By Adam Tyner and Michael J. Petrilli
Sometimes it seems we’ve tried everything in our efforts to reform public education, yet nothing has worked to boost student achievement at scale. And despite all of our reform attempts, we have ignored one of the most promising catalysts for student success.
What is this magical, elusive factor?
As education economists John H. Bishop and Ludger Woessmann have put it, “Student effort is probably the most important input in the education process.”
The principle is simple: When students work harder, they learn more. In the United States, though, we don’t expect most kids to work very hard, and they don’t. For all of the talk about “raising standards” and implementing “high stakes testing,” the United States is an outlier among developed nations when it comes to holding students themselves to account, and linking real-world consequences to academic achievement or the lack thereof.
In this article, we look at the evidence that external motivation—especially via external, curriculum-based exams—can encourage middle school and high school students to work harder and learn more. In a longer article at Education Next, we also consider efforts to experiment with well-designed cash-incentive programs, discuss the importance of maintaining high standards for earning good grades, and contemplate how student accountability and student agency might combine for an even more effective approach in the future.
Students as stakeholders
When even adults debate the payoffs of academic learning, it should be no surprise that many students do not see the “real world” relevance of their schoolwork. But even when they believe in the value of academics, teenagers may still prefer to spend their energy on the more-compelling activities competing for their attention—friends, sports, afterschool jobs, Snapchat, video games, not to mention less wholesome pursuits. Delaying gratification is hard for most anyone, but researchers have shown that young people are especially focused on the present, averse to planning for the longer term, and less able to overcome the impulse to procrastinate.
The question is: What might be done to motivate adolescent students to work harder? The optimistic—one might say unrealistic—answer is to make schools so engaging, and the student-teacher relationship so supportive, that adolescents will be intrinsically motivated to work hard, despite the other demands on their time and attention, and despite the social costs they might pay.
Another approach—one that we believe is more realistic—is to hold students themselves accountable for their performance by ensuring that their work is tied to real consequences. This approach is based in research and used throughout much of the world. By giving students a greater and more immediate stake in their schoolwork and their learning, such student-accountability policies could bridge the gap between effort and reward.
Accountability boosts effort
The case for holding students accountable for their schoolwork and their learning has been undercut by the prevalent belief that incentives and other “extrinsic” motivators actually decrease student effort by eroding students’ intrinsic desire to learn. Psychologists in the 1970s discovered how extrinsic motivators could sometimes undermine intrinsic drive, and this idea has been widely popularized, most famously by Alfie Kohn’s 1993 book Punished by Rewards. Kohn and other education writers demonstrated how incentives can backfire, and they bolstered their cases with memorable anecdotes of daffy incentive initiatives, such as a Denver Planned Parenthood program’s offer to pay teenage girls a dollar a day not to get pregnant.
Yet these writers overstated the case against external motivators. The psychology literature never supported their blanket claims that “incentive plans cannot work,” as Kohn put it in the Harvard Business Review, and the conditions under which external motivators backfire are, according to a 1996 meta-analysis on the topic, “limited and easily remedied.” The evidence that external accountability lowers student motivation is mixed. Researchers found that external exams in Germany caused students to work harder, increased their performance, and made students more likely to want a job involving math, but the researchers also found that exams negatively affected students’ enjoyment of math and feelings of competence. When Bishop examined the effects of high school exit exams, one traditional form of external accountability, on intrinsic motivation by comparing whether students subjected to this approach engaged in less reading for pleasure or were more likely to associate learning with rote memorization, he found no evidence that accountability undermined natural curiosity, and even found some evidence of the opposite. The logic of Bishop’s finding is that systems that incentivize students to master academic material may in fact increase intrinsic drive, an unsurprising result for those of us who see learning as empowering.
Another way accountability can boost intrinsic motivation is by supporting pro-academic norms. As James Coleman observed as early as 1959, students often gang up to pick on the “curve raiser”: When students are graded on a curve relative to one another, those who work hard and raise the class average make things difficult for other students, who must then work harder for their grades. This situation has been explored more recently by other social scientists, who have found that it can lead to social norms under which “nerds” are harassed and studious students of color are accused by their peers of “acting white.”
Smart student-accountability systems can help solve this problem by setting high academic standards and, most crucially, by using external assessments, such as those tied to Advanced Placement courses, to evaluate student progress. This means that policymakers may positively influence intrinsic motivation by optimizing student incentives, resulting in more pro-academic social norms, as well as increased student interest and competence. In more recent years, behavioral economists have used experimental methods to better understand the connections between external motivation and human behavior and avoid the pitfalls Kohn and others have flagged.
Important evidence for the effect of student accountability on effort and achievement comes from the literature on curriculum-based external assessments. Several studies from the late 1990s and early 2000s support a strategy of using such external exams, showing that countries, Canadian provinces, and American and German states using content-based external exams for student accountability outperformed comparison jurisdictions, most likely because increased student stakes led to greater student effort. Yet such external exams have many forms and have not been equally successful in all contexts.
Substantial evidence from around the world has linked high-school exit exams to increased learning, but in the United States, where political pressures to relax graduation requirements have always kept the passing bar low, the evidence for their benefit has been inconclusive. Studies have found small effects or, often, no effects. American researchers have also focused on whether such exams might induce students to drop out, with several studies finding greater dropout rates following the adoption of the exams.
Yet such pass-or-fail exams are not the only way to use external assessments to promote student accountability. In a recent paper, Anne Hyslop makes a case against the use of exit exams but argues that external assessments can be used in other ways to promote student accountability. In the past twenty years, many states have begun to require external end-of-course exams (EOCs) covering core subjects such as algebra, biology, and American history, often with consequences attached to a student’s performance. Some states have made passing the exams a condition for graduation, essentially turning them into exit exams, but others have increased the stakes for students instead by printing the EOC scores on student transcripts or factoring the scores into course grades. As with external exams in many other countries, EOC results here are typically reported in terms of specific performance thresholds (such as advanced, proficient, needs improvement) rather than as simple pass-or-fail grades, enabling clearer signals of academic performance. This more nuanced form of signaling also increases the stakes for students, since it gives college admissions officers and potential employers additional information with which to evaluate candidates—an especially important factor in an era of grade inflation. While such a system is not yet mature in the United States, EOCs could form a powerful mechanism for student accountability if adopted on a broader scale.
The benefits of external assessments are clear for the students enrolling in Advanced Placement and other elite programs that are trusted by colleges, in large part because they are externally validated. AP helps solve the “curve raiser” problem by setting an external standard that is not controlled by the teacher, and one that all students in a given class can potentially meet. AP exams are graded by faraway educators, and high scores can earn students valuable college credit. This turns preparing for AP exams into a team sport, giving the nerds permission to study hard and crush the test. Yet even with the expansion of the AP program in recent years, only about a third of American students take at least one exam, and less than a quarter pass at least one test with a score of three or higher. The promise of high-quality EOCs is to extend the benefits of external assessment, and its virtuous cycle, to many more teenagers.
Students benefit from accountability, and, given the right circumstances, they choose it. As reformers and entrepreneurs seek new applications of technology and innovative models of instruction to revolutionize education systems, schools must reassess their comparative advantages. In their roles as academic-community builders and the gatekeepers of credentials, school leaders should embrace the responsibility of holding students accountable.
About a year ago, I was walking through a rush hour crowd of office workers and tourists in Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan when a voice called out to me, “Mr. P. Mr. P!” A young man approached me, carrying a hard hat and grinning. “Do you remember me?” he asked. I did. Vividly. It had been at least ten years since I’d seen him, but I greeted Henry, my former fifth grade student, by name.
I’d lost touch with Henry, whom, like many of my former students at P.S. 277 in the South Bronx, I follow on Facebook. A few years prior he’d moved to South Carolina, then went quiet. But here he was back in New York, working as an asbestos abatement supervisor on a construction site. We chatted for a few moments, promised to keep in touch, and said our goodbyes. I was pleased to see him doing so well, and truthfully, surprised. If you’d asked me to predict his future when he was in my class, I’d have been less than sanguine. Henry was an indifferent student and a bit of a troublemaker who spent far too many lunch detentions in my classroom. Sometimes we would play chess. My fondest memory of Henry was the day he finally beat me.
By every common metric, my old school was not very good. It was literally the lowest scoring elementary school in New York City’s worst performing community school district. But it was not some blackboard jungle hellhole of media caricature. The teachers were mostly caring and empathetic, sometimes to a fault. The principal who hired me was a middle-aged Jewish woman who spoke fluent Spanish and knew every child and parent by name. She was as much the school’s mayor as its instructional leader. Every child could recite from memory her list of school rules, which were painted on the playground wall: Job One was “Keep Everyone Safe”; the second was “Get a good education.” The third rule reminded everyone that there were “three magic words” at our school—“I need help!”—that a child could say at any time, which were promised to command immediate adult attention and bring all other activities to a halt. For years, I was irritated by what I felt was a poorly ordered set of priorities that placed education second. But now that most of my former students are in their twenties, my views have become a bit more nuanced as I’ve watched so many of them find their way in the world, particularly those, like Henry, who weren’t stellar students. Joshua joined the Marines. Cristian is a police officer. Eric is a plumber. Demin is a social worker. Another student contacted me not long ago to ask me for a reference for an internship; he’s studying accounting at a local college. One of my most challenging students, a self-proclaimed “wild child,” somewhere along the line righted the ship, graduated high school, and went on to college. When I spoke to her last, she was pursuing a master’s degree in finance.
I don’t wish to leave the impression that all of my former students have found their way. I know of at least one who is in prison. Another, a lovely and gregarious young lady, a golden girl with all the potential in the world, broke my heart when she got pregnant and dropped out of school at fifteen. A year before I was reunited with Henry, I had another “Mr. P!” encounter on the streets of Harlem. A deeply troubled student whom I poured more of myself into than any other, before or since, was calling out to me, pushing a stroller with an infant inside and a toddler in tow—two of her four children. She was unmarried and on public assistance at age twenty-two, and never made it past tenth grade. For every one of my former students who is working, in college, or otherwise striving, there is another who had her education derailed by teenage pregnancy, or who still hasn’t visibly gained traction. The ones I worry about most are those who have just dropped out of sight.
I don’t know what lesson to draw from any of this, except that our students surprise us, both for good and for ill. But over the years and in the main, there have been far more pleasant surprises than I expected among my former students. I still want schools where “get a good education” is Job One, not an afterthought. But I am no longer as quick to assume that the indifferent students, the low-achievers, the unruly and poorly behaved, are headed for a bad end. Somewhere along the line, something went right for far more of them than I would have wagered. This has made me both curious and humble about the character-forming institutions, relationships, and moments in a child’s life—at home, in school, or in other settings—that set some on paths of education, employment, or other opportunity; and others to reject it, either knowingly or through neglect, indifference, or inertia.
All of this is a lengthy preamble to the simple and only thing I think I’ve learned about character education, which is James Baldwin’s sage observation that “children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” As a teacher, I had a significant number of students who were not very good at listening to adults, or at least not to me. But thankfully, there were a critical mass of adults in their lives of whom they thought highly enough to emulate.
And maybe—just maybe—my old principal’s priorities weren’t as misplaced as I thought.
A recent Fordham report highlights the country’s “charter school deserts,” which are contiguous high-poverty census tracts with no charter elementary schools. It finds that, in 2013–14, states with charters had an average of 10.8 deserts. That’s more than 450 nationwide—a rather overwhelming number that makes it difficult to focus on local challenges to charter expansion. We wanted to know which of these communities were most desperately in need of charters, so we searched for localities with large charter deserts, unusually deep poverty, or both. Using the report and its accompanying website (which uses 2018 data), we’ve identified twenty such places, which we discuss in more detail below. For each, we describe the current conditions of the charter school landscape, including what factors may deter charter school operators from opening in these areas of need.
Some of the communities we identify are in or around cities where state law has no provision for charters or where districts and local leaders are vehemently opposed to charters, while other cities we discuss have highly-rated state charter laws and already have many charter schools. They all nevertheless have sectors that meet our criteria. Even in cities with a wide variety of choice, most students still attend schools within a twenty-minute drive of their homes; students who live in charter deserts in cities with open enrollment and many charters can still suffer from the informal barrier of distance that keeps them from accessing quality choice options.
Many of these places face common barriers to the establishment of high-quality charter schools. Unequal funding was a challenge and disincentive to potential operators in most communities we examined. In at least one-third, charters did not receive separate facilities funding, potentially keeping them from the city’s poorest areas, where any available buildings may need significant repairs. Political tensions were another frequent barrier, especially in areas where charters rely on district school boards for both authorization and funding. School boards may deny applications to open or grow in size, or charter operators may simply avoid political climates they see as hostile. Active local resistance, found particularly in several of the Southern cities below, seems most likely when charters are seen as a state- or outsider-run threat to neighborhood schools.
Some of these issues can be addressed with improvements to charter legislation at the state level, while some will only be tackled if advocacy is organized within communities. But one first step available to most of these communities is for CMOs, advocates, authorizers, and policymakers to recognize where need is strongest when considering new charter school locations.
Click on a desert in the table below to read more.
Table 1. Twenty U.S. charter school deserts that are especially in need of charters
North Las Vegas, NV
The charter elementary schools in the Las Vegas metropolitan area are currently concentrated in the southern and western regions of the city. The neighboring city of North Las Vegas has almost none, despite having widespread poverty rates of over 30 percent, much higher than the rest of the Las Vegas area. According to the Kenny Guinn Center for Policy Priorities, a Las Vegas based nonprofit, funding disparities between district and charter schools are likely limiting charter growth. Charters don’t have access to separate facilities funding, which averaged $1,288 per pupil for district schools in 2016. And charters aren’t eligible for Nevada’s largest grant program, the Class Size Reduction Fund, closing off a major source of state funding. These funding restrictions may dissuade charters from locating in the areas with highest need.
Far Southeast and Far Southwest Sides of Chicago, IL
Chicago has a number of charter elementary schools, including many in high-poverty neighborhoods. But significant portions of the city—particularly in southern Chicago, known as the Far Southeast and Far Southwest Sides, where poverty rates climb as high as 59 percent—are still in desperate need of quality school options. These deserts are likely due to city policies directly aimed at curbing charter growth despite high demand; in 2014, for example, the charter school waitlist had 12,800 student names, though some may be duplicates. First, when Chicago closed a series of schools in 2013, it barred charter schools from buying these now unused facilities. More recently, the city agreed to a net charter growth rate of zero in negotiations with Chicago Teachers Union. These local actions are compounded by state charter laws, which limit charter schools’ access to equitable funding. This combination of anti-charter regulations is a clearly a deterrent to would-be charter operators in Chicago, leaving much of southern Chicago without charter schools.
Central Pittsburgh, PA
Central and southern Pittsburgh are both large charter deserts, but the situation in the former is more dire, with poverty rates as high as 76 percent, three times the city average. Recent revitalization efforts in the area have not included a charter elementary school, perhaps because of the city school board’s resistance to new charters, which stems largely from Pennsylvania’s funding formula. It requires a district whose students attend a charter in- or out-of-district to give that school the amount of money it budgets per student, regardless of the charter’s actual operating costs or outside funding sources. The 30 percent reimbursement the state used to provide was eliminated in 2011 as part of nearly $1 billion in cuts to education spending.
In 2013, Pittsburgh paid about 13 percent of its school budget to charter schools for student tuition, stressing the city’s education budget. This helps to explain why the Pittsburgh School Board accepted just two charter applications between 2008 and 2014. Its frequent denials are often overruled by the state, which tends only to increase tensions between the district and its charters. Even charter supporters have called the funding structure unsustainable and burdensome. Ronald Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, describes the system as “a major barrier to school districts welcoming charters as part of a public school menu and collaborating with them to maximize options.” That certainly seems true in Pittsburgh.
Inner Northwest and Southwest Quadrants of Rochester, NY
Rochester has a 32.8 percent poverty rate, which rises as high as 67.2 percent in the areas of its Northwest and Southwest Quadrants close to the city center. Its entire central area is devoid of charter elementary schools, even though there is clearly a strong demand for more quality options. Many Rochester-area charter schools have high waiting lists; one network’s has almost 2,000 names (some may be repeats).
The availability of real estate is a limiting factor, according to a report from the Northeast Charter Schools Network (NCSN) in fall of 2017. State law sets certain provisions for district support of charter facilities funding that apply only to New York City, leading to a funding disparity between district and charter schools that is significantly more severe in western New York, where schools do not receive state facilities funding. Finding and financing a suitable space in an urban area like central Rochester is a challenge, particularly as charters grow and needs change, notes the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. As the NCSN report explains, “Some schools with great vision will simply never open their doors because securing the capital and funding for a building is an insurmountable challenge."
Downtown Omaha, NE
Omaha has no elementary charter schools. The majority of downtown Omaha’s census tracts have poverty rates over 30 percent, leaving many poor students without quality public school options. But Nebraska doesn’t have a state charter schools law, so until it does, none will open.
Northern suburbs of St. Louis, MO
The St. Louis metro area has many charter elementary schools. However, almost all are located in the southern half of the city. This leaves the region north of downtown, which has poverty rates as high as 43.8 percent with few, if any, quality school options.
Two separate aspects of state law impede charter growth. First, in most districts, total charter enrollment can’t exceed 35 percent of public school students. As of the 2016–17 school year, 33 percent of St. Louis students were enrolled in charters, leaving little room for new charters to open.
Second, Missouri’s authorizing laws are very restrictive. According to the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri-based nonprofit, while various charter authorizers, such as universities, operate in Kansas City and St. Louis, doing so elsewhere is much more restricted; they “may only be authorized by the state board of education in provisionally accredited districts and by the local school board in accredited districts.” Because of these limitations, local school boards, which are often resistant to charters, are frequently the sole bodies authorized to approve charter school applications. So although the need for high-quality school options does not stop at city limits, Missouri law strongly discourages charter operators from opening in places such as the poor suburban communities north of St. Louis.
West Dayton, OH
Several charter elementary schools operate in north and central Dayton, but they are conspicuously absent in west Dayton, where poverty rates rise as high as 66.8 percent. Ohio law does restrict the opening of brick-and-mortar charters to “challenged districts,” but Dayton qualifies, and Ohio is generally considered friendly to charter startups. So why the absence in west Dayton?
A 2017 report from Andrew Saultz and Chris Yaluma on charter locations in Ohio notes that, although charters tend to locate in areas with higher-than-average percentages of minorities and higher-than-average poverty, they “seldom locate in tracts with the highest concentrations of poverty or percentages of Black population; they are more apt to locate in city centers.” Dayton also has extremely high rates of vacant housing—the highest in the nation in 2016—and the highest rates of vacancy are on its west side, which poses a safety concern to students, families, and school faculty. Ohio does not provide dedicated facilities resources to charter schools, and a 2017 survey found that many of the state’s charters are forced to use per-pupil revenue for purchasing, renovating, and maintaining facilities, all costs that increase if a school tries to adapt a disused building or operate in a neighborhood where increased security is a necessity. Charter schools may not make it to west Dayton without changes to funding and incentives to locate in the high-needs areas of the city.
Southwestern New Haven, CT
The New Haven area has only three elementary charter schools. High-poverty charter school deserts are located around the city, including the southwestern area, where the poverty rate is consistently over 40 percent. According to the Northeast Charter Schools Network, New Haven-area charters have a long waitlist, demonstrating parent and student enthusiasm for high-quality choice. But Connecticut’s funding process makes growth challenging, as the state Board of Education (BoE) must approve all increases in charter school size. Funding from the BoE is currently $11,000 per student, less than the amount provided for their peers in traditional public schools.
Additionally, Connecticut’s multi-stage charter approval and funding process may be a deterrent to new charters opening. First, a school must be approved either directly by the BoE as a state charter or by both a local board of education and the BoE as a local (and locally funded) charter. Second, after the state board has granted a certificate of approval, charters are not considered active until the Connecticut General Assembly appropriates funds for them. Because of these limitations, charters are often reliant on potentially resistant local boards of education for authorization, and a certificate of approval from the state board does not guarantee the school will open. The uncertainty and lower funding may discourage charter operators from opening in New Haven’s high-needs areas, despite demand.
Wichita, KS, metro area
Kansas allows charter schools and has no caps on their growth, but there are no charter schools in Wichita. The city is considered the seventh most unequal city in the country, and neighborhoods with 40 percent poverty abut those with less than 10 percent. And in 2017, state assessments showed that just under one in four Wichita students were on track to be college-ready in reading, and barely one in five in math. So why has the charter movement, with its potential for high-quality new options, not taken hold in Wichita?
One explanation is the weakness of Kansas state charter laws. Charters must be approved by both the local school district and the state board of education. Kansas offers less autonomy than typical charter laws; for example, charters are not exempt from state teacher certification requirements. There is also no state provision for charter school funding—it is completely at the discretion of districts, aside from one transportation-related provision. The reliance on school districts for authorization and funding appears to make Kansas, including Wichita, an uninviting prospect for many charter management organizations.
Robert Litan, Wichita resident and president of the charter advocacy organization Success for Kansas Students, writes that local advocacy is the first step. He encourages Kansans to ask their districts and the state legislature to increase charter authorizing options, adding, “Once these efforts are mounted, philanthropists will have incentives they do not now have to support the creation of charter schools.”
South and southeast Memphis, TN
Elementary charter schools are almost entirely concentrated in the central and northern parts of Memphis. This leaves much of the southern half of the city, many sections of which have poverty rates above 40 percent, without charter school options. Charter growth in these areas may be limited partially because of funding problems: charters receive 16 percent less public funding than district counterparts, and low property values in Memphis make it difficult for charters to finance needed building renovations, particularly in poor neighborhoods.
Charters operators looking to move to southern Memphis may also face political resistance. The state-created, state-run Achievement School District, which includes much of the city, has closed many schools and converted others into charter schools. This has created public resistance to continued upheaval. Green Dot, a CMO based in California, withdrew from opening a school in northern Memphis citing political concerns: “We felt we didn’t have the bandwidth to do the level of community outreach we were going to need to do given that this was in the media every week….We didn’t have the ground support to do it right, and to make sure that kids could get a great opportunity, or have a positive transition experience.” Together, the lack of funding and local antipathy may be enough to keep charters from opening, despite the need for school options in southern neighborhoods.
Downtown Louisville, KY
The Louisville metro area currently has no charter schools. Its overall poverty rate is 14.3 percent, but poverty is heavily concentrated in the downtown sector, where census tracts have rates as high as 84.5 percent. The lack of charter schools in these neighborhoods leaves the city’s poorest residents with few school options. These charter deserts exist largely because Kentucky didn’t have a state charter law until March 2017, so charters couldn’t operate. Since then, Louisville’s Jefferson County has begun to formalize policy to authorize charter schools, but none have opened. And the state did not include any spending for charter schools in its most recent budget, so operators are unlikely to open charters in Louisville until this funding uncertainty has been resolved.
Southern Newark, NJ
Charter elementary schools in Newark are concentrated in the downtown and northern sections of the city, leaving the southern parts with few school options. Much of this area has poverty rates above the city average of 29.1 percent, meaning that Newark’s poorest children do not have access to charter elementary schools. A 2015 report by Startup: Education (now the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative) found that “children in neighborhoods with the highest demand for high-quality seats are traveling to charter schools far from their homes to reach the high-performing options. Most of the charter leaders…expressed a desire to go where they are needed, but cited the challenge of finding affordable and suitable facilities in those neighborhoods.” State law discourages Newark Public Schools from selling unused buildings, such as those in the city’s southern wards. District buildings, as well as others in these areas, also require expensive renovations, which are difficult for charters to afford because facilities funding comes out of their per-pupil operational budgets. Teachers Village, an urban renewal project, has incorporated three charter schools, but is located downtown, rather than in higher need areas. One ray of hope is that recent school board elections saw a large victory for charter supporters, just as the board is poised to regain control of the district. But local and state conditions still do not incentivize charter schools to locate in neighborhoods most in need of charters.
Southern and central Oklahoma City, OK
Oklahoma City has just five charter elementary schools, spread from north to south. Charter deserts cover much of the city, particularly the Inner City South area just above and below the Oklahoma River, where the poverty rate is as high as 68.1 percent. According to Chris Brewster, superintendent of the local charter network Santa Fe South Schools, charter schools are almost entirely reliant on non-public funding for facilities. “It is incredibly hard to get into facilities with no facilities dollars earmarked for charter schools,” Brewster explained. This lack of facilities funding makes opening new charters challenging, particularly in cities where available real estate suitable for a school is more difficult to locate and expensive than in other areas. And although charter schools are are guaranteed funding from the state, local municipalities are under no obligation to provide charters with district money. Together, these barriers to equitable funding are likely a strong deterrent for new charters considering operating in Oklahoma City’s neediest neighborhoods.
Little Rock, AR
Little Rock contains only a handful of charter elementary schools, and despite high levels of poverty throughout the city, just one of these is located in a high-poverty census tract. This means students in Little Rock most in need of quality school options—particularly in central areas of the city, where poverty rates rise to nearly 50 percent—don’t have access to charter schools in their neighborhoods. Charters are likely deterred from opening in Little Rock because they receive 38 percent less funding per student than district schools, with no charter funding coming from local sources. Charters also do not have access to facilities funding, crucial for opening new ones. And operators face a local political climate described in a recent report to the Arkansas Board of Education as “toxic.” Little Rock School District Superintendents have repeatedly expressed opposition to the board regarding new charter applications, citing declining city enrollments. Yet, with only two district schools designated as “achieving,” there is a clear need for more quality options for Little Rock’s economically disadvantaged students.
Southern Atlanta, GA
Atlanta has a number of charter elementary schools scattered throughout the metro area. However, southwestern Atlanta is one large charter desert.* Census tracts there have poverty rates as high as 61.2 percent, and traditional public elementary schools in the area report proficiency rates of under 20 percent in both math and English language arts.
Demand isn’t the problem. After a recent vote to raise the enrollment cap for KIPP Metro Atlanta, the largest charter management organization in the area, its Executive Director said that there’s “still great demand for KIPP schools and high-quality seats throughout our city, which is why we are committed to growth to meet that demand.” Yet there are no new charter elementary schools slated to open in southern parts of the city. Their much higher black populations may contribute to the scarcity of charters there, as there’s an ongoing debate over charters versus neighborhood schools among Atlanta’s black voters. When a referendum defeated the Georgia governor’s 2016 proposal that would have given the state power to take over failing neighborhood schools and pass them to charter operators, almost 70 percent of Atlanta voters in black majority precincts voted against it.
*The map above shows two elementary charter schools in East Point in the southwest sector of the Atlanta metro area, but those schools actually are in the Fulton County School District and not accessible to Atlanta City Schools residents in neighboring census tracts.
South Baltimore, MD
Baltimore’s charter elementary schools are predominantly concentrated in central and eastern parts of the city, while the South Baltimore area, where many census tracts have poverty rates above 40 percent, is almost entirely lacking charters. Charter operators may be deterred from entering the market in these areas due to an unfavorable regulatory environment. A recent report by the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation finds that, despite demand, charter management organizations are unlikely to expand to the city due to uncertain and inequitable funding and limited personnel autonomy. Funding is a particularly difficult issue for Baltimore charters; facilities funding is deducted from per-pupil dollars (a cost not incurred by district schools), and charters have to set budgets based on actual rather than average teacher salaries, making the process much more volatile than for district schools. In 2015, a group of charters sued the district, charging that these and other policies violated state law. This year the city’s proposed school budget would cut $5.5 million from Baltimore’s charter schools. Unless current state and local policies shift, many of the city’s most disadvantaged students will continue to lack quality school options.
Northern and eastern Houston, TX
Houston is home to many charter schools that together served 20 percent of Houston students in 2017. However, most of these schools are located in southern and western regions of the city. The northeastern section of the city, where poverty rates frequently rise above 30 percent, has few charter elementary schools, leaving many poor students without quality school options. Houston A+ Challenge, a local education nonprofit, noted in a recent report that, despite the successful scaling up of KIPP and YES Prep, Houston is struggling to meet local demand. “But one of the biggest challenges to charter growth in the Houston area remains: lack of access to facilities and facilities funding,” they explain. This barrier, the report states, is likely keeping other charter operators from entering Houston’s charter market. Houston A+ Challenge suggests that district and charter sectors should work to collaborate, including sharing district facilities, to provide better education choices to all Houston students.
Jackson, MS, metro area
Jackson, which has a citywide poverty rate of 30.7 percent, is the only area in the state that has opened charters since Mississippi’s charter law passed in 2013—but it’s only opened one charter elementary school. Some advocates blame the state’s rigorous application process, and there’s fierce opposition to charters within the community, particularly in Jackson, which may be slowing growth. The Southern Poverty Law Center and Jackson School District parents have sued the state, contending that Mississippi’s charter law violates the state constitution by unlawfully taking money away from district schools. A Hinds County judge agreed in February, but that decision is currently under appeal. Such forces are likely to further impede charter growth in Jackson and around the state for the foreseeable future.
Birmingham, AL, metro area
The Birmingham metropolitan area has no charter elementary schools. It has a poverty rate of 24.5 percent, making it one of the nation’s poorest cities, and includes some neighborhoods with rates as high as 64 percent. Despite the passage of Alabama’s charter law in 2015, no charters have successfully opened in Birmingham. This is likely caused by the authorizing provision of the law, under which only the state and local districts can authorize schools. This allows political opposition to heavily influence approval or rejection of charter applications, and the Birmingham Board of Education has unanimously denied every one it’s received. One charter school appealed the board’s rejection to the state authorizer, which approved the application, but Birmingham is now suing the Alabama Public Charter School Commission over the decision. This fierce local resistance is likely to dissuade charter operators looking to expand into Alabama from locating in Birmingham.
Downtown and Northside Richmond, VA
The city of Richmond has just one charter elementary school, so most of it is a charter desert. Its 25.4 percent poverty rate rises as high as 69.9 percent in the northern parts of downtown. While Virginia as a whole often scores relatively well on national assessments, The Washington Post editorial board described Richmond in 2017 as one of several Virginia cities “that have persistently failed to effectively educate their students, many of them minorities or disadvantaged.”
Richmond’s dearth of charter elementaries comes as no surprise; the state has only nine charters total, and its charter law has consistently been ranked as one of the worst by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Chris Braunlich, past president of the Virginia State Board of Education, explains that the state constitution gives local school boards complete control over education in their districts. He blames school board–designed conditions for making Virginia “an inhospitable state for quality charter operators,” and The Washington Post editorial board called the state “so unwelcoming that quality charter operators don’t even think about applying.” Lack of local advocacy has played a role too: The 74 Million notes that “There hasn’t been a large groundswell to push for a greater expansion of charters.” And in 2017, an attempt by the state legislature to create state authorizing districts was vetoed by the governor on constitutional grounds. Change in Richmond probably will not happen without state-level change or a drastic upswing in charter advocacy among local parents and citizens.
Headlines this year have largely focused on teacher pay. But just a few years ago, a different set of teacher-policy issues were in the limelight, including teacher evaluation, tenure, and collective bargaining. At that time, states were pursuing aggressive reforms challenging decades-old laws that many viewed as more protective of educator jobs than promoting student learning. Though not all of these efforts yielded dramatic changes, Florida eliminated tenure for new teachers starting in July 2011. Instead of facing extensive and often costly dismissal procedures, this reform allows school leaders to remove low performers from the classroom by not renewing annual teacher contracts.
In theory, removing tenure in K–12 education can both positively and negatively affect student achievement. On the one hand, it may increase achievement as teachers are incentivized to focus more intently on student learning, knowing their job is on the line each year. Over the long haul, the overall quality of the educator workforce may improve if incompetent teachers are removed more swiftly and frequently than they are today. On the other hand, school leaders may be prone to poor judgment and erroneously dismiss some effective teachers. Proponents of tenure also suggest that eliminating tenure—a job perk—might dissuade talented individuals from entering the profession, though it may also attract less ambitious people seeking job protections.
A new analysis from Celeste Carruthers, David Figlio, and Tim Sass puts theory to the test, examining whether Florida’s new employment law affected student achievement in the two years immediately following enactment (2011–12 and 2012–13). To undertake the study, the researchers divided Florida schools based on their exposure to the changes in state law, defined in two ways: More exposed schools either employed more first-year teachers or evaluated more of their educators. The first definition supposes that schools hiring more rookies would be more sensitive to the elimination of tenure for newly hired teachers. The latter definition rests on the fact that Florida made renewing annual contracts subject to teacher evaluations (most teachers were evaluated in the period of this analysis). The analysts then use quasi-experimental methods to compare state test-score trajectories, controlling for students’ prior achievement, of pupils attending the more- versus less-exposed schools.
The study finds slight upticks in achievement related to tenure reforms, with gains mainly concentrated among Florida’s lowest-achieving students. Students attending more-exposed schools gained about 0.005 to 0.010 standard deviations—significant statistically but small from a practical standpoint, akin to about a half-point gain on the SAT, according to the analysts. When results are disaggregated by students’ baseline achievement, pupils in the lowest two quintiles generally posted gains that exceeded those of their higher-achieving counterparts. Carruthers, Figlio, and Sass characterize the findings as “limited and circumstantial evidence that SSA [Florida’s teacher reforms] slightly increased student test achievement in math and reading.”
The somewhat inconclusive and short-run results are unlikely to settle contentious national debates over teacher tenure in K–12 education. But the study does offer some tantalizing evidence that eliminating tenure protections—and perhaps stopping the ugly dance of the lemons—may benefit disadvantaged students. Though tenure laws are likely to endure in Ohio and many other states, policymakers should at least reappraise whether making it almost impossible to dismiss low performers makes sense for children in need of an excellent education.
SOURCE: Celeste Carruthers, David Figlio, and Tim Sass, “Did Tenure Reform in Florida Affect Student Test Scores?,” Brookings Institution (2018).
When the media report on teacher pay, the data cited can often be misleading. A state’s average teacher salary seems like a sound number, but pay varies between districts, and different states have different rules about minimum salaries. A recent policy brief by the National Council on Teacher Quality’s Kency Nittler and Nicole Gerber examines salary data in a way that goes beyond averages for ten states that make teacher salary information for all districts available: Arkansas, California, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia.
Seven of the ten sampled states set minimum salary schedules, which increase pay at specified intervals as teachers gain experience and graduate degrees: Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia. Two, Illinois and Missouri, only set a minimum salary for all teachers, regardless of experience. And one, California, defers its teacher pay decisions to individual districts. Based on these three categories alone, average salary means something different in each. But there’s more.
Districts must of course meet salary minimums, but they need not stop there. And many don’t—which compounds intrastate variance. Nittler and Gerber found, for example, that starting salaries between districts in sample states vary by an average of $16,116, after adjusting for cost of living. Using Kentucky as an example of a state that is in the middle in terms of salary variation among districts (the state is one that sets an overall minimum salary), the authors point out that the highest starting salary is in suburban Jefferson County at $42,701, whereas the lowest starting salary is Kentucky’s rural Bell County at $32,429. Indeed, the brief found that most districts in the seven states with pay schedules generally provide teachers additional pay on top of the state minimums—though, again, it varies in magnitude by district and state.
The brief’s findings are limited by its small sample, but not without good reason, as the authors were not able to include many states that did not provide data on salary minimums and schedules for all of their districts. Its findings are nevertheless enough to demonstrate that average salary, though useful in some contexts, obscures important aspects of teacher pay disparities when it’s used exclusively. Policymakers, reformers, and particularly the media should therefore seek out and use more nuanced data when considering these issues.
SOURCE: Kency Nittler and Nicole Gerber, “States, strikes, and teacher salaries,” National Council on Teacher Quality (May 2018).