Consortium for Policy Research in Education

Margaret Goertz and Mark Duffy of Penn's Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) have issued both a 7-page "policy brief" and a longer report on state accountability systems (as those stood in spring 2000). There's much pertinent information here, particularly as we reflect on the changes that states must make to comply with the pending E.S.E.A. requirements. While 48 states were testing students statewide in 2000 (Iowa and Nebraska settle for requiring districts to test their own students), only a dozen used the same assessment for the same kids in the same subjects every year. The others skip around. And while 33 states had "state-defined accountability systems" in place, these varied greatly in how they define and measure pupil proficiency. Some focus on relative growth (i.e. schools progressing from their previous achievement levels), some on absolute standards, some on reducing the number of kids in low performing groups. Only a few jurisdictions "hold schools accountable for the performance of specific groups of students, such as racial/ethnic minorities or economically-disadvantaged students." But consequences for schools and, especially, for districts are few. In sum, most states have a ways to go to prepare for...

Charter Friends National Network

As the charter school movement advances, one of its most contentious practices is the "contracting out" of school management services. In such arrangements, charter boards hand over the reins of school control to for-profit or non-profit firms. Critics argue that contracted management -- especially by profit-seeking companies -- amounts to dangerous "privatization" of public education. Others see an opportunity to raise student achievement. Charting a Clear Course, a new report written by Margaret Lin and Bryan Hassel for the Charter Friends National Network, cuts through this debate. Noting that widespread contracting already occurs, the authors explain that "the real issue is not whether contracting should take place, but how." To this end, the report outlines practical strategies for charter boards to establish sound contractual arrangements. Such contracting requires arranging the charter board's public obligations to ensure responsible school management while ensuring that contractors are free from excessive outside control. "In order to hold contractors accountable for performance, those contractors must receive proportionate autonomy and authority to execute their responsibilities as promised," the authors argue. Informed by on-the-ground lessons from charter authorizers, education management organizations, and others, Charting a Clear Course dispenses useful advice on defining...

Center for Civic Innovation, Manhattan Institute

This report by the Manhattan Institute's Center for Civic Innovation provides statistics on the SURR list (Schools Under Registration Review) in New York. These low-performing public schools are targeted for corrective instruction and-in principle-closed if significant improvements are not made within three years. Twenty percent of all public schools in the state are located in New York City, yet the city's five boroughs comprise almost ninety percent of the schools on the SURR list. These schools have a disproportionate number of minority students as well as a disproportionate number of uncertified teachers. While the State Education Department's guidelines would seem to demand rapid turnaround or severe consequences, these schools often linger on the SURR list for an average of five years and are only shut down after nine years or more-or never. This brief report contains little text or analysis but many interesting graphs and tables that provide alarming statistics on the racial make-up, test scores and income levels within SURR schools. Perhaps most disturbing are the current percentages of students performing below an acceptable level in reading and math in schools that actually got taken off the SURR list in 2000. In...

The main reason important reforms don't get made in American K-12 education may be termed the Chicken Little Syndrome: the assertion that the sky will surely fall down if this change is made or, more temperately, the suggestion that the sky MIGHT collapse but we can't be sure so let's not take chances.

To watch this syndrome on display, observe the school establishment's reaction to vouchers: we don't know whether they'll work and we're not sure what will happen, so we daren't take the risk. Or the response to "charter states" and other forms of funding flexibility: we can't be sure what innovations those squirrelly states might try so we'd best not gamble. Or "alternative certification" of teachers. And so forth.

Mostly, this is the characteristic response of timid people and organizations with deep vested interests in the status quo. They fear change or believe it would adversely affect them. Their method of fending it off is to emulate Chicken Little, warning that the heavens will crash down upon innocent children if any such innovation is introduced.

Sometimes, though, we have actual experience to draw upon in predicting the likely outcome of a course of action. Sometimes Chicken Little's raindrop...

Is any charter school better than no charter school? Checker Finn used to think so but now he's not so sure. The Dayton Daily News traces his conversion in "Charter Guru Wisely Flexible," by Martin Gottlieb, Dayton Daily News, July 15, 2001 http://library.activedayton.com/cgi-bin/display.cgi?

The August 2001 issue of the American School Board Journal includes a pair of articles on home schooling. Though the articles are skeptical in tone, and predictably focus on issues that local school boards may need to address, such as whether home schoolers should be allowed to participate in advanced classes or extracurricular activities at a nearby public school, they nonetheless include much useful information about the home schooling movement. Remarkably, though, neither article even mentions the stunning success of home-schooled kids in national competitions such as spelling and geography bees. "Learning without School" by Lawrence Hardy and "Accountability for Home Schoolers," by Rebecca Talluto, American School Board Journal, August 2001. http://www.asbj.com/

It being summer, the press is full of stories about the vast number of kids attending summer school, which many districts require for students who would otherwise be held back a grade. But how effective are remedial summer programs? A meta-analysis of 99 studies found that about 85% of summer programs produced measurable results; that reading skills of participating students improve three months beyond those of the control group; that mandatory and voluntary programs are about equally effective; and that summer school is more helpful to middle-class students than to the disadvantaged. For more, see "Summer Seen as Critical to Improving Schools," by Martin Kasindorf and Debbie Howlett, USA Today, July 17, 2001. http://www.usatoday.com/news/acovtue.htm

As if the official passing score of 55 on the state's Regents exams were not low enough, the Buffalo News reported this week that students needed to answer just 33 percent of the questions correctly to achieve that score on the Regents exam in biology, and 45 percent of the questions in math. The news that the grading curves for the state's assessments were even more generous than they had seemed was greeted with cries of outrage from teachers, administrators, politicians, and even students. "Wow, what a scam!" said one teacher. The explanation offered by an assistant state superintendent was that the "scaled scoring" system used by the state to translate 33 percent to 55 percent is not an after-the-fact adjustment but an elaborate system that takes into account the difficulty of test questions to translate raw scores into scale scores.

Should a state be ashamed of setting a passing score this low? Not necessarily, so long as the assessment is good and the "cut score" isn't going to remain low forever. Developing a tough test but setting the initial passing bar low can be a shrewd reform strategy, provided the bar is then continually raised. A state that has...

Ontario has a new tax credit for parents who send their children to private schools. In the first year, parents are eligible for a refund of $460, but this amount will quintuple over five years. The plan was included in a budget bill passed in late June by the provincial legislature. Six other Canadian provinces already provide money directly to private schools. "Suck It and See: Ontario Tries School Vouchers," The Economist, June 30, 2001 http://www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?Story_ID=S%26%2880%25Q%217%2B%0A ($2.95 charge for the article)

Edited by Margaret Maden

In 1996, the National Commission on Education in the United Kingdom published Success Against the Odds, a description of how 11 schools in disadvantaged areas were producing high student achievement. RoutledgeFalmer is now publishing Success Against the Odds: Five Years On, which revisits these schools to determine whether those schools remain successful. Most have done even better but there is "significant variation in the amount and kind of success." The Selly Park Technology School for Girls in Birmingham, located in a primarily Muslim community, had the second highest rise in GCSE scores in England between 1997 and 2000. By contrast, the Even Fair Furlong Primary suffered from discipline problems during the five-year period and only last summer showed significant gains in student achievement, doubling its aggregate scores in English and Math. Though no one blueprint emerges as a guarantee for success, the authors did find several common factors in schools that did well. The head teachers (principals) of each school possessed a wide spectrum of leadership styles but all had at least ten years' experience. The most important factor was the school staff's commitment and quality. This primarily meant a carefully selected teaching force, but several...