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Friday, January 23, 2015

Stanford Study: U.S. Has Smallest Achievement Gap of Any Similar Country

For ages, it seems, this country has been obsessed with closing achievement gaps between demographic groups, whether by race, ethnicity or poverty. And we've seen some significant improvements in gaps, but they still exist, to the chagrin of many, including me.

However, a new study by Stanford of the United States' international testing performance (the overvaluation of which is an issue for another day) indicates that perhaps this achievement gap obsession is actually paying off.

The study found that the achievement here is smaller than any similar country.

Here are some of the findings:
  • "There is an achievement gap between more and less disadvantaged students in every country; surprisingly, that gap is smaller in the United States than in similar post-industrial countries, and not much larger than in the very highest scoring countries.
  • Achievement of U.S. disadvantaged students has been rising rapidly over time, while achievement of disadvantaged students in countries to which the United States is frequently unfavorably compared – Canada, Finland and Korea, for example – has been falling rapidly.
  • But the highest social class students in United States do worse than their peers in other nations, and this gap widened from 2000 to 2009 on the PISA.
  • U.S. PISA scores are depressed partly because of a sampling flaw resulting in a disproportionate number of students from high-poverty schools among the test-takers. About 40 percent of the PISA sample in the United States was drawn from schools where half or more of the students are eligible for the free lunch program, though only 32 percent of students nationwide attend such schools."
This result points out something pretty significant: all the efforts, including our more controversial shift to more test taking accountability over the last 30 years has worked to some extent for our nation's neediest youth (yet, interestingly, it hasn't worked as well for our nation's highest performers).

So on this, our education reform efforts have had success. Now the bigger question is, does it matter? Time will likely tell the whole story. And was it worth it? Time, too, will tell that story. Is it worth giving 8 year olds test anxiety? Are the better results indicative of a better, more vibrant economy? Is the achievement gap improvement going to improve the lives of traditionally disadvantaged youth? Last I checked, the African-American unemployment rate of 16-24 year olds remained double that of their white countrymen, despite the improved achievement gap. 

And this brings me to my main point -- one that is espoused by Yong Zhao and others -- do these tests have any bearing on a country's health or future success? We've never scored well on international tests, yet we've been the world's dominant political and economic power for the better part of 8 decades. We have the world's best overall quality of life and most stable democracy. And this is with our kids scoring at or near the bottom of international tests.

Maybe we should fixate less on our achievement gaps on these tests that seem to have very little predictive impact on a country's future well being and figure out how to close our most troubling gap -- the employment gap. Education can play a roll. But if this data indicates anything, it's that closing education gaps can't fix our employment issues all by themselves. That requires more work.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Ohio Auditor: Charters have far fewer students than state pays them to educate

In a disturbing new report from State Auditor David Yost, officials found that at one Ohio charter school, the state was paying the school to educate about 160 students, yet none, that's right, zero, were actually at the school.

And that's just the worst of a really chilling report, which, if the results are extrapolated across the life of the Ohio charter school program, means taxpayers have paid more than $2 billion for kids to be educated in charter schools who weren't even there.

Here are the takeaways:

  • Seven of 30 schools had headcounts more than two standard deviations below the amount the school told the state it had.
  • Nine of 30 schools that had headcounts at least 10% below what the charter told the state it had, though it was less than two standard deviations.
  • The remaining 14 had headcounts that weren't off by as much.
  • However, 27 of 30 schools had fewer students at the school than they were being paid to educate by the state
This means that more than 1/2 of all the charter schools chosen at random had significantly fewer students attending their schools than the state was paying them to educate, while 90% had at least some fewer amount. 

This is a big deal because charter schools are paid out of state revenue originally intended for school districts. If that money isn't actually educating those students, then the children in the local districts are being hurt twice -- once because they have significantly less state revenue anyway due to the charter school deduction, then again because the money is going to a school that isn't even educating those students.

Yost came up with several recommendations, including more frequent counts, better reporting and practices that allow sponsors and the state to better flag potential issues. But the point is this: We've had charters for 16 years in Ohio. We've spent now about $8.3 billion on them (through the first January payment report). If the headcounts have been as off as they were during this random audit, which was an average of 28%, during the life of the charter school program, then we've paid $2.3 billion for kids that weren't even in the charter schools. I'm not saying that's how much has been spent, but it tells you something of the scale of Yost's results. 

And remember this audit came during the height of what has been an unprecedented level of charter school scrutiny in this state, so you would think charters would be minding even more Ps and Qs than usual.

Kudos to Yost for doing this much needed work. Now it's up the legislature to fix this before any more tax dollars are wasted. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Biggest Obstacle to Ohio Charter Reform in Two Charts

Yes, there is hope that Ohio will finally get its act together and clean up our charter school laws. However, here are two charts that suggest it's going to be harder than having a few influential people say the right things.

What do you notice about the patterns between state money going to charter school operators and their campaign contributions? That's right. The pattern is strikingly similar. The more state money goes to these big operators, the more campaign contributions politicians receive.

Over at, we just did a report that outlines the issues here, as well as delineating some examples in the recent past of these big contributors getting what they want. We must remain vigilant and look out for any exemptions, grandfathering or delays in implementation of these new charter reforms, whatever they look like. They must apply to all charters, operators and sponsors. Now. And without exception. 

We've had charters for 16 years. And some of the schools run by these two operators have been around for more than a decade, mostly failing kids while forcing districts across the state to subsidize their operations with locally raised tax dollars. Why would we give them another 5 years to keep failing? 

One answer may be found in the first chart above. Let's hope it's not. For our kids' sake.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Ohio Falls from 5th to 18th in EdWeek Rankings

In 2010, Ohio, for once, could crow about its education achievements. The state had just passed a landmark education reform plan that won the Frank Newman Award from the Education Commission of the States, denoting the country's most "bold, courageous, non-partisan" education reform of the year. That package included a new school funding system that the folks who sued the state over its old funding system said put us on the path to constitutionality.

About this same time, Education Week put out its annual Quality Counts report and rated Ohio's education system as the country's 5th best overall -- the state's highest rank ever on that report.

Fast forward to this year. The state ditched that award-winning finance system and reforms. In its place, the current governor tried to replace it with one that was so panned in 2013 that the legislature essentially dropped it and adopted a funding scheme from 2005. The state's charter school system has become a national embarrassment. And then today, EdWeek released its Quality Counts report. And now, Ohio's education system ranks 18th in the country.

Now there are issues with EdWeek's rankings, as there are with any rankings. But the Quality Counts report is put out by a serious publication and impartial journalists who look at many measures of success and struggle. It's about as unbiased and quality an overall assessment of the country's education system as you could find.

In 2010, only Maryland, Massachusetts, Virginia and New York rated ahead of Ohio. Now it's those four plus Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, North Dakota, Maine, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Delaware. Only 13 states had a bigger dip in rank during that time period.

What could account for the drop? Any one of a number of things have played a part. But suffice to say, Ohio's leaders have overseen a precipitous drop in Ohio's education system -- a drop that our kids simply can't afford. As a parent of two school-aged children, I want action.

While much of Ohio's education policy air has been sucked up by the debate over charter schools, their efficacy and what to do about them, I hope legislators and leaders take note of our precipitous drop in these rankings. Many of Ohio's education policy struggles stem from our state's charter school disaster. But these rankings indicate that perhaps there's more going on.

Remember that 90 percent of our state's children do not attend charter schools. Let's not, I pray, forget their needs. For we do at our peril.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

First Day Turmoil in Ohio Legislature?

I have to say that I was a bit surprised by the recent rhetoric of the leaders in the House and Senate regarding education.

In the Senate, where many of the most reasonable and practical legislators on the issue are genuinely working toward meaningful improvements, President Keith Faber went to his "education deregulation" card and talked about how more money isn't the answer to education. It's hard to square this "we'll cut money for you, but don't worry, we'll cut mandates so you won't complain too much" philosophy with the serious minds in that chamber.

Meanwhile, in the House, where members of the Education Committee actually want to eliminate the public education system, cut $5,000 checks to parents and let them send their kids where they can afford -- quality be damned -- Speaker Cliff Rosenberger (who infamously took a junket  to Turkey with the embattled Gulen affiliated schools) talked about trying to figure out how to improve the chances of all students' success.

For the last several years, the reasoned, practical and most thoughtful voices on education have resided in the Senate, while the more strident and damaging voices resided in the House (thanks in no small measure to the hatred of teacher unions and love for charter school operator David Brennan displayed by Speaker William Batchelder). It seems as if the current leaders in the two chambers, though, have very different visions from their rank and file.

Of course there is a huge caveat here: first-day legislative rhetorical rarely, if ever, turns into reality.
I just find it fascinating to see whose vision ends up ruling the day in the Ohio House and Senate. The pull and tug between leaders and members on this issue will be interesting to watch.

So stay tuned.

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 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.