Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 10, Number 16
April 29, 2010
Opinion + Analysis
The half-broken promise of charter school autonomy
Tie up your running shoes
Avoiding a senior moment
The new "right"
Show me more
To Banter or Not to Banter
Don't miss this week's edition, wherein Rick and Mike discuss Fordham's new charter autonomy study, Duncan's "stakeholder buy-in" mess, and the pending downfall of "last hired, first fired." Then Amber reports on twins and teacher effectiveness, and Stafford tells Big Brother to sign up for P.E.
Nearly twenty years ago, legislators in Minnesota birthed the charter-school movement swaddled in a “grand bargain": These innovative public schools would deliver solid academic results in return for the freedom to do it their own way.
In recent years, the policy community has focused almost all of its attention on the results side of this pact. Meaning loads of studies, policy briefs, webinars, conference events, blog posts, tweets—you name it—have addressed “charter school performance.”
Indeed, results are what matters in the end. But the essential theory of charter schooling is that schools’ results are apt to be better if those running and working in them are free to produce them in the ways that they think best—and in ways that may differ widely from school to school.
So what about the autonomy side of the bargain? Are charter schools receiving the freedoms they were promised in the areas that matter most, even as they are held accountable for their results (and, of course, not spared a handful of immutable obligations, such as financial controls, civil rights, and building safety)?
This is the core question that we asked the experts at Public Impact to answer in Fordham’s latest study, Charter School Autonomy: A-Half-Broken Promise. Analysts Dana Brinson and Jacob Rosch examined charter laws in twenty-six states that are home to more than 90 percent of America’s charter schools. They also inspected charter contracts for 100 schools associated with the country’s most active authorizers. (These authorizers, which
Andy Smarick / April 29, 2010
Since the U.S. Department of Education named Tennessee and Delaware as the only winners in the first round of the Race to the Top, a battle has raged about the importance of stakeholder buy-in. Since these states, unlike other strong applicants such as Rhode Island and Florida, were able to secure the support of all of their school districts and virtually all of their unions, the consensus is that these establishment groups have a veto over state proposals.
That reading is not wholly true. States can win with bold applications even if their stakeholders withhold their benediction. Secretary Duncan helpfully weighed in on the matter recently, confirming that he will make grants to states that push hard for reform, not those that water down their proposals in order to generate consensus. So states should focus on substance, but how do they actually translate this general guidance into winning plans?
Enter the excellent “Race Smarter” issues briefs from Democrats for Education Reform, the Education Equality Project, and Education Reform Now. These organizations thoroughly analyzed first round applications, state scorecards, and reviewer comments and came up with a number of important conclusions related to the importance of the teachers and STEM sections, oddities in certain reviewers’ assessments, and much more. They’ve translated these findings into a set of state-specific briefs that provide a roadmap for winning in round two.
For example, in the Louisiana report, the groups note that STEM, data
April 29, 2010
Is this the beginning of the end for last hired, first fired? At least a few cities facing budgetary difficulties have come to an obvious realization: Firing teachers based on seniority rather than performance is going to seriously damage the quality of their respective workforces. New York City Chancellor Joel Klein has gone straight to parents to rally his cause, arguing that because newer teachers tend to be concentrated in the neediest schools, last hired, first fired rules will unduly punish disadvantaged students. The Los Angeles Unified School District is contemplating a policy change too, egged on by the LA Times editorial board. “If there’s a silver lining to the dire school cutbacks,” it wrote on Monday, “it’s how much the public has learned about the arcane systems for compensating and laying off teachers and firing the incompetent ones.” And younger teachers themselves, targeted by said “arcane systems” are standing up for themselves; in New York, they’ve formed their own “union” of sorts called Educators 4 Excellence, urging Klein and NYC’s United Federation of Teachers to change the rules. Before the feds enact another misguided bailout for our schools, they might consider the salutary effect that scarcity can bring.
“Last Teacher In, First Out? City Has Another Idea,” by Jennifer Medina, New York Times, April 24, 2010.
“Opinion: Yes, blame the system,” Los Angeles Times, April 26, 2010
April 29, 2010
The U.K. may be America’s Motherland, but here’s one thing the Brits can learn from the Yankees: School choice alone is a mediocre route to school improvement. The British backlash to testing and accountability is both notable and understandable—and remarkably like the American response to the failings of No Child Left Behind. But whereas the U.S. is now moving towards refining that accountability system—through new “Common Core” standards, value-added testing, and improved and meaningful teacher evaluation systems—the U.K. Conservative Party wants to pull the accountability system apart. They’d create “Academies,” a U.K. version of American charters, allow schools to use higher-quality international tests over state ones, and raise the entrance standards for prospective teacher candidates. With grade and test-score inflation and curriculum narrowing running rampant, it’s easy to understand their frustration. But independent schools, more rigorous tests, and empowered parents aren’t going to spontaneously force the system to improve. The Tories would be smarter to argue for addition rather than subtraction—choice plus accountability, not choice instead of it. What about schools failing students now? And sub-par teachers in the classroom today? American conservatives are generally repulsed by David Cameron’s policies on the environment and social issues; here’s hoping they reject his education prescriptions, too.
“A Classroom Revolution,” The Economist, April 22, 2010
“The Conservative Manifesto 2010,” Conservatives.com
April 29, 2010
Missouri has announced it will merge its state boards of education for K-12 and higher ed. Echoing President Obama and other’s calls for a greater focus on college completion, the Show Me State wants to streamline the primary, secondary, and tertiary education systems. That’s all well and good, but really, Missouri, that’s the best you’ve got? In a period when states around the country are busting through data walls, knocking down charter caps, and ripping down teacher tenure rules in order to Race to the Top, all you’ve got is…merging two boards of education most Missourians, let alone the rest of us, have probably never heard of?
“Mo. Senate Approves Plan to Merge Education Boards,” The Associated Press, April 23, 2010
Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D. / April 29, 2010
J. Taylor, A.D. Roehrig, B. Soden Hensler, C.M. Connor, C. Schatschneider
April 23, 2010
This unique teacher effectiveness study examined the reading test scores of roughly 800 pairs of twins in 1st and 2nd grade Florida classrooms. Included were both identical twins, who share 100 percent of their genes, and fraternal twins who share roughly 50 percent. Because twins share these genetic similarities and also have the same family background—two factors that traditionally complicate teacher effectiveness studies—researchers could better isolate the role that teachers play in advancing student achievement. Analysts found that, among identical twins with different teachers, those whose teachers were deemed more effective—as measured by the gain scores of their entire class—tended to have higher scores on oral reading tests than their siblings who had less effective teachers. In addition, when examining both fraternal and identical twins, researchers concluded that, “Genetic variance in oral reading fluency was greater at higher levels of teacher quality.” Translation? When students have a good teacher, they are more likely to reach their genetic potential (and when they don’t, they are not). The study has several shortcomings, including not addressing factors like peer effects, operating in a short timeframe of observation, and holding a narrow view of reading aptitude (as gauged by oral reading fluency). It nonetheless adds to a voluminous pile of teacher effectiveness research that sing the same tune: Teachers matter a lot. Furthermore, studies like this begin to answer an
Janie Scull / April 29, 2010
Philip M. Sadler, Gerhard Sonnert, Robert H. Tai, and Kristin Klopfenstein, eds.
Harvard Education Press
This book looks at all angles of the College Board’s Advanced Placement program—from its origins and development, to the current condition and characteristics of successful (and not-so-successful) AP courses, students, and teachers, and from the correlation between the AP program and later college performance, to policy issues of finance and access. Authored by a smattering of education researchers, economists, teachers, professors, and subject-matter experts, the volume aims to inform key players—not just school personnel, but parents, college admissions officers, and policy makers. A few main takeaways permeate the various chapters: First, AP courses alone cannot solve problems of high-school achievement and college-preparedness. Pushing AP courses into low-performing schools does not automatically raise student achievement; federal and state subsidies might better be directed towards building strong foundations for students in early grades. Second, participation in the AP program does not predict future college success; on the other hand, passing an end-of-year AP test does. Again, resources for classes in which few students pass the final exam might better be directed towards improving less-advanced courses. Lastly, the College Board should post results at the school and district levels, to make it easier for parents and taxpayers to identify those with effective AP programs. On the whole, the book concludes that AP has managed to maintain a meaningful level rigor in the face of expansion, but that its limitations
Daniela Fairchild / April 29, 2010
Dan Goldhaber and Jane Hannaway, eds.
Urban Institute Press
Amidst a plethora of teacher quality literature, this book is not earth-shattering. But, featuring chapters from an onslaught of education reformers and economists (think Eric Hanushek, Paul Hill, and Frederick M. Hess), it leaves no human capital stone unturned, making it a good one-stop-shop for those interested in reforming teaching. It is divided into three sections: the current state of human capital in the context of teacher quality trends over time, shifts in private sector recruitment and selection, and other countries' attempts to improve teacher quality; how to reform technology, pensions, performance pay, and professional development in light of these current trends; and the responses to these reform suggestions of an ed school dean (David Monk), a big city superintendent (Joel Klein), a teacher union boss (Randi Weingarten), and a policy wonk (Andy Rotherham). This third section is perhaps the most interesting; its four authors were asked to read parts I and II and respond from both the perspective of their fields and the political feasibility of the reform solutions offered. Though Klein and Weingarten treat their respective chapters as bully pulpits for their agendae, Monk and Rotherham offer notable insight into, in particular, section II’s possible political hurdles. Buy it here.