Category Archives: State Education Policy

How Do We Incentivize Charter Authorizers to Approve More High-Quality Alternative Schools? A Q&A With Colorado’s Antonio Parés.

Antonio Parés headshot via Twitter

Antonio Parés via Twitter

“Alternative education” is a catch-all term used to describe education programs for students who have not been well-served by traditional classroom environments. It can refer to computer-based rapid credit accrual opportunities, supportive programs for students who are pregnant or parenting, intensive English-language programs for students who have come to the United States with substantial education histories in another language, “second chance” placements for students expelled from traditional public schools, and everything in between. Precise definitions vary by state and school district.

While traditional public school districts have historically offered these alternative programs for their students, more and more state or local charter schools are beginning to offer similar programs. Charter statutes often allow the flexibility that makes room for innovation, which is needed to operate programs that meet the specific needs of some of our most vulnerable students. Yet ensuring appropriate accountability for alternative charter schools — crucial to fulfilling the other side of the autonomy-for-accountability bargain — has proven challenging.

Forward-thinking charter authorizers are contemplating the policies and institutional practices that create strong authorizing and accountability incentives for alternative programs. The right mix of flexibility, autonomy, rigor, and relevance can both ensure that authorizers do not just enable the existence of more alternative schools but that the schools they authorize provide the highest quality programs that best meet the needs of the students they serve. Good authorizing practices can also prevent schools that provide alternative programs from simply relaxing their standards and becoming a catch basin for low performing students.

A primary challenge for authorizers is that accountability metrics typically used to measure the performance of charter schools — such as student achievement or growth on state standardized assessments, student attendance, and four-year graduation rates — may not accurately apply. Alternative charter schools often serve students who enter with unique educational and life challenges or who are already far below grade level because of gaps in their prior schooling. Applying these measures rigidly can create disincentives for operators to open, or authorizers to approve, alternative school models. Conversely, some states create loopholes that allow alternative schools and their authorizers to evade accountability altogether. Some intrepid authorizers have invested significant time and resources in developing fair and accurate ways to measure the performance of diverse alternative schools, however, state laws and regulations do not always align with such approaches.

Colorado has begun a process of convening a cross-agency task force of leaders, experts, and policymakers to modify its authorizing system by improving the rigor and relevance of performance metrics for the state’s alternative education campuses (AECs). 

Antonio Parés, a partner at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, is a board member of the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI), which convened the AEC task force. CSI is Colorado’s only statewide charter school authorizer, and it currently authorizes 39 schools serving over 17,500 PK-12 students across the state. We recently caught up with Antonio to talk about the unique needs of AECs and what that means for authorizers and state education policy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been working with a task force in Colorado to improve the ways that the state holds charter authorizers accountable for the success of their alternative education campuses. Can you tell us about that process and the challenges you’re facing?

Every year or two, CSI works with our alternative education campuses to identify “alternative measurements” for each or all of the schools. Alternative measurements include student perception surveys, in-house assessments such as NWEA or MAPS, or alternative post-secondary paths. CSI convened a statewide taskforce to review and collaborate on best practices when it comes to accountability measurements and outcomes for our alternative education campuses, schools typically serving under-credited and at-risk students. We were trying — and continue to try — to balance both the unique nature of each campus and their student population with the need for consistent, longitudinal, and comparable data points. Our goal was — and continues to be — to develop the best performance metrics and frameworks for every school. Continue reading

Civics Education Isn’t About Content or Activism — It’s Both.

Today is Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, observed each year to commemorate the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787 and “recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens,” according to the Library of Congress. It makes for a good occasion to reflect on the state of civics education in America, a topic that has received renewed focus since the 2016 presidential election.

One question that is often debated in this conversation is whether civics education should focus on teaching content and critical thinking skills, or encouraging civic engagement and activism. This presents a false choice, as schools should be responsible for ensuring that students are both adequately informed and sufficiently engaged — not one or the other.

One side of this debate contends that civics education should first and foremost provide students with a basic understanding of how the American political system works and teach them how to think about political issues. Under this approach, students should develop a well-informed understanding of all sides of an issue, including the underlying facts and proposed solutions, only venturing into political activism once they have mastered the necessary knowledge and skills.

This approach is well intended: it is important to cultivate a citizenry capable of robust debate that honestly grapples with the benefits and tradeoffs associated with each issue. And improvement is certainly needed, based on students’ poor performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics assessment, which measures “the civics knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are critical to the responsibilities of citizenship in America’s constitutional democracy.” According to the most recent civics assessment, last administered in 2014, only 23 percent of eighth grade students scored at or above the proficient level. In 2010, when NAEP last tested high school seniors in civics, only 24 percent scored at or above the proficient level.

However, neither of these results has changed significantly since 1998, and it’s not as if older voters — who vote at much higher rates than younger voters — are necessarily bastions of civic knowledge. For example, according to the most recent results from the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s annual civics survey, released last week, fewer than one third of Americans can correctly name all three branches of government, and many also lack important knowledge about how each branch functions.

Source: Annenberg Public Policy Center

Additionally, civic engagement, particularly voting, is not just about making a well-reasoned choice between two or more options. It’s also a way of demonstrating political power. When young people aren’t engaged, they are leaving their figurative voice out of the political conversation, meaning the issues they care about may receive less attention, and policies that affect young people may be enacted without their input. Our education system should have a strong interest in empowering young people and starting them on a path of self-advocacy.

Source: United States Elections Project

While the goal of civics education should be to both adequately inform students and get them engaged in the political process, it’s clear that we aren’t doing a good enough job on either front. This isn’t surprising when you consider how little time is spent on civics education. Based on a recent analysis from the Center for American Progress, 40 states require coursework in U.S. government or civics. While nine states require one year of such coursework, 31 only require a half-year, and 10 states have no requirement at all.

If we want to ensure that the next generation of citizens is sufficiently prepared for civic life, we need to commit the necessary time and resources — certainly more than one semester. We should view this Constitution Day and Citizenship Day as an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the civic mission of schools.

New Report: Benefit Spending Consumes Growing Share of Education Budgets

The recent teacher strikes in Arizona, Colorado, and West Virginia highlight a common problem: education spending is stagnant or in some cases decreasing. If teachers working multiple jobs to make ends meet isn’t bad enough, here’s worse news: skyrocketing benefit costs, such as healthcare and pensions, are consuming an increasing share of K-12 education budgets.

In a new report, “Benefits Take Larger Bite out of District K-12 Budgets,” I analyzed district education and benefit spending from 2005 to 2014. The results are troubling. Over that ten-year span, benefit spending increased more than 22 percent nationally. K-12 spending, on the other hand, grew less than 2 percent. As a result, more than $11 billion fewer dollars made it to classrooms in 2014 compared with 2005, after adjusting for inflation.

The problem of rising benefit costs varies significantly by state. As shown in the graph below, in the vast majority of states, benefit spending grew far faster than education budgets overall. In North Carolina, for example, benefits grew 48 percent while the state’s education spending only increased 2 percent. The problem persists even in states like Michigan that cut both K-12 and benefit spending, because they weren’t cut at the same rate. The Wolverine State cut education spending by 19 percent, but benefits were cut by only 2 percent. As a result, benefits eat up an even greater share of Michigan’s education budget than they did previously.

via “Benefits Take Larger Bite out of District K-12 Budgets”

Barring a dramatic change, the problem of ballooning benefit spending will only get worse. Due to many states’ histories of underfunding their pension systems while simultaneously increasing the generosity of the plan, costs will continue to rise. Legislators will need to find politically viable solutions that both meet existing obligations and mitigate rising costs going forward.

Read my full report here.

Are Teacher Preparation Programs Interchangeable Widgets? An Interview With Paul T. von Hippel

Earlier this spring, Education Next published an article by Paul T. von Hippel and Laura Bellows questioning whether it was possible to distinguish one teacher preparation program from another in terms of their contributions to student learning. Looking at data from six states, von Hippel and Bellows found that the vast majority of programs were virtually indistinguishable from each other, at least in terms of how well they prepare future teachers to boost student scores in math and reading.

Paul T. von Hippel

Much of the national conversation around teacher preparation focuses on crafting minimum standards around who can become a teacher. States have imposed a variety of rules on candidates and the programs that seek to license them, with the goal of ensuring that all new teachers are ready to succeed on their first day in the classroom. Von Hippel and Bellows’ work challenges the very assumptions underlying these efforts. If states cannot tell preparation programs apart from one another, their rules are mere barriers for would-be candidates rather than meaningful markers of quality. Worse, if we can’t define which programs produce better teachers, we’re left in the dark about how to improve new teachers.

To probe deeper into these issues, we reached out to von Hippel, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Bellwether: Can you start off by describing your work on teacher preparation? What compelled you to do the work, and what did you find?

von Hippel: It started with a 2010 contract that some colleagues and I at the University of Texas had with the Texas Education Agency. Our contract was to develop a pilot report card for the nearly 100 teacher preparation programs in the state of Texas. The idea was to come up with a teacher value-added model and then aggregate teacher value-added to the program level. We would then figure out which programs were producing better and worse teachers in the state, with the idea that the state would at a minimum provide feedback, encourage programs that were producing effective teachers and ideally expand them, and, in extreme cases, shut down programs that were producing a lot of ineffective teachers. Continue reading

An End to “Must-place” Teachers in LAUSD? Almost.

Last month, a quarter of Los Angeles public schools gained new power over selecting teachers to fill vacancies when the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board of Education unanimously adopted a resolution to establish mutual consent hiring. In most districts, teachers are employees of the district, not the school where they work. What that means is that they can be displaced — losing their position at their school — while still remaining employed by the district. A teacher can be displaced for many reasons, like declining enrollment, changing instructional needs, or generalized dissatisfaction with the teacher’s performance. In many districts, a teacher can remain “displaced” with full salary and benefits indefinitely.

But this is starting to change. Districts are beginning to adopt policies that recognize that teachers who are unable to find new placements after a year should not continue to stay on as fully-paid employees.

Los Angeles’ mutual consent hiring policy requires both teacher and school to agree to a teacher’s placement. This means the districts can no longer place teachers unilaterally or require schools to select from the displaced pool rather than making new hires. As of right now, the policy only covers one quarter of LAUSD schools. The remaining three quarters are still obligated to fill vacancies with displaced teachers, a group which includes those who have been unplaced for more than a year (commonly referred to as the “must-place” teachers).

Nick Melvoin championed this policy as the LAUSD school board vice president. Nick was also a witness in Reed v. State of California, a 2010 California constitutional case that aimed to protect students in underperforming schools from catastrophic teacher layoffs. I worked on Reed as part of the legal team that represented the students, including students at the school where Nick taught. Reed was a precursor to its more famous sibling, Vergara v. State of California, a case that led to a California Supreme Court ruling about the need for establishing “inevitability” when linking an education policy aimed at teachers to a constitutional harm to students.

In the Q&A below, I talk with Nick about what this new policy means for LAUSD’s students and teachers. Conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Eight years ago, you and I first met while I was representing students suing LAUSD over disproportionate teacher layoffs in their schools. That included many of the same schools that are now insulated from receiving “must-place” teachers under this new policy — including the school where you taught! That case ultimately settled without clarifying the state’s reverse-seniority layoff laws. Did that experience inform this effort to create a new practice of mutual consent hiring?

Absolutely. Just because litigation isn’t successful, that doesn’t mean that we’ll stop trying. There are two reasons that this policy makes sense. The first and most important one is the impact that this has on children. When I arrived as a teacher at Markham Middle School, I saw a rotating parade of substitutes and learned what that had done to my kids. Some of them didn’t have a history teacher until October, and until then, they were failing interim assessments… History isn’t something you can intuit — someone has to teach you! The administration was going down the list of hundreds of “must-place” teachers, and each one who showed up would leave after a few days. They weren’t the right fit for the school and they didn’t want to be there, but this would go on for months before the school could secure a permanent teacher.

The second reason is that I care about treating teachers as adults and as professionals. I came to the district fresh out of Harvard University, and my classmates were going on to Wall Street and consulting firms. I thought teaching was the most important job in the world, but when I arrived, I was treated like a cog in a machine. Mutual consent is about treating our teachers well and respecting them as professionals who do the most important jobs in the world.

I think that this new policy opens up a new channel for conversation and helps us to move closer to our goal of ensuring that all students in the District have great teachers. Continue reading