Thursday, September 26, 2013

In Ohio, Quality Should Be Job 1

In a recent post by the Fordham Institute, Aaron Churchill takes Bill Phillis -- the legendary public education defender who ran the campaign that ended up having the state's school funding declared unconstitutional four times -- and Join the Future to task for daring to compare Charter School with School District performance.

Note: All calculations in this post come from the new State Report Card, located here.

The rest of Churchill's column makes cogent points about focusing on what works and eliminating what does not. And on that, I completely agree with Churchill. That is the argument I have been making ever since I first spoke about this issue on the floor of the Ohio House.

Unfortunately, though, I have to disagree with a couple of his arguments.

1) "Both authors make spurious comparisons that ought to be dismissed. Both make the mistake of comparing the performance index scores of charter schools to school districts." 

This argument is often made by Charter School advocates. And, frankly, I understand what they're saying: Charter Schools are typically small, one-building operations. Comparing their performance with much larger, diverse districts is unfair, right? Well, except that eSchools like ECOT and the Ohio Virtual Academy -- Charter Schools both -- are bigger than all but about a dozen Ohio School Districts. And there are 161 Ohio School Districts that didn't have 1,000 kids in them last year. So not all School Districts are hulking leviathans.

Most importantly, though, is that Ohio law treats Charters as if they are School Districts for funding and accountability purposes. They are paid like School Districts. They are considered Local Education Agencies for federal funding purposes, just as School Districts are. They are required to have Superintendents and Treasurers, just like School Districts. They have boards that oversee them, just like School Districts. They are, under law, School Districts.

In addition, only one School District did not lose money or students to Charters last year. And 47% of all kids in Charters last year did not come from a Big 8 Urban School District. If Charters take kids and money from every School District, why should they only be compared with 8 of them, especially when 47% of the kids do not come from there?

When you compare Charter with School District performance, the comparison is really not very good for Charters. As Churchill himself points out:

Recent blogs by William Phillis of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding (posted on Diane Ravitch’s website) and Join the Future highlight the academic woes of some of Ohio’s charter schools. Phillis writes: “The Department of Education’s ranking of schools and districts reveals that 83 out of the bottom 84 schools are charter schools.” Join the Future exclaims “Out of the bottom 200 districts, just 21 are traditional public schools, the remaining 179 are charter schools!”
2) "At a school building level, 139 of the bottom 200 schools were district schools. Both district and charter schools are therefore guilty of weak results on the state’s “performance index” score."

Well, sort of. I agree that the bottom 200 buildings in the state on Performance Index are populated by both District and Charter buildings. However, Churchill misses the point. Of course there are more District Buildings in the bottom 200, assuming you use Building rather than District-level data to make the comparison. There are, after all, 3,050 Traditional School Buildings in the state that receive the Performance Index rating. There are only 262 Charter Schools that receive a Performance Index Score. There are nearly 12 times as many District Buildings as Charters. Math, as much as performance, dictates that many of the lowest performing Buildings would be District Buildings.

Why do I mention this? Well, because the 61 Charter Schools that do rate in the bottom 200 represent a little more than 23% of all Charter Schools rated by the Performance Index. That means nearly one out of every 4 Charter Schools in Ohio rate in the bottom 200 of the more than 3,300 District and Charter buildings that receive the Performance Index score. Put another way, one in 4 Charter Schools rate in the bottom 6% of all Ohio School Buildings -- Charter and Traditional -- on the Performance Index.

One more thing: The average Performance Index score of the bottom 23% of School Buildings (710 total) is 79.54. The average Performance Index score of the bottom 23% of Charter Schools (the 61 in Churchill's calculation) is 62.57.

Again, this is not to say Charter Schools should be eliminated. What I am saying is that Churchill has a point; it's time to talk about the quality of these things. We have far, far too many unsuccessful Charter Schools in Ohio, especially given that we're going to be spending upwards of $1 billion a year on these schools over the next couple years.

Yes, we must ensure that quality Charters are able to thrive in this state. Unfortunately, though, the average school run by the Breakthrough Schools in Cleveland -- routinely the highest-rated Charter group in the state -- was cut by about $200 in the most recent budget.

I welcome Churchill's call for a new approach to Charter policy in Ohio. However, we must confront how Ohio's Charters have, for the most part, failed so frighteningly frequently. This phenomenon helps explain why the high fliers have been so stifled. And it also explains why some School Districts have struggled. For when kids in Districts like Columbus and Cincinnati who don't attend Charters lose about 25% of their state revenue to the Charter School funding system, isn't that as important an impediment to their success as anything else?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Harmon Strikes Again

I have to admit that I felt extreme pride this morning when I read in my Akron Beacon Journal that Harmon Middle School -- my alma mater -- earned a National Blue Ribbon from the U.S. Department of Education for excellence -- one of 286 schools so honored around the country.

According to the USDOE,

"Founded in 1982, the National Blue Ribbon Schools Program recognizes public and private elementary, middle, and high schools where students perform at very high levels or where significant improvements are being made in students' academic achievement. A National Blue Ribbon Schools flag overhead has become a mark of excellence in education recognized by everyone from parents to policy-makers in thousands of communities. Since the program's founding, the U. S. Department of Education has bestowed this coveted award on more than 7,000 of America's schools."
I have to admit I also smiled with more than a smirk of irony upon learning this. During the 2009 budget bill that I helped develop in the Ohio House of Representatives (House Bill 1), I created a commission that was designed to evaluate and distribute grants to schools that demonstrated creativity in their instruction and environments. I named it the Harmon Commission because of my formative experiences in that remarkable building -- where teachers and administrators were unafraid to try anything, opening up their students' own greatness.

The idea behind the Harmon Commission was to de-emphasize the standardized test and emphasize things not easily quantified. If districts could earn additional revenue by encouraging creativity in the classroom, then perhaps more experiences would be available to more children like those that went on in Harmon. For instance, one year a biology teacher brought a cow to school and raised it on the school grounds, making it a key part of the biology curriculum for 6th grade.

Anyone who was around me during the HB 1 debates is probably sick of the cow story, but I thought it really drove home the message that not all learning is strictly measurable or less valuable because it is not measurable. In many ways, we value non-measurables over measurables. Take football, for instance. This last weekend the Cleveland Browns won a game behind a quarterback who threw three interceptions. That's not unusual for Browns quarterbacks. But all I heard after the game was how "lights out" Brian Hoyer was because of the intangibles he brought to the team, despite the 3 picks.

Why don't we recognize educators and buildings that do the same thing? Who knows. However, I find it ironic that the recognition Harmon has so long deserved only came because they scored so well on the measurables -- test scores. Its greatness has always been its non-measurables. Test scores were the reason my dad left that wonderful building. And I'm sure it drove away other remarkable teachers from Harmon as well.

But I prefer to think of this award as a lifetime achievement award for all the things that made Harmon such a remarkable place for me and so many other graduates. Everything from the plays my dad directed to Mr. Luckay's Ohio Trip to the fact that the building had no walls to Mr. Kmetz's endless energy. It all made the place hum like few others I have experienced since.

So congratulations to Harmon. Part of me wants to think that Deb Delisle, who is the top K-12 Assistant Secretary at USDOE, perhaps remembered something of our endless talks about creativity and Harmon from the time we spent together working on HB 1 while she was State Superintendent here. But as much as I'd like to think that, I'm sure it's just a coincidence.

As for the Harmon Commission?

Even though it was the only thing about HB 1 that Paul Hill of the Center on Reinventing Public Education -- the opposition's chief expert -- agreed was a good idea about the plan, my former colleagues scrapped it. Because apparently the last thing we want to spend money on is a teacher who thinks that bringing a cow to school is a good idea.

And don't forget that the rest of HB 1 was essentially scrapped too, even though the second year of that budget represented the first time on record that the state provided a greater share of education funding than local property taxpayers. Oh well.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ohio Race to the Top Challenges

A recent report outlined the problems with implementing Race to the Top goals in Ohio and other states. The Economic Policy Institute put out the report, which essentially concluded that failure of states, including Ohio, to provide funding to support the Race to the Top initiatives will likely mean that its best promises will fall short.

The report's author included an interview with me during her discussion of Ohio's challenges. Despite our ability to include educators in the drafting of a new evaluation system, the fact that Ohio's on its fourth state superintendent of public instruction since 2010 has hindered implementation, according to the report.

Here is what I consider to be the nut graf of my comments:
“Without money, it’s going to be hard to see any of this work. My guess is the state will not fund a meaningful evaluation system, that it will put in so many loopholes that districts that can’t fund support won’t do it. And the districts that can afford to won’t need it much”
My great concern during this whole process on Race to the Top was I didn't trust this state's willingness to follow through on the program's promise. And to be sure, the program is not perfect and is in many ways flawed. However, a state that is unwilling to fix its school funding system despite four Supreme Court rulings to do so, is not exactly trustworthy on educational investment.

I held out hope that the $400 million we won would fund enough good initiatives that the state wouldn't be able to fail to fund them beyond the life of the RttT grant.

However, given that the state has significantly cut its investment in K-12 education the last two budget cycles, while pouring more money into educational efforts that have failed our kids, my fears have been realized.

It's still possible that some of the positives of RttT can be fulfilled, but it's going to require the state to do a 180. How confident am I they will do this? About as confident as I would be to invade Russia in winter.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Advanced Look at New Diane Ravitch Book

Diane Ravitch is at once the most polarizing and fervent voices in education policy today. Her latest work, Reign of Error is classic Ravitch -- unapologetic, fiercely argued and tough.

Reign of Error picks up where Ravitch left off with The Death and Life of the Great American School System -- her coming out party, of sorts, as the nation's most ferocious defender of its public schools. Ravitch, who served in George H.W. Bush's Department of Education, began as one of education reform's greatest advocates. She pushed Charter Schools, higher standards, and testing as the way to improve America's public schools. However, after years of fighting for those principles, she realized something: They weren't working. So she repudiated her previous stand and has fought tirelessly against what she calls the corporate reform movement.

Do not mistake Reign of Error for an anti-reform screed. It is much more than that. The book calls for all of us to recognize the extreme limitations of judging "achievement" solely through notoriously unreliable test scores. It demands that we raise children holistically, addressing their dietary and health care needs, not just blaming teachers or schools for their children's academic performance when they are unfed and unhealthy. It calls for real investment in education reforms we know work -- the very things that wealthy families demand their own schools provide.

Ravitch provides a warning: None of these solutions are cheap or easy. Nor are they shortcuts to improvement. But the evidence points to these solutions working. Meanwhile, the solutions we are trying (firing "bad" teachers, investing in unaccountable and poor performing Charter Schools, closing neighborhood schools while slashing budgets) aren't working.

Ravitch meticulously picks apart each pillar of the corporate reform agenda from Charter Schools (though she doesn't call for their destruction, just their reigning in) to Virtual Schools to Vouchers.

Full Disclosure: Ravitch uses work I did with Innovation Ohio as the basis for some of her conclusions about Ohio's eSchool experience.

She backs up each critique thoroughly with evidence and detailed analysis. This is a book not easily dismissed, written by one of our country's great thinkers on education policy.

As I read the book, I couldn't help but think of what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835 -- that America's commitment to education for all its citizens, not just landed gentry, was "the originality of American civilization." The Land Ordinance of 1785, authored by Thomas Jefferson himself, set aside the heart of every community for "public" education -- a true revolution coming from our founders who were mostly well-to-do landowners.

The thought that every child in our country deserves the same opportunities as the most fortunate among us is a uniquely American gift to the world -- our great legacy. Ravitch's passion is rooted in this understanding. It is what gives her purpose so much strength. And it is what gives her latest work undeniable potency.

I don't agree with everything Ravitch says, just as all of you don't agree with everything I say. But she must be listened to. Her ideas are clear, concise and based in strong evidence. She does not call for the death of all things corporate; she just demands the same accountability for the corporate reformers as traditional public schools have faced.

Here in Ohio, we have seen repeatedly how political power has trumped common sense on education reform, most recently when the state wouldn't even invest barely $150,000 of a $60 billion budget on a dozen high-performing Charter Schools while millions more were dumped into failing Charter Schools run by big political donors.

Ravitch's best single argument remains her simplest: America must stop doing things that don't work before it can begin doing things that do.

On that, I believe, we all can agree.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

ABJ Details How White Hat Operates Above the Law

Last weekend, the Akron Beacon Journal did another classic Beacon Journal story about Charter Schools by pointing out huge state loopholes for well-heeled political contributors -- loopholes that allow poor performing Charter Schools to simply re-open under new names with little change and remain open for years.

And what it does exceptionally well is explain how David Brennan -- the state's largest individual Republican campaign contributor -- kept his failing Charter Schools open. Here's an extended snippet from the story:

At one time, White Hat Management operated a Life Skills Center for high school dropouts on the northeast side of downtown Canton and a Hope Academy for grades K-8 on the southwest side.
The Hope Academy failed academically and had to close in the spring of 2010.
What transpired over the next few years was reconstructed by the Beacon Journal by tracking school incorporation papers, funding, street addresses and “IRNs,” which are the unique identification numbers the state applies to each school so that it can track enrollment, academic performance and funding.
When Hope Academy on Garfield Avenue Southwest closed in the spring of 2010, department records show that its name and IRN were wiped from the books.
But the building didn’t miss a beat. A new elementary school, Brighten Heights, opened months later. The legal paperwork creating Brighten was handled by lawyers at Brennan’s law firm, Brennan, Manna & Diamond LLC of Akron.
However, while the school name was new, the IRN wasn’t: It was the same number — 142901 — used to identify Life Skills of Canton the previous year.
But the Life Skills Center on Cleveland Avenue Northeast hadn’t closed, either. Signs suggest it had been renamed Brighten Heights high school.
After the disappearance of Hope, state records show that enrollment at IRN 142901 — the old Life Skills school — surged and funding doubled from $1.5 million to $3 million in 2010-11.
What changed? For this year, IRN 142901 included elementary school children.
The next year, it changed again. IRN 142901 returned to Life Skills of Canton, and a new school called Garfield Academy with its own IRN opened in the old Hope Academy building.
After one year, Brighten Heights ceased operations.
Through three school years, the elementary building on Garfield Avenue Southwest had three different IRNs, was a failed Hope Academy, the elementary campus of Brighten Heights K-12, and then Garfield Academy.
And through it all, White Hat managed all schools, retaining more than two-thirds of the staff. Lawyers associated with Brennan created each new school and managed each name change. School board members for Hope, Life Skills, Brighten and Garfield appear to have never changed.
Even more disturbing is White Hat's utter contempt for accountability.
Charter schools are nonprofit organizations that receive public money, are audited by the state and are expected to comply with state public records and open meetings laws.
However, the Beacon Journal was unsuccessful in gaining meaningful information from any of the Canton charter schools or White Hat.
For example, in an attempt to understand whether the board members exercised any power in the closing and opening of schools, the Beacon Journal asked a Garfield employee for board-member contact information. The employee said board information could not be given out. “You’d have to call our corporate office [White Hat] for that information,” she said.
Attempts to interview a White Hat representative for this story began on Aug. 13 and have been unsuccessful. The company would accept only written questions. A request for the names and contact information of board members was answered on Aug. 23 with a list of lawyers instead.
A search of federal tax reports and Web sites for the schools suggested five names as board members. Messages seeking comment from persons believed to be those board members have not been returned. 
Imagine if any of this had happened at a traditional public school? If you couldn't reach the school board members, or the superintendent, treasurer, business manager, or anyone else? Imagine that outrage.

Imagine if any traditional public school was graduating barely 6% of its children in four years, the way White Hat's Life Skills Centers do on average. Then imagine if all we expected for that traditional school to remain open was less than a percentage point improvement, as Life Skills Centers will be allowed to do under the state's new dropout recovery school "standards."

Again, all we heard at the beginning of the Charter School movement in Ohio was how traditional schools only gave us excuses for failure, not successfully educated children. Now, Charter School operators like White Hat won't even give excuses; they just take our hard earned tax dollars with impunity.

They don't have any time to answer questions. Because under the current system in Ohio, they don't have to.

They know they can get away with anything. Because the state lets them.

This needs to be stopped. Because it is shameful.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Plain Dealer Confirms 10th Period Analysis from March

A story in today's Plain Dealer confirmed what we wrote here at 10th Period in March -- that much of the alleged "increase" to education funding in the most recent Kasich Budget will be eaten up by increases to Charter Schools.

Back in March, the House version of the budget showed that 263 districts would get cut, relative to last school year, which was a record-setting cut year by the way -- the final year of a $1.8 billion cut. More money was eventually put into the Senate and final versions of the budget than in the House version, but not a ton more.

As a result, the Plain Dealer concluded that nearly 200 districts would get cut. And these districts aren't all urban districts. They include places like Upper Arlington, whose performance can only be matched by a handful of Charter Schools.

Which brings me back to the whole "only compare us to Big 8 Urban districts" canard that Charter School advocates demand on performance. If 190 districts will get less money because of Charter Schools, why should Charter School performance only be compared with 8 of them?

Just asking.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Urban Charters Don't Resemble Urban Districts

After I read the Columbus Dispatch story that laid out just how much Ohio's Charter School experiment had failed, especially in relation to solving any urban education issues, I decided to look closer at this question: Are Charters really comparable to Big 8 urban buildings? The most basic question I could think to ask was, "How many kids from the Big 8 schools actually make up the populations of Big 8 Charters?"

One would think that the Charters in the Big 8 take nearly all their kids from Big 8 districts, right? That was the point, after all, to give kids in urban districts the opportunity to "escape" those urban districts, right? Well, that's actually wrong. Charters located in Big 8 districts take substantial numbers of children from surrounding districts, including high-performing suburban districts.

Looking at finalized Ohio Department of Education data from the 2011-2012 school year (the same set I used to look at how much money is sent from higher performing districts to poorer performing Charters earlier this year), it reveals that of the Charter Schools that took any child in 2011-2012 from a Big 8 urban district (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown), only 125 took 90% or more of their kids from those Big 8 districts. Even among Charters that took at least 10% of their kids from a Big 8 district, less than half (48%) took 90% or more of their kids from the Big 8 district.

I was frankly stunned by these results. Even some of the highest performing Charter Schools in the state take a relatively small percentage of kids from the Big 8 district in which they reside.

For example, Columbus Preparatory Academy, which routinely ranks high on accountability measures, only took 49% of their children from Columbus City Schools. The school took about 42% from South-Western, another 5% from Hilliard and kids from Bexley, Dublin, Olentangy and Westerville. So is it fair to hold up Columbus Prep's performance and compare it with Columbus City's?

Other examples are the ISUS academies in Dayton, which tend to perform very well compared with Dayton. They took between 70% and 75% of their children from Dayton. They took a good portion of children from suburban Huber Heights and Kettering. So is it fair to compare ISUS' performance with that of Dayton when 1 in 4 kids don't come from Dayton? Yet their performance always is compared with Dayton.

And here's another thing: There were 355 Ohio Charter Schools in 2011-2012. If only 125 of them take more than 90% of their children from Big 8 Districts, is it fair to compare their overall performance with Big 8 Districts' performance, as the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools and others insist? I mean, barely 35% of Charter Schools took 90% of their kids from Big 8 urban districts, yet these advocates insist that Ohio's Charter School performance be compared with Big 8 urban districts'.

Hardly seems fair to me.

Oh, and one other thing: Nearly 58,000 of the 108,000 children in Charter Schools during the 2011-2012 school year came from Big 8 urban districts. That means a little more than 53% of Charter School children came from Big 8 districts in that year, and, importantly, 47% did not. Last school year, the percentage was almost exactly the same.

Is it fair to compare Charter School performance with Big 8 performance when nearly 1/2 of children in Charter Schools come from districts other than Big 8 districts and when barely 35% of Charters take more than 90% of their children from Big 8 urban districts?

This sheds additional light on the Dispatch story from over the weekend. The Dispatch was comparing Big 8 performance with Charters that are located in the counties in which Big 8 districts are located. And the Dispatch found the Charter performance wanting. Given how only a fraction of the Charters the Dispatch examined had more than 90% of their kids coming from Big 8 districts, how poorly did the Charters really perform compared with their traditional public school counterparts?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Dispatch Brings the Wood

It's been a long time coming, but the Columbus Dispatch -- a newspaper that once infamously wrote how great it was that a couple Charter Schools were he highest rated schools in the state while ignoring that the bottom 113 were also Charters -- has finally come to the only logical conclusion about Ohio's Charter School experiment. It has failed.

In a story titled "Charter Schools Failed Promise", the Dispatch does its own analysis of data that has frankly been in front of them since Charters first opened two decades ago. But, to their credit, better late than never.

"Sixteen years later, charters statewide performed almost exactly the same on most measures of student achievement as the urban schools they were meant to reform, results released under a revamped Ohio report-card system show. And when it comes to graduating seniors after four years of high school, the Big 8 performed better ... But what started as an experiment in fixing urban education through free-market innovation is now a large part of the problem. Almost 84,000 Ohio students — 87 percent of the state’s charter-school students — attend a charter ranking D or F in meeting state performance standards."
The most important thing the Dispatch did is its own work. It didn't rely on the Fordham Institute, or Buckeye Institute, or the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools for their side, then turn to the teachers unions or education advocacy groups for their side. 

Instead, it looked at the data and reached its own conclusion. 

Bravo to Dispatch reporter Bill Bush. A reporter's job is to call balls and strikes. Too often, reporters are afraid to do that and let one side call ball and the other call strike. But Mr. Bush knows his strike zone. He also knows a down-the-middle fastball.

Do I wish he had mentioned that every non-Charter School kid in Columbus loses about 1 in 4 state dollars to Charter Schools because the state pays them so much more per pupil? Sure. Do I wish he had mentioned the incredible lobbying power Charters have exercised over the General Assembly for 16 years, which allowed Charters to run wild? Absolutely. Do I wish he had mentioned how Charter Schools are approaching $1 billion a year in cost, and all but one school district lost money to them last year? Certainly. Do I wish he had mentioned that the majority of students in Charter Schools do not come from Big 8 districts? Of course.

But I'll take it. 

Maybe this is another brick removed form the protective wall too many Ohio Charters have built up over the years, insulating their profits -- and them --  from scrutiny. What Ohio has done on Charter Schools is inexcusable. No state has so carelessly and shamelessly thrown so much money down such a deep rabbit hole. And the ones who have been hurt the most are children, both those in Charters receiving inferior educational experiences, and those not in Charters whose experiences have been lessened by the state's infatuation with these mostly failed sideshows.

Again, there are a few really, really good Charter Schools in this state -- schools that can make differences in children's lives and serve as models for improving education everywhere. But there are far too few given this state's enormous investment. The time has come to undo much of which has been wrought on our state. We need courage, strength and more reporters who aren't afraid to call a down-the-middle fastball a strike.

For all I wished was in Mr. Bush's story, ultimately, the most important thing he did put in at the end:

Meanwhile, the state’s charter-school rolls expanded again this year. Statewide, 52 charters are set to open, 17 of them in Columbus. The state approved three new Internet charters — where students work from home on computers — despite their persistently poor performance across the board.
Ohio's Quixotic hunt for windmill dragons has got to stop. And soon.