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.

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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WHAT WOULD HUEY P. LONG DO?
Jindal’s about-face on Common Core has created chaos in Louisiana, the New York Times reports, and turned some allies against him. Says one, “No permanent friends. No permanent enemies. Only permanent interests.” Somewhere, the Kingfish smiles.

PICK ME! PICK ME!
Which U.S. city is the choice and charter capital? New Orleans? New York? Try Miami. This year, half of Miami-Dade students, 56,000 total, are in schools their families picked themselves, says the Miami Herald.

I’LL BET KRUGMAN HAS TENURE
“There’s no sense in putting something as crucial as children’s education in the hands of a professional class with less accountability than others and with job protections that most Americans can only fantasize about,” opines the Times' Frank Bruni.  

I’LL HAVE WHAT SHE’S HAVING
Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio in the New York Daily News on the eye-popping test results posted by Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy.  If she’s got the secret sauce to student achievement, it’s time for it to be bottled and sold.

FORDHAM IN THE NEWS
CSN News trumpets our new report The Hidden Half: School Employees Who Don't Teach.  And Gannett Newspapers reminds readers of our review of Common Core, which gave the standards a B+ in English and an A- in math.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS AREN’T
This pro-unschooling article in Outside magazine (naturally) says classroom education “enjoys scant historical precedent.” Bust those kids out of school! Turn ‘em loose in nature!  Know what else has scant historical precedent? Movable type. Penicillin. The internal...

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I’ll have what she’s having.

New York’s latest round of state test results were released last week and the biggest news is the scores posted by Success Academy, the network of twenty-two charter schools throughout New York City run by Eva Moskowitz. Only 29 percent of New York’s kids met the new higher English standards under Common Core. Success more than doubled it with 64 percent meeting the standards. Wait. It gets better. One in three New York City students scored proficient in math, but at Success it was better than nine out of ten.

With admirable restraint, the head of the New York City Charter Center, James Merriman, pronounced the results “remarkable” and attributed the results to Success’ intensive instruction. A lot of schools, including many charter high-fliers, offer high-octane teaching. None come close to matching Success Academy’s results the last two years. 

Remarkable? No, these are results that make your jaw hit the floor hard enough to loosen your fillings. Success Academy kids didn’t merely pass the state math test, they destroyed it. For example, 680 fourth graders sat for the state test at seven of Moskowitz’s schools. Care to guess how many earned a “4,” the highest level? 

Nearly five freakin’ hundred of them!

No, this is not “remarkable.” This is Secretariat winning the Belmont by thirty-one lengths. It’s Michael Jordan dropping sixty-three points on the Celtics in the playoffs.  It’s Tiger Woods demolishing the field and winning the Masters by eighteen strokes.

On the...

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As a huge fan of both school choice and the NFL, I love the idea of a major star leading a great school and becoming a voice for school reform. Successful athletes who take time to give back, work with young athletes, and ensure kids get a great education should be commended, right? 

But a recent New York Times article digging into Deion Sanders’ two schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area should be enough to make any education-reform advocate’s skin crawl. Both his elementary school and high school were among the 9 percent of all Texas schools to receive the lowest rating from the state: “improvement required.” But according to the Times, the problems go much deeper, and many of them have to do with Deion himself.

For one thing, local and national coverage has described an obsessive focus on athletics, resulting Prime Prep securing top talent. There’s nothing wrong with that by itself, as—for better or worse—schools everywhere have long been accused of going out of their way to recruit top athletes. Yet when Prime Prep was accused of violating state athletic association rules, the Times reports, “Prime Prep founders announced that they would pull out of the University Interscholastic League. That did not please the school’s teachers. The withdrawal meant the school could not field a debate team, a choir, a band.” Now they play teams from other states or, just Thursday, a team from Mexico (at the $1.3 billion AT&T Stadium, naturally).

Prime Prep has also been in the news...

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A new Mathematica study persuasively puts to rest a common charge leveled at KIPP charter schools: that their test score gains are largely attributable to the attrition of their lowest-performing students. The authors compare nineteen KIPP middle schools to district schools and find no meaningful difference among those who walk in the door of each type of school. Nor do they find any difference in student attrition rates on the way out. Students who enter KIPP in later grades do indeed tend to be higher performers, but “a large part of KIPP’s cumulative effect occurs in the first year of enrollment, before attrition and replacement could have any effect.” Thus, high-achieving “backfilled” students can account for no more than one-third of the cumulative KIPP effect. Analysts, however, couldn’t determine whether students and families attracted to KIPP and its intensity are more ambitious or motivated in the first place—a point Richard Kahlenberg highlights in a critique of the study on Education Next’s website. “When children hear about the rigorous regimen,” he notes—the extended school day and copious homework, for example—“particularly motivated families might be excited to sign up, while less motivated families could be scared away.” The careful and sober Mathematica scholars openly acknowledge that this is “a potentially important limitation of this study.” And so it is. Nevertheless, the criticism rankles. Do low-income children not deserve the opportunity to attend school with others who are motivated and whose parents are ambitious for their children? Some will...

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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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