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This week House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) and ranking Democratic Representative Miller (D-CA) introduced HR 10—the Success and Opportunities through Quality Charter Schools Act—to reauthorize the federal Charter School Program for another five years.

H.R.10

NACSA president and CEO Greg Richmond announced NACSA’s strong support for this important legislation during a congressional visit to Global Academy Charter School in Minneapolis by Chairman Kline and committee member Representative Luke Messer (R-IN).

HR 10 continues many of the initiatives that currently support quality charter school growth in the Charter School Program–a state-based and individual school grant program that provides support for new and expanding charter schools, charter facilities assistance, and support for national charter quality initiatives.  It would also formally authorize a program to support high quality charter management organizations (CMOs) that has for years only been funded through the annual appropriations process and puts new focus on encouraging charters schools to increase their outreach to students with disabilities and English learners.

Here’s an outline of the bill’s key provisions provided by its sponsors:

THE SUCCESS AND OPPORTUNITY THROUGH QUALITY CHARTER SCHOOLS ACT:

  • Promotes state efforts to develop and expand charter schools.
  • Improves the Charter School Program authorizing to support the replication and expansion of successful charter models.
  •  Supports the sharing of best practices between charters and traditional public schools.
  • Encourages charter schools to reach out to special populations, including at-risk students, students with disabilities, and English learners.

These are all important elements, but I personally am most excited about the details of the bill that prioritize and support quality charter school authorizing. Authorizers play a crucial role in advancing charter school quality and protecting student and public interests and HR 10 recognizes that a vibrant, high quality charter sector depends on strong, quality authorizers.

There are provisions throughout HR 10 that support authorizing, but I think the ones that are likely to have the biggest impact are in the State grant program.  The state grant program impacts every state that receives a grant—which in this reauthorization would be at least 15 states over the program’s five year lifecycle—and often influences policy in even more states as policy makers revisit outdated charter laws to compete for future grant cycles.  At every step of the way states that receive grants must demonstrate their support for high quality authorizing, including their commitment to charter school accountability, a plan to improve authorizer quality, and how they will provide support and oversight for authorizers. These commitments are backed up with financial support, as for the first time a state entity must spend at least 7% of its grant on a set of activities that includes improving authorizer quality.

NACSA strongly supports this important legislation and we’re energized by its bi-partisan support for charter school quality and strong authorizing.  You can read NACSA’s statement on the bill here and learn more about it here.

Guest Post: Lisa Graham Keegan, Chair, NACSA Board of Directors

Public charter schools were created specifically to advance achievement. They reflect the vision, the skills and the heart of the team that founds them.  They are intentional schools, schools built to order, to meet a need known but not met, a possibility understood but not yet realized. Public charter schools were envisioned to be the place that we could find solutions for America’s most intractable struggle to realize our children’s potential. And they have been America’s best public education innovation tool.

Until the advent of public charter schools in the 90’s, new public schools were created when there was projected growth and when there was sufficient money in place –period.

Public-charter-schools (1)

Nothing in our traditional school development requirements spoke directly to quality. The rapid growth of public charter schools gives us the opportunity to rethink this process. Instead of planning a new school, boards can solicit offers to operate a new school to education leaders with a track record of excellence. Pre-approval of academic goals and contractual guarantees for progress can be a requirement for any public school.

The advent of public charter schools combined with two decades worth of annual, per-student achievement data has given the entire public school system far more information about what constitutes a quality school than we ever had before. The challenge to all of us now is to make that matter for all students. And in fact, there are leaders on school boards and authorizing boards all over the country who are sharing this information and trying to understand how they might learn from each other.

Our struggle continues to be achieving high quality in all of our public schools. The big divide in our education system is not between charters and district schools – it is between schools that are excellent, and those that are not.

And it feels great to know a lot more than we used to. But I fear any assumption that says we know enough. I fear those who believe that we should codify today’s knowledge and not tolerate future failed attempts at excellence. I’m no fan of failure. But our goal has to be excellence for all students, and we are far from there. The critical balancing act by authorizers and by all governing boards is to act on the best of what we know today, and to be open to learn what is possible tomorrow.

PrintJust over a year ago, NACSA announced an ambitious goal to provide better schools to one million children over five years. We called it our One Million Lives campaign because we knew that, if authorizers could approve 2000 new schools through quality processes and close 1000 persistently failing schools, we would help one million children get into a better school and have a better life.

This week, we announced the results from authorizers’ first year of work. Our analysis shows that authorizers approved 491 new schools through quality processes and closed 206 failing schools, affecting approximately 232,000 students. One year into our five-year goal, we are more than 1/5th of the way there in each category. This is a big accomplishment, touching the lives of more students in one year that all but the biggest school districts in the nation.

In the charter school sector, a lot of deserved attention is paid to impressive charter networks like KIPP, Noble, Aspire, Uncommon and others. Yet, the Year 1 OML results are larger than the enrollment of any of those networks. How is that possible? Simple: while an individual network may add five or ten schools a year, the nation’s authorizers touch every single one of the 6000+ charter schools in the country. The quality and scale of the nation’s charter schools is inescapably linked to the work of charter school authorizers. If authorizers do their job well, we will have a healthy charter school sector; if they don’t, we won’t.

These are strong results for the first year of One Million Lives, but the work is far from done. You may recall that, when we announced OML, we pointed out that more than a million children drop out of school in America each year. We have only begun to put a dent in that figure. At NACSA, we will continue to work hard every day to support authorizers, schools, lawmakers and other stakeholders who are working just as hard to provide a better school and create a better life for children across America.

SchoolView® Foundation

SchoolView® Foundation

Last week Education Next published an article entitled “Choosing the Right Growth Measure” that compares three types of growth models and claims that the “best” model is a two-step value-added model (VAM) that fully controls for student characteristics (e.g., race, gender, free or reduced-price lunch eligibility, English-language-learner status, special education status). The authors claim that this approach provides the most useful information to educators and local decision makers. I was immediately struck by a headline in a press release on the article which proclaimed “Measuring student performance correctly helps set the right expectations for students and teachers in both high-poverty and advantaged schools.” This enraged me.

Is this article telling me that the “right” expectations for disadvantaged students should be lower than the expectations for advantaged students? That “measuring performance correctly” means telling teachers in disadvantaged schools that their students will never grow as much as students in advantaged schools, so they shouldn’t worry about helping their students catch up? This is what people refer to as the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” I believe that all students can and must learn at a high level, regardless of their circumstances.

Poverty and other disadvantages are real factors that do impact students’ performance. We can’t ignore that. Poverty makes things harder, but we shouldn’t say that it makes things impossible by setting a lower bar for disadvantaged schools. It’s like saying, “You’re attractive…for your age” or “You’re smart…for a girl” or, literally, “You’ve learned a lot…for a poor kid.” How about instead of lowering expectations for students who are at a disadvantage, we maintain high expectations and work that much harder to make up for those disadvantages? It’s not easy, but we’ve seen disadvantaged schools whose students are successful regardless of how they compare to others. We should create opportunities to replicate these schools. And we should hold them up as examples to remind ourselves that students and teachers can rise to the challenge if we maintain high expectations for everyone.

While I object to the idea that the two-step VAM described in the Education Next article is the single “best choice,” I do think that this model could be useful as one of many measures in a comprehensive accountability system. The two-step VAM model alone won’t tell you if a school or teacher is doing a great job of getting students to proficiency; but schools and teachers that perform poorly on this measure can no longer dodge closures or firings by using the all-too-often-accepted excuse that the disadvantages of their students are the reasons for low performance.

Authorizers do need to be able to identify and close the very worst schools, and the two-step VAM will help them do that. But authorizers also need to set expectations for what a quality school looks like and evaluate whether schools are adequately preparing students for future success. In order to do that, they need to look at additional measures like proficiency, college and career readiness, and even additional types of growth models, such as student growth percentiles and growth-to-proficiency models. We have to be careful not to pretend that there’s any one perfect measure of school or teacher performance, or that looking at a “fair” comparison of schools serving similar students as a stand-alone measure doesn’t lower our expectations for what disadvantaged students can achieve. We need to look at academic achievement from multiple angles. And more than anything, we need to believe that all students can and must learn and reflect that in our accountability systems.

The oversight of charter schools has changed dramatically from the beginning of the movement.  States and authorizers are applying increasingly sophisticated tools to assess the performance of the schools they oversee.  A key concept that helps authorizers do their jobs well is differentiation.  This concept informs the increasing use of Performance Frameworks.  Under a differentiated system, schools are divided into groups. Often they fall into five categories. These categories represent schools that:

  1. Should close as soon as possible;
  2. Are struggling, but might improve;
  3. Are meeting expectations but not exceeding them;
  4. Amaze us, and ought to replicate if they are willing and able; and
  5. Are unique because of their mission and student population, and consequently require specialized evaluation.

NACSA Core Performance Framework Guidance

By distinguishing among schools based on how well they are doing, and treating schools with different performance differently, authorizers are better able to make the types of high-stakes decisions that modern authorizing requires. Once the schools are differentiated, the authorizer faces different kinds of work for each group of schools.
The work of differentiating among schools is generally captured by school performance frameworks. These are tools that strong authorizers are developing and that NACSA has put a great deal of effort into supporting. In the coming years, differentiation and well-crafted performance frameworks are going to be more and more wide-spread among strong authorizers.

The differentiated approach to school quality differs from the two alternatives that predated it. When evaluating traditional schools, states and districts used a standardized approach.  This approach primarily determined which schools were not meeting a standard.  It produced a “pass/fail” system.  Authorizers applying this standardized approach can identify schools that are in trouble, but not much else.  For traditional schools systems, this morphed into a measure of Adequate Yearly Progress, which schools did, or did not, achieve.

Two emerging themes in charter quality can get side-lined by this old pass/fail approach.  People want to close the schools that are terrible, and they seek to replicate the schools that are amazing. Sometimes they act as if there were no schools in between those extremes.  But the truth is that many charters are not bad enough to close, nor good enough to replicate.  Recent proposed priorities for the administration of the federal charter school program echoed this replicate or close fallacy.  The language defined “quality charter schools” based on a standard for what would deserve replication, and then implied that all schools that didn’t reach that replicable standard should not be in any authorizer’s portfolio.  That is a case of misunderstanding modern performance management.

For many authorizers, the early efforts at accountability in the charter movement were different from a pass/fail system applying one standard.  Authorizers and school leaders often thought of each charter school as a wholly unique institution, deserving an individualized approach to accountability.  As special cases, each charter school was measured with accountability measures created specifically for it based on its own charter application.  Or, if authorizers were unable or unwilling to individualize measures, the charters were measured with the single and undifferentiated tool of the standardized traditional system.

The new system of differentiation is a hybrid. It allows a degree of standardization among groups of similar schools. This standardization within groups of similar schools makes the approach viable and realistic for schools and authorizers.  Importantly, it also provides comparability and the ability to apply minimum state standards across the sector. This is especially important as the sector has grown and challenges in quality have been more obvious.  Meanwhile, differentiated systems allow authorizers to respond to each school, based on how well it performs and what it is trying to achieve.

This emerging approach allows authorizers to make the hard decisions they face. Differentiating among charter schools based on their performance can help achieve many goals in the charter sector.  It can:

  • Support the timely closure of failing schools;
  • Focus authorizers’ attention on schools that are the trickiest to understand;
  • Reduce the burden on successful schools, allowing them to focus their time and resources on  their students;
  • Identify the best schools that should be encouraged to replicate their programs so they can serve more students; and
  • Ensure unique schools with special populations are evaluated appropriately.

An under-appreciated aspect of this approach is that once the schools are assigned to these five buckets, for most of the schools, an authorizer doesn’t need to know a great deal of subtle details about the rest of their academic performance.  It is important for authorizers to dive deeper into the data on some schools, which we can identify below.  And it is key for other people besides authorizers to examine performance of most schools at a micro level.  But the finer-grained data on performance would not change what an authorizer would do for most of the schools in their portfolio.

Other people need more detailed analysis of performance certainly.  School operators and their governing boards, for example, can benefit from a much deeper dive.  But authorizers can focus.  By defining a more narrow set of what an authorizer is responsible for measuring and evaluating, we can help authorizers get better at the tasks that follow.

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Guest Post:  Kevin Hall, President & CEO, Charter School Growth Fund

130351558413997381_ReplicationQuality_Web_Page_01As we navigate our decisions in our daily lives, we know that having the ability to make good choices is fundamentally critical to achieving our goals. In K-12 for far too long, we have not provided all parents and students in our country with the ability to be able to choose among a set of high-quality school options. However, it’s not enough just to provide choice; we must aim to provide excellent options for all parents and students that enable them to fulfill their dreams. With the release this week of our report Replicating Quality, the Charter School Growth Fund (CSGF) and NACSA are providing a roadmap of interconnected strategies for systematically improving the quality of the charter school sector and increasing the number of high-performing schools that serve many more students.

We need to focus on both accelerating the growth of high-performing charters, and ensuring the lowest performers close to open up the path for new great schools to emerge.

A growing number of excellent charter schools and networks are poised to expand, but they are constrained by unequal access to funding and facilities, or weak legislation and authorizing practices. These schools and their students are demonstrating outstanding performance, and they have proven that they can do even more. We owe our children the opportunity to attend a great school and to give their families a great choice.

The challenges are complex and the politics difficult, but there are some simple and straightforward steps we can take to move us forward. With partners such as NACSA sharing a common agenda, our goal is to help legislators, authorizers, and other policymakers build a policy environment that encourages the creation of more great schools. At CSGF, we have the opportunity to see firsthand how effective these schools are each day in our work, and we are excited to help invest in the creation of even more high-quality schools to meet the growing demand from parents across the country.

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) recently released a set of draft priorities that would be used in future competitions under the Charter Schools Programs’ (CSP) to award grants under the National Leadership Activities Grant Program.  NACSA and a group of leaders from authorizers, state agencies, and other stakeholders submitted group letters that supported the new priorities and suggested a few technical fixes.  Click here for the NACSA group letter.  The draft was particularly welcome because of its attention to strengthening accountability by improving authorizing, and for its attention to the needs of students with disabilities and English Learners.

We expect the Department to release a similar set of draft guidance in the next few weeks that will address the start-up grants administered by State Education Agencies (SEAs) through the CSP. Based on discussions with the Department officials, we expect the priorities for the SEA grant competition to also advance our goals. These are good victories for trying to promote high quality authorizing in the charter school sector

ED’s guidance included priorities in five areas, including: improving access and services for Special Education and English Language Learners; strengthening accountability through improved charter school authorizing; using economies of scale to provide services and help to charter schools; and supporting the effective use of technology.

In general, we strongly support the Department’s approach in the notice, and applaud the attention to accountability, as well as the prioritization of efforts to enhance access and the quality of services provided to SWD and EL.

There are a few areas of concern in the guidance that we commented on in our letters, and which we are working closely with our partners at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, to jointly influence the Department. One issue the guidance bungles is a definition of “high-quality” charter schools. They tend to treat high quality charters as those worthy of national replication, and all other charter schools as worthy of closure. We, of course, see a much more nuanced distribution of quality — with many levels of school performance. The real world includes many schools that may not be as good as they could be, but which deserve to stay open. There are other schools that are doing fine, but which are not interested in, nor should they be expected to, start replicating at a large scale. We also called for more support for collaboration between the charter school sector, and those in the communities with expertise and experience special education and English Language Learners to work together on common challenges.

No Time to Waste

CommonCore_HomePageImplementation of the Common Core State Standards will present an array of new challenges everywhere they are adopted. The biggest challenge for charter school authorizers will be maintaining strong accountability for school performance during the transition to the new standards and accompanying assessments.

Holding schools accountable for their performance is already one of the most difficult of an authorizer’s core responsibilities. The uncertainty, anxiety, and difficulties that come with the introduction of new standards and assessments, will only make that work harder. There will be great temptation to decide that it is easier and more politically expedient to abandon accountability during the transition rather than maintain it.

In the latest installment of NACSA’s Common Core Series, Staying the Course: Maintaining Strong Accountability in the Transition to the Common Core, Rich Wenning and I argue that it would be a serious mistake to pause on school accountability during the transition rather than working to strengthen it.

Except for a lack of political will or a failure to plan ahead and act thoughtfully, there is no legitimate reason not to hold schools accountable for their performance during and following the transition to the Common Core.

We argue that “except for a lack of political will or a failure to plan ahead and act thoughtfully, there is no legitimate reason not to hold schools accountable for their performance during and following the transition to the Common Core.” This is especially true for schools that were consistently underperforming on the standards and assessments before the Common Core and that continue to fail their students after the Common Core. The Common Core must be an opportunity to raise our expectations and strengthen accountability, not suspend it.

In a statement released today, NACSA’s president and CEO, Greg Richmond is also calling on authorizers and state officials to “act immediately to put systems in place to manage the transition” or risk creating “a de facto moratorium on school accountability.” Richmond notes that “the potential lapse in accountability is of particular concern in the charter school sector, where school accountability for results is central to the charter philosophy.” He urges authorizers to act now to ensure they can continue to uphold their responsibilities and maintain high standards.

Just as kids have no time to waste when it comes to their education, authorizers have no time to waste when it comes to maintaining strong accountability during Common Core implementation. Authorizers need to act now to begin preparing for the turbulence ahead. Failure to act will endanger authorizers’ ability to hold schools accountable for their performance in the short term and beyond and will only allow low-performing schools to continue failing their students.

The need to act, however, does not mean that the work ahead will be easy. Rich and I offer a set of practical strategies authorizers can use to assist them in maintaining strong accountability and provide a timetable for authorizer action. The brief also includes a quick reference for authorizers on the new assessments.

NACSA is committed to supporting authorizers as they embark on this difficult journey. In addition to the resources in the Staying the Course series, we are also engaging directly with authorizers to facilitate learning across the profession and to share challenges and successes. This Thursday, January 16 from 2-3 p.m. EST, I will host a webinar with authorizers from Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio to discuss their work to prepare for Common Core implementation and to begin a conversation with authorizers and other stakeholders across the country. Join us.

At the heart of the charter school concept is the idea that schools, like all organizations, are most effective when they have the flexibility necessary to be captains of their destiny and when there is real accountability for failure. When charter schools are given autonomy over their time, people, and money, with it comes great responsibility. Part of that responsibility is the possibility of closure. We know that there are many charter schools that welcome accountability and that use their flexibility to accomplish amazing things for their students. We also know that many of the most successful charters are succeeding with students who others say face obstacles that no school can overcome.

Too often, though, charter schools that fail to achieve are allowed to continue failing year after year. Meanwhile, too few promising new schools are allowed to open, and too few great schools are allowed to grow. Changing that reality is the goal of NACSA’s One Million Lives campaign. We want to close a thousand of the lowest performing charters while at the same time working to open thousands more promising new ones.

Our success depends not only on the tireless efforts of thousands of fearless and relentless parents, teachers, and school leaders, but also on bold advocacy and strong authorizing. This week we saw examples of both. Yesterday, the California Charter Schools Association called for the closure of six charter schools across the state that have failed to the association’s bar for quality. And today, the Texas Education Agency announced its intention to close six charters it says have failed to meet expectations. Both organizations support the growth more great charter schools, and both should be applauded for their willingness to take a stand for quality.

Closing schools is never easy. But if we’re serious about giving schools the autonomy they need to successful and about holding schools accountable for how well they serve their students, we have to be willing to take action when they fail.

Driver is quality.Last week, a judge in Washington State held that, with two exceptions, the state’s new charter school law did not violate the state constitution. The case will no doubt continue on appeal but for now the decision means that charters can move forward in the Evergreen State. Nineteen applications have been received by the Charter School Commission and the selection process has begun. NACSA has consulted with the Commission on its process. “We are looking at the merits of the applications,” said Commission Director Joshua Halsey. “The driver is quality. This commission is dedicated to authorizing charter schools that can impact student achievement for the most vulnerable, most at-risk students.” Robin Lake, Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington weighed in on the court’s decision here.

 

SWD increase in charters

“[E]nrollment of [students with disabilities] attending independent charters continues to show an upward trend for the third consecutive year. Since the 2011-2012 school year, the overall population of students attending charter schools increased 6.9% (n=5,725), with SWD accounting for approximately 20% (n=1,101) of these new students. Overall, the percentage of SWD attending charters is 9.3% compared to 12.3% attending District-operated schools.” -Office of Independent Monitor of the LAUSD Modified Consent Decree

Ensuring students with disabilities (SWD) enjoy equal access to charter schools and are well served in them is tricky, but that doesn’t mean we should not try some easy fixes along the way.  Recent activity in Los Angeles illustrates both tricky and easy initiatives – and the promises of both.  The district has a long-standing difference in special education enrollments between the charters and the traditional public schools.  The district’s schools enroll about 12 percent SWD.  Two years ago the charters enrolled slightly more than 8 percent SWD. Since then, LA has had dramatic growth in charter enrollment and in the proportion of special education students in charter schools.

The California Charter School Association (CCSA) helped.  Working closely with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), as part of a much more complex initiative, the CCSA encouraged a relatively simple fix that I believe is worth considering in other contexts. Applications for admissions to LAUSD charter schools no longer ask if a child is in special education.

This is the “simple part” of LA’s story. I never suggest this is a silver bullet; rather; I think of it as low-hanging fruit. Two years ago, 88 schools (or 48 percent of the charters in the district) had application forms that asked parents if their kids had Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).  The next year, only five schools asked this question. Presumably it will be zero next year.  The first year after changing the application forms, 5,725 new kids enrolled in the district’s charters.  1,100 of those kids had IEPs, which is about 20 percent of all new enrollees.  That influx boosted the over-all proportion of SWD in LA charters from 8.21 percent in 2010, to 9.30 percent in 2012.

We don’t really know which of the different initiatives produced the SWD enrollment increase.  It could be that the change in enrollment forms is small and the other simultaneous changes made all the difference. That is something worth studying in more detail.  But I do know that if nothing in LA had changed, and the 5,725 new enrollees in LA charter schools had the same special education enrollment rate as in previous years, we would have expected only 470 of them to have had IEPs.  If the enrollment rates of SWD in charters equaled traditional public schools, only 692 new kids with IEPs would have entered the charters.  That makes me pretty excited to see 1,100 newly-enrolled kids with IEPs.

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Guest Post from Rich Haglund, General Counsel and Chief Operating Officer for the Tennessee Achievement School District

TNOver the last several years, stakeholders in Tennessee wondered whether changing the law to make Tennessee charter schools their own Local Education Authority (LEA) would solve some of their challenges.

For school operators from states where charter schools are or may be their own LEA, that criterion is thought to be a large factor in a charter school’s success. Operators wondered, for example, whether a change in LEA status would provide more flexibility in the provision of special education services, or provide easier access to bond funding for facilities. In Tennessee, charter schools receive 100 percent of state, local, and federal funding, and may seek waivers from many laws and rules. The operational autonomy of charter schools has at times appeared to hinge not on student performance, but on the politics of authorizing and personal relationships.

As advocates of the notion that there is no “silver bullet” to meet the educational needs of all students, we should be wary of suggesting there is one right way to do anything, especially one LEA status that works best for all public charter schools. We should approach changing the law cautiously, since the process of changing laws may result in unintended statutory changes or practices that are less than helpful. In Tennessee, for example, anytime a section of statutory code is opened to accomplish one purpose, it is opened for amendments that may do more perceived harm to the law than the hoped for positive change. Opening a section of the code to, for example, align public charter school bidding requirements with LEA bidding requirements, opens the section of the code defining teacher licensure, financial reporting, governing body training, and special education requirements applicable to charter schools.

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The end of the government shut down and the threat of a default are over for now.  Analysts and pundits are sharing their summaries of what happened, and offering competing bets for what the recent events will mean for the future of our parties and our politics.  In terms of the big cleavages in America, it is still too early to know what all this will lead to.

While there may be some who think the final votes in the House and Senate on the shutdown indicate the rough shape of a future governing coalition, I don’t see it that way.   I think the standoff means that Congress just pushed the long-awaited revision to NCLB even further into the future.  But we don’t need to wait for Congress to continue our work to advance the charter school sector.  The federal Charter School Program (CSP) has always had broad waiver authority to allow states to create innovative charter programs. States should get started now. Congress and their next ESEA can catch up later.

Language coming out of the Senate’s education committee should dispel any optimism for a near term ESEA reauthorization.  The Partisan divide on education is wide and thriving. Case in point — Report Language on the Harkin-sponsored legislation that the Senate HELP Committee recently passed includes the usual summary of what was in the bill.  It also includes a Republican alternative report that dismisses just about everything in the bill as passed, while making the case for a separate replacement version.

Despite this gulf, we at NACSA remain encouraged.  We are optimistic because all the competing proposals on the hill share language that supports strong authorizing. The bills floating now all have their own strengths and weaknesses. Each of the bills in this diverse crop of proposals would grow a high quality charter sector, protect school autonomy, apply high standards, and look after the interests of students and the public.  Eventually, when there is a new ESEA, we expect it to help us do our work.  But even if a deal on the ESEA remains far off, we can still make progress in how the federal investment supports the charter school sector before the law is rewritten.

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Out today, NACSA’s new roadmap for authorizers who oversee schools that serve kids in dire straits. The title says it all: Anecdotes Aren’t Enough: An Evidence Based Approach to Accountability for Alternative Charter Schools.

The report is a joint effort, reflecting the input and deliberations of a 16-member working group including authorizers, charter operators, and researchers. Our goal was to establish more clarity in measuring the performance of charter schools that serve dropouts, pregnant teens, adjudicated youth and those with life-disrupting conditions such as homelessness and substance abuse.

This is not really a “charter” issue at heart. Many states lack any respectable system of accountability for alternative schools. Too often, state policies leave an accountability void for such schools, either using metrics that are inappropriate for their populations or lumping them in an ill-defined “at-risk” category with no defined outcomes.  So it’s hard to tell which schools are doing a good job and which are not.

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Thousands of New York City charter school parents are marching today across the Brooklyn Bridge, worried about the fate of charter schools with the departure of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. After their march, they should send to the mayoral candidates copies of today’s international report showing American adults lagging behind their peers in developed countries in literacy, math, and technology skills.

While the average performance of the United States trailed most countries, two sets of numbers within the numbers are most troubling:

Younger Americans performed worse than older Americans. Americans age 55 to 65 did better than their international counterparts. Those age 45 to 54 were roughly equal to international averages. Those who were younger did worse.

Poorly educated Americans performed worse than poorly educated peers around the world. While Americans with advanced college degrees performed similarly to their peers abroad, Americans who did not finish high school had significantly worse skills than their international peers.

These two sets of data, together, paint a worrisome picture for our nation’s future. They also underscore the urgency of NACSA’s One Million Lives campaign to expand outstanding educational options for our nation’s children.

Yes, let’s march today and then work even harder tomorrow to create more excellent education opportunities for America’s youth.

You can find the report, produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, here.


Guest Post from Robin Lake, Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington

One of the most pervasive criticisms of charter schools is that they either find ways around accepting or strategically counsel out students with special needs. These criticisms have been fueled both by anecdote and by reports such as the GAO’s 2012 analysis of the percentage of students with disabilities in both sectors, which showed a persistent three to four point gap between charter schools and traditional public schools

This gap—present at both the district and state level—should be concerning to anyone who believes that public schools should be open to all students. The gap sends a message that charter schools do not welcome students with special needs and that authorizers are not meeting their obligation to ensure that charters are admitting and serving all students without regard to their special education status.  Undoubtedly, some charters behave inappropriately. When that happens, authorizers and states should take steps to stop it.  But there is no data to demonstrate the relative contribution of this kind of behavior on the enrollment rates; and, as a study released by CRPE this week demonstrates, there are many other factors that could also be contributing to the gap.  This study, and others following similar lines of inquiry in the future, will help us understand those factors better so that we can do what is best for students with disabilities.

While many districts are working with charter leaders to figure out smart solutions to ensure that students with special needs have equal access to any public school, the knee jerk reaction by some policymakers has been to pass resolutions or quotas to force charter schools to enroll more students with disabilities.

CRPE has been studying this issue for many years to try to bring evidence to bear on these policy debates. We published a book on the topic in 2010, have written several papers, and recently published a thorough analysis of special education enrollment in New York State that was commissioned by NACSA. Earlier his week we released a report by Marcus Winters, of the Manhattan Institute, that casts new light on the dynamics behind special education enrollment in charter schools and what the implications are for policy.

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SELPASpecial education service coordination and accountability are often areas where charter schools and their authorizers experience conflict and tension. And too often school districts and charters end up fighting over resources and control rather than focusing on how they can work together to promote the best interests of kids. A partnership between Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) is proving that collaboration is possible and can lead to both greater innovation and equity in providing services to students with special needs. Gina Plate, Senior Special Education Advisor at CCSA, writes about the partnership in the Chronicle of Social Change and explains that it allows charters to maintain the autonomy that all schools need to be successful while keeping them connected to their partner public schools in LAUSD so that they can share best practices and demonstrate what is possible when schools are trusted with flexibility and held accountable for performance. Anyone wanting to learn more about this exciting partnership should join hundreds of the country’s authorizers and charter sector leaders at NACSA’s 2013 Leadership Conference, October 21-24 in San Diego. Gina will join her colleagues Sydney Quon at LAUSD, David Toston from EdCoe, and Lauren Rhim from the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools to explore the challenges and opportunities presented by new approaches to special education coordination and collaboration and how these approaches might have promise for improving special education services for charter schools nationwide.

Diane Ravitch’s book is out. As expected, it repeats criticisms of charter schools and demonizes education reformers. She tends to use a broad brush, making conclusions about the motivations of charter supporters, as if they were all the same and each were absurdly motivated by a desire to harm public education. She also takes examples of individual bad things in the charter school sector and describes them as if they were the norm, while ignoring the great things that are happening, as well as the great mass of things in the middle.

Lost, is any sense that there is a lot of good, great, and mediocre in the charter movement, as well as some problems to fix. By demonizing all the people pursuing a different track to improve the lives of children – at least at track that is different than the one she is supporting this year – she obstructs the dialogues about how we can celebrate, learn from, and leverage what is working in any school to help more children. She also makes it harder for us to work together with the people we respect, but with whom we disagree, to solve the problems that are very real.

The book and the “debates” it generates prompt me to propose a quasi-scientific principle. In graduate school, in any field with “science” in the name, you cannot avoid Occam’s razor. If you can remember that, “among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected,” you will probably pass your comprehensive exam.

We don’t have it yet in education reform debates, but I would propose the following advice for those with the desire to demonize their opponents or reach sweeping and simplistic conclusions about complicated realities:

“If something is complicated and its outcomes are diverse and unpredictable, any conclusion about that topic that is simple, or that involves the assumption that the people who reach a different conclusion are evil-doers motivated by a desire to destroy something you support, is probably wrong.”

It won’t come as a surprise that we at NACSA believe strong authorizing is part of this thoughtful approach to something as complex as education reform and charter schools. Good authorizers are often the people who address the problematic anecdotes that Ravitch uses to maximum demagogic effect. They also support and protect what works.

Many charter schools are successfully addressing some of our most intractable challenges in public education. And some charter schools and their supporters are doing a bad job of it. Part of a good strategy to manage this complexity is to improve charter authorizing. Some of the charter sector’s worst failures can be addressed by stronger authorizing. And you can pursue that strategy as part of a larger effort to advance what is working for kids – and there is a lot that is working.

That is a nuanced argument that is going to get lost if we degenerate into ugly exchanges like those flying over the web this week. To get the best out of education reform, while addressing what is not working well, requires the ability to see both good and bad in something, all within a single world view – not so easy it seems.

A recent story in the Columbus Dispatch detailed the creative ways that low-performing charter schools in Ohio are avoiding closure. According to the report, “some schools have avoided the state’s charter-closing laws after enrolling more students with disabilities, which exempted them. Others were closed by their sponsors for poor performance only to find a new sponsor. And recently, one charter operator whose school was shut down for bleak academic performance updated the building, staff and school board, and opened another school in the same spot under a new name.”

he_role_of_charter_restarts_in_school_reformClosing a school is never easy. And, unfortunately, even when closure for failure to perform is part of the bargain from the start, and even where there are strong laws on the books designed to make the process at least more predictable and less political, if no less heart-wrenching and disruptive, failing schools will often find ways to avoid accountability. Even when the adults in charge have the courage to do the right thing, other adults, with other interests, will get in the way.

A new report by Public Impact’s Daniela Doyle and Tim Field explores a different approach to closure, one where accountability for failure isn’t avoided through authorizer shopping or shell games and one which tries to minimize the disruption and harm that closure can cause for students, especially when a school is closed in a community where no better options exist.

In The Role of Charter Restarts in School Reform: Honoring our Commitments to Students and Public Accountability, Doyle and Field explore the concept of  charter school restarts, a form of school closure where all the kids can stay while the school’s operator and usually its governing board have to go. The authors define “a charter school restart” as “a change in school operator and a change in school governance, while continuing to serve the same students.” They take pains to note that the restarts they write about “differ from internal turnaround attempts by changing both the school operator and school governance” and “from instances in which a charter school is closed and a new-start charter opens in its place.”  By restart, they mean circumstances where a new, high-quality organization with a proven track record operates the school and where the new school automatically reenrolls and continues to serve the same students that attended the former school that is closed.

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The Fordham Institute released a trio of essays this week discussing how to evaluate schools.  Michael Petrilli started it out by criticizing the use of “proficiency” and making a case for why “growth” is superior.  Checker Finn countered with a defense of proficiency.  He argued that, in the end, what you know or can do matters a lot.  And Richard Wenning urged an inclusive analysis.  He recommends we examine the students’ starting point in learning, the velocity of their growth, and their growth to standards.  Wenning also makes a good case for understanding these differences, so that each approach can be evaluated for the purpose for which it is being used – as some approaches make more sense for different applications. And understanding how poverty affects one’s starting point, and how that starting point affects the velocity and likelihood of proficiency, is a strong argument for greater investment in quality preschool and other measures that give all kids the best possible starting point in the K-12 system.

Collectively, these three essays provide a lot for charter school authorizers to think about.  The tit-for-tat of the set implies a degree of winner-take-all-ism that isn’t real.  Thoughtful authorizers with high standards for their schools will want to consider all these ideas, and many others, before passing judgment on schools that they believe are failing their students, or deciding which schools are the great successes that ought to be replicated.

The application of concepts, like proficiency and growth — or starting points, velocity, and growth to standard – can all differ in important ways, even among people and institutions that claim they are applying the same approach.  It helps to read up on what others think about what we are trying to do and understand how these things can work.

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