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.

Marc Mannella

As the founder and Executive Director of KIPP Philadelphia Schools, I was surprised to read Dr. Laurence Steinberg’s Flypaper post on how KIPP charter schools approach character development. In response to his portrayal of our character work, I want to offer a KIPP educator’s perspective.

The headline of Dr. Steinberg’s piece asks, “Is character education the answer?” Neither I nor anyone at KIPP believes that teaching character in and of itself is the answer to the challenges faced by our students—85 percent of whom grow up in poverty. But just because character isn’t the answer, doesn’t mean it isn’t part of an answer. We know from several studies that certain character strengths play an important role in increasing students’ academic success. And a growing body of research, like that by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Dr. Carol Dweck from Stanford University, indicates that elements related to KIPP character strengths like social intelligence and optimism are ultimately teachable.

When approached thoughtfully and deliberately, teaching character strengths can help students develop the resiliency to overcome life’s obstacles. We’re already seeing that KIPP students graduate college at more than four times the rate of students from the country’s lowest-income families; by investing in character in our schools, we are aiming to raise that rate even higher.

While Dr. Steinberg is complimentary of much of KIPP’s work, his description of our approach to teaching character as a settled protocol is not entirely accurate. It is in fact a highly...

On the whole, the new guidance from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is another example of executive overreach and federal interference run amok. Really, the department is going to sue local school districts if their lighting is poor? Does anyone think this is a good idea? Secretary Duncan, this is "tight-loose"?

But there is a silver lining: This could be an incredibly helpful tool for charter schools. We know from a recent University of Arkansas study (and several before it) that charter schools are woefully underfunded. This is particularly true in states where most charters serve poor and minority children. They also have meager access to high quality facilities. (I hear some are even poorly lit!)

I'd love to see charter associations throughout the country file complaints with OCR, asking it to investigate states that don't do enough to provide equitable funding to charter schools serving high proportions of poor and minority children. Advocates in New York City might file a complaint against Mayor Bill de Blasio for refusing to provide equitable facilities. And certainly charter advocates that have already filed lawsuits alleging discrimination against charter schools (in Washington, D.C. and New York state) should use the tactic, too.

It almost certainly didn't mean to, but OCR may have stumbled into the most significant federal charter policy action since the birth of the charter movement two decades ago. So tenth-amendment hawks: Lighten up!...

A new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools assesses the health of the public charter school movement by examining its progression and performance in twenty-five states and Washington, D.C. To qualify, states had to participate in the 2013 CREDO study and have at least 1 percent of public school students served by charters. They ranked the strength of each locale using fifteen indicators in three categories: growth, or the overall number of schools available and students served; innovation, defined as the “use of various innovative practices,” such as an extended school year; and quality, measured in additional days of learning for both reading and math. Washington, D.C. and Louisiana came in first and second, respectively, earning high marks for offering multiple charter school options for families, serving high numbers of economically disadvantaged youth, and showing strong student achievement gains. Nevertheless, the report suggests that both ought to make efforts to secure equitable operational funding. At the other end of the spectrum, Oregon and Nevada occupied the bottom two spots because they serve a low percentage of the state’s population of public school children, and their charters aren’t producing gains in reading and math. For these low performers, the report suggests changes in law that would allow for more in-school autonomy and more accountability for authorizers. The Alliance acknowledges that improvement can be made in identifying and collecting comprehensive data on public charter schools. Indeed. But, in the meantime, this debut analysis offers clarity to a movement...

With any luck, the “Know Your Charter” website from Innovation Ohio (IO) and the Ohio Education Association (OEA) will go the way of Pets.com and Geocities.com. The new website’s stated aim is to increase the transparency around charter-school spending and academic results by comparing them to traditional public schools. While greater transparency is a worthwhile goal, it looks like Innovation Ohio—a liberal advocacy group founded by former Strickland administration officials—and the Ohio Education Association (OEA)—the state-level affiliate for the nation’s largest labor union—let political spin get in the way of presenting information in a meaningful way.

The website misinforms the public by failing to report essential information about public schools, calling into question how much the website actually helps anyone “know” anything. In particular, Innovation Ohio (IO) and the OEA make the following crucial omissions in reporting basic school information:

1.) They ignore district funding from local property taxes. You’ll notice that the IO-OEA website reports only state per-pupil revenue for districts and public-charter schools. But remember, school districts are funded jointly through state and local revenue sources.[1] By reporting only state revenue, they flagrantly disregard the fact that school districts raise, on average, roughly half their revenue through local taxes (mainly property). Meanwhile, charters, with only a few exceptions in Cleveland, do not receive a single penny of local revenue, which leads to funding inequity between district and charter schools. When local, state, and federal revenue sources are combined, recent research from...

There’s a lot of talk about disruptive innovation these days. It seems hardly a month goes by that we don’t see some sort of exciting new innovation that changes an industry. Sometimes it happens over and over again in the same space. First we had paper maps that were replaced by custom driving directions we could print out from MapQuest (remember those?). Then came some very expensive GPS systems mounted in cars. Those, in turn, were replaced by much cheaper portable GPS systems from companies like Garmin, which were basically made obsolete by free map applications from Apple, Google, and others in nearly all cell phones sold today. All this in a handful of years! Fortunately, paper mapmakers weren’t ultra-powerful on Capitol Hill, or we might still be sitting in our cars trying to figure out how the heck you’re supposed to fold those things.

Unfortunately, the traditional public education system does have an army of apologists, lobbyists and piles of cash to protect itself and resist change.  Public unions are the best funded of these anti-change agents, but they are by no means the only players to resist everything from accountability to online learning to charter schools—none of which are really that radical when you think about it.

A white paper published by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, “Public Accountability for Charter Schools: Standards and Policy Recommendations for Effective Oversight,” follows a familiar path. The ideas, almost certainly by design, would stifle the innovation we...

Heated debate has erupted over changes to Ohio’s new standards, assessments, and accountability policies. Most significantly, the state’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics has triggered efforts to roll back the new standards and the assessments associated with them. In addition to the Common Core, the state is undertaking other bold but controversial reforms, including the Third Grade Reading Guarantee—aimed at improving early literacy—and evaluations of teachers and principals that factor in student achievement.

These policy reforms reflect a shifting paradigm in K-12 education. For years, it was assumed that schools would provide an adequate education for all students. Since the early 2000s, prodded by federal law, states adopted policies whereby students have been required to meet “proficiency” benchmarks on state tests. This policy framework has moved the achievement needle forward: Disadvantaged students, for one, have demonstrated gains over the past decade on national assessments.

Yet the academic standards in Ohio and in many states across the nation remained too low, and student outcomes mediocre. The minimum expectations for what students should know and be able to do failed to match the demands of colleges and employers. As a result, Ohio and other states are raising academic expectations: “adequacy” and “proficiency” in K-12 education is passé. In its place, a new paradigm aims to ready students for college and career.

None of these big reforms—from Common Core to new assessments to clearer accountability for schools and educators—are stress-free, without complication, or uncontentious. These...

Ohio’s school and district report cards were released last week, nearly a month later than originally scheduled due to inclement weather….back in February and March. No matter; they’re here now and every education stakeholder is poring over them. But to what purpose are these troves of data being put? 

Out of the gate, stories in the media focused on the “big picture” issues: urban districts (pretty bad, with some rays of hope) and dropout recovery schools (same, minus most of those rays of hope). A single grade for “overall performance” is still not being given this year but should be available in 2016. That left analysts digging through a variety of indicators at all levels. Performance index scores, value-added calculations (very confusing), graduation rates, and other factors were considered, either in isolation or in tandem, producing very different conclusions depending on how the measures were parsed or weighted by the investigators. It is tempting to say that certain foregone conclusions were bolstered by the ways in which data were considered or not considered, but perhaps it is more accurate to say that getting an analysis of such a wealth of information out the door quickly necessitates a narrowing of focus, for better or worse.

We’ve already seen some really excellent investigation of report card data this year, adding the journalist’s touch to what could just be cold recitation of numbers. We hope to see more stories making apples-to-apples comparisons between...

Over the last month or so, there’ve been a number of notable stories highlighting the passing of the torch from urban districts to urban chartering. The former continue their long, slow decline while the latter experiences the exhilaration and growing pains of emerging adulthood.

A sobering new study from Brookings, “School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant,” finds that district “superintendents are largely indistinguishable” in their ability to improve student achievement. For those who’ve hoped that the half-century struggles of the urban district might finally be remedied by a superhero leader, this has to be deflating. The study finds that district leaders account for an infinitesimal fraction of achievement differences, that hiring a superintendent is not associated with increased learning, and that longevity doesn’t improve a superintendent’s influence.

In recent years, we’ve put an inordinate amount of faith in (and money behind) bold urban district leaders. The continued dispiriting results from NAEP TUDA, the Newark boycott, the LAUSD iPad dust-up, the Atlanta cheating scandal, DC’s “disappointing” 2014 test scores, Chicago’s strike, and much more should force us to take stock. Why exactly do we continue to tell ourselves that these ancient, preternaturally inept institutions are fixable?

It’s probably more than a coincidence that the Broad Prize, designed to call attention to urban-district bright spots, named—for the first time ever—only two finalists this year (instead of the customary four...

Paul Bruno

photo credit: ChalkbeatNY via photopin cc

With the release last month of the latest round test scores, Success Academy founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz is now a bona fide national-education-reform celebrity. She is also the latest in a line of educator-activists—like Michelle Rhee or Diane Ravitch—who embody, for supporters and opponents alike, one “side” of the education-reform debate. As a result, discussions about the stellar results posted by her schools have generated much more heat than light. Allies are eager to elevate her to exemplar status and critics desperate to prevent her from receiving even a modicum of credit for her students’ success.

The argument breaks down along predictable lines. For advocates of charter schools and education reform more generally, Success Academies demonstrate what can be accomplished when a strong leader with a laser-like focus on student achievement can do when she is free to hire the best teachers for the neediest students.

Critics of charter schools and reform are equally confident that Moskowitz is, in effect, running a scam: skimming the easiest-to-teach students, pushing out the ones who prove difficult later, and claiming all the while to be doing better work than the city’s other educators who are forced to operate without her considerable advantages and educational slight-of-hand.

What neither side is willing or able to admit, however, is how little we really know about why Moskowitz’s students seem to be doing so much better than...

On September 3, I participated in a launch event for Mike McShane’s new book, Education and Opportunity, a publication of AEI’sValues and Capitalism” initiative. The following are my amended remarks about the book, namely our improved understanding of K12 markets, the downsides of a unitary system of schools, and the intersection of such reform and conservatism.

I want to focus on three elements of this valuable new book. The first two relate to its contributions to our improved thinking about school choice. The third relates to the tension between school choice and conservatism.

First, Education and Opportunity offers a sophisticated view of public school markets, how to understand them, use their strength, and appreciate their limitations.

The book’s thrust is neatly summarized by one of its early sentences: “A vibrant marketplace of education options is the most effective means of developing the schools necessary to meet the needs of students today and in the years to come.”

Many writers on school choice have focused on the importance of options. But note the use of “vibrant” and “developing.” This suggests a portfolio of schools that’s full of energy and dynamism. This is not a minimally diverse set of schools, a collection that exists in perpetuity. In this sentence and throughout the book, Mike describes a portfolio consisting of a wide array of options, a portfolio that continuously improves in quality and evolves to reflect the changing needs of families.

This echoes the great insight from charter...

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