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Last week, a policy fight related to how struggling students should be counted and used in rating schools broke out at the state level, pitting education professionals on one side against education reform and civil rights groups on the other.
The heart of the argument was technical and wonky in nature, but provides some insight and a preview of fights ahead as Colorado (and other states) decides how it will navigate a new federal landscape which allows much more state level flexibility.
In this particular case, the issue involved the state accountability system – which is used to keep track of how students are doing and then acknowledge or punish schools and districts according to the results. The old federal law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required fairly detailed reporting on different student “sub-groups,” such as race, disability, and language status.
The politics on NCLB always made for strange bedfellows. Republicans liked the testing and accountability provisions, and civil rights groups liked the detailed reporting for minorities and types of students who have traditionally struggled on exams.
The problem, at least according to education professionals (like teachers and school administrators) was that the NCLB system required schools which serve the most diverse and at-risk students were to be held to a much higher level of accountability than those whose student body is less diverse, and that a single student who failed to meet the “proficiency” designation (or failing to make growth) on the test could be counted multiple times against a school.
For example, let’s say a school has a student who is Hispanic, has a disability, is learning English, and qualifies for Free/Reduced Lunch (a measure of student poverty) and this student failed to reach proficiency and growth targets. Rather than just being counted against the school once, this student would be counted against the school four times – once for each of the subgroups they fell into.
Former Colorado Education Commissioner Robert Hammond convened a statewide workgroup to study the state’s accountability system and this group recommended changes where the hypothetical student described above would only be counted against a school once, though data on all the different subgroupings would still be made publicly available.
Education professionals have long cried foul about the state’s accountability system, and how it unfairly targets and shames schools serving the most at-risk student populations and this multiple counting issue is part of that problem.
The coalition of education reform and civil rights groups protested strongly against the proposal to only count these students once and successfully lobbied the state board of education into backing away from it.
The heart of the disagreement stems from how strongly these reform and civil rights groups feel about test-based accountability. Their argument might be summarized as follows: If we test all students against high academic expectations, publicly report those results, and then establish firm consequences for schools failing to succeed – then our education system will improve and all students will get the supports they need.
This theory underlies the entire testing and ranking approach that was baked into NCLB and that the country has been following for almost 15 years.
Education professionals have long pushed back against the NCLB accountability-driven approach, countering with a different theory. To summarize that thinking: If we provide high quality instruction, engage the learner, support the educator, and mitigate the damaging effects of poverty – then our education system will improve and all students will get the supports they need.
While I’m admittedly oversimplifying, note that the desired ends between these groups are (basically) aligned, but the approaches to achieving this result differ dramatically.
How this argument has played out is important because it portends an even greater conflict looming for the state. In late 2015, NCLB was replaced with a new federal education law called the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” or ESSA.
ESSA provides states much wider latitude to determine things like testing, accountability, and what punishments would be handed down to struggling schools. The question now is whether or not our state will actually use any of that latitude.
Looking ahead, I expect we’ll see a strong push from education professionals to significantly revise the NCLB-era accountability system under which the state currently operates. I expect we’ll also see a similar strong push from education reform and civil rights groups to make sure nothing changes.
Of course, what is needed is a reasonable and fair compromise. We do need to make adjustments to the state accountability system which unfairly blames and shames schools serving high concentrations of diverse and impoverished students. We also should maintain a transparent system of accountability that both pressures and supports underperforming school systems to get better.
I’d like to say I’m optimistic – but I’m not. In an all-too-familiar-refrain, years of bitter argument on this issue divides and polarizes both sides, making a compromise path difficult to find. In addition, the state agency naturally poised to lead this discussion (the Colorado Department of Education) is a wounded and understaffed bureaucracy, now with its fourth Commissioner in a year and still in the wake of several high level resignations.
At this point, no one is quite sure what will happen. However, everyone is certain we’ve got our work cut out for us as a state.
Note: A version of this article appeared in the Vail Daily on 6.15.16.
I was recently honored with the brief opportunity to speak to Colorado’s HB1202 Task Force, which is studying the state’s assessment system and responsible for suggesting changes to the Colorado Legislature for consideration in the upcoming legislative session.
I focused my remarks on the importance, process, and evidence on formative measures. I also spoke to the differences between accountability assessments in the United States (and Colorado) versus other high performing nations or municipalities.
The memo I prepared for the group can be accessed here: HB1202 ECS Flyover
The entire text is also provided below. I welcome observations, comments, questions, or critique.
From: Jason E. Glass, Superintendent & Chief Learner
To: HB 14-1202 Task Force
Re: Formative Assessment & a Flyover of Assessment in Eagle County
The purpose of this memorandum is to briefly orient the members of the HB14-1202 Task Force to the large-scale theory of change, an instructionally focused approach to assessment, and some of the formative measures employed in Eagle County Schools. For clarity, this memo will focus on measures whose chief purpose is for improving instruction, as opposed to measures whose chief purpose is accountability.
The Instructional Core
Eagle County Schools uses an “international benchmarking” approach to school improvement. That is, practices are drawn from comparative studies of high performing education systems, both within the United States and abroad. In addition, the organization focuses on practices which have the support of a peer-reviewed body of evidence.
As such, the “in-school” theory of change rests on three major and interrelated tenets which feature prominently in every high-performing educational system. Liz City and Richard Elmore (2009) capture these three elements in their discussions of the “instructional core,” or the relationship between the teacher and student in the presence of content.
Important to City and Elmore’s framework, there is an emphasis on the relationship between the three components. One element cannot change without impacting the other two. For example, we cannot effectively raise the quality or “rigor” of the content (or standards) without also adapting the instructional approach of the teacher and the engagement level of the student.
Assessment through the Lens of Instruction
Formative measurement is an essential part of bringing the instructional core to life. For the teacher to effectively reach and engage every student in learning, that teacher must understand the level of current content performance or knowledge of their students. The teacher must deliver high quality instruction and then determine if that instruction had the desired impact on students (i.e. improved content knowledge or skills). Almost invariably, some students will require additional supports or a differentiated approach to reach the content or skill standard. So, the teacher must apply some intervention, customized to the student, and then check again to see if that intervention had the effect of raising the student to the performance standard.
The “response to intervention” or “response to instruction” (RtI) model provides a useful framework for understanding this process.
Well designed and employed formative assessments are ‘part and parcel’ to the RtI process. All students should receive a universal screen or benchmark assessment as part of the general education curriculum. As there may be some time (days, weeks, or months) between the administrations of these assessments, they can be referred to as long cycle.
These long cycle results will reveal some students who struggle to meet the standard in the general education environment, who should then receive some intervention customized to that student’s needs. Determining the appropriate intervention often requires the use of a diagnostic test to determine the precise area where the student is struggling (ex. phonics vs. phonemic awareness). Then, once an intervention is applied, the determination as to if the intervention is working should be made through a progress monitoring assessment. As the time between these assessments is less than at the universal level, they are sometimes called medium cycle assessments and may be administered every few learning sessions or weeks (or longer, as the team of practitioners determine).
Even after a targeted intervention, some students will require an intensive support. These students will receive diagnostic and progress monitoring even more frequently – perhaps multiple times over the course of the lesson as the teacher iterates to determine what is the barrier to learning and if it is being mitigated through supports or other interventions.
The RtI approach is based on the principles of a “high reliability system” (see Eck et al., 2011), meaning generally that as the probability of failure increases then supports/interventions and monitoring also increases. The goal is to determine which students are struggling and why as quickly as possible and to intervene so that the student meets the performance standard.
Notably, formative assessments may be more standardized and formal or they may be individualized and informal. A powerful mode of formative assessment is a teacher walking through a room as students work, asking questions and checking for understanding. Alternatively, formative assessment may involve sophisticated and computer-based standardized measures. Variations in formative assessments may stem from variations in the elements of the instructional core (different teachers, different students, and different content) or from constraints related to things like time and technology. This entire process may happen in a very structured and mechanical way, or it may happen much more naturally and intuitively. What is most important is that it is, in fact, happening.
It should also be noted that the formative assessment process is not exclusive to the teacher. Perhaps the most powerful mode of formative assessment is for the student to self-monitor and assess their own progress.
Evidence and Formative Assessments
The body of both comparative and peer-reviewed scientific evidence for the effectiveness of formative assessment is (in my professional opinion) strong.
Black and William (1998), in a meta-analysis, found that student achievement gains associated with formative instructional practices were “among the largest ever reported for educational interventions.”
Similarly, Hattie (2011), also in a meta-analysis of over 50,000 studies, identified strategies related to formative assessment and RtI among the largest effect sizes calculated.
From a comparative system perspective, formative assessment and responsive teaching form the instructional basis of practically every high performing education system. Finland, a system perhaps more averse to summative accountability testing than any other in the world, uses formative assessment extensively. In Schwartz & Mehta’s chapter on Finland in Tucker’s comparative study Surpassing Shanghai, it is noted that “While the Finns do not assess for accountability purposes, they do an enormous amount of diagnostic or formative assessment at the classroom level.”
Notably, when a Finnish principal was asked (in Schwartz & Mehta) how well she knew students were performing, she answered that there was so much formative assessment data at her disposal it was impossible not to know.
Formative Assessments in Eagle County Schools
Eagle County Schools relies on a number of formative measures to guide instruction. Choice over the appropriate use of these formative measures is left to the building practitioners, including the building principal, teacher leaders, and classroom teachers.
Depending on grade/developmental level, student characteristics, staff preferences, content area, or specific purpose – the following is an incomplete list of formative assessments used in Eagle County.
- Early Childhood & Elementary
- GOLD Assessment
- mCLASS (DIBELS Next/IDEL)
- AIMS Web
- Core Knowledge Language Arts
- Engage New York, Literacy & Math (Achieve)
- District Formative Measures (ECS Teacher Developed)
- Classroom grades (standards based)
- Middle School
- mCLASS (DIBELS Next/IDEL)
- Renaissance STAR
- NWEA MAPS
- Engage New York, Literacy & Math (Achieve)
- District Formative Measures (ECS Teacher Developed)
- Classroom grades
- High School
- NWEA MAPS
- District Formative Measures (ECS Teacher Developed)
- Classroom grades
Eagle County Schools is, admittedly, not yet a globally high performing system. But, we are in our first year of building an instructionally focused assessment system patterned after global high performers. As such, formative assessment is central part of that effort.
Black, P., & William, D. (1998). Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 139-148.
City, E., Elmore, R., Fierman, S., & Teitel, L. (2009). Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Eck, J., Bellamy, G., Schaffer, E., Stringfield, S., Reynolds, D. (2011). High Reliability Organizations in Education. Noteworthy Perspectives, 1-48.
Hattie, J. (2011). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York, NY: Routledge.
Tucker, M. (2011). Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading School Systems. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Info-graphic from the National Center on Education & the Economy
Colorado’s recently released TCAP results landed across the state with a soft thud. Overall, scores were flat or down in most subjects and grades. Even among charter schools, the ballyhooed darlings of the reform movement, results leaned toward the disappointing accented by wild fluctuation.
Reactions from pundits, state education leaders and the state’s largest newspaper, the Denver Post, ranged from somber to puzzled, but ideas about next steps quickly emerged: stay the course or even accelerate the reforms Colorado has been aggressively pursuing. Namely, that the state should continue with the hyper-accountability (more tests and consequences, even considering extending some form of accountability to the children) or market-based approaches (more charter schools or even expanding to private school voucher schemes).
What is most troubling about the reactions of our state leaders and resident non-profit policy wonks is how completely disconnected their reactions and proposed solutions are from what is really happening in schools across our state.
How quickly we have forgotten that Colorado has cut education funding by over a billion dollars annually for the past four years. In many schools, resources went in reverse nearly 20%, resulting in massive layoffs, pay freezes, and the loss of essential school resources like curricular materials and instructional supports for the state’s neediest kids.
All across the Centennial state, our teachers and principals were and are working to achieve more with less. If any of the so-called or self-proclaimed experts had thought to descend from on high and ask a classroom teacher, then the answers to flat TCAP scores would have been plainly clear.
In spite of this historic gutting of public education in Colorado, our educators – for the most part – held the line on statewide student achievement results. But instead of standing up for those who stood in the breach for our kids, Colorado’s educators received more blame and shame, more disruption and disparagement.
As our schools struggle to piece together and implement the blizzard of disconnected, often unfunded, and frequently nonsensical state reforms, we should ask: is it rational to expect any endeavor to become more complex and to produce better outcomes while the means of production are financially devastated?
Yet our state’s “no-excuses” leaders turn on their reality distortion fields and wonder why statewide scores are flat. Why aren’t our testing, evaluation, and market reforms – that brought such national attention and recognition to Colorado – working as planned?
The answer, quite simply, is that they’ve never worked anywhere at scale and the body of evidence to support these approaches is scientifically anemic and ideologically biased.
There are no high performing education systems in the United States, or anywhere in the world for that matter, that have achieved systemic and sustained greatness through the means Colorado now aggressively pursues.
Instead of working to de-professionalize education by cutting teacher wages, vilifying unions, and allowing practically anyone who isn’t a felon to become a teacher – the high performing systems have worked to make education a high status and very selective profession. There are no stories of mass shaming, firing, and disenfranchisement among those systems that have actually achieved sustainable greatness.
The best performing education systems on earth aren’t having discussions about opening more charter schools because they don’t have any. This is not to say we should eliminate Colorado’s charter schools -many of them do a fine job. It is to say that the work of genuine greatness requires extraordinary effort and execution put behind proven practices. Handing over the management of public education to some non-profit entity and calling it a charter school does not, by this action alone, make the education better and does not further the goal of system-wide genuine quality.
The best education systems on earth also aren’t discussing the privatization of their schools through voucher schemes. This is because they are focused on supporting and continuing to make their public schools even greater – instead of intentionally dismantling and disrupting them.
The best education systems are also judicious in their use of assessments. They test only at key transition points, relying on practitioner developed assessments that measure high level skills and concepts. Here in Colorado, our kids must take literally dozens of standardized tests over the course of their academic careers. Yet we can’t seem to let go of a single test because the theory of test-rank-punish as a means of improvement is far too ingrained.
Parents ask, “Why are we testing my child from February to May instead of teaching them?” Assessments are important; especially those that help educators tailor instruction to help kids learn. But the parents and the kids know – standardized testing is not the same thing as learning.
The problem with years of TCAP staleness starts and ends with the foisting of disconnected state-level reforms that have no basis in evidence. State-level policies that ignore and supersede the intricate art and science of instruction are too broad and generic to work, resulting in the unintended consequences of overloading schools with rules and regulations handed down without any funding to offset their administrative costs.
The Denver Post’s editorial about Colorado’s TCAP scores ended with a plea to continue the path our state is already on in terms of accountability and market-based approaches. According to the Post, we need to get these reforms fully implemented and give them time to work.
In the end, I expect the editorial board at the Post will get their wish. Colorado probably has too much ego, political capital, and careerism invested in these policies to change course now. But we should also expect many years of future editorials – all with an eerily familiar lament – wondering why, systemically, things just aren’t working out as planned.
Today, on Twitter, I asked some critical questions about opinion piece the Honorable Rep. Jared Polis wrote for the Denver Post. You can read the article yourself, but the central claim of Rep. Polis’ argument is that “public school choice is an asset to improve all schools.”
I’ve written before that I’m not an opponent of school choice. However, I do question whether school choice policies have the capacity to actually lead us to system-wide improvement and, if school choice isn’t carefully overseen, that it can lead to a re-segregation of our schools – effectively returning us to an era of “separate but equal.”
I asked Rep. Polis (and a non-profit called “A+ Denver” which claims to “advocate for the changes necessary to dramatically increase student achievement in public education”) some questions about school choice and its ability to really “improve all schools.” I’ll put these questions here, and also provide some answers based on the evidence.
Question 1 – Which high performing global systems have used choice and competition as drivers for greatness? Answer – no education system that leads the world’s performance league tables has used school choice and competition as a driver for greatness.
Question 2 – Does school choice improve all public schools? Answer – there is no peer reviewed, journal quality evidence to support this claim.
Question 3 – Are we overselling school choice as a policy for large scale improvement? Answer – given that no high performing system has used this approach, and we have no quality evidence to support this claim, I’d deduce that we are overselling this policy, if the goal is that all schools improve.
From Rep. Polis, I got the typical imperious silence one should expect from a Member of Congress. “A+ Denver” did respond with another statement/claim, saying “school choice combined with performance management will have an impact on the largest school systems.” To which I again say: evidence, please.
Enter Rich Wenning
Rich Wenning is the current Executive Director at BeFoundation, a nonprofit purportedly working to bring about “sustained and dramatic improvement in the educational outcomes of disadvantaged students and the vitality of their communities.”
Let me say that I make no personal criticisms of Rich or his organization. While I admit I don’t know a lot about them or the strategies they use, BeFoundation has a wonderful purpose statement and I applaud any group that champions better services for students in poverty. Also, Rich and I both spent some time at the Colorado Department of Education, though our tenures did not overlap. State agencies are incredibly tough place to work, and I commend him for the work he did with the Colorado Growth Model website – although the Growth Model doesn’t take into account the error present in all student assessment data, which is a serious methodological flaw, in my professional opinion.
Rather than address any of the questions I raised, Rich chose to attack my school district, Eagle County Schools using the Colorado Growth Model.
In my experience, I’ve noticed that when someone goes on the attack when a critical question is asked, it is an indication that they recognize that there is some truth or a painful point in the question that they are trying to deflect. But since Rich and I didn’t fully explore this notion (and Twitter certainly has its limitations!), we’ll let that issue go without further examination.
In his attack, Rich also used data from before I was even the Superintendent in Eagle County, but that is another matter as well.
For the sake of discussion, let’s explore Rich’s attack and the point (I think) he was trying to make.
Rich compared Eagle County’s growth results to those of Denver Public Schools. According to the way-cool bubbles on the growth model, DPS’s results generally outperform Eagle County. To this, I’d say “congratulations” to DPS! It’s great they are making progress and it’s additionally great news because they are such a large district.
I think Rich was trying to make the point that DPS’s results were higher because they have school choice. However, there are a great variety of school choice options in Eagle County as well. According to a CDE report on charter schools, about 12% of students in Denver are in charter schools. In Eagle County, about 20% of all students are in either charter or private school options. Since Eagle County and DPS both have school choice options, can we really make the inference that school choice is driving the results? I think Rich is generally a smart guy, based on his successful career and many accomplishments – but this seems like a pretty basic logical error.
Also of note, Chalkbeat Colorado did a great job covering the heartbreaking story of Denver’s Manual High School and how, despite years of “no excuses” and other disconnected/disjointed education reforms, little real improvement had been made.
I wonder, Rich, how can this possibly happen given Denver’s myriad of school choice options? Aren’t all schools supposed to improve as a result of school choice? Shouldn’t choice and competition and the supposed open market for schooling have pressured Manual to get better? Could it be that school choice facilitated “white-flight” that may have actually exacerbated the poverty-based problems Manual continues to struggle with? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m hoping you do, Rich.
Rich, Eagle County is not a perfect school system. But we did have one of our two comprehensive high schools recognized by U.S. News and World report as one of the top 10% in the United States. And our other high school produces Boetcher Scholars and puts a number of kids into top colleges (including Ivy League Schools) every year. We even have a ski and snowboard academy that is a public school and which put four current or former students in the Olympics. But we don’t have a story like that of Manual High School, Rich. Somehow, despite all our shortcomings, we’ve been able to keep that kind of failure from our community and our kids.
Rich, like all schools, we have students who struggle. But we are working very hard, Rich, to build not just a good system – but a great system, a world-class system. We have a great plan, Rich and we are proud of it, we are excited about it, and we are executing it. I’d love to have you read our plan and think about it too, Rich – we’d love to have your feedback in helping us become a great school district!
So, Rich, please do resist the urge to make unfounded claims about school choice being yet another “silver bullet” that will be the cure-all for schools. Such claims are misleading to the public and to families. I know you are a data guy, Rich, and the evidence just doesn’t support that claim. No matter how much you (and others) may say it, believe it, and want it to be true – that just doesn’t make it so.
What is true is that the work of building a great school is really, really hard work and it doesn’t matter if you are a public, charter, or private school. Genuine greatness requires a focus on instruction, it takes being supportive and respectful of great teachers, it takes working hard to customize instruction to fit students, and it takes intensive efforts to mitigate the effects of poverty as early and as aggressively as we possibly can.
Rich, though you might feel defensive, try hard not to take shots at us. The people in our schools are giving it all they’ve got in a genuine effort to be great. We will get tired, so we need people like you cheering us on and supporting us.
So, Rich, we at Eagle County Schools aren’t perfect. But, we are trying really, really hard to be better – because we love our children and we love our community and we want wonderful outcomes for both of them.
This exchange was probably more than you expected! I do appreciate your engaging with me and I look forward to your reactions and thoughts, Rich.
A Lively Debate
Last night, I entered into a very engaging exchange with the person who manages the Twitter account for @COCharterSchool – whom I later found out is a very nice person named Stacy Rader, the Colorado League of Charter Schools’ Director of Communications!
I had a number of questions for Stacy about charter schools after reading through the Colorado League of Charter Schools brand new marketing document – an annual report with a lot of tables about charter schools (most in comparison with what they call “traditional public schools”) and a calendar with lots of great photos of kids and other facts. I’ve put together a Storify document that captures our exchange, linked below. Do note that I changed some of the order of tweets so the questions and answers are together.
To Stacy’s credit, we ended the discussion agreeing to sit down and talk more and she was kind enough to offer to come to Eagle County with the League’s new President, Nora Flood. We haven’t been able to find a mutually agreeable date yet, but we are working on that and I’m sure Stacy will follow through.
For me, the discussion generated a lot more thinking about charter schools. So, I present those questions here to hopefully spur more discussion and a deeper examination on the larger school reform theory related to school choice.
Before I begin, a disclaimer to those who may become defensive at my questions.
I am not an opponent of charter schools or of school choice, though I do have some concerns about their ability to raise the performance of an entire system. As state chief in Iowa, I worked with the tremendous staff at the Iowa Department of Education and introduced, through Governor Terry Branstad, arguably the best legislation (my professional opinion!) in the history of the United States on charter schools. Unfortunately or fortunately depending on your perspective, this legislation never actually passed! Our proposed legislation recognized that the founding and principle role of the charter school movement was innovation.
With this in mind, our legislation would have dramatically freed charters from a number of state requirements, but also put in place strong accountability provisions and was quick to close charters that weren’t performing at least as well as their competing schools. It also had strong provisions to safeguard equity and make sure charters were really open to every student.
Also, Eagle County Schools, where I am currently Superintendent, is the charter school authority over the Eagle County Charter Academy, a K-8 charter school that is part of our district. They have a tremendous staff, a great principal, a supportive community, and great kids. I also have a good relationship with the Headmaster of the Charter School Institute school in our community, Stone Creek Charter Academy. It is run by John Brendza, who at one time was my boss, was actually the former superintendent of Eagle County Schools, and is a quality educator and person.
With all that said, I do have a number of questions about charter schools. For the sake of parsimony, I will focus on a few key ones here.
Question 1: What is the percentage of students served in charter schools that come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds?
Answer/The Questions Behind the Question: According to the League’s marketing document, Colorado charters serve a population that is 34.8% Free/Reduced Lunch versus about 42.7% across the whole state. I did note that this statistic presented the charter school percentage against the whole state percentage, and did not separate it to “traditional public schools” as they did with most every other statistic in the document. Not sure if this was what they meant to do, if it was an oversight, of if it was an intentional distortion.
In any case, that’s about a 7% difference. From this, we can infer that charter schools tend to serve more affluent students than other “traditional” public schools. As we know poverty and achievement are highly correlated – take note as this will become an important fact for my next question.
This skimming off of affluent students is highly exacerbated in my community in Eagle County. In 2011, our “traditional” public school system had a Free/Reduced rate of 42.5%. That same year, Stone Creek Charter School, authorized by the Colorado Charter School Institute, had a Free/Reduced rate of 8.7% and the Eagle County Charter Academy, authorized by the district, served less than 1% Free/Reduced. I am only presenting data here and I mean no slight to these schools – they are good places where good things are happening for kids. But, whatever positive effects charter schools and school choice may have, it is also true that it has re-created “separate but equal” in our community.
All of these statistics can be verified here.
Question 2: Does the performance of Colorado charter schools outpace “traditional” public schools?
Answer/The Questions Behind the Question: Both the League’s marketing document and a report to the State Board of Education by CDE make this claim. Statewide, the League’s document shows an achievement range of between <1% and 6% of charter schools “outperforming traditional public schools” in reading, writing and math.
CDE makes a similar claim, saying “charter schools generally outperformed non-charter schools on state performance measures” and looks at the points earned on the state’s accountability performance framework. CDE found roughly 4 point differences in achievement and growth with the advantage to charter schools, although their analysis indicates non-charters outperformed charters in post-secondary and workforce readiness by 9 points. Although CDE states that charters outperform non-charters, their own analysis shows no statistical difference between the two on the overall performance framework.
So, looking at both of these analyses can we really make the inference that charter schools outperform “traditional public schools” or non-charters? In my professional opinion, this is misleading to say the least. Remember that charter schools, on average, serve a less impoverished student body than do non-charter schools – some 7% less in this case – and we know from piles of research that achievement and poverty are highly correlated.
Incidentally, charter schools in Colorado are also less likely to serve students with disabilities. The CDE report indicates a little more than 9% of students in the state have a disability, where a little less than 7% in charter schools have a disability.
Unless the effects of poverty (and other student demographic variables which we know co-vary with achievement) are controlled for in the analysis (which neither the League nor CDE did), it is entirely inappropriate to make any claims related to one system “outperforming” the other.
The larger body of research is also unclear on the claim that charters outperform other schools, even controlling for poverty and other demographic factors. This is an ongoing and raging national research area where no clear consensus exists. Given the weaker designs used in the League’s marketing report and in CDE’s report to the state board, we should have little confidence in their claims.
Question 3: Charter schools are touted as “public” schools – so how can they achieve this separation when it comes to economic and at-risk factors?
Answer/The Questions Behind the Question: First, let me say that some charter schools intentionally target at-risk populations. These students need and deserve a great education so I applaud charter schools who make the education of disadvantaged student groups their moral purpose. However, this is not the case with all charter schools.
In reality, charter schools use a variety of approaches that effectively screen away more challenging students. For example, it is not uncommon for charter schools to require parents to sign a “contract” which stipulates numerous hours of volunteer work or parental involvement. Some charters require families to pledge financial donations to the school, sometimes in the order of thousands of dollars. Some charter schools require families to purchase computers or pay other hefty fees. Still other charter schools have lottery systems, where families have to navigate an application and selection process. Many charter schools do not offer lunch or transportation systems for students. And more subtly, some (though certainly not all) charter schools “counsel” students with disabilities or who are learning English that, due to their special conditions, they would be better served in a “traditional” public school setting.
As underprivileged students are more likely to need these services, all of this creates another de facto sorting system. All of these combine to form a significant barrier that families of economically disadvantaged or at-risk students are less able to navigate or clear.
As a result we see the systemic “skimming” across the whole system that I mentioned earlier.
Question 4: Even if we agree, for the sake of discussion, that charter schools are indeed “better,” what strategies do they use that we can replicate to improve the performance of the entire education system?
Answer/The Questions Behind the Question: There exists an incredible variety of instructional philosophies, educational theories of change, strategies, and tactics within charter schools. You have approaches including college prep schools, “no excuses” test prep schools, classical academics, core knowledge schools, expeditionary/experiential learning, STEM focus schools, Montessori schools, Latin schools, international schools, cyber-schools, KIPP schools, creative learning schools … the list is almost endless.
Because of the great variety of methods employed, it is nearly impossible to definitively say what aspect of the charter approach is working and what is not. Should we be using Montessori approaches or KIPP approaches? Should we have a STEM focus or put more kids into cyber/online schools?
Charter schools present a wondrous array of variability, but do little for us if the larger goal is an entire education system that performs at a consistently high level.
A Few Simple Requests
As I’ve stated previously, I’m not an opponent of charter schools. There absolutely have been positive changes happen in our education system because of choice and competition. But, when the charter movement makes claims that are unfounded for the sake of marketing, falters in its moral commitment to equity as a publicly funded institution, and makes the larger goal of systemic improvement for all students more elusive – we have to collectively stand up and say something. Otherwise, we imperil the fate of our public education system and, by extension, our country as a result. In sum, a few modest requests:
A. Stop claiming charter schools “outperform” or are better than other schools as a marketing ploy to increase enrollment. The evidence does not support this claim and you are intentionally misleading families.
B. Find the moral commitment to equity which is foundational to all public institutions and aggressively remove barriers which have the de facto effect of excluding impoverished and at-risk students.
C. Commit to being an important part of a larger system that exists to serve all students. “Traditional” public schools are not your enemy; ignorance and poverty are our enemy. We are brethren organizations and should have a shared goal of forming a high quality education system for the children of our communities.