With Democrats facing trouble in the midterm elections, the Biden administration has inexplicably decided to try to stave off disaster by doubling down on the teachers unions’ hoary anti-reform agenda. One example is its not-so-sneak attack on charter schools in the form of execrable regulations that could bring charter growth to a standstill. But it’s not the only one.
With Democrats eyeing a possible shellacking in this fall’s midterm elections, the Biden administration has inexplicably decided to try to stave off disaster by doubling down on the teachers unions’ hoary anti-reform agenda. The latest example is last month’s not-so-sneak attack on charter schools. As every Gadfly reader surely knows by now, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s team published draft regulations that would bring charter growth to a standstill. Although the president’s chilly view of charters was well publicized on the campaign trail, advocates were still caught flat-footed by the announcement.
Reportedly there was no consultation with the charter community in advance of publication of the proposed regulations—and the unusually short public comment period ends next week. Contrary to the administration’s dubious claim that its new rules are meant to ensure better oversight, the proposed rewrite of the $440 million federal Charter Schools Program would effectively empower faceless reviewers at the Education Department to act like a national charter school board, replete with heinous reporting and compliance requirements designed to bury charter operators seeking funding from Uncle Sam under an avalanche of red tape. The most egregious of these provisions is the “community impact analysis,” which would require brand new charter schools to document that their presence wouldn’t adversely affect local district schools—without regard to where parents actually want to send their children!
We should have seen it coming. We could foresee it in the campaign. And Biden’s declining to sign last year’s proclamation of National Charter Schools Week—the first sitting president not do so in thirty years—was another shot across the bow of the charter movement.
One week after the proposed regulations were dropped, Secretary Cardona raised eyebrows in response to a question he was asked about how state test scores this spring might reflect poorly upon schools. Rather than stressing the urgency and gravity of the recovery effort ahead, and the value of test scores for school accountability, Cardona instead took another swipe at school choice: “I want to take it a step further. Some are waiting for that data to then try to create a picture because their plan is to privatize.” Echoing the unions’ hostility to anything outside the traditional, one-size-fits-all system, the secretary offered his gratuitous pander despite compelling evidence that the pandemic made parents increasingly supportive of alternatives to the schools their children had previously attended.
What’s more, Cardona’s comment seemed dismissive of state testing, which remains popular among the public and is now underway—the results of which are going to help policymakers address many unanswered questions about Covid’s effects on student learning. The Center for Assessment’s Scott Marion recently described the daunting task at hand:
Our analyses of nearly a dozen states’ test scores revealed score drops two-to-three-times greater than those for New Orleans students after Hurricane Katrina, with math results noticeably lower than reading scores. Measurement folks like me do not like converting test results into months of learning, but the deceleration of achievement by a half a year or more between 2019 and 2021 will require a level of learning improvement that we have rarely, if ever, seen at scale in the United States.
Marion’s last line is worth underscoring. If past is prologue, the learning rates necessary to get America’s students back on track are beyond the reach of all but the most exceptional schools—many of which, incidentally, happen to be charters. With our education system facing such incredibly long odds, one would hope that national leaders would pull out all the stops and at least try to reach beyond the gravitational pull of today’s politics.
Sadly, that’s not what’s happening. At a moment when the nation’s top education official should be singularly and unapologetically focused on the need to accelerate learning and to expand opportunities for students, Cardona and company have taken the dim view that charter schools and testing are part of the problem rather than the solution. Faced with and threatened by the stark reality of education “being in play” as never before, Biden’s team has reverted to the same unimaginative playbook that paralyzed our education system in the first place.
History will judge this administration’s response to the current crisis of learning loss and mental health afflicting millions of students and families. But ignoring the desires of parents—who voted convincingly with their feet throughout the pandemic—and spurning the studies that show charter schools are a win-win, often having a salutary effect upon traditional public schools, will likely reflect poorly upon the president. It won’t be lost upon posterity that, when he had the best opportunity to do so, Biden elected to pursue a losing strategy that was unserious about marshaling the nation’s energy and resources in service of catching up as many students as possible.
Last week, Chester Finn used a recent vote of Denver’s anti-reform school board to make three points: first, that the “portfolio” reform there—based on school autonomy, family choice, and chartering out schools where kids aren’t learning—is finished; second, that Denver’s reversal predicts doom elsewhere for complex reform initiatives meant to transform the ways whole public systems operate; and third, that more targeted reforms based on state policy, like chartering, are more survivable and more likely to make a big difference in the long run.
Though Finn has a lot of facts on his side, I think future events will prove him wrong.
On Denver: The teachers union tried to elect an anti-reform majority for nearly twenty years, before making major gains in 2019 and completing their reconquest this past November. Pandemic enrollment losses and today’s progressive militancy had a lot to do with their victory. So did the fact that reformers stopped messaging about their many successes as the long-time superintendent ran out of gas and some reform leaders lost patience. Yet today, just as before the recent board election, Denver parents benefit from a much improved set of schools to choose among, and school leaders have a lot more freedom to respond to kids’ needs, not union work rules. This won’t be forgotten. Moreover, the new school board’s agenda, to reimpose teacher protections and grind down the differences among schools, will fritter away its electoral advantage. As in New York City, where former Mayor Michael de Blasio tried to wipe out the changes made earlier under Michael Bloomberg but found that you can’t replace something with nothing, the new mayor’s hand-picked chancellor is again emphasizing school autonomy. Similarly, in Denver, I am confident that family choice and real leadership opportunities for committed educators have strong constituencies and will return.
On doom for portfolio-style reforms elsewhere: Even as Denver struggles, other places using portfolios—such as Camden, Newark, and Indianapolis—are thriving. Still others are slowed by the pandemic but still alive, including Cleveland and Chicago. As CRPE reported last month, still other cities are looking for ways to support problem-solving at the school level, as kids’ needs, parents’ skittishness, and pupil and teacher attendance problems put a premium on coping and defy standardization. Schools are forced to use time and money in new ways, assign teachers to non-standard tasks, and offer programs and climates that parents will choose—all elements of the portfolio strategy, whatever name they go by. School districts looking for better ways to serve students are learning that it can’t be done by command and control, and that they need to foster new ideas, whether from incumbent educators, entrepreneurs, community youth service agencies, or charter operators. Unions and influential parents who always get the best of everything will oppose such changes and periodically bring things to a halt. But in the long run, districts under pressure to serve kids better can’t succeed by forcing greater uniformity. Unless they are willing to lose more students every year, districts have to oversee diverse sets of schools, improve what’s offered as needs and opportunities change, and let families out of schools that don’t fit them. It’s OK with me if they’d rather not call it portfolio.
I agree with Checker on the importance of chartering as a state-law-based way to get schools out from under intrusive school district control. Chartering is a necessary reform, and broader strategies like portfolio incorporate it. Portfolio would also benefit from becoming defined in state law, as I have argued here. But Checker is wrong to assume that chartering is naturally less vulnerable to political opposition than portfolio. As we have seen in states where chartering has caught on the most—Massachusetts and California, for example—when charters start to cut into district enrollments and union employment, opponents flood the legislature with demands to cap charter growth and impose crippling regulation. Opposition politics are similar, whether against portfolio strategies or charters. And pro-reform politics are harder for charters, both because unions have great clout in state capitals and because so many legislators have no voters who care about charter schools. Local portfolio strategies have natural allies in parents, educators, and city leaders. Yes, it does take work to keep these groups mobilized. For portfolio, charters, or any other strategy, reformers need to be as persistent as their opponents, who will never give up.
Opposition intensifies as the amounts of public money and the numbers of kids involved in new options expand. The fact that a reform strategy hasn’t become big enough yet to stir concerted resistance means nothing. No matter what the strategy, reformers need to expect setbacks and make their case over and over again with better evidence as it emerges.
In Denver, new studies showing big overall student gains due to charters and autonomous district schools can provide a fresh pro-reform message just as voters come to regret turning the district back over to the teachers union. But reformers there will have to re-unite, even if some still yearn for a reform that works so well and scales up so quickly that no one could oppose it.
After living through the transformation of K–12 education in Alberta, Canada, we moved from Calgary to Colorado in 2010. Since then, we have watched the Denver Public Schools story unfold from next door in Jefferson County.
Checker Finn’s recent column and Parker Baxter and Alan Gottlieb’s Education Next analysis are excellent overviews of the election and actions of a new school board in Denver that’s opposed to a number of education reforms that have been implemented in the city over the last two decades. Both analyses, however, overlook five important points about the Mile High City’s story and the lessons it has to teach.
First, public school choice in Colorado goes beyond charters, innovation schools, and traditional public schools. The state’s choice laws and regulations also enable students to choose public schools in other districts. In 2020–21, 12 percent of Colorado public school students enrolled in districts other than their home districts.
Intradistrict choice is even more common. For example, in Jefferson County, nearly 50 percent of students engage in some form of public school choice, including charters, cross-district, and in-district. In this sense, Colorado is the portfolio model writ large.
In other words, school choice will remain very much alive and well in the Centennial State, regardless of whatever actions the Denver board takes to restrict it.
Second, for a school or group of schools to receive “innovation school” status under Colorado law, teachers must agree to this change. Largely missing from media coverage of Denver’s recent changes is the number of teachers who spoke to the Denver Board and argued against the changes it made to the district’s innovation school regulations.
Equally absent has been the fact that, before taking action on innovation schools, the Denver Board made no attempt to evaluate whether innovation status had improved academic and other outcomes for children compared to charters and traditional public schools. The absence of nuances like these oversimplifies what, in reality, is a more complex issue than much of the K–12 media has portrayed.
Third, Finn quotes what the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s Paul Hill wrote about the portfolio model back in 2009. One of Hill’s points was that “A district managing a portfolio of schools serves students by providing schools in many ways...[including] developing new sources of support for educators in struggling schools.”
An important cause of the Denver model’s undoing was the district’s slowness in developing a strong school turnaround process, together with related systems, structures, and staff. In the early years of the Michael Bennett/Tom Boasberg era, the tendency was to close poorly performing district schools while opening charters. However—as Parker Baxter, Todd Ely, and Paul Teske noted in Education Next in 2019—over time, district leaders “became less willing to impose consequences on low-performing schools, whether in response to the larger politics of education reform, resistance from internal stakeholders, pushback from the local community, or the disruption accountability requires.” In turn, the inability to turn around low-performing district schools and the unwillingness to close them contributed to the persistence of achievement gaps between different student groups. This caused Boasberg to lose support among reformers.
Fourth, the political dynamics were critical, and arguably mismanaged. As Baxter et al. noted:
Boasberg gained the support of the entire board when a slate of reform friendly candidates replaced his three detractors in 2013. But by that time, cracks had already begun to emerge in his coalition. With the board’s unanimous support, his advocates expected him to move their agenda along more aggressively. When he didn’t, it sealed his fate. In the years that followed, even as Denver to continue to rise in national prominence, many of Boasberg’s leading supporters grew frustrated as it became clear that he was content to let the district, as a onetime supporter complained, “coast on its past successes.”
This atrophying of political support took several forms, as the messaging used by reform-minded school board candidates seemed to grow weaker over time, with more focus on attacking union-backed candidates than trumpeting the district’s improving performance.
Moreover, at least compared with what we observed in Alberta and Massachusetts, business support for Denver’s reforms seemed relatively weak. Perhaps that’s because Colorado’s business community is more split politically—with, for example, some supporting faster expansion of charters or vouchers rather than attempts to reform traditional school districts. Nor were DPS leaders and local reformers able to provide the business community with persuasive evidence that their reform efforts were producing stronger results. By the time Denver’s reforms were undertaken, area business leaders were also beginning to shift their attention to re-skilling existing employees and replacing some of them with physical and cognitive automation technologies.
The final point not mentioned in Finn’s article is one that is fast gaining importance around the country: the impact of declining enrollment on district finances and politics. In Denver, the increasing number of technology companies and the influx of childless young people they attracted, combined with a housing shortage, had led to rising costs that were driving families out of the city even before Covid-19 arrived. The pandemic just accelerated this outflow.
Like many districts, Denver now has a growing number of underutilized schools that may have to be closed and consolidated, which will require teacher layoffs. Under these circumstances, difficult tradeoffs between traditional and other types of public schools will continue to play out here, as in districts across the country. The question is whether the trade-off will focus on what is best for children or what is best for the adults.
Like Baxter and his colleagues before him, Finn raised important points about Denver’s decline. Yet we disagree that this invalidates the portfolio model. Rather, Denver’s experience has highlighted more factors that are critical to its success, as well as the challenges and uncertainties that are present in every attempted turnaround of a complex organization.
The influence of out-of-school activities such as sports and clubs on school outcomes has been an enduring topic of interest in education. A recent study in the Education Finance and Policy Journal adds summertime employment to the list of possible non-school “interventions” that may yield an academic boost for participating students.
Low-income youth who are selected for Boston’s Summer Youth Employment Program are employed for six weeks in July–August and are paid Massachusetts’s minimum wage. They receive twenty hours of job-readiness training, including developing soft skills—such as communication, collaboration, and conflict resolution—as well as learn how to search for a job, draft a resume and cover letter, and answer typical interview questions. Students are placed in local nonprofits or city agencies, where they work a maximum of twenty-five hours per week. Upwards of one-third work in a daycare center or summer camp, the rest with private-sector employers. Roughly two-thirds of students were in grades eight and nine when they applied. Analysts tracked them through 2018–19—i.e., for four years—and found little evidence of selective attrition.
The study relied on assignment to the oversubscribed program in 2015 via a random drawing or lottery, wherein over 4,200 young people applied and about 1,100 were offered jobs when their name was drawn. The rest comprised the control group (just 28 percent of whom also worked during the same summer months as the treatment group). Because program administrators can make an offer to participate in the jobs program but can’t control who agrees to participate (only 84 percent actually accepted the offer), researchers look at the impact of that offer—not of taking the job. This “intent-to-treat analysis” necessarily understates the effects on summer workers.
Analysts found that lottery winners were 4.4 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school on time than lottery losers. The winners were also 2.5 percentage points less likely to drop out of high school during the four years, with most of the improvement occurring in the year after being offered a job. Attendance rates improved by 2.4 percentage points or 3.4 days, which was enough to reduce chronic absenteeism by 5.9 percentage points: a 21 percent improvement. Researchers found small positive impacts on overall GPA in year one, too, such that better attendance and course performance appeared to be driving the improvements in high school graduation. They also examined the impacts on youth who applied to the program for a second year and were randomly selected to participate again, finding that the positive effects on attendance in the first year endured, as did the impacts on GPA. (Those results are suggestive, as students applying a second time may have greater intrinsic motivation or possess other unobservable differences.) As for the effect on subgroups, the program’s impact was greater for males, youth of legal dropout age, and students who were chronically absent prior to participation.
Finally, researchers analyzed student survey data to see how program participation correlated with improvements in outcomes. They found that on-time graduation and better attendance were strongly linked to gaining a mentor, learning to be on time, and managing one’s emotions. These findings should be taken with a grain of salt since response rates lagged for the control group. Still, it is interesting that many of the treatment students appeared to steward their income responsibly: Half indicated that they helped pay one or more household bills with their summer earnings and 20 percent reported saving for college tuition, which is 4.3 percentage points more than the control group.
The many positive outcomes observed suggest that such a program has the potential to help more students stay in school and improve their grades while assisting their families financially. In 2015, Boston’s program cost about $2,000 per student, and a rudimentary calculation in the report concluded that the program yielded a benefit-to-cost ratio of two to one. These findings should encourage enterprising communities to look at similar job-readiness models for their own young people, and perhaps mull whether some of them should actually take place during the school day.
SOURCE: Alicia Sasser Modestino and Richard Paulsen, “School’s Out: How Summer Youth Employment Programs Impact Academic Outcomes,” Education Finance and Policy (January 2022).
Over the last several years, cities and states across the nation have invested enormous amounts of time, money, and energy in public and private efforts aimed at increasing postsecondary attainment. Many initiatives have focused on removing barriers like cost. But a paper entitled, published last June by , argues that the greatest barrier is the “seemingly intractable disconnect” between high school, higher education, and the workforce.
The transition to higher education is a rough one. Free community college initiatives remove the barrier of tuition but don’t cover living expenses. Only 25 percent of students in the graduating class of 2021, and unprepared students often end up in remedial courses that aren’t worth credit but still cost money—and tend to be ineffective to boot. Unlike affluent students with plugged-in parents and fancy college counselors, low-income and working-class kids are expected to track down a wide array of financial, academic, logistical, and other resources on their own, and are rarely offered consistent guidance. It’s no wonder millions of students fall through the cracks each year.
Enter the “Big Blur,” an educational model that aims to erase the dividing line between high school and college by creating new, cost-free institutions that serve sixteen- to twenty-year-old students in grades 11–14. Foundational coursework of eleventh and twelfth grade would be combined with more specific courses and training like those typically offered by community colleges. Work-based learning—including career exploration and on-the-job experience—would be a key feature. And students would have clear, step-by-step guided pathways that lead to postsecondary credentials and associate degrees within specific fields.
Creating and running these new institutions is a tall order, though, and doing it well largely depends on getting four key features right, according to JFF: incentives (in both accountability and finance), alignment, governance, and staffing. There are several well-known initiatives—programs like Pathways to Prosperity, Linked Learning, P-TECH, and New Skills for Youth—that have shown encouraging results. But these initiatives haven’t had a significant impact on the typical student experience. At the time of publication, no state, region, or network that JFF reviewed had successfully combined all these components. So what would it take to do it, and do it well? Here’s a look.
For incentives to work, they must be structured to encourage new ways of classifying student learning and support across grades 11–14. Educational institutions must be held accountable for specific outcomes, and funding streams should be flexible enough to be combined with other streams or dedicated as needed.
- Accountability incentives. Although many accountability systems include a metric for the completion of college-level work in high school, schools are primarily evaluated based on their graduation rates and test scores. Higher education accreditation protocols, meanwhile, often don’t examine graduates’ employment outcomes. A new model should include metrics that focus on the success of grade 11–14 cohorts. These could include year-to-year persistence, work-based learning experiences, credits earned, completion of a degree or credential with labor market value, rates of transfer into bachelor’s degree programs, and employment.
- Financial incentives. In many states, school funding systems reinforce siloed sectors. The ultimate goal for the new system would be to pool state and federal funding and use it to support “coherent” grade 11–14 experiences. Idaho’s Advanced Opportunities Scholarship offers one example. When students in Idaho reach seventh grade, they receive a stipend of $4,125 to use for education related expenses. Allowable expenses include state-approved college courses, AP tests, IB programs, professional certification fees, CTE courses, and apprenticeships.
In the current system, the K–12, higher education, and workforce sectors are misaligned. High school and college credits are calculated and tallied differently, class schedules aren’t compatible, and high school and college instructors are trained differently. CTE programs are arguably the farthest along when it comes to aligning and integrating across sectors. For example, regional vocation schools in Massachusetts offer in-demand career education, work-based learning, AP and dual-enrollment courses, and postsecondary certifications. But alignment is more complex in traditional high schools. For the new model to work, students entering eleventh grade should enroll in new institutions offering career pathways that lead to credentials with labor market value by the end of fourteenth grade. Once they’ve graduated, students should have the choice to either enter the workforce or pursue higher education.
Although state leaders often attempt to foster collaboration across sectors, it’s difficult to do without having similar goals and structures in place. Dual-enrollment systems offer a solid foundation, but many dual-enrollment programs aren’t scaled enough. To effectively design and run institutions that serve students in grades 11–14, a new decision-making body (perhaps similar to the New York Board of Regents) or an empowered senior leader will need to be put in place. To achieve truly unified governance, states will also need to do the following:
- Standardize high school and postsecondary credits.
- Ensure that high school and community colleges have similar schedules.
- Make a passing score on statewide high school assessments a trigger for admission to public community colleges without remediation.
- Adopt comparable per-student funding models for K–12 schools and higher education.
- Provide funding for internships for students who are sixteen to twenty years old.
- Require guided pathways starting in eleventh grade.
High school and college instructors go through distinct certification and training processes. High school teachers are trained in both content and pedagogy, and are expected to deliver content and offer student supports. College instructors, on the other hand, typically have graduate-level training in a specific area and are responsible for delivering content but not much else. To effectively teach students in grades 11–14, staff will need to be equipped to teach academic content, facilitate work experiences, and offer student support. One way to accomplish this would be to create a new corps of teachers that specializes in grades 11–14. Another way would be to align and combine teacher qualification and certification systems in a way that allows high school teachers to teach college level material and vice versa. One innovative approach is the University of Texas at Austin’s OnRamps Initiative, which offers dual-enrollment courses to high school students and professional development, like intensive summer training programs, mentoring, and virtual conferences and learning institutes to their instructors.
The paper closes with several action steps. They include crafting campaigns that will help the general public see the benefits of breaking the mold, and providing state leaders with strategies that they can incorporate in their public policy agendas. The authors also call for supporting third-party intermediaries, creating next-generation CTE programs and vocational centers, and establishing learning labs within CTE schools that could help transform traditional public schools.
Source: Nancy Hoffman, Joel Vargas, Kyle Hartung, Lexi Barrett, Erica Cuevas, Felicia Sullivan, Joanna Mawhinney, and Avni Nahar, “,” JFF (June 2021).
On this week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast (listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify), Christy Wolfe, vice president for policy and planning at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, joins Mike Petrilli to discuss how new regulations proposed by the Biden administration could stunt the growth of charter schools across America. Then, on the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines a survey of student reading habits in grades K–12.
You can find this and every episode on all major podcast platforms, as well as share it with friends.
- Christy’s piece criticizing the proposed regulations: “Biden administration’s proposed rules for Charter School Program empower districts at the expense of communities.”
- The study that Amber reviewed on the Research Minute: Yangsook Choi et al., “What Kids Are Reading: 2022 Edition,” Renaissance Learning, Inc. (2022).
Have ideas or feedback on our podcast? Send them to our podcast producer Pedro Enamorado at [email protected].
- MIT brought back the SAT, and research shows that it “helps low-income students in an inequitable society.” —The Atlantic
- In New Jersey, charter schools are key to desegregating education and helping disadvantaged communities whose district schools have been failing them for decades. —NJ.com
- “Community college enrollment is down, but skilled-trades programs are booming.” —NPR
- State boards of education must view themselves rightly: as regulators serving the public, not as teacher or school district advocates. —Eduwonk
- “College Became the Default. Let’s Rethink That.” —John McWhorter
- The Sacramento teacher strike ends with an agreement that will push the district over a fiscal cliff. —Mike Antonucci
- Due to lower dropout rates, high school NAEP data might be underestimating the progress made by students across recent decades. —Chalkbeat
- “A new multimillion-dollar effort will fund K-12 tutoring projects [and] experiment with new models.” —Education Week
- Education funds to aid schools during the pandemic were dispensed quickly and in large amounts. Here’s what we know about where the money went. —Brookings
- A public opinion poll finds a generational gap within both parties on their attitudes towards school choice and teacher unions. —The 74
- “[Florida’s] Republican lawmakers say charters are different, so they were largely not affected by this year’s big school legislation.” —Tampa Bay Times