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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






August 7, 2013

New York and Others Gain 300 Instructional Hours through TIME Initiative

Time-to-SucceedWhat would you do with 300 additional hours in a year? Would you take up a cross-stitching? Learn to speak Italian? Or, would you recommit to your ill-fated New Year’s resolution to exercise more?

New York’s Rochester Central School District, along with several other districts in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Tennessee are facing this very opportunity for the 2013-2014 academic year. They are each part of a three-year pilot initiative—to affect over 11,000 students—whose objective is to “boost student achievement and make U.S. schools more competitive on a global level”. The San Francisco Chronicle article highlights how an additional 300 hours in school equates to about 50 additional days of instruction. Just imagine what teachers and students can accomplish with all of that extra instructional time!

As demonstrated in the Center for Public Education’s article “Making Time: At a Glance,” research surrounding time in school supports the following three key ideas:

  • More school time can produce more school learning when time is geared towards academic activities (as opposed to extracurricular or non-academic areas).
  • Professional development can ease this transition by focusing on maximizing class time and student engagement.
  • Full-day kindergarten participants make more gains than their half-day program peers.

How are the five chosen elementary schools of the Rochester Central School District going to change in light of the Time for Innovation Matters in Education (TIME) initiative?

Students will spend an additional 90 minutes per day in school, with staff following flexible scheduling and staggered start times to ensure adequate staff-to-student ratios while keeping costs at a reasonable level.

Schools are encouraged to “reimagine” their schedules to offer academic enrichment, fine arts, and increased access for counseling opportunities and community projects. Some schools are developing thematic approaches to the increased time, proposing STEM learning; a focus on arts, health, and wellness; and college-and-career-geared visits to local cultural institutions.

According to in-school surveys, students are excited about the prospects of extended hours and their potential exposure to new and exciting ways of learning. Who wouldn’t be excited about building robots to roam the hallways, learning about the latest healthcare breakthroughs, and visiting museums?! The bottom line is that each community has collectively agreed to “step up” its game to improve student achievement in ways that are relevant and meaningful to budding learners.

Besides increased scores on state assessments, other outcomes measures expected to show improvement are attendance rates, participation/student engagement, and reductions in office referrals. Fortunately for this New York school district, administration, teachers, parents, and students are on board with the TIME initiative to boost test scores and improve the district’s dismal 43% graduation rate.

Programs expanding the amount of time children spend in school can be incredibly expensive and difficult to sustain over time. With an initial investment of over $3 million/year (guaranteed for the next three years) from the Ford Foundation, plus start-up funding from a variety of state and federal grants, the New York school district anticipates additional costs ranging from $1,200-$1,300/student (with 2,300 students served).

The average employee in the labor force might not be too enthused about spending the equivalence of an additional 50 days at work every year (understatement of the year!), but the community of Rochester Central School District is ready to invest in the time and resources needed to turnaround their underperforming public schools. I, for one, am rooting for each participating district in the hopes that each one can serve as a microcosm of scalable success.-Christine Duchouquette

Filed under: CPE,funding,instruction — Tags: , , — Christine @ 2:47 pm





May 10, 2013

Do charter schools receive their fair share of funding?

While a recent study funded by the Walton Family Foundation found that traditional public schools in five large urban cities received, on average, $4,000 more per student than charter schools within those cities, does this prove that charter schools are being short changed as the authors’ suggest?

The answer is simply, no. This latest study just compares revenues received—both public and private— between traditional public schools and charter schools. While the authors do attempt to make a more apples-to-apples comparison, by excluding revenues traditional public schools receive for Pre-k and adult education as well as adjusting for certain student demographics, whether it’s a fair comparison is questionable according to some school funding researchers.

Keep in mind, however, the study only examines how much money is received not how the money is spent. So basically they are arguing that all charter schools should receive the same amount of funding no matter what services they provide. By that logic, a charter school that provides no extracurricular activities and where the district actually pays for the transportation of the charter school’s students should receive the same per-pupil funding as the traditional public school counterpart, which offers numerous clubs, sports, and other extracurricular activities as well as transportation for their own students. Extracurricular activities and transportation are not luxuries in traditional public schools. These are services most local taxpayers expect their traditional public schools to provide but many charter schools do not, so it wouldn’t be fair to taxpayers to provide the same funding to charter schools that provide fewer services.

To accurately determine whether charter schools do in fact receive their fair share of funding requires comparing how much funding traditional public schools receive for the same services and same type of students to what charter schools provide. Unfortunately, such a comparison is quite difficult for a variety of reasons. As we found in our report Charter Schools: Finding Out the Facts researchers have attempted to make such comparisons but the finance data available for both charters and traditional public schools makes such comparisons nearly impossible, particularly on a large scale. Yet, only when such comparisons can be made can it be determined if charter schools get the short end of the stick when it comes to funding.—Jim Hull

Filed under: Charter Schools,funding — Jim Hull @ 10:41 am





March 22, 2013

What is it about Finland?

American education is suffering from Finn envy.  While the U.S. has been steadily but slowly climbing its way out of the mid-rankings on PISA — the international assessment of 15-year-olds — little Finland has been knocking the academic socks off of its OECD peers in math, reading and science.  So what do the Finns have that we don’t?

A lot has been made about the differences in culture. As many observers point out Finland is smallish, fairly homogenous and has a low poverty rate, slightly over three percent compared to our approximately 20 percent, and so they question how much of the Finnish way would transfer to our massive and massively complex system.

Even so, American educators and policymakers are so eager to uncover the Finn’s secret, they have created a new tourist industry for this off-the-beaten-track Scandinavian country. Interestingly, what they find both validates and contradicts reform policies advocated here in the U.S.

For one, Finland does not administer standardized tests  which has been a dominant feature of education improvement policies in the U.S. for over a decade. Homework is put off until high school in favor of play for younger students. Another surprise is that children aren’t required to start school until age seven, although voluntary preschool is available to all six-year-olds. Observers like me who believe data-driven policies and making Pre-k available to four-year-olds will help raise achievement won’t find much support here.

Finland also dishes up a potential moment of truth for so-called “reform” advocates, for the idea of merit pay, competition and other market solutions are alien concepts to their view of schooling. As one Finnish education official put it: “Real winners do not compete.”

There is one lesson that nearly all the edu-tourists take away, however. Teachers enjoy a high position of respect in Finnish society.  Finland actively recruits the top 10 percent of its college graduates to pursue master’s degrees in education, a credential most teachers possess. Teachers are trusted to develop lessons, design and administer assessments and grade students on their own. They also enjoy smaller classes and less time in front of students than their American counterparts. Those voices in the U.S. who call for bolstering the teaching profession as essential to improving achievement — a group in which I include myself — will find a great deal of support in the Finnish model.

An article in the Atlantic raises another characteristic of Finnish education that we have tended to overlook but that the Finns credit with their success.  The article’s author, Anu Partanen, explains:

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background income or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

Equity in Finland is established through equal funding, free school meals, health care and access to guidance and counseling.  There are very few private schools. All schooling, Pre-k through college, is free. Apparently, investments in schools and children do make a difference.

To the skeptics, however, demography still explains everything about the gap between Finland and the U.S.  To this, Partanen cites research by Samuel Abrams of Columbia University who compared Finland to neighboring Norway, similarly homogenous but whose approach to education more closely resembles the U.S. Norway, like the U.S. and unlike Finland, is not far from the OECD average on PISA. But there are some takeaways that could be instructive for the U.S.

First, our efforts at equitable funding have not closed the wide financial gap between high- and low-poverty districts. Second, the investments we make in child services are pitiful compared to our international peers. Finally, greater attention to recruiting strong candidates into teaching and preparing them well, as well as developing effective school principals can go a long toward assuring all students get a good public education. Who knows? We might even be able to at least reduce our reliance on standardized tests.






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