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June 11, 2014

CPE’s latest report explores mayoral involvement in urban schools

CPE_MayoralControl_Slider Few would disagree that the future prosperity of cities are linked to the current performance of schools. It’s no doubt what has compelled many a mayor to take control of city schools, especially ones that are troubled and low performing. But do urban schools benefit under a mayoral governance model? Is student achievement higher in urban systems led by school boards or city mayors? What happens to community involvement in either arrangement? These were the questions CPE set out to discover in its latest report, Toward Collaboration, Not a Coup. As you can likely tell from the title, we concluded more could be achieved if the two offices worked together than apart. To find out how we got there, though, you’ll have to read the report.

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).

December 4, 2012

5 states put time on their side

Five states have entered into a pilot project to add 300 hours of instructional time to the school year.  The participating states — Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee — had each made more school time part of their approved ESEA waiver from the U.S. Department of Education. The Ford Foundation and the National Center on Time and Learning are providing technical assistance and support for the pilot, which is expected to reach about 20,000 students in 40 schools.

According to an AP story, the overarching goals for adding time are to raise student performance and to also provide a well-rounded curriculum including the arts and other subjects that sometimes take a backseat to reading and math.

There’s a common-sense appeal to the idea that extending time for learning will produce more learning.  A CPE review of research on school time found that to be generally true— with some caveats.

Number one is that the impact of extra time depends how it’s is used. Merely stretching 45 minutes of typical instruction into a bigger slot isn’t likely to make much difference. That’s why it will be important to give teachers their own time for planning.

Last year, CPE’s Jim Hull and Mandy Newport analyzed the amount of time students are required to be in school in different countries (cited in the AP story). They found that contrary to many reports, the U.S. requires about as much or more time than many of our economic competitors. They also found little relationship between time required and outcomes. Just consider the case of high-scoring Finland which requires the least hours compared to low-scoring Italy which requires the most. Note that time required doesn’t necessarily represent the actual instructional time students receive. Nonetheless, this underscores how vital it is to use the time effectively.

The pilot has a three-year timeframe. We’ll be watching to see how much impact it has on student learning and how it compares to investments in teacher professional development, curriculum or other strategies to raise achievement.  As budget conscious school leaders know, time in the school schedule truly is money. Hopefully, these five states will have lessons for schools across the country to make sure time is on our side.

Read more about the TIME Collaborative here.

September 11, 2012

How do homeschoolers compare?

I must admit I don’t know very much about homeschooling. I always figured it was an option only a small number of families took advantage of. Which is why I was surprised to learn from CNN that an estimated 4 percent of school aged students are being homeschooled. To put the percentage into context, that is nearly as many students that attend charter schools. It may not be a large percentage, but it’s certainly not inconsequential, which makes evaluating their performance all that more important.

So how do homeschoolers compare to students in traditional public schools when it comes to achievement? Well, when comparing homeschoolers’ achievement to that of public school students I was surprised to see that homeschoolers outperform students in traditional public schools by whopping 36 percentile points in some subjects. That is a huge margin which made me a little suspicious, so I dug a little deeper to find out where the information came from. I looked into the reports CNN cited to back up this claim. One report was from a homeschooling advocacy organization the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). The other is an article by educationews.com.

The HSLDA report appears to be well done at first glance, but what raises a big red flag is that the report does not name the tests the comparisons were based on. The report only states that achievement results are based on a collection of 15 tests from various testing services that are combined into one score. But what tests would those be? What grades were tested? What subjects were tested? How were these different tests combined into one composite score? These are questions any decent report should answer explicitly. Yet, answers to these questions could not be found in the report. So researchers like me are not able to determine the accuracy of the tools they used to make such claims.

The educationnews.com article, on the other hand, just seemed to throw around some data they found doing a Google search without doing any real research into the rigor of the data they were reporting. For example, besides citing the HSLDA– without any critique– the article also cited ACT scores as proof homeschoolers outperform students in traditional public schools. Keep in mind that when it comes to the ACT (which is like the SAT) the problem is that, for the most part, only those students expecting to go to colleges that require the ACT are taking it – not all students. So many lower performing students do not take ACT which makes the achievement data higher than it really is.

Since the ACT is voluntary for the vast majority of students, the ACT is not an ideal assessment to compare the achievement of students from traditional public schools to those who were homeschooled. This is because it is quite unlikely that the ACT scores results were comparing similar students since homeschooled students are mostly white, non-poor and do not require special education. Public schools educate more minority, poor and special education students who typically start school less prepared than their peers and require more specialized instruction. If these students were homeschooled at the same rate as in public schools, it is quite likely that the achievement scores for homeschooling would be much lower. However, such a comparison would provide a much more accurate comparison of the achievement between public school students and homeschoolers. Unfortunately, CNN did not provide any results from research that made these more accurate comparisons, although I’m not sure if any such research even exists. Even so, after reading the article one still has to wonder how being homeschooled really compares to being educated in a traditional public school.—Jim Hull

Filed under: research,school organization — Jim Hull @ 8:36 am

August 23, 2012

Does the Voucher Study Meet the Gold Standards?

The Friedman Foundation may declare that the new Brookings Institute report on school vouchers uses the ‘Gold Standard’ in research but certainly the foundation’s founder wouldn’t have won his Nobel Prize using such methods.

Yes, Milton Friedman, the father of school choice, would have lauded the finding that school vouchers improve college-going rates for black students, although no other student groups. But he would have known enough not to anoint such research as the ‘Gold Standard’. Not that the author’s did a sloppy job, not at all, it was actually a well done study. The fact of the matter is there were significant limitations to this study, as is common in education research, that prevents this study from reaching the ‘Gold Standard’ status and making the broad conclusion that vouchers should be expanded to improve college enrollment rates.

To reach such a standard groups of students would need to be randomly assigned a voucher and then compare the college enrollment rates of those students who received a voucher to those students who did not.  By doing so isolates the impact of the voucher from other factors that may impact whether a student goes on to enroll in college. In this study they examined the college enrollment rates of New York City students who took part in a lottery to receive a $1,000 voucher to attend just about any private school in New York City through a private voucher program in the late 1990’s. To achieve randomization—the ‘Gold Standard’– they compared the college enrollment rates of those students in the lottery that were offered a voucher to those students in the lottery who were not offered a voucher.

Such comparison would meet the ‘Gold Standard’ since the only difference between the two groups would be whether they received a voucher or not. However, this is not necessarily the case. Due in part to the fact that 22 percent of the students ‘offered’ a voucher never actually used the voucher to attend a private school. This could be for a couple of reasons:

  • Since the voucher didn’t cover the full cost of tuition only those students who had more motivated families that could afford to pay the difference actually used their voucher.
  • The students may not have met the admission standards or other requirements for the private schools they were interested in attending.
  • The students and their families may have just decided their current public school was still the best fit for the student.

Do we know what impact these differences had on the results? No. But once you have such differences in the groups being compared the study no longer meets the ‘Gold Standard’ since these and other differences could account for any differences in college enrollment rates between the two groups.

Just because the study doesn’t meet the ‘Gold Standard’ for research doesn’t mean the study should be ignored. However, many voucher proponents including the authors seem to be blind to the these limitations and make broad claims about the impact vouchers have on future college enrollments. This study may provide some insight into whether vouchers improve college going rates for low-income black students but it certainly does not prove this is the case. Due to some of the limitations, the study actually created more questions than it answered. Future research needs to address these questions before we know for sure what impact vouchers have on college enrollments:

  • Why didn’t all the students who were offered a voucher use their voucher to attend a private school?
  • Is there a difference in college enrollment rates between students who used their voucher and those who were offered a voucher but did not use their voucher?
  • Why did voucher students stop using their voucher while they were still eligible to receive it? Did they remained in public schools?
  • Were students more likely to enroll in college the longer they received a voucher?
  • Was there a difference in the quality of high schools attended by students who were offered a voucher than the high schools attended by students who were not offered a voucher?
  • Why do vouchers improve the college enrollment rates of low-income black students but not low-income Hispanic students?
  • Why would a student who was offered a voucher but never used it be more likely to enroll in college than a student who wanted a voucher but was never offered one?

Without answers to these questions the study adds little insights into what impact expanding voucher programs would have on future college enrollment rates. Unfortunately, since this study failed to meet the Gold Standard policymakers are left with more questions than answers. – Jim Hull

For more insights on the limitations of this study check out the blog post at School Board News Today.

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