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March 31, 2017

Public Charter Schools and Accountability

Earlier this week, the Brookings Institution released the fifth annual Education Choice and Competition Index, which ranks school choice in the largest school districts in the U.S.

During her address, Secretary of Education Betsy Devos claimed that “parents are the primary point of accountability.” When asked about policies that ensure that schools of choice are actually improving student performance, she answered that “the policies around empowering parents and moving the decision-making to the hands of parents on behalf of children is really the direction we need to go.” She later repeated the idea that transparency and information, coupled with parental choice, equated to accountability.

While it is indeed important to communicate information on school choice, transparency and information are only part of the accountability puzzle. In addition to these components, states also use accountability to ensure that schools that fail to meet academic or financial standards are improved or closed.

This is of particular importance for public charter schools, who have been given the authority to operate independently of school districts and many state rules or regulations. Accountability rules assure that students are learning and that public funds are spent responsibly.

While the accountability measures used for charter schools to demonstrate quality performance vary from state to state, they do exist, and they include more than just reporting information to parents.

Forty-three states had charter school laws in place when we completed this analysis (not including Kentucky, which passed a bill in March 2017 to allow charter schools). We examined four points of accountability within the charter school policies as recorded by the Education Commission of the States: annual reporting, specifications for termination, performance-thresholds, and technical assistance.

Annual Reporting

Most states require charter schools to submit annual reports as a part of their accountability obligations. Some annual reporting requirements include annual report cards, education progress reports, curriculum development, attendance rates, graduation rates, and college admission test scores. Many states that do not require annual reports still require financial reports, which speaks to the other side of accountability, appropriate usage of funds.

  • Some states, such as Washington, require charter schools to provide the same annual school performance reports as non-charter schools.
  • In Ohio, each charter is required to disseminate the state Department of Education’s school report card report to all parents.
  • North Carolina requires its charter schools to publish their report performance ratings, awarded by the State Board of Education, on the internet. If the rating is D or F, the charter school must send written notice to parents. North Carolina also requires specific data reporting related to student reading.

State Specification for Termination

Forty-two states specify the grounds for terminating a charter school, fostering accountability by establishing standards and consequences of failure to adhere to those standards. Failure to demonstrate academic achievement and failure to increase overall school performance are among the terms cited as grounds of termination among some states.

These state specifications for termination do not only apply to performance levels; they can be applied to a violation of any part of the charter law or agreement, such as fraud, failure to meet audit requirements, or failure to meet standards set for basic operations.

State Threshold

In addition to state specifications for termination, some states have set a threshold marking the lowest point where a school can perform before it is closed. Some states without a clearly communicated low-performance threshold have set other standards which specifically mark the lowest point of acceptable performance.

Setting a minimum threshold for performance for the automatic closure of failing schools may increase charter school accountability, and encourage high performance.

State-Provided Technical Assistance

Technical assistance to charter schools included leadership training or mentoring charter school leaders, or assistance with grant and application writing and other paperwork related to charter school operation.

In addition to holding charter schools accountable for high performance, several states offer technical assistance to ensure that charter school administrators understand how requirements are measured, and can be directed to resources to assist them with achieving performance goals, especially if they are at risk of closure due to failing to meet previously established standards.

These are clear displays of school accountability policies that help to ensure that parents have truly good schools from which to schools. Accountability relies not only on information for parents, but also consequences for schools that fail to educate students or use taxpayer dollars responsibly.

Charter Accountability

[1] The following states also require annual financial audits with their annual performance reports: Arkansas, Arizona, DC, Georgia, Hawaii, Oregon, Michigan, Texas, Utah

[2] Utah requires the most comprehensive technical assistance offerings, provided by the state charter school board which includes: assistance with the application and approval process for charter school authorization, locating private funding and support sources, and understanding and implementing charter requirements.

 

Filed under: Accountability,Charter Schools,School Choice — Tags: , — Katharine Carter @ 4:42 pm





March 13, 2017

Kentucky: School Choice for Whom?

The Kentucky House of Representatives has been busy with education policy recently.  In February, they passed House Bill 151, which would allow parents the choice of sending their child to the school closest to their house (as long as it is in the district in which they reside).  If approved by the Senate, H.B. 151 would have the potential to override school assignment boundaries throughout the state.  As reported by the Washington Post and The Century Foundation, H.B. 151 would also have the potential to dismantle a long-standing school integration plan in Jefferson County, which encompasses Louisville.

At face value, it seems reasonable that children be allowed to attend the school closest to their home, creating neighborhood schools.  Most traditional school assignment plans are designed around this concept, with school capacity and population density also playing a role.  The challenge, even for schools with traditional attendance zones, is that school zones could basically disappear if parents claim the right to attend the school closest to their zone.  In Lexington, for example, a student in the southern part of the Breckinridge ES zone (see below) may live closer to Liberty ES than some of the students in the Liberty ES zone, so students who previously would have attended Liberty ES may no longer have a place there (if Liberty ES reached capacity).  The bill has provisions so that students currently attending a particular school may not be displaced by other students, but incoming students, whether kindergarteners or families who just moved in, may not be afforded the same benefit as families who have been in the neighborhood longer.  This legislation has the potential to uproot many school districts’ carefully-crafted  and often-controversial assignment policies, creating uncertainty for families and challenges in assigning students to schools in a manner that accounts for multiple student and demographic factors.

KY

Perhaps the larger reason that this bill is garnering national attention is the effect that it will have on the Jefferson County Public School (JCPS) district, which encompasses Louisville.  JCPS has a school integration plan that combines parental preference with balanced diversity.  Parents of elementary school students may choose between neighborhood schools in their geographic cluster or magnet schools that serve the entire district; 90 percent receive their first choice.  Middle and high school students are assigned to schools with boundaries designed to maximize diversity.  JCPS also offers district-wide magnet programs, which would not be affected by H.B. 151.  The district’s school assignments also try to minimize transportation time for students.  The result of this school assignment plan is that many students are not attending the school closest to home.  JCPS analyzed H.B. 151­­­ and concluded that half of their students do not attend the school closest to their home, which means that there is great potential for the shifting of students across schools in the future (current students would not be affected but we can assume that the results would be similar for future cohorts).  Only 38 percent of current middle school and 34 percent of current elementary school students live close enough to their current school to be assigned to it, if school assignments were made on proximity alone.

JCPS also analyzed the effect the bill would have on school diversity.  By their projections, the number of students attending high-poverty and/or high-minority schools (greater than 80 percent of students receiving free/reduced lunch or non-white students) could increase under H.B. 151.  The number of schools that fail to meet the district’s diversity goals, which are based on parental education, income, and race, could increase from 12 to 40.  Currently, all schools serve at least some highly disadvantaged students; under the new requirements, up to 45 schools may have zero of these students.  JCPS’s current plan provides choice, especially to low-income parents who often live in low-income neighborhoods, to attend schools that are diverse instead of segregated.  The new requirements could mean that schools in more affluent neighborhoods reach capacity with just neighborhood students, pushing out lower income students who would have transferred in under the current plan.  Such choices would not be surprising, given research from North Carolina and Washington, D.C. that shows that geographic proximity is highly important to parents in selecting a school.  This would essentially allow for a dual system of haves and have-nots.

We know that schools of concentrated poverty have a negative impact on student achievement.  A Stanford researcher even found that the most powerful factor correlated with the racial achievement gap is the disproportionate exposure of black and Latino students to students in poverty in their schools.  Neighborhood-based school assignments often have the effect of widening the gap between students of color and their white peers by creating more socioeconomically segregated schools.  Additionally, all students benefit from diverse schools through improved cognitive skills such as critical thinking and problem solving.

Many school choice advocates say that choice is a way out of “failing schools” for low-income and minority students.  However, allowing parents to choose the school closest to them may exacerbate the school segregation already put in place by housing patterns.  It could also create uncertainty across the state as local districts would have to recreate school assignment policies.  Louisville has worked to create a system that provides for parental choice and diversity based on the needs and preferences of their local community; we would hate to see choice erode for the families who can’t afford to live near more affluent schools.






February 7, 2017

School Improvement Grants: Why didn’t $7 billion change results for students?

Mathematica recently released a study of the federal program of Student Improvement Grants (SIG). Their findings? Schools receiving the extra funds showed no significant improvement over similar schools that did not participate. With a price tag of $7 billion (yes, with a “b”), this strikes many as a waste of taxpayer dollars. Interestingly, the study also found no evidence that the SIG schools actually had significantly higher per-pupil expenditures than similar schools that didn’t receive the grants, which may have contributed to the mediocre results.

SIG awarded up to $2 million annually to 1,400 schools, which was administered by states. The program began in the 2010-11 school year and continues through the end of the 2016-17 year. Starting in 2017-2018, the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will allow states to use up to seven percent of their Title I allotments to improve the bottom five percent of schools. States may choose to dole out funds via formula or competitive grants, but districts are the ones responsible for using evidence-based practices to improve schools.

Under the old SIG rules, the federal government required schools to choose from one of these four turnaround models:

SIG 1

The new report analyzed transformation, turnaround, and restart models, and found no statistically significant effects for any of them. The authors did find positive, but not statistically significant, effects on math and reading scores for schools receiving the grant, but lower high school graduation rates. Critics of the new report have noted that the mathematical model chosen was not sensitive enough to detect small effects. The authors did find mixed effects each year, which many studies would have the power to find as significant, but due to the design, these remain insignificant. To give perspective of the magnitude of these effects, the effect of decreasing elementary class sizes by seven students is about 0.2 standard deviations; the effect of urban charter schools compared to their neighborhood schools after one year is 0.01 in math and -0.01 in reading (0.15 and 0.10 after four years). According to the Mathematica study, the results of SIG in 2012-2013 were 0.01 standard deviations in math and 0.08 standard deviations in reading, with a drop of in the graduation rate (note that SIG had a positive impact on the graduation rate in 2011-2012, which suggests that these results are not statistically significant, or could be zero). Not enough to conclude a positive effect, for sure, but not nothing, either.

 

SIG3

I’ll offer a couple of my own thoughts (based on research, of course) on why SIG didn’t have the success that was hoped for:

1. The authors found no evidence that the grant funds actually increased per-pupil spending. In government-speak, the funds may have supplanted other funding streams instead of supplementing them, even though the law states that federal funds are supposed to supplement other funds spent. They found that SIG schools spent about $245 more per student than similar non-SIG schools in 2011-2012, and only $100 more in 2012-2013 (again the results are not statistically significant, meaning that we can’t confidently say that the difference isn’t zero). Recent studies have shown that spending makes a difference in education, so this may help explain why we didn’t see a difference here.

2. Students in many priority schools (the bottom five percent of schools), which are the ones that qualified for SIG grants, may have had the option to transfer to higher-performing schools. While the report doesn’t address this, it seems that students with more involved parents and better academic achievement may have been more likely to utilize this offer, thus lowering the average scores of the schools they left behind. Students perform better when surrounded with higher-performing peers, which means that the lack of overall effect could have been influenced by the loss of higher achieving students.

3. Schools receiving SIG grants were high-poverty and high-minority. The average rate of students eligible for free-and-reduced price (FRL) lunches in the study group was 83 percent, with non-white students making up 91 percent of the school populations (as compared with the overall school population being about 50 percent FRL-eligible and 50 percent non-white). While the resources allocated through SIG to these schools should have made spending more equitable, schools may have still struggled with recruiting and retaining experienced, qualified teachers, which is often a challenge for high-poverty, high-minority schools. Research is clear that integrated schools have better outcomes for students than segregated schools. Yet, the reform strategies used under SIG (replacing school staff and/or converting to a charter school) did little to improve school integration.

Hopefully, states and districts will learn from these lessons and use school reforms that fundamentally change the practices of the school, not just a few personnel: increased funding, school integration, changes in instructional practices, meaningful teacher/principal mentoring and development, and/or wrap-around services for students in poverty or who have experienced trauma.






January 27, 2017

7 reasons why school choice ≠ school reform

I attended an event this week on Race, Poverty, and School Reform, and I was surprised to hear almost every panelist discuss choice as the best way to reform schools. Research doesn’t support their claims, however.  While choice is great and helps parents find programs and schools that best fit their children’s needs, it is not the panacea to all challenges in education.  Choice doesn’t always have to be outside of the traditional public school system, either.  Finally, choice is not reform in that parental choice of school doesn’t always result in better outcomes for their students.

  1. About 87 percent of America’s school-age children are in public schools, including the five percent in charter schools. We’ve spent decades creating systems to serve students, and those aren’t likely to go away soon. So, if we want to improve outcomes for students today, we have to work within that system.

 

  1. Traditional school districts offer many students choices. Thirty-seven percent of all parents reported having choices within their local public schools in 2012. This includes magnet schools, charters (both district-run and others), and districts offering flexible attendance zones or transfers.  Many districts offer specialized schools and programs such as dual-language immersion, STEM, or the arts.

 

  1. Charter schools aren’t necessarily better than traditional public schools. CREDO found that only about a quarter of charter schools outperform their local counterparts, while in reading, 19 percent of charters perform worse than their local traditional school, and 31 percent perform worse in math. Granted, charters in urban settings and those that serve students in poverty do tend to outperform their local counterparts, but part of this is due to poorly performing traditional public schools in these regions.  Even with this growth, most poor and urban students in charters are not catching up with their more advantaged peers.  And, while the overall average is positive, traditional schools outperformed charters in about one-third of the cities studied.  So, while charters may be a good option for some, they are not across-the-board saviors for student achievement.

School Choice 1

  1. School choice in any form (school districts, charter, and vouchers) can make segregation worse, which has negative impacts on students’ achievement and life outcomes. While there are some charters that are intentionally diverse, only four states (Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, and South Carolina) have state laws that require charter schools to reflect the makeup of their local traditional public schools to some degree. Very few public school districts utilize controlled choice models that aim to balance parental choice with diverse school populations.  Research also shows that parents tend to choose schools schools based on school location and demographics that match their own .

 

  1. Private schools aren’t necessarily better than traditional schools, either. Results are hard to measure, as most programs don’t require private schools to participate in state tests. High school graduation rates are generally higher, but that may also be due to admissions-based cream-skimming and/or relaxed graduation requirements (this is just speculation, echoed from other researchers).  While some programs have shown positive results (New York, DC), others have harmed student achievement.  Students in the Louisiana voucher program dropped significantly in achievement, dropping 16 percentile points in math and eight in reading.  Some studies have shown that private schools perform worse than public schools if demographic factors are accounted for.

    Impact of Louisiana Voucher Program on Student Achievement after 2 years

School Choice 2

 

  1. School choice in the form of public school vouchers doesn’t always serve every student. Very few voucher programs require private school providers to adhere to IDEA laws for special education students (outside of programs that cater specifically to special education students), and no states require participating schools to address the needs of English language learners. Voucher laws allow private schools to adhere to their admission criteria, which encourages more schools to participate.  However, these criteria often discriminate against students based on their religion and sexual orientation (only Maine and Vermont prohibit religious schools from participating).  Some private schools may also have extra fees for sports or other programs, which may exclude low-income families from participating in the program.  Few voucher programs provide transportation, which may also be limiting.

 

  1. Full-time virtual schools, which serve about 180,000 students nationwide, have been shown to grossly underperform other forms of schools. Only two percent of virtual schools outperformed their traditional public school counterpart in reading, and zero percent had better results in math. CREDO estimates that attending a virtual school is the equivalent of not attending school at all for a year in math, and of losing 72 days of instruction in reading.

School Choice 3

School choice can be great for some families and some students.  However, the reality is that just because parents choose schools doesn’t mean that that school will do better for student achievement overall.  While some education reformers are pushing for increased school choice as a way to improve education, the research just doesn’t support this notion, at least not in the current framework.  What we should be doing is learning from high-performing schools in every sector (traditional, charter, and private) to replicate effective administrative and instructional practices.  While competition itself may someday push schools to improve, that doesn’t help today’s students, and there’s no guarantee that competition makes schools better, anyway.  Today’s students deserve true reform based on evidence, not ideology, so that they receive the best education possible.






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