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Monday, December 22, 2014

Is All This Charter Reform New? Not Really.

I'm not going to write much in this post. I just thought it would be helpful if I provided you a snippet from an Akron Beacon Journal editorial (titled "Broken Charter") from 12 years ago (December 5, 2002) about a charter bill then that basically says everything the Dispatch said this morning. I would link to it, but it's from the ABJ's paid archive.
"Charter schools will benefit from closer scrutiny. Ohio won't gain, though, by rapidly expanding the number of such schools."

Since the ABJ published its editorial, here are a few numbers, using the Dec. 5, 2002 editorial as a starting point:

  • $7.8 billion -- amount of state funding that has been diverted from traditional public schools to Ohio charters since
  • 165 -- Number of charter schools that have closed
  • 24 -- Number of charter schools that have closed under Ohio's closure law
  • 968,548 -- Cumulative number of Ohio children who have attended charter schools (through last school year)
  • 203 -- Number of overall F-equivalent grades charter schools received under old report card -- about 1 out of every 4 overall grades given during the period
  • 1228 -- Number of Fs charters have received the last two school years on the state's new report cards
  • 1131 -- Number of As Bs and Cs charters have received combined the last two school years on the state's new report cards

One wonders how much money and how many kids could have been saved if more people had heeded the ABJ's words in 2002.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Charter Day in Columbus

Today is one of those news days I loved as a reporter -- lots of news, and really important news at that.

First off, Bellwether Education Partners released a study funded by the Fordham Foundation, which to their great credit has funded two high-quality reports that have called out Ohio charter schools. The report gave 10 policy recommendations for fixing Ohio's broken charter school sector. Lots of good recommendations in there -- coming down hard on failing schools, operators and sponsors, focusing on quality rather than quantity of choices.

My only real beef with it was the suggestion that we need to put local money into charters too so that the "inequity" issue can be resolved, as well as some of the transportation and building funding issues. Including charter schools as part of the Ohio School Facilities Commission funding scheme has issues, like what's the local match? School districts have to come up with local money to fund part of the project. Would charters get their whole project paid for? The fairness of that, when districts (for whom the fund was originally developed during the DeRolph school funding case) had to match it seems a quagmire.

I understand the need to provide some building assistance, though, because without that, charter schools are forced to get in bed with big-time operators that are focused on profits, not kids.

I also struggle with the transportation issue. Charter school kids are transported by school districts at no cost to the charter. Some districts transport a lot of kids to charters. There may be a few charters that take kids from outside a district, so I can understand the need to maybe provide some transportation to them. But again, it's fraught with issues. What do you do, for instance, with open enrollment kids going between school districts whose parents do the driving? Again, there are equity issues galore.

Ultimately, it's awfully difficult to understand why we need to put more money into a sector that already gets almost $1 billion to educate 130,000 kids when folks on both sides of the issue now agree the sector doesn't work.

I would prefer to see the direct state funding of charters, coupled with rigorous quality controls and differentiated funding for excellence could be a way to fix this funding issue. Funding charters is a tough thing to do. But it can be done. And better than it is today. Especially with the state's expected budget surplus this next year.

I don't even mind the transportation or building recommendations nearly as much if I was assured as a taxpayer that it would actually go to successful charter schools, not schools that graduate 2 of 155 kids, as one Ohio charter school currently does.

About an hour later, we at www.KnowYourCharter.com put out a report that showed that 511 of Ohio's 613 school districts got less state funding per pupil last year than the minimum charter deduction required under state law. This means that local revenues have to subsidize these charter school payments.

And when you consider that brick and mortar charter schools spend more per pupil than school districts -- all revenues considered -- you start to see the issue with funding charters. Keystone Local Schools Superintendent Jay Arbaugh and Lorain County ESC Superintendent Greg Ring joined me at the news conference today.

They relayed the tale of how shocked their constituents are when they find out how charter school funding works in this state, and its adverse impact on the 90% of kids not in charter schools.

What we've seen the last week or so are reports that are pointing Ohio leaders in a direction to reform charter schools. I was encouraged to see state Rep. Andrew Brenner and state Sen. Peggy Lehner -- both Republicans -- remark after Bellwether's presentation that they will fight for these recommendations in the legislature.

But overcoming the millions of dollars contributed to Ohio politicians by adults that run poorer performing charter schools will be a monumental task.

For the first time in years, though, I'm optimistic it can happen.

Charter schools can work. They are neither the panacea nor devil's work folks claim. They're not working in Ohio. They can. But it will take education and leadership to overcome three decades of Ohio political habit on this issue.

So let's kick the habit.

Together.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

UPDATED Stanford CREDO Director: Free Market Doesn't Work in Education

This post has been updated to include Dr. Raymond's complete comment on the effect of markets in education. The quote was taken from the City Club's podcast, which hadn't been posted when this post was first written.

I was all prepared to summarize what Dr. Margaret Raymond had to say about Stanford's latest study from its Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO), which Raymond heads, at today's City Club of Cleveland event.

How only in Cleveland does it appear that Ohio's charter school sector is providing meaningful, positive benefits to kids. Or how CREDO's methodology works (averaging kids in traditional public school buildings and comparing these "virtual" kids' performance with real charter kids). Or how Ohio's charter school sector has been making very minimal improvements over the years. Or that the state's charter reform initiatives over the last few years haven't had much impact on charter school performance. Or that Cleveland charters are doing a good job educating poor, minority kids. Or that 93% of Ohio charter schools' proficiency scores are below the 50th percentile in the state. Or that 44% of charter school kids are seeing low growth and performance.

But then, in response to a question from the audience nearly at the end of the event, Dr. Raymond dropped this on the crowd: She said she's a "free market kinda girl", but after decades of looking at the nation's charter school sector, she has come to the conclusion that the "market mechanism just doesn't work" in education. Here;s the podcast from the City Club. Her market comments start at 50:18. Here is the remarkable commentary:

I actually am kind of a pro-market kinda girl. But it doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education. I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career. That’s my academic focus for my work. And (education) is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work. I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state. I think there are other supports that are needed… The policy environment really needs to focus on creating much more information and transparency about performance than we’ve had for the 20 years of the charter school movement. We need to have a greater degree of oversight of charter schools. But I also think we have to have some oversight of the overseers.

Considering that the pro-market reform Thomas B. Fordham Foundation paid for this study and Raymond works at the Hoover Institution at Stanford -- a free market bastion, I was frankly floored, as were most of the folks at my table.

For years, we've been told that the free market will help education improve. As long as parents can choose to send their kids to different schools, like cars or any other commodity, the best schools will draw kids and the worst will go away. The experience in Ohio is the opposite. The worst charter schools in Ohio are growing by leaps and bounds, while the small number of successful charter schools in Ohio have stayed, well, a small number of successful charter schools.

Raymond made the point too that parents are not informed enough to be true market consumers on education. Websites like Know Your Charter can help with that educational aspect of the parental choice, better arming parents with the necessary information to make a more informed decision. But to hear free market believers say that 20 years into the charter school experiment its foundational philosophy -- that the free market's invisible hand will drive educational improvement -- is not working? Well, I was stunned to hear that.

Raymond also made the point that the states that are seeing the best charter school performance are states whose charter school authorizers are focused on quality and have robust accountability measures -- in other words, well-regulated. Yesterday, when the CREDO report was released, it was discovered that if online and for-profit charter schools are taken out of the equation, Ohio charters don't perform all that bad. Problem is that more than 57% of Ohio charter school kids are in those schools. In fact, at Know Your Charter, we found that less than 10% of Ohio's charter school kids are in schools that score above the state average on the Performance Index Score or have an A or B in overall value added.

The point is that there are a few very high-performing charters in this state, like the Breakthrough Schools in Cleveland, or the Toledo School of the Arts, or Columbus Preparatory Academy. While these schools represent a smattering of Ohio's 400 plus charter schools, the state's failing charter schools are legion.

Here's another sort of bombshell from me, to counteract the free market one: I'm not convinced that the free market can't work for education.

But it can only do so if the public is fully informed, parents are armed with good information and make well-informed, thoughtful decisions while the state and its authorizing groups focus like a laser on quality, not quantity, of choice. The way Ohio's charter school laws are currently drafted does not allow that to happen. Sites like Know Your Charter can help, but the state needs to have a better mechanism in place to ensure that parents and kids can make truly informed and good decisions for their future.

It's not like buying a car where if you buy a lemon, you can just go try another one. It's a pain, but not the end of the world.

If parents choose a lemon of a charter school, their children may never recover.

That isn't a pain.

It's a tragedy.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Ohio CREDO study: Charters' Generally Negative Impact

The quadrennial CREDO study from Stanford has become a sort of gold standard for charter-public school comparisons. They use sophisticated statistical techniques to draw helpful comparisons between the two education sectors. And while they are only looking at reading and math test scores (which brings inherent limitations), the analysis is as clear-eyed as you'll get on this contentious issue.

Well, the Fordham Institute paid to have CREDO look at Ohio's charter school sector. And in its report released today, CREDO says about Ohio's charter sector what it's generally said during its quadrennial look -- it ain't good. Kudos must be given to Fordham for paying to have CREDO come into town. While we have differed on policy over the years, I do find Fordham to be among the more credible and sane voices on this issue in Ohio from the pro-charter side. They know there's a problem and want to fix it. And for that, they deserve credit.

Back to the study. Overall, kids in charters lose 36 days of math and 14 days of reading to their traditional public school counterparts. Of the 68 statistically significant differences CREDO found between charters and public schools, 56 showed a negative charter school impact, and 12 showed a positive one. 

There appeared to be a few positive impacts in middle schools and a couple other places. But, overall, the results were really not good.

Here are a few quotes: 

  • "... the better the student at the start of the year, the worse they are served in charter schools compared to what they would have learned" in a traditional public school.
  • "... recent efforts across Ohio to improve the quality of charter school performance are only dimly discernible in the analysis. Overall performance trends are marginally positive, but the gains that Ohio charter school students receive even in the most recent periods studied still lag the progress of their (Traditional Public School) peers. More work is needed to ensure that charter schools are serving their students well."
  • "Despite exemplars of strong results, over 40 percent of Ohio charter schools are in urgent need of improvement: they both post smaller student academic gains each year and their overall achievement levels are below the average for the state. If their current performance is permitted to continue, the students enrolled in these schools will fall even further behind over time. The long-term prospects for their students dim with every year they remain in these schools."

Over the next several days and weeks, many will parse out these results and focus on the few areas where Ohio charters seem to be doing particularly well or poorly (students in small towns lose almost an entire academic year of learning in a charter, for example). But I want everyone to remember that more than $900 million went to Ohio charters last school year. And about 1/2 of kids in charters do not come from Ohio's urban core. And that the average Ohio student loses more than $300 a year because the state removes so much to pay for charters.

And I want you to ask yourselves a simple question: Is this level of commitment worth it? For taxpayers and, most importantly, our kids both in charters and traditional public schools? 

It is time to fix this behemoth before it continues to harm both the students in Ohio's schools as well as the well-meaning dreams of education reformers.

How Common Core Can Work

As I've said in these pages before, I've got a serious love-hate relationship with Common Core. I like the standards, and see them as an improvement on previous ones. I like the tests because they try to test critical thinking and other learning that traditionally has not been tested.

But I hate that more and more time is devoted to testing each year because of these standards.

Yet here is the bottom line for me. This weekend, my family and I went out to get a Christmas Tree. We saw our own down (though I have graduated to a chain saw from a bow saw. It's an electric one, though, so I feel only slightly more manly). During the time we were prepping for the tree's extraction and arrival, my wife asked my fourth grader a bunch of obscure math questions -- non-even division, multiplication, etc. And my son ticked off the answers quickly and off the top of his head.

These weren't 2+2 questions. They were 52 divided by 6 types of questions. In other words, I would have been lost at his age because I didn't memorize those things. But the Common Core standards have him think about these problems in terms of places (10s, 100s, etc.), so he's able to do complex math in his head because he understands what's going on with the problem. It's not just there on a flash card or something.

A few weeks ago, our local school district held a forum about Common Core math. To be honest, I think the people there got really frustrated because they didn't understand why their kids were learning something in such a different way than they did. Hey, they're doing OK, right?

Well, now I know why. It's so my son isn't afraid of complex math in later grades, the way I was. Who knows. Maybe if I had a better understanding of math, I wouldn't have been intimidated by it my whole life?

But I want everyone to understand that if the Common Core standards have my son able to do complex math in his head at age 9, then they can't be all bad.

Whether every state should have the same standards, or we should test more an more frequently, or whether we should develop some more complex standards dealing with creativity, innovation and practicality are whole different policy discussions that we must have as a nation, state and community. But for what Common Core does cover, at least in my son's N=1 sample, seems to be doing him some good.

And for that, I'm proud to have voted for the thing when I did.