Charters & Choice

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously quipped, but they are not entitled to their own facts. This idea animates "The Learning Landscape," a new, accessible, and engaging effort by Bellwether Education Partners to ground contemporary education debates in, well, facts.

A robust document, it’s divided into six “chapters” on student achievement; accountability, standards, and assessment; school finance; teacher effectiveness; charter schools; and philanthropy in K–12 education. Data on these topics can be found elsewhere, of course. Where this report shines is in offering critical context behind current debates, and doing so in an admirably even-handed fashion. For example, the section on charter schools tracks the sector’s growth and student demographics and offers state-by-state data on charter school adoption and market share (among many other topics). But it also takes a clear-eyed look at for-profit operators, the mixed performance of charters, and other thorny issues weighing on charter effectiveness. (Online charters are a hot-button topic that could have used more discussion). Sidebars on “Why Some Charters Fail” and case studies on issues facing individual cities lend the report heft and authority, along with discussions on authorizing, accountability, and funding. In similar fashion, the chapter on standards and...

Dear Mark and Priscilla,

Please allow an aging education reformer to offer some unsolicited advice regarding the work of the new Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Almost twenty years ago, I wrote a long public letter to Bill Gates that drew lessons from earlier philanthropic efforts in K–12 education—including many billions of dollars wasted by the likes of Ford, Rockefeller, and Annenberg. In it, I offered suggestions for the most useful work that the then-new Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation might do in this realm, particularly by advancing the (also new) concept of charter schools.

In fact, Gates has done—and continues to do—good work in the charter sector. Much of what his foundation has undertaken in the K–12 realm, however, has fallen prey to the classic temptation to try to reform school districts. You—Mark—apparently succumbed to that same temptation when you committed $100 million to the renewal of public education in Newark, by way of both district and charter schools. Smart fellow that you are, you’ve acknowledged that the charter part of this generous gift has done some good (whereas the district part, not so much). You’ve probably read Dale Russakoff’s provocative book about what went wrong in Newark; she notes that you...

The virtual charter school edition

On this week’s podcast, Alyssa Schwenk and Dara Zeehandelaar discuss Fordham’s new study of Ohio’s virtual charter schools. During the research minute, Amber Northern examines the effects of school closures in New York City.

Amber's Research Minute

James J. Kemple, "School Closures in New York," Education Next (August 2016).

A major development of recent years has been the explosive growth of online learning in K–12 education. Sometimes it takes the form of “blended learning,” with students receiving a mix of online and face-to-face instruction. Students may also learn via web-based resources like the Khan Academy, or by enrolling in distance-learning “independent study” courses. In addition, an increasing number of pupils are taking the plunge into fully online schools: In 2015, an estimated 275,000 students enrolled in full-time virtual charter schools across twenty-five states.

The Internet has obviously opened a new frontier of instructional possibilities. Much less certain is whether such opportunities are actually improving achievement, especially for the types of students who enroll in virtual schools. In Enrollment and Achievement in Ohio's Virtual Charter Schools, we at Fordham examined this issue using data from our home state of Ohio, where online charter schools (“e-schools”) are a rapidly growing segment of K–12 education. Today they enroll more than thirty-five thousand students, one of the country’s largest populations of full-time online students. Ohio e-school enrollment has grown 60 percent over the last four years, a rate greater than any other type of public school. But even since they launched, e-schools...

It used to be that when people talked about urban school success stories, Catholic schools were at the center of the discussion. Twenty years ago, Cardinal John O’Connor, then archbishop of New York, all but dared public school leaders to send their hardest-to-teach students to archdiocesan schools. “Send me the lowest-performing 5 percent of children presently in the public schools,” O’Connor declared, “and I will put them in Catholic schools—where they will succeed.”

Such was the audacity of urban Catholic school leaders back then. We were confident. Our schools routinely outperformed neighborhood public schools. Our results were stronger—and longer-lasting—and our success came at a bargain price.In fact, it was the historic success of urban Catholic schools that fed the reform movement in general and the charter school movement in particular. Catholic schools were proving what was possible, and entrepreneurial young education leaders were quick to seize the opportunity to do the same in the public sector.

Over the past two decades, that confident leadership has been shaken by declining enrollment and financial struggles. Some in the reform sector and elsewhere have even taken to writing off urban Catholic schools as a relic of a bygone day.

At the same time, efforts from...

This Fordham study, conducted by learning technology researcher June Ahn from NYU, dives into one of the most promising—and contentious—issues in education today: virtual schools. What type of students choose them? Which online courses do students take? Do virtual schools lead to improved outcomes for kids?
 
With over thirty-five thousand students enrolled in its fully online charter schools (“e-schools”), Ohio boasts one of the country’s largest populations of full-time virtual students. The sector has also grown tremendously, with a 60 percent increase in enrollment over the past four years—more than any other type of public school. Using four years of comprehensive student-level data to examine Ohio’s e-schools, the study finds: 
 
  • E-school students are mostly similar in race and ethnicity to students in brick-and-mortar district schools. But e-school students are lower-achieving (and more likely to have repeated the prior grade), more likely to participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, and less likely to participate in gifted education.
     
  • Students taking online math courses are more likely to enroll in basic classes relative to students taking face-to-face courses. Almost no students take advanced math courses (like AP Statistics, Calculus, or Algebra II) online, especially compared to students
  • ...
Rabbi Eric "Yitz" Frank

This blog was originally posted on Education Next on July 24, 2016.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently released a study on the academic impact of Ohio’s flagship school choice program authored by noted researcher Dr. David Figlio of Northwestern University. The report is noteworthy for its principal findings, namely that, not only is the sky not falling for impacted public schools, the EdChoice program has had a positive impact on the academic performance of public schools whose students are eligible for a scholarship. Surprisingly, the study also found that the students using scholarships to attend private schools who the report studied (more on that later) did not perform as well as their public school peers on the state test.

Matt Barnum of The 74 wrote an article that details some of the possible explanations for the latter finding. Based on my own experience in Ohio, I can attest that many nonpublic schools do not align their curriculum to the state test, nor do they focus much on these measures, and that is likely an important factor. However, it is important to note what the study could not address. As Dr. Figlio made clear in both his...

A report released last month by the DC Public Charter School Board looked at how far students must travel to attend charter schools in the nation’s capital. It breaks down data by students’ age, race, and at-risk-status, examining how travel distances differ for those who live within the city’s various wards.

We learn that, on average, D.C. charter students commute a remarkable 2.1 miles to school as the crow flies. Depending on the method of transportation, this could mean a forty-two-minute walk, an eight-minute Metrorail ride (not counting the commute between home, metro station, and school), or a ten-minute drive (in no traffic—a fanciful scenario in our nation’s capital). Yet the report also found much variance between student subgroups.

Those travelling to special education schools had the farthest to travel: an average of 3.1 miles, almost a mile more than those in standard pre-K or elementary schools (both averaged two miles), middle schools (2.2 miles), high schools (2.4 miles), and adult and alternative schools (2.1 miles). When disaggregated by race and ethnicity, Hispanic students have the shortest commute to school (1.7 miles). All others faced an average travel distance of 2.2 miles. At-risk students (i.e., those who are homeless, in...

In a new NBER study, analysts pool estimates from lottery-based studies of the effect of charter school attendance on student outcomes, rescaling as needed so that the estimates of those effects are comparable across studies. They end up with a sample of 113 schools drawn from studies of KIPP and SEED schools, as well as charters in Massachusetts, New York City, Boston, and more.

On average, they find that each year children are enrolled at these schools increases their math scores by .08 standard deviations and their ELA scores by .04 SD on average, yet there's wide variation as expected. They link impact data to school practices, inputs, and characteristics of fallback schools (the non-charter schools that lottery losers attended the following year). They find that schools that have adopted a “no-excuses” model—which typically includes extended instructional time, high expectations, and uniforms—are correlated with large gains in performance. But noting that such schools are also concentrated in urban areas with poor-performing schools, analysts determine that the gains are largely a function of the poor performance of fallback schools. Once they control for the performance of the fallbacks, intensive tutoring is the only no-excuses characteristic that is consistently associated with student...

At the National Charter Schools Conference last month, Secretary of Education John King challenged U.S. charter operators to rethink their approach to discipline and “lead the way on professional reflection and growth.” Fordham has expressed some skepticism about the nationwide drive to loosen disciplinary practices, particularly in charters. But the secretary's comments were largely well-considered, so I decided to pick up the gauntlet he threw down.

Over the past week, I solicited contributions from voices on all sides of the discipline discussion. Their assignment: To react to Secretary King's remarks, but also to help reframe the terms of a policy debate that's proven fractious to the reform movement for years. The questions they raised are numerous and pressing: What are the adverse effects on students of being suspended from school? How about the impact of trying to learn in a classroom with a disruptive classmate who can't be removed? What level of autonomy should we try to preserve for charter schools—which were created, after all, to experiment with their own approaches to school culture?

See the full series here:

1. Paul Hill: Tradeoffs, not absolutes, on suspension and expulsion

2. Sarah Yatsko: Suspending belief

3. Carrie Irvin: Charter boards need to understand school...

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