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.

Jed Wallace, Elizabeth Robitaille

Here follows the fourth entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

The California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) has been issuing annual research on the academic performance of the California charter sector for several years. California is unique in the sheer size and diversity of the charter movement—the number and range of charter schools in California far exceeds that of any other state. Historically, we have found that charter schools both tend to overperform and underperform relative to non-charter public schools, providing a “U-Shape” spectrum of performance. At the same time, we see that different categories of charter schools are found in different concentrations on the performance spectrum, with some categories tending to overperform and other categories tending to underperform. These same trends are likely present in other states as well, but the numbers of charter schools in those states are not yet sizable enough to yield the clear findings we see here. California can therefore serve as a useful microcosm for understanding the differences in academic performance of the charter movement across the nation.

One clear finding we identify is that a high concentration of nonprofit, mission-driven charter organizations serving historically disadvantaged students consistently yields strong results. In Los Angeles, San Jose, and Oakland, we have large numbers of charter schools (educating 20 percent...

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Here follows the second entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

If I were made omnipotent for a day and charged with creating a single high-performing city charter sector, my playbook would probably look similar to that of other charter supporters…but with one major exception.

Here’s what I’d do based on the lessons of the last two decades.

Acquire as much educator talent as possible

No system of schools can thrive without the best teachers and school leaders. New York City (during its Klein-era heyday), Boston, and New Orleans have been magnets for talents, and they’ve benefitted accordingly. National organizations such as Teach For America and TNTP have been indispensable educator pipelines in leading cities, and a number of homegrown initiatives have also been valuable.

Recruit and build high-quality school operators

Blessedly, we finally have a critical mass of organizations that can start and operate high-performing, high-poverty urban schools. Cities with outstanding CMOs such as KIPP, Uncommon, and Achievement First have a huge head start. These organizations reliably develop and scale successful schools. But there are still too few of these national operators, and it would be understandable if a city were to balk at the idea of having a public school system comprised entirely of “outside” operators. Great charter school incubators like those...

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I joined the Twittersphere yesterday for a forum on blended learning moderated by Matt Miller, superintendent of Mentor School District in Northeast Ohio. (Find the tweets at #ohblendchat.) The conversation engaged, by my estimation, fifty or so educators who in 140 characters or less discussed what “blended learning” is, how they’re implementing it, what benefits they’re seeing, and what some of the barriers and misconceptions are.

The forum was a great opportunity to learn how blended learning is playing out in the field. From the chat, I came away with three takeaways:

1.)    There is increasing definition around what blended learning is and is not. First, what it is not: putting students in front of a computer and expecting them to learn. Nor does blended learning slavishly conform to a single method of instruction (e.g., lecture, online, project-based). What is blended learning, then? A few of the key phrases used to define blended learning included personalized learning, a combination of instructional deliveries, collaborative learning, and even controlled chaos.

2.)    Teachers say their feedback on students’ work is swifter and their engagement with all students increases in a blended-learning environment compared to conventional ones. Several educators tweeted about how they have a greater feel for the educational needs of their students. Others described how blended learning allows for more one-on-one instruction and student-teacher conferences. Meanwhile, a few other educators tweeted how blended learning enables them to reach all of their students (i.e., both struggling and advanced...

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Michael Goldstein

Here follows the first entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

Why do some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind? To begin to answer this question, let me pose a second. Among high-performing charter cities, why does Boston outperform other “good” charter cities (by a country mile)?

Hey, I get it. We Bostonians tend toward annoying self-promotion. Sox, Pats, Bruins, Celts for a while, Harvard, John Hancock, etc. Let me just concede up front that there’s an irritating quality to my question.

But look at the chart. Here are CREDO’s top cities, measured in “days of learning.”

The difference between Boston charters and, say, D.C. charters is bigger than the difference between D.C. charters and their district schools. If we’re to discover why the average charter in D.C. or New Orleans is so much better than the average one in, say, Detroit or Miami, I believe we need to answer the Boston question.

Let’s dispense with some theories of why Boston charters outperform these other cities, beginning with the obvious.

1. Is this a boutique story? It is true that Boston’s charters educate just under 9,000 students. Thus, one could say that even if...

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Last week, School Choice Ohio sued two Ohio school districts for their failure to comply with a public-records request. The organization is seeking directory information for students eligible for the EdChoice Scholarship Program from the Cincinnati and Springfield Public Schools. Actions to enforce public-records requests are rarely exciting, but the outcome of SCO’s effort could have important ramifications for tens of thousands of students and their families across the state.

Despite being a national leader in providing private-school choice options to students—Ohio has five separate voucher programs—there isn’t an established mechanism for informing families eligible for the EdChoice Scholarship program (Ohio’s largest voucher initiative) about their eligibility. The law doesn’t require school districts or the Ohio Department of Education to perform this vital function.

Enter School Choice Ohio (SCO), a Columbus-based nonprofit organization, which has worked tirelessly since the beginning of the EdChoice program to conduct outreach to families across the Buckeye State who are eligible to send their child to a private school via a voucher. SCO typically sends postcards and makes phone calls letting families know that their children may be eligible, giving them a toll-free number to call for an information packet and answering any questions families may have about eligibility and the private-school options in their area.

This is critical work, as the EdChoice Scholarship is designed to provide students in Ohio’s very lowest-performing schools the option to attend a private school.

To conduct this outreach, SCO makes a public-records request for directory information...

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I’m a huge believer in high-quality charter authorizing. My view is that many of the strengths of chartering today are attributable to good authorizing and that many of chartering’s weaknesses are the result of bad authorizing.

I know from firsthand experience how tough it is to run a great authorizing shop. I oversaw the NJDOE’s authorizing office, the only authorizer in the state, and became intimately acquainted with the challenges of staffing, the difficulties of building the right practices, the competing factors involved in renewal decisions, the regularity of lawsuits, and more.

I’m particularly excited (and concerned) about authorizing because I believe that all urban public schools, including district-run schools, should have contracts with authorizers. I also believe that private schools participating in public scholarship or tax-credit programs should have performance contracts with authorizers.

I think it’s essential to have an accountability body separate from the school itself and the school’s operator. If we’re to adopt this model across two or three sectors, we need to make sure authorizers are ready for the promotion.

NACSA’s sixth annual survey of authorizers is a must-read for anyone trying to become familiar with the ins and outs of authorizing, as well as those interested in seeing big gains in authorizer quality.

The report doesn’t diverge much from previous editions, but the basic descriptive statistics are important, especially as they relate to NACSA’s “12 Essential Practices.” ...

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It strikes us at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that the CREDO studies of the last few years provide pretty good evidence of what we’ve always suspected: charters in some cities and states are performing much better than their traditional district counterparts, at least as measured by value-added on standardized tests, while others are performing worse. (At the top of the performance heap are charters in Boston, New Orleans, Rhode Island, and D.C.; at the bottom are charters in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Ohio, and Texas.)

The question is, why?

This is hardly hypothetical; for reformers in real places (like our team in Dayton, Ohio), the question of how to create a high-quality charter sector is at the heart of our work. While we understand that nobody can claim definitively (with causal evidence) which policies and practices explain the relatively high or low performance of charter sectors in different cities and states, we still think it’s worth trying to collect some wisdom based on the best available data.

To that end, we have asked a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind. Possible explanations include the following:

  • Cities and states with caps (now or in the past) tend to have higher-performing charters because authorizers were more careful in handing out charters.
  • Cities and states
  • ...
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The education-reform movement is experiencing a rapid acceleration, mainly fueled by great strides in expanding school choice. The number of charter schools in the U.S. has nearly quadrupled in little more than ten years, for instance, and private-school choice is on the rise. But as the efforts pick up speed, a human-capital gap has emerged: according to this report from the nonprofit leadership-training group EdFuel, the “autonomous and accountable public school sector” (a term the authors use to mean public charter schools and private schools accepting students with publicly funded vouchers) will need to fill 32,000 senior and mid-level (non-instructional) roles by 2023. EdFuel finds that the five fastest-growing roles are in instructional coaching, policy, legal areas, advocacy and outreach, and program implementation. To fill this human-capital gap, EdFuel prescribes four actions. First, because current career pipelines aren’t providing talent pools that are deep and diverse enough, recruitment ought to be ramped up—especially in the five top sectors listed above. Second, the sector needs to focus on growing management talent via PD for “rising stars” and “sector switchers.” Third, the sector ought to engage with city leadership to help recruit and keep top talent. And fourth, sector leaders should keep an eye on local politics; without political will, the sector will weaken and talent will head to cities with smoother roads.

SOURCE: EdFuel, Map the Gap: Confronting The Leadership Talent Gap in The New Urban Education Ecosystem (Washington, DC: EdFuel, April 2014)....

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Last week, I participated in two events that challenged my ideas on one of urban education’s trickiest and most combustible issues.

Those who know only a caricatured version of my views might be surprised by both the subject and those who’ve caused my ruminations. But I wrestled with this issue in my book, and while I don’t always see eye-to-eye with my interlocutors of last week, they have valuable insights into this issue.

I’m writing about it here both because it’s important and because, frankly, I need help figuring out the right answer.

The question is, “How do we protect the ‘public’ in public education?”

On Wednesday, I participated in this discussion at the AFT’s Shanker Institute. At a conference the following day, I moderated a conversation between urban school leaders, and similar issues kept bubbling up.

There are many ways to define a school’s “public-ness” (Rick Hess expertly unbundles the issues here). But the aspect I’m most concerned about relates to governance, whether the public—the adults in the geographic area served by the system of schools—is able to shape the contours of the system.

The very specific issue I’m interested in is how this can happen absent locally elected school boards.

Per state constitutions, ensuring a system of public education is the responsibility of state governments. They, however, have created local school districts and boards, thereby delegating K–12 authority...

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As most states’ legislative sessions wind down for the year, it’s not too early to ask how school choice has been faring, particularly when compared with the remarkable gains around the country during the past several years.

Here’s a rundown, in case you haven’t been paying attention:

  • Since 2011, two states have enacted charter-school laws for the first time (Washington and Maine) and many others have improved their laws (a dozen did so just last year).
  • During that time, twenty private-school choice programs were created in fifteen states, along with a number of others that were expanded or otherwise reformed.
  • A handful of states created new “course choice” programs.
  • In 2011, Arizona enacted the nation’s first education savings account (ESA) program.

Why all of that activity? Much of it can be traced to the Republicans’ wave election in 2010, which made the state-level political environment considerably friendlier to charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of parental choice. Republicans gained nearly 700 legislative seats that year, giving them control over more seats than at any time since 1928. They also gained a net of six governors’ offices. Then they maintained most of this edge in the 2012 election, yielding back only about 150 seats.

Nobody knows what the 2014 elections will bring politically, but the early months of the year have seen less impressive progress educationally, at least in terms of education choice. There have been some key missed opportunities. And many legislators...

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