Charters & Choice

Across the pond, education wonks plug away at solving problems and enacting reforms that will sound both familiar and not to our U.S. readers. Not least among these English reformers is Andrew Adonis: former Minister of Schools, advisor in the No. 10 Policy Unit under Tony Blair, and the well-known architect of the country’s burgeoning “academy” sector (what we would call “conversion charters”), built in reaction to high failure rates among non-selective public schools (over 50 percent were deemed to be failing in the 1990s). By the time Adonis left office in 2008, 133 academies were open and another 300 were in the pipeline. The book offers up both a history of England’s recent education-reform movement and a compelling personal account—followed by the author’s “Manifesto for Change,” a twelve-point plan for continued ed reform. Among these is a call for every underperforming public school to be replaced by an academy and for programs such as Teach First (the British counterpart of Teach For America) to be expanded.

SOURCE: Andrew Adonis, Education, Education, Education: Reforming England's Schools (London: Biteback, 2012).

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The introduction of the Common Core standards is shaking up the $7 billion textbook industry, according to this great piece by Sarah Garland. Traditionally monopolized by a few very large publishing Goliaths, such as Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the standards shift now favors small start-ups, which are nimbler and more eager to embrace change. Gadfly cheers the possibility that the Common Core could break up the behemoths’ oligopoly and pave the way for the little-but-fierce Davids, like Core Knowledge.

For the last few months, Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett has steadfastly refused to release $45 million of federal funds earmarked for the Philly schools until the teacher union agreed to major concessions, including a pay cut. But on Wednesday afternoon—with the union unwavering and civil-rights groups beginning to circle (and after the tragic death of young girl from asthma at a school that, due to budget cuts, did not have a nurse)—Corbett relented, arguing that he was satisfied with the other reforms made by the district. Which was probably the right call.

We know this much: Moody’s investment analysts don’t much care for parental choice, but they are concerned about the credit-worthiness of school districts. The latest Moody’s report shows that as charter schools gain public school market share in cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C., they’re putting financial stress on their local school systems, which have ended up with...

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We know this much: Moody’s investment analysts don’t care much for parental choice, but they care a lot about the credit-worthiness of school districts. A Moody’s report released this week shows that as charter schools gain public school market share in cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C., they’re putting financial stress on their local school systems, which have ended up with negative credit prospects due to the students they’ve lost. “Charter schools can pull students and revenues away from districts faster than the districts can reduce their costs,” the investor service reports.

Moody’s has its sights set on cities where more than a fifth of public school students are enrolled in charters. Its analysis, however, has several weaknesses and flimsy assumptions. The first has already been handily countered by Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, who correctly notes that cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia were distressed long before charters enrolled a significant share of public school students. Charters may not have made their job easier, but these school systems have been creeping toward insolvency and negative credit ratings on their own just fine.

More troubling is the underlying message from this reputable and ubiquitous credit-rating agency: It tells policymakers that their interest in charters and other alternative measures of public schooling has severe consequences. Moreover, it assumes the only way for districts to deal with growing charter enrollments is to get or maintain higher revenues (the better...

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As waves of reforms and would-be reforms have washed over American public education these past three decades, high schools have mostly stayed dry. Although test scores have risen slightly in the early grades, especially in math, National Assessment results for twelfth-graders have been flat or down a bit. SAT scores are also flat, and ACT averages much the same.

ACT, the organization that administers the college-entrance test of the same name, judges only one-quarter of its test-takers to be fully ready for college-level academics, and the College Board is not much cheerier. In releasing SAT results for the 1.6 million members of the high school class of 2013 who took the test, the board estimated that just 43 percent met its benchmark for college and career readiness—a score of 1550 or better (out of 2400), which translates to a 65 percent chance of having a B-minus (or better) GPA during the freshman year in college.

And that’s among those who stick it out and graduate from high school. Millions of young people drop out. School discipline remains appalling, with gangs, metal detectors, and violence the norm in many places.

The basic institutional structures for high school that former Harvard president James B. Conant described and recommended in an influential 1959 book remain pretty much unchanged a half-century later. The rest of the world has not...

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As former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, Lisa Graham Keegan knows a thing or two about education policy and the reforms that come with it. But in writing this book, she had a different goal in mind: to describe how she came to be a choice advocate and to provide a guide to other parents. With all the urgency of a politician but the patience of a mother—and she is most definitely both, as well as a smart, savvy, and likable human being—Keegan reviews her childhood, her career, and her experience raising four children in a piecemeal family of divorcees and step-moms. Drawing on these experiences, she reveals three “guideposts”: (1) Parents are and should be treated as sacred because children see themselves as reflections of their parents; (2) cultivate and cherish your children’s unique traits; and (3) see and help your children see their lives in a sacred context. Weaving in her background as a linguist and speech pathologist, Keegan illustrates how parents can provide their kids with what they know will help them succeed—and that’s communication. By age 3, the average child should know roughly 1,000 words. The problem is that three-year-olds living with uneducated parents know only 750 words—and those living on welfare know fewer than 500. For Keegan, properly communicating with your children is as essential as telling them they are loved. Her next book, she...

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Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate for mayor of New York City, is no friend of charter schools. He’s been clear, for instance, that if he steps foot in City Hall, Bloomberg’s policy of not charging them rent would be stopped and frisked. In response, 17,000 parents, students, and teachers marched across the Brooklyn Bridge on Tuesday in support of charter schools and Bloomberg’s education policies. For a particularly good summary of the issue, take a look at Daniel Henninger’s piece in the Wall Street Journal. For our analysis, check out this week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast.

North Carolina and Los Angeles have both encountered problems with their high-profile tablets-for-students programs. In North Carolina, around 10 percent of the 15,000 devices distributed have reportedly been defective, leading the state to suspend the program. And in L.A., some enterprising students managed to hack the tablets’ security filters (score for teenage resourcefulness—send them all to programming class!), leading officials to disallow taking the tablets off-campus—and boding ill for the program’s future after the school board reviews it later this month. While there’s no denying that tablets are the way of the future, there’s clearly some fine-tuning to be done.

Michael Brickman, Fordham’s national policy director, made it to NBC’s annual Education Nation wingding earlier this week. Here’s what he had to say: “The speakers were clearly top-notch. While the format...

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It’s no exaggeration to say that private school choice has been a success. Every serious study into the efficacy of vouchers and tax-credit scholarships has shown either positive or neutral benefits for students, and virtually no significant research has found any signs of academic harm to children. This makes the popular narrative about school choice—that vouchers have done little good because the students who participate don’t outperform their public school peers—all the more frustrating. The mainstream press has advanced this story line. The latest version comes from (semi-mainstream) Politico and reporter Stephanie Simon, who concluded in a 1,600-word story this past weekend that, as taxpayers prepare to direct $1 billion annually toward private school tuition, “there’s little evidence that the investment yields academic gains” and that the research literature on vouchers is “mixed.”

Mixed, they say? Consider, for instance, the work of Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas, who has examined the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship and found that it led to improved reading achievement among participants while also increasing a student’s chance of graduating high school by 21 percentage points. Consider, too, that random-assignment studies of privately funded voucher programs in New York, Dayton, and Charlotte found higher achievement levels on standardized tests or higher college-going rates, or both, particularly for black students. Other empirical studies led to findings that range from the positive competitive effects vouchers have on public schools to the ...

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In this week’s podcast, Mike and Brickman talk tablet woes (and praise teenage hackers for their healthy disrespect for authority), charter support in NYC, and the research on voucher effectiveness. Amber tells us about PISA for geezers. Amber's Research Minute OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First...

It’s not a radical statement to say that private school choice has been a success. Every serious study into the efficacy of vouchers and tax-credit scholarships has shown either positive or neutral benefits for students. Virtually no significant research has found that they have academically harmed children.

That makes the popular narrative about school choice all the more frustrating. It says vouchers have done little good because the students who take public money to private schools don’t outperform their peers left behind in school districts. The mainstream press has advanced this story line, asserting that the research literature on vouchers is “mixed.” The latest contribution to this comes from Politico, which concluded in a 1,600-word story this weekend that, as taxpayers prepare to direct $1 billion annually toward private school tuition, “there’s little evidence that the investment yields academic gains.”

Such a declaration, however, distorts the findings from multiple gold-standard and peer-reviewed studies, which are decidedly not mixed—if one’s definition of mixed means a combination of good and bad results. In that sense, the verdict on charter schools is mixed, but the judgment on vouchers is not.

The empirical record on vouchers reports either positive gains for scholarship recipients or no difference between voucher students and their public school peers, using a variety of student outcomes as an indicator (test scores, high school graduation, and college-going rates) and usually for a variety of student subgroups. Stephanie Simon of Politico correctly points to snapshots of voucher test results in...

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Education Gadfly Weekly

Opinion + Analysis: 
Opinion
Dear Deborah, We've been writing about the democratic control of education (or the lack thereof), but let me shift the conversation back to the education of democratic citizens . I strongly agree with those who argue that our current fascination with “college and career readiness” overlooks a third...
Opinion
As a Relinquisher , I’m weary of broad government mandates. I believe educators should run schools, parents should choose amongst these schools, and government should hold schools accountable for performance and equity. So what to make of the Common Core—which will be the broadest combination of...
Briefly Noted
The Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), which gives public dollars to low-income students to escape low-performing schools for private schools of their choosing, has come under fire from the Department of Justice for “ imped[ing] the desegregation processes ” of two dozen school districts. Not so...
Reviews: 
Report
The University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has emerged as the leading voice of reason on the vexing overlap between charter school policy and special education policy. In this new report, CRPE turned to Manhattan Institute scholar Marcus Winters to examine data...
Paper
As part of the AEI Teacher Quality 2.0 series, the authors of this paper take on the delicate issue of school-staffing design. In the first two pages, they rip apart arguments others have spent years carefully constructing: Teacher pay may be too low, but, they counter, across-the-board raises are...
Gadfly Studios: 
Podcast
In this week’s podcast, Mike and Michelle debate whether to teach family planning in schools, whether an extreme love of sports hinders academic achievement, and whether Michigan’s “count day” is a great way to distribute state education dollars (hint: it’s not). Amber asks us not to mind the...

Dear Deborah,

We've been writing about the democratic control of education (or the lack thereof), but let me shift the conversation back to the education of democratic citizens. I strongly agree with those who argue that our current fascination with “college and career readiness” overlooks a third, probably more important, c-word: citizenship. That's public education's raison d'etre, right? To prepare our young people to take their rightful place as voters, jurors, taxpayers, and leaders—to become “the people” that gives our government its legitimacy?

Many people are doing good work on this challenge; let me recommend that you check out the new group Citizenship First...

As a Relinquisher, I’m weary of broad government mandates. I believe educators should run schools, parents should choose amongst these schools, and government should hold schools accountable for performance and equity.

So what to make of the Common Core—which will be the broadest combination of federal- or state-initiated regulatory overhaul that we’ve seen in decades?

Admittedly, it took me a while to sort through my competing impulses. But here’s the path I followed:

Skepticism: The research on standards

1.    There’s very little evidence that higher standards lead to higher achievement. As ...

The Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), which gives public dollars to low-income students to escape low-performing schools for private schools of their choosing, has come under fire from the Department of Justice for “imped[ing] the desegregation processes” of two dozen school districts. Not so, says this new study in Education Next. In fact, the University of Arkansas authors find that the transfers resulting from the voucher program “overwhelmingly improve integration in the public schools students leave (the sending schools),...

The University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has emerged as the leading voice of reason on the vexing overlap between charter school policy and special education policy. In this new report, CRPE turned to Manhattan Institute scholar Marcus Winters to examine data from New York’s charter and traditional public schools to help explain why it is that charters enroll fewer special-education (SpEd) students. Just as CRPE previously argued, diagnosing and addressing this gap (around 4 percent, according to earlier estimates) requires nuance—and New York State lawmakers made a serious mistake by rushing enrollment quotas into law three years ago. Winters examined students in...

As part of the AEI Teacher Quality 2.0 series, the authors of this paper take on the delicate issue of school-staffing design. In the first two pages, they rip apart arguments others have spent years carefully constructing: Teacher pay may be too low, but, they counter, across-the-board raises are impossibly expensive for even profligate spenders ($16 billion per year, or roughly the entire Title I budget for just a $5,000 per teacher raise, according to their calculations). Professional development is also important, but won’t do much good when teachers have so little adult interaction and feedback. And of course we want able, motivated individuals to enter the profession, but they leave quickly when they find no pathway to advance professionally as they could and would in other lines of work. So what’s the alternative? The authors offer up several staffing models that have in...

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