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November 2, 2016

Thoughts on nuance and variance

As we approach the 2016 general election, I’ve heard public officials, family, and friends make very clear statements regarding which side of the aisle they support.  Yet, I find it hard to believe that the average American falls in line 100% with either political party, or supports every word and tenet of a particular public policy.  We are nuanced people.  Very few issues are as black-and-white as we’d like them to be.  Here’s a guide for things to consider when considering your stance on a particular issue, candidate, or political party, put in the context of educational issues.

  1. Most issues have an “it depends” clause.

With the onslaught of information available today, it makes sense that we want answers that are black-and-white.  The reality, though, is that there’s gray area for most policies and practices.  We also have to balance our ideological values with evidence.  Charter school proponents may believe in free-market values and choice to improve public schools through vouchers and charter schools, but I haven’t seen widespread evidence that choice in and of itself actually improves academic achievement or long-term outcomes in significant ways.  Yes, there are individual students who have benefited, but there are also individual students who have lost out.  Charter school opponents claim that taking away publicly-elected oversight through school boards is detrimental to the public’s ability to provide free and quality education to all.  Yet, the reality is that some public schools have dismal records, and charter or private schools have sometimes had success with the same students.  We have to acknowledge that we all want good things for our kids, and then use the evidence to figure out what that looks like without demonizing the other side.

  1. Most policies rely heavily on the quality of their implementation to be successful.

Common Core seems to be a prime example of this.  Two-thirds of Americans are in support of some sort of common standards across the country.  Yet, barely half of Americans are in support of Common Core.  Support for both questions have dwindled significantly from about 90% of public support in 2012.  Even presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has called the roll-out of Common Core “disastrous,” despite supporting them overall.

CommonCore

Source: http://educationnext.org/ten-year-trends-in-public-opinion-from-ednext-poll-2016-survey/

They were implemented quickly in many states, often without the curriculum materials or professional development to help teachers succeed in teaching the new standards.  While support for Common Core seems to be leveling off with teachers, who are most familiar with them, several states have repealed or are considering repealing the Common Core.  The new state standards that have been written in South Carolina and Indiana are extremely similar to the Common Core, which means that it may not be the concept or content that people disagree with so much as how they were implemented and the ensuing political backlash.

 

  1. Statistics usually tell us about an average (the typical student) but variance is also important.

Charter schools are a prime example of this.  On average, they have similar student achievement outcomes as traditional public schools.  But, there are schools that outperform their counterparts and schools that woefully underperform.  We have to think about those schools, too.

This is also clear in school segregation.  The average black student in the U.S. attends a school that is 49% black, 28% white, 17% Latino, 4% Asian, and 3% “Other,” but that doesn’t mean that every black student has this experience.  At the edges of the spectrum, however, 13% of U.S. public schools are over 90% black and Latino, while 33% of schools are less than 10% black and Latino.  To understand the reality, we need to look at the variety of students’ experiences (known in statistic-speak as “variance”) not just the average.

  1. There’s always room for improvement. “Fixing” a policy may mean making adjustments, not abandoning it altogether.

Student assessments under No Child Left Behind (2001) resulted in the narrowing of curriculum.  But, we also learned more about disadvantaged student groups and have continued closing the achievement gap for students of color.  Should we throw out testing altogether? Some would say yes, but most Americans say no.  Graduation rates, college enrollment, and achievement scores have all increased since NCLB passed in 2001.  What we can do is improve on student assessments.  Adjusting consequences for students, teachers, and schools could result in less narrowing of curriculum and subjects taught.  Involving more well-rounded tests that encourage creative and critical thinking would help teachers emphasize these skills in class.  Continued improvement in data use can help teachers and school administrators adjust their practices and policies to see continued student growth.  States have the power to make some of these changes under the new Every Student Succeeds Act without dismantling gains made under No Child Left Behind.






December 9, 2015

Some urban districts are ‘choice-friendly.’ So what?

The Fordham Institute today released a ranking of 30 cities according to which ones were the most “friendly” in terms of encouraging and supporting school choice. Topping the list is New Orleans followed by Washington DC and Denver – the only cities to receive an overall grade of B or better.

So what did these cities do to earn these bragging rights? Fordham scored each city on 50 indicators in three domains:

Political support based on interviews with local policymakers and important stakeholders;

Policy environment that, among other things, places no limits on the number of charters, funds them adequately and has quality controls in place; and

Quantity and quality
of choices.

Fordham apparently doesn’t grade on a curve. Almost half of the cities earned Cs and nearly as many got Ds. Albany NY, has the distinction of earning the only F. According to the authors, landing at the bottom of the list means you were deemed “downright hostile” to school choice.

I suppose this is useful information if you are a school choice advocate (Hey, LA: not looking so good with that C-!). But for those who are ambivalent, the ranking omits an important piece of information: how well the city’s schools perform. We’re Americans. Of course we think choice is good. But mostly what parents want are good schools. And being “choice friendly” is no guarantee the choices will be better.

Consider that Charlotte NC and Austin TX are the top-performing urban districts in the nation. Their 2015 NAEP scores in math were not just higher than other participating districts, they were higher than the overall average for the nation as a whole. According to Fordham, neither is a choice-friendly city. Charlotte and Austin respectively ranked 27th and 29th out of the 30 cities in the report. On the other hand, Detroit ranked in the top 10 yet produced the lowest scores in the NAEP urban sample.

This is not to say being “choice friendly” caused low performance. DC, for example, has been one of the highest improving districts in the country on NAEP and was ranked second on Fordham’s list. But it does show that choice for choice sake is not a school improvement strategy. For more evidence see our recent report on school choice.

To its credit, the Fordham Institute advocates for more accountability for student results in the design of choice programs. I also recognize the limitations in the available data. But ranking on “choice friendly” policies doesn’t tell the public what they really need to know: is this helping all students succeed? From what we have found, the promise of school choice has been largely oversold.

Filed under: Charter Schools,NAEP,vouchers — Tags: , , , — Patte Barth @ 4:46 pm





October 28, 2015

School choice + objective information = Real choice

image001 (2)Giving parents and students the ability to choose their school is promoted by supporters as the key to improving American education overall. On the surface, the idea has great appeal. Who, after all, opposes having choices?

Indeed, both Republican and Democratic policymakers have embraced school choice in various forms that range from opening up alternatives within the public school system to providing taxpayer dollars to students to take to private schools. But for all the rhetoric, does school choice live up to its supporters’ claims?

The Center for Public Education strove to get to the bottom of these questions in our newest analysis which we’ve titled quite simply, School Choice: What the research says. This handy at-a-glance overview of school choice in all its permutations, describes each of the alternatives, provides a quick look at related state policies, calculates the proportion of the school-aged population it serves and, most importantly, distills what the research says about its impact on student achievement.

It’s a comprehensive and unbiased look at one of the most frequently touted strategies among school reformers. Because what we’ve learned is that choice, in and of itself, is not an effective strategy. It’s just a catchphrase.






September 21, 2015

School boards as charter school authorizers

The issue of charter schools got thrust back into the spotlight with the recent court decision from Washington State that ruled the state’s charter school law unconstitutional. I’m not going get into the particulars of the case but the decision highlights the fine line between the public’s right to determine how their tax dollars are spent and accommodating a parent’s desire to choose a school that is right for their child.

Many states walk this fine line by allowing for the creation of charter schools that any parent can choose to send their child to while making sure the charter schools are authorized by the local school board to oversee but not run the schools. In such a setup, all parents have a choice about where to send their child to school and taxpayers still have a voice in holding charter schools accountable.

Yet, there are some proponents of charter schools who argue the school boards should not authorize charter schools. For example, in its annual state charter school policy rankings, the Center for Education Reform gives credit to states when they allow agencies or institutions other than local school boards to authorize charter schools .  The CER is certainly not alone. I’ve written about similar criticisms in the past here and here.

As I wrote earlier, such critics didn’t have any actual evidence to back up their argument against school board as authorizers. I pointed to the fact that while critics constantly claimed school boards were reluctant to allow charter schools into their districts, school boards actually had a higher acceptance rate than other authorizers such as state boards of education and independent state charter boards. In the years since, not much has changed. The most recent data from the National Association for Charter School Authorizers  showed that school boards had the second highest approval rate out of the five authorizing types. Moreover, only two other authorizing types had higher closure rates as well. As I argued previously, if school boards were so threatened by charter schools why are they more likely to approve a new charter school’s application and less likely to close them?

But one piece of data I didn’t have at the time was whether charter schools authorized by school boards were more effective than charter schools authorized by other agencies such as independent charter school boards. That data simply wasn’t available at the time. However, this past June the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University (CREDO) published a report that for the first time examined the impact of authorizer type on student outcomes. Keep in mind, the report is far from definitive. It is based on only one state, Texas, where 88 percent of the charter schools are authorized by the state board of education while the remaining 12 percent were authorized by school boards. While not conclusive, this report nonetheless provides additional evidence as to the effectiveness of school boards as authorizers.

Specifically, the report found school board authorized charter schools outperformed those authorized by the state board in both math and reading every year between 2009 and 2013. In some years students who attended charter schools made nearly a year’s more worth of learning than similar students who had attended charter schools authorized by the state board of education. So these were no small differences.

While the recent report doesn’t prove that school boards are more effective charter school authorizers than other agencies, it is one more piece of evidence to refute the claims from critics who believe school boards are holding charter schools back and shouldn’t be allowed to authorize charter schools. Such critics like to use anecdotes to back up their claims but school boards can use data to back up theirs just as effective authorizers are expected to do. – Jim Hull

 

Filed under: Charter Schools,school organization — Jim Hull @ 8:51 am





August 25, 2015

New Poll Shows Parents Skeptical of Common Core and Testing

Public school parents and the public at large are skeptical of the Common Core State Standards (Common Core) and the usefulness of standardized testing, according to The 47th Annual PDK/Gallup Poll of The Public Attitudes Toward The Public Schools released this week. The annual poll also found that while parents like to have a choice on where to send their child to school, they oppose the use of public dollars to send students to private schools in the form of vouchers.

The poll’s findings show the general public, as well as, parents of public school children value other measures of school effectiveness beyond standardized tests. However, the results should not be seen as a total indictment of standardized tests, as results show the public is just as skeptical about allowing students to opt-out of standardized tests. This aligns with the results of the most recent Education Next poll which found the majority of the public supportive of the federal requirement to test students annually in math and reading. So, while the public may be getting weary of standardized testing, there is little support for their abolishment, especially among black and Hispanics. However, the public clearly feels that schools should be judged by more than test scores.

 

The Findings

Standardized Testing

  • The public places a much higher importance on student engagement over standardized tests.
    • Nationally, 78 percent of respondents rated student engagement as ‘very important’ when it came to measuring the effectiveness of public schools in their community.
    • On the other hand, just 14 percent of respondents rated standardized tests as ‘very important,’ making it the lowest-rated measure included in the survey.
  • Scores from standardized tests were the lowest rated approach of the choices given in the poll to providing the most accurate picture of a public school’s academic progress.
    • The public preferred examples of student work (38 percent), written observations by teachers (26 percent), and grades awarded by the teacher (21 percent) over scores from standardized tests (16 percent)
    • However, black respondents favored scores from standardized tests more than white respondents (19 v 15 percent).
  • Most believe there is too much emphasis on standardized tests.
    • Two-thirds of public school parents feel there is too much emphasis on testing while just 19 percent feel there is just the right amount of emphasis on testing.
    • However, black respondents were less likely to say there is too much emphasis on testing than white respondents (57 v 65 percent).
  • Respondents are split on whether to allow parents to ‘opt-out’ their child from standardized tests.
    • Just 41 percent of parents believed they should be allowed to excuse their child from tests while 44 believed such an option shouldn’t be allowed.
    • Yet, just 28 percent of black respondents believed parents should be able to excuse their child from standardized tests compared to 44 percent of white respondents.
  • Few students complain about taking too many standardized tests.
    • Just 16 percent of public school parents ‘strongly agreed’ that their child complains about taking too many standardized tests.
  • Most public school parents don’t believe it is important to know how students in their community’s schools perform on standardized tests compared to students in other districts, states, or countries.
    • Just 18 percent of respondents said they believed it was important to compare test schools from their community’s schools to those in other districts or states.
    • A greater percentage (24 percent) did say it was important to compare test schools with students from other countries.

Common Core

  • Few public school parents feel achievement standards are too low in their community.
    • A third of public school parents feel student achievement standards are too low compared to 12 percent who feel they are too high.
    • Nearly half (48 percent) believe achievement standards are just about right.
  • Majority of parents oppose having teachers in their community use the Common Core standards to guide what they teach.
    • 54 percent of parents oppose the use of Common Core compared to just 25 percent who are in favor.
    • Most Republicans (69 percent) oppose the use of the standards while Democrats (38 percent) feel the same. Half of Independents also oppose the use of the Common Core.
    • Blacks are less likely to oppose the use of the Common Core compared to whites (35 v 57 percent).
  • Few have heard a great deal about the Common Core.
    • Less than a quarter (22 percent) of respondents have heard a great deal about the Common Core although the percentage increases to 30 percent for public school parents.
    • Republicans (25 percent) are more likely to say they have heard about the Common Core than Democrats (19 percent) or Independents (22 percent).

Opinions about Public Schools

  • Local public schools receive high marks.
    • 70 percent of public school parents give the school their oldest child attends an A or B, while 57 percent gave the same grades to all public schools in their community.
    • However, just 19 percent of public school parents would give schools nationally an A or B.
  •  The public sees funding as a major tool to improving public schools.
    • Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of respondents listed lack of financial support as the biggest problem facing public schools. Standards/quality of education came in second with just 7 percent.
    • Nearly half (45 percent) of respondents believe that how much money schools spend is important to improving public schools in their community.

School Choice

  • Most respondents favor public school choice programs.
    • 64 percent of respondents favor charter schools and intra-district school choice programs.
  • Most respondents oppose vouchers
    • Just 31 percent of respondents favor allowing parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense.
    • Republicans are split on this issue (46 percent opposed and 46 in favor) while Democrats are thoroughly opposed (71 percent opposed to 16 percent in favor). The majority of independents are also oppose (63 percent).

 






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