Thursday, July 31, 2014

More Horizon/Charter Test Questions

After the allegations at Horizon Science Academy's Dayton campus were raised a couple weeks ago, I decided to look at Horizon's other schools to see if there was any evidence of test manipulation, similar to what was alleged to have gone on at Horizon's Dayton campus.

The way I looked at it was to compare the school's Performance Index (PI) score (it's state test results) with its ACT score (it's college entrance scores, which are handled through the College Board). The idea was that the school should score about the same on each. And, in fact, that's what happens in Ohio school districts. The correlation coefficient between a district's PI and ACT results is .79, which by most measures qualifies as a "strong" positive correlation, meaning the higher the PI, the higher the ACT, and vice versa. That .79 is about the same strength of correlation as exists between education level and income, just to give you a sense of scale and strength.

So in Ohio school districts, the state tests and ACT track pretty closely with one another.

Here's the pertinent info from the report I authored for Innovation Ohio:

"According to the latest State Report Card data, Horizon Science Academy Columbus scored a 98.6 on the state’s Performance Index (PI), placing it just below the state average score of 98.9 for all public school districts. The score was the highest of the four Horizon academies we reviewed. However, the average ACT score at Horizon Columbus was just 17, placing the students who took the test near the bottom in the 28th percentile."

Adding complication to the Horizon Columbus issue is that they are a National Blue Ribbon Award winning school. The Blue Ribbon school program was started in 1982 and recognizes the top performing schools in the country. The issue is that the award is based on test scores. If Horizon Science Academy Columbus fudged their scores, as is being alleged in Dayton and which their comparative test data suggest may be happening in Columbus, what does that do to the award?

And to go one step further, in Ohio's Charter Schools, those two data points are decidedly less strongly correlated, with a coefficient of .41. (The closer to 1 the correlation, the stronger the relationship) There remains a positive correlation, it's just much weaker in Ohio's Charter Schools. To be fair, there are only 18 of 281 Charter Schools on the Ohio report card that report having ACT scores, while all 612 school districts do. So with fewer datapoints, the Charter School data is more susceptible to being influenced by extreme examples.

However, Charters are all over the place on the two scores. Take the Arts and College Preparatory Academy in Franklin County. Their PI of 108.3 rivals the best Ohio school districts. Yet their 19 average ACT score (41st percentile nationally) is about 5 points lower than the 23.9 average ACT for the 10 school districts whose PI scores are between 108 and 109. The lowest district ACT score was 21 (55th percentile), the highest average ACT was 26 (84th percentile).

There were 543 school districts that scored better than Arts and College Prep on the average ACT, yet only 21 school districts scored higher on the PI. However, remove Arts and College Prep, and the correlation in Ohio's Charter Schools jumps to .46. Still not as strong as OHio's traditional public schools, but still stronger. And you can see what an influence extremes can have when you have fewer data points.

However, now that Auditor of State David Yost will be looking into the test disparities in the Horizon Columbus school as a result of our report, will he expand that to the other Charter Schools whose disparities are so striking?

As I made clear in our report, test disparity does not prove any funny business. But it sure merits examination by state regulators. And that should include traditional public schools too, by the way. However, the overall trend in traditional schools' scores suggests less funny business than the overall trend in Ohio's Charter Schools.

So stay tuned.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Beyond the Horizon

There's been significant attention paid to the really outrageous allegations from the Gulen schools. Between covered up sexual misconduct and test score fixing, there's plenty of outrage to go around. And now that we know the presumptive future Ohio House Speaker has gone on junkets with those who run the Horizon and Noble academies, there are real questions about this legislature's willingness to do anything about it.

But I want us to look beyond these outrageous actions. Because this stuff could never go on at a traditional public school. Why? Transparency. And in Ohio Charter School Land, there simply isn't any. Don't get me wrong, there are a scant few charters that are open and transparent, but in Ohio they don't HAVE to be. Sponsors are responsible for holding Charters to account. But if they don't want to, they really don't have to. That needs to change. Now. How many stories of middle schoolers having sex and schools covering it up to parents do we have to hear before this legislature does anything? How many clear calls of test manipulation? Or misappropriation of state funds?

When will this state wake up? It's public money. Charters are supposed to be public schools. Let's make sure the public can find out what the heck is going on at these things. It shouldn't take whistleblowers. It should take a simple public inspection.  Period.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Beware Xenophobia with Embattled Gulen Charters

On Sunday, the Akron Beacon Journal reported on some disturbing trends with several Charter Schools run by an organization closely tied with the the Gulen movement out of Turkey -- a movement that is as complicated as one would expect from the Middle East. There are those who say that the Gulen movement promotes an interfaith collaboration that can help temper religious strife in a region riven with it. In fact, two professors of religion (one at Temple University and one at the the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia) said this of the movement:
Our own research, based on years of familiarity with the writings of G├╝len, and associations with Turkish businessmen, scientists, and civic leaders, suggests ... these schools have consistently promoted good learning and citizenship, and the Hizmet movement is to date an evidently admirable civil society organization to build bridges between religious communities and to provide direct service on behalf of the common good.
Yet the movement was booted from its native Turkey by the current government for being accused of trying to set up an Islamist state in Turkey. Or were they booted because they were too politically powerful for the current ruling class, not unlike how other states have exiled or imprisoned dissidents throughout the millenia?

Critics have charged the movement with being more like a cult, adhering blindly to Gulen's message.

So is the Gulen Movement a moderate form of Islam that can counterbalance the more strident voices in the religion? Or is it a Heaven's Gate type of cult?

I don't know. But the answer is much more complicated than many folks who are now, emboldened by the Beacon story, going after the Gulen schools in Ohio for, among other things, using lots of Turkish teachers in the classroom. The Vindicator, in an I-told-you-so editorial, said that they had been warning for years that "there is no way for the state of Ohio to prevent non-Christian organizations from seeking to establish charters." Like that was the biggest problem the Beacon Journal reported, never mind the numerous non-religious irregularities it uncovered.

Some have even said that the state should now make it illegal to have non-citizens on Charter School boards or even teach in classrooms.

I have to admit that I've been wary of this story because I fear it will turn into a xenophobic attack on a not-so-well-understood group.

And I think foreigners can add incredible richness to our schools.

It would be incredibly difficult for the Campus International School in Cleveland to find the four Mandarin teachers they currently have if they couldn't recruit in China. I just spent two weeks in Chinese schools that couldn't wait to bring over American teachers to teach in their schools and send their teachers to America in exchange. What better way to foster a cooperative, peaceful world than the free exchange of intellectual capital?

If the Sorbonne wanted to set up an experimental French language school in Columbus, would we want to prevent that? Or how about bringing over an education expert from Oxford or Cambridge to help run a new, innovative school in Dayton? Would we really not want them educating our kids because they spoke a weird form of English? Of course not.

My senior year of High School, Gareth Morrell, who was the chorus master at the Cleveland Orchestra at the time and a British citizen, came in and taught some of our choral classes. Would we want to deprive children of that experience?

That's why we must practice restraint and focus on the numerous irregularities at the Gulen schools that the Beacon pointed out that have little to do with the heritage of the founders and more to do with their ethical makeup. Things such as test alterations (which caused so much consternation for lawmakers about Columbus City Schools), or that the teachers they are bringing over aren't qualified to teach, or that the Speaker of the House in-waiting Cliff Rosenberger was wined and dined by this group, especially since current Speaker Bill Batchelder has been notoriously in the pocket of American citizen and far greater taxpayer Charter School scofflaw David Brennan (who's made more than $1 billion running poorly performing Charter Schools since 1998, dwarfing the amount spent on Gulen Schools by magnitudes of 10), or that the Gulen Schools' spokesman won't answer questions.

Those are outrages. The fact that they are being committed by Turkish, or Muslim men is less of a concern for me. What concerns me much more is that they are being committed at all.

In short, if you are as concerned about these irregularities at Gulen Schools as I am, then please do your best to avoid tapping into the public's inherent xenophobia and distrust of all things Islam and foreign. There's plenty to go after these schools for without bringing their religion or nationality into it.

For I fear if we do give in to our xenophobic inclinations, we will miss the real scandal -- that taxpayer money is once again being spent on Charter Schools that, regardless of religious or national affiliation are doing a really poor job educating Ohio's children and instead enriching people who's primary interest in education is making money, not better educated citizens. That, my friends, is a scandal far more egregious than having a few foreign nationals sitting on some Charter School boards.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Beleaguered ECOT gets another Innovation Grant

In the latest round of Straight A Fund recipients, ECOT came out another winner, it appears. They weren't the primary recipient of the $625,000, the way it was during the first round when it got $3 million. Instead, they partnered with Finneytown Local in Hamilton County.

Finneytown, according to payment reports from the Ohio Department of Education, lost a bit more than $18,000 to ECOT last school year. ECOT cleared $99.3 million from school districts last year -- more than $6,800 per pupil (far more per pupil state money than the average traditional public school receives).

So to keep the running total, since last year's budget, ECOT was awarded the state's largest Charter School funding bump from Gov. John Kasich's new education funding plan, as well as significant casino revenue and two Straight A grants. That means that ECOT has received an 11% per pupil funding bump since Kasich's education funding plan was announced.

Since ECOT's report card ratings are extremely mediocre and its graduation rate is an abysmal 35%, something other than academic excellence must be at work.

ECOT founder William Lager has made $368,000 in political contributions since April of last year. So that begs the question: Has ECOT really been doing a great job, or has its founder done a better one investing in politicians?

Charters Least Efficient Straight A Recipients

These posts are starting to get old for me. I really hope that our state leaders start doing something about this stuff soon.

Anyway, in the latest Straight A Fund round (Ohio's version of Race to the Top, sort of), there was a $2.075 million award given to a group of Charter Schools in order to "implement a data and assessment system that will help improve student achievement." Now I'm all for that, I guess, but here's the kicker: Of the 37 grantees, no award will realize a smaller amount of cost savings relative to the taxpayer investment than this Charter School proposal.

Each award has a cost and anticipated cost savings attached to it. The Charter Schools' proposal was $2.075 million, with an anticipated savings of about $117,000 -- or 5.7% of the cost. The average savings of all the 37 awards was more than 250%, or nearly 45 times greater than the Charter Schools' proposal.

Here are some examples: The Central Ohio ESC will implement a system that will better match students with adults as they prepare for college and career. The cost savings will be $43 million on the $8.8 million investment. Or an initiative done through Columbus Public Schools in cooperation with Johns Hopkins that will see a 1313% return on the $677,000 investment.

For full disclosure, I was a Straight A reviewer for the first round of applications. And my major criticism of the process is that I couldn't give passing marks to an applicant for fiscal sustainability if the applicant was going to use the money to create additional revenue streams. The only thing I could consider was how much money would be saved. So the fund is essentially incentivizing schools to make permanent cuts in their programming.

So I'm not overly enamored with judging these recipients based on their rate of return. However, am I the only one who finds it curious that the "bloated" public sector recipients have such a better return on investment than their "efficient" private sector counterparts?

If you've been reading this space with any regularity, you shouldn't. But it still makes me wonder why the heck our state leaders are so blind to the obvious -- that Ohio's Charter School system is simply not working, not for our taxpayers and certainly not for our kids.

It's time to seriously reform the reform.