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.

New from a workgroup of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), this report maps an oft-overlooked space in the charter-accountability world: How charters that serve special populations, such as students who have dropped out, are held accountable for performance. Two key points emerge (which are really applicable to all charters): (1) Make the charter contract the central instrument of accountability and (2) be open to different yet detailed and rigorous approaches to evaluating academic success or failure. Interestingly, the report recommends not making significant changes to operational and financial indicators or methods of oversight for alternative schools. Approaches to the performance frameworks can vary from setting different cut scores to wholly different accountability measures specific to alternative schools. The report discusses proficiency, growth, and multiyear graduation rates, as well as providing credit for re-engaging students who have dropped out and improving attendance, mastery of material, and college/career readiness. Some of the more thought-provoking proposed measurements included job stability and time employed in a particular position, reconnecting with family members, personal growth, and volunteer work. For programs targeting formerly incarcerated students, recidivism rates could be examined; for programs that work with addiction, perhaps the time a student remains drug/alcohol free might be a measure. Additionally, the authors also include a synthesis of several studies of dropout prevention (including one that starts in first grade). In Ohio, we as an authorizer are considering re-writing our own accountability agreements with the schools we authorize. Several of the measures—especially the idea of...

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After a week of insider chatter predicting that L.A. schools chief John Deasy would resign in February, the L.A. Unified Board of Education issued him a satisfactory evaluation—and his contract has been extended through 2016. It’s no secret that L.A.’s teacher union has no love of Deasy, due in part to his support for the parent trigger, his push for student-performance-based teacher evaluations, and his Breakfast in the Classroom program. Most recently, he has been criticized for his handling of the district’s $1 billion iPad rollout. For Dara’s analysis of what’s next for Deasy and LAUSD, check out this week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast. [Link to podcast]

On Tuesday, the Department of Justice filed a motion asking a Louisiana district court for more time to produce documents requested by the state’s attorneys—including the federal desegregation orders upon which the DOJ based its lawsuit against the Bayou State’s school-voucher program in the first place. Governor Jindal promptly responded, pointing to this as yet another example of the Obama administration’s incompetence. “Were these documents lost in the Obamacare website? Or did the Department of Justice just ignore the documents and file a lawsuit against the state without having all of the information available?” Whatever the case, Holder’s certainly made a hash of it. Here’s hoping he cancels the lawsuit entirely....

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Until last week, I thought that I was the poster child for school choice.

My parents chose to move our family from the city to the country in the 1970s, mainly for the schools, while my wife and I have chosen private schools of various types for our children for the last 10 years.

But last week I realized that my perspective was extremely skewed.

Gathered at an early Halloween party were two groups of parents – one from the neighborhood Catholic school that we had just left after four years, and one from our brand new, lottery-only STEM school that our children had been attending for about six weeks. As those two worlds connected in my living room, the stories told by the two groups of parents differed significantly.

Parents from the Catholic school did not speak of “choices.” It was simply expected that their children would go to this school through eighth grade and move on to the designated Diocesan high school after that. Most of those adults had made the same progression when they were students 25 years earlier and there were no other options to consider as far as they were concerned. Don’t get me wrong, any number of families struggled to afford even the low tuition there (lowest in the Columbus diocese), but there was very little “choice” involved. Just the sacrifice. Once made, nothing else entered into the equation.

That is not how we got there. For us, it...

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Two months into the school year, teacher help is still wanted in Cleveland. According to a Cleveland Plain Dealer report, Cleveland Metropolitan School District is still attempting to fill eighty-four teacher vacancies, mainly in the areas of special education; English-language learning (ELL); and high school math, science, and English.

What a pity.

Eric Gordon, the district’s superintendent, told the newspaper that late retirements, a new teacher-hiring process, and enrollment uncertainty have all led to the staffing shortfall. There is no doubt that he’s right. But it also comes as no surprise that vacancies in these content areas are going unfilled, for it’s a well-known fact that schools face systemic shortfalls in qualified applicants for special education, math, and science. Here’s the evidence:

  • In a 2013 report, the Minnesota Department of Education found that nearly half of its schools (41 percent) said special-education vacancies are “very difficult” to fill. Over one-quarter of schools reported that chemistry and math vacancies (28 and 26 percent, respectively) are “very difficult” to fill. By comparison, only 2 percent of schools said elementary and social-studies teacher vacancies are “very difficult” to fill.
  • A 2008 study from the Wisconsin Department of Education found that there are a whopping sixty-seven applicants for every elementary teacher vacancy and sixty-five applicants for every social-studies vacancy. Meanwhile, there were only fifteen applicants per learning disability and chemistry vacancy and twenty-four applicants per math vacancy.
  • Back home in Ohio, 90 percent of Dayton Public Schools principals told NCTQ
  • ...
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Ohio has long struggled with the issues related to charter school quality. While policy improvements have been made in recent years, it is refreshing to see State Superintendent Dick Ross and his team walking the walk, when it comes to cracking down on poor charter-authorizing practices. One can read the details in a Columbus Dispatch piece that cites unacceptable conditions—including fights, spotty food service, inaccurate tracking of students, and failure to educate students—at two brand-new charter schools authorized by the North Central Ohio Educational Service Center.

Charter school authorizers, of which Fordham is one, play a critical yet largely unrecognized role in the life cycle of a charter school. For those unaware, authorizers (also called “sponsors”) are the entities responsible for reviewing new school applications; granting a charter (or not); monitoring the school’s educational, fiscal, governance, and operational health once the school is up and running; making charter-renewal decisions; and, when necessary, closing schools. In Ohio, a charter school authorizer may be a nonprofit organization (like Fordham), a traditional school district’s board of education, a state university, an educational service center, or the Ohio Department of Education.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) acknowledges that authorizing is complex work that requires specialized knowledge, skills, and commitment. Authorizing also requires adherence to professional standards; indeed, NACSA’s Principles & Standards are widely recognized in the field as the gold standard of charter school authorizing. Institutions that do authorizing well purposefully develop internal structures and devote human and...

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Across the pond, education wonks plug away at solving problems and enacting reforms that will sound both familiar and not to our U.S. readers. Not least among these English reformers is Andrew Adonis: former Minister of Schools, advisor in the No. 10 Policy Unit under Tony Blair, and the well-known architect of the country’s burgeoning “academy” sector (what we would call “conversion charters”), built in reaction to high failure rates among non-selective public schools (over 50 percent were deemed to be failing in the 1990s). By the time Adonis left office in 2008, 133 academies were open and another 300 were in the pipeline. The book offers up both a history of England’s recent education-reform movement and a compelling personal account—followed by the author’s “Manifesto for Change,” a twelve-point plan for continued ed reform. Among these is a call for every underperforming public school to be replaced by an academy and for programs such as Teach First (the British counterpart of Teach For America) to be expanded.

SOURCE: Andrew Adonis, Education, Education, Education: Reforming England's Schools (London: Biteback, 2012).

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The introduction of the Common Core standards is shaking up the $7 billion textbook industry, according to this great piece by Sarah Garland. Traditionally monopolized by a few very large publishing Goliaths, such as Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the standards shift now favors small start-ups, which are nimbler and more eager to embrace change. Gadfly cheers the possibility that the Common Core could break up the behemoths’ oligopoly and pave the way for the little-but-fierce Davids, like Core Knowledge.

For the last few months, Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett has steadfastly refused to release $45 million of federal funds earmarked for the Philly schools until the teacher union agreed to major concessions, including a pay cut. But on Wednesday afternoon—with the union unwavering and civil-rights groups beginning to circle (and after the tragic death of young girl from asthma at a school that, due to budget cuts, did not have a nurse)—Corbett relented, arguing that he was satisfied with the other reforms made by the district. Which was probably the right call.

We know this much: Moody’s investment analysts don’t much care for parental choice, but they are concerned about the credit-worthiness of school districts. The latest Moody’s report shows that as charter schools gain public school market share in cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C., they’re putting financial stress on their local school systems, which have ended up with...

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We know this much: Moody’s investment analysts don’t care much for parental choice, but they care a lot about the credit-worthiness of school districts. A Moody’s report released this week shows that as charter schools gain public school market share in cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C., they’re putting financial stress on their local school systems, which have ended up with negative credit prospects due to the students they’ve lost. “Charter schools can pull students and revenues away from districts faster than the districts can reduce their costs,” the investor service reports.

Moody’s has its sights set on cities where more than a fifth of public school students are enrolled in charters. Its analysis, however, has several weaknesses and flimsy assumptions. The first has already been handily countered by Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, who correctly notes that cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia were distressed long before charters enrolled a significant share of public school students. Charters may not have made their job easier, but these school systems have been creeping toward insolvency and negative credit ratings on their own just fine.

More troubling is the underlying message from this reputable and ubiquitous credit-rating agency: It tells policymakers that their interest in charters and other alternative measures of public schooling has severe consequences. Moreover, it assumes the only way for districts to deal with growing charter enrollments is to get or maintain higher revenues (the better...

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Dear Deborah,

A healthy debate we've started indeed! I'm not sure we've bridged many differences, though; maybe we should change the blog's name to Bigging Differences.

In that spirit, let me float another provocative but commonsensical idea: We need to do everything we can—in our schools and in our larger social policies—to empower individuals who are working hard to climb the ladder to success. In other words, we need to spur on the strivers.

Let me explain some of my assumptions.

  1. As we've been discussing, I still believe in the promise of upward mobility. I don't buy into the dystopia of some on the left that pictures a future with an eviscerated middle class, opportunities only for the elite, and a vast dependent population. Times are tough now, but economic growth and jobs will return; the American Dream will be back.
  2. But I'm no utopian. Not all children born into poverty are going to make it out by adulthood. Most face powerful disadvantages—dysfunctional families, substance abuse, crime, segregation, broken economies, bad schools, etc.—and not everyone will be able to overcome them. Surely, though, we can do better than our current track record, which is to lift roughly half of all poor children into the working or middle class by the age of 25.
  3. Climbing the ladder of opportunity takes effort—by individuals and by their families. And it often
  4. ...
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As waves of reforms and would-be reforms have washed over American public education these past three decades, high schools have mostly stayed dry. Although test scores have risen slightly in the early grades, especially in math, National Assessment results for twelfth-graders have been flat or down a bit. SAT scores are also flat, and ACT averages much the same.

ACT, the organization that administers the college-entrance test of the same name, judges only one-quarter of its test-takers to be fully ready for college-level academics, and the College Board is not much cheerier. In releasing SAT results for the 1.6 million members of the high school class of 2013 who took the test, the board estimated that just 43 percent met its benchmark for college and career readiness—a score of 1550 or better (out of 2400), which translates to a 65 percent chance of having a B-minus (or better) GPA during the freshman year in college.

And that’s among those who stick it out and graduate from high school. Millions of young people drop out. School discipline remains appalling, with gangs, metal detectors, and violence the norm in many places.

The basic institutional structures for high school that former Harvard president James B. Conant described and recommended in an influential 1959 book remain pretty much unchanged a half-century later. The rest of the world has not been idle, however....

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