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.

For two decades now, education reformers have promoted a two-track strategy for improving our schools. The first track is standards-based: Set clear, high expectations in core academic subjects; test students regularly to see which schools and students are clearing the bar; and hold schools (and perhaps also educators and pupils) to account for the results.

The second reform track is school choice: Allow parents to select among a wide array of education providers, encouraging innovation along the way.

We have argued for years that these two tracks are interdependent — even codependent. Let us explain:

Standards-based reform got underway in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in part as a reaction to A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report by President Reagan’s Commission on Excellence in Education. This reform track offered what Lamar Alexander called a “horse trade”: more autonomy for schools in return for stronger academic results. Previous waves of reform had focused on inputs, intentions, and regulation: boost the credentials and pay of teachers; increase course requirements for high-school graduation; mandate lower class sizes; etc. When that yielded paltry success, policymakers flipped the equation: less regulation but more focus on outcomes.

That only works, however, when the desired outcomes are clear. That’s the role of academic standards, which, if well crafted, provide guidance to teachers, parents, textbook writers, and test designers about what students are expected to know and be...

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As in many states across America, too many young adults in Ohio are unemployed, disengaged, and on the road to nowhere. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that approximately 140,000 Ohioans aged twenty-five to thirty-four have not earned a high-school diploma. Within this same age bracket, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 85,000 job-seeking young adults (or 7.6 percent of them) are unemployed in the Buckeye State.

Given these alarming statistics, the state’s efforts to support young adults in dire straits is admirable. But Ohio’s House Bill 343, which would extend access to a free and public education to young adults ages twenty-two to twenty-nine, doesn’t get the remedy right. In fact, the bill may provide an antidote more toxic than the ailment it intends to treat.

The legislation would allow up to 1,500 young adults to enroll in a dropout-recovery charter school or a school in a “challenged district” if the adult resides in the district. These students would be allowed to attend the school up to two cumulative years with the purpose of obtaining a high-school diploma. Public aid would fund the enrollment expansion at $5,800 per pupil for fiscal year 2015. The bill requires the State Board of Education to develop reporting and accountability standards for any school that enrolls young adults aged twenty-two to twenty-nine in a dropout-recovery program.

For three reasons, the legislature should think twice before enacting this bill or an omnibus bill that includes the provisions contained in House...

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Life Skills Centers, a group of fifteen dropout-recovery charter schools operated by White Hat Management, is on the decline. Last year’s enrollment (school year 2012-13) was less than half that of 2006. The erosion of Life Skills Centers’ enrollment bucks the steadily rising trend in Ohio’s overall charter enrollment. And within dropout-recovery charters—a special subset of schools that enroll at-risk high-school students—Life Skills Centers’ enrollment losses have also been atypical. Excluding Life Skills, the state’s sixty or so dropout-recovery schools have experienced flat to increasing enrollment trends from 2006 to 2013 with the exception of 2012.[1]

Chart 1: Life Skills Center student enrollment, 2005-06 to 2012-13

Source: Ohio Department of Education Notes: The number of Life Skills Centers has remained constant—fifteen schools—throughout this period except for 2005-06 when there were fourteen schools. There are three former Life Skills Centers (then operated by White Hat) that changed management companies and school names effective July 2012. These schools are not included in the totals in chart 1 or table 1 for any years.

Perhaps the enrollment decline is no surprise, given the low performance of these schools. Table 1 shows the five-year cohort graduation rates for Life Skills Centers from 2009-10 to 2011-12. The graduation rates for their pupils are sometimes less than ten percent. The Life Skills Center in Dayton performs the highest among the group: 25 percent graduation rate in 2011-12; 22 percent in 2010-11....

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I had the good fortune of attending the Association for Education Finance and Policy (AEFP) conference last week. AEFP attracts some of the nation’s finest researchers along with a small smattering of policymakers and advocates. Cutting-edge research on topics ranging from parents and school choice, adequacy in school funding, and value-added accountability were presented, and the working papers are online and well worth perusing.

The conference was a veritable buffet of dialogue on education research and policy, and the following are the three main ideas I took away:

  • First, there is a growing stable of researchers who are willing to tackle challenging but pressing policy issues. A few of the more ambitious projects came from graduate-student researchers who are making valiant efforts to answer thorny and (perhaps) impossible research questions. Some of the interesting studies included preliminary work on a return-on-public-investment model for charter schools, whether “adequacy and equity” court cases have contributed to achievement gains, and whether value-added models of teacher effectiveness have “floor” and “ceiling” effects (i.e., bias VAM estimates of teachers with many low- or high-achieving students). It’s evident that the education-research community is moving in the right direction by making concerted efforts to answer questions that matter for sound policy and practice.  
  • Second, to cease testing and data collection would cripple promising research avenues. There is growing concern about testing and data collection among education policymakers and the public. The backlash is understandable. But make no mistake: if states backtrack on testing
  • ...
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When we talk about educational choice on these pages, we are mostly speaking of charters, vouchers, digital learning, and the like. But in Fordham’s home state of Ohio, educational choice encompasses several other options, of which many families regularly avail themselves. Two of those “outer-limits” options have been in the news recently.

Opting out

In law, they are called “non-chartered, non-tax-supported” schools—NCNTs. In parlance, they are called “508 schools,” after the part of the Ohio Administrative Code that describes them. In reality, they represent the furthest distance of “schools” from government oversight. Among the “entanglements” with state government: the setting of a minimum length of the school year and school day should be; the reporting of pupil population, withdrawals, and adds; minimum teacher qualifications; health and safety rules; and the requirement that a “regular promotion process” must be in place and followed (although it is clearly up to each school to determine its own process).

NCNT schools are something like homeschooling co-ops but with a structure more closely approximating that of private schools—tuition fees, group classes, social activities, field trips, and even sports. But NCNT schools are truly free to create whatever structures they like—strong religious grounding, classical education models, Montessori methods—as long as no one is concerned about obtaining a diploma backed by the state of Ohio. Luckily, colleges have discretion as to the credentials they’ll accept. To quote the Ohio Department of Education, “Other schools, colleges, universities and employers have discretion over decisions regarding...

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Ohio’s charter-school enrollments have been climbing steadily during the past decade. Currently, approximately 120,000 students in Ohio attend a charter school, compared to 34,000 kids in charters just ten years ago (in the 2002–03 school year).

In recent years, however, e-schools have been the primary driver of charter growth. (E-schools are considered “charter schools” under state law.) Consider Chart 1, which shows the eight-year enrollment trend for students who attend a “start-up” charter school.[1] From 2005–06 to 2012–13, the percentage increase in e-school enrollment (up 99 percent) easily surpasses that of brick-and-mortar charters (up 44 percent). As a result, e-school enrollment has increased as a percentage of overall start-up charter-school enrollments: in 2006, e-schools accounted for 28 percent; in 2013, they accounted for 35 percent. The rise in e-school enrollment has occurred despite a statewide moratorium on new e-schools from 2005 to 2013.

Chart 1: Both e-school and brick-and-mortar charters have grown, with e-schools growing more quickly – Student enrollment in e-school and brick-and-mortar start-up charter schools, 2005–06 to 2012–13

Source: Ohio Department of Education

The explosive expansion of e-schools leaves me with a number of questions. Are e-schools high-quality education options? (The value-added scores of e-schools are abysmal, leaving doubts in my mind about their effectiveness.) Who is regulating, monitoring, managing, and governing these schools? (Try and find either the management team or the board of directors of ECOT on their website.) Why are

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In recent years, pre-Kindergarten has become a rather popular idea among policymakers and the public. The latest cases in point include the Columbus mayor’s announcement of a new $5 million initiative to provide quality pre-K. Meanwhile, just last week, Cleveland-area entities announced a massive $35 million, two-year plan to expand access to quality pre-K. Yet, as Ohio’s policymakers enthusiastically tout pre-K, they should understand that it isn’t necessarily an educational slam dunk. Consider Grover “Russ” Whitehurst’s excellent summary of the research.[1] Whitehurst analyzes thirteen pre-K studies from the 1960s to the present, grading the quality of the research and reporting the impact of the program. Whitehurst begins with a look at two widely cited studies from the 1960s and 1970s, Perry Preschool and Abecedarian, both of which found positive, long-term impacts for participants. So far so good, but Whitehurst reminds us that Perry and Abecedarian studies were evaluations of small single-site programs. (Perry, for example, had just fifty-eight participants.) This limits the ability to infer that large-scale pre-K programs would confer similar benefits. As he moves into studies from recent years, Whitehurst reports less positive findings on large-scale pre-K programs. In his view, the two strongest pre-K studies have been the Head Start and the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K program evaluations. The Head Start evaluation found no effect of pre-K, while in Tennessee there was evidence of slightly negative effects on child outcomes. To conclude, Whitehurst writes, “[The] best available evidence raises serious doubts...

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New York mayor Bill de Blasio has made clear his aversion toward charter schools, singling out in particular his predecessor’s policy of allowing charter schools to co-locate with the city’s traditional public schools for free. But what impact has charter co-location actually had on New York’s public schools? This timely report from the Manhattan Institute digs in, measuring the academic growth of public school students in grades 3–8 in math and English language arts over five years. When the author compared individual students’ test scores before and after co-location or when the co-locating charter schools expanded (taking up more space in the building), he uncovered no evidence to suggest that co-locating with charter schools or losing space within a building has any significant impact—positive or negative—on public-school students’ test scores. The paper concluded with some advice for policy makers: when space is limited, weigh the costs (for the most part, simply the inconvenience of changing school schedules and moving classrooms) against the potential benefits to the charter-school kids.

SOURCE: Marcus Winters, “The Effect of Co-Locations on Student Achievement in NYC Public Schools,” Civic Report no. 85 (New York: Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, February 2014).

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By now, education observers are aware of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s incursion on the Big Apple’s charter sector.

No one should be surprised; this was no ambuscade, no lying in wait. He publicly campaigned against charters. He actually called his predecessor’s policy of allowing charter public schools to share public-school space with district public schools “abhorrent.”

This has been a shame for low-income kids, of course, given NYC’s charters’ superb performance. But it has made for 24-karat media fodder.

Hizzoner has picked a fight with Eva Moskowitz, not only the operator of a network of tremendously successful charters but also one of the toughest pugilists in the city’s notoriously combative political squared-circle. The Democratic mayor is now involved in internecine warfare over charters with the state’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, who publicly declared, “We will save charter schools.

But de Blasio’s camp hasn’t turned tail; they’ve trickily tergiversated. Despite their words and deeds, the mayor’s camp is claiming he’s not really against chartershis narrative got hijacked. He likes charters just fine!

Former governor Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father, brilliantly said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”

Given the mayor’s attempt at playing both sides, his team might be credited with implying a third part of the equation: “You spin in prevarication.”

Though all of this makes for Broadway-ready pyrotechnics, there is an important and as-of-yet unexplored element of this script....

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The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) has emerged as one of the nation’s staunchest proponents of charter-school quality. In November 2012, it launched its ambitious One Million Lives campaign, the purpose of which is “to bend the quality curve upward.” Among the key strategies to improve quality, while maintaining growth, is to close as many as a thousand low-performing charter schools and to open two thousand high-performing ones. Under the closure-replication strategy, NACSA calculates that one million additional children will enroll in a high-performing school by 2018. In the Year One update, NACSA reports that the campaign is off to a strong start. The upshot: as a result of proactive authorizing practices, 491 promising, new charter schools have opened, while 206 failing schools closed in 2013. These actions affected roughly 232,000 students. The report dishes other morsels of information regarding progress in strengthening accountability, including changes to state law and the commitment from more authorizers to adhere to NACSA’s essential practices. The charter-school sector’s commitment to quality is impressive; if only that could be said about traditional public schools, too.

SOURCE: National Association of Charter School Authorizers, One Million Lives, Year One (Chicago: Author, 2014).

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