Charters & Choice

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...

For three decades, leaders of both major political parties have recognized the urgency of reforming and renewing American K–12 education, and major elements of the reform agenda have generally enjoyed bipartisan support: higher standards, better teachers, results-based accountability, and more choices (particularly via charter schools). That’s why forty-three states—red, blue, and purple—have passed charter laws, and nearly all have higher standards and better assessments than they did a decade ago. From A Nation at Risk (1983) to Charlottesville (1989) to NCLB (2002) to ESSA (2015), elected officials from both sides of the aisle have been able to work together in pursuit of important goals involving the future of the country and its children.

They haven’t always agreed—especially on which levels of government should do what, how many forms of school choice warrant public funding, how best to evaluate teachers, and so on—but I’m not talking about consensus on the details of policy and implementation. I’m referring to mutual acknowledgment of the acute problems of weak achievement, unequal opportunity, too many dropout factories, and too few terrific teachers. Republicans and Democrats have generally agreed that the need for reform is urgent, and their policy outlines have often included many of the...

Lauren Morando Rhim and Paul O’Neill

Editor's note: This is the seventh entry in our forum on charter school discipline practices. Earlier posts can be found hereherehereherehere, and here.

Mike Petrilli’s recent blog post regarding student discipline in charter schools is a classic example of a false dichotomy—with a bit of Chicken Little thrown in. In that post, Petrilli proposes that charter schools should not be discouraged from disciplining students. Doing so, he argues, will fundamentally limit their autonomy and ability to successfully serve students at risk of failure.

While Petrilli does not explicitly call out students with disabilities, he emphasizes that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is a big part of the overregulation problem he perceives. The role of the OCR is to ensure that the rights of disabled students and other at-risk groups are protected; unfortunately, this sometimes requires regulation.

Petrilli may find it amusing to poke fun at OCR (i.e., “Office of Hard and Fast Rules and Directives”), but he fails to recognize that parents and advocates don’t appeal to the office as their first line of defense. Rather, they see it as an option of last resort after trying to persuade schools and districts to uphold...

  • The mental image most people have of career and technical education is taken directly from a mid-century General Motors training video: Enthusiastic young men in denim replacing serpentine belts and laboring over alternators. Failing that, the scenario might take place in a wood shop or a welding station. But trainees at Willy’s Café—a student-run coffee shop in a Willamette, Oregon, high school profiled this week on NPR—are picking up a different set of professional skills. The program is one of an assortment directed by the Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA), a venerable vocational initiative that specializes in retail and marketing training, and its student-workers are there to absorb the basics of professional comportment. As part-time baristas, bank tellers, and graphic designers, they’re acquiring the “soft skills” of customer service that will make them valuable to future employers, especially if they choose to supplement them with a college degree or two-year certificate. Even better, they don’t have to deal with engine grease on their overalls.
  • The fight over Common Core was basically a local foofaraw blown into a national story by political opportunists. In case you’re just coming back from a half-decade mission to Saturn: The standards were adopted
  • ...

Ohio has finally proven that it is serious about cleaning up its charter sector, with Governor Kasich and the Ohio General Assembly placing sponsors (a.k.a. authorizers) at the center of a massive charter law overhaul. House Bill 2 aimed to hold Ohio’s sixty-plus authorizers more accountable—a strategy based on incentives to spur behavioral change among the gatekeepers of charter school quality. Poorly performing sponsors would be penalized, putting a stop to the fly-by-nightill-vetted schools that gave a huge black eye to the sector and harmed students. Under this effort, high-performing sponsors would be rewarded, which would encourage authorizing best practices and improve the likelihood of greater quality control throughout all phases of a charter’s life cycle (start-up, renewal, closure).

While the conceptual framework for these sponsor-centric reforms is quite young, the reforms themselves are newer still. (House Bill 2 went into effect this February, and the previously enacted but only recently implemented sponsor evaluation is just now getting off the ground.) Even so, just five months in, HB 2 and the comprehensive sponsor evaluation system are already having an impact. Eleven schools were not renewed by their sponsors, presumably for poor performance, and twenty more are slated to close. Not only are academically...