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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

February 18, 2011

School boards keep charters out of their districts? Not exactly

Jay Mathews over at the Washington Post is one of my favorite reporters. Do I agree with him on all the issues? No, but he is one of the all too few voices in education whose opinion is not driven by ideology. Don’t get me wrong — he has strong opinions — but you certainly can’t box Jay into an ideological box. I think he truly does his best to search for what is best for students.

However, his recent post about the Montgomery County, Maryland, school board’s refusal to accept two charter school applications spreads the myth that school boards are more resistant to charter schools than other charter school authorizing agencies.

There is just no data to back up this common claim. As a matter of fact, when looking at the data from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), the data actually shows school boards are more likely to approve a charter school application than any of the other six agencies allowed to authorize charter schools across states. School boards do decline 60 percent of charter school applications, but independent chartering boards (such as the DC Public Charter School Board Jay highlighted) reject an even greater percent of charter application at the rate of 68 percent. Only non-profit organizations have a lower rejection rate than school boards, at just 52 percent.

Not only are school boards less likely to reject a charter school application, they are also much more likely to provide or assist charter schools in finding and/or financing a facility for charter schools within their district. That doesn’t really sound like school boards are inhospitable to charter schools.

However, there may be a very good reason for why this myth stays alive. One is that many of those who promote charter schools are not big fans of school boards to begin with, and whenever they reject a charter school application they just assume school boards are trying to keep charters out of their districts instead of believing the charter school submitted a weak application. Another reason, though, is that the public (including the media) are much more likely to see a school board reject a charter school application because school boards operate in a more public forum than other authorizing agencies. While other agencies hold public meetings, school boards gather much more attention.

So the perception may be that school boards are resistant to charter schools, but, as we say in all our Learning Center videos, before you make a decision you need to look at the data first.  The data clearly shows that school boards are not the enemy of charter schools. As we know from the Center’s Charter Schools: Finding out the facts report, there is a huge variation in the quality of charter schools nationwide, with the vast majority no better than traditional public schools (although there are some great charter schools like KIPP that the report highlights).

When a school board rejects a charter school application, it may be because they know what it takes to run a school and see that some charter schools are destined for closure. Certainly, the school board should give feedback to the charters as to why their applications were rejected so they could resubmit a stronger application. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Charter Schools,Data,School boards,Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Jim Hull @ 2:18 pm

February 9, 2011

Bridging the high school to college divide

In his State of the Union address, President Obama made this challenge: “By the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”   With college-going rates of recent high school grads at all-time highs and growing, one might think this is a fairly easy goal to reach. But while students are entering college, far too many leave before earning a credential.

There are a lot of reasons students drop out of college, and many are out of our control. But one big reason is: the distance between a high school diploma and readiness for college work can be huge. And that’s a situation we can do something about.

The high school to college disconnect has actually been known for a while. New York is one of several states that have been working in recent years to align their high school exit and college entrance requirements. This week the New York Department of Education released two sets of graduation numbers for 2009: the four-year graduation rate and what they consider to be a “college- and career-ready” rate.  Statewide, the four-year grad rate was 76.8%. In contrast, only 40.8% qualified as “college- and career-ready” —  a 36 percentage point gap!  Charter school observers will note that the rates in those schools is even more startling: only 48.8% of New York charter school students graduated in four years, and a paltry 9.9% were college- and career-ready.

The decision to release two grad rates corresponds to a decision New York made last year to raise cut scores on their state tests for grades 3 through 8 in order to create better benchmarks toward college/career readiness.  While the effect on test scores is hard to swallow for many, New York policymakers see this as a necessary, albeit bitter pill. As Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch told the New York Times, “With [grades] three through eight, we ripped the Band-Aid off…. We need to indicate exactly what it all means, especially since we’ve already said that college-ready should be the indicator of high school completion.”

New York students who are “college- and career-ready” score 75 on the English and 80 on the math Regents exams. In comparison, students need to score 65 on four of the five Regents exams in order to graduate. The college- and career-ready score was determined by examining college placement policies in the state universities and community colleges. The higher cut scores are predictive of earning a ‘C’ in credit-bearing freshman courses in the same subjects.  

New York’s process for establishing college-career benchmarks is similar to ACT’s, the college admissions test publisher.  ACT’s most recent report showed that 1 in 4 US graduates were college-ready in four subjects,  showing that the gap is a shared problem across the country, not just in New York. We have written in these pages about the common core state standards (CCSS). These state-driven, voluntary standards are intended to certify that high school graduates are both college and career ready.  Momentum is gaining: as of this writing 40 states and DC have adopted the CCSS and two consortia of states are developing aligned assessments that are scheduled to be ready for 2013-14. We will continue to bring updates on progress in CCSS, so stay tuned.   — Patte Barth

Filed under: Charter Schools,college,High school — Tags: , — Patte Barth @ 11:17 am

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