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July 22, 2014

Do charter schools really get more bang for the buck?

Cost-benefit A new study from the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas claims that charter schools are 40 percent more productive than traditional public schools. They found that for every $1000 invested, charter schools obtain approximately a year and half more in student learning than traditional public schools — meaning, in essence, charter schools can be just as effective as traditional public schools at nearly half the cost.

These are incredibly strong findings for charter schools. If charter schools can do everything traditional public schools do at nearly half the cost why shouldn’t policymakers invest more in their expansion? The problem is this study doesn’t even attempt to determine if charter schools can provide the same services with fewer funds than traditional public schools. While the study excludes funding for pre-k and adult education from their calculations — services many traditional schools offer but most charter schools don’t — the authors did not make any adjustments for the fact that:

      • Traditional public schools are much more likely than charter schools to provide costly services such as transportation and extracurricular activities such as athletics, band, theater, and civic clubs.
      •  A smaller proportion of charter schools than traditional public schools are high schools which typically require significantly more funding than elementary and middle schools.
      • Traditional public schools enroll a larger proportion of special needs students such as special education and English Language Learners (ELL) who typically require more funding than the average student. This is especially true for severely disabled students which typically cost districts four times more to educate than the average student. However, charter schools rarely enroll severely disabled students.
      • A number of charter schools are located in buildings owned by traditional public schools at no or reduced costs to the charter school. Even though by doing so traditional public school are in fact subsidizing charter schools, this is not accounted for within the study so it appears that traditional public schools are using more funds than charter schools.

The authors claim they did not make these and other adjustments, “To avoid the appearance of taking an advocacy position…” However, making an apples to apples comparison of how much funding charter schools receive to provide similar services as traditional public schools is not taking an advocacy position. It can be done with objective statistics.

Yet, as the authors note doing so is extremely difficult, if not impossible, as it would take going through every line item of the budgets for both charter schools and traditional public school districts. While indeed it would an arduous undertaking, it is the only way to accurately determine if charter schools can educate our students as well as traditional public schools but at a lower cost.

Until such a study is conducted that at least attempts to compare the funding for similar services provided, such claims that charter schools are more productive than traditional public schools cannot be substantiated. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Charter Schools,CPE,Report Summary — Jim Hull @ 3:42 pm





July 17, 2014

School choice in Sweden isn’t working

Earlier this week, Slate ran this analysis of school choice in Sweden that should be required reading for everyone who makes public school policy in the U.S. as well as those who write about it. I encourage everyone to read it for themselves. But briefly, the author describes how Sweden came to adopt Milton Friedman’s free market ideas for school reform in the mid- to late-1900s and since then, the nation, once a leader among OECD countries on PISA, has witnessed its international standing plummet.

According to the article, the main reason for this decline is the failure of free market principles to translate to school improvement. In Sweden, competition led to artificial test score inflation among charter and traditional schools alike.  But even if policies could be put in place to better control for that, there remains the futility of applying for-profit practices to meet what is essentially — and vitally — a not-for-profit public mission.

The author is not a complete charter school opponent. Like CPE, he recognizes the value of innovative, successful charter schools as laboratories that can provide lessons traditional public schools can learn from.  At the same time, we do not see any evidence to argue for expanding charter school — or school choice in general — as a way to improve public education. Indeed, an absolute free market system for public schools poses greater risks to the effort to raise student performance across the board, as Sweden is apparently learning the hard way. – Patte Barth

 






January 21, 2014

Expanding school choice: An education revolution or diversion?

House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va) was speaking recently at the release of the Brookings Institution’s latest report on Education Choice and Competition. Calling these policies “an education revolution,” the House leader baldly stated, “school choice is the surest way to break [the] vicious cycle of poverty.”

Not “a solid education.”  School choice.

The Brookings’ report ranks 100 large districts on their school choice policies. Their report came out in advance of National School Choice Week whose organizers boast 5,500 scheduled events across the country beginning January 26, 2014. Both share a goal to drum up more support for funneling tax dollars into educational options — whether they be charters, magnets, private, or virtual schools.  The rationale is that a free marketplace will force schools to innovate in order to compete for students. Popular schools will equate with “good schools” and unpopular ones will close. And thus, in Brookings words, we will raise “the quality of the product.”

Unfortunately, that’s one mighty big assumption.

Most choice advocates defend their position by pointing to successful charter schools in New York City and elsewhere. Others extol the promise of virtual learning. What they all provide, for the most part, is anecdote, intuition and belief. When they do cite data, it basically shows that choice policies work in some places with some students some of the time.  Truth is, the evidence is much spottier than the champions for choice would have us believe.

Charter schools, for example, are the most studied “choice” reform.  Charter schools are public schools that have certain requirements waived so they can try out new ideas.  There is much to commend successful charters and what they are learning about effective practices. But according to a 2013 study from Stanford researchers, these are the exception. Only one in four charter schools outperforms its traditional public school counterpart in reading. About one in five performs significantly worse. In math, it’s nearly one in three.

The quality of research on voucher programs is notoriously uneven and often contradictory. Nonetheless, there seems to be general agreement that vouchers may have had a modest impact on some low-income and minority youth in some urban districts. But the findings are inconclusive as to their effect overall.  And the general efficacy of virtual schools is a big unknown, largely because districts lack the infrastructure to sufficiently track student performance in online environments.

Ironically, the Brookings report card itself illustrates the disconnect between choice policies on one hand and student performance on the other.  One does not necessarily follow the other.

Only three districts earned A’s on Brookings choice and competition rankings:  Louisiana’s Recovery District, Orleans Parish and New York City. Along with its Brookings “A,” Orleans Parish earned an “A” on Louisiana’s report card for district performance.  Yet the state gave the Recovery District an F. New York City’s A- from Brookings bears little relation to its math scores on NAEP, a national assessment. The city’s scores were at the average for large cities, and below average in terms of gains over the last decade.

Then there’s the low end of the rankings. Atlanta was given an “F” by Brookings. Yet the city boasts fourth-graders who perform above the national “large city” average in reading and posted more than twice the gains their peers made nationwide.  Charlotte, North Carolina, and Austin, Texas, are among the highest performing urban districts in both math and reading. Brookings gave them a C and D respectively.

see full data tables

 

So what does this tell us? That high-achieving, high-gaining districts can have “choice and competition” or not. Either way, it shows it’s a mistake to claim, as Rep. Cantor does, that choice is “the surest way to break the cycle of poverty.”

Contrary to popular perception, public schools have been steadily improving over the last twenty years. Math performance and graduation rates, in particular, are at all-time highs. Neither are public schools the monolithic creature some of the choice advocates make them out to be. Many districts across the country already offer alternatives in the form of charter and magnet schools, and continue to diversify instructional programs in traditional neighborhood schools, too. But parents and students need assurance that the choices they are offered are good ones, something choice for choice’s sake has not done, as the research shows.

In addition, it’s one thing to offer alternatives. It’s quite another to encourage public schools to compete with each other for students which could send the wrong messages. We need only look to our colleges and universities who, in their race to attract students, build football teams and state-of-the-art facilities at the expense of investments in teaching.  I really doubt that’s the kind of marketplace we want to create for public schools.

Far from an education revolution, the political attention given choice and competition is diverting us from the hard work of making sure public schools prepare every child for their next steps after graduation.  This means continuing to invest in those things that an abundance of evidence shows consistently work  – access to high-quality pre-kindergarten, effective teachers, rigorous curriculum and individualized instruction for students. It also means learning from successful schools — including schools of choice — about what works with different students in which situations, and bringing those practices to scale.  When we get that right, districts will earn the grades that really matter.

 






January 9, 2014

EdWeek Ranks State Education Systems

Today, Education Week (EdWeek) released its annual special report Quality Counts 2014, which included its annual State of the States report card. Massachusetts earned top honors in the Student Achievement category by earning a B while the nation as a whole earned a C-minus, up from a D-plus in 2008—the first year EdWeek graded states on measures of student achievement. The U.S. earned higher grades in the other two categories– School Finance and EdWeek’s Change for Success Index– where the nation as a whole earned a C and C-plus respectively.

EdWeek’s annual report card shows once again that states vary considerably not only in achievement but how they fund their schools and the opportunity children born in their state are likely to succeed later on in life. States such as Massachusetts and Maryland not only received high marks from EdWeek but have also been compared favorably to high performing countries in previous studies while those states receiving the lowest grades from EdWeek typically scored below most industrialized countries as well. In these lower performing states, the typical student will less likely to be able to compete in the global labor market upon graduating high school.

How states can boost student achievement in this post-recession era of fewer funds and more rigorous requirements is certainly not clear. EdWeek attempted to provide more clarity to this question by surveying school district administrators across the country about how to best improve our public schools. Respondents were generally supportive of charter schools, virtual learning, and homeschooling but didn’t see these alternatives as having a major impact. These district officials also didn’t feel state and federal policymakers had much influence on school policies. In their opinion, it was school district officials and local school board members who have the most impact on school policies, not state and federal officials who seem to drive more of today’s reforms. So for states to increase their grades and become more competitive internationally, real reforms need to come from the local level and for states and federal officials to support those efforts.

Here are some of the key findings from this year’s report card:

K-12 Achievement Index

How do states compare on the academic achievement of their students in elementary through high school?

  • Public schools improved slightly since 2012- the last time the index was reported—but still earned a C-minus just as in 2012.
    • The grade is based on the academic status and growth over time in math and reading scores, narrowing of poverty-based achievement gaps, as well as high school graduation rates and the performance on the advanced placement test.
  • Massachusetts was once again top of its class in 2014 just has it has since 2008 by earning a B. Maryland and New Jersey scored slightly lower, but still earned a B and B-minus respectively.
  • Just two states–Mississippi, and the District of Columbia– received failing marks in 2014 compared to four states in 2012.
  • Thirty-two states earned grades between a D and C-minus.

Chance for Success Index

What are the odds that the average child who grows up in a particular state will do as well as the average child in the top-ranked state, at each stage of his or her educational life? (these stages are: the early childhood years, participation and performance in formal education, and educational attainment and workforce outcomes during adulthood)

  • Massachusetts ranked first for the sixth consecutive year by being the only state to receive an A-minus, while Connecticut, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and North Dakota earned a B-plus.
    • This means that children in Massachusetts have the best chance of achieving positive life outcomes, according to EdWeek.
  • On the other hand, children in Nevada, New Mexico, and Mississippi have the least chance of achieving positive life outcomes by earning a D and D-pluses, respectively.
  • The nation as a whole earned a C-plus just as in 2013.

School Finance

How much do states spend on their schools? Is the spending distributed equitably?

  • Overall, the nation earned a C in School Finance similar to last year.
  • Wyoming’s grade dropped from an A to an A-minus but still received the highest grade of any state just as in 2013. However, West Virginia, New York, and Connecticut were close behind, all earning a B-plus.
  • On the other hand, four states — Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah — received a D while Idaho received a D-minus. No state received a failing grade.
  • Out of the 12 states that improved their school finance scores North Dakota, North Carolina and New Hampshire made the greatest improvements by boosting their grades a half a letter.
    • However, 35 states actually saw declines in their school finance score.
  • States vary greatly in how much they spend on education even when taking regional cost differences into account.
    • Wyoming spent the most per pupil with $19,534 and Utah spent the least with $6,905—a $12,629 difference in per pupil spending.
  • There are also major differences in per pupil spending within states as well.
    • On average states spend $4,566 more per pupil in districts at the 95th percentile in school spending than in districts at the 5th percentile.
    • Alaska has the greatest difference at $13,023, while Utah had the smallest difference at $1,997 per pupil.
    • Only seven states-Alaska, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming spent more in low-income districts than in the states’ wealthier districts.

School District Administrator Survey

  • Nearly 9 of 10 respondents believed that accountability pressures have been a major driver of change in their districts.
    •  A slightly higher percentage of respondents believed economic and fiscal challenges were major drivers of change.
  • About half believed private schools, virtual schools and homeschooling had some influence on their districts.
    • A smaller percentage indicating that charter schools had some influence (probably because charters are present in far fewer districts nationwide).
    • Keep in mind, just 1 in 10 respondents thought these other options had a significant influence on their district.
  • Fifty-four percent of respondents believed that there needs to be a change in the current governance structure to meet today’s challenges.
    • The most common change happening in districts surveyed were:
      • Changing superintendents (66 percent).
      • Expanding school choice (48 percent).
      • Central office reorganization (30 percent).
    • Mayoral takeover had happened in 3 percent of surveyed districts.
  • Most respondents supported non-traditional options such as virtual learning (74 percent), charter schools (59 percent), and homeschooling (58 percent).
    • Few supported vouchers (14 percent).





September 11, 2013

Education reform and the march on Washington

UnknownThe March on Washington played a pivotal role in transforming hearts, minds and laws during the civil rights movement. Protesting racial inequalities, 250,000 Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and helped create the necessary political pressure to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. While it is certainly true that people from all economic and ethnic groups joined the march, education leaders must not forget that it was heavily comprised of the movement’s key disadvantaged population: African Americans. Other movements, including women’s rights, rigid smoking regulations and strict drunk driving laws, also had substantial input from people that the issue harmed most. This is a critical trend because it captures the notion that social movements need intense participation from those within marginalized populations and those outside of it. If there is a movement to close the achievement gap and improve public education systems then past events should encourage education leaders to include academically disadvantaged families.

Organizations like the Harlem Children Zone and Promise Neighborhoods embrace the inclusion and empowerment of underperforming communities. In addition to providing a variety of social services, these initiatives teach parents from low achieving communities how to prepare their newborns for pre-school and continue to guide parents throughout their children’s k-12 careers. Both programs were also designed, in part, by Geoffrey Canada, a prominent education reformer who hails from struggling public schools in the Bronx, NY.

Although these organizations help incorporate disadvantaged families, other education sectors must continually improve their efforts. In particular, research suggests that school boards and districts are in a prime position to expand parental outreach. A 2011 report by the Center for Public Education shows that programs in Minnesota and West Virginia significantly improved parental involvement and student gains by merging innovative home activities with school practices. Inclusive and inventive initiatives like these cannot grow unless education leaders step to the plate and offer their support.

The bottom line is that the quantity and influence of education leaders from afflicted neighborhoods is far too low. Reformers are surely doomed to fight an uphill battle if they aren’t joined, even lead, by the communities they’re trying to help.

~Jordan Belton






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