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Dear Senators Bennet and Gardner,
I am writing to urge you to reject the appointment of Betsy DeVos as the next Secretary of Education.
Ms. DeVos is entirely unqualified for the role, having few real accomplishments of her own besides those brought about by the wealth of her husband’s family and their purchased political influence.
Ms. DeVos also has no substantive background in education besides serving in an advocacy role for school vouchers and other privatization schemes. These approaches are designed to deconstruct public education, a foundational institution for our democratic republic supported by the founding fathers.
Even in the area of school choice, ostensibly the reason for her nomination, Ms. DeVos’ approach misses the mark.
Her record of unregulated, low quality school choices in Michigan has not only decimated that state’s public education system, but left in its wake a mish-mash of low performing and profiteering educational operations.
Finally, a core tenet of education policy is that such decisions are best governed at the local and state levels. With this nomination, it is clear President-Elect Trump intends to move forward on a campaign promise to push a $20 billion school choice plan on states, though it is less clear how this would be funded.
Moving this effort forward in any form would be a gigantic interference with state and local control for those states willing to jump through the hoops in order to get the federal dollars in this “Race to the Bank” model.
Concomitantly, it would mean those states refusing to participate in such a plan would effectively be sending their federal education dollars to private schools in other states.
There is certainly a place for school choice and private schools in our nation’s education system, but we should resist ideologically driven efforts to dismantle public schools in pursuit of a politically motivated goals.
Thank you for your time and attention to this important matter.
Jason E. Glass, Ed.D.
Superintendent & Chief Learner
Eagle County Schools
Denver Post writer Eric Gorski wrote up a story on the best performing (alleged) schools according to Colorado School Grades when their latest rankings came out in December.
As I looked over the (supposed) best performing schools, I suspected a systemic bias to be present related to the kinds of students these schools served.
Acknowledging this bias is important, as we have literally decades of evidence telling us that overwhelmingly the largest determinants of the variance in student achievement outcomes (as measured on standardized tests) are related to out-of-school factors.
As a quick analysis, I looked up the percentage of students on Free/Reduced lunch at the top rated schools according to Colorado School Grades and then compared those percentages to the Free/Reduced lunch percentages in the district that school was located within.
Because of the propensity for Free/Reduced lunch reporting to be under-represented at high school, I restricted my analysis to just those (allegedly) top performing elementary and middle schools.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the difference between top schools according to Colorado School Grades and those communities in which they are located is quite large.
The top schools, according to Colorado School Grades, average 13.1% students who are eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch.
By contrast, the average for their communities is 32.6%.
Apparently, one major secret to being a high scoring school (using the Colorado School Grades methodology) is to systemically exclude disadvantaged students from your student population.
*Note* – this is not a personal vendetta against the folks at Colorado School Grades, or the slew of edu-non-profits that support them.
In fact, as Superintendent of Eagle County Schools, I’m particularly proud (although a little confused) of the 2014 “B+” grade given to Minturn Middle School, which has been closed since 2011 (D’oh!).
*Edit* Ben Degrow, with the Independence Institute, noted that MMS hadn’t had a “grade” since 2010. That is accurate – however, they still appear in the search when you look up our district. You can see the results of the search I did here, which clearly shows the now closed Minturn school still showing up, with a B+. Mea culpa – I made the mistake in assuming they received a current “grade” when I searched on this year’s results. However, I would humbly suggest that Colorado School Grades revise their search system to avoid such confusion in the future.
The point is this: we should be asking some critical questions about this data, how it is being used, and what it means.
We might also consider how we can really identify the real pockets of excellence; instead of just identifying pockets of affluence.
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.
I spent the past 100 (or so) days in Eagle County building a possible new direction for the organization. This new direction was forged from countless interviews with education professionals and community members in Eagle County as well as from my own personal and professional journey in learning how to build a great education system.
I post it here for your review and consideration and welcome any thoughtful discussion it might bring about. The full document can be accessed here and it can also be downloaded as a pdf from the same site:
The critical question, at least for me, is clear: How do we raise an entire state to be one of the highest performing school systems in the world? This question takes up nearly every moment of my being, to the point of near fixation. I consume volumes of books, journal articles, news stories, reports, editorials, opinions, conversations, charts, tables, and diagrams. I visit schools and talk to educators, looking and listening for parts of the answer to the question. I spend hours and days in airports and airplanes to attend meetings where educational strategies and tactics are espoused and debated, all in pursuit of bettering our schools.
I believe we can take it as granted that everyone (or at least most everyone) wants our schools to be better, much better, than they are now. Where we come unraveled is in getting agreement on the specific actions we will undertake, as a system, to improve. In looking to the lessons of the world’s highest performing education systems, getting to some level of agreement on the tactics we will collectively take clearly matters. It matters in that whatever approach we undertake we will need to sustain it through the swings of the political pendulum and we will need to adequately resource the effort to give it the chance to succeed. A fractured approach does not lead us to that end and is also unlikely to lead us toward having one of the world’s best education systems.
So what tactics and strategies should we undertake? Where should we place our efforts? In my studies on how one might raise an entire education system (not a few schools or districts, but the entire system), I am increasingly convinced that both a continuation of past reform efforts (lower class size, incremental annual spending increases, and accountability) or the relatively new breed of American reform strategies (elimination of job protections, individual level evaluations linked to test scores, and school choice) are unlikely to work if our goal really is building an American school system that stands alongside the world’s highest performers.
So we face some choices. One is to continue the (often) politically motivated infighting and factionalism that dominates the current debate and see who ultimately bludgeons the other side into (temporary) submission. Another is to do nothing; paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake. Perhaps the right path is to reject these two options and converge on a set of strategies that is most likely to deliver us at that goal of a world-class education system.
I’d like to propose four lenses to frame that debate. If the strategy or approach passes through all four lenses, then it fits in the discussion. If it doesn’t, then it’s out. Note that being “in” shouldn’t mean it’s in forever – just that the approach makes sense in the current context. Similarly, being “out” doesn’t mean it’s out forever – it just means that either the timing isn’t right or we need more testing and empirical validation of the approach before we take it to scale across the entire education system. So, “what are these four lenses that SHOULD frame our education reform agenda,” you ask?
1. Is it related to the instructional core? Harvard professor Richard Elmore rightly points out that if you aren’t doing things that have an impact on the relationship between the teacher and the student in the presence of content, you aren’t doing anything that’s going to positively change performance. Using this first question as a lens is incredibly constructive in helping us sort the wheat from the chaff in where we should place our efforts. The danger in using this lens in isolation is that there are lots of things that affect this relationship between teachers and students in the presence of content; especially if you allow yourself to birdwalk out on a few limbs. We can’t just rely on this lens alone.
2. Is it strongly supported by the evidence? This lens can be a bit tricky as one can find some evidence to support just about anything. But we stand a much better chance of being “right” with whatever approach we take if are aligned with evidence that reaches the caliber of being peer-reviewed, journal quality work. Further, we should pursue approaches that have a preponderance of evidence that supports it. This helps prevent us from chasing the latest thing or being led astray by a singular research finding that contradicts the larger body of evidence on any particular strategy. The danger of using this lens in isolation is being paralyzed by analysis, wanting more and more empirical validation before actually doing anything. Good implementation begins with using evidence to calibrate your shot, but ultimately taking action.
3. Is it scale-able? If our goal is really to get a whole education system to improve, we must reject efforts that do not scale as the primary drivers for improvement. Efforts that do not scale show up dressed in one of two outfits. One is in the form of small-scale pilots and projects, where we have a few schools or districts undertake some effort. Pilots and projects are incredibly important for experimentation and empirical validation but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking these are going to do anything that will make the whole system move; especially if, at the end of the pilot or program, we never do anything to grow the validated approach. The second form of efforts that do not scale comes in the guise of attempts at small scale excellence. Suspects here include many school choice efforts and alternative educator licensure pathways. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a fan of charter schools as a mechanism for innovation and a fan of approaches like Teach for America in their efforts to bring top talent into education. But we are badly fooling ourselves if we think either of these efforts has the capacity to raise the quality of our entire education system. Don’t believe me? Refer to question #2 above. The danger of using this lens in isolation is that there are lots of things we could take to scale. But if it’s not related to the instructional core or if it isn’t supported by evidence we run the risk of creating big, expensive, and ineffective distractions that don’t result in a world-class education system.
4. Is it supported by international benchmarking? A great place to start for information on how we might grow our education system into one of the world’s best is by asking questions of what the world’s best education systems actually do. A comparative analysis of these systems, looking for common approaches and strategies in their rise to greatness, is perhaps our best evidence of what’s going to work to raise our education system to top performing status. As a contrast, the discussions about pure local control, or the even more rabid version of this which advocates the complete elimination of state authority and state departments of education, is completely absent as a strategy of improvement in studies on the rise of the world’s best education systems. More directly, there are no examples of world-class education systems that have used this approach and achieved greatness. The key here is balance, a topic I’ve explored before. So, using the lens of international benchmarking, seeing what approaches the best performing school systems actually use, can be an incredibly constructive lens in helping us decide which approaches to take. The danger in using this lens in isolation is that you can fail to take into account that each school system has history, culture, and context – and all of these must strongly be taken into account in choosing a strategy that makes sense.
It’s never too late for us to change tracks and choose approaches and efforts that are much more likely to actually work in pursuit of a better education reform agenda. In fact, I’d argue it’s too late not to make this change. No one of these four lenses gets us there completely, but I’m arguing that using all four together gives us a powerful framework from which to make decisions about where we should put our efforts and which approaches to avoid.
This past week I had the chance to visit Harvard and be part of the “Learning from the International Experience” conference. First, what an incredible honor for me to get to meet some real giants in the education policy realm, notably Harvard’s Paul Peterson and Stanford’s Eric Hanushek. The event centered on the release of a new report called “Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete” followed by two days of discussion on the condition of education in the United States and, more importantly, what we might learn from high performing countries to improve.
I’d first say that the results of the study aren’t fresh news by any stretch. The argument that the U.S. education system is floundering and puts the country’s economic health at risk goes back to the industrial revolution. The same argument was used again in the Sputnik era, in the 1980’s with the release of “A Nation at Risk”, and even more recently through the “achievement gap” lens of No Child Left Behind in a McKinsey report. One of the authors of the Harvard paper, education scholar Eric Hanushek, has been hammering at this issue for some time.
The U.S. continues to come up mediocre in these rankings but there are certainly some limitations to their utility, as these pure aggregate average score approaches aren’t taking into account poverty, equity, or social considerations. Also, this data is difficult to reconcile with the fact that the U.S. remains the most vibrant and adaptive economy in the world, most of the top universities in the world are in the U.S., it takes the rest of the world combined to equal the number of patents issued in the U.S. in a single year, and there are (by far) more Nobel Prize winners from the U.S. than any other (acknowledgement to Seton Hall’s Chris Tienken for this list of reminders).
These points should be used to counterbalance the discussion, but we would be foolish to ignore the message of the economists and political scientists that given the global nature of this economy compared to any time in our past we absolutely should be investigating the approaches used by the highest performing systems and pulling them into the playbook for American education.
I must admit I was disappointed by the conclusions of some of the economists at the conference that our reaction to this most recent illustration of U.S. educational mediocrity should be centered around “charter schools,” and “performance pay.” Keep in mind, I am an advocate for increased school choice and compensation reform, but I also realize they only take us so far.
While we should broaden these terms and discussions to consider the possibility of how “school choice” and “strategic compensation” could improve the American system, these do not (at least in my review) seem to be the major drivers in building great schools in looking at the highest performing systems. If the aim of this conference was really “Learning from the International Experience” then we would see lessons around clarity on student outcomes and a subsequent alignment of instruction and measurement. We would also see a hyperfocus on improving the quality of the educator workforce through a variety of approaches. Finally, we see systems that try things and make mistakes, but most importantly keep up the work and learning about getting better.
My takeaway was that we need to keep our eyes on the ball here. Improving schools is about teaching and learning coupled with a process of continuous improvement and innovation. To the degree that school choice and compensation figure into a framework on better teaching, learning, and innovation then they absolutely should be part of the discussion.
Any ideas we glean from other countries has to be considered against the culture of the American education system. In the U.S., our system has a heavy flavor of accountability in the form of standardized measures and (increasingly) individual measures of effectiveness. Our focus on accountability is creating what I’d consider an “over-reaction” from some in the education community who fantasize about an end to accountability and measures. I’d venture that this is pure fantasy and this over-reaction discounts that we do have much better performance data about our schools than we have had at any point in the past and this data, though admittedly imperfect, is also useful.
To take the lessons from the international experience and graft it into the American system, our question going forward should be “how do we get the right yin/yang mix of teaching-learning-innovation with accountability?”