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July 18, 2014

How productive is your district?

Since the onset of the great recession, most states have been implementing higher academic standards while simultaneously cutting funding for their public schools. Basically, school districts across the country have been asked to do more with less. As I wrote in Cutting to the Bone there is simply no fat left to cut to enable school boards to balance their budgets. Many would have to make cuts in areas that would directly impact student achievement. Hence, the goal is no longer to find cuts that avoid negative impacts on students, it is to find cuts that have the least negative impact, even if they certainly benefited some students.

While school funding is unlikely to return to pre-recession levels anytime soon school boards continue to fight for the revenues they need to ensure all students are prepared for success following high school. In the mean time, boards are doing the best they can with the resources available to them. However, the Center for American Progress (CAP) argues in a recent report some districts are getting a better return on investment of their education dollars than similar districts. This means there are some districts that are spending less and are obtaining better results in terms of student outcomes than other districts within their state that serve similar students.

Accurately calculating the return on investment of school districts is notoriously complex due to such issues as differing accounting practices between districts and districts providing different services. As such the data is not always available to make a true apples to apples comparison of what districts spend on providing similar services. The report itself even points out the limitations of comparing the productivity of school districts. However, such limitations shouldn’t prevent districts from finding out for themselves how their productivity compares to other districts in their state. CAP’s new interactive web tool allows districts to do just that. Such comparisons may not be perfect but they provide a starting point to determine how effectively districts are spending the dwindling funds they have. Districts can use these comparisons to find out how more productive districts are using their dollars and determine if such practices would benefit their district.

Access to such information-as imperfect as it is– provides school boards an additional resource on how to they can best utilize their limited funds to improve student outcomes.—Jim Hull

Filed under: funding,Public education — Tags: , , — Jim Hull @ 1:22 pm





July 17, 2014

School choice in Sweden isn’t working

Earlier this week, Slate ran this analysis of school choice in Sweden that should be required reading for everyone who makes public school policy in the U.S. as well as those who write about it. I encourage everyone to read it for themselves. But briefly, the author describes how Sweden came to adopt Milton Friedman’s free market ideas for school reform in the mid- to late-1900s and since then, the nation, once a leader among OECD countries on PISA, has witnessed its international standing plummet.

According to the article, the main reason for this decline is the failure of free market principles to translate to school improvement. In Sweden, competition led to artificial test score inflation among charter and traditional schools alike.  But even if policies could be put in place to better control for that, there remains the futility of applying for-profit practices to meet what is essentially — and vitally — a not-for-profit public mission.

The author is not a complete charter school opponent. Like CPE, he recognizes the value of innovative, successful charter schools as laboratories that can provide lessons traditional public schools can learn from.  At the same time, we do not see any evidence to argue for expanding charter school — or school choice in general — as a way to improve public education. Indeed, an absolute free market system for public schools poses greater risks to the effort to raise student performance across the board, as Sweden is apparently learning the hard way. – Patte Barth

 






April 29, 2014

Great news about our public schools

demanding parentWith 80 percent of students graduating within four-years of entering high school, the Class of 2012 achieved the highest on-time graduation rate in U.S. history according to the 2014 Building a Grad Nation report. After graduation rates languished in the low 70s for nearly four decades, rates have accelerated dramatically since 2006, improving by eight percentage points in just six years. According to the report, if this rate of improvement continues the national graduation rate will reach 90 percent by 2020, a goal of the authors of Grad Nation.

While attainment gaps remain, the gap is narrowing between traditionally disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers. This is particularly true for the fastest growing group of students in our nation’s schools, Hispanics, whose graduation rate jumped from 61 percent to 76 percent between 2006 and 2012 alone. Black students made significant gains during this period as well improving their graduation rate from 59 percent to 68 percent. During this same time period White students saw their graduation rate improve from 80 percent to 85 percent. At these rates the attainment gap between Hispanic and White students will disappear within five years. It would take another decade for the Black/White attainment gap to close completely.

While this is certainly good news it actually doesn’t provide a complete picture of the success in raising high school graduate rates. This is because these are only on-time graduation rates and do not include those students who take longer than four years to earn a standard high school diploma. As CPE found in our report about late high school graduates, Better Late Than Never, our national high school graduation rate is likely about 5 percentage points higher if we include students who graduate within six years. This means that our public schools are likely graduating at least 85 percent of students. And since Black and Hispanic students are more likely to graduate late than their White classmates, the attainment gap is likely to be narrower as well. These are graduates who are far too often over looked as successes even though, as the Grad Nation report pointed out, districts across the nation have made significant efforts to get students back on the graduation track or re-enroll students who had dropped out completely to help them earn the same diplomas as their peers who graduated on-time. – Jim Hull






April 4, 2014

Public high schools are prominent in Ivy League rosters

By now, you’ve all read about Kwasi Enin, the Long Island high school student who applied and gained admission to all eight Ivy League schools.

Scattered along the East Coast, the universities— Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Princeton and Cornell— are among the most selective in the country, admitting less than 9 percent of its collective applicants this year. Harvard’s admit rate was the lowest at 5.9 percent, while Cornell was the highest at 14 percent.

Acceptance into one Ivy League college is difficult enough, let alone all eight which is why Enin’s feat has rightly garnered widespread media attention. And small wonder all eight welcomed him. Besides participating in student government and playing three instruments in the chamber orchestra, Enin throws discus and shot put for the track and field team, acts in school plays and volunteers at a local hospital. An extraordinarily gifted student from— can I point out— a public high school.

Fluke? Far from.

Although matriculating data was provided on only four of the college’s admissions websites, that information, along with other secondary sources indicate the majority of Ivy League’s recent classes have come from public high schools.

Public school grads make up 55% of incoming freshman at Dartmouth and Yale, 58.7% at Princeton and 66% at Cornell UniversityBrown doesn’t have figures for its undergrad program, but it does reveal that 67% of students accepted into its medical school in 2013 hailed from public high schools. In a 2009 New York Times piece, William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, noted that public schools provided almost 70 percent of the incoming freshmen class that fall.

With eight of the most prestigious universities knocking on his door — Enin also applied and received acceptance letters from Duke and three State University of New York campuses— the Long Island teen has every right to bask in the sun. But so should public schools who’ve prepared Enin and countless others for the country’s top universities and beyond.

In fairness, some commentary—even from the schools themselves—- have noted that the increasing fixation on Ivy League admittance has shifted attention from the fact that there are other high caliber colleges in the country, many of which are public universities that have a rich history of producing notable graduates including Oprah Winfrey, Jon Stewart and former President Gerald Ford, to name a few.

Whether at the K-12 or post-secondary level, public education is clearly equipping future generations with the skills they need to succeed in college and careers. This is an important point that shouldn’t get lost, as it debunks the common belief that exclusivity automatically equates to superiority. That’s obviously not the case, since public high school students occupy the vast majority of Ivy League’s incoming classes and it stands to reason that they likely occupy the ranks of public universities, too.

I wish Enin lots of luck as he enters the next chapter in his life. I’ve no doubt he’ll do well no matter where he goes. His parents and public education prepared him well.

To read more about the various approaches and practices of rigorous high schools, check out CPE’s report Is High School Tough Enough?






March 31, 2014

Common Core standards undergoes field testing

Field testing for the Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests is now underway in many states and will continue to be implemented in others over the course of the next several weeks. More than four million students in grades 3-11 will be helping field test the new math and English language arts assessments. These field tests are an opportunity for students to experience the testing environment and get a sense of what they will be expected to know and be able to do for future Common Core-aligned assessments, but with no stakes attached at this time.

Doing field tests an entire year before these assessments will be used for any type of evaluation helps to ensure that the new Common Core-aligned assessments are reliable, valid, and fair for all students taking them, and gives SBAC and PARCC time to adjust both content or structural issues that might pop up during field testing. This trial run also gives teachers and schools a chance to practice administering the test and an opportunity to work out any technical or procedural problems before the assessments begin next year. Additionally, the field tests will introduce students to a type of assessment that is different from what many are used to: one that emphasizes critical thinking and problem solving and focuses less on memorization and simply filling in the correct bubble.

Of course, these assessments are not perfect, but that is all the more reason that this “test of the test” is important. Much of the controversy surrounding the implementation of the Common Core States Standards has involved how assessment would work and if it would be any different from the testing most states require now. This trial run allows thousands of teachers and millions of students across the country to become accustomed to the new system in what is essentially a “no stakes” testing environment. Will there be glitches? Of course – but the field tests allow time for these issues to be worked out before the actual test is administered next year. It might be an imperfect solution, but it is certainly a step in the right direction to ensure that CCSS-aligned assessments are the best that they can be before they are administered in a high stakes environment.

The Alliance for Excellent Education has a helpful Common Core Field Test Q&A available with more information. For more on the Common Core State Standards, visit CPE’s Common Core Resource page.

-Patricia Campbell






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