Category Archives: Accountability

Media: “Teachers Should Design Tests. But They Need to Learn How” in Education Week

I have a new piece out in Education Week that focuses on teacher-designed assessments. In it I argue that while teacher designed assessments can be more beneficial to student learning than commercially prepared assessments, teacher survey data suggests that most teachers don’t feel they have the appropriate skills to design high-quality assessments:

National teacher polling data suggest that I was not alone. A 2016 Gallup poll found that roughly 30 percent of teachers do not feel prepared to develop assessments. Less than 50 percent of teachers in low-income schools reported feeling “very prepared” to interpret assessment results, and less than 50 percent of teachers said they’d received training on how to talk with parents, fellow teachers, and students about assessment results. More alarming is that no state requires teachers to be certified in the basics of assessment development, so it’s likely that many teachers have never had any formal assessment training.

I highlight work underway in New Hampshire and Michigan to make significant investments in assessment literacy training for educators. More states should follow the lead of these exemplars and commit to equipping all educators with the tools to develop high-quality, rigorous assessments.

Read the full piece at Ed Week, and learn more about innovation in state assessment in “The State of Assessment: A Look Forward on Innovation in State Testing Systems,” a new report by my colleague Bonnie O’Keefe and me.

Media: “Better Ways To Measure Student Learning” in GOVERNING Magazine

I have a new piece out in GOVERNING Magazine discussing innovation in state assessments, and why local and state officials should invest in improving their assessment systems instead of cutting back. I highlight work underway in New Hampshire and Louisiana, which have both received waivers from the federal government to do something different with their tests. Just as the piece came out, Georgia and North Carolina got approval from the Department of Education for their own innovative assessment plans. But there’s a lot states can do even without special federal approval.

An excerpt of my op-ed:

“Test” has become a four-letter word in schools, as many states face political pressure to cut, minimize or deemphasize their much-maligned annual standardized assessments of student achievement. The most common complaints are that these tests do little to help teachers do their jobs well and can distract from more important aspects of teaching and learning.

But if standardized state tests aren’t useful in the classroom and aren’t informing instruction, that’s a problem that can be fixed even with current federal law mandating annual tests in math and reading. Instead of indiscriminately cutting back on statewide testing, states need to think about approaching them differently and look beyond typical end-of-year tests. Reducing investment to the barest minimum could leave students and schools worse off, without good information on achievement gaps, student growth, or college and career readiness.

Read the full piece at GOVERNING, and learn more about innovation in state assessment in “The State of Assessment: A Look Forward on Innovation in State Testing Systems,” by my colleague Brandon Lewis and me.

What the Providence Public School District Can Learn from Newark

 

The word “hope” may appear on the Rhode Island state flag, but it’s in short supply in Providence Public Schools. A recent report from researchers at Johns Hopkins University reveals that students are exposed to “an exceptionally low level of academic instruction” and in some cases, they have to attend school in dangerous buildings with lead paint and asbestos. At fault are byzantine rules and convoluted governance arrangements, the authors argue. Piecemeal reform efforts have not been enough to overcome ossified institutions, leaving unsafe buildings, low-quality instruction, and sub-par teachers shuffling between schools in a “dance of the lemons.”

The situation in Providence is dire, but it’s an important moment to make real, lasting changes as the spotlight is aimed on their dysfunction. Leaders in Providence — and Rhode Island at large — must focus on systemic change to provide students with safe learning environments and high-quality, rigorous instruction. Reforming an entire school system is a tall order, but other districts with similar challenges show that change is possible. One such example is just 191 miles down I-95: Newark, New Jersey.

Newark’s school system was in serious distress in ways that mirror Providence today: high poverty, dysfunctional bureaucracy, crumbling school buildings, and abysmal student outcomes. A voluminous report detailing the crisis in Newark’s public schools ultimately led to a state takeover in 1995.

Under state management, Newark’s school system was governed by the New Jersey Continue reading

What This Washington Post Opinion Piece Got Wrong on Charter Schools

Over the weekend, the Washington Post Outlook section ran a frustrating cover story on charter schools that offered a narrow and biased picture of the charter sector and perpetuated a number of misconceptions.

Jack Schneider’s “School’s out: Charters were supposed to save public education. Why are Americans turning against them?” argues that the charter sector as a whole isn’t living up to its promises, leading public support for the schools to shrink. Schneider is correct that the charter school hasn’t lived up to all of its most enthusiastic boosters’ promises, but his piece flatly misrepresents data about charter quality. For example, Schneider writes that “average charter performance is roughly equivalent to that of traditional public schools.” This is simply inaccurate, as my colleagues indicated in a recent analysis of charter data and research (slide 37 here). The full body of currently available, high-quality research finds that charters outperform traditional public schools on average, with especially positive effects for historically underserved student groups (a recent Post editorial acknowledged this as well).

slide from Bellwether's "State of the Charter Sector" resource, summarizing research on charter sector performance

To be clear, research also shows that charter performance varies widely across schools, cities, and states — and too many schools are low-performing. Yet Schneider cherry picks examples that illustrate low points in the sector. He cites Ohio, whose performance struggles — and the poorly designed policies that led to them — Bellwether has previously written about. He also (inexplicably, given where his piece ran) overlooks Washington, D.C., where charters not only significantly outperform comparable district-run schools, but have also helped spur improvement systemwide. Over the past decade, public schools in D.C. (including both charters and DC Public Schools, DCPS) have improved twice as fast as those in any other state in the country, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). DCPS was the nation’s fastest growing district in 4th grade math and among the fastest in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math. These gains can be partially attributed to the city’s changing demographics, but are also the result of reforms within DCPS — which the growth of charters created the political will to implement. Over the past decade, Washington, DC has also increased the number of high-performing charter schools while systematically slashing the number of students in the lowest-performing charter schools. When I served on the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board from 2009-2017, I had the chance to observe these exciting changes firsthand, so it was particularly disappointing to see a major feature in our city’s paper overlook them.

It’s frustrating that this biased and narrow picture drew prime real estate in one of the nation’s leading papers, because the charter sector does have real weaknesses and areas for improvement that would benefit from thoughtful dialogue. For example, as Schneider notes, transportation issues and lack of good information can prevent many families from accessing high-quality schools. In cities with high concentrations of charters, such as Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, there is a real need to better support parents in navigating what can feel like a very fragmented system. And despite progress in closing down low-performing charter schools, too many remain in operation. Schneider could have referenced the real work charter leaders are undertaking to address these lingering challenges (more on this in slide 112 of our deck).

Schneider is correct that public support for charters has waned in recent years, due in part to some of the challenges he references, but also because of orchestrated political opposition from established interests threatened by charter school growth. Given the increasingly polarized political environment around charter schools, the need for nuanced, balanced, and data-informed analysis and dialogue about them is greater than ever. Bellwether’s recent report on the state of the charter sector, and our past work on charter schools more broadly, seeks to provide that kind of analysis. Unfortunately, Schneider’s piece falls short on that score.

Why Is Charter School Growth Slowing? New NACSA Research Offers Insights — But No Easy Answers.

 After growing rapidly for the past decade, the pace of charter school growth has slowed in recent years, provoking consternation among some charter school supporters — as well as debate about causes and responses. As my Bellwether colleagues noted in a recent report on the state of the charter sector, there are multiple potential factors influencing this shift, and it can be difficult to know which are at play because recent trends and the different factors influencing them vary considerably across states and geographies.

Ultimately, however, the pace of charter school growth is a function of just a few factors:

  • How many individuals, organizations, and groups apply to establish new schools?
  • What percentage of those applications are approved?
  • Are existing schools growing, and by how much?
  • What percentage of charter schools are closed?

Charter school authorizers (which I was one of when I served on the DC Public Charter School Board) are the entities entrusted in state law to approve and oversee charter schools. These bodies are uniquely positioned to shed light on the first two questions.

Reinvigorating the Pipeline,” a new report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), explores what authorizer data can tell us. NACSA (on whose board I now serve) reviewed nearly 3,000 charter applications to authorizers in 20 states who oversee more than two-thirds of charter schools nationally. The report surfaces some interesting insights:

  • There is wide variation in the types of schools that charter applicants propose to create, including classical, “no excuses,” inquiry-based or child-centered, vocational, alternative/credit recovery, blended/hybrid, STEM, and arts schools.
  • Applications for some types of schools are much more common than others, and approval rates also vary widely across types of schools created. Schools proposing to implement classical or “no excuses” models are more than twice as likely to be approved than those proposing arts-focused, gifted-education, and single-sex models.
  • The percentage of charter applications for schools using “no excuses” models declined considerably in the past five years, as did the percentage of “no excuses” schools approved.
  • The majority of charter applicants are for stand-alone schools not affiliated with a charter network or management organization. Indeed, despite common perceptions that networks dominate the charter sector, the percentage of applications for free-standing schools is at a five-year high. Schools affiliated with nonprofit charter management organizations (CMOs) are more likely to be approved than free-standing schools, but, because there are more applications from free-standing schools, CMO-run and free-standing schools each account for about 40% of approved applications. Schools run by for-profit education management organizations, which have attracted considerable criticism in recent years, account for only about 20% of approved schools, and applications for EMO-run schools have declined dramatically.
  • The types of schools that applicants propose to create vary widely across states. Applications for blended or hybrid models, for example, account for more than a quarter of proposals in Arizona, D.C., and Illinois, while authorizers in Connecticut and Minnesota received no applications for this type of model. Conversely, proposals for child-centered models such as Waldorf or Montessori accounted for a much larger share of applications in some states (e.g., Minnesota and Georgia) than others. And groups associated with EMOs accounted for a meaningful percentage of applicants in only a few states but were a big percentage in Florida, Ohio, and Arizona. All of this suggests that what the “charter sector” looks like varies widely across states and communities, a factor that bears remembering in national dialogue about charters.

In some ways, the report raises more questions than it answers. It can’t tell us, for example, why some types of charter applications are much more common than others, or why authorizers are more likely to approve certain types of schools. Further, it’s not easy to tell whether trends in the number of applications for different types of schools reflect intrinsic demand and interest of prospective founders and their communities, or whether perceptions of political and other barriers (such as lack of access to facilities), authorizers’ openness to certain types of models or to approving new charter applications at all, and other political and policy factors are influencing the pipeline of applications that authorizers receive.

These are questions that deserve further inquiry. And given the high level of state and local variation in charter growth and pipelines, many of these questions need to be explored at the state and local level, not just nationally.

But by bringing this data to bear, NACSA is helping to shed empirical light on key questions facing the charter movement — and also countering some common misperceptions about the charter sector. I hope that this work provokes further dialogue and inquiry for the field.