Flypaper

During your pre-Turkey trot out of town, you might have missed the big news about the federal School Improvement Grants program. Education Week’s Politics K–12 blog, which generously called the results a “mixed picture,” put it this way:

While more than two-thirds of schools in the first cohort (which started in 2010-11) saw gains in reading and math after two years in the program, another third of the schools actually declined, despite the major federal investment, which included grants of up to $500,000 a year, the department said Thursday.

Even Arne Duncan himself could muster only faint praise for the schools, acknowledging their “incremental progress.”

Andy Smarick, a long-time SIG skeptic, showed a great deal of holiday cheer in not shouting, “I told you so.” But neither was he shy in stating the obvious, labeling the results “disappointing but completely predictable.” He went a bit further in a Washington Post quote, arguing that “you can’t help but look at the results and be discouraged . . . . We didn’t spend $5 billion of taxpayer money for incremental change.”

And lest you say, “Hey, it’s only money,” pause a moment on that. Five billion dollars. Enough to control Malaria. Enough to implement Core Knowledge in every single elementary school in the country. Enough to keep 2,000 Catholic schools alive. 

And instead, we poured the money...

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The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice recently released a study that seeks to better understand the decision-making processes of parents who send their children to private schools. The authors hypothesize that if state and local governments empower parents to choose the schools of their choice, a “spontaneous education order”—a state in which parents seek information about schools and in which schools make available the necessary information without public officials’ intentional intervention—will arise. Accountability, they speculate, will take care of itself.

To test this theory, they use survey data from 754 parents whose children received scholarships through the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program (GOAL). The survey sought to identify the factors involved in parents’ decisions and the types of data that informed those decisions.

GOAL was established in 2008 under Georgia’s Education Expense Credit Program. Under the law, taxpayers may receive a state income tax credit for contributions made to qualified “Student Scholarship Organizations” (SSOs). SSOs use these funds to award private school scholarships to families.

The law places no limits on recipients’ household incomes (i.e., it’s not “means-tested” for low-income families), and in fact the average adjusted gross income of recipient families was $51,923, slightly higher than the state’s 2012 median income. Scholarship recipients are approximately 60 percent white, 25 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 10 percent unknown/other.

Of the 2,685 families who had at least one child receiving a GOAL scholarship in 2013, only 754 provided complete data (a response rate of 28 percent). Survey respondents were...

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For those of you following the interesting and ever-changing world of educator evaluations, a few recent happenings may be worth a look.

The Delaware Department of Education recently published a report written by its internal Teacher and Leader Effective Unit on the implementation of its revised educator-evaluation system, DPAS-II. As part of the state’s Race to the Top grant, the DDE incorporated “robust measures of student achievement” into its existing system. That model had been structured around four components of effective teaching measured through classroom observations. It had produced almost no variation among the state’s educators (in the new system, those observations still make up 80 percent of the final rating).

Most components of DPAS-II get a binary rating, but a new component, based on multiple measures of student growth, is scored “Exceeds,” “Satisfactory,” or “Unsatisfactory.” The summative evaluation combines the components, netting ratings “Highly Effective,” “Effective,” “Needs Improvement,” and “Ineffective.”

The state’s educators were divided into three groups based on the availability of student-performance measures; these include state tests, external and internal assessments in subjects outside of math/reading, and “growth goals” based on professional standards and position responsibilities.

Importantly, those teachers whose scores were determined (at least in part) on the basis of empirical measures of student growth had more score variation (54 percent receiving “Exceeds”) than those assessed via growth goals based on professional standards (69 percent receiving “Exceeds”). Moreover, the distribution of scores associated with student-performance measures varied widely among districts, making inter-district comparisons difficult....

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The Thomas B. Fordham Institute today released Financing the Education of High-Need Students, a policy brief that focuses on three specific challenges that are often encountered when districts—especially small ones—grapple with the costs of serving their highest-need special-education students.

Districts and states could put these recommendations into practice today, without waiting for reforms or help from Washington:

  1. District Cooperatives: Many districts—including charter schools, which often comprise their own mini-districts—do not have the requisite size and capacity to serve high-need students effectively and affordably. Multi-district co-ops allow for both economies-of-scale and better service-delivery for these children.
  2. Student Funding Based on Multiple Weights: Special-education funding systems based on average student needs may be easily administered, but they can also lead to inefficient and ineffective resource allocations. Weighted student funding is a tiered system of resource allocation that allows for a more rational and efficacious distribution of funds, enabling districts with more high-need pupils (or pupils who require more dollars to pay for their IEP-mandated services) to receive more money, while jurisdictions that need less receive less. Basing those weights on services needed by children rather than disability diagnoses significantly improves the accuracy of this system.
  3. Exceptional-Need Funds: Districts (especially small ones) sometimes find themselves overwhelmed by the high cost of educating one or two particularly needy children. This type of fund, managed and predominantly financed by the state, acts as an insurance mechanism for districts that can’t cover the full cost of educating high-need pupils along with all others under their purview.

Learn more...

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In its release of SIG data, the U.S. Department of Education only provided comparisons between SIG schools and statewide averages. As I mentioned in Friday’s post, that’s not exactly a revealing comparison since SIG schools are, by definition, extremely low-performing and have much more room for improvement than the average school in the state.

Since Secretary Duncan visited New Jersey for the data release, we decided to do a quick New Jersey analysis of our own—something we thought might be edifying. We compared the performance of SIG schools to the performance of schools that applied for SIG (and were eligible) but didn’t receive awards. In other words, we compared schools that were similarly low performing at the start, while one set received the intervention and the other did not. We looked at math scores and focused on schools with an eighth grade (high schools take a much different test in New Jersey).

As you can see, at least based on a quick analysis of one state’s data, it’s hard to make the case that this massive program had a transformative influence on the state’s most troubled schools. There’s just not all that much difference in the changes between schools that were SIG-eligible but lost and schools that were SIG-eligible and won. And we certainly don’t see any major turnarounds.

The Department’s research arm is going to do a more sophisticated analysis...

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It seems the largest battle in education policy today centers on the question of whether or not the Obama administration cheerleading for the Common Core State Standards, a state-led initiative, represents an existential threat to federalism. Serious Common Core supporters concede that the federal government (unwisely) dangled incentives for swift state adoption of the standards, while pointing out that the vast majority of instructional decisions will now, as before, remain with local school boards and educators. On the other hand, serious opponents admit as much but worry that locals will have to make significant changes to meet these higher targets and say it is only a matter of time before we see a proposal for a national curriculum. I, for one, think even casual observation of the current debate over standards shows the possibility of a national curriculum to be so remote as to make it not worth discussing, except to say that if it were proposed, many Common Core supporters (myself included) would strongly oppose it.

The “federal overreach” argument used by Common Core opponents is quite perplexing, not only because some claims are so wildly exaggerated, but also because they all but ignore (and thereby excuse) actual and obvious examples of overreach with much larger potential consequences for federalism. If the Common Core debate is truly just a principled stand for states’ rights, why haven’t we heard a word about the specific requirements on school turnaround or teacher quality within the Race to the Top competition? Where was the conservative backlash against the clear disrespect shown to...

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There is no doubt in my mind that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cares deeply about disadvantaged kids. He deserves our admiration and respect for bringing a renewed sense of urgency to addressing America’s persistently failing schools.

His devotion to the hope of school turnarounds is rooted in very real and very painful experiences. When he closed a number of underperforming schools during his tenure as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, many displaced students were moved into similarly low-performing schools, and worse, inadvertently exposed to gang violence.

I’m certain this heartrending episode influenced him profoundly. I’m sure he committed himself to finding a better way to help boys and girls assigned to schools that weren’t working. I sincerely commend him for that sentiment and the passion behind it.

But this sentiment and passion also blinded him and his team.

Hence the tragedy of SIG.

Mountains of studies had clearly demonstrated over many years that the success rate of school-turnaround efforts was miniscule. The research showed that regardless of the intervention used or the amount of money spent, persistently low-performing schools stubbornly remained that way.

I will never know if the Department of Education simply hadn’t done its homework or if it had but believed that it could defy the lessons of the past. I suspect the latter was the primary culprit.

Slogans like “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” followed by a history-changing election, didn’t exactly infuse early Obama administration officials with...

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Last month, USA Today reported that officials in the Brevard County Schools had broken Florida state law—on purpose. Their offense? Placing more kids in classrooms than Florida’s Class Size Reduction statute allows. Officials had done the math and decided that complying with state policy would cost more than the penalty they’d pay for adding a handful of students to each classroom. The estimated fines totaled roughly $170,000, which paled in comparison to the cost of the teachers that the district would have to hire to comply with the size-limiting mandate.

Yet it’s unclear how Brevard chose to allocate these additional students. Did administrators give every teacher more students in equal shares? Did they apportion shares to seasoned veterans or, more likely, to seniority-deprived new teachers? Maybe they drew straws?

But what if Brevard officials had chosen another option? What if they had assigned the “extra” students to their most effective teachers, leaving fewer pupils in classrooms presided over by weaker instructors? What would be the impact of such a practice on student achievement?

That’s the scenario that this empirical paper models. The idea is straightforward: Give the better teachers more kids and the weaker teachers fewer—then see what happens. It’s a common-sense option with many supporters. We know, for instance, that parents say they would opt for larger classes taught by excellent teachers, rather than smaller classes with instructors of unknown ability. In a study last year for the Fordham Institute, the FDR Group found that a whopping...

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Sarah Almy

For decades, lowering class size has been touted as a strategy for improving student learning, despite loads of research asserting that it is not an effective solution. The Fordham Institute’s new study, Right-sizing the Classroom: Making the Most of Great Teachers, turns this idea on its head with a simulation of what happens if good teachers are actually assigned more students. The result: increased student learning.

This study uses teacher and student data from North Carolina and simulates what would happen if teachers with high value-added—those who are advancing student learning at greater rates than predicted—were assigned between six and twelve additional students (and if less effective teachers’ classrooms were proportionally reduced by this many students). The findings are promising: Adding six students to effective eighth-grade teachers’ classrooms could produce gains equivalent to an extra two weeks of school. And because more students are exposed to effective teaching and fewer are subjected to less effective instruction, schools experience improved student learning overall.

Findings like these should ideally put an end to the notion that blanket reductions in class size are a solution to anything. And it should launch a conversation about how to promote staffing and compensation models that vary how students are assigned to teachers based on their effectiveness.

However, the promising findings from the study could overshadow another important result: increasing class size for effective teachers does nothing in this simulation to help low-income students gain more access to effective teachers. This is likely because too...

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What if I told you there were millions of American boys and girls living in communities where half of students are low-income, just one in five adults has earned a bachelor’s degree, and only 27 percent of high school graduates go on to college?

What if I told you these students are more likely than their peers in any other geographic area to live in poverty?

Most of you would probably gather that I’m talking about our inner cities.

No.

These statistics describe rural America.

Rural public schools enroll eleven million children, fully a quarter of students nationwide. Yet, sadly, the challenges faced by rural educators and their students have received scant attention from national education leaders.

My organization, Bellwether Education Partners, is trying to help solve this problem.

With generous financial support from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation (based in Boise, Idaho) we are helping to launch a new two-year initiative, Rural Opportunities Consortium Idaho (ROCI), to study the challenges facing and the opportunities available to rural communities and their schools.

Bellwether will produce a series of papers and policy briefs on subjects like rural charter schooling and technology. We’ll also provide ongoing advice and support to the foundation, its partners, and others engaged in this issue. Though we’ll dedicate much of our energy to the particular circumstances and needs of Idaho, the project aspires to...

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