA. Its analysis uses school-level test and demographic data, along with statistical methods, to calculate a school-quality measure (“predicted API”). The analysis is somewhat akin to the “value-added” analysis used in Ohio, though also cruder since it employs school not student-level data.[1] The analysis divides the quality spectrum into twenty equal intervals and reports the percentage of charters falling into each interval.

When CCSA mapped the quality of California charters, it found a disproportionate number of schools at tails of the distribution. For example, 15 percent of charters fell within the top-five percent of all public schools statewide along its quality measure. At the other end, 9 percent of charters were rated in the bottom-five percent of all schools. (If...

The Carnegie Science Center recently published a multi-faceted look at STEM education in a seventeen-county area encompassing parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. The impetus of the study was a perceived "STEM gap"—employers in the region report having difficulty finding individuals with the requisite technical skills to fill vacant positions. Campos Research Strategy conducted in-depth interviews with educators and business leaders, surveyed nearly 1000 parents of school-age children in the region, held “family dialogues,” and conducted an online survey of one hundred middle and high school students. Efforts were made to balance participants among the counties and between rural and urban areas. Despite high hopes for STEM education among business, industry, and education leaders, the study found that parents’ and students’ awareness and understanding of what STEM is and how it might benefit them or their children is low. Awareness of STEM seems highest in urban areas in the region, but parents’ interest in STEM-related fields for their children is lowest in those same places. A majority of parents participating in the study indicated that their underlying attitudes toward education and careers aligned with many STEM fundamentals, but the typical language of STEM education and careers did not resonate with them. Anecdotes given by educators indicate that adults who had never participated in “engaging, hands-on activities” during their K–12 schooling were mistrustful of such education methods—seen as key components of the type of STEM education most needed in the area—and were a barrier to participation in them for...

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