Charters & Choice

In the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, Bill Murray relived February 2nd day after day. The Ohio charter-school sector is experiencing its own Groundhog Day moment with every struggle seemingly like the one before—with no end in sight.

Last week, the Toledo Blade brought us news of another charter-school closing. Secor Gardens Academy, which first opened last fall, closed abruptly over the weekend of February 8, sending parents scrambling to find a place to send their children. Maddeningly, the North Central Ohio Education Service Center (NCOESC was characterized in the Blade as defending its own performance as the school’s sponsor.

Yes, this NCOESC is the same one that sponsored two schools infamously closed in October 2013 by State Superintendent Richard Ross for being “an educational travesty.” A couple schools it sponsored, including one with which another sponsor had cut ties due to low performance, closed in December. Meanwhile, the NCOESC has drawn attention for its practice of selling services to schools it sponsors. I’m not sure that this sponsor gets it—but luckily, others are starting to do so.

Fresh off of...

 
 

Well-meaning people can and do quibble over school-choice issues in our line of work. Sometimes the rhetoric becomes calcified and hardline ideological. But in my neighborhood in central Columbus, where a general dislike for “school choice” as a movement resonates, a small education marketplace has quietly sprung up just the same. And it’s all in the name of keeping young families from moving to the ’burbs.

Clintonville evolved in the early twentieth century along new streetcar lines heading north from downtown Columbus, but it has been politically and geographically part of the larger city for decades. Our neighborhood schools belong to the city district, and we have no autonomous government or ward representation on city council. We have what other neighborhoods here have, which is an Area Commission—elected members from various street-bound jurisdictions for whom we vote by paper ballot at the local barber shop or bank every couple of years. Area commissions exist to advise the Columbus City Council on matters pertaining to their neighborhoods but have no power of their own.

Clintonville is a proud collection of the weird and offbeat, and most of us like it that way. It isn’t flashy, but it feels like...

 
 

The nearly 330 students at KIPP Columbus (aka KIPP Journey Academy) currently learn in a former city school facility. The building itself leaves much to be desired, but KIPP Columbus has made it their dutiful home since the fall of 2008, KIPP’s first year of operation. Since that time, the board and KIPP team have been focused on doing what is best for their students by pushing them to work hard, focusing on results, and helping them climb the mountain to and through college. KIPP’s students come from traditionally underserved backgrounds with nearly 90 percent of the student population economically disadvantaged.

Our Ohio team had the good fortune of spending a morning at the construction site of the KIPP Columbus campus at the former Bridgeview Golf Course.  The new campus, roughly five miles north of its present location, is set to open this fall. (Fordham proudly sponsors KIPP.) We met with Hannah Powell, the executive director of KIPP Columbus, who gave us the scoop on the new school and a guided tour of the site. The campus will integrate safety, technology, and learning design with ample room for collaboration, small group activity and community spaces. Throughout the building, the...

 
 

In the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, Bill Murray relived February 2nd day after day. The Ohio charter-school sector is experiencing its own Groundhog Day moment with every struggle seemingly like the one before—with no end in sight.

Last week, the Toledo Blade brought us news of another charter-school closing. Secor Gardens Academy, which first opened last fall, closed abruptly over the weekend of February 8, sending parents scrambling to find a place to send their children. Maddeningly, the North Central Ohio Education Service Center (NCOESC was characterized in the Blade as defending its own performance as the school’s sponsor.

Yes, this NCOESC is the same one that sponsored two schools infamously closed in October 2013 by State Superintendent Richard Ross for being “an educational travesty.” A couple schools it sponsored, including one with which another sponsor had cut ties due to low performance, closed in December. Meanwhile, the NCOESC has drawn attention for its practice of selling services to schools it sponsors. I’m not sure that this sponsor gets it—but luckily, others are starting to do so.

Fresh off of his...

 
 

Well-meaning people can and do quibble over school-choice issues in our line of work. Sometimes the rhetoric becomes calcified and hardline ideological. But in my neighborhood in central Columbus, where a general dislike for “school choice” as a movement resonates, a small education marketplace has quietly sprung up just the same. And it’s all in the name of keeping young families from moving to the ’burbs.

Clintonville evolved in the early twentieth century along new streetcar lines heading north from downtown Columbus, but it has been politically and geographically part of the larger city for decades. Our neighborhood schools belong to the city district, and we have no autonomous government or ward representation on city council. We have what other neighborhoods here have, which is an Area Commission—elected members from various street-bound jurisdictions for whom we vote by paper ballot at the local barber shop or bank every couple of years. Area commissions exist to advise the Columbus City Council on matters pertaining to their neighborhoods but have no power of their own.

Clintonville is a proud collection of the weird and offbeat, and most of us like it that way. It isn’t flashy, but it feels like...

 
 

Efforts at a common, one-stop school-application process, a.k.a. “universal enrollment,” are underway for the first time in Washington, D.C.,  and Newark, New Jersey, and are under consideration in Philadelphia. Universal enrollment is already up and running in New Orleans and Denver, as well. The plans vary in size, scope, and complexity, but they are rational ways to put parents and students first within a dizzying array of educational choices. In fact, it’s clear that there are more school seats in most large cities than there are children to fill them.

Every parent theoretically has a number of choices, but the reality is that the school “marketplace” is often difficult to understand or navigate. Data are absent or inconsistent from school to school, different deadlines require quick decisions, applications can be hard to acquire or for families to complete, and visiting schools can be very difficult when parents and guardians don’t have access to or control over transportation and scheduling. All of these conspire to limit an individual family’s real choices even when quality school seats...

 
 

Over the past eight years, New Orleans students have achieved what few previously thought was possible. In her recent Atlantic article on charter-school discipline policies in New Orleans, Meredith Simons recognizes these gains, noting that “New Orleans’s graduation rate has surpassed the state’s, growing from 54.4 percent in 2004 to 77.8 percent in 2012.”

Yet Ms. Simons, as well as others, believes that these gains have come at a high cost—that the results, while impressive, have too often relied on discipline policies that “feel at odds with the city’s culture.” In her article, Ms. Simons proposes her own ideal solution for melding our city’s culture with a positive school climate. And, to be honest, her vision sounds great. I imagine many parents would (and do) take pleasure in sending their children to such a school. And I’m thrilled that she and her colleagues have created an excellent school.

However, I do wish Ms. Simons had visited the schools she critiqued, as she might have gained an understanding of why parents send their children to these schools.

Because what often goes unexplained in such stories is this: Sci Academy, the flagship school of the nonprofit of whose school culture has come under attack, happens to be the third-most popular school for ninth-grade enrollees in the entire city.

The school that is supposedly inapposite to New Orleans’s culture happens to be amongst the most in-demand high schools in the city.

The reason for this is simple: Sci Academy is a school where students thrive. It’s a place where a student can go from being functionally illiterate to attending college and introducing Michelle Obama at the White House. It’s a school that combines quiet hallways with a loving, nurturing environment that includes band, football, and dance. In a city still terribly plagued by violence,  parents continue to be drawn to a school with strict discipline policies that help accelerate rigorous extracurricular and academic programs.

So what to make of all this?

My takeaway is this: in education—and in all areas of public policy—we should be leery of adopting worldviews that lack humility.

When you possess such a worldview and you see something with which you disagree, your first impulse is to change it. Likewise, if you don’t like a school’s culture, then the instinctive answer is that the school should modify its culture.

Seeing the world in such a manner implicitly rejects the idea that other people might have different desires than do you, that they might have different needs than do you, or that they might want something different for their children than do you.

The beauty of the New Orleans education system is that parents can choose where to send their children to school. There are dozens of different nonprofits operating schools, and each has their own unique mission, strategy, and culture.

In New Orleans, we no longer have to ceaselessly argue about such nonsensical questions as, “What is the perfect school?” The clear answer is that there is no perfect school. At best, there are perfect matches—situations where a student finds that exact environment where she can thrive.

The ultimate goal of the New Orleans public education system is not uniformity: it is diversity. And to misunderstand this is to misunderstand the fundamental design principle of our system.  

So as we move forward with reform, I think we’d all do well to remember this: knowing what is right for you often affords very little information on what is right for others.

 
 

If you want to understand why supporters of the Common Core are frustrated—OK, exasperated—by some of our opponents’ seemingly unlimited willingness to engage in dishonest debate, consider this latest episode.

On Monday, EAG News published an article entitled, “Common Core math question for sixth graders: Was the 2000 election ‘fair’?

Would you ever consider the question ‘Whom do you want to be president?’ to be asked of your third grader during a math class (or any class)?

Would you expect your fourth grader to be asked to create a chart of presidents along with their political persuasions? Or, how about a discussion on whether the 2000 presidential election resulted in a “fair” outcome? Or, what if the teacher for your sixth grader was advised to “be prepared” to discuss the “politically charged” 2000 election - all during math.

Common Core aligned, of course.

This was picked up by the Daily Caller’s Eric Owens on Wednesday, who piled on via his article, “Common Core MATH lesson plans attack Reagan, list Lincoln’s religion as ‘liberal’”

Another week has gone by and, like clockwork, some more hilariously awful Common Core math lessons have oozed out of the woodwork.

And the story jumped to cable news this morning on a Fox segment, “Common Core lesson lists Abraham Lincoln as a liberal.”

So this is pretty damning for the Common Core, right?

Wrong.

Let’s start with the lesson about the 2000 election. What is its connection to the Common Core? It’s one of thousands of lessons posted on Illuminations, an NCTM website. Like many lesson-sharing sites, this one appears to have little by way of quality control, though it does attempt to allow teachers to “align” these lessons to standards, including the Common Core. But was this lesson written to the Common Core standards? That seems unlikely—since it’s copyrighted from 2008. Ahem, that’s two years before the Common Core standards were written!

Or what about the now-infamous “Lincoln was a liberal” lesson? This one was copyrighted in…2009! Oh, and the website that listed Abraham Lincoln’s religion as “liberal” (before it was “quietly updated”), Infoplease.com, has absolutely zero to do with the Common Core.

This is like the Kevin Bacon game: six degrees of separation from the Common Core.

So let’s get this straight: EAG News found a couple of ridiculous lesson plans on an NCTM website, lesson plans written before the Common Core, and calls them “Common Core math questions.” (Ironically, the author of the article, Renee Nal, claims in her tag line that “her main objectives are to expose media and academic bias and to contribute to a positive shift in culture; where integrity, honesty and independent thought are held in high regard.”)

Then the Daily Caller pushes the story further, which then jumps to Fox News. And nowhere in this chain of events do the “reporters” tell their audience that (a) the lessons were written before the Common Core; (b) the lessons don’t even claim to be Common Core aligned; (c) even if they were claimed to be Common Core aligned, that doesn’t necessarily make them so; and (d) nothing in the Common Core itself promotes this stuff.

And so this morning, millions of people woke up to these claims about the Common Core on Fox News (this is the actual transcript):

Elisabeth Hasselbeck: Was Abraham Lincoln a liberal? That’s what one Common Core-aligned math lesson is set to teach your kids. Take a look. In a recommended link to Lincoln’s biography, which is supposed to provide key facts about him, it lists his religion as liberal. Joining us now with her take on this is the executive director of the Eagle Forum, Glyn Wright. Certainly something shocking to see when kids are supposed to be learning history. Oh wait, but this occurred under a math curriculum?

Glyn Wright: Right, right. This is just more evidence of the poor quality of education found with the Common Core. And even if this were conservative rhetoric we would still be opposed because the root of our opposition lies in the fact that this is a top-down, federally-controlled approach to education. It has started with standards that have already led to national testing which will soon lead to a national curriculum. Can you imagine if these were mandated even to our good teachers?

And it goes on from there.

I agree with my friends on the Right that there are principled reasons to oppose the Common Core. But I hope my friends will understand that a principled debate is not what we’re actually having today—and that this sort of dishonesty deserves to be called out as way, way out of bounds.

 
 

The New York Board of Regents has recommended nineteen changes to the rollout of the Common Core in the Empire State, which include the following: a five-year “extension” of the plan to attach high-school graduation to success on the state Regents exams (while students would still have to “pass” Common Core exams, they would not be required to hit the “college-ready” mark until 2022); federal-testing waivers for students with special needs; and—controversially—allowing teachers to contest their evaluation ratings if their districts have done a poor job implementing the Common Core. Governor Cuomo roundly criticized the last idea, condemning it as an attempt to “water down” teacher-evaluation reforms. Oddly, the unions also rejected it—they claimed that it didn’t go far enough. In the end, the Regents backed off, nixing a form of flexibility that many observers believed might actually help the Common Core rollout by making it less unpalatable to New York teachers. Gotta love politics.

Analysts at the American Institutes for Research found that the number of nonacademic professional and administrative employees at colleges and universities in the U.S. has doubled in the last twenty-five years, greatly outstripping the growth in the number of students or faculty. In total, since 1987, universities and colleges added 517,636 administrators and professional employees. Similar disturbing trends can be found in K–12 education; stay tuned for a Fordham report on the subject.

Advanced Placement classes continue to grow in popularity, largely due to efforts to make them widely available to low-income and minority students (the number of low-income graduates who took an AP exam quadrupled in the last decade). Still, 40 percent of public high schools still don’t offer any AP classes. Not surprisingly, as the pool of test-takers has grown, the proportion attaining passing scores has shrunk. What’s unknown is whether the democratization of AP has helped or hindered our highest achieving students, though there are reasons to worry that it’s the latter.

The seventh installment of the National Council on Teacher Quality’s State Teacher Policy Yearbook, which analyzes and grades state policies bearing on teacher quality, struck a guardedly optimistic tone. Between 2011 and 2013, thirty-one states strengthened their policies on teacher-quality standards. And since 2009, thirty-seven states have raised the bar for teacher qualification. Florida’s B+ earned it the highest overall score, and twelve more states earned a respectable B- or higher. However, not all the news is rosy. Montana earned an F for the third straight year. Worse, there seems to be a widening gap between states at the bottom and the top of the rankings. Still, NCTQ contends that there has been considerable improvement overall, especially in the areas of elementary-teacher preparation (twenty-four states have improved since 2011), evaluation of effectiveness (twenty-two states made progress), and elementary-teacher preparation in mathematics (twenty states bettered their grade).  That can only be good news.

SOURCE: Sandi Jacobs et al., 2013 State Teacher Policy Yearbook (Washington, D.C.: National Council on Teacher Quality, January 2014).

As the number of chronically underperforming school districts continues to climb, some states are beginning to take control through Extraordinary Authority Districts (EADs). With lessons garnered from five that have employed various forms of EADs (Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Tennessee), this publication from America Achieves and Public Impact provides a how-to guide for any state considering an EAD. It’s organized into a four-part framework. First, the authors address the political and legislative context in which EADs should operate, noting that EADs need the legal authority to fully take over schools and/or  districts. To minimize conflict, they also recommend building strategic relationships with local nonprofits and creating an open dialogue within the community. Second, they outline three strategies that EADs could use to operate their takeover schools: issue charters or charter-like contracts to external operators; run schools themselves, hiring a teachers and school leaders and giving them charter-like authority; and running schools directly, using their own school model built and/or managed by the EAD. When deciding which model to employ, states should consider how many schools an EAD can effectively manage and whether it can hire sufficient talent. Third, the authors note that EADs must also take on the “office role”—controlling schools’ finances, communications, testing and accountability, and so on—and offer suggestions on how to structure these responsibilities. Fourth, they stress the importance of assembling a strong core team and hiring a top-notch leader. In the end, though EADs are a very new strategy for turning around floundering schools and districts, the experiences of the early adopters herald great promise. For further in-depth looks at EADs, take a look at Nelson Smith’s reports on Tennesee’s Achievement School District and Louisiana’s Recovery School District.

SOURCE: Sharon Kebschull Barrett, Christen Holly, and Bryan C. Hassel, “Extraordinary Authority Districts”: Design Considerations—Framework and Takeaways (Chapel Hill, NC: Public Impact, February 2014).

In the midst of short-term and mostly small-scale snapshots measuring charter quality, this new Mathematica study brings a more panoramic portrait. Using longitudinal data, the authors sought to determine whether charter-school enrollment is indeed related to student success. As studies based on student test scores have yielded contradictory results,, this one employed other metrics: high-school graduation rates, college entrance and persistence, and students’ eventual earnings in adulthood. The authors gathered information on students in Florida and Chicago from 1998 to 2009, zeroing in on two subgroups: eighth-grade charter students who attended a charter high school and their peers who did not. The study found statistically significant results across all measurements. The students who remained in a charter high school were seven to eleven percentage points more likely to receive a diploma. They were also ten points likelier to attend college, and in Florida there was a significant positive difference (thirteen points) in the number who persisted through two years of college. Regardless of whether their charter education helped them get into college, charter students also had higher earnings by age twenty-five. The researchers contend that charter schools endow students with practical skills that allow them to succeed in college and the job market, long after they’ve left the charter environment. Let’s hear it for multiple metrics!

Kevin Booker, Brian Gill, Tim Sass, and Ron Zimmer, Charter High Schools’ Effects on Long-Term Attainment and Earnings (Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research, January 2014.)

During this lunchtime lecture, New Jersey Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf will discuss his thoughts on how to improve our current education-governance structure, drawing from his experiences as deputy chancellor of New York City Department of Education, his current role at the New Jersey Department of Education, and his time working for the federal government.

** We had some technical difficulties during the Q&A which is why the video is out of focus. We apologize for any inconvenience.

In the midst of short-term and mostly small-scale snapshots measuring charter quality, this new Mathematica study brings a more panoramic portrait. Using longitudinal data, the authors sought to determine whether charter-school enrollment is indeed related to student success. As studies based on student test scores have yielded contradictory results,, this one employed other metrics: high-school graduation rates, college entrance and persistence, and students’ eventual earnings in adulthood. The authors gathered information on students in Florida and Chicago from 1998 to 2009, zeroing in on two subgroups: eighth-grade charter students who attended a charter high school and their peers who did not. The study found statistically significant results across all measurements. The students who remained in a charter high school were seven to eleven percentage points more likely to receive a diploma. They were also ten points likelier to attend college, and in Florida there was a significant positive difference (thirteen points) in the number who persisted through two years of college. Regardless of whether their charter education helped them get into college, charter students also had higher earnings by age twenty-five. The researchers contend that charter schools endow students with practical skills that allow them to succeed in college and...

Over the past eight years, New Orleans students have achieved what few previously thought was possible. In her recent Atlantic article on charter-school discipline policies in New Orleans, Meredith Simons recognizes these gains, noting that “New Orleans’s graduation rate has surpassed the state’s, growing from 54.4 percent in 2004 to 77.8 percent in 2012.”

Yet Ms. Simons, as well as others, believes that these gains have come at a high cost—that the results, while impressive, have too often relied on discipline policies that “feel at odds with the city’s culture.” In her article, Ms. Simons proposes her own ideal solution for melding our city’s culture with a positive school climate. And, to be honest, her vision sounds great. I imagine many parents would (and do) take pleasure in sending their children to such a school. And I’m thrilled that she and her colleagues have created an excellent school.

However, I do wish Ms. Simons had visited the schools she critiqued, as she might have gained an understanding of why parents send their children to these schools.

Because what often goes unexplained in such...

 
 

Editor’s note: This article wades into the ongoing debate over private school choice and public accountability. For background see here, here, here, here, and here.

Policymaking usually involves trade-offs, finding the right balance between competing objectives and even principles. This is especially true in education, where so much is at stake, both for vulnerable children and for the health of society.

One of the principles that should guide education policy is that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (article 26, 3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in San Francisco in 1948). Officially, at least, this right is acknowledged by almost every nation and is enshrined in many of their constitutions; it has been settled law in the United States since the Supreme Court’s 1925 ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (268 U.S. 510).

Americans agree, as Terry Moe showed in Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public. This is especially true of parents for whom public-school provision is of inadequate quality. “Among public [school] parents,” Moe wrote, “vouchers are supported by 73 percent of those with family incomes below $20,000 a year, compared to 57 percent of those with incomes above $60,000. . . .75 percent of black parents and 71 percent of Hispanic parents, compared to 63 percent of white parents. . . .72 percent of parents in the bottom tier of districts favor vouchers, while 59 percent of those in the top tier do.”

Moe also found, however, that “enthusiasm for regulation is remarkably uniform and cuts across groups and classes—including private [school] parents, who appear quite willing to see the autonomy of their own schools compromised in the interests of public accountability.” This expectation of government oversight is also well established in international law, as well as in the Pierce decision.

On the other hand, if the regulatory hand of government is too heavy, the right of choice becomes meaningless: what’s to choose among schools that are forced to be alike?

Excessive regulation not only makes parental choice meaningless, it also blocks the possibility of making teaching a true profession, attracting and retaining highly talented individuals into careers in education. Many Teach For America alumni/ae go on to establish charter schools where they will enjoy the autonomy to shape a community of educators with a shared vision.

My Belgian colleague Jan De Groof and I have for a decade been studying how different national education systems are organized to support the competing goals of freedom and justice. The third edition of Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education has about a hundred contributors from around the world and chapters on sixty-five countries.

Bottom line: the most successful models have clear and measurable expectations for academic outcomes, while leaving individual schools wide scope for defining the “soft” outcomes related to character and worldview, as well as for organizing instruction and selecting teachers and other staff.

Our analysis of policies receives research support from a research-based essay by Martin West and Ludger Woessmann, included in volume 4 of Balancing Freedom. They conclude,

Studies using student-level data from multiple international achievement tests reveal that institutions ensuring competition, autonomy, and accountability within national school systems are associated with substantially higher levels of student performance. . . . the international evidence suggests that policies that allow parents to choose privately operated schools, give schools autonomy, and provide parents with information on student performance have an important role to play (290-1).

While I find their research thoroughly convincing, my own commitment to strong outcome measures and consequences based upon them, paired with wide latitude to create and maintain truly distinctive schools, is also based on pragmatic considerations. Both as a parent of seven children and as a state equity and urban education official for more than two decades, I’m not willing to see educational freedom turn into a free-for-all in which schools compete through flashy promises that are not backed up by the sort of evidence on which parents can rely, particularly when tax dollars are in play. Such a flawed system, especially likely to mislead unsophisticated parents, would sacrifice justice for freedom.

Sound education policy sacrifices neither justice nor freedom but finds a dynamic balance between them, holding schools accountable for academic outcomes (so no child would attend an inadequate school, as too many do today), while encouraging great diversity in the means taken to achieve those outcomes. Educators with a distinctive pedagogical, religious, or secular vision for education that attracts a sufficient number of parents should be free to shape the school on that basis, unencumbered by government, unless of course there is convincing evidence that children are being harmed, in which case (as with families) society must intervene.

Freedom, then, with justice, and justice with freedom. Finding the right balance!

Charles Glenn is a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Boston University. From 1970 to 1991, he was the director of urban education and equity efforts for the Massachusetts Department of Education.

 
 
Greg Weiner

This is a cliché by now, but the public schools where I live are producing test takers: pretty good ones, as far as the numbers show. At parent night at the beginning of the school year, we were introduced to a curricular program explicitly built around “assessments”—the new euphemism, I gather; maybe it intimidates less. A new study now purports to show that testing doesn’t enhance cognition. I’m not sure it was supposed to, but in any event, the critique is that teaching to the test fails to improve learning outcomes. I’m inclined—warning: this is anecdotal—to believe it does improve them, but toward the bottom, where massive investments are being made. What we may be losing in the bargain is what these tests don’t capture: excellence at the top. Welcome to Tocqueville’s democratic equality.

The Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative encourages all this; we can thank No Child Left Behind for it, too. Enormous resources are being invested to lift those at the bottom who are unprepared to learn, have difficulty taking tests, and so forth. This is unsurprising: what gets measured gets done, and what gets rewarded gets done faster. It is difficult to believe the effect is not positive: that learning to do better on math tests, for example, does not at some level teach some students to do better at math.

The problem is that there’s only so well bright kids can do on these exams, and the incentive to invest in them beyond that point vanishes. Since they max out at the ninety-ninth percentile, they are, as it were, fully capitalized businesses with limited growth potential. Raising an intelligent student’s score marginally yields far fewer rewards than improving a less capable student’s score substantially. The result—there are, for example, myriad programs for struggling students but none for gifted ones at my local schools, and parents around the country have been driven to the manifest absurdity of demanding IEPs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to obtain services for uniquely bright children—is less a race to the top than from the bottom.

Tocqueville nailed this as so many other things, noting democracy’s propensity to lift the lowest while flattening the elite:

[I]f you meet less brilliance [in a democracy] than within an aristocracy, you will find less misery; pleasures will be less extreme and well-being more general; knowledge not as great and ignorance more rare; sentiments less energetic and habits more mild; there you will notice more vices and fewer crimes.

The United States has been able to avoid Tocqueville’s tradeoff between the greatness of knowledge and the rarity of ignorance through—still generalizing here—ample resources and a rejection of envy. The first is now at risk from the steady conquest of discretionary spending by entitlement spending. It means we cannot invest everything we want at the bottom and still spend all we wish at the top; decisions have to be made and balances struck that no one wants to face but that grownups cannot avoid. As to the second—the rejection of envy—its survival amid conditions of scarcity is less clear. In either case, virtues—thrift, hard choices, and goodwill—are called for. Perhaps a standardized test for character would help.

Greg Weiner, who teaches political science at Assumption College on Worcester, Massachusetts, is a former political consultant and the author of Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule and the Tempo of American Politics. He is currently working on a book on the political thought of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

A slightly different version of this piece appeared in the Online Library of Law and Liberty.

 
 
The Education Gadfly

The court case over teacher job protections in California is underway. The plaintiffs argue that the laws hinder the removal of effective teachers, which disproportionately harms underprivileged students. The defendants, on the other hand, argue that there is plenty of time before tenure to remove teachers. While it is true that many schools do not avail themselves of this limited flexibility, the fact remains that the flexibility is limited. What’s more, that argument dodges the problem: if a teacher burns out after obtaining tenure, he will still be teaching children—and how can anyone defend that? Meanwhile, a photo negative of this case is ongoing in Denver, Colorado, in which the district is facing a class-action lawsuit for supposedly dismissing tenured teachers without just cause—because in the unions’ strange world, poor performance in the classroom couldn’t possibly be considered “just cause.” Interesting!

If you’re looking for (1) good news and (2) something to watch during your lunch break, look no further this quick introduction to Pakistan’s Punjab Education Reform Roadmap (which can be characterized as perhaps the world’s largest voucher program). The short film, featuring British education reformer Michael Barber, documents the challenges (and importance) of implementing an ambitious education-reform strategy—and paints an encouraging picture for the future of Punjab’s children. For more to read on the subject, see our review of Barber’s book, The Good News from Pakistan.

New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña intends to divert $210 million intended for charter schools’ classroom space towards Mayor de Blasio’s pre-Kindergarten expansion. Meanwhile, de Blasio has now stated point blank that, going forward, he will not allow charters to co-locate with traditional public schools. Are those bells tolling for charter schools in the Big Apple? To the ramparts!

With thirty-two cities across the nation placing more than 20 percent of their students in charter schools, it is clear that chartering has changed the face of urban education. But what about students from rural areas? Do charters have the potential to boost their achievement, too? And what obstacles do charters face in rural communities? Andy Smarick explores these questions in a new report. First, he finds that very few rural charters exist; in fact, just 785 of the nation’s 5,000 or so charters were located in rural areas as of 2010—and just 110 in the most remote communities. Meanwhile, the challenges to rural-charter growth are many. Among them are laws that prohibit charters in rural areas, shortages in high-quality teachers, state funding mechanisms that disadvantage charters (often not limited to rural charters), and the logistics of schooling in remote regions. Given the myriad of factors that can stymie rural-charter-school growth, policymakers must enact strong charter policies. To this end, the report offers several policy recommendations, which include undoing policies that restrict growth into rural areas, loosening teacher-certification requirements, ensuring equitable funding, creating opportunities to leverage digital learning, and allowing charters to use vacant, publicly owned facilities. Importantly, the report also discusses the adverse financial impact a single, start-up charter school can have on a sparsely populated school district. The author suggests ways to soften the blow, such as dual district-charter enrollment (and dual per-pupil funding), a pool of state funds to reimburse affected districts, and a legal requirement to conduct a financial impact analysis prior to opening a charter. Charter growth in rural America faces countless challenges, but rural families deserve high-quality choices as much as anyone.

SOURCE: Andy Smarick, A New Frontier: Utilizing Charter Schooling to Strengthen Rural Education (Washington, D.C.: Bellwether Education Partners, January 2014).

 
 

A new analysis by Mike Podgursky, Cory Koedel, and colleagues offers a handy tutorial of three major student growth measures and an argument for which one is best. The first, Student Growth Percentiles (aka the Colorado Growth Model), does not control for student background or differences in schools but is calculated based on how a student’s performance on a standardized test compares to the performance of all students who received the same score in the previous year or who have a similar score history. Some like this model because it doesn’t set lower expectations for disadvantaged students by including background measures, but it may also penalize disadvantaged schools, since they tend to have lower growth rates. The second method, which they call the one-step value-added measure (VAM), controls for student and school characteristics, including prior performance, while simultaneously calculating test-score growth as a school average.  This model may detect causal impacts of schools and teachers, but runs the risk of not capturing important variables in the model, which could advantage high SES schools. The third and final model is a two-step VAM, designed to compare schools and teachers that serve similar students. It calculates growth for each school using test-score data that have been adjusted for various student and school characteristics. The analysts conclude that this model makes the most sense, because it levels the playing field so that winners and losers are representative of the system as a whole. What’s more, schools are more apt to improve if they are competing against similar peers—and even when schools are compared to other schools with similar student bodies, there are still differences in growth between them. That said, some worry that this model could hide inferior performance at high-poverty schools, so they suggest also reporting test-score levels, such as proficiency rates, so that folks can see also differences in absolute achievement across schools. Seems reasonable enough, though stakeholders would need to be educated in how to interpret multiple measures. But one small hiccup: Arne Duncan’s ESEA waiver regulations do not allow states to use the two-step VAM in their accountability system—so there’s that.

SOURCE: Mark Ehlert, Cory Koedel, Eric Parsons and Michael Podgursky, “Choosing the Right Growth Measure,” Education Next 14(2). 

Like any relic of the industrial revolution, it’s time we took a wrench to the American education system. Or a bulldozer, argues Glenn Reynolds, distinguished professor of law at the University of Tennessee and InstaPundit blogger. In this book, he contends that the system will soon break down and reform will be unavoidable. In the first half of the book, he focuses on higher education, while in the second he touches on the K–12 bubble. Reynolds points out that the cost of education rapidly ballooned over the past few decades, while the substance diminished in value. College tuition has increased 7.45 percent per year since 1978, even outstripping the cost of housing (4.3 percent per year). Meanwhile, the real cost of K–12 education nearly tripled in that time. For all that expense, K–12 test scores have flat lined since 1970, and a study featured in the book Academically Adrift found that 36 percent of students demonstrated no academic improvement after four years in college. Meanwhile, society teaches teenagers to be infantile consumers of an inherently valuable education and blinds them to their potential value as skillful producers. Reynolds concludes that advances in technology and innovations in choice will bring reform and that public schools can either embrace that change or become obsolete. Parents and students will begin to reassess the skewed cost/value ratio and demand fundamental restructuring. While the book offers few substantive suggestions and no timeline, it does serve as a reminder that like any defective product, it is not a matter of if but when it will break.

SOURCE: Glenn Harlan Reynolds, The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself (Jackson, TN: Encounter Books, 2014).

 

Into the messy and political world of teacher-effectiveness research enter Susanna Loeb and colleagues, who examine whether math and English-language-arts (ELA) teachers differ in how they impact students’ long-term knowledge. Specifically, they ask, among other questions, whether ELA and math teachers impact student performance in future years, not just in one—and whether that impact bleeds over by impacting not just knowledge in their own subject area but more generally in both subjects. They use extensive student, teacher, and administrative data from the NYC school system that includes roughly 700,000 third- and eighth-grade students from 2003–04 through 2011–12. There are three key findings: First, a teacher’s value added to ELA achievement has a crossover effect on long-term math performance, such that having a high-quality ELA teacher impacts not only ELA performance in a future year but future math performance, too; yet, math teachers have minimal impact on ELA performance in the long term. This may be due to the nature of ELA, since learning to read and think critically is likely to impact general knowledge, whereas math knowledge pertains more directly to the subject itself and math tests tend to be more aligned in content from year to year. Second, teachers in schools serving disadvantaged kids have less “persistence” (i.e., enduring impact) than their teaching peers with similar value-added scores in other schools, which could suggest that school-level curriculum choices make a difference—or perhaps that teachers in these schools prioritize short-term gains or teaching to the test. Third, within subjects, teachers who attended a more competitive undergraduate college tend to foster long-term knowledge in their students, such that more than a quarter of value-added effects persist into the next year for teachers from these institutions, compared to a rate of less than one-fifth for teachers from less competitive institutions. So in the end, value-added scores continue to be a useful gauge of teacher quality, but let’s not forget that things like subject area, the test itself, school type, and teacher background make a difference in how to think about and interpret those scores.

SOURCE: Benjamin Master, Susanna Loeb, and James Wyckoff, “Learning that Lasts: Unpacking Variation in Teachers’ Effects on Students’ Long-Term Knowledge,” Working Paper 104 (Washington, D.C.: CALDER and AIR, January 2014).

 

Mike welcomes Ohio's Chad to the podcast to disparage teacher tenure, anguish over the charter assault in Gotham, and debate the realities for charter schools in rural areas. Amber finds value in growth measures.

In this era of results-based academic accountability, teachers and their students spend class time taking—and preparing for—standardized tests. But just how much time? An inordinate amount? Does it vary by locale? What is the ideal amount of prep time? What are the policy implications for districts and states? The curricular and instructional implications? And what are the consequences for children, especially disadvantaged students?
 
JOIN THE DISCUSSION ON THE FORDHAM LIVE PAGE
 
In the largest study of its kind, Teach Plus brings empirical evidence to the table with its new report, The Student and the Stopwatch: How Much Time is Spent on Testing in American Schools? The report examines district- and state-required testing in more than thirty urban and suburban districts nationwide, featuring input from more than 300 teachers.
 
Join the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Teach Plus for a discussion on time-on-testing in American classrooms.
 
Panel I
 
Joseph Espinosa - Instructional Coach, First Street Elementary, Los Angeles, California
Joe Gramelspacher - Math Teacher, Crispus Attucks High School, Indianapolis, Indiana
Christina Lear - English and Journalism Teacher, Herron High School, Indianapolis, Indiana
Dr. Joy Singleton Stevens - Third-Grade Teacher, Double Tree Montessori School, Memphis, Tennessee
 
Panel I Moderator
Alice Johnson Cain - Vice President for Policy, Teach Plus
 
Panel II
Celine Coggins - CEO and Founder, Teach Plus
Dave Driscoll - Chair, National Assessment Governing Board
Andy Rotherham - Co-founder and Partner, Bellwether Education Partners
 
Panel II Moderator
Michael J. Petrilli - Executive Vice President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

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