Category Archives: Accountability

Kentucky Has a New Governor. We Hope He’s Not a Jerk About Education Policy.

Although he took more than a week to concede, Kentucky’s 62nd governor, Republican Matt Bevin, will not serve a second term. Experts agree that his provocative and insulting style, particularly his comments about teachers, attributed to his loss. Most notoriously, Bevin called teachers “thugs” and blamed them for the sexual assault of children and the shooting of a seven-year-old girl, after teachers protested the legislature’s sneaky efforts to reform the state’s pension systems. 

We are both Kentucky-based Bellwarians, and in the short conversation below, we discuss why Governor Bevin failed to advance education reforms in the state — and what Governor-elect and Democrat Andy Beshear might be able to accomplish given Kentucky’s Republican-dominated legislature. 

Katrina: I think you and I have some diverging ideas and perspectives about politics in general, and even about some education policies. But is it safe to say that we both think Matt Bevin is, well, a bit of a jerk?

Alex: I think we definitely have some common ground there, although I’d be careful about calling him a jerk — he might label you with a nickname like “Kooky Katrina.” More seriously though, I think a big part of his legacy will be the policy wins he left on the table, due in large part to his incredibly abrasive approach to governing.

Katrina: You’re not wrong about that. I was a fan of some of his policy positions, especially much-needed pension reform and increased school choice. If he had a bit more goodwill and emotional intelligence, he might have been able to demonstrate how those policies could actually help teachers and students.

Alex: Yep, but because of his style, pension reform and school choice are likely off the table for the next four years. And while some may be satisfied with the status quo on those issues, there are a lot of teachers and thousands of students who could benefit from reform to teacher pensions and school choice policies. 

Katrina: So where do you think Beshear has the opportunity to move the ball forward on education policy? 

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Building a School Performance Framework for Families? Lessons from Chicago.

Families and communities need access to reliable, understandable information about school quality to make decisions for their students. One tool district leaders can use to provide this information is a school performance framework (SPF). But SPFs are only useful to families if they are designed with families in mind. If leaders treat the needs of families as an afterthought during the design phase, it should be no surprise when families don’t use the tool.

Chicago Public Schools' School Quality Rating Policy screenshot

In our recent project at SchoolPerformanceFrameworks.org, my co-authors and I identified family and community information as one of three primary “use cases” that could shape SPF design decisions. My colleague Bonnie O’Keefe explains the concept of use cases and offers another example — school continuous improvement — here.

An SPF designed to show families and communities how schools are performing should include:

  • Early, authentic, and ongoing engagement of families and community members in the design process: District leaders should involve families from the beginning to understand what information they need or may already have. This can be accomplished through task forces, roundtables, or listening sessions, or by administering parent surveys. Leaders should be cautious not to engage only the most visible stakeholders, but instead should use various methods to engage families that will be most impacted by the SPF. Inauthentic engagement risks alienating key stakeholders and reinforcing harmful power dynamics.
  • The information families and community members most want to know: Families typically prefer a higher level of detail, a focus on outcomes, and a summative rating, because they are easier to understand. This contrasts significantly from the granular level of detail school leaders might need. If leaders create a tool that primarily serves families, the SPF might be less useful to school leaders or system leaders.
  • Results displayed in an understandable and accessible way: One reason families may struggle to understand school performance frameworks is when they are full of jargon. For example, parent advocacy organization Learning Heroes has found that someone could misread the phrase “School Climate” on a school report card to mean building temperature as opposed to the quality of school life. District leaders should present data to families that is free of jargon and available in high-quality multilingual translations.

Many of the districts profiled in our report have made improvements to their SPF over the years to make them more accessible to parents. For example, the School Quality Rating Policy (SQRP) in Chicago was not originally designed with families in mind, but the growth of school choice options prompted the district to make changes to give families access to more transparent, shared information across schools. SQRP reports now include the size of the school, the names and contact information for school leaders, programmatic offerings, and information about transportation options to each school. Reports are available in multiple languages and families can easily find the definitions of key terms within one click.

To learn more about other use cases for SPF design, and other long-standing local SPFs, visit SchoolPerformanceFrameworks.org.

The Innovations That Charter Schools Were Supposed to Spur Are Finally Taking Root

Remember way back when charter schools were new and people thought that their innovations — and lessons from those innovations — would transfer to traditional districts, and all schools would improve? Then for the next two decades, nothing even remotely like that seemed to happen?

Today, policies in several states allow for autonomous districts schools, inspired, in part, by charter schools. Sometimes called “in-district charters,” these new models allow districts to use some of the same freedoms that public charter schools enjoy while remaining part of the district and receiving a range of district services. Autonomous district schools are cropping up all over the country, including Springfield, MA; Indianapolis, IN; Denver, CO; San Antonio, TX; and Los Angeles, CA — you can learn more about them in our new resource released last week.

Map of districts around the country experimenting with autonomous district schools, sometimes called "in-district charters"

A recent report by PPI suggests that when autonomous district schools benefit from enough autonomy, they can outperform traditional public schools. Although this report shows that autonomous district schools in the regions studied do not perform as well as charters, early evidence indicates that these types of schools can be a promising strategy for improving student outcomes.

Why are these schools gaining traction in such diverse geographies? Through autonomous schools, districts can:

  • Utilize the same freedoms that charters have enjoyed to enable educators to innovate and make decisions that better serve the diverse needs of students and families;
  • Bring programmatic decision-making closer to schools; 
  • Retain students and families who might otherwise enroll in charter schools (thereby keeping enrollment and financial resources inside the district);
  • Unleash the creative potential of the large pool of diverse leaders within districts; and
  • Expand the reach of talented leaders to more students and retain these leaders in the district.

Tresha Ward, Lina Bankert, and I spent much of the last two years supporting the design and launch of autonomous district schools across the state of Texas, in Denver, and in St. Louis. Based on what we’ve seen, we are excited about the potential of these types of schools to improve outcomes for students. But we also know that doing this work well is difficult: it requires significant skill-building and support for district principals and strong and unwavering support from district leadership and school boards. 

We see five key contributors to the success or failure of these initiatives that we will explore in a series of blog posts over the next couple of months:

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Warren Wants to Slash the Program I Evaluate — But I’ve Seen It Work

Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren released her education plan, where she proposed slashing federal funding for the expansion of public charter schools by ending the Charter School Program (CSP). Warren claims that the CSP is an “abject failure,” citing a report by an anti-charter organization that the federal government has wasted up to $1 billion on charter schools. (The report’s lack of substance and evidence has already been raised by others.)

U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren visiting Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa. She spoke to a group of about 400 students to outline her K-12 education plan, answer questions, and pose for selfies.

Photo of Elizabeth Warren via Flickr user tabor-roeder

I know Warren is wrong firsthand. As part of my work at Bellwether Education Partners, I serve as an external evaluator for three CSP grantees (as my colleague Cara mentioned yesterday). Our unbiased, rigorous, and data-driven evaluations indicate that when implemented well, high-quality charters use their CSP funds to improve their model and successfully serve more students. These charter schools are the reason their students experience gains in achievement beyond their traditional public school peers. 

Let me step back. The CSP began in 1994 as an amendment to the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It has three goals:

  1. To create promising new public charter schools,
  2. To replicate high-quality public charter schools, and
  3. To disseminate information about effective practices within charter schools.

In 15 years, CSP has awarded close to $4 billion to charters serving disproportionately more low-income and diverse students than traditional public schools. The average award is about $500K. In exchange for CSP replication funds, the schools expand to serve more students. CSP replication grantees are required to evaluate their progress, and it is strongly recommended that they use an external evaluator to do so. The evaluation must demonstrate that the grantee is doing what it said it would do and compare the achievement of its students to students attending nearby traditional public schools for evidence of impact. This is how the CSP holds grantees accountable. 

My colleagues and I use advanced statistical modeling techniques to compare charter-attending students to similar students attending nearby traditional public schools on a 1:1 basis. In the model, when all things are considered, the difference in achievement found can be attributed to the school. In fact, an emerging trend in our current data analysis suggests that the longer a student attends a well-implemented, high-quality charter school, the larger the gains in achievement over their traditional public school student peer become. 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