Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: Charter start-ups vs. district turnarounds: Attempting to settle the debate
Come September, Celerity Educational Group will start a new
K-5 charter school, to be christened Celerity Sirius, in a neighborhood church
in Compton, CA. It will open its doors just a
few blocks from McKinley Elementary, a K-5 school,
famous for being ground-zero in the “parent
trigger” wars. McKinley is a chronic low-performer that has made Adequate
Yearly Progress (AYP) only once since 2003. Its test scores consistently fall
in the bottom 10 percent of all California schools (of which there are nearly
10,000). That persistent failure has afforded McKinley the right to gobs of
federal and state resources, all bestowed in the hope of turning around this troubled
Scenarios like this, which pit a start-up charter
head-to-head against a neighboring district school deep into a turnaround
effort, offer an ideal lab for re-examining the lively and consequential debate
among ed reformers: Are charter start-ups more likely to yield successful
schools than district turnaround efforts? And if so, why don’t we divert a big
chunk of the $3 billion in federal “school improvement grants” to starting new
Even if start-up charters are more likely to succeed than turnarounds, there currently are not enough of them available to kids stuck in failing schools.
Historically, few low-performing schools (in either sector)
have made the quick and dramatic leaps in performance that satisfy experts’
criteria for a full-fledged “turnaround.” A recent
study I conducted for Fordham defined a “turnaround” in reasonably strict
terms: To earn that designation, a school must have moved the needle on student
achievement in both reading and math from its state’s bottom decile to above
the state average (from 2003-04 to 2008-09). Alas, I found that only 1 percent
of schools made the cut. Mindful of how dismal this track record is when it comes
to turning around weak schools, we wondered whether start-up charters in the
same neighborhoods have fared any better.
To fill this evidence gap, I examined situations such as the
one described in Compton. Across ten states
(Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio,
Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin), I located all incidents (between 2002-03
and 2006-07) of a charter school opening in close proximity to a district
school that had reading and math proficiency rates in the bottom 10 percent of
its state at the time the charter appeared in its neighborhood. To qualify as a
fair match-up, the charter and district schools had to be the nearest
neighboring public schools of the same type (elementary or middle) and be
located less than three miles apart as the crow flies. The schools also had to
be demographically similar, with no more than a 10 percentage point difference
in their subsidized lunch and minority enrollments. After identifying these
matches, I examined the reading and math proficiency rates of the schools in
2008-09 to determine how many schools had become “successes” by that year
(success defined here as performing above the state average).
In most of the showdowns, the charter start-ups emerged
victorious. Of the eighty-one head-to-head matchups I identified, 19 percent of
the charter schools (i.e. fifteen schools) tested above the state average in
2008-09, compared with 5 percent of district schools (i.e. four schools).* Neither
of those numbers is what one would hope—and what kids need—but let’s at least
recognize that the success rate of start-up charters was almost four times
greater than the district turnaround rate.
This is good sign for charter start-ups, and for the kids who
gain admittance to them. But caveats abound. Because of the small sample, the
difference in charter and district success rates was not statistically
significant. And even if it was, this analysis can’t rule out the possibility
of selection bias. It might be that the charter schools were more successful
simply because they attracted better students.
Yet there’s one important finding that I can state with
utmost confidence: Surprisingly few start-up charters opened in close proximity
to one of their states’ lowest performing schools. Of the 530 charter schools
tagged and analyzed, only eighty-one set up shop as nearest neighbors to one of
the 2,000-plus low performing district schools. The implication? Even if
start-up charters are more likely to succeed than turnarounds, there currently
are not enough of them available to kids stuck in failing schools. Big cities
don’t have a bulging pipeline of KIPP or Achievement First or Aspire schools
just waiting to be tapped. (Many big cities, of course, have none of those.)
Districts and states need to find better incentives for quality charters to
open up in their neediest neighborhoods. At the same time, they need to turn
around their turnaround efforts—so that these actually work a whole lot better
(at least four times better) in the future than they have in the past.
Note, too, that, for every start-up charter that met our
criteria for success, there were two that continued to exhibit consistently low
performance. While fifteen charter start-ups (of the eighty-one we started with)
ended up above the state average in 2008-09, thirty-three landed in the bottom
So what’s the takeaway? When contemplating whether to put
one’s energy and resources into turning around failing schools or closing them
and replacing them with charter start-ups, the answer for most cities will
probably be “both, and” rather than “either, or.” My preliminary evidence
suggests, however, that the charter start-up route is somewhat more promising.
Still and all, reformers will need to get a whole lot better at implementing both strategies successfully lest all of
this add up to “nothing much.”
is a partner at Basis Policy Research, where he conducts quantitative research
on policy and finance for school districts, state departments of education, and
other education-related organizations. He holds a Ph.D. in leadership and
policy studies from Vanderbilt University. He
is also a Thomas B. Fordham Institute and American Enterprise Institute Emerging
Education Policy Scholar.
* This percentage, which comes from a small sample of only 81 schools, is a less
precise gauge of turnaround success than the 1 percent of schools found in the
overall study, which examined 2,025 schools.
Opinion: The ends of education reform
Ravitch’s New York Times op-ed last week stuck in the craw of many a
reformer, including Arne Duncan himself. What really got peoples’
goats were Ravitch’s “straw man” arguments: that reformers say poverty doesn’t
matter, or that they only care about gains in student achievement. In a
rebuttal last week, Jonathan Alter argued: “No education reformer has
ever challenged the idea that conditions in the home and in the larger society
are hugely important. They merely insist that such conditions not be used as an
excuse for inaction.”
would be swell. But it’s not exactly true. Remember the old adage, actions
speak louder than words? The No Child Left Behind act is still the law of the
land, and it most definitely rests on the principle that poverty is “no excuse”
for low achievement. And it absolutely punishes schools for bad test scores alone. Diane is on firm ground
when she writes:
Educators know that 100 percent proficiency is impossible,
given the enormous variation among students and the impact of family income on
academic performance. Nevertheless, some politicians believe that the right
combination of incentives and punishments will produce dramatic improvement.
Anyone who objects to this utopian mandate, they maintain, is just making an
excuse for low expectations and bad teachers.
than get defensive at Diane’s defeatism, we reformers should clarify the ends
that education reform can achieve. If not 100 percent proficiency, then
this exercise. This fall, about 1 million very poor children will enroll in
Kindergarten in the U.S. The vast majority of them will live in single-parent
families headed by women in their late teens or early twenties. Most of their
mothers will have dropped out of high school; most of their fathers are nowhere
to be seen. Most live in urban or rural communities hit hard by the recession,
places where unemployment, addiction, and violence are all too commonplace.
not everything is bleak. Almost all of these children participated in some form
of pre-school program, though the quality and effectiveness varied
dramatically. Many were in Head Start; others in church-based or
community-based programs. They generally have access to basic health-care and,
thanks to food stamps, basic nutrition.
Rather than get defensive at Diane’s defeatism, we reformers should clarify the ends that education reform can achieve.
try to “see like a state” and play policymaker. When
designing a school accountability system, what should its objectives be with
respect to these 1 million tykes? On one extreme, you might expect them all to
be catapulted into the middle class between the ages of five and twenty-two.
First, the K-12 system should prepare them for the rigors of a four-year-college
experience, and then higher education should get them across the finish line
and into the Promised Land. No excuses!
the other extreme, you might merely expect them to do no worse than their own
mothers did. You don’t want to see the graduation rate go down, or test scores
fall, or teen pregnancy rates climb. But you accept that, as long as poverty
remains entrenched, a flat line on student outcomes is all we can expect.
would bet that your own views fall somewhere in between. You
acknowledge—privately at least—that it’s unrealistic to expect all kids
growing up in poverty to be able to “beat the odds” and graduate from college.
(That’s why they’re called “odds.”) You recognize that, for most middle-class
families, the path from poverty to prosperity has been a multi-generational
journey. (And don’t overlook how many middle-class kids don’t graduate
you also believe in the promise of social mobility, and can point to examples
of schools—even mediocre ones—that have helped (at least) some kids
escape the ghetto or the barrio or the reservation. To accept the status quo is
to accept perpetual injustice and inequality.
let’s get specific. Assuming that these 1 million kids remain poor over the
next twelve years, what outcomes would indicate “success” for education reform?
Right now the high school graduation rate in poor districts hovers around 50
percent. What if we moved it to 60 percent—without lowering graduation
standards? Right now the NAEP reading proficiency rate for the most
disadvantaged twelfth graders (those whose parents dropped out of high school)
is 17 percent. What if we moved that to 25 percent? The same rate for math is 8
percent. What if we moved that to 15 percent?
my eye, these are stretch goals—challenging but attainable. Yet to adopt them
would mean to expect about 400,000 of this new crop of kindergarteners not to
graduate from high school thirteen years on. And of the 600,000 that do
graduate, we would expect only 150,000 to reach proficiency in reading (25
percent) and just 90,000 of them to be proficient in math (15 percent).
out of 1 million doesn’t sound so good, but without improving our graduation or
proficiency rates for these children, we’d only be talking about 40,000 kids.
So these modest improvements would mean more than twice as many poor children
making it—9 percent instead of 4 percent.
what about the other 91 percent of our bumptious new kindergarteners? We don’t
want to write them off, so what goals would be appropriate for them? Getting
more of them to the “basic” level on NAEP? Preparing them for decent jobs
instead of the lowest-paid kinds? Driving down the teen pregnancy rate?
Lowering the incarceration rate?
this making you uncomfortable? Good. If we are to get beyond the “100 percent
proficiency” or “all students college and career ready” rhetoric, these are the
conversations we need to have. And if we’re not willing to do so, don’t
complain when Diane Ravitch and her armies of angry teachers say that we are
asking them to perform miracles.
This piece originally
appeared (in a slightly different format) on
Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper,
News Analysis: Let not the good be the enemy of the perfect
Montgomery County, Maryland finds itself playing
bumper cars with federal prescriptions and state mandates, thanks to the
district’s Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) system. A collaborative effort
between the teacher unions and district leaders, PAR is an educator-evaluation
system which uses eight-member committees (consisting of mentor teachers and
principals) to appraise, mentor, and, when necessary, fire instructors. What it
does not do is use student-achievement data in teacher evaluations. And that’s
exactly where its car gets jostled by state law and federal incentive.
Maryland’s Education Reform Act of 2010 (catalyzed by Race to the Top) compels
all districts to make student achievement a “significant” share of teacher
evals—from recent activity in the state board, that portion is likely to be as
high as 35 percent. The incorporation of student test results is also a
stipulation for receiving Race to the Top aid (of which Montgomery County
qualifies for $12 million). Even though implementation of this new state system
has hit bumper walls, the district will eventually be forced to alter its
decade-old evaluation system. Until then, Montgomery County’s current PAR
system (which, though flawed, is better than most) will continue to function.
Surely that’s not a bad thing; but neither is revving up the current system to
make teacher evaluations even better in the future.
|Read more about Montgomery County and Winerip's article on Flypaper.
|Click to listen to commentary on Montgomery County from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Teachers Help Themselves,” by Michael Winerip, New York Times, June 5, 2011.
teacher evaluation redesign bogs down,” by Michael Allison Chandler, Washington Post, June 4, 2011.
to PAR?,” by Staff, National Council
on Teacher Quality: Pretty Darn Quick, June 8, 2011.
News Analysis: Something's got to give
Across metro Detroit (from the wealthy Grosse Pointe School District to
the perennially struggling Detroit Public Schools), school systems are
having to dip further into their general-education budgets to cover
their unfunded special-education costs. This predicament has an
extensive root structure, starting with Michigan’s unique special-ed
funding set-up. In addition to state and local monies, each of
Michigan’s intermediate school districts provides a separate
special-education millage (on average 2.4 mills) to offset district
special-education costs. (The more money brought in from the millage,
the less financial burden owned by the district.) Recent slackening of
these millages has caused shallow waters for special-education funding.
And, thanks to federal “maintenance of effort” provisions (which
enforce constant funding of special ed), when special-education funding
streams slow, monies must be redirected from the general-education
funding reservoir. This strikes
us as unfair and unwise; kids in “general education” (especially
disadvantaged children) deserve their share of school spending too.
Furthermore, by walling the special education budget off from financial stringency, we’re stifling potential breakthroughs in productivity. As the funding tide goes in, let’s not maroon “regular” education on the rocks just so special ed spending can sail on.
Review: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform
E. Finn, Jr.
Though American education has
taken few actual steps to pattern itself on other countries, in recent years
we’ve displayed a near-obsessive interest in how we’re doing in relation to
them (e.g. on TIMSS and PISA results), and in what they’re doing and how they
do it. We at Fordham have worked
our way into this mix a couple of times and we’ve periodically
analyses of “education success stories around the world” by the likes of
McKinsey. We’ve also read our share—OK, more than our share—of paeans to Finland,
Singapore, you name it. (At the U.S. Education Department, I helped lead a
study of Japanese education as far back as 1988.) I’ve also long admired
Marc Tucker’s tireless efforts to get American educators and reformers to
understand and appreciate how other nations address challenges that often
resemble our own.
Which isn’t to say I always agree
with him. And that’s true of his latest paper, too—drawn from a book coming out in September. He
seeks to determine “what education policy might look like in the United States
if it was [sic] based on the experiences of our most successful competitors.”
In that role, he casts Canada (Ontario), Finland, and three East Asian lands
(Japan, Singapore, and the Shanghai region of China.) And in fifty pages he
offers a wealth of insights that, while perceptive, are not fully applicable on
these shores—much as Marc would have us think otherwise.
Some are both familiar and broad
enough to be apply just about everywhere, such as “set clear goals,” have
checkpoints along the way to gauge (and control) student progress, worry a lot
about teacher quality (principals, too), finance schools equitably, strike the
right balance between autonomy and accountability, and strive for a coherent “system.”
Such observations are not new to readers of McKinsey’s work and that of others
who have gone down this path.
Where Marc gets into trouble (with
me, anyway) is when he tries to convert some of these lessons for American domestic
use—especially the part about “consider[ing] the education system as one
coherent whole.” Four of his overseas “benchmark” examples have
national education systems, run by the central government; and he seems at
ease with America moving in that direction, not just via voluntary
comings-together of states (e.g. the Common Core) but also through forceful
actions by Uncle Sam.
The more useful example for us
among those he has examined is Ontario, for Canada has no federal education
department nor (to my knowledge) any involvement by the national government in
the delivery, financing, or even policy-setting for primary-secondary
education. Marc never quite resolves the extent to which Ontario sticks out from
his other exemplars like a structural sore thumb, nor does he quite get to the
lesson that might be most applicable here: American education surely needs a
major overhaul of its education governance before it can successfully put into
place the other changes in policy and practice that Marc urges (and that
these other countries have and do). And yes, that will lead us away from “local
control” as traditionally defined and operationalized in U.S. education. (They
don’t have that kind of local control in Ontario, either.) But it will and
should lead us not to Washington but to a proper redefinition of the role of
states (akin to Canadian provinces) and to the roles of individual schools,
parents, and choice. Marc’s biggest blind spot, at least within the
context of U.S. education reform today, is his “system knows best, just get the
system right” mindset and his dismissal of the potential of competition and
choice, properly structured and appropriately accountable, for accelerating the
change we need in American education.
appeared (in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper,
|Click to listen to commentary on Tucker's report from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Review: Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education
By Janie Scull
While critics of test-based accountability
systems are raising
to this recently released National Research Council report, they may want to
cork the bottle while some bubbles remain in it. Authored by the NRC-established Committee on Incentives and Test-Based
Accountability, this report set out to examine the nature of incentives
and to determine the extent to which existing state accountability
programs have raised student achievement. It begins with an overview of
successful incentive-based structures (explaining their key aspects, like
targeting incentives to those with the authority to make a difference). From
this overview, the authors conclude that current accountability systems are not
designed to make the most of their incentive structures. As such, state-based
accountability systems a la NCLB produce only modest gains in student
performance (the equivalent of a student moving from the 50th to the 53rd
percentile). But, as Eric
Hanushek points out, even these modest gains can produce big results in
productivity; if history holds, such gains would translate into an additional
$13 trillion in future GDP. The NRC report correctly declares that there is much
room for improvement in test-based accountability systems, and calls for
further experimentation and research. All in all, the report’s analysis (if not
its promotional materials) conclude that test-based incentives could—with
tweaks—work much better. And Gadfly can drink to that.
|Read more about this report on Flypaper.
Review: Diplomas Count 2011: Beyond High School, Before Baccelaureate: Meaningful Alternatives to a Four-Year Degree
As college graduates, many burdened by tens of
thousands of dollars of debt, venture forth into the job market, they continue to
be confronted by the painful reality that stimulating, well-paying jobs are
hard to come by. (Indeed, there aren’t many of the other kind of jobs, either.)
This truth has rekindled the “college-for-all vs. pathways to success” debate around
college and career readiness. Which is to say, career readiness can surely
follow from something less than a four year college degree—if it’s done right. As
Arne Duncan explains, “There’s an urgent need to reimagine and remake career
and technical education. CTE has an enormous, if often overlooked, impact on
students, school systems, and our ability to prosper as a nation.” To that end,
this year’s edition of “Diplomas Count” (the seventh annual) offers a detailed
look at the space between high school diplomas and four-year college degrees,
including community colleges, and early college and improved tech-ed programs
at the high school level. (It also reports a national high-school graduation
rate for the class of ’08 of 72 percent—the highest it’s been since the 1980s.) It
examines a number of initiatives and offers thoughtful commentary on the
career-readiness debate. One article, exampling the partnership between a school
district and a health network in Michigan, showcases how programs can
simultaneously guide students toward well-paying jobs while providing local
businesses with a needed workforce. Other articles focus on collaborations
between districts and community colleges, which provide support to school
counselors and students as they navigate their post-high-school options. Two
main threads emerge from the report as a whole. They’re obvious yet worth
repeating: To be successful, career- and technical-education programs must be
rigorous and relevant. And students must be made aware of all options available
to them—basic information too often not afforded today’s high schoolers, who
are either pushed onto the four-year college track, or left to flounder in
“general education.” There’s got to be a better way.
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: Nothing says "gifted" like "Welcome Back, Cotter"
After some good old-fashioned low-brow fun, Mike
and Rick launch into an erudite conversation on teacher evaluations and Race to
the Top, the political perils of tough-love school reform, and the correct role
of education philanthropies. Amber finds benefit in gifted-education programs,
and Chris tells overbearing parents to get off Facebook—and get a life.
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.
Flypaper's Finest: Questions about a charter network in Texas
By Peter Meyer
The Harmony Charter school opus in today’s Times is a great read. It’s
very long (over 4,000 words), starts on the front page, and covers two full
pages on the inside of the paper. But its author, Stephanie
Saul, is a crack “investigative reporter” and a 1995 Pulitzer winner—not an
education writer. The headline is a grabber: “Charter Schools Tied to Turkey
Grow in Texas,” as is the subhead: “Some Founders Belong to Islamic Movement.”...
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Flypaper's Finest: The qualities of a good teacher: A student's perspective
By Penelope Placide
Hi! I am a ninth grade student who has worked at
the Thomas B. Fordham Institute since September 2010. Recently, I was given one
of the coolest research projects ever! I was asked my opinion of what makes a
good teacher, a mission that had never crossed my mind until now. To me the top
three qualities that make a good teacher are: Answering all questions and
making sure every student understands the material; taking time aside from
school time to give extra support and help; and a fun and enjoyable
personality. Instead of just writing about my own opinion, I decided to ask
some of my classmates and then explore the question of what makes a good
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Gadfly Studios: IMPACT: Teachers' perspectives, part II
In these two short
videos, D.C.’s educators explain how they benefit from IMPACT, the District’s
teacher-evaluation system. This pair is the second release in a series; the
first, which explains IMPACT in greater detail, is here.
Briefly Noted: Step one: Collect data; Step two: Actually use it
may be the Steel City, but if Aspen’s new paper is any indicator, it’s got a
heart of gold. “Forging
a New Partnership” documents how the city’s breakthrough labor-management
collaboration in education has aided the district. The recommendations are
commonsensical. But the story is
Tupa, Director of State Legislatures for Democrats for Education Reform pops the bubble of
Illinois’s much-praised SB7 legislation. That statute is rife with
loopholes and escape clauses, among other things, he explains. Tell us again
latest addition to the “cool interactive map” gang is The Good, The Bad, and
The Ugly from the Institute for a Competitive Workforce. It displays how
states fare on nine indicators, from standards, data systems, and charter laws,
to student achievement and graduation rates. Interesting—and depressing—stuff.
quippy words are needed to entice readers to the Wall
Street Journal’s recent article
explaining the consequences of a government “diversity” program in India, which
forces private schools to accept a quota of underprivileged youth. It’s just
- The New Yorker reminds
us of an important point: States have made great strides in data collection
(especially surrounding individual student achievement). But for the data to be
worthwhile, policymakers will actually need to use it—which they have,
historically, been remiss to do.
- The shroud of conspiracy is
lifted, revealing that there is no conspiracy. Three original signers of the
controversial Shanker Institute manifesto, Randi Weingarten, Tom Kean, and
Susan Neuman, explain
in the New Jersey Star-Ledger: The
manifesto has been misrepresented by its critics. It calls for many sets of
voluntary national curricular materials—not lesson scripts, pedagogical
formulae, or even one national curriculum.
Announcement: Want less fed in your ed?
Been racking your
brain wondering how (and indeed whether) Congress should address AYP, school
interventions, and all the rest when it reauthorizes NCLB? Fret no longer.
Instead, join Fordham and a panel of dynamic thinkers to tackle the
accountability issue on June 15 from 4:00PM to 5:30PM. We’ll hear from Cynthia
Brown of the Center for American Progress, William Hite of Prince George’s
County Public Schools, Jennifer Marshall of the Heritage Foundation, and
Fordham’s own Mike Petrilli. Checker Finn will moderate. To RSVP, click here.
Announcement: Get on the Hess express
Rick Hess, AEI’s
Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies, has an opening on
his staff for a research assistant. Those with first-rate writing skills, a
keen editing eye, and a thumb on the pulse of education reform can read the
full job description and apply here.
Featured Fordham Publication: Are Bad Schools Immortal? The Scarcity of Turnarounds and Shutdowns in Both District and Charter Sectors
This study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
finds that low-performing public schools—both charter and traditional district
schools—are stubbornly resistant to significant change. After identifying more
than 2,000 low-performing charter and district schools across ten states,
analyst David Stuit tracked them from 2003-04 through 2008-09 to determine how
many were turned around, shut down, or remained low-performing. Results were
generally dismal. Seventy-two percent of the original low-performing charters
remained in operation—and remained low-performing—five years later. So did 80
percent of district schools. Read
on to learn more—including results from the ten states.