Thursday, December 10, 2015

New ESEA Returns Power to States. But is that a Good Thing?

It looks like the federal government is going to back off and let states handle more education policy. This is a direct response to the uproar over testing, No Child Left Behind, Common Core, Race to the Top and other heavy-handed, top-down federal initiatives.

To be clear, this doesn't mean testing is going away; it's just that states can limit the time it takes to do them. It also limits the stakes inherent in the tests and no longer requires test scores to be tied to teacher evaluations, which I have always considered a mistake because of year-to-year fluctuations in test results.

But I have to admit that I'm concerned about leaving stuff this important up to the states. Now in some states, it will be fine -- states that have a history of valuing and committing to public education. But in other states, especially those in the least-educated corners of our nation, I fear they will see this and wipe their brows, knowing they will no longer be held to account for failing to properly serve kids.

This whole accountability regime has me flummoxed, I must admit. I like that AYP forces wealthy districts to have to figure out how to serve even small numbers of at-risk youth. I like that my 1st grader is learning tougher math concepts than even my 5th grader did four years ago.

But I hate all the testing and what it's done to the anxiety many kids (including my own) feel, not to mention teachers, administrators, and even entire communities as they get rated based on these things. I want my kids learning cool things. But I hate that it's taken tests to stimulate it.

This concern stretches now nationally with the federal government's step back. Without the high-stakes tests, will kids still be learning these concepts? In some states yes, others no. Without the federal hammer, will at-risk kids be served in all districts? In some states yes, others no. Without as much testing, will we be able to determine if kids are learning all they'll need in the 21st Century world? In some states yes, others no.

This is the problem with the federal government stepping back -- it will lead to the Balkanization of American education. I remember when kids would move here from Tennessee or Kentucky when I was a kid and they'd be 6 months to a year behind what we were learning. That's not good.

I also remember that when we let states handle important civil rights issues previously, it was not our nation's proudest moment. That's also not good.

But I also know that the federal government went too far, overtested and created in many ways a poisonous, high-stakes atmosphere that turned talented teachers away from the profession and created test-anxiety in 8 year olds. This is also not good.

I would hope this policy shift would grant our nation the opportunity to find a better balance. There is little question that basing so much upon how 8 year olds do on a test one day out of 180 does not give a full or complete picture of a school's worth. But it does grant us at least some window into what's going on at the school. If we're going to have tests, they should measure more than analytic ability, but also a kid's creative and practical abilities too, which will drive curriculum to be more creative and practical. The results of these more comprehensive assessments are far less driven by demographics than our current batch.

But learning involves more than tests. As Einstein said, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." There are skills that are far more predictive of a child's ultimate success than how well they do on a standardized math test in 4th grade. Things like a love of learning -- what I contend is the most powerful predictor -- grit, independence, critical thinking, teamwork, and a host of other measures should also be valued. I don't know if it's possible to assess these through a quantitative test. But these are all things we want our kids to know and learn how to do. Yet the recent focus on the three Rs had been so intense that kids are only learning the other important concepts by chance.

Getting the federal government out of the picture in many ways will free up states to innovate on these ideas. However, only a handful probably will. And kids in those states will be really lucky. My fear is the rest of our kids won't be. They'll be stuck in a watered-down version of today's accountability structure that will be somewhat less onerous, but also filled with far fewer, and lower expectations.

I have always thought that the best role for the federal government in education is funding. The feds are in the position to provide enough revenue so that, for example, Ohio can finally live up to its funding requirements under the Ohio Constitution. If I had been President, Race to the Top would have been a call to provide adequate and equitable funding to establish a world-class education system throughout the United States. In order to receive this funding, states would have to show their funding formula equitably distributes funding to every child in the state. Then the feds would make up the shortfall on adequacy, if states didn't have enough funding to adequately pay for the formula.

The problem with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top was both provided far too few resources for the far too many strings that came attached with them. My concept is kind of the opposite: A few strings dealing with funding formulas (you can only keep getting the money if your formula continues to equitably distribute the funds so every kid gets what they need to succeed) and far greater resourcing.

Perhaps this step back will give our leaders the chance to re-think the federal government's role in the national education sphere. I doubt that it will, but with each new turn, there's always fresh hope.

What I pray does not happen is that kids in some states and regions of the country now fall further behind because their local leaders care less about public education than leaders in other states. That, I fear, may be even worse than high-stakes testing. Though not much.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Why did the Similar Students Model Spark a Nerd War?

Recently, there have been a spate of stories and rumblings about an education performance calculation called a "Similar Students" model -- a model that the Ohio Department of Education is going to be studying over the next several months.

The idea behind the model is to figure out how students are doing, regardless of demographic background. This is a concept with which I share much in common. After all, I have written in this space and elsewhere that I can predict the Performance Index (Ohio's single proficiency measure) scores of 3 out of 4 Ohio school districts if you give me nothing but the district's Free and Reduced Lunch population.

I also am excited by the work of Robert Sternberg, who developed a theory that broke intelligence into 3 categories -- creative, practical and analytical. Why is that exciting? Because poor, minority kids who test in the creative and practical sections are just as likely to do well as white, wealthy kids. This could mean that future testing may not be demographically determined as today's regime, which focuses solely on the analytical does.

And while folks at Yale are developing the Aurora Assessment based on Sternberg's work, it's still being beta tested and used primarily to identify gifted kids in underrepresented subgroups.

The Similar Students Measure was developed by the California Charter School Association to help that state determine performance, given demographic challenges. However, it's now being championed by the big Ohio charter school interests that have made our state a national joke. Why is that? Because the Similar Students Model makes Ohio charters -- especially the state's woefully performing eSchools -- look much better than their awful report card performance would indicate.

And for guys who make $100 million a year providing these dreadful services to at-risk kids, like William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) -- whose all Fs and one D on the state report card is worse than any school district in the state, even Youngstown, whose performance was so poor that the state put it in academic distress and effectively got rid of the elected school board -- this new system would be a Godsend because it would let them off the hook under the new, tougher accountability regime expected after the historic passage of House Bill 2 this fall.

To their credit, the Fordham Institute had a study done on Similar Students that took the methodology to task and argued that Ohio's current system of using Value-Added data (which demonstrates student growth over the year on standardized tests) is superior. The CCSA went bananas over the criticism and started spouting off to some of this state's most vociferous, anti-quality charter school advocates, who used these criticisms to explain why Similar Students was better and the criticism of it wrong in media and other reports.

Yes. This is what a Nerd War looks like.

Anyway, I felt bad for the CCSA. Because they didn't know what they were getting into when they jumped into the Ohio fray. No one outside of Ohio really can understand the bare-knuckles politics involved here.

But here's a way of looking at it.

The state's top Republican lobbyist -- not its top education policy guru -- is making education policy arguments for the anti-quality charters on this issue. Nothing against Neil Clark, with whom I had a few dealings during my time in Columbus, but he is not an education policy expert. His expertise is political.

That's not his fault, by the way. It's just an indictment of our charter school debate in Ohio that it is a well-paid lobbyist, not a policy nerd, who is the spokesman for the anti-quality charter crowd, which should tell you all you need to know about the policy seriousness of the argument. It's being made by a political operative (though a highly skilled and effective one), not a policy wonk. In a Nerd War, you need nerds fighting for you.

Lager doesn't have that.

So who carries more weight -- a lobbyist in Ohio, or the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University, whose recent study on Ohio's eSchools showed once again how poorly they perform? Mr. Clark called CREDO -- whose studies have become a kind-of gold standard on national and local charter school performance and was set up by pro-charter school advocates -- a "don't-think-tank". Again, catchy cut downs are no substitute for real policy differences.

This isn't to say CREDO is above criticism. For a real, substantive critique of CREDO's methodology, look at what the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado published.

Clark is just out of his element here. But it is telling that ECOT and the online schools have a political operative make their arguments. That's because there simply are no policy arguments or data analytics that can put lipstick on Ohio's eSchool performance pig. They just really, really perform poorly. And, in fact, as I've reported several times for Innovation Ohio and the Ohio Charter School Accountability Project, they are a heavy drag on the entire charter sector, which would still underperform local public schools without eSchools, just not by as much.

However, it now appears that the CCSA and Fordham have made peace, or at least reached a Nerd War ceasefire. They issued a joint statement this week that's replete with wonk, but essentially says what the CCSA told the Beacon Journal -- that California's model was developed because they don't have the same student-level data Ohio has with its Value-Added measure. The bottom line is this: Lager's forces were dealt a fatal blow on this front with the joint statement. They now have no nerds fighting for them.

In a Nerd War, that's a bad thing.

As Ohio continues to study the Similar Students Model, I hope it expands to look at the work of Dr. Sternberg so we can develop a better, more thorough battery of assessments that aren't so demographically affected and encourage a more well-rounded learning experience for Ohio's kids.

So let this be the first salvo fired in the next Nerd War.

Hopefully, Ohio's kids will win this one, just like they did the previous one.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Charters Fixing Youngstown? Data Say, "Not So Fast."

One of the key provisions of Ohio's new $71 million federal charter school grant is to, according to the state's cover letter, "Integrate quality charter development into the State’s new authority to create achievement school districts serving the children of the most dysfunctional school districts."

That's an EduSpeak way of saying they want to use a good chunk of the money to create more charter schools in Youngstown and any future area that's in "academic distress." (By the way, the only time "achievement school district" comes up on a search of the Ohio Department of Education website is in the state's grant application to the federal government. That designation doesn't exist in this state outside of the grant writers' rhetorical flair.)

But there is a major question: Should charters be seen as the rescuer of Youngstown City Schools? Recently released data would suggest that they should not, as I wrote briefly for Innovation Ohio. 

This is not to say Youngstown is any great shakes performance wise. 

It is not. 

Youngstown has struggled for years to improve their students' academic performance. But Youngstown's struggles are much less profound than Youngstown charters' struggles. And significantly less so. Let's look at the data, which I used to calculate each school's Performance Index (PI) in each proficiency test, along with Youngstown's PI (which is the state's amalgamation of proficiency performance and is used by the state to determine whether charter schools can open in a particular district with 120 being the highest possible score and 30 being the lowest) in each test.

When comparing Mahoning County charter schools – the charters with the greatest percentage of its students coming from Youngstown, as well as the most obvious starting place to expand Youngstown’s charter footprint – with Youngstown, what becomes clear is that even the state’s lowest performing school district (according to the Ohio General Assembly) overwhelms its local charter competitors.

In only 1 of the 20 comparable performance tests do Mahoning County charters perform better on average than Youngstown – and that by a mere two-tenths of 1 percent. In the 19 other categories, Youngstown outperforms the average Mahoning County charter school by an average of nearly 14 percent, from as high as a 34.5 percent difference in 9th Grade English Language Arts to a 0.7 percent difference in 4th Grade math. In 13 of those 19 categories, Youngstown outperforms the average Mahoning County charter by more than 10 percent.

Beyond just using the average scores, it is also rare for any Mahoning County charter school to outperform what the Ohio General Assembly says is the state’s worst-performing school district on any comparable proficiency assessment.

In fact, Youngstown outperforms its individual Mahoning County charter school counterparts 2 out of every 3 times on comparable tests. In no broad testing category (English Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies) do Mahoning County charters outperform Youngstown more often than not. Only in math, where Youngstown outperforms its Mahoning County charter school competitors by a single case, is the count even close.

While it appears the proponents of the Youngstown Plan seem intent on investing a large portion of the state’s controversial $71 million federal grant on expanding charter schools in Youngstown, the data suggest that there are few, if any, options in Youngstown that would provide better educational outcomes than the Youngstown City Schools. And at the very least, there are not enough high-performers in the Youngstown area to warrant a significant taxpayer investment in that area’s charter schools.

Youngstown does not have a ready-made group of high-performing charters in whom to invest, unlike a city like Cleveland with its Breakthrough Schools. The new CEO should carefully consider whether expanding Youngstown’s poor-performing charter schools should make up a the lion's share of the reform.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Ohio's Record with Federal Charter Grants Not So Great

When I last left you, I was cheering about the passage of House Bill 2 -- Ohio's most important charter school reform bill since the program began in the late 1990s. It was quite a heady day.

Since then, there continues to be controversy over the $71 million federal grant Ohio received from the US Department of Education to expand high-performing charters here. In fact, the feds have held up payment until the Ohio Department of Education explains its actions and apparently false statements it made in its grant application. And there remain concerns that the bulk of the funding will go to boost charters in Youngstown -- an area of the state that has a particularly poor performing charter sector.

I have consistently said that while I have grave concerns about the veracity of several statements in the grant application, I also believe that Ohio should take this opportunity to build upon HB 2's success and use the funding to grow our rather paltry high-performing charter school sector. I have also said that I'm really concerned about whether the Ohio Department of Education -- as currently constituted -- has the ability to properly administer this windfall.

After all, the guy who wrote the application and misled the feds on it is gone, and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction is set to retire shortly. Given that ODE has recently dropped the ball on charter accountability, I'm not overly confident they can do this, especially now when an influx of federal money could help bolster the state's new reforms.

To its credit, the Fordham Institute looked at a previous iteration of the federal grant ODE received and found some encouraging things. The charters that got the grants tended to be higher performing and closed at smaller rates than charters overall. However, nearly 1 in 4 recipients still closed up shop after getting their grant. So it's still not a great outcome, just better than Ohio's nationally ridiculed charter sector overall.

However, there's a major caveat with what Fordham wrote -- the data stem from a 2007 grant that ended in 2013. This is 2015. The department that received the 2007 grant is nothing like the 2015 version. That grant Fordham examined essentially was administered during the Strickland Administration, whose ODE enjoyed relative staff stability, not to mention the State Superintendent tenure of Deb Delisle, who was later chosen to head up the US Department of Education's Primary and Secondary Education division -- the folks who administer the charter grants ODE got this year. 

This is a very, very different ODE. The department is now going to be seeing its 5th leader since Gov. John Kasich took office four short years ago -- and the second leader to leave under a cloud of controversy. This department needs help, a policy leader rather than a political appointee and more than anything, stability.

But beyond the simple fact that the ODE that oversaw the implementation of its 2007 grant isn't the same one that will be overseeing this one, there remain more concerns about Ohio's ability to handle this grant.

These federal charter school grants have been given since 1995. Over those 20 years and more than $3.3 billion granted, only California and Florida have received more federal money to expand high-quality charters than Ohio, which received funding in 1998, 2004, 2007 and 2015. And the next highest -- New York -- would have received less even without Ohio's recent $71 million grant. Yet despite a more than $270 million investment, Ohio's charter sector has become a national joke. Meanwhile, Massachusetts -- the state whose citizens are suing because there aren't enough charter schools because they're such a great option there -- only received $50 million over the 20 years.

States that have received at least $100 million in federal grant money
meant to expand high-performing charter schools in their states
The graphic at the left tells the story of the amount Ohio's received to expand high-quality charters here. Yet, despite this investment, the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes found that 40% of our state's charters are in "urgent need of improvement."

We should be doing better than having a couple great charters in Dayton, a dozen or so in Cleveland, a couple in Columbus and a couple in Toledo.

That's not to say there hasn't been improvement in the charter sector since 2004, though, just not enough to put the sector on par with local public schools. And who knows whether the federal grants had anything to do with the improvement.

Be that as it may, the year prior to the state receiving its 2004 grant saw charters receive an average Performance Index score (Performance Index is the state's single proficiency calculation) of 62.01 (120 is the highest, 30 is the lowest). Ten years (and two federal grants) later in 2013-2014, the average charter school Performance Index score was 78.89.

In the 2003-2004 school year, the top 5% of charter school Performance Index scores was 94.78. Last year, the top 5% was 105.41. So it appears that the higher performers are getting better by about 11%. However, the bottom 5% also saw marked improvement from an average 32.8 in 2003-2004 to an average 52.95 last school year -- a more than 62% improvement.

There were far fewer charters 10 years ago, so the top 5% of schools were actually 5 schools, but there have been improvements. However, before you get too excited, even with that improvement, only 7 Ohio school districts received lower Performance Index scores than the average charter school in the 2013-2014 school year. Remember that Ohio charters took kids and funding from every district in the state last year.

And the top 5% of school districts' Performance Index scores in 2013-2014 was an average 109.89 -- higher than even the highest performing charter schools.

So while there have been improvements since 2004, there remains a crying need for ODE to get its act together and properly administer this $71 million grant. 

The past may be prologue, but it is not necessarily the future.  ODE has to fulfill its obligations and keep an eagle eye on the $71 million to ensures it goes to charters that deserve the investment, not to those schools that have brought our state national scorn. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

I'm Back!

Well, I've been absent from this space for a bit. In case you didn't know, I was running for City Council in Green. I won the most votes of any of the at-large candidates -- and more than any at-large candidate has ever won in Green. So that was great.

Then I got tied up in holiday preparation and teaching.

Starting next week, I will be doing a daily post here. Sorry to have let this go for so long. But there is much to discuss. And discuss we will.