Opening minds about closing schools

Ed reform’s low-hanging fruit, opting out, a grim view of American education, and the academic achievement of voucher students.   

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: Alex Schuh, Ph.D., "The Achievement Checkup: Tracking the Post-Elementary Outcomes of Baltimore Need-Based Scholarship Students," The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (April 2015). 
Mike Petrilli:               Hello this is your host Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, here at the Education Gadfly show and online at Now please join me in welcoming my co-host, the Cecily Strong of education reform, Alyssa Schwenk.

Alyssa Schwenk:          Thank you, thank you Mike, should I call you Key and Peele now?

Mike Petrilli:               I don't even know who that is, I don't know who many people are. When we started this show like ten years ago, I sometimes knew the pop culture references, now it's all over my head. I guess Cecily Strong, she's on Saturday Night Live and she hosted White House Correspondence Dinner.

Alyssa Schwenk:          I'm just, I'm always happy when we don't do a sports reference because anytime I'm co-hosting with you or Robert, I'm like please don't choose a sports reference. You're going to ask me something about an athletic endeavor and I don't know how to do any of those. I kind of know this reference though.

Mike Petrilli:               It's great to have Alyssa back on the show. Alyssa, among other things, helps us raise money.

Alyssa Schwenk:          I do do that.

Mike Petrilli:               Hey we can do it like a public radio show.

Alyssa Schwenk:          Like a telethon?

Mike Petrilli:               Yeah. Hey if you just want to right now just write out a check to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, send it in.

Alyssa Schwenk:          Send it in, we'll take it.

Mike Petrilli:               They'd be awesome, 1016 16th Street Northwest Washington, D.C. 20036.

Alyssa Schwenk:          C/O: Alyssa Schwenk.

Mike Petrilli:               Yes. Go ahead, 10 bucks, 20 bucks, anything, every little bit helps people. We don't really do a whole lot of that, do we?

Alyssa Schwenk:          We really don't, I mean it works for Big Bird and the folks at PBS maybe that's a strategy that we should do.

Mike Petrilli:               We should have a Gala, that'd be awesome.

Alyssa Schwenk:          That'd be fun, I like fancy clothes.

Mike Petrilli:               We have a lot of fancy people up at Fordham now so maybe we could pull that off.

Alyssa Schwenk:          We do.

Mike Petrilli:               All right hey lots to cover, busy week, let's get started, let's play Pardon the Gadfly, Ellen, let's go.

Ellen:                           The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof argued in his column last week that pre-k is low hanging fruit compared to K12 ed reform. Do you agree?

Mike Petrilli:               I think he's bananas!

Alyssa Schwenk:          I think that's a pretty good word for it. I'm a former kindergarten teacher and this makes me really scared, please stay out of ECE.

Mike Petrilli:               Stay out of Early Childhood Education. His argument is that politically this should be a lot easier, that education reform has turned into this long, long, bloody war. Whereas early childhood should be relatively easy.

Alyssa Schwenk:          You know it's all just blocks and letters in early childhood.

Mike Petrilli:               See this is where ... I just don't quite understand where he's coming from. Look, I don't doubt that education reform is hard and we probably have done the easy stuff and now it's about the execution and it's about continuing to fight some very difficult political fights. Pre-k is not easy to figure out how to make sure you do high quality pre-k at scale? We don't really know how to do that. It's expensive and you know that means raising new money, that means maybe raising taxes, none of that's easy politically.

Alyssa Schwenk:          No and right now I think the argument is education used to be this thing that everyone could agree on and everyone in theory agrees that if we can get kids earlier, yes that will help close an achievement gap. It's a very values late in proposition, you have people who care a lot about parental freedom and parents making their own choices for kids, like kind of positioning that against the good of society. How early do we start interventions for kids? How far into homes do we go? How much do we tell parents these are good things that you should do? How do we nudge them and maybe right now, yes, it's probably not as polarized as east as education but we get in there and it could very quickly become as bloody as K12 is.

Mike Petrilli:               Yes well said. Okay, topic number two.

Ellen:                           What are parents trying to tell us about opting out of tests and is New York, where in one district 70% have opted out, an anomaly?

Mike Petrilli:               Alyssa this to me is an important question and I don't feel like we have good answers. This is no longer just something that is hypothetical or people are complaining on Twitter about testing. We see tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of parents saying that they don't want their kids taking a test. This is a big deal now, it's mostly in New York at this point. What's not totally clear is, to me at least, is the message the parents are trying to send versus the advocacy groups.

Alyssa Schwenk:          Right I mean what's the ... Your kid sits out the test, what happens next? I guess that's kind of the mystery to me and I'm not a parent.

Mike Petrilli:               No, no, no, not even that Alyssa, I mean literally what do they ... What are they trying to say, is it that they don't believe in testing and accountability? Is it that they don't like what testing has done to there schools? Is it this concern about ... For example you could say, "Well I don't like the fact that my kid has to take several days out of their school year and sit down and take the test." It's literally the testing.

Alyssa Schwenk:          That's reasonable.

Mike Petrilli:               Right, or is, "Well I fell like my school has gotten rid of art and music and all the other stuff because they're so obsessed with getting better test scores." Is that what's happening because I'm little surprised because most of these parents are in more affluent areas and have those affluent areas really gotten really gotten rid of art and music because of testing?

Alyssa Schwenk:          I kind of want to say no but I'm obviously not in New York so I don't know if that's necessarily the reason. I mean we've seen affluent parents opt out throughout the years, they've sent kids to private schools, they've moved to new suburbs that have new schools that they say are better. We've seen parents make choices for their kids in the past, like over the past several years. My best guess is it's something along those lines, but just why?

Mike Petrilli:               We don't know. Listen, how about this, 2 years from now when we see the Common Core test scores have come out now all over the country. Keep in mind, New York was 2 years ahead of everybody else. Are we going to see this go national, are we going to see this happen everywhere, or is there something unique about New York that is causing this problem?

Alyssa Schwenk:          What's your prediction? We'll come back in 2017.

Mike Petrilli:               I am hopeful that it is going to be limited, at least at this extent, to New York. This really is people are angry at Governor Cuomo, they feel like, teachers particularly feel like he's been stiffing them in the eye. He's got a vendetta against them and so the unions have been actively encouraging parents to opt out. This may be something combined with his unwillingness to compromise on teacher evaluations. You can make the case that in New York there really is a lot of pressure to pay attention to these tests now because of the degree that they're linked to teacher evaluations.

Alyssa Schwenk:          Yeah, it's up to what, 20 ...

Mike Petrilli:               50%, whereas the rest of the country has largely backed off that, at least for a few years. A couple years from now when we get back into the teacher evaluation thing based on test scores, most states have said we're going to reduce the amount driven by test scores. I hope that helps because if this goes national, this whole school reform is in serious trouble.

Alyssa Schwenk:          A whole lot of trouble. Yeah, I hope you're right, I think I agree. I think it's a very pressurized situation and I hope in a couple of years it will have died down and we'll have a new normal.

Mike Petrilli:               Okay. Topic number 3.

Ellen:                           Mark Tucker recently painted an exceedingly grim picture of American education, including a claim that standards have collapsed across the board over the last 40 years. Is the situation really that dire?

Alyssa Schwenk:          Pretty grim article.

Mike Petrilli:               They really, he should have titled it We're Going to Hell in a Hand Basket.

Alyssa Schwenk:          Just buckle up.

Mike Petrilli:               Yes exactly. It's interesting and this guy's a big lefty, right, he's not some right winger complaining about public schools. Here's a guy on the left and he was saying starting way back when by saying that basically now we have high school level course work being done at the college level and people getting credit for it. That at basically every level of our schools were just passing kids along, grade inflation, lower standards. Interestingly one thing he said Alyssa was the accountability movement hijacked the standards movement.

Alyssa Schwenk:          Standards movement, I saw that yeah, I thought that was really interesting way of putting it.

Mike Petrilli:               Do you think that's right?

Alyssa Schwenk:          I think to some degree for sure. We had this kind of accountability movement that started late '90's, early '90's I guess, we needed something to hold people accountable and standards were the easiest thing to kind of link that too.

Mike Petrilli:               What it became was really a focus on equity, the accountability got linked to getting the lowest performing kids up above a fairly low bar. That was what No Child Left Behind was all about and it's made real progress. You look at the lowest performing kids in this country they are reading and doing math 2 to 3 grade levels ahead of their peers from 20 years ago.

Alyssa Schwenk:          Yeah and that's great but it does, he really got out this tension between this equity bar and also this access bar and there's trade offs there.

Mike Petrilli:               Were the excellence, equity and excellence. Here what we're trying to do now with Common Core is say look now we're going to set the standard at the real world standard of what kids need to be ready for college or for career. It's a much, much higher standard and we're hoping that our schools can rise to the challenge and get lots more kids over that higher standard. It raises questions, can we do that without seeing the progress we've made for the lowest performing kids go away and that's the tension. Plenty of people in high poverty schools say, "Oh my god, my kids are so far from those Common Core standards it's just demoralizing to them and to me." I have some sympathy for that point of view but you know somehow going back to just driving the whole system based on low standards doesn't make sense to me either.

Alyssa Schwenk:          Yeah, I think he did a really good job of just highlighting how we got here and why it's so important that we continue to kind of drive up.

Mike Petrilli:               Yup. Okay dokey, that's all the time we've got for Pardon the Gadfly this week. Now it is time for everyone's favorite Amber's Research Minute. Amber welcome back to the show.

Amber:                        Thank you Mike!

Mike Petrilli:               Amber big day here at Fordham, we released a big study on school closures in Ohio.

Alyssa Schwenk:          It's pretty exciting.

Mike Petrilli:               This was an important question, school closures are difficult you know as a charter school authorizer that is hard to look at a school and think about closing it down, you worry about where the kids are going to end up. The good news is that in Ohio, both the charter and the district sector by in large when schools have been closed and quite a few of them closed in the last several years. The kids end up in better schools and they do better as a result.

Amber:                        Great news,

Alyssa Schwenk:          Great news!

Mike Petrilli:               What's most surprising Amber is that they do better almost immediately that you expect because of student mobility that they might ...

Amber:                        It's going to take a while to put together.

Mike Petrilli:               In the first year after the closure they were performing better.

Amber:                        Yeah that's right. I mean it's got to have something to do with the culture too right? I mean just the teachers and the ... I mean who knows, who knows what it is. Whatever it is, it was just phenomenal news I think for all of us who fret, are they going to a better place anyway? Are we doing them more harm than good? Simple question, really neat findings.

Mike Petrilli:               For our podcast listeners, a little inside here, this study, like a lot of the good studies lately, of course it has results based on standard deviations than they turn that into what that means for them. How many extra days of learning the kids are getting after they go to these new schools. We were writing an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal and they sort of got that but they really wanted it in percentiles. Well what they want to say, where do the kids start on average in terms of percentiles and where do they end up? At the last minute we're scrambling, we have our researchers who are fantastic going back and get these numbers. It is so sobering, even with these huge gains where they made something like, I don't know 5, 6 weeks of gains of learning over the course of the year. On average the kids went from the 20th percentile to the 22nd percentile.

Amber:                        Yeah wow.

Mike Petrilli:               Granted these are the lowest performing schools in this day and so of course these kids are very low performing. The point is even when they make big gains their still very low performing compared to everybody else. Somehow Amber I've been trying to figure out how to help our fellow reformers understand that kids can make a lot of progress and still be no where near ...

Amber:                        Proficiency.

Alyssa Schwenk:          The proficiency.

Mike Petrilli:               Because they just start out so far behind.

Amber:                        I don't know what the answer to that is, I mean we still need both right? We still need the high bar but we need to recognize that how far away that they are, like the reality check that you just gave us.

Alyssa Schwenk:          Yeah and how far they can come.

Mike Petrilli:               I want to make all reformers take a math class. I think we should offer a remedial math class, statistics 101.

Amber:                        Add it to Ed Policy 101.

Mike Petrilli:               All right enough about that, what excellent study do you have for us today?

Amber:                        Well, I have a new study out by Friedman and then let's just say that it was challenging in terms of their methodology, but we'll talk about that wanky stuff in a minute. It was called the Achievement Checkup, tracking the post elementary outcomes of Baltimore need based scholarship students. It's looking in at kids in Baltimore who received a scholarship to go to a private school, right.

Mike Petrilli:               Interesting this week in light of the news in Baltimore.

Amber:                        Very tough. They're looking at high school experience, graduation rate and post secondary attendance rates of the students who got these scholarships. They could use it through kindergarten through 8th grade so not in high school. They actually want to see what are the impacts of having this scholarships in the elementary and middle grades. That means up 2 to 9 years, the scholarship range for the sample, about 2,000 dollars a year, so not a ton of money. They surveyed parents of former scholarship recipients 3 to 8 years after those kids had completed the 8th grade. The sample has recipients who had received at least 1 year. Kind of a low bar for inclusion of the sample but the average was 6 years of the scholarship support. They then completed 8th grade between 2004 and 2010. The problem with the methods, basically they weren't able to compare the results to students who had applied for but didn't receive the scholarships since they didn't track those kids, I mean that's kind of what we like to do, right?

Alyssa Schwenk:          Right.

Amber:                        Further the sample is kind of one of convenience because the students, they had about 36 hundred scholarships offered in total. They could track down only 322 of those recipients, of the 322, just 136 responded to the survey.

Mike Petrilli:               You got to assume those kids, those families are different.

Amber:                        Are different. We got all kind of selection, we got all kinds of bias in every which way. The analyst say, to their credit, that this study needs to be thought of more as a qualitative study, right, given the number. With all those caveats in mind their key findings, 84% of those who responded were enrolled in some type of college, pretty high. 5 to 10 years after completing 8th grade, 2% were still in high school, 1% entered the military. 14% did not attend college immediately after graduating, of those who did indicate the type of college. 73% were in 4 year colleges, 27% in 2 years. Then they kind of try to say let's look at some other studies that are similar since we don't have the comparison group. The study most similar to theirs found that 53% were enrolled in 4 year, and 47 in 2 years. A little bit more sobering I think result because 84 was pretty high, right? Then finally college enrollees were more likely than scholarship alumni who did not enroll in college. They did do that comparison of the kids who didn't go but did receive the scholarship.

                                    They basically found that they took a lot of advantage of the college counseling that was available that was at their schools. They were more likely to attend school sponsored college trips, they were more likely to attend a high school that offered admissions test prep and they were more likely to take a test prep class. They were more likely to attend a school that offered college financial planning. All these resources that actually kind of get kids thinking about, you're going to go to college and this is what ...

Mike Petrilli:               …scholarships were not for high schools.

Amber:                        Right.

Mike Petrilli:               Right so it stopped in 8th grade but they landed in maybe better high schools for these kinds of reasons.

Amber:                        That's what they found.

Alyssa Schwenk:          Interesting.

Amber:                        Anyway it's hard to, you know, I mean the study has some method issues but they ended up saying we needed to try ... The scholarship organizations need to partner more thoughtfully with these high schools that offer these types of resources for kids. College planning, college resources, whatever you want to call these things. Which seems sensible no matter what the study had found, right?

Mike Petrilli:               Yes, although as I always have to point out is you know college is. It's a good pathway, it's not the only pathway. Be curious if any of those kids end up going to a career in the Technical Education route as well.

Amber:                        Just 1% in the military, that's pretty low.

Mike Petrilli:               These kids, there must have been an income threshold but if they only got 2,000 bucks they couldn't have been the poorest families right?

Amber:                        Right, I think they actually had to do a match of 500 dollars.

Mike Petrilli:               Okay.

Amber:                        That's some skim in the game.

Mike Petrilli:               Yeah, yeah, makes sense. Well interesting stuff, not quite as amazing a study as our school closures.

Alyssa Schwenk:          Hard to top our study right now.

Mike Petrilli:               Yes, it is a pretty amazing study. All right, well that is all the time we've got for next week, until next.

Alyssa Schwenk:          I'm Alyssa Schwenk.

Mike Petrilli:               I'm Mike Petrilli at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, signing off.