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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dispatch's Unfortunate Defense of Failure

In today's Columbus Dispatch, its editorial writers stood up for failing charter schools, choosing instead to nitpick a website that has proven an invaluable resource to parents, policymakers and media alike.

Let me dispatch their claims summarily here:

  1. KnowYourCharter.com only compares school districts with charter schools, rather than school buildings with charter schools. Charter schools are considered school districts by the state for funding purposes -- at the insistence of charter schools. They are considered districts by the federal government for grant purposes. Some are many times larger than many of Ohio's school districts. They are funded by state money intended for school districts, not buildings. And we at KnowYourCharter.com have said that at some point we may add building-level data. But to act like comparing districts to charters is somehow indefensible is a joke. And the claim that KnowYourCharter.com is trying to hide poor performance in urban districts? On the KnowYourCharter.com site, 53% of urban district grades are Fs. Meanwhile, 44% of charter school grades are Fs. What are we hiding exactly? Oh yeah, it also shows that just under half of all kids in charters don't come from the urban districts. So maybe it's not fair to judge charter schools only against urban districts anymore?
  2. KnowYourCharter.com doesn't acknowledge that some charters have tough populations of children to educate. Yes it does. You just have to read and make a single mouse click. It displays what percentage of students are economically disadvantaged. It displays the demographic background of the students. It displays how long students are in the school. For dropout recovery schools, it does not display any grades because they are on a different accountability system and don't get report card grades, though prior to the new system they typically scored far worse than other schools. At some point, KnowYourCharter.com will probably show that the state thinks graduating 7.2% of kids in four years at these schools is perfectly acceptable. To say KnowYourCharter.com doesn't acknowledge the difficult populations is profoundly inaccurate.
  3. KnowYourCharter.com doesn't mention that Ohio's schools get local money. Every taxpayer in the state knows local districts get money. What the Dispatch fails to understand is that because the state gives more money to a child in a charter than that child would have received in the district, kids not in charters get substantially less state revenue than the state says they need to succeed -- a data point that had not been prominently displayed until KnowYourCharter.com came around (though we at Innovation Ohio had done several policy reports about this). But what bothers the Dispatch is not that kids in Columbus, even in the city's highest performing buildings, get $1,063 fewer state dollars every year because that district's charter deduction is so huge. What bothers them is we didn't mention that districts get local money too. Never mind that the local money has to be even greater than it needs to be because the district loses so much money to charters. 
  4. Performance Index means nothing. What matters is student growth. Okay. Let's say this again. First of all, the student growth data is exactly one mouse click away and is on the website. I know, some chore to get to, right? Second, the Performance Index Score is what determines whether a charter school can open in your district. If you're in the bottom 5% of the PI, a charter can open in your district. Yet the Dispatch says it's unreasonable to use PI to compare charter performance. And finally, the Ohio Alliance of Public Charter Schools uses the PI to determine its Charter School of the Year. But the Dispatch thinks it's unreasonable to use PI to grade charter schools. Why is the PI all right to use for high-performing charters, but not the low performers? 
What disturbs me most about the Dispatch editorial is that it ignored the biggest issue of all: the data. What matters is how we displayed it, not that it demonstrates how poor Ohio's charter school performance is. We displayed 26 different data points for comparison. How many more does the Dispatch need? Give me a break.

I can only conclude that the Dispatch did all these backflips to ignore the data that indicate kids in both charters and districts are being hurt by the current system because they don't like who did a website that, by their own admission, is "marvelously easy" and "couldn't be much more user-friendly."

Wow. Just. Wow.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Mass. Teaches Ohio How to Hold Charters Accountable

I was sent an interesting story from Massachusetts today that highlighted one of the major issues with how Ohio administers its charter school program. In the story, it is revealed that within 4 years of opening, Massachusetts' Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School has been put on probation for failing to meet state standards and not providing meaningful experiences for special education or English language learners. And it appears they were warned after three years to get their act together.

Seems that Massachusetts is following what the Stanford CREDO study found on charter school performance -- namely "WYSIWYG" -- what you see is what you get. Charters tend not to improve much when they're in place, and the best way to improve charter school performance, again according to CREDO, is eliminate as many poor performers as quickly as possible.

Why does this matter for Ohio? First of all, Greenfield is run by the infamous K-12, Inc., which runs the second-largest for-profit school in the country, the Ohio Virtual Academy (eclipsed in size by Ohio's own Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow). K-12, Inc. also opened up a new online school last year called the Insight School of Ohio.

See, here's the issue: Ohio's K-12 operation has had the exact same issues as its Massachusetts affiliate, yet has operated since the 2002-2003 school year unimpeded with little fear of closure any time soon. Oh, and did I mention that the NCAA won't accept OHVA diplomas? There's that too. At least the Massachusetts school didn't make that list.

OHVA received Fs on the last report card for the measures that determine whether the school is meeting state standards, student growth among special education students and whether achievement gaps exist between English language learners -- the very subjects that caused Massachusetts' concerns.

Ohio doesn't issue specific grades for how well schools serve the needs of English language learners. The only measure that includes performance gaps among English language learners is something called AMO, which measures performance gaps between demographics groups, English language learners, and special education kids, among others. On that, OHVA got an F.

So on all the measures that Massachusetts was concerned enough about to put the school on probation after 4 years, Ohio's operation gets to operate for three times that long without any similar concern.

Here's why: Contrary to the CREDO findings, Ohio gives way too many chances for charter schools to fail. First of all, schools in their first two years of operation don't have their report cards count for closure purposes. So that's two years of mulligans. Then they can fail for 2 out of 3 years, if they're serving grades lower than high school, and 3 out of 4 if they're serving high school kids. So that means they can stay open another 3-4 years. Then once they've been told they're closing, they can operate for one final year before being shut down. So that means they can operate (depending on which grade levels they serve) for as many as 7 years before actually closing. And don't talk to me about how loose the standards are for the state's worst performing charter schools -- dropout recovery schools.

I urge everyone to go to www.KnowYourCharter.com and check out OHVA's performance. Then realize that since the school opened in the 2002-2003 school year (including this school year), it will have collected $572.3 million from state taxpayers -- money that was meant to be spent in school districts. And OHVA received more state funding per pupil (without buildings, buses, lunch ladies, janitors, etc.) in the 2012-2013 school year than 563 of Ohio's 612 school districts.

Ohio needs to wake up.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Imagine Schools to Teachers: "Let Them Eat Cake"

I'm rarely surprised anymore. That's one of age's few gifts. But today, I was just stunned by what the for-profit charter school operator Imagine Schools told one of their school boards yesterday. The board told Imagine that they would rather pay their teachers more money than the exorbitantly high rent they're paying Imagine for their building. The Imagine Schools spokesman said the board should think of other ways to "celebrate" the teachers "such as having cake for them at the next board meeting."

I'm sure the school's teachers will appreciate their sheet cake. The $26,929 those school's teachers make a year, by the way, is about $1,000 under the poverty line for a family of 5, and would qualify these teachers for welfare benefits in many cases. So I'm sure they will love their cake because it will help them pay the rent.

Or not.

Imagine Schools needs to brush up on French History. Telling people to eat cake rather than pay them hasn't worked out so well.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In Defense of Transparency

I certainly expected Ohio charter school advocates to say bad things about www.KnowYourCharter.com. I've been in the middle of these Ohio education wars for too long not to expect the attacks. It didn't surprise me to hear advocates claim that the thing was put out by a teacher's union. So of course it's an attack on charters! Right?

Well, not really. What it is is transparency. And transparency is not all together kind to Ohio's charter schools. There are 26 comparative measures on www.KnowYourCharter.com. How many are on the only similar site to it -- The Cleveland Transformation Alliance? That's right. Three. Three vs. 26. Yet to see the Cleveland Plain Dealer's news story about Know Your Charter, you would think the level of transparency was comparable. I've included the list of comparisons for you. Be the judge. Are these site's transparency even comparable?

Know Your Charter
Cleveland Transformation Alliance
Students
Achievement
Attendance Rate
Student Growth
FT Teachers
Graduation Rate
Student/Teacher Ratio
Avg. Teacher Experience
Teachers with Masters Degrees
Students in Poverty
Special Needs Students
Gifted Students
White Students
Non-White Students
% of Students at school less than 3 years
% of Expenditures spent in Classroom
% of Expenditures spent on Administration
State Funding Per Student
Performance Index Score
Performance Index Score Grade
Performance Indicators Met Grade
Overall Value Added Grade
Gifted Value Added Grade
Disabled Value Added Grade
Lowest 20% Value Added Grade
AMO Grade
3rd Grade Reading Guarantee Pass rate
# of Kids eligible for 3rd Grade Reading Guarantee

# of Kids who scored above the threshold

I told the PD reporter that Know Your Charter is very complementary with the Alliance's site. The more transparency, the merrier. But there is zero, and I mean zero competition between Know Your Charter and the Transformation Alliance. We weren't trying to undermine them at all. We were trying to add onto the work they've done in Cleveland so that parents can make more informed decisions about their children's educations, and the public can look behind the curtain.

Did we post every single data point on Know Your Charter? No. We did not. We didn't, for example, post graduation rates, even though that series would make charter schools look even more horrendous. Nor did we include the total expenditures in each sector, which would show that the average brick-and-mortar charter school actually spends more per pupil than the average Ohio school district. We didn't include building-level data, which would show how buildings in even the Big 8 urban districts outperform their charter counterparts, despite having significantly higher rates of poverty. And at some point, we will add additional data points.

But c'mon. There are 26 data points! How many more do you need to tell you there are serious issues in Ohio's charter school sector? 5? 50? 1,876,546,756? Because I've got news for you: None make Ohio charters look great. None. Some make them look not quite as bad. But let's face it, they're still really bad in the vast majority of cases. 

Look, I'm sorry that transparency makes charter schools look bad. I'm sorry for the taxpayers who have forked over $8 billion to these things since 1999. I'm sorry for the kids who aren't in charters and lose upwards of $1,000 a year in state funding because the state sees fit to fund these things at such a bloated level. But most of all, I'm sorry for the parents and children in charter schools who were sold a bill of goods that has, in the overwhelming majority of cases, turned out to be no more than snake oil.

Our state's leaders and the responsible members of the charter advocacy community need to admit there are major problems in Ohio's charter schools. Not every state's system is so messed up. We can learn from others. And we can also teach others how to do this better. And to their credit, some in the charter community have spoken up.

Charter schools are an important option for many parents. They are not the panacea for the struggles of public education, nor are they the death knell of public education. They can work. But in Ohio, they don't. And until those who believe strongest in charter schools' efficacy actually stand up and demand better, rather than slamming people who are trying to shine light on the problem because it scatters too many roaches, then I fear our taxpayers, parents, and most importantly, our kids will continue to drink snake oil, hoping for miracles.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Why Do Charter School Advocates Make False Claims Easily Checked?

They're at it again. In a story contained in Gongwer (a paid site), Darlene Chambers, CEO and President of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools claimed that a fact on the new website http://KnowYourCharter.com (whose data I compiled) was wrong.
The charter advocacy group said, for example, the website says Stambaugh Charter Academy in Youngstown had "100% of students at school less than 3 years." The school's sponsor says the figure is not accurate.
"Stambaugh is a high quality school with a high student retention rate," Ms. Chambers said.
As a former reporter, I got that sinking feeling reporters always get when we find out something we print could be wrong. Then I checked it. Here's the actual data from the actual Ohio Department of Education spreadsheet:


As you can see, all children at Stambaugh were in the Charter less than 3 years, as reported to ODE -- the exact thing Know Your Charter reports. So the only specific criticism of the website offered by OAPCS is actually dead wrong.

I would hope that the OAPCS would be willing to issue a retraction of their statement to Gongwer. We need OAPCS to be forceful advocates for Charter School transparency and accountability, not complicit bystanders in their struggles.

Our kids deserve nothing less.

Know Your Charter

Today at Innovation Ohio, we launched a new online tool called http://knowyourcharter.com/. On it, you will be able to compare Charter and Traditional Public School data side-by-side. It essentially boils down 18 Ohio Department of Education spreadsheets into one, easy-to-use format, adding an additional layer of transparency to this $914 million education sector.

One thing that I think this site will do is keep people like me honest. For example, when Fordham published a report published yesterday in Hannah saying how Charter Schools outperform schools in Ohio's major urban centers on Value-Added Measures, you can look at their methodology and see how shaky it is.

  • They didn't include any Charters that were closed after the end of the year, even if it was for academic failure
  • They didn't include any virtual schools, even though the urban districts lose more than $55 million a year to virtual schools
  • They didn't include any special education schools, even though there's a specific value-added measure examining the academic growth of disabled kids
  • They didn't include any of the state's 90 dropout recovery Charter Schools, which in some cases graduate 2 of 155 kids
  • They didn't mention that about half of all the money going to Charter Schools does NOT come from the urban core districts, so why are we limiting the comparison to districts from which only about 1/2 of the kids in Charters come from?
Go to http://knowyourcharter.com/ and you can find out pretty quick just how meaningful these methodological issues are with Fordham's analysis. This isn't to pick on Fordham, but it's also to let you know you can use the site to double check what I do to.

It is true that transparency is the best disinfectant. So please, disinfect away!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ohio: Charters' 7.2% Grad Rate "Meets Standards". Really????

In the lame duck 2005-2006 legislative session, Ohio's legislature and historically unpopular Gov. Bob Taft exempted Ohio's Dropout Recovery Charter Schools from having to adhere to any new closure standards. In exchange, the State Board of Education had to develop operating standards for these schools by December 2007.

However, those standards were never adopted. Instead, Dropout Recovery Charter Schools operated without fear of closure, which made their operators -- including notorious political donor David Brennan's Life Skills Centers -- lots of money.

The state finally adopted Dropout Recovery standards a couple years ago. In exchange, these Charter Schools (now 90 strong) receive their own, much more lenient report card. This year was the first for Dropout Recovery Schools to have measurable data. And wow do these data raise serious questions about whether the state has any meaningful operating standards for these schools.

According to the Dropout Recovery report card, a 7.2% four-year graduation rate is designated "meets standards" (in which case, the Charter wouldn't close) while a 30% rate exceeds them. Wow. Really? 7.2%? 30%?

Sheesh but that's awful. Now, I understand that dropout recovery schools have a very challenging population of kids. I get it. But are we really going to say that spending $117.3 million on these 90 schools is a good use of taxpayer money? Dropout recovery is among the most important functions of our educational institutions. These are our most at-risk kids.

Yet the state says that if only 8 out of 111 eligible graduates graduate -- as is the case at Life Skills Center of Columbus North -- then the school has met the state's "rigorous" standards? Wow. Just. Wow.

The average graduation rate (dropout recovery schools are tracked for 4, 5, 6, and 7 years) is about 20-25% (take Life Skills out of the equation, and the rate jumps almost 5%). Shouldn't that be meeting standards? The highest 4-year graduation rate is 88.9% at Franklin Local Community School. I would think any rate over 50% would exceed standards, right? Wrong. It's 30%.

Life Skills Centers -- the largest single group of Dropout Recovery Charters -- are especially horrendous at graduating children, which I thought was the whole point of dropout recovery. They single handedly drag down the overall Dropout Recovery graduation rate by about 5% and represent 6 of the 11 Dropout Recovery schools that "Does Not Meet Standards" for four-year graduation rates in Ohio's eyes. But given that their operator, White Hat Management, is run by David Brennan, who has given $4 million to Ohio politicians, does it surprise you that these standards are so low?

And to add insult to injury, even the Life Skills Centers (whose diplomas at one time weren't accepted by the military) that graduate 2 out of 155 kids (yes, Life Skills of Northeast Ohio owns this shameful graduation rate) and fail to meet even these ridiculously low standards can stay open in perpetuity. How? By simply improving their graduation rate (and test scores) 10% a year for two consecutive years, thanks to Mr. Brennan's friends in the legislature and Governor's mansion.

So, let's do some math. The 2 out of 155 kids that graduate from Life Skills of Northeast Ohio is a 1.3% graduation rate. Improving by 10% a year for two years would put that rate at 1.573%. How many more kids is that? .43. That's right. If Life Skills of Northeast Ohio graduates the equivalent of .43 of a student more over the next not one, but two years, the school gets to stay open. That's right. He doesn't have to graduate even 1 more kid. They don't even have to improve to 7.2% and graduate 9 more kids to "Meet Standards." They just have to graduate a fraction of one more.

I wish I was joking.

Now, that, is a loophole. And that, my friends is what $4 million will buy you -- the right to run horrible schools and collect billions. Brennan has collected more than $1 billion in state revenue since Charters started in 1999 without ever testifying before the Ohio General Assembly. In fact, about 15 cents of every dollar spent on Ohio charters since 1999 ($7.4 billion total) has gone to Mr. Brennan. Let's see: turning $4 million into $1 billion.

Anyone want that return on investment? Tough to beat 25,000%.

Perhaps that's how Mr. Brennan can afford a $10 million Naples, Fla. home and guest home (the most expensive multi-million dollar property on Naples' ritzy Nelsons Walk, according to the Collier County Auditor's property appraisal office).

David Brennan's $10 million Naples property
Source: Collier County, Fla. Auditor

Don't forget that Gov. John Kasich's most recent budget gave the biggest per pupil increases to (wait for it) Life Skills Centers. Funny how that works, isn't it?

For our state's most at-risk kids, that's not funny. It's awful.

Dropout Recovery Charter Schools in Ohio are a mess. We know how to best prevent dropouts. Among those strategies -- early childhood education, family engagement teams (which Ohio paid for in the Evidence Based Model, but not anymore), and tutoring (also paid for in the Evidence-Based Model, but not anymore). Let's do what we know works.

Let's stop giving David Brennan $17.5 million, or more than $8,400 per pupil (a greater per pupil sum than the state gives to all but 3 public school districts, and more than double what the state spends -- $3,920 -- on average in all districts) to graduate 113 of the 1,496 kids in his care last year at all Life Skills Centers. Two of his schools aren't rated yet by the state, so the graduation rate is probably even worse than that.

By the way, that's a mighty lofty 7.6% graduation rate for Life Skills. That would "meet standards" in Ohio's eyes. I know. Horrific, right?

You, dear reader, know that I'm not one for eliminating Charters. I want great educational experiences for all kids, regardless of school type. But these Dropout Recovery "standards" are an embarrassment. All they do is hurt our most vulnerable children and let profiteers live lavishly.

What a travesty.