Monday, March 28, 2016

New Proper Perspective: Even if You Hate Testing, Opting Out Can be Worse Under Current System

 Does Opting Out of state testing help or hurt kids?

I know that you were especially concerned about opt-outs in Northeast Ohio after hearing that Lorain would be hit hard. Indeed, that district was. I was surprised, and glad, that the vast majority of Ohio districts didn't see grades plummet from low participation rates; still, it's alarming to see a school like Indianola K–8 (a Columbus arts magnet program in my own neighborhood of Clintonville) receive an F on Performance Index because of its number of opt-outs. Based on your discussions with superintendents, do you think the opt-out movement is gaining or losing steam? How can we make parents more aware that it's hurting their schools, their districts, and historically underserved kids, for whom accurate and reliable data systems are most important? 

I too am concerned about the opt-out problem. I believe that more opt-outs are going to become the norm, at least judging from discussions among folks with whom I'm allied. I'll be curious to see if more conservative folks, whose opposition to Common Core seemed to drive some opting out last year, will continue with the new regime. What many of the opt-out parents don't understand is that opting out can really hurt their schools and kids. That's because opt-outs hurt districts' Performance Index (PI) scores. If PI drops, that matters because the scores are used for many purposes, from determining which districts qualify for new charter schools (which, interestingly, are the devil to many of the same opt-out people) to determining whether a school has to be reconstituted or closed. If these consequences are triggered, we theoretically want them to be based on performance, not lack of participation. 

As a parent of an eleven-year-old with test anxiety, I get that people don't like all the testing. But we still need a way to determine how kids are doing. Where you and I may diverge is whether the tests should determine things like whether a school or district is punished, or even closed. But that's another perspective for another day. Under the current accountability regime, though, there is little doubt that opting out hurts kids and schools overall. As I've said before, testing isn't the problem; kids have been tested since we started educating them. What we do with the testing, and how it can lead to serious consequences for students’ educational opportunities—that's the source of my side's greatest objections.

I imagine that the PARCC tests drove opt-outs last year, so I’m hopeful that this year—with AIR assessments that are shorter and developed directly by the Ohio Department of Education with the input of Ohio teachers—parents will have less reason to conscientiously object. We’re on the same page regarding the fact that opting out really hurts schools and kids. For folks that dislike charter schools (or vouchers), that’s an interesting point to raise to them regarding the importance of full participation so that schools and districts don’t wrongly wind up on the charter/voucher eligibility lists. I’m pro-charter and pro-income-targeted-voucher, but if that argument works for the opt-out crowd, so be it. They need to consider the consequences of their decisions. To me, there’s also a moral argument worth pointing out to parents. As my colleague Robert Pondiscio has pointed out, “Those most likely to be negatively affected by the opt-out impulse are low-income children of color, for whom testing has been a catalyst for attention and mostly positive change.” But for parents who feel strongly about standardized testing, how can they be convinced otherwise? Even when evidence points to the damage of opting out—to their schools and to the accountability system as a whole (and specifically to poor students)—is that enough to change their minds?

I think educating parents is a big part of this. In my district, we had zero opt-outs last year. That was primarily due to some good, vigilant administrators nipping issues in the bud. I think we have to explain to the viscerally opposed parents that standardized testing has been and will be around for a long time. It is, after all, difficult to find purely original tests. Their objection, which I believe to be well founded, is centered on the use of the standardized tests for accountability purposes. After all, every report card measure (except graduation rate) simply represents a different way of breaking down the test scores, whether for student growth or demographic group. 

However, it only measures how kids perform during a few of the thousand hours they spend in school over a year. I think deemphasizing the test score in the accountability structure and including better, more sophisticated assessments of things like love of learning, creativity, critical thinking, practical skills and other very important, yet currently un-assessed measures, will engender more confidence in the accountability system.

But we have to explain to parents that the SAT, ACT, SSAT, and PSAT are all standardized tests that have high stakes attached to them. That doesn't mean we should fix those high stakes to every test, but Ohio's assessments are certainly not out of character with those other commonly accepted tests. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

One in 3 Ohio Charters Receive all Their State Money from Money Meant for Better Performing Districts, and Other Observations

Well, our now annual report chronicling the state's funding transfer between local public school districts and charters is out. And the results are still not pretty for Ohio's embattled charter sector. The first year I did the report through Innovation Ohio. Last year, as this year, we published it through the Ohio Charter School Accountability Project's Know Your Charter website.

Here's what the new 2014-2015 funding and report card data show us:

  • 72.5 percent of all state charter funding went to charters that DO NOT outperform the local school district.
  • Nearly 1 in 3 charter schools receive all their state funding from higher performing local school districts.
  • 50 percent of the charter dollars that leave the Youngstown Schools go to charters that perform worse on the state report card.
  • 80 percent of all money sent to eSchools came from higher performing local school districts.
  • 92 percent of Ohio school districts (563 of 609) received less per pupil state funding because of the way Ohio funds its charter schools. 
I accumulated the data by receiving a list from the Ohio Department of Education, after a public records request, for all funding and students leaving districts for charters. I then just added all the state report card grades (plus Performance Index score) for all districts and charter schools.

Then, I compared how many report card measures districts outperformed charters and vice versa. If the district outperformed the charter on more measures, then the district was higher performing. If the charter outperformed the district on more measures, then the charter was higher performing. I could have done a GPA-type averaging, but the Ohio Department of Education has gone to great lengths to explain that a straight GPA is not how the state's overall grade will eventually be done.

So I decided to look at how many times each school type outperforms the other on the now 9 different measures. If they only receive comparable grades in 2 or 3 categories, then it's best of 2 or 3, and so on.

The numbers are simply extraordinary. In Big 8 urban districts (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown), nearly 2 in 3 dollars goes to charters that aren't any better performing than the Big 8 -- the districts that the state said so desperately needed charter schools nearly 20 years ago. Even Youngstown, which is so low performing the state said it needs to take over the district and essentially neuter the locally elected school board, has half its money go to worse performing districts.

And it's also true of each graded category. Take student growth. Of the $521.7 million sent from districts to charters when both schools had overall value-added grades for student growth, only $138.4 million went to a charter with a better grade. That means about 80% of the time, it did not. 

And for those who think it's unfair to compare charter and district (rather than building) performance, here is how WestEd classified Ohio charters in a 2009 report it did on the state's administration of federal charter school grants:

"As a public school districtcommunity schools are subject to State and Federal accountability requirements, which are reported on a Local Report Card."  (my emphasis)
You can't call charters districts for payment and grant purposes, then ask that they be compared with the lowest performing school buildings for accountability purposes.

The double whammy is the way charters are funded means that kids in 90% of Ohio's school districts get less state funding than the state says they need. 

This is nuts. But it's been this way for 3 decades.

While I'm encouraged that legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle are acknowledging the problem of forcing local taxpayers to subsidize state charter school payments, I won't be excited until I see that we have a fair funding system (and this is important for those who think I want to burn down the charter school house or something) FOR BOTH SYSTEMS.

Kids in districts and charters should receive the funding they need without one kid's funding stream adversely affecting another's. I don't think it's OK to short change kids in any school

Clearly, in the current system, charter school funding hurts kids who aren't in charters. That's not right and needs to be fixed. Now.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Ohio Expenditure Data: Charters Spend More on Administration, Less on Instruction

Back in 2010, Gov. John Kasich claimed the state's education funding formula didn't spend enough money in the classroom. He claimed then that districts spent too much money on administrator salaries.

Yet new state spending data  for the 2014-2015 school year shows that Ohio's school districts spend less money per pupil -- and a much smaller percentage of its overall spend -- on administrators than Ohio's charter schools -- the allegedly more "efficient", business-like education answer.

In fact, the median Ohio charter spends nearly $1,000 more per equivalent pupil on administrators than the median Ohio school district. This facts is made more remarkable given that the median Ohio charter spends about $1,400 less than the median Ohio school district.

Charters spend so much more that, as in years past, if Ohio's charter schools spent per pupil on administration what Ohio's public school districts did, charters would be able to spend about the same amount of money in the classroom as districts do, despite their $1,400 less overall spend.

So, according to the data, the least efficient way of putting more money in the classroom, as Kasich professed he wanted to do in 2010, was dump more of it into charter schools. Yet charter funding has increased by about one-third since Kasich took office.

Run schools like a business indeed.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Are Ohio eSchools Spending $207 million More Than They Should?

I don't mean to be alarmist here, but if the Dispatch stories about Ohio's eSchools getting paid for far more kids than they actually have enrolled are extrapolated to all Ohio eSchools, we could be looking at a $207 million overpayment.

Last year, eSchools were paid more than $268 million.

The Ohio Department of Education has recently found that two of Ohio's eSchools (Provost Academy and Lakewood Digital Academy) only had about 22% of the kids they billed the state to educate. The two schools told the state they had 212 kids, but they really only had 48.

Extrapolating that disparity across the $268 million eSchool sector means the state should have only paid $61 million to these schools.

What a scandal if these numbers hold up.

What a travesty for our state's kids.

Newfound Concern about eSchool Attendance Not so New

Over the last several days, the Columbus Dispatch has been reporting that the Ohio Department of Education is going to start cracking down on attendance figures at Ohio's eSchools, even the most infamous of all -- The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), which is run by major political donor William Lager.

The reason is that Provost Academy was found to only have 32 full-time students, not the 155 the school reported. Likewise, Lakewood Digital Academy only had 16, not 57 students enrolled full time.

While I'm relieved that ODE is finally double checking these enrollment issues, I'm disheartened that we're acting like this is a new thing. Look at a Special Audit from ECOT's very first year of existence -- 2000. It should look familiar:
"In November of 2000, the Executive Director of ODE’s Office of School Finance, contacted the Auditor of State’s Office regarding the significant student enrollment reported by ECOT on its September 2000 and October 2000 Average Daily Membership (ADM) reports and possible irregularities in how those enrollment amounts were generated. Also in November 2000, representatives of the Auditor of State’s Office met with then ECOT Superintendent, Dr. Coletta Musick, who expressed concerns that numerous students included within ECOT’s enrollment numbers for September and October 2000 did not actually receive services from ECOT during those months."
This information was presented to the Auditor of State’s Special Audit Committee and on November 16, 2000, the Committee voted to initiate a Special Audit of ECOT. It was decided our procedures would be performed for the monthly enrollment reports submitted to ODE for September and October 2000 which were paid by ODE in November and December 2000, respectively"
But that's not all. The audit found that "during September and October 2000, ODE paid ECOT $1,688,836 for students who did not meet this definition" of a full-time student.

In fact, this dubious enrollment accounting is what caused ODE to reject ECOT (the state's first and largest eSchool) when it initially applied to be a charter -- one of the only schools the State Board ever rejected in the charter school program's first years. So ECOT went to the Lucas County Educational Service Center. The Lucas County ESC is now called Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, which is now the state's largest and oldest sponsor of charters. The ESC of Lake Erie West has been the source of additional recent scrutiny.

So let's stop acting like verifying eSchool enrollment is some novel scandal or something. We've known it was a problem literally since the first month eSchools opened here. Responsible State School Board members raised these same concerns nearly two decades ago before an eSchool ever opened. Yet it did.

Here's my question: Why has it taken so long to finally crack down on this issue? ODE itself raised the question. The State Auditor verified the problem and ECOT was fined.

In 2001!  

For some perspective, Ohio's had four full classes of students go through the K-12 system in that same time.

This is what massive campaign contributions and complicit overseers get you, I suppose. I shudder to think of how much money we've paid these operations (which now collect about $270 million annually -- more than $100 million alone at ECOT) for kids that they never educated.

Can you imagine the potential outrage if some official would look at all the eSchool enrollment since 2000 and see how much we, the taxpayers, paid for kids these schools never saw? I sure wish someone would try.

Suffice it to say, I understand why the quality-based charter school community is trying to throw eSchools overboard, even claiming they're not really charters (even though they are).

This unfolding scandal could reveal enormous amounts of misspent taxpayer dollars -- among the largest ever -- if the results at Provost and Lakewood are repeated at all the state's eSchools.

Let's hope this is an isolated incident.

But I wouldn't bet on it.