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.

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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While some folks are busy marching and complaining and “going to war” over ed reform and school choice efforts. And while pundits are looking for the next big thing to boost student achievement and promote the best and brightest in teaching and accountability, there is one place where the arguments are already settled.

I found a little bit of peace last week in this place - an oasis where all school choice is fait accompli. All options coexist happily and productively, geography doesn’t matter much, and student success is the only thing on folks’ minds.

Where is this Shangri-la? The school uniform store.

In this serene place, charter schools commingle with district schools and with private schools of all stripes (Catholic, Christian, nonsectarian). Schools from a 25-mile radius are all represented there with no turf battles or rivalries, even though their various sports gear is side-by-side.

The staff of the store is friendly and helpful to all who come in, whatever school they have chosen, and they are knowledgeable about the requirements for all those schools and make sure that parents know that this skirt is required and that top is optional. To them, it’s all about the right fit. Literally.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could substitute the word “uniform” for “options” and everything else stay the same?...

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It’s a good-news-bad-news state of affairs for Ohio’s teacher-preparation programs. Let’s start with the good: the Buckeye State is the proud home to five of the nation’s best elementary and secondary programs, according to new rankings by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). Ohio State’s graduate along with University of Dayton and Miami University’s undergraduate programs earned top-ten honors out of the 1,167 elementary-teacher programs that NCTQ examined. Meanwhile, among the 1,137 secondary-teacher programs, Miami University’s undergraduate and graduate programs earned top-ten recognition. On the other side of the coin, twenty Ohio programs—out of seventy-one in the state that NCTQ was able to rate—fell into the bottom half of NCTQ’s ratings. (Programs rated in the bottom half did not receive a numerical ranking.) Unfortunately, sixteen Ohio colleges refused to participate in the analysis. Caveat emptor: in Ohio, as elsewhere, we see that some programs provide a stellar training while others are mediocre or worse. Discerning employers—and college-goers—would be wise to consult this report when making their decisions.
 

SOURCE: Julie Greenberg, Kate Walsh, and Arthur McKee, 2014 Teacher Prep Review: A Review of the Nation’s Teacher Preparation Programs (Washington, D.C.: National Council on Teacher Quality, June 2014).

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Fordham has long been a supporter of results-based accountability for private-school choice programs. In January, we released a “policy toolkit” that recommended, among other measures, that all students who receive a voucher (or tax-credit scholarship) be required to participate in state assessments and that those results be made publicly available at the school level (except when doing so would violate student privacy).

This rustled a few libertarian and conservative feathers: the folks at Cato called this “the Common Coring of private schools,” James Shuls yelled “Don’t Test Me, Bro!,” and Jay Greene reversed his lifelong commitment to standards-based reform.  (Many wonks opined in support of our accountability recommendations, too.)

While we didn’t agree with the all of the arguments forwarded by our friends, we did come to see the risk to private-school autonomy and innovation that a test-based accountability system could create. We also understood the particular sensitivity around using Common Core tests for this purpose. So in April, in the National Review, we offered an olive branch:

Without backing away from our commitment to the inseparability of the two tracks of education reform, we see room for compromise on specifics. Yes, some degree of transparency and accountability is essential for all choice schools. We don’t buy the argument that we should leave it to “parental choice alone”; experience in the real world demonstrates (here as in every other market that we know of) that some external quality control is needed if

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Over the past three weeks, Fordham’s Flypaper blog hosted the charter school wonk-a-thon, an exercise in punditry and policy analysis that exceeded all expectations. (Congrats to our winning wonk,Joe Siedlecki of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.) Let me ambitiously attempt to synthesize the major arguments into a unified theory: the Wise Wonks’ Hierarchy of Charter School Quality.

At the bottom of our pyramid are Charter States in Name Only. These are the ones with nominal charter laws but very few actual charter schools. That’s because they only allow entities to authorize charter schools that don’t like charters (i.e., traditional school districts) and/or because they provide paltry funding and/or because they don’t offer schools the autonomy that would make starting a charter worth the effort.

One level up, we find Bad Charter Sectors. These are the states at the bottom of the heap when it comes to test-score gains as measured by CREDO* and other sophisticated analyses. (No, test scores and score gains aren’t everything, but let’s assume for now that these indicators relate to the other stuff we also care about, such as long-term student success.) Their charters mostly falter because of some combination of low-quality authorizers (unselective when handing out charters, unwilling to shut down low performers) and mediocre funding. (In a few cases, such as Arizona, there were major problems in...

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Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the most awesome dudes on the planet right now, using his skills as a communicator to take science into primetime television. Tyson hopes to bring the general public from their small place on Earth into the wonder of the Cosmos again.

I was reminded of one aspect of Tyson’s personal journey last week; specifically, this excerpt from a profile of him which appeared in The New Yorker back in February:

Not long ago, Tyson’s elementary school, P.S. 81, invited him to give a commencement address; he declined. He recalls telling the administrators, “I am where I am not because of what happened in school but in spite of it, and that is probably not what you want me to say. Call me back, and I will address your teachers and give them a piece of my mind.”

Evidently, Tyson was discouraged from pursuing an interest in science, because he was an “undistinguished” grade-school student, among other impediments he describes. More than once, he was on the receiving end of active dissuasion from pursuing his passion for science. Such discouragement might stymie most students. Luckily, he was an extraordinary individual determined to succeed. Tyson would overcome the odds stacked against him, attending Harvard as an undergraduate and the University of Texas for postgraduate work in astrophysics. As he tells it, the efforts to divert him from his lofty goals continued all the way through his time in higher education.

A recent...

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Ladies and gentlemen, the voters have spoken and the wisest wonk in the land is…

Joe Siedlecki of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, edging out Michael Goldstein of Match Education, 35 to 27 percent. It’s the biggest upset since Brat beat Cantor! (Granted, that just happened Tuesday.)

Stay tuned for my take on the wonk-a-thon, coming early next week. Until then, Joe, enjoy the sweet, sweet victory, and blast this song around your home all weekend long.

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A common gripe among choice kvetchers is that private schools that participate in voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs “cherry pick” the best students. This research by University of California professor Cassandra Hart finds evidence to the contrary. After comparing the 2,764 elementary-aged students who applied to the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) scholarship program (participants) to the 555,271 students who were eligible but chose not to apply (nonparticipants), Hart found that participants disproportionately came from public schools with lower academic quality and higher rates of violence than nonparticipants. What’s more, participating students had significantly lower math and reading scores than their nonparticipating peers, giving the lie to the “cherry-picking” argument. Interestingly, Hart also found that, relative to students who did not participate in the voucher program, participants were more likely to attend school in areas with stronger private-school options and weaker charter and open-enrollment alternatives. This suggests that, rather than looking for religious or private schooling in particular, many parents are searching for a better alternative than their zoned school and might avail themselves of quality public-school choices, if such existed. 

SOURCE: Cassandra M. D. Hart, “Contexts Matter: Selection in Means-Tested School Voucher Programs,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 26(2), June 2014: 186–206.

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While proponents of school choice often base their case on student achievement—contending that choice-based accountability leads to school improvement and stronger pupil attainments—opponents seem likelier to argue against choice on the grounds that it fractures communities and undermines democratic values. This dynamic is unfortunate because it leaves the impression that the advancement of school choice is hostile to—or at least indifferent to—issues of community and democracy. The reality, however, is that nothing could be farther from the truth.

There is no doubt that opponents of school choice are spilling more ink than reformers on this question of education for democracy and community. It is, for instance, the mission of the new Network for Public Education to “fight to protect, preserve and strengthen our public school system, an essential institution in a democratic society.” And education historian Diane Ravitch repeatedly makes the case that the traditional public school system is “one of the foundation stones of our democracy” and that “an attack on public education is an attack on democracy.”

However, the case that the traditional school system is the only or even the best path to upholding community and democracy is remarkably weak. In fact, a close look at the history of traditional public education reveals the strongly anti-democratic strains of the common schools movement, some of which we still live with today (a topic that receives a thoughtful book-length discussion in Charles Glenn’s Myth of the Common School).

The troubling but often forgotten truth

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