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School Choice

Update on DC’s Early Childhood Performance Management Framework

October 9, 2013

Last month, the DC Public Charter School Board officially adopted the new early childhood performance management framework with a few good revisions. But there is still a lot of room for improvement.

In late August, Conor Williams and I wrote about the proposed framework, which was controversial among many parents and early childhood advocates. The framework is intended to be a common accountability tool that will be used to evaluate public charter schools serving pre-K through 2nd grade, beginning this year. The framework, however, will first be used to tier schools in 2015.

One of the major concerns about the proposed framework is the overemphasis on student outcomes, PreK-2nd grade, in literacy and math. In these early years, teachers are helping children develop a love for learning and inquiry. Children are learning to explore, be creative, problem-solve, and engage in positive interactions with adults and their peers. Because social-emotional development is so important to young children’s education, assessing it should be more than an “option” in the performance management framework. As it stands, however, DC’s PMF does not require charter schools to assess SEL.

The Way We Talk: Choice

September 27, 2013
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This is the fourth in a series of posts reflecting on terminology pervading today’s polarizing debates about American education. In each post, we ask how various buzzwords—“professionalism,” “accountability,” “equity,” and the like—influence the conversations we have. What are the strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots that come with framing our arguments in each of these terms? The hope is that assessing the implications of the way we talk will prompt more productive discussions about improving PreK-12 education.

In the last “The Way We Talk” post, I argued that equity is the closest thing that American public education has to a sacred purpose. We expect our schools to be equal opportunity catalysts; once students complete their PreK–12 (or sometimes PreK–College) education, we generally act as though society has provided them an adequate platform for determining the course of their lives. Put another way, public schools are our community’s most tangible, most democratic commitment to sustaining the American Dream.

But democratic equity only covers part of the story. The United States is a liberaldemocracy. Its attitude towards education (and politics more generally) also stems from individualist liberals like Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and John Locke. If we care about equity for all, we also care about choice. We care about freedom.

The Way We Talk: Accountability

August 5, 2013
The Way We Talk

This is the second in a series of posts reflecting on terminology pervading today’s polarizing debates about American education. In each post, we ask how various buzzwords—“professionalism,” “accountability,” and the like—influence the conversations we have. What are the strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots that come with framing our arguments in each of these terms? The hope is that assessing the implications of the way we talk will prompt more productive discussions about improving PreK-12 education.


I. Holding ourselves to account

Last week, I wrote about the advantages and disadvantages of approaching education policy in terms of professionalism. This week, we’ll take a look at accountability, the regnant ideal guiding most education reformers today. Indeed, the last two presidents have made it the cornerstone of their education agendas.

Do the Math: Christel House’s Grade Doesn’t Add Up

July 31, 2013

Mel Horowitz: You mean to tell me that you argued your way from a C+ to an A-? 
Cher: Totally based on my powers of persuasion, you proud? 
Mel Horowitz: Honey, I couldn't be happier than if they were based on real grades.

Turns out we’ve all been Clueless when it comes to Indiana’s A-F school grades. Former Indiana (and current Florida) schools’ chief Tony Bennett has been under fire for released emails that show he and officials at the Indiana Department of Education altered the grades for certain schools prior to the very-public release of the new accountability measures last fall. What’s particularly worrisome is that the change to the grading methodology wasn’t so public. In fact, it was never announced. And from the emails obtained by AP reporter Tom LoBianco, it’s clear that Christel House’s initial grade set off a firestorm of panic at the IN DOE.

In a press call and separate interview with AEI’s Rick Hess, Bennett explained the matter by saying that Christel House Academy and a dozen other schools were unfairly penalized due to their unconventional grade configurations. Because they didn’t serve students in grades 11 or 12, these schools were missing key data elements for the high school calculation – namely, graduation rates and college readiness indicators, which typically count for 40 percent of the high school model. In Bennett’s words:

“The backstory is simple here, Rick. In our first run of the new school calculations in Indiana, we turned up an anomaly in the results. As we were looking at the grades we were giving our schools, we realized that state law created an unfair penalty for schools that didn't have 11th and 12th grades. Statewide, there were 13 schools in question had unusual grade configurations. The data for grades 11 and 12 came in as zero. When we caught it, we fixed it. That's what this is all about…. Because Christel House was a K-10 school, the systems essentially counted the other two grades as zeroes. That brought the school's score down from an "A" to a "C".”

Turns out it’s not quite that simple. The state has several variations of its grading rubric to apply to different school situations and set-ups. The basic models are 1) elementary and/or middle school grades and 2) high school grades. Then, there is a combined model for schools that have students in grades preK-8 and grades 9-12 – like Christel House, which served students through 10th grade in 2011-12. The grade point averages for the 3-8 portion of the school and the 9-12 portion of the school are weighted according to the percentage of enrolled students in each grade span to arrive at one final, combined grade. (The final scale: 3.51 – 4.00 points = A; 3.00 – 3.50 points = B; 2.00 – 2.99 points = C; 1.00 – 1.99 points = D; 0.00 – 0.99 points = F)

Within the two basic models (ES/MS and HS), there are also deviations for special circumstances. Typically high school grades are calculated with a 60% weight on proficiency in end-of-course exams in Algebra I and English 10 (with potential bonus points for increases in proficiency rates from grades 8-10 and grades 10-12), 30% weight on graduation rates, and 10% weight on college readiness indicators. But some high schools are given special consideration: small schools, HS feeder schools (grade 9 only), 9-10 schools, and 11-12 schools. In the 9-10 model, proficiency rates make up the entire school grade, split evenly between Algebra I and English 10, and the bonus points do not apply.

Confused yet? Bear with me. Christel House should have been evaluated using a mixture of two of the models: the 9-10 model and the combined ES/MS + HS model. Except they weren’t. Because Christel House wouldn’t have gotten an ‘A’ that way. In fact, one of the released emails walks through the calculation (using preliminary, rather than final, achievement data). Under this method, Christel House earned a ‘C’ grade, “a HUGE problem for us” according to officials. And it set off the panic within the Indiana Department of Education – at 2:30 in the morning on September 13.

However, state officials soon – that same day, in fact – came upon a solution. Or in their words, a “loophole,” in the combined model calculation. Here’s the original definition (as written in one of the emails):

(j) A school’s… grade shall be determined by:
(i) Multiplying the average of the ELA and Math points for the EMS grades by the percentage of all students
(ii) Multiplying the sum of the four weighted scores for the high school by the percentage of students.”

Those three bold words contain the loophole Will Krebs, then Director of Policy and Research, found later that day – dubbed “option one.” Because Christel House didn’t have four weighted scores for its high school, the argument was that the combined school methodology was invalid. Without graduation rates and college readiness indicators, the school only had two of the four weighted components. Jon Gubera, Chief Accountability Officer, signed off on this option the following morning writing, “Option one works…. This would eliminate the HS points and ensure Christel House receives at least a B.”

So what does that mean, exactly? In truth, Christel House was never evaluated on its poor high school performance. Instead, all of the high school data were thrown out – a little detail Bennett failed to mention. Christel House’s ‘A’ is based on the ES/MS model only. As you can see below, Christel House’s grade was clearly inflated. The initial data run showed the school with a ‘C’ grade. Using the combined methodology sans “loophole” with its final performance data, however, the school would have actually earned a ‘B.’ Yet the school still received an ‘A’ from the state and was treated as only having elementary and middle school grades. Further, there is no indication anywhere on the state’s school report card that Christel House’s grade fails to reflect the school’s poor high school math performance.

According to the Indianapolis Star, Bennett refused to allow two regular public schools facing state takeover to use a similar "loophole" a year earlier. In both cases, poor middle school performance (where the school had recently expanded) penalized the high school. If their grades could not be separated, why was Bennett so eager to make an exception for Christel House?

These kinds of shenanigans are unacceptable and have chipped away at public faith in the legitimacy of school accountability systems over the last 10+ years of No Child Left Behind. Christel House’s grade is simply more false advertising from states and local districts that have a long history of finding loopholes in accountability systems and exploiting them. In fact, Indiana officials questioned whether using the loophole in this case would encourage other schools to adopt a grade 6-10 model to avoid accountability. Gubera replied: “Not in the immediate if we don’t advertise this everywhere.”

This just illustrates the problem. Christel House is an ‘A’ school… but only for its elementary and middle school program. Yet that isn’t the story Bennett and his staff are telling. This grade inflation is particularly unfortunate in Indiana, where parents and families have a greater degree of school choice than in most states and rely on information like A-F grades to determine where to enroll their children.

The thing is, Tony Bennett knows this:

“This kind of system has to make sense for the end user, in this case, the family… Back in Indiana, we were trying to build a new system. It's an interesting parallel. My recommendation to the Florida board was, "If your system doesn't fully make sense, then how do you defend it?" If the results come out suspect, then, in the end, you can really question the integrity of the system.”

Commissioner Bennett, Christel House’s inflated grade is suspect, and I’m questioning the integrity of the system. Accountability systems – even those required from the U.S. Department of Education – can be done right, but Tony Bennett unfortunately just made it that much harder to make the case for them.

Note: To see option 1 in action for yourself, check out the attached speadsheet from Indiana's Office of Accountability. Christel House Academy appears on the Elementary/Middle School tab, but not on the High School or Combined School tabs.

Storify: House 'No Child Left Behind' Debate

July 22, 2013

This post also appeared on our sister blog, Early Ed Watch.

On July 18 and 19, members of the U.S. House of Representatives took to the floor for a heated debate on a proposed reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Rep. John Kline's (R-MN) bill, the Student Success Act, passed 221-207, but the Senate is not expected to take up the measure. We put together this Storify as a quick catch-up on the House debate.

Storify: House 'No Child Left Behind' Debate

July 22, 2013
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This post also appeared on our sister blog, Ed Money Watch.

On July 18 and 19, members of the U.S. House of Representatives took to the floor for a heated debate on a proposed reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Rep. John Kline's (R-MN) bill, the Student Success Act, passed 221-207, but the Senate is not expected to take up the measure. We put together this Storify as a quick catch-up on the House debate.

The Federal Role in Education: Mend it, Don’t End It

July 22, 2013
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A few weeks ago I asked, “if Congress agrees the era of big government is over, why can’t we get an ESEA deal?” Both the Senate Democrats’ and House Republicans’ proposals to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) scale back the federal role in school accountability and improvement and allow for more state autonomy in determining how school performance is evaluated – and what should be done about it when schools don’t measure up. And Friday, for the first time ever, Congress voted on an NCLB reauthorization proposal.

The Student Success Act, sponsored by House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-MN), passed on a partisan vote of 221-207. But its ultimate chances are slim: a Senate vote is unlikely, and the White House already issued a veto threat. It seems politics (as it often does) stands in the way of Republicans and Democrats in Congress striking a deal. I wrote:

“Unfortunately, with midterm elections fast approaching, lawmakers appear more concerned with scoring political points and toeing the party line than with the give and take of writing complicated policy. And waivers enable the administration to enact its preferred policies, at least temporarily, while simultaneously blaming Congress for inaction. In short, gridlock is a win-win.”

All of that is true. But I didn’t acknowledge that there are, in fact, fundamental disagreements between the parties when it comes to where and how much the federal government should step back. For many Republicans, the answers are everywhere, and as much as possible. Take Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN): “No Washington bureaucrat cares more about a child than a parent does. And no one in Washington knows what is better for an Indiana school than Indiana families do. That is why the Student Success Act puts an end to the administration’s National School Board by putting state and local school districts back in charge of their own schools.” 

In other words, for Republicans the federal role is to distribute money, ask states to report a few data points, and promote school choice. And accountability and transparency are interchangeable terms, despite the fact that research – and past experience – demonstrates that’s not the case. When left to their own devices, states consistently take the easy way out (see here, and here, and here). And real accountability – transparent reporting plus interventions and supports for schools with lackluster results – is more effective than transparency alone.

Public reporting and transparency are well and good, but they are no substitute for meaningful accountability. That’s like saying disclosure of political donations and gifts is the same thing as conflict of interest laws making these activities illegal (just ask Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to explain the difference). A financial disclosure form isn’t enough to prevent ethical violations, just as school report cards can only identify, not solve, the problems in low-performing schools.

Once the data tell us just how bad (or great) our schools are, doesn’t the federal government have an interest in ensuring state and local officials do something with the results? In the words of Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), maybe it’s time to mend accountability, not end it.

Even the staunchest Democrats, like Rep. George Miller (D-CA), readily admit that “the federal government will never actually improve a school and nor should it try.” But without micromanaging every aspect of accountability and improvement, the federal government can ensure states set consistent, high standards for academic content and achievement. There should be common – or at least, comparable – measures for things like graduation rates, academic proficiency, and adequate student growth. And poor results, particularly for low-income kids, English language learners, and students with disabilities, cannot be acceptable. As Miller would say, “we must continue to support the simple idea that low-performing schools should be identified and required to improve.” The federal government can assist in school improvement efforts without directing them from Washington, working in partnership with states and districts to support their capacity to turnaround low-performing schools.

Indeed, some of the solutions may even require a more ambitious federal role, not a diminished one.  Instead of ceding more and more ground to states, the federal government could double its investments in assessments, data systems, and education research; overhaul teacher training and development; and redress significant disparities in resources between states and school districts. A recent New York Times editorial on testing noted that other countries with strong educational outcomes didn’t achieve these results because of local control. In fact, it’s the opposite. They “typically have gateway exams that determine, for example, if high school students have met their standards. These countries typically have strong, national curriculums. Perhaps most important, they set a high bar for entry into the teaching profession and make sure that the institutions that train teachers do it exceedingly well.”

That’s not to say these are the right policies for our education system. But maybe policymakers shouldn’t give up on the federal government so easily. States can – and have, in recent years – led the way on many education reforms. But getting a quality education shouldn’t depend on which state a student lives in. And with forty ESEA waivers and counting, there is probably more variation in quality between states than at any point since NCLB became law. This incoherence will not clear without stronger policymaking at the national level.

The Student Success Act won’t get us there. But since it also won’t get past the Senate or President Obama, the good news is that there is be plenty of time to write an education law that expects more, not less, from our education system.

Student Success Act Superlatives: the Best (and Worst) Additions to the House NCLB Overhaul

July 17, 2013

Following the world’s speediest markup, the House of Representatives could begin floor debate on the Student Success Act, the House Republican proposal to rewrite No Child Left Behind (NCLB), tomorrow. That would mark the first time (ever!) that an NCLB reauthorization bill has reached the floor in either chamber of Congress. However, the chances of the House proposal making it out of the Senate and to the President’s desk are non-existent. No Democrats supported the bill in committee, adamantly opposing its changes to accountability, school improvement, and funding requirements. And while every Republican on the committee supported the legislation, it may not be conservative enough for many members of the House Republican caucus – who would like to add Title I vouchers to the bill, eliminate the teacher evaluation provisions, and further diminish the role of the federal government.

Alyson Klein over at PoliticsK-12 has a super-detailed rundown of many of the 74 amendments offered to the legislation. It’s well worth a read. While many of these amendments are likely to be ruled out of order by the House Rules Committee this afternoon, they are still an interesting – and sometimes amusing – read. Here are my picks among them for Student Success Act Superlatives.

Most obvious pet project: Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) would like to add a grant program to support female students in higher education taking STEM courses serving as mentors to high school girls enrolled in STEM dual enrollment programs.Science, it’s a girl thing!

Most thrifty: This one’s a tie between Paul Broun (R-GA) and John Culberson (R-TX). Because the Student Success Act would consolidate or eliminate over 70 programs at the Department of Education, Broun would require the Secretary of Education not only to report how many Department employees are terminated, but also their average salary (in addition to the salaries of remaining employees). Further, Broun wants an additional 5% reduction in Department staff after the program consolidation. Ouch.

Culberson’s amendment uses a different tactic to rein in spending. While limiting the Secretary from placing conditions on states to receive federal money, Culberson would also clarify that states could reject federal grants. The rejected funds would then go toward paying down the national debt. Given state reliance on federal education money, I doubt this is the most efficient strategy to tackle the debt problem.

Least changed since 2001: Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Mark Takano (D-CA) have a rare, bipartisan amendment to change the requirements for student assessment… to those that were in place before NCLB in 2001. This would mean students would be tested by grade spans in reading and math (grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12). While high school students are only tested once under current law, the amendment could eliminate annual testing in grades 3-8. If successful, say goodbye to loads of student performance data the public has come to rely on and any hope of measuring individual student growth.

Most popular: Maintenance of effort definitely has the Democrats’ votes for prom queen. Four amendments to restore the funding requirement (or delay its elimination) were offered, more than any other single issue.

Most likely to succeed? Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) wants to add Title I funding portability, allocating funds not on the basis of a district’s concentration of poor students, but instead directly following eligible children to the schools where they enroll. Students could attend their assigned public school, a charter school, or an out-of-district school if the state opts-in to the program. In an appearance at a Washington, D.C. charter school, Cantor said he believes his amendment (and the overall bill) could gain bipartisan support. But given reaction to the amendment and the fact that Senate Democrats voted down a similar amendment to their proposal, Cantor’s optimism is more comical than anything.

Class Clown: Speaking of amusing, Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO) would like to clarify that the “sense of the Congress” is that Education Secretary Arne Duncan – through Race to the Top and NCLB waivers – “coerced” states to adopt common standards and assessments. Never mind the obvious lack of fact-checking (Alabama, Alaska, Minnesota, Utah, and Virginia have received waivers without adopting the standards and/or joining one of the testing consortia). In pointing out the harmful influence of the federal government on states, the amendment clarifies:

“The Race to the Top Assessment grants awarded to the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SMARTER Balance) initiated the development of Common Core State Standards aligned assessments that will, in turn, inform and ultimately influence kindergarten through 12th-grade curriculum and instructional materials.”

And this is an argument against the consortia’s efforts? Because curriculum and instructional materials informed by rigorous, internationally-benchmarked standards sound like a fabulous idea!

Biggest nerd: Disappointing robots everywhere, Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) withdrew an amendment that would have added computer coding as an official “critical foreign language” in the bill.

Stay tuned to Ed Money Watch for continuing coverage of NCLB reauthorization and the Student Success Act (and for more on what the proposal actually does, make sure to download our side-by-side cheat sheet here).

New CREDO Charter School Study Provides Talking Points for Both Sides

June 27, 2013

A new report on charter school performance from Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes is—like CREDO’s last major report, in 2009—inspiring a host of talking points. With 95 pages of findings to sift through, there is something for charter school friends and foes alike—which is why it is a mistake to use this, or any CREDO study, as an empirical justification for or argument against the charter school sector in general.

The report indicates that charter schools serve roughly double the percentage of African-American students, a higher percentage of Hispanic students, and a higher percentage of students in poverty than traditional public schools. But CREDO also found that charters serve fewer English language learners and special education students than both traditional public schools as a whole and charter school “feeders”—demographically similar schools that students may attend before enrolling in charters.

The study found that charter school students are, on average, making bigger reading gains than their traditional public school peers, amounting to about eight days of additional learning time. In math, charter school students are making learning gains equivalent to their traditional school peers. In both areas, the charter school sector has improved its performance since 2009.

CREDO’s school-level achievement numbers are particularly amenable to ideological massaging. On one hand, they clearly show that a majority of charter schools perform the same or worse than traditional public schools in math (40 percent the same + 31 percent worse) and reading (56 percent the same + 19 percent worse). Hence the Washington Post’s headline about the study: “Charters not outperforming traditional public schools, report says.” It’s settled: charter schools are a disaster!

But wait! The data also clearly show that a majority of charter schools perform the same or better than traditional public schools in math (40 percent same + 29 percent better) and reading (56 percent same + 25 percent better). Hence the AP’s more encouraging headline, which references “general gains” at charters. It’s settled: charter schools are a triumph!

What’s that old line about lies, damned lies, and statistics?

The real lesson from the new CREDO study is less dramatic, and thus gets less attention. The national aggregate data on charters mask wide variance in school quality; charters in Washington, D.C. are good and getting better, for example, while Nevada charters are weak. In other words, “charter schools” alone aren’t the solution to our educational ills, though high-quality charters can make a big difference in students’ lives.

The CREDO study shows that the rules states set for their charter school sectors affect the quality of their schools. Indeed, the paper states, “The rise in average student growth across the continuing schools is due in no small part to the closure of low-performing schools, which amounted to about 8 percent of the 2009 sample of schools.” This ought to be intuitive. Charter schools work better in states (and the District of Columbia) with laws that maintain strict school accountability standards. The study found that “the use of the option to close schools represents the strongest available tool to improve overall sector quality for the time being.” (For a more comprehensive look at the promise and challenges of closing charter schools, see this report from the Progressive Policy Institute.)

To repeat the analogy I offered on Twitter yesterday: “Charter schools don’t solve U.S. education’s quality problem any more than oatmeal solves the problem of eating a quality breakfast.” Like oatmeal, charter schools are just one, potentially beneficial option—but by no means a guarantee of educational quality.

Update: A New NCLB Reauthorization Cheat Sheet

June 19, 2013

After the partisan markup in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, it is the House of Representatives' turn to debate reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. The Student Success Act, offered by Rep. John Kline (R-MN), is set for a markup Wednesday morning in the House Education and Workforce Committee. Accordingly, we’ve updated our Senate markup cheat sheet to provide a comprehensive, side-by-side comparison of current law, the Obama administration’s waiver policy, and the current legislative proposals in the Senate and House. You can download the new cheat sheet here.

Here are a few of the highlights from the Kline proposal:

  • The Student Success Act would eliminate over 70 programs and consolidate many stand-alone programs (for instance, Title III for English Language Learners) into Title I, with flexibility for states and districts to shift money between them. The bill would also eliminate maintenance of effort requirements, meaning states and local school districts would not be penalized for spending less on required education programs.
  • Kline would not require states to adopt college- and career-ready standards, but they would have to maintain academic content standards – and aligned assessments – in reading, math, and science. And the bill includes really specific language, over and above the Alexander proposal, to prohibit the federal government from promoting participation in the Common Core State Standards initiative in any way.
  • The bill, similar to the Alexander proposal, would allow states to design whatever school accountability and improvement systems they want, including setting performance targets (if any). Kline would also clamp down on the Secretary of Education’s authority to offer waivers to states and districts in exchange for external conditions.
  • Kline, however, would be more prescriptive than either Harkin or Alexander in one area: teacher evaluations, with states required not only to develop them, but also to use the results to make personnel decisions.
  • Kline would not allow Title I funding to follow the child to other public or private schools, but there is speculation that a backpack funding provision could be added to the Student Success Act at a later point. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), for example, has expressed an interest in some sort of portability provision.

Stay tuned to Ed Money Watch and Early Ed Watch for continuing coverage of these bills and the markup, as well as any alternative proposal from Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the Ranking Member on the House committee. And be sure to follow the markup on Twitter with me, @afhyslop, and my colleagues @LauraBornfreund and @ConorPWilliams

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