Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: Is the charter-school movement stuck in a rut?
E. Finn, Jr.
As the U.S. charter fleet sails past the 5,000-school and
two-decade markers, there is reason to worry that it’s getting complacent,
unimaginative, and self-interested.
This criticism is separate from the quality-and-achievement
challenges that beset many current schools and the “caps,” fiscal constraints,
and political/bureaucratic barriers that continue to confront far too many of
them in far too many places. Here I refer to accumulating signs of resistance
among the movement’s own captains and admirals to schools that would fly the
charter flag but don’t behave exactly like the typical charter schools of the
past twenty years.
It would be a pity if the charter enterprise were now to
grow rigid and intolerant, considering how well it has accommodated some
extraordinarily interesting and unconventional schools, institutional forms,
and uses of chartering unimagined back in 1991. Think of teacher-led schools sans
principal, schools for disabled kids, and schools for dropouts. “Virtual” and
“hybrid” schools, some of them operating statewide, some as part of national
franchises. For-profit operators and multi-campus management organizations—even
single charters harboring multiple schools with distinct operators. We have
single-sex schools. Early-college schools. Schools with curricular foci that
range from “back to basics” to “experiential.” Schools that restore “local
control” to small towns aggrieved by excessive district consolidation. Schools
that experiment with unconventional union contracts, even a couple of schools run by unions.
This wouldn’t be the first 'reform movement' in the history of education to turn into an ideologically rigid, pull-up-the-gangplank-now-that-we're-aboard sort of vested interest. But it would still be a great pity.
To its great credit, the charter movement has flexed and
stretched and managed to take in if not always to embrace this sort of school
diversity. Which is, of course, a major rationale for its existence in the
But that may now be changing—and not for the better. Recent
- National charter spokesmen recently deploring
the existence of selective-admission charter schools in New Orleans, even
though these are conversion schools that were selective before they were
- Also in New Orleans, respected national groups urging
the school board not to renew charters for more than five years, even
though several of the schools (which had requested ten-year renewals), by
virtue of being conversion charters, have actually operated for many decades
and are among the highest-scoring schools in Louisiana;
- Major funders and reform outfits shunning
“middle class” charter schools as if those kids don’t also need better
all over at the prospect of charter schools with a religious connection.
Never mind that perhaps the most promising way to salvage urban Catholic
schools—with their excellent track record of educating disadvantaged kids—is to
reconstitute them as charters; and
- Outrage at the announcement
last week by Douglas County, Colorado that it is going to operate its new
private-school voucher program via a district-sponsored charter.
This wouldn’t be the first “reform movement” in the history
of education to turn into an ideologically rigid,
pull-up-the-gangplank-now-that-we’re-aboard sort of vested interest. But it
would still be a great pity. The basic justification for chartering rests on
two legs: providing quality alternatives for youngsters stuck in bad or
ill-fitting schools, and functioning as a kind of R & D center or beta site
for K-12 education where things can be tried that for a hundred reasons are
hard to do in regular district schools.
In my view, any school that satisfies at least one of those
two criteria should qualify as a charter school, so long as it’s clear—and
transparent—about its mission and publicly accountable in some suitable way for
It doesn’t have to be accountable in the “usual” way if its
mission is better aligned with some other measure or mechanism. Long before
NCLB, several states—Texas comes
to mind—allowed for “alternate accountability” for schools dealing with
dropouts, at-risk youth, etc. The school and its authorizer obviously need to
agree on its accountability metrics—and be public about both targets and actual
attainments. The school also needs to be public about its governance and
But it doesn’t have to look like other charter schools—or
any other school we’ve come up with so far. It can be academically selective if
it wants—so long as everyone knows what the criteria are. (That’s not the same
as the squalid
New York charter operation that was recently busted for secretly shutting
out kids who have “issues.”) Lotteries make sense in some circumstances but not
It can even have religious ties. Before- and after-school
“wraparound” religious-instruction programs, and released-time programs, ought
to be no-brainers when someone else pays for them. But it’s reasonable for
charters themselves to try religious education so long as they thread the Zelman needle. (Keep in mind that in
most of the civilized world, government schools are routinely operated by
organized religions and teach those
religions on the government nickel.)
A charter school can also be affiliated in various ways with
voucher-style programs that educate kids in what we’re accustomed to calling
“private schools.” How is that different, really, from out-sourcing the
operation of existing charter (or district) schools to private firms, many of
them profit-making? The same thing can be done one student at a time, with the
public money continuing to follow the kid to this school or that.
innovations will arise over time, and charter-movement leaders should be
grateful and welcoming, not resistant. Besides, if they don’t cooperate, they’ll
eventually get end-run, much as they did to district schools once upon a time.
|Click to listen to commentary on the pushback against Douglas County's voucher program from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Opinion: Quality control in K-12 education
Virtual schooling’s greatest power is that it creates the
opportunity to reconsider what is feasible in K-12 education. Digital learning
makes it possible to deliver expertise over great distances, permits
instructors to specialize, allows schools to use staff in more targeted and
cost-effective ways, and customizes the scope, sequence, and pacing of
curriculum and instruction for individual children. These add up to
facilitating the delivery of high-quality, high-impact instruction. But because
it destandardizes and decentralizes educational delivery, digital education is
far harder to bring under the yoke of the quality-control systems and metrics
that have been put in place for traditional school structures.
To realize the potential gains in cost efficiency,
customization, instructional quality, pupil engagement, and—ultimately—student
learning that the digital age makes possible will require policymakers and
practitioners to find new ways to monitor and police the quality of what’s
being delivered—and learned. Yet absent the familiar panoply of credentials,
staffing ratios, instructional hours, Carnegie units, and school days that now
provide tangible assurance that a given school is “real” and legitimate,
digital learning will struggle with finding acceptance—and could be bent to the
advantage of those who don’t place educational achievement at the top of their
it is difficult today even to visualize, much less to craft, brand-new quality-control
systems that adapt perfectly to the seismic shift that digital learning
represents. The best that policymakers can do at present is to select among—or
combine—three basic approaches, each with its own significant limitations:
and process regulation;
These are not mutually exclusive options, but together they
comprise the basic menu of choices for policing digital learning (or any other
public function). The difficulty is that these approaches were devised for
assessing conventional institutions, not the more fluid networks of providers
and learners created by digital instruction. In the digital world—where new
tools and technologies offer dramatic opportunities to rethink teaching and
learning by disassembling a school, classroom, or course into its component
parts, then delivering instruction in more customized ways—these quality-control
approaches will no longer be a comfortable fit for providers. Any given approach to regulating inputs, basing
accountability on outcomes, or trusting markets brings risks, imperfections,
and unintended consequences. Though these negatives cannot be erased, the
alternative—no quality control at all—is far worse. So we’re well advised to acknowledge
the problems with available tools and mechanisms and then do our best to
monitor, minimize, and combat them.
The first step is to create a relatively uncomplicated
vendor-approval process that ensures that minimal fiduciary and academic
standards are being met. Providers should have to document to a designated
public entity that their books are clean and to report basic metrics for
services provided. For those providers that offer certain categories of
services—especially the kind that directly impact student achievement—it’s
reasonable to have a state review process that features some kind of
authorization and renewal.
Second, as providers deliver their wares—and families choose
among and students engage with them—it is essential that some entity collect
various kinds of data on performance. That’s apt to be a state responsibility
but could easily be delegated to any number of third-party monitors. But
whether a state agency acts directly or relies on others, a wide array of data
needs to be collected, gains measured and analyzed, and findings made public in
transparent fashion. Just as important is to gather and disseminate information
on consumer satisfaction and expert reviews of programs and providers.
Third, families need to acquire a vested interest in the cost-effectiveness
of their new opportunities by being given control over some discrete portion of
spending. This step is essential if parents are to approach schooling as more
than a unitary service and to start thinking about the quality of particular
services, and if education officials are to enjoy the encouragement and support
they need to revisit and change deep-seated routines.
All three are needed, in various
combinations. But don’t expect perfection. Each possible combination eases some
concerns while posing new ones. Hence, given our scant experience with digital
provision, it seems prudent to avoid sweeping national policies or
requirements, at least for now.
The challenges involved in effecting these shifts are both
familiar and new. In a sense, they are essentially the same challenges—to be
addressed by the same tools—that educators and policymakers have wrestled with for
decades. But in their current incarnation, they can be met only with a degree
of granularity, agility, and precision that is new to the world of K–12
A formidable task? Surely; because it is one
that will ultimately determine whether the advent of digital learning
revolutionizes American education or becomes just another layer of slate
strapped to the roof of the nineteenth-century schoolhouse.
|Click to listen to commentary on Rick's new paper from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
News Analysis: The little ed school that could
While traditional ed schools continue to defy
efforts at reform and transparency, other innovative teacher-training
programs are moving forward. Enter New York-based Relay School of Education as
a prime specimen. There are no university campuses or lecture halls for Relay’s
students, who spend most of their training in their own classrooms under the
guidance of mentors. Degrees aren’t conferred based on GPA or class time. To complete
Relay’s two-year program—which encompasses 60 “modules” connected to real-world
issues, like pacing and discipline—just demonstrate that your students have
made at least one year of academic progress in your chosen subject. A fantastic
evolution—but not one that is universally welcomed. Status quo defenders have
already lamented Relay’s alleged de-professionalization of teaching. It’s hard
to believe, though, that novice teachers will receive less professional
preparation as active participants in real K-12 classrooms than they would get
in a distant university setting, half-listening to yet another lecture on Paulo
News Analysis: Much ado about nothing
Enacted just two months ago, Tennessee’s new
virtual-education measure is receiving much flack from Democrats and
Republicans alike. At issue is the $5,387 in per-pupil funding marked for the
virtual charters opened under the bill’s auspices. Critics assert that these charters
siphon cash from district schools, leaving them bereft of resources. But a word
of caution to these critics: Average per-pupil funding in Tennessee is about
$7,900, according to the Census Bureau, so sending students to a virtual
charter actually saves about 2,500
education dollars each. Virtual charters are a smart new way to leverage
twenty-first century technology (and save on building and busing costs to boot).
This type of innovation may even be more important in economic downturns than
it is in booms.
Review: The State of Proficiency: How student proficiency rates vary across states, subjects, and grades between 2002 and 2010
Four years ago, Fordham and the Northwest
Evaluation Association (NWEA) teamed up to produce “The
Proficiency Illusion,” a seminal analysis detailing the gaping
discrepancies in proficiency-rate cut scores across states, grades, and
subjects. Last month, NWEA released a follow-up, adding nine states to its original
analysis in math and eleven states in reading (bringing those totals to
thirty-five and thirty-seven, respectively) and extending the analysis through 2010.
The new results are just as striking as the old. In grade-eight math, for
example, NWEA found a 52-percentile difference between the highest and lowest state
cut scores. And individual states continue to make their tests much harder at
some grade levels than at others—creating significant problems for AYP
determinations, value-added teacher evaluations, and much else. Feel like
digging in? Check out the interactive data
gallery. Prepare to feel a little ill.
Review: A Big Apple for Educators: New York City’s Experiment with Schoolwide Performance Bonuses: Final Evaluation Report
This report—a joint effort by RAND, Vanderbilt,
and the National Center on Performance Incentives—drove the final nail into the
coffin of New York City’s shaky
and pricey School-Wide Performance Bonus Program. We learn from this
analysis that Gotham’s foray into school-wide bonuses “did not improve student
achievement at any grade level.” In fact, average math and ELA scores for
participating elementary and middle schools were lower than those of the
control group. (There were no effects on scores at the high school level.) To
understand why, analysts queried participating teachers—ninety-two percent of
whom said the program didn’t affect the way they did their jobs. That shouldn’t
surprise anyone, since the bonuses amounted to only $1,500 after taxes, and
were tied to higher test scores school-wide—something over which individual
teachers have little control. Further, a third of teachers said they didn’t even
understand the criteria for obtaining the bonus. Thorough and informative, this
report should act as a warning bell for anyone looking to replicate Gotham’s
poorly designed (and now defunct) program.
Julie A. Marsh, Matthew G. Springer, Daniel F.
McCaffrey, Kun Yuan, Scott Epstein, Julia Koppich, Nidhi Kalra, Catherine
DiMartino, and Art (Xiao) Peng, “A Big Apple for
Educators: New York City’s Experiment with Schoolwide Performance Bonuses:
Final Evaluation Report,” (Santa Monica, CA:
RAND Corporation, 2011).
Review: Trajectories of the Home Learning Environment Across the First 5 Years: Associations with Children’s Vocabulary and Literacy Skills at Prekindergarten
This longitudinal study out of NYU examines the
connection between “home-learning environments” and school readiness by
tracking a representative sample of 1,852 low-income children at ages one, two,
three, and five. (The evaluation is based on things like the number of books
read to the child and maternal responsiveness to the child’s requests.) There’s
much to plumb here, but one takeaway emerges: Almost 70 percent of the
low-income children with consistently strong home environments (ten percent of
the total group) performed at or above the national averages for students from all socioeconomic
backgrounds—demonstrating the home’s gap-closing potential. Unfortunately, none
of the learning environments originally diagnosed as low in quality became
literacy-rich by the time the children started pre-Kindergarten, implying that
some children are already falling behind (and staying behind) after their first
year of life. Now if we could only figure out how to help more parents more
effectively play the role of their child’s first teacher.
|Click to listen to commentary on NYU's study from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Review: Inside IMPACT: D.C.’s Model Teacher Evaluation System
Outsiders have envied, emulated, and damned
D.C.’s famous teacher-evaluation system, IMPACT. But what is the insiders’
perspective? This report from Ed Sector delivers the answer. Author Susan
Headden, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, presents a thorough and balanced
perspective on this revolutionary (but still emergent) system. She explains the
core elements of IMPACT (the classroom observations, instructional buckets
against which teachers are measured, etc.), and weaves a narrative that
effectively captures the experience of (a sample of) observed teachers, “master
educators” (the ones conducting the observations), as well as principals, union
leaders, and District staff responsible for developing the system. She notes a
few red flags (the distribution of IMPACT’s large performance bonuses are
concentrated in already high-performing schools, for example) and details a few
places where IMPACT could be improved, notably by doing more to help develop educators
rather than simply reward or punish them. But progress is being made on that
front. Based on our own interviews (below), we found that, overwhelmingly, teachers saw
monumental improvements in professional development, and that the new system
gave them specific, tangible ways to enhance instruction.
|Click to listen to commentary on the D.C. IMPACT-based firings from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: The bro-mance continues
After his podcast sabbatical, Rick Hess is back—and he doesn’t disappoint. After explaining his new Fordham paper on digital learning, he and Mike discuss the charter-voucher rivalry and what the debt ceiling means for education. (They share a few special moments, too.) Amber dissects philanthropic giving to teachers and teaching and Chri$ scolds Connecticut for its inequitable pension structure.
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.
Flypaper's Finest: Seeing the Common Core for what it is
I’ve already wondered aloud (see here)
whether states’ quick adoption of the Common Core was more an example of people
seeing what they wanted to see than evidence of some broad consensus about what
the actual standards meant for curriculum, instruction, and assessment. An article
in last week’s Education Week does little to assuage those concerns.…
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Flypaper's Finest: Enough about Finland
Since the PISA-results bomb dropped last
December, myriad reports have been released, op-eds written, and dinner
conversations had comparing the American education system to high-achieving
OECD nations. Some of them have been
pretty smart. Others have been reasonably vapid, if well-intentioned.
And almost all seem
compelled to hail Finland.…
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Briefly Noted: S.O.S.: Same ol' stuff?
- For those
in the D.C. area this weekend, prepare for more foot traffic than usual on the
Mall, as the Save Our Schools
march, endorsed by the NEA and AFT, rolls in. It’ll be worse than the
typical summer tourists—though maybe more amusing.
- Five years ago, 99
percent of New York City’s eligible teachers (those on the job for three years)
received tenure. Under new (stricter) evaluation guidelines, only 58 percent of
Gotham teachers became tenured this year. It makes Gadfly want to sing. “The
order is rapidly fadin’…the times they are a-changin’…”
billion later, Bill
Gates reflects on the efficacy of his philanthropic efforts to date. The
message is sobering. Jay
Greene is more than sobered.
can smell what D.C. is cooking. The Windy City field-tested a
teacher-evaluation framework this year—based on the District’s model.
- Also in
Chicago, J.C. Brizard announced
the restructuring of his district’s middle-management. Chris Cerf isn’t the
only one thinking
Round one in the battle
royale between charter-school advocates and the NAACP/UFT ended in a decision last
week, with charter
advocates scoring a victory in court. We’ve a long way to go before
round twelve, though.
Announcement: American Idol goes wonk
On August 11, from
8:30AM to 10:00AM, Fordham is bringing you “Education Reform Idol.” Contestants
from Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin will woo our judges—and
the audience—as they fight to earn top distinction as America’s “reformiest”
state in 2011. For a full list of contestants and judges, or to register to
attend the event, click here.
Announcement: Ride over to Rodel
Delaware has more than Race to the Top funds and
beaches. It’s also got the Rodel Foundation. And maybe you? A fast-paced
working philanthropy, Rodel is hiring a program officer. If you’re an
education-policy buff with strong writing and strategic thinking skills, check it out. Wilmington
ain’t half bad.
If you have strong research and writing skills
and fancy education reform in Michigan, then you’ll be interested to learn: The
Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s Education Policy Initiative is hiring an
ed-policy analyst. For more details, head here.
Fordham's featured publication: A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era
These days, America is brimming with education
data—and it seems everyone wants (or at least claims to want) to be guided by it.
In A Byte at the Apple, leaders and
scholars map the landscape of data providers and users and explore why what’s
supplied by the former too often fails to meet the needs of the latter. It
documents the barriers to collecting good information, including well-meaning
privacy laws and the maze of overlapping government units and agencies. Most
important, it explores potential solutions—including a future system where a “backpack”
of achievement information would accompany every student from place to place. Read
on for more.