Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Proper Perspective: A New Cross-Ideological Discussion

Today is a big day, for it is the day that I join forces with Fordham's Jamie Davies O'Leary to bring a new voice to the Ohio Education Policy Debate. We're calling it "The Proper Perspective". It's an effort to bring sound, reasoned policy discussions around common issues of the day. Sometimes we'll agree. Sometimes not. But throughout we will be respectful and work through many of the policy issues we have in many cases just shouted through.

I'm excited because this effort is a natural outgrowth of the coalition building that's been happening in Ohio over the last several years, initiated by the need to improve our state's charter school system, but one I think can serve us well throughout the education policy arena. Without further ado, he we go...

“The Proper Perspective” is a discussion between Jamie Davies O’Leary, senior Ohio policy analyst for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Stephen Dyer, education policy fellow at Innovation Ohio. This joint effort was hatched one afternoon after Jamie and Steve had a lively back-and-forth over email about (what else?) charter school data. Interested in many of the same data points and research questions, they decided to share some of this exchange more publicly, helping both to illuminate trends in Ohio public education and formulate policy recommendations through their insights.
In some areas, they’ll find opportunities to coalesce, and even celebrate. In a state often divided vehemently on public education, there’s value in finding alignment with those you may have disagreed with previously.
In other areas, interpretation of the same facts is bound to diverge. That’s OK. We’ll strive for thoughtful dialogue—backed up with research and data—rather than ad hominem attacks or the same ideological shouting that has marked Ohio’s education reform debate for too long. Thanks for joining us and for listening—to both of us. We hope it will be both entertaining and enlightening.
A decade of performance gains: What does it mean?
In the last ten years, Performance Index scores have improved across the board in Ohio’s traditional and charter sectors. Some charters and districts have shown radical improvement. Others have stagnated, and a few have seen a drop. But overall, it appears that Performance Index scores—a measure of achievement in tested grades and subjects—are rising, which means that schools and districts are improving and that our accountability system is headed in a good direction.
Here are a few data points.
·       In the ten school years between 2004–2005 and 2013–2014, districts saw a 6.8 percent increase in their Performance Index scores, from 92.80 to 99.10.
·       Of the 610 districts that received Performance Index scores in each of the school years, only twenty-three (or 3.8 percent) saw a drop in scores.
·       Big 8 urban districts improved by more than 10 percent, which was greater than districts overall.
·       Big 8 urban districts have a 3.4 percent higher score, with a 6 percent higher poverty rate than charters.

·       In the ten school years between 2004–2005 and 2013–2014, charters saw a 45.5 percent increase in their Performance Index scores, from 53.65 to 78.06.
·       This improvement was achieved despite the average poverty rate jumping from 64.5 percent to 82.2 percent.
·       Of the hundred charters that received Performance Index scores in each of the school years, 14 percent saw a drop in scores.

 Performance Index scores range from 0 to 120.

Jamie Davies O’Leary
It appears that Ohio schools—especially those serving poor kids—have improved modestly in the last decade. Achievement scores have risen among traditional public and charter public schools alike, in some instances by phenomenal margins.
There are multiple explanations for the across-the-board improvements. Ohio’s accountability system—however loathed by some critics—might be doing its job, albeit slowly. Districts may have improved in the face of pressure from the increased transparency and scrutiny schools must face from the school report card system. Meanwhile, the uptick in school choice and competition—charter schools, private schools accepting vouchers, open enrollment, etc.—might be encouraging schools to focus more on meeting students’ needs and thus producing better outcomes for kids. More cynically, perhaps everyone has just gotten better at teaching to the test and improving their scores.
Good news is hard to come by for schools serving poor kids, so I don’t want to minimize these gains. It’s important, however, that we acknowledge that Performance Index is only one metric by which Ohio should gauge the success of its accountability system. Average composite ACT scores (from 2004 to 2013) have barely budged. According to the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), reading achievement is flat (there has been a modest increase in math scores). While we should celebrate those schools that have improved dramatically, much more is needed in many instances. Dayton and Youngstown had the second- and third-highest PI gains (as a percentage) among Ohio’s Big 8 districts, but current PI scores of 75 and 78 (respectively) remain unacceptable. (The statewide average in 2013–14 was around 95.) Poor graduation rates and growth scores corroborate the need for more dramatic efforts in these cities and elsewhere. So let’s not get overly excited about the improvements schools are making along the PI measure.

Regardless, the takeaway for me remains the same: Ohio should stay the course on accountability and resist any attempts to scale back efforts now that the federal Everyone Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) empowers states to change or abandon portions of their respective accountability frameworks. And we’d be wise to study those districts and charters that saw serious improvements (such as the very high-performing Columbus Preparatory Academy, a charter that nearly doubled its PI score). 
Stephen Dyer
Ohio’s school districts – and especially its charter schools – have seen marked student performance gains over the last 10 years.
The biggest improvements were in the lowest performing districts and schools, which indicates that low starting points play a role. But we shouldn’t short-change these schools’ improvement. It’s good news.
There are caveats. For while the state’s charter schools showed the greatest 10-year performance gains, charters had much further to go, having scored about 15% lower than the lowest school district 10 years ago.
The sector’s average Performance Index score has improved an impressive 45%, yet it remains lower than 605 of Ohio’s 613 school districts’. The state’s urban districts, despite having greater proportions of economically disadvantaged students and higher scores 10 years ago (limiting their gain potential) improved by more than 10% on average, which is also impressive.
So while the charter average has improved substantially, it hasn’t been able to make up its performance gap.
It’s important to remember that every district lost at least some students to charters last year and about ½ of charter students no longer come from the state’s urban core. So charter-to-urban comparisons aren’t nearly as obvious as they appear.
Children in districts with greater or similar portions of poor students outperform children in charters too, which means demographics can’t fully explain lower charter scores either.
However, despite the many complaints from me and my friends about the state’s test-heavy accountability system, it is producing some impressive results … on test scores. Other important outcomes like critical thinking, creativity and love of learning remain unassessed.
We can also see how far we still have before our charter school sector provides the kind of systemic quality our kids deserve, reinforcing the urgency of remaining on the quality-based track the state has recently adopted.


  1. I want to point out a few additional concerns with the data as listed, and this is a huge reason I’m excited about The Proper Perspective—the chance to have open dialogue with Stephen about how we lay out the data and interpret it. First, when we compare charter schools to districts (as in Chart 1), districts will inevitably come out ahead. Averaging PI scores among districts statewide incorporates our richest and whitest communities—those with soaring achievement. Charters are only allowed to open in our state’s “academically challenged” communities (which are on the whole, very poor and disadvantaged), thus a fairer comparison is at the school level—between charter schools and district schools located in Ohio’s Urban 8. I appreciate the inclusion of Big 8 Urban so the reader can see the average PI score between Big 8 Urbans and charters is in fact very similar.
    Second, the dramatic increase (45.5%) in charter schools’ average PI scores is largely a reflection of the fact that Stephen included all charter schools in this sample, including charters specializing in serving students with disabilities and those categorized as “dropout prevention and recovery” programs. This made the starting numbers of charters much, much lower (for example, some dropout recovery schools receiving a "0" PI score in 2005). Charter schools serving high percentages of students with special needs (like schools for autism) are exempt from our state’s accountability system and I think should be removed for a more accurate comparison.
    Charter critics will frequently post results for ALL charters schools (even the ones serving special populations exclusively) and then compared them to districts or district schools - which do serve high-risk students, but not EXCLUSIVELY.
    Finally, I'd be remiss not to point out that Stephen's characterization about districts "losing" students to charter schools is worth a larger conversation (maybe for a future Proper Perspective post, actually). Districts don't "own" charter students, and while student transfers to charter schools (or to private schools through vouchers) certainly represents a financial loss, it's time we realize that these dollars don't "belong" to governmental entities (K-12 districts) but to families and students seeking a better alternative.

  2. This part of the discussion is what is so exciting about The Proper Perspective to me – an open, frank and respectful disagreement about things that I think will lead to better listening and understanding.

    Jamie has expressed a concern many have in Ohio that we shouldn’t compare district with charter performance. I understand the concern … in theory. However, in practice, district to charter comparisons are absolutely reasonable and fair.

    First of all, under state law, charters are treated as districts. And the funding that flows from districts to charters goes from the districts’ bottom lines, not just from the building from which the child transferred. So when a child leaves Akron for a charter school, the state transfers money to the charter that would have gone to every kid in Akron – even the highest-performing child in the highest-performing building. So if every kid in Akron is going to lose state funding, then I believe it’s fair to compare the charter’s performance with every child in the district.

    Remember that about ½ of all kids in charters don’t come from the big urban districts anymore. Every district lost money and kids to charters in the last school year, even places like Olentangy lost $1 million to the charter school deduction. If you take money and kids from every district, you can’t then ask that we compare your performance with only the lowest performing districts.

    It is also important to remember that some of the highest performing charters in the state take a significant portion of their students from outside the urban districts. For example, Columbus Prep – probably the state’s top performing charter – takes barely ½ of its kids from Columbus. Half come from South-Western, Westerville and others. Many of the high-performing Breakthrough Schools in Cleveland take 25-30% of their kids from outside Cleveland too. I’m a huge fan of these schools (and a financial contributor to Breakthrough), but it is important to remember that their kids don’t all come from the urban cores in which they are located.

    I agree with Jamie that the comparison looks at dropout recovery schools. And their performance has traditionally been low. However, I come from the “no-excuses” school of thought here. Charters were started in the late 1990s because many were tired of traditional schools’ excuses for their kids’ struggles. It is indeed fascinating that 20 years later, charter advocates are offering almost the exact same excuses for some charters' struggles.

    Finally, when I say kids are “lost” to charters, I’m not saying they are owned by the district and charters take them away. All I’m saying is that they are counted in the district attendance count for the purposes of state funding before the year starts, then are no longer in that count. It's like the state is saying, ”You’re supposed to get $1, but we’re going to give you $.75 instead.” That counts as a loss to me.

    And because charters are paid so much more in state money, every kid in Columbus, for example, who doesn’t attend a charter loses more than $1,300 in state funding that then has to be made up with local revenue. The average kid in an Ohio district that doesn’t go to a charter loses almost 7% of their state revenue the state claimed they would be receiving, but end up not getting because charters are paid so much more state money.

    While I understand charters don’t get local funding (except for a few in Cleveland), this transfer in funding burden to local taxpayers (which is an outcome contrary to 4 Ohio Supreme Court opinions, but that’s another topic for another day) is a problem the state legislature has, to its credit, recognized and is seeking ways to fix.

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