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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cincy Enquirer Tackles School Funding

The Cincinnati Enquirer took on the broader issue of school funding in Ohio (and Kentucky) in a Tuesday editorial. While its point -- that communities and schools need to do a better job of supporting one another -- is an important one, the saddest part of the editorial for me was this section:
But fixing education is about more than passing tax levies. Behind the financial crisis is a crisis of confidence.
This is a resignation to the idea that passing levies is schools' only hope: The state is a lost cause.

Earlier in the editorial, the writers noticed that within a year the number of school districts that reported budget deficits went from less than half to two out of three. What changed? The state made massive cuts and federal stimulus money dried up. And while the Enquirer made the connection, they simply left it at that.

No demand for the state to live up to its constitutional obligation and reduce the reliance on property taxes to pay for schools. No suggestion to have the public demand such things of their state legislators or Governor. No reminder that for 15 years the state has been required to develop a funding formula that accurately measures the needs of students, then significantly reduces property taxes to pay for those needs. No reminder that the state instead has responded by not having a funding formula for the next two years and slashing state funding by nearly 20% relative to inflation over the last 10 years. And yes, no mention that with the Evidence Based Model, the state had promised to provide up to $400 per $100,000 home in property tax relief over the next 10 years, but the legislature reneged on that promise almost as soon as it was made.

The answer for the Enquirer is this: Districts and communities need to develop better public relations so they can pass more levies, thus increasing our reliance on property taxes to pay for schools.

I know some may think I'm beating a dead horse here, but I learned something from one of my life mentors: If they're getting away with it, it's your fault. State leaders can only get away scot-free from their constitutional obligations if we let them. So let's not let them. This is exemplified with the Cleveland Plan, whose only source of new revenue would come from a massive, new levy in November, whose passage is certainly questionable. Not a single penny is being asked of from the state.

Do I think communities and districts need better partnerships to develop a better likelihood of levy success? Of course. More important, though, is a renewed effort to hold state lawmakers and leaders accountable for forcing districts and communities to make pre-emptive cuts so they can perhaps pass levies that still won't provide adequate resources for every kid in Ohio to receive a world-class education, as they deserve.

However, I understand where the Enquirer is coming from, given Ohio's struggles with this issue.
It is also time for communities to realize that they, not the state or federal government, are the only short-term salvation for local schools, and that educational stability is a key foundation for economic recovery, and continuing to build a strong citizenry.
More stable than that? What the state's framers envisioned: a thorough and efficient state system of education that the state, not local communities, is responsible for funding and leading.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Cautious Optimism in Cleveland

Progress was made yesterday on the Cleveland Plan, as Mayor Frank Jackson agreed to the Cleveland Teachers Union's proposal to base layoffs first on teacher evaluations, then on tenure and seniority.

While a big step, major hurdles remain on the following issues, according to the Plain Dealer account:
The two sides remain far apart, however, on Jackson's push to wipe out all previous contracts and start fresh with new contract negotiations. The union also disagrees with Jackson's proposal to give district Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon broad powers to lay off or fire teachers to remake any failing school.


Union President David Quolke likened those items to Senate Bill 5, the controversial state law that limited collective bargaining but was repealed sharply by voters in November. Quolke objected to Jackson seeking to have the disputed provisions introduced in the legislature this week, instead of trying to resolve them with the union first.

"The legislation should not be introduced with these two Senate Bill 5 pieces," he said. "We do not believe if we're having productive dialogue that we should jump to legislation." 
Again, as I've said before, why the Mayor and other Cleveland Plan supporters put anything remotely resembling SB 5 into their plan a few months after SB 5 was defeated by more than 20 points at the polls, I will never understand. It seems politically tone deaf to me.

Regardless, it was a good sign that the Mayor was willing to listen to the teachers about their significant movement on the layoff provision. While tenure and seniority will still play a roll, the teachers' compromise effectively eliminates tenure and seniority. That's because those two provisions will only come into play if teachers' evaluations are the same. Evalutions will determine all but a few layoffs, for the likelihood of two teachers' evaluations being exactly the same seems remote to me.

It is impossible to overstate how significant a concession this is for Cleveland's teachers.

The Plain Dealer story did not mention other concerns with the plan, like giving local revenue to Charter Schools, but if yesterday's agreement is any indication, it looks like Mayor Jackson and the Cleveland teachers are working together toward a better day for Cleveland's kids.

And that is a good thing.

Monday, March 12, 2012

New Report Card: State of State School Overrated

Apparently, Gov. John Kasich's choice of State of the State venue was overrated.

Kasich caused a tizzy when he chose to move the annual speech to Wells Academy in Steubenville, citing how it is doing great things despite budget challenges -- not so subtly suggesting that money doesn't matter as much to academic performance as commitment, vision and innovative adaptability to tough budget times.

However, Ohio's proposed waiver from No Child Left Behind contains a new Report Card system that State Superintendent Stan Heffner claims will give Ohioans a clearer indication of its schools' performance. And under that new system, Wells Academy goes from an A on the report card to a B.

Is this evaluation really more accurate? Or is it the result of a ham-handed evaluation tool that hurts schools like Wells Academy, which overcome demographic challenges to be considered great enough to host an important gubernatorial address?

The new Report Card is based largely on standardized tests, which are tremendously influenced by demographics. Under this new system, a building and district's ratings are even more dependant upon their demographics than the prior system, which was pretty well dependant upon demographics as well.

Note: According to an Excel regression analysis of ODE data on the new system at the district level, demographics (poverty, income, property valuation, teacher salaries, educational attainment levels, etc.) produce an R-squared value of .48 for the new system vs. an R-squared of .45 for the previous system. The closer to 1 (or -1), the stronger the correlation.

This could explain why Wells Academy now rates a B rather than an A because its demographics are not favorable. So if the evaluation system's more dependant on them, Wells will seem less successful under that evaluation. But is Wells, in fact, less successful than the Governor and nearly every other education observer in this state thought? And if the new system made a mistake on Wells, what about the other districts and buildings?

For the issue isn't just at Wells Academy. Of the 3,409 school buildings rated under the old system, more than 77 percent rate worse under the proposed system, according to ODE projections. And that's assuming that the Excellent with Distinction buildings under the old 5-point Report Card, which equates to an A+, would rate the same under the new 4-point system the department's assuming (which doesn't include A+, just an A). So it's probably an even higher percentage.

Only 40 buildings improve, which means that barely 1 percent of buildings were underrated by the old system. Meanwhile, more than three-quarters of buildings were overrated. Can that even be possible?

Meanwhile, more than 83 percent of school districts were overrated, while none, that's right, not a single Ohio school district was underrated by the previous system.

I hope folks ask a simple question: "Was the old system that off?"

Roosevelt Elementary in Springfield (right in my backyard here near Akron) was an "Effective" building under the old system, meaning it rated a B. Under the new system, it's an F. Three ISUS Charter Schools in Dayton were rated Excellent under the old system, an A. Under the new, they all get Ds.

Meanwhile, the only schools that actually improve under the new system are 40 schools that improve from Academic Emergency under the old system -- an F, to a D under the new system. No building improved more than one step. And no building rated above an F in the old system improves under the new system.

One would think if you were creating a more accurate system, there would be corrections in both directions, certainly not all in one direction.

Charter Schools' rating changes are interesting. While 83 percent of school districts saw their grade levels drop, only 55 percent of Charters saw them drop (perhaps because more of them rated poorly under the old system and had less room to drop). Meanwhile, 45 percent of Charters stayed the same or improved under the new Report Card, though improvement was relegated to previously failing charters.

One side effect of this is that fewer Charters would be up for closing under the new system, assuming the same standards that applied under the old report card are transferred to the new one.

The performance differences remain stark between Charters and Districts. Only 10 percent of Charters rate B or higher on the new system (nearly 3 in 4 rate D or F), with some of the better thought of Charters slipping from As or A+s under the old system to Bs in the current one, like Wells Academy did on the Traditional side.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of school districts rate B or better on the new report card, with about 10 percent rating D or F.

Despite these clear questions about the new Report Card's methodology, all I really care about is this question: Now what?

What's the state's plan to improve these schools, since the Ohio Constitution and State Supreme Court have found education to be a state responsibility in Ohio? Will cutting more money from the state budget help districts be more innovative? Can the improvement happen with the same amount the state's spending, just with better, more focused programming? Will local taxpayers have to tax themselves at higher rates so districts have the necessary resources to meet the tougher standards certain to come down from the state? Will districts be able to pass levies now when they are considered B and C districts rather than A and B districts?

These are just some of the many questions the state and districts now face.

Again, I would like to see a system that rates districts not so much on their proficiency rates, which are so heavily influence by demographics, but upon their relative success in overcoming those barriers. So, for example, a Performance Index score of 82 may be phenomenal in some districts, but in the wealthier ones, that would be a terrible score. So the district where 82 is great should have that score weighted to account for their greater challenges.

In other words, Wells Academy should take its rightful place as a source of pride for the community and state, not relegated to the above average. It's difficult to understand how one of the best schools in the state is now merely one of the good ones.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Study: Grads Don't Need all that College Remediation

Here's something interesting. It appears that all those High School graduates taking remedial courses their first years in college don't really need it. From the story in Inside Higher Ed:
The research, which analyzed data from a large, urban community college system and a statewide two-year system, found that up to a third of students who placed into remedial classes on the basis of the placement tests could have passed college-level classes with a grade of B or better.
So who told these students they needed remediation? Standardized tests. In particular, the COMPASS and ACCUPLACER exams (from ACT, Inc. and College Board, respectively). According to Inside Higher Ed:
The accuracy of placement tests has been the subject of little research, the researchers said. But the new studies suggest that colleges should reconsider how they use the tests to decide which students need remediation.
What is so troubling is enrollment in remediation courses in college has a significant impact on the student finishing college.
... remedial education is a black hole from which comparatively few students ever emerge. Only 25 percent of students in remedial classes will eventually earn a degree from a community college or transfer to a four-year college, research has found.
Once again, research has demonstrated the limitations of standardized testing. This is why making these things even more high stakes is potentially dangerous. Tests can be quite helpful when used as evaluative tools to improve and direct instruction.

However, extrapolating their results to the extent that it permanently affects students' academic careers or other non-evaluative measures is extremely problematic.

IO Warns: Caution in Cleveland

At Innovation Ohio, we just put out the first comprehensive, independent report on the proposed Cleveland Plan for transforming its schools.

Far from an anti-Plan screed, the report points out some very positive aspects of the reform agenda, like universal pre-school for 3 and 4 year olds, or Early Childhood Academies.

However, there are some major problems with the plan, such as granting significant authority to an un-elected board governed by folks outside the district, giving local tax revenues to Charter Schools and unnecessarily re-fighting the Senate Bill 5 War. At IO, we offered potential solutions to address each of these fatal flaws in the plan.

As this plan develops, 10th Period will keep close tabs. Here is the IO Press Release in its entirety, which gives a good synopsis of the report:

Innovation Ohio Says Cleveland School Plan Needs Work

Think Tank Both Praises and Criticizes Reform Plan
Columbus: Innovation Ohio, a progressive think tank headquartered in Columbus, today released an analysis of the education reform plan recently put forward by Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson. Governor Kasich has indicated the plan might serve as a model for his own education reform effort, which presumably will include the new school funding formula he promised but so far has failed to deliver. The analysis is available at www.innovationohio.org.
IO said an analysis of the “Cleveland Plan” is important given Ohio’s history of expanding Cleveland education experiments, such as private school vouchers, state-wide. “If Governor Kasich is intent on using the Cleveland Plan as a model for other Ohio school districts, then it’s critical that we get it right,” said IO President Janetta King.
The analysis found a number of “things to like” about the Cleveland Plan, including:
  • Innovations such as a Global Language Academy, an Environmental Science School, Early Childhood Education Academies in every neighborhood, and an English Immersion School for all children for whom English is a second language;
  • A focus on high-quality preschool education, as well as on college and workforce readiness; and
  • A series of proposed changes to state law that would, for example, give the Cleveland Metropolitan School District flexibility to manage its fiscal assets and close loopholes in existing law that allow poorly-performing Charter Schools to continue operating.
IO said other ideas, like adoption of a year-round school calendar, support for high-quality Charter Schools, and the aggressive pursuit of talented teachers, “have potential, but need more work and further fleshing-out.”
But Innovation Ohio said several Cleveland Plan ideas are fatally flawed as currently written and should either be modified substantially or jettisoned entirely. Among these are:
  • A proposal to allow the transfer of local property tax revenue to Charter schools;
  • The transfer of school oversight and other functions from the Cleveland School Board (accountable to the Mayor) to an unelected and less accountable “Cleveland Transformation Alliance”;
  • A weighted per pupil funding formula with “money following the child” that, in IO’s view, would inevitably end up short-changing either students or schools;
  • Several proposals relating to teacher compensation, collective bargaining and accountability, which IO says are exact replicas of provisions in last year’s Senate Bill 5, which Ohio voters overwhelmingly rejected with 61% of the vote in November.
Said IO President Janetta King:
“IO congratulates the authors of the Cleveland Plan for thinking outside the box and being willing to go big. Nothing is more important to Ohio’s future than our schools and our kids. That’s why education reform is so important, and it’s why all of us who truly care about our state, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives, liberals and moderates alike–must be willing to embrace change and challenge the status quo.
“But our goal cannot be change for the sake of change, or change that can’t work and will only make things worse. So Innovation Ohio has tried to be constructive in our analysis. Where we’ve been critical of the Cleveland Plan, we’ve offered alternative ideas and proposals that we believe are more likely to achieve the desired goals.
“But we recognize that we don’t have all the answers. Frankly, neither do the people who put the Cleveland Plan together. And that is why we believe any serious school reform discussion should and must include the voices of professional educators, parents, and other members of the community. We hope their exclusion will be rectified in the weeks and months ahead.
“So what is Innovation Ohio’s bottom-line take on the Cleveland Plan? We believe the Plan as written is a reasonable place to start, but would be a terrible place to end up. It needs work and IO stands ready to help any way we can.”
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