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May 7, 2012

Invest in technology that works

Jay Mathews over at the Washington Post thinks that Online Courses May Make Graduation Too Easy. He may be right, he may be wrong, but as the Center’s report on credit recovery programs found, unfortunately, we just don’t know. There just isn’t any research out there to determine if providing online courses to students who are behind in the credits they need to graduate will improve their chances to earn a high school diploma. And right now, there is a push to expand such programs even though there is no evidence that they work.

The same can be said for other forms of online learning such as virtual charter schools. As the Center’s upcoming report on online learning will show, there is  little if any evidence that students are well served completing their education by sitting in front of a computer instead of inside a traditional classroom. While the rhetoric surrounding online learning sounds exciting and innovative, such as the prospect of students being able to work at their own pace or gaining “21st century skills,” we just don’t know if the actual impact matches the rhetoric.

One has to wonder: are students who have already fallen behind better served by working at their own pace? Will watching some lessons on a laptop create 21st century skills?

Policymakers should keep these questions in mind when considering expanding online learning in these times of extremely tight budgets. Certainly, technology can and should be used to enhance education. But blindly throwing money at anything technology-related is not the way to go in education, just as blindly investing in anything ‘dot com’ was not the way to go in the late 1990’s.

Policymakers should take a lesson from the irrational exuberance of the “dot com” craze and not go all-in in everything online learning. Instead, they should invest in those online learning tools that actually work. Doing so will both better serve students and taxpayers. – Jim Hull

August 18, 2011

How does your opinion on public education compare to your neighbor’s?

If you’re wondering where you stand vis a vis your neighbors on our nation’s topical education issues, the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup’s latest poll released yesterday offers many intriguing insights.  In its 43rd annual edition, the poll of the public’s attitude towards public schools, hones in on ground-level issues in education reform.  Questions touch on recurrent issues like the role of teachers unions, to those newly emerging like digital learning, revealing unsurprising partisan divides as well as encouraging, majority-held views on the teaching profession. 

Here are some observations which everyone seems to share:  

On teachers:

  • Three out of four support recruiting high-performing high school students to become teachers.
  • Nearly 75 percent of Americans have trust and confidence in public school teachers.
  • And 69 percent gave teachers grades of A or B for overall performance, on a scale from A, B, C, D to Fail.
  • Americans believe in the following factors for salary determinations: advanced degrees, experience, and principal evaluation, with student test scores receiving the lowest totals. 
  • Principal evaluations are also the number one preferred factor of Americans for determining teacher layoffs. 

On technology:

  • 91 percent of people think students need internet access in school.
  • Near three-quarters believe access to computer technology is important.
  • Though just over half of Americans think access is integral for ensuring student academic success.

Of course, Americans don’t agree on every facet of education reform or the status of schools today.  First, here are a handful of questions which seemingly divide the population right down the middle.

  • Americans are split over whether high-achieving science and math students should be encouraged to pursue careers in related fields or careers as science and math teachers.
  • Just over half of Americans think high school students should have their own computer to use at school.
  • And suppose a school wants to offer a new class and is considering whether the class should be taught online or in person.  Nearly half (46 percent) of people would prefer having a more effective teacher teaching online, while 50 percent of people opt for the less effective teacher teaching in person. 

And here are a few more divisive issues, for which political affiliation rears its head:

  • On teachers unions; do Americans believe they help or hurt our public school system?
    • Of Republicans, 12 percent said they helped and 68 percent said they hurt and of Democrats, 43 percent said unionization helped and 23 percent said it hurt. 
  • Nearly three-quarters of Americans, believe teachers should have flexibility to teach in the ways they think best, rather than being required to follow a prescribed curriculum.
    • Democrats favor this approach more than republicans, at a ratio of 75:69 percent.
  • How do Americans rate President Barack Obama in his third year of office? 
    • 16 percent of Republicans give him a combined A-B rating compared to 67 percent of Democrats.

Trending findings:

  • This year’s 2011 PDK/Gallup poll reports the highest approval rating of charter schools since the question was first asked ten years ago, at 70 percent. 
  • Two out of three Americans think the ability to teach comes more from natural talent, than from college training.

Charter schools are a fundamental element of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top plan and as revealed by the poll’s findings, are being wholeheartedly embraced by the American public as well.  Likewise, the Department of Education recognizes states which support alternative certification routes for new teachers.  This sentiment is also reflected in the American people, who give more credence to alleged inborn teaching qualities over postsecondary teacher education. 

Final thoughts

Judging by the poll results, it is safe to say that Americans are vested in the state of public school education. The currents have shifted in favor of newer reforms, like charter schools and multifaceted approaches to teacher dismissal and salary calculations. Student mastery of 21st-century skills and teacher recruitment represent growing areas of interest. Lukewarm feeling towards teacher unionization persists and there is a near sense of dread towards the increasing reaches of digital learning. Findings like the latter suggest a hint of cognitive dissonance within the American public, as more students participate in web-based coursework every year and elected law-makers work to mandate online-learning experiences.

 It is crucially important to note lastly, the scope of PDK/Gallup’s 2011 poll, which nuanced as it is, attending to media-friendly issues such as STEM education, regrettably declines to ask Americans potentially “tougher” questions, concerning ELL or special education for instance.  Similarly, the results are only disaggregated by age, gender, educational attainment, public school parent status, and political affiliation—leaving much to be desired along the lines of other demographic data: race, ethnicity, income, and geographic region. — Julie McCabe

July 19, 2011

One bad boyfriend

The relationship between school reform and business ventures can be like the worst boyfriend some of us girls had in high school. Business shows up looking all great with his profits and big ideas about running your school efficiently.  He promises you high-flying achievement if you just ignore conventions, like contracts and regulations, and give him a chance. Oh yeah … you’re dazzled.

But then, reality sets in. You wonder why business doesn’t  understand you. After all, you never lied to him about your special needs students and your lack of broadband access. Business begins to realize that the relationship is harder work than he thought it would be.  He wonders when he will get the profits he wants.  He blames you. Soon enough, business splits. 

Of course, after some time he returns with the same promises with one new one  — that he’s changed. This time, he says,  it will be different. I’m not the same Edison, or Whittle, or k-12 Inc,  you knew back then. And you, school reform, take him back.  

The New York Times reports on a recent business venture to abandon school reform. City Prep Academies, a for-profit charter school network led by Tom Vander Ark, was to open three new charter schools, one in New York and two in New Jersey.  According to the Times article:

… after spending more than $1.5 million of investors’ money on consultants and lawyers, Mr. Vander Ark, 52, has walked away from the project, and the schools will not open as planned this fall, leaving others involved stunned and frustrated.

The article presents a damaging picture of delays, money difficulties and ultimately, poor leadership. It also profiles individuals on the ground who were earnestly working to create a good charter school, but are now left hanging in the wind. 

The Times’ account is worth the read, but briefly —  a building for the Brooklyn academy was found, a board was named and principal hired. Yet the New York charter review board found the initial application to be “lacking in details.”  In an unusual move, the board tentatively approved the application but required City Prep to take another year for planning.  The two New Jersey charters were likewise delayed.  Apparently, investments continued to lag, school openings were delayed yet another year, and the business model started to show its cracks.

Charter regulations aren’t the culprit here. One only needs to look elsewhere in New York to find highly successful charter schools, most notably the not-for-profit Harlem Children’s Zone.  As we have shown in our report,  while most charter schools are either no different or worse than their traditional public school counterparts, some are quite good and we can learn from them.  

So the big lesson is not that charters per se are the problem, or that business has nothing to contribute to education improvement. It’s that public schools are not businesses. Schools can still learn and adapt good business practice when it makes sense. But we need to always keep in mind that they are public institutions that serve communities and children, not the bottom line. 

Most of all, public schools — and school reform — need partners that will be there through the hard work of educating all children. School managament businesses talk a big talk, but when the profit’s not there, they can turn out to be a bad boyfriend.

(At this writing, the City Prep Web site was reportedly “under construction.” However, the Web site for the Brooklyn City Prep Academy discussed in the article was still operating.)  — Patte Barth

Filed under: Charter Schools,Public education — Tags: , — Patte Barth @ 10:48 am

June 10, 2011

Are charter start-ups really four times as likely to succeed than district turnarounds?

Over at the Flypaper, Mike Petrilli claimed that Charter Start-Ups are 4 Times as Likely to Succeed than District Turnarounds* (Note Big Asterisk). He bases this claim on an analysis Dr. David Stuit conducted for the Fordham Institute.

 Although Petrilli was transparent about the fact that the analysis has significant shortcomings by placing “big asterisk” in the title, it didn’t dissuade him from recommending taking away hundreds of millions of dollars from low-performing and, in many cases, severely disadvantaged traditional public schools and giving them to charter schools.

Petrilli states:

“It is screwy for federal tax payers to spend 12 times as much on school turnarounds ($3 billion) as charter start-ups ($250 million) when the latter appear to be four times more likely to succeed than the former. Team Obama want to fix that?”

A quick look at the analysis gives pause to whether indeed charter start-ups should be expanded as an alternative to turnaround traditional public schools.

Overview of the Analysis

  • Data from ten states (Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin) from the 2003-04 through 2008-09 school years.
  • Low-performing traditional public schools (those that fell into the lowest 10 percent in their state in both math and reading between 2002-03 and 2006-07) were paired with a charter school of the same type (elementary or middle) that started up within 3 miles of the low-performing traditional public school and had similar racial and socioeconomic demographics.
    • The pairs were only made if the traditional public school was identified as low-performing when the charter school opened between 2002-03 and 2006-07.
  • Schools were deemed ‘successes’ if their math and reading proficiency rates were above the state average in 2008-09.
  • Out of theses pairs, the number of ‘successes’ was then counted to determine which type of school was more effective.

Shortcomings of the Analysis

The analysis is based on a small sample of schools.

  • Only 81 pairs of low-performing traditional public schools and charter school startups were found across the ten large states.
  • Of the 81 pairs, only 19 schools (15 charter and 4 traditional public schools were found to be “successful.”
  • These pairs were not necessarily representative of schools nationwide. 

 Differences in “success” rates were not statistically significant.

  • That is, the difference in success rates may have happened by chance, rather than differences in actual effectiveness.
  • Because of the small sample size it was not possible to determine with any confidence whether there was any true difference in success rates.
    •  There is even less statistical confidence that charter school start-ups are four times more likely to succeed than low-performing traditional public schools.

The analysis only examined the success of low-performing traditional public schools where charter schools were present.

  • The report ignores all other traditional public schools that may have turned around – specifically, many of those schools that received federal turnaround funds Petrilli is recommending sending to charters instead.
  • It could be that low-performing traditional public schools have a greater success rate when a charter school is not located in their neighborhood.

The analysis did not examine whether the charter schools enrolled students of similar achievement.

  • In particular, the analysis did not explore whether charter school start-ups impeded low-performing traditional public schools from becoming “successes” by enrolling their higher-performing students from the low-performing traditional public school.

The analysis neglects the fact that fewer than 1 in 5 charter schools are more effective than their neighboring traditional public school.

  • So expanding charters, even in areas where there are low-performing schools, is not necessarily the answer.

Finding that more charter start-ups is the answer neglects the fact that students will remain in traditional public schools.

Overall, the analysis tries to answer a very important question: What is best way to turn around schools? but its methodology has significant limitations. As such, Petrilli’s conclusion and recommendations are overblown. However, the analysis does provide the basis for future research on this topic that can more accurately answer the question, “What is a better use of resources, putting money in charter schools or turning around existing schools?” However, more sophisticated research techniques are needed to answer this very important question. In the mean time, research indicates charter start-ups may be more successful, but not with enough confidence to siphon hundreds of millions of dollars from disadvantaged traditional public schools.—Jim Hull

For more information about charter schools check out the Center for Public Education’s Charter Schools: Finding out the Facts.

Filed under: Charter Schools — Jim Hull @ 3:53 pm

February 25, 2011

Do charter school principals have more autonomy?

Earlier this week, I attended a discussion at the Center for American Progress (CAP) on the impact of principals on teacher quality. The discussion centered around their new report, which examined how principals hired, assigned, evaluated, and provided professional development to teachers. The report was chock-full of research of what principals actually do in each of these areas and why, but what really caught my eye was the finding that charter school principals were no less constrained in making decisions about their teachers than principals in traditional public schools.

This really caught my eye because one of the basic tenets of the charter school movement is charter’s freedom to make decisions. Although it is true charter schools are typically freed from most state and district personnel policies, this report found that charter school principals have no more freedom to make decisions about their teachers than principals in traditional public schools. But why? During the discussion it was pointed out that one possible reason is that charter school boards tend to get involved in personnel matters.

Is this true of all charter school boards? Certainly not. But what the report points out is that it is not the type of the school (charter or traditional) that eliminates more barriers to principals making key decisions about their teachers; it is the support principals receive from their district or board that enables them to effective increase the quality of their teaching staff.

As our own report on charter schools points out, the policies and practices (ex. smaller schools, smaller classes, effective teachers) found to work in highly effective charter schools are the same as those that work in highly effective traditional public schools. It’s not about the type of school (charter or traditional); it is about what goes on inside the school walls. So just expanding the number of charter schools is not likely to improve the student achievement. However, investing in strategies shown to work through research will —  no matter what type of school they attend. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Charter Schools — Tags: — Jim Hull @ 11:35 am

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