Author Archives: Bonnie O'Keefe

What Do Toxic Charter School Politics Mean for Newark Students?

A few weeks ago, as National School Choice Week came to a close, Bellwether Co-founder and Partner Andy Rotherham wrote in the Hill about the toxic state of politics around charter schools, and the blind spots of both charter opponents and advocates: 

Any effort to curtail charter schooling must deal forthrightly with how that would limit access to good schools for families that historically have been denied good educational options. Proposals to expand charters must ensure that charters are partners in meeting all the educational challenges in different communities. The current national debate lets everyone off the hook on the hard questions. 

Too often in the debates over charter schools, nuanced points about how to best create and sustain high-quality schools get buried by adversarial talking points from charter opponents and supporters. 

Right now, there’s no better place to watch those frustrating debates in action than Newark, NJ. Last month, in a surprisingly aggressive move against the city’s charter sector, Superintendent Roger Léon urged the state to halt to charter school expansion and close four charter schools up for renewal, citing the budgetary impact of charter schools on the district, mediocre test results, and low enrollment of English learners and students with disabilities at some of the schools up for renewal.  

school bus driving down the street in Newark, NJ

Via flickr user Paul Sableman: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pasa/13682552433

Charter parents, schools, and advocates struck back, with official public statements and refutations of Léon’s claims. At the same time, shady anonymous flyers attacking Léon sprang up across the city, warning parents “your school could be next!” 

As this latest district-versus-charter skirmish played out, a lot got lost in the noise.  Continue reading

Four Questions Denver Public Schools Should Ask About Their SPF

Denver Public Schools (DPS) has been held up as an urban school district success story, due to a strategy focused on holding a system of diverse, autonomous schools to high performance standards and enabling family choice across the city. The district’s school performance framework (SPF) has long been part of that story, serving as the means by which the central office managed its array of schools and the primary tool for families to understand and compare quality across schools.

Denver, CO skyline

Photo of Denver skyline via Shutterstock

But over time, criticisms of the SPF have grown among community stakeholders and school leaders. Just two weeks ago, a community advisory committee voted to replace the local SPF’s academic components with a rating system created by the state. 

Common criticisms are that the current tool is overly complex, lacks transparency, and costs too much to manage. There is also concern that the SPF as it exists today over-emphasizes test-driven metrics. DPS reportedly invests $900,000 annually in operating its current SPF, a hefty price tag for a troubled system, whereas other Colorado districts use the state’s school rating system. 

While the recent vote is not the end of the process and the committee is still considering ways to modify or adapt the state system, the signal is clear: there’s desire for a top-to-bottom SPF rebuild, not just surface-level revisions. What does this mean, and when the elected school board votes on the SPF later in the spring, what should it consider?

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GreatSchools Ratings Have a Lot in Common with State and Local Ratings — for Better or Worse

Last Thursday the education world was all a-twitter about an article and analysis on GreatSchools, a widely used nonprofit school rating organization whose 1-10 ratings often show up at the top of search results and on popular real estate websites. Their ratings are known to sway families’ decisions on where to live and send their kids to school.

Photo via Justine Warrington on Flickr

The main thrust of Matt Barnum and Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee’s piece in Chalkbeat is that GreatSchools’ substantial reliance on test score proficiency as a measure of school quality favors schools whose students enter already performing at a higher level. Since these students are more likely to be white and high-income, they argue the GreatSchools ratings may end up exacerbating segregation by influencing families’ housing and school decisions. 

These very same criticisms often come up in debates about local or state school ratings and how best to use test scores in general. In the conversation below, the authors of Bellwether’s recent report and website on school performance frameworks (SPFs) discuss the findings of the GreatSchools report, and how the strengths and weaknesses of GreatSchools’ approach compares to state and local school ratings.

Bonnie O’Keefe:

GreatSchools’ data comes from states, and their metrics and methods aren’t too dissimilar from what we see in many local school performance frameworks, state ESSA ratings, and the No Child Left Behind ratings that came before. Much like many states and districts, GreatSchools has changed their rating system over time as more, better data became available. So the idea that ratings based even in part on proficiency disadvantage schools serving higher-need students isn’t unique to GreatSchools. In fact, a nearly identical critique sunk Los Angeles’ proposed school ratings before they were even created. What is unique is how widely used, influential, and maybe misunderstood GreatSchools’ ratings are among families. 

Brandon Lewis:

The biggest difference I see between the GreatSchools’ school rating system and the local school performance frameworks (SPFs) we profiled for our project is that they have different goals and purposes. GreatSchools is a widely viewed public-facing tool designed to communicate that organization’s particular perspective on school quality. Unlike local SPFs, GreatSchools’ ratings are not tied to any specific goals for students or schools and cannot be used to make any district-level decisions. 

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A School Performance Framework Could Be Huge for Los Angeles. Why Is the District Backtracking?

This week, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) could miss a big opportunity for students, families, and district leaders.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must create a report card for every single one of their schools. Unfortunately, California’s approach to reporting school data under ESSA is both overly complex and lacking in key information. That’s why the LAUSD board took the first steps last year to create its own school performance framework (SPF), which could provide families, educators, and taxpayers more and better information about how well schools are serving students. Unfortunately the board now appears to be backtracking on that commitment.

An SPF is an action-oriented tool that gathers multiple metrics related to school quality and can be used by system leaders, principals, and/or parents to inform important decisions like how to intervene in a low-performing school, where to invest in improvements, and which school to choose for a child.

As my colleagues wrote in their 2017 review of ESSA plans, California’s complicated system relies on “a color-coded, 25-square performance grid for each indicator” and “lacks a method of measuring individual student growth over time.” In 2018, LAUSD board members tried to improve upon the state’s approach by passing a resolution to create their own SPF. In a statement from the board at that time, members intended that LAUSD’s SPF would serve as “an internal tool to help ensure all schools are continuously improving,” and “share key information with families as to how their schools are performing.”

A local SPF could provide a common framework for district leaders and families to understand performance trends across the district’s 1,100 plus schools in a rigorous, holistic way. Without usable information on school quality, families are left to make sense of complex state websites, third party school ratings, and word of mouth. And unlike the state’s current report card, a local report card could include student growth data, one of the most powerful ways to understand a school’s impact on its students. Student-level growth data tells us how individual students are progressing over time, and can control for demographic changes or differences among students. Continue reading

Building a School Performance Framework for School Improvement? Lessons From New York City.

Dr. Melissa Morris, Principal of Shaw Heights Elementary School.

Dr. Melissa Morris, Principal of Shaw Heights Elementary School. Photo Source: Shaw Air Force Base.

It’s easy to say a school performance framework (SPF) will be useful to school leaders, but it’s another thing entirely to actually design an SPF with school continuous improvement as the primary purpose. In fact, some of the design features that might make an SPF more useful to principals on a day-to-day basis might mean the SPF is less useful for families and system leaders. 

In our recent project available at SchoolPerformanceFrameworks.org, my co-authors and I identified school-level continuous improvement as one of three primary “use cases” that could shape SPF design decisions. A “use case” is a concept borrowed from the world of technology and design meant to help designers (in this case, local education leaders) think through their users’ needs. The other two use cases for SPFs are “system management and accountability” and “family and community information.” We found that too many SPFs try to fulfill multiple uses at once, without clearly thinking through priorities and potential tradeoffs.

An SPF designed for school continuous improvement is meant for principals, school academic leaders, and the front-line district staff supporting them to shape school operations, culture, staffing, and student experience — all in service of better student outcomes. An SPF built primarily for this purpose should allow principals to understand how they are performing relative to district goals, diagnose key strengths and weaknesses, and flag any potential problems. What would an SPF for this purpose include in terms of design? Continue reading