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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

September 6, 2013

The public and public schools in four charts

It’s September and that can only mean one thing: it’s time for competing polls about what Americans think about public education.  True to form, with all the asking — and in some cases, prodding — anyone can sift through the results and find support for their own agendas.  Like charter schools? We’ve got that covered. Don’t want school choice? We have that, too.  Here is my attempt to dig a little deeper into recent polls to uncover what the public is really telling us underneath the numbers.

I relied primarily on three national polls published over the last three months: Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup (PDK/Gallup, September 2013), Associated Press-NORC (AP/NORC, August 2013) and the American Federation of Teachers/Hart Research Associates (AFT/Hart, July 2013).  PDK and AFT are associations representing educators. Their reports should therefore be read with that lens in mind. Nonetheless, all three are associated with reputable pollsters giving them a level of credibility lacking in some other surveys conducted by interest groups. The PDK/Gallup has the longest history. Their recent poll was the partnership’s 45th release.

One of the most powerful findings comes from the AFT/Hart poll of public school parents. By a large margin, these parents look to public schools as the most vital institution contributing to the nation’s and their community’s future — far more than religious institutions, businesses, military or law enforcement (Chart 1). This shows that parents don’t just count on local schools to educate their own child. They want to see all public schools succeed in order to assure there is a healthy, vibrant society waiting when their child graduates and enters adult life.


This leads to the question, how well do public schools live up to these expectations? All three polls asked some version of “What do you think of American public schools?”  PDK/Gallup has asked this for several years, and the results have consistently shown that Americans are of two, contradictory minds. That is, the public reports a low opinion of public schools overall, but believes their local schools do a good job.  Obviously, both cannot be true.

The 2013 polls show the same ambivalence. When asked by PDK/Gallup to grade the nation’s schools, only 18 percent of the general public gave them an A or B. In contrast, 53 percent thought their local schools deserved these high grades. Interestingly, this represents a 6 percentage point increase since 1993. Public school parents were even more admiring; 71 percent gave their child’s school an A or B.

These findings are reflected in the AP/NORC poll of parents: only 38 percent rated U.S. public schools “excellent or good” compared to 64 percent who thought the same of their local elementary public schools (54 percent viewed local public secondary schools this highly). Note that the AP/NORC poll includes parents of both private and public school children.  About two-thirds of public school parents told the AFT/Hart pollsters they were very or fairly satisfied (see Chart 2).


Despite lingering doubts about the quality of public education nationally, these polls show that to know local public schools is to love them.  In addition to rating them highly, parents think that their child’s schooling is more rigorous than the education they had received (see Chart 3).


The picture gets more complicated when the topic turns to charter schools. But even here, one sees support for public schools. PDK/Gallup and AFT/Hart included several questions specifically about charters and choice. The PDK/Gallup was the most straightforward (see Chart 4). When asked if they favor or oppose charter schools, the general public favored charters by a ratio of 68 to 29 percent. A similar proportion said they would support opening charter schools in their district. A slight majority (52 percent) further thought public charter schools provided a better education.

AFT/Hart took another approach by presenting the questions as either/or propositions. Perhaps for this reason, the responses were more subtle. Public school parents were asked what they wanted more: good neighborhood schools or more choices of schools for their children. They overwhelmingly preferred neighborhood schools, 68 to 24 percent. They were also asked which approach would be a better way to improve education more generally: ensuring access to a good public school in the community, or opening more charter schools and providing more vouchers. Again, the local school won out, 77 to 20 percent.

It’s worth noting that the response to the last question was likely influenced by including vouchers — an idea that the public rejected by large margins in the PDK/Gallup poll. Even so, given the choice for themselves, it seems as though the public, and particularly parents, will prefer the neighborhood public school.


There is more reason to believe that what parents really want are good neighborhood schools. Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation recently conducted focus groups of parents to better understand their views of accountability and reform policies. The report, Will it be on the test?, explores a range of strategies, including parents’ views on charter schools and choice. While the authors, like PDK/Gallup, found general support for charters and choice, they also sensed frustration among parents who would prefer to see the same energy go toward improving traditional schools. They write:

[M]any parents seem to see sending their children to better schools elsewhere as a fallback solution, rather than their first choice. The better solution, any of them seem to say, would be to improve the quality of the neighborhood public schools in their own communities.

We agree.  We think charter schools can be effective laboratories for innovation, and would like to see the lessons of high-performing charters transfer to traditional schools. On the other hand, charter schools are not a reform strategy. Research shows that the high performers are the exception, not the rule. More, then, is no guarantee of better.

We also know that parents aren’t clamoring for more charter schools. These latest polls show that while the American public supports the idea of choice in principle, when it comes to their child and their community, their preferred choice is still the neighborhood school.


August 14, 2013

Traditional Public Schools Respond to Charter Competition

ChessIn a free market, economic theory states that competition is the driving force of productivity, supply and demand, and the panacea for monopolistic control.  Education reformers have long sought to build a public  education system that closely resembles the free market with its uninhibited choices, limited government involvement, and private goods.

In a recent Education Next article entitled “Competition with Charters Motivates Districts,” the pro-charter authors explain the impact of charter schools on traditional public schools’ enrollment, revenue, and student achievement.  The article opens with a typical charter advocate’s selling point: introducing charter schools into the mix of public education creates competition (for scarce funding resources, particularly) that motivates low-performing districts to improve and “reclaim” the students (read: funding) that are rightfully theirs.

Another positive externality of charter schools is their alleged ability to raise the bar for all schools by optimizing student learning/engagement and producing exemplary standardized test scores.  However, the 2013 CREDO report from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (summarized here by the Center for Public Education), demonstrates the vast majority of charter schools are no more effective than traditional public schools.

Nonetheless, charter schools are popping up all over the country and are here to stay.  The next step is to examine whether they are having an effect, and to what extent, on the operation of traditional public schools.

What is the visible evidence of the impact of charter schools on traditional public schools? According to the authors:

  • Charter schools have seen a 59% jump in enrollment from 2007 to now, from 1.3 million to 2 million students (with 53 million students currently enrolled in traditional public schools)
  • Districts across the country have adopted competitive marketing and recruitment strategies to compete for students (e.g., posting promotional flyers for New York City public schools)
  • From 1999 to 2009, each year saw a 20% increase in the number of CMOs (for-profit charter school operators) in the marketplace

In what ways are charter schools influencing the traditional public schools?

  • Washington, D.C., Phoenix, and Los Angeles are among the metropolitan areas to emulate successful charter school practices in their traditional public schools
  • Charter schools are being rapidly introduced in high-poverty areas (such as in New York City under former Chancellor of the NYC Department of Education, Joel Klein), thus creating more challenges for public school enrollment and funding
  • Atlanta Public Schools recently won an ED grant to co-participate in training led by the KIPP Metro Atlanta
  • Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans and others are partnering with CMOs and education management organizations (EMOs) to strengthen public school operations

What is next?

  • School districts will likely continue to reassess their strategies and attitudes toward charters, as they adjust to the influx of outside competition
  • More partnerships between traditional public schools and charter schools are likely as schools recognize that putting students’ needs first requires sharing best practices
  • Traditional public schools will likely increase their marketing efforts (or launch initial marketing strategies) in their communities to recruit students who may be considering charter school enrollment, thus utilizing scarce financial resources in uncharted waters
  • School districts may follow Denver school board members’ lead in encouraging administrators to analyze data regarding charter school effectiveness prior to committing additional resources to charter and innovation schools
  • Districts may begin opening more pilot or innovation schools to bridge the gaps between high-performing charters and low-performing traditional public schools
  • Unfortunately, access to a high-quality public education may start to be seen as more of a consumer (private) good than a public good, per David Tyack and Larry Cuban in Tinkering Toward Utopia (1995)

In responding to change and competition, traditional public schools would be wise to take some Darwinian advice: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives.  It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

-Christine Duchouquette

Filed under: Charter Schools,CPE,Public education — Tags: , — Christine @ 1:42 pm

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