Flypaper

Earlier this month, eleven scholars, analysts, and advocates participated in our annual Wonkathon. The challenge we put to them was to find provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act that could be used to expand parental choice.

Our participants did not disappoint; I strongly recommend checking out their ideas on course access, school turnarounds, and charter quality. (All eleven posts are available here.)

But the argument that I found most compelling was one made by wonks Matthew JosephBrian Kisida and Travis Pillow: that the law could catalyze efforts to overhaul state and local school finance systems. That could unleash charters and choice more than anything else.

Indeed, school finance reform is the next front in the school choice war. As Matthew Joseph explained in his post, charter schools are shortchanged, on average, by more than 20 percent; for publicly funded scholarship programs, the deficit is 50 percent or more.

Twenty-odd years ago, some of us naively claimed that schools of choice would be able to deliver better learning at lower costs. That was a mistake. As long as schools are competing with one another for talent, not being able to pay competitive salaries is a major barrier to quality. (That goes for poorly...

As everyone knows, the Department of Education released its latest package of proposed regulations today. Among other issues, this round addresses the heart of the Every Student Succeeds Act: its accountability provisions.

The law, as you may recall, represented a major departure from No Child Left Behind, sending significant authority back to the states. It didn’t give them carte blanche, but Congress certainly intended them to have lots more sway over key education policy issues, including the design of their school rating systems.

Apparently Secretary of Education John King and his colleagues didn’t get the memo. While they're not a total disaster, the regulations proposed today miss opportunities at every turn to provide important flexibility to the states so that they might design systems that work.

Here are a few of the issues that state officials, and members of Congress, should complain about:

1. The regulations set an arbitrary standard for the “other indicators of student success or school quality”—and then make sure those indicators won’t matter anyway. One of ESSA’s key innovations was the allowance of non-test indicators in state accountability systems. While some accountability hawks saw this move as a way to water down expectations, others viewed it as a...

In theory, competition has the potential to boost quality and lower prices. But how is this theory working in education? This report from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice provides an overview of the research on competition in American K–12 education and offers suggestions to enhance the competitive environment.

The report finds that competition in the form of charters, vouchers, and tax credits does indeed inspire competitive gains. But these gains are relatively small. An in-depth literature review reveals that forty of the forty-two studies on the impact of competition on public school students’ test scores find neutral-to-moderately-positive effects. These findings run counter to one of the most common arguments against choice programs—namely, that school choice does academic harm to those “left behind” at traditional public schools.

The report also examines whether school choice acts as a lever to exert market pressure and decrease educational costs. While the answer to that question is unclear, the report did note a discrepancy in the efficiency—defined as effectiveness per dollar—between traditional public and choice options. Charter schools appear to be doing more with less. Although they receive about 28 percent less funding per student than local district schools, they are achieving greater student gains. ...

In economics, it’s commonly accepted that specialization maximizes productivity. As Adam Smith preached, specialized workers are better able to hone their skills, become more efficient, and require less transition time between tasks. When Henry Ford divided automobile production into many smaller tasks along an assembly line, for example, output improved significantly.

A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) applies this philosophy to education, exploring whether teacher specialization (strategically assigning teachers to fewer subjects like math, reading, science, and/or social studies) improves productivity in elementary schools. Proponents of specialization argue that sorting teachers by areas of strength allows them to master subject content and spend more time on lesson planning. It may even increase teacher retention rates. In addition, some argue that early specialization might also ease the transition into middle and high school, where single-subject teaching in norm. Others caution that while specialized instructors teach less content, they teach it to a larger number of students. When specialized teachers aren’t able to get to know their students as well and tailor instruction accordingly, do learning outcomes suffer?

Author Roland Fryer explores these potential tradeoffs by randomly assigning fifty elementary schools in Houston to treatment and...

A new study uses twenty-five years of data on the Milwaukee voucher program to examine the extent to which factors like school newness, institutional affiliation, market share, and regulatory environment put voucher schools at risk of failure.

Examining data for every private school that participated in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) between years 1991 and 2015, analysts find that 41 percent of the 247 schools that participated for at least one year failed—meaning that they were terminated via regulatory action or else voluntarily shut their doors. Another 11 percent either merged with another school or converted to a charter school. The analysis includes information on both the likelihood of leaving the program and the risk of failing.

Start-up voucher schools and those unaffiliated with a religious institution have comparatively higher risks of failure over time. Simply being a start-up increases the risk of failure by 332 percent, and the risk of leaving MPCP for any reason increases it by about 218 percent. (The average time to reach failure for a failed start-up is 4.3 years, compared to 8.7 for existing schools.) On average, start-up MPCP schools enroll 90 percent of their students via vouchers.

Having a religious affiliation, however,...

Is there a more annoying manifestation of our political and cultural divisions than the debate over school discipline? On the Left is the “restorative justice” crowd, clamoring for an end to “exclusionary” practices before critical questions about the impact of this step have been answered; on the Right are the “no-excuses” folks, asserting the necessity and efficacy of suspensions based on the blithe assumption that they promote order and safety.

At times, both sides seem to view dialogue and consequences as mutually exclusive, even though common sense suggests they might be usefully combined. Any decent parent penalizes bad behavior and insists on an apology when one is warranted (as do many educators). Yet at the policy level, in loco parentis is too bipolar for that. For the discipline doves, disparate suspension rates are proof not just of racial bias (which is only part of the story), but of the indefensible and counterproductive nature of punishment generally. (Never mind that this logic would obviate the need for courts and prisons if applied outside the schoolhouse.) For the hawks, no policy is too shortsighted and socio-emotionally indifferent to rationalize by invoking the sanctity of the learning environment. The possibility that suspended students might return to class...

“In a private meeting at the White House in 2014, Mr. Obama told a group of young black activists that change was ‘hard and incremental,’ one participant said at the time. When some activists at that meeting said they felt that their voices were not being heard, Mr. Obama replied, “You are sitting in the Oval Office, talking to the president of the United States.”

—“Obama Says Movements Like Black Lives Matter ‘Can’t Just Keep on Yelling,’” The New York Times, April 23, 2016

At the opening plenary session of the New Schools Venture Fund meeting in San Francisco earlier this month, CEO Stacy Childress promised attendees that the meeting was going to “push” them to explore issues of race, equity, and education. For some, it was a face push. The session featured a panel discussion between a top Teach For America executive active in the Black Lives Matter movement, an activist concerned with the plight of undocumented youth, and a USC sociology professor who brought half of the audience to its feet with a remark (as paraphrased by someone in the room) that “the story of America is the story of progressive social movements, government, affirmative action, the GI bill, and...

Sally C. Krisel

If you had a magic wand and could change one thing to ensure the availability of great gifted education services for students in your community, what would it be? A state mandate? More funding? A wide array of service requirements based on what we know about giftedness and best practices for promoting the development of high-ability learners?

In the absence of a magic wand, I might suggest that the next best thing is a robust state policy related to gifted education. Gifted education policies provide a framework for identification, services, teacher preparedness, accountability for student learning, and program evaluation. Together, these elements should define comprehensive, equitable opportunities for high-achieving and high-potential students. A coherent set of state policies not only define issues and practices that are essential to the delivery of high-quality programs for gifted students; they also provide parents, teachers, and other gifted education advocates with leverage to demand appropriate services for gifted and talented students in their communities. Well-crafted state policies also serve as tools for local policy development, assisting boards of education, educational leaders, and parent advocates as they seek to improve their own policies.

In my career as a gifted education professional at the classroom, district,...

Rachel Skerritt

As the instructional leaders within schools, principals hold the key to education reform. The principal serves as the mission driver and resource strategist for families, community partners, faculty, staff, and students. In DC Public Schools, these duties bring enormous rewards, but also immense pressure: Principals have implemented rigorous common assignments across content areas and grade levels; launched a successful teacher-leader initiative that allows strong educators to assume leadership roles and remain in the classroom; and helped DCPS achieve the status of fastest-improving urban school district (twice) on the most recent NAEP assessments—all while doing the daily work of schooling.

The DCPS principal force understands the impact of every decision related to instruction, hiring, operations, and community building. And with the myriad skills needed to manage the demands of a busy campus, it is essential that DCPS build a pipeline of strong talent to lead our 115 schools for years to come. This was the impetus for starting an internal principal training program at DC Public Schools.

In 2013, the Mary Jane Patterson (MJP) Fellowship was established. Named after the district’s first African American principal, the program prepares high-performing DCPS educators for principal positions in DCPS schools. Fellows complete an eighteen-month, cohort-based series...

This is the second in a series of essays marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of America’s first charter school law. These commentaries are informed and inspired by our forthcoming book (co-authored with Bruno V. Manno), Charter Schools at the Crossroads: Predicaments, Paradoxes, Possibilities, to be published this fall by Harvard Education Press. Read the other essays here, here, here, and here.

Supporting charter schools requires tough love. It isn’t enough to create them and let kids attend them. They also need to be run with integrity; their books need to balance; their pupils must be safe; and above all, their academic achievement has to be strong, especially when gauged by student growth.

Some of America’s highest-achieving schools are charters, but so are some of its worst. Averaging across all 6,800 of them, some critics declare that their performance is roughly equal to their district counterparts. But such a superficial analysis ignores their variability—the reality that they range from dismal to superb. Let’s look a little more closely.

State variance

A quarter-century in, charter schools are still absent from seven states, and seventeen other jurisdictions have fewer than fifty each. Forty-four states have charter-enabling laws on the books, but...

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