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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Why did the Similar Students Model Spark a Nerd War?

Recently, there have been a spate of stories and rumblings about an education performance calculation called a "Similar Students" model -- a model that the Ohio Department of Education is going to be studying over the next several months.

The idea behind the model is to figure out how students are doing, regardless of demographic background. This is a concept with which I share much in common. After all, I have written in this space and elsewhere that I can predict the Performance Index (Ohio's single proficiency measure) scores of 3 out of 4 Ohio school districts if you give me nothing but the district's Free and Reduced Lunch population.

I also am excited by the work of Robert Sternberg, who developed a theory that broke intelligence into 3 categories -- creative, practical and analytical. Why is that exciting? Because poor, minority kids who test in the creative and practical sections are just as likely to do well as white, wealthy kids. This could mean that future testing may not be demographically determined as today's regime, which focuses solely on the analytical does.

And while folks at Yale are developing the Aurora Assessment based on Sternberg's work, it's still being beta tested and used primarily to identify gifted kids in underrepresented subgroups.

The Similar Students Measure was developed by the California Charter School Association to help that state determine performance, given demographic challenges. However, it's now being championed by the big Ohio charter school interests that have made our state a national joke. Why is that? Because the Similar Students Model makes Ohio charters -- especially the state's woefully performing eSchools -- look much better than their awful report card performance would indicate.

And for guys who make $100 million a year providing these dreadful services to at-risk kids, like William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) -- whose all Fs and one D on the state report card is worse than any school district in the state, even Youngstown, whose performance was so poor that the state put it in academic distress and effectively got rid of the elected school board -- this new system would be a Godsend because it would let them off the hook under the new, tougher accountability regime expected after the historic passage of House Bill 2 this fall.

To their credit, the Fordham Institute had a study done on Similar Students that took the methodology to task and argued that Ohio's current system of using Value-Added data (which demonstrates student growth over the year on standardized tests) is superior. The CCSA went bananas over the criticism and started spouting off to some of this state's most vociferous, anti-quality charter school advocates, who used these criticisms to explain why Similar Students was better and the criticism of it wrong in media and other reports.

Yes. This is what a Nerd War looks like.

Anyway, I felt bad for the CCSA. Because they didn't know what they were getting into when they jumped into the Ohio fray. No one outside of Ohio really can understand the bare-knuckles politics involved here.

But here's a way of looking at it.

The state's top Republican lobbyist -- not its top education policy guru -- is making education policy arguments for the anti-quality charters on this issue. Nothing against Neil Clark, with whom I had a few dealings during my time in Columbus, but he is not an education policy expert. His expertise is political.

That's not his fault, by the way. It's just an indictment of our charter school debate in Ohio that it is a well-paid lobbyist, not a policy nerd, who is the spokesman for the anti-quality charter crowd, which should tell you all you need to know about the policy seriousness of the argument. It's being made by a political operative (though a highly skilled and effective one), not a policy wonk. In a Nerd War, you need nerds fighting for you.

Lager doesn't have that.

So who carries more weight -- a lobbyist in Ohio, or the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University, whose recent study on Ohio's eSchools showed once again how poorly they perform? Mr. Clark called CREDO -- whose studies have become a kind-of gold standard on national and local charter school performance and was set up by pro-charter school advocates -- a "don't-think-tank". Again, catchy cut downs are no substitute for real policy differences.

This isn't to say CREDO is above criticism. For a real, substantive critique of CREDO's methodology, look at what the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado published.

Clark is just out of his element here. But it is telling that ECOT and the online schools have a political operative make their arguments. That's because there simply are no policy arguments or data analytics that can put lipstick on Ohio's eSchool performance pig. They just really, really perform poorly. And, in fact, as I've reported several times for Innovation Ohio and the Ohio Charter School Accountability Project, they are a heavy drag on the entire charter sector, which would still underperform local public schools without eSchools, just not by as much.

However, it now appears that the CCSA and Fordham have made peace, or at least reached a Nerd War ceasefire. They issued a joint statement this week that's replete with wonk, but essentially says what the CCSA told the Beacon Journal -- that California's model was developed because they don't have the same student-level data Ohio has with its Value-Added measure. The bottom line is this: Lager's forces were dealt a fatal blow on this front with the joint statement. They now have no nerds fighting for them.

In a Nerd War, that's a bad thing.

As Ohio continues to study the Similar Students Model, I hope it expands to look at the work of Dr. Sternberg so we can develop a better, more thorough battery of assessments that aren't so demographically affected and encourage a more well-rounded learning experience for Ohio's kids.

So let this be the first salvo fired in the next Nerd War.

Hopefully, Ohio's kids will win this one, just like they did the previous one.