By Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Brandon L. Wright
A recent New York Times analysis suggests that a generation of policies meant to bring racial proportionality to our selective colleges has failed. “Even after decades of affirmative action, black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at the nation’s top colleges and universities than they were 35 years ago,” declared the authors.
In 2015, black and Hispanic students made up 15 and 22 percent of the U.S. college age population, respectively, but just 8 and 14 percent of the enrollments at top universities. Those gaps are wider today than in 1980—and, in the case of Hispanic students, the gap has tripled over that time.
Yet these higher-education problems are a consequence and symptom of a systemic ailment that is typically caught as soon as students of color enter the classroom. Some, of course, have been immunized before they get there and some were hit well before kindergarten. For many, however, the K–12 system is where trouble begins. “Elementary and secondary schools with large numbers of black and Hispanic students are less likely to have experienced teachers, advanced courses, high-quality instructional materials and adequate facilities,” writes the Times, citing data from the Office for Civil Rights.
These school-level deficiencies are legion and—at least vis-à-vis the vexing gaps in elite colleges—they do the greatest harm to high-ability youngsters from disadvantaged circumstances, those being the kids most likely to gain acceptance into top universities, provided their primary and secondary schools cultivate their potential.
More than middle- and upper-middle-class pupils, these children depend on the public education system to do right by them. Many lack the supports from family and community that their more advantaged peers enjoy, and many attend schools awash in low achievement, places where all the pressures on teachers and administrators are to equip weak pupils with basic skills in the three R’s. Such schools understandably invest their resources in boosting pupils up to and over the proficiency bar. They’re apt to judge teachers by their success in accomplishing that. And they’re not apt to have much to spare—energy or time, incentive or money—for students who are already achieving adequately.
Fortunately, this is a treatable malady, so long as schools and school systems grasp the urgency of creating more opportunities for black and Hispanic students who show strong academic potential. The challenge is ensuring the poor kids also have access to those opportunities, ideally in the form of special programs of various kinds (STEM, English language arts, fine arts, etc.) designed for students with high ability. As we argue in our 2015 book, Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students, the best way to maximize the education of high-ability, disadvantaged children is to start by giving everyone a fair shot at what’s available. Schools can do that by taking advantage of universal screening when they measure student achievement in core subjects, inasmuch as such measures are required, starting in third grade, under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Use those results to identify the top 5 percent or so of test takers in each school, not the top 5 percent in the district or state. This will diversify the qualifying population, allowing more high-achieving black and Hispanic students to take part in programs that challenge them.
Indeed, economists Laura Giuliano and David Card have found that universal screening works especially well for minority students. And looking for top performers in every school is why Texas allots 75 percent of U.T. admissions to an equal proportion of top graduates from every high school rather than the top graduates statewide.
Next, ask elementary teachers to nominate another 5 percent of their pupils, children who may not be top scorers but who show uncommon potential. Encourage them to look at everything, not just grades and test scores.
This two-step process is not common in school districts across the country. But if more employed it, they’d locate about 10 percent of kids who are already high achievers or, in their teachers’ eyes, could be. And far more disadvantaged students would have access to advanced courses, teachers trained to educate high achievers, classes with similarly able peers, and other opportunities to realize their full potential.
That’s almost a no brainer. Yet federal and state laws largely ignore high-ability poor kids, making them among the most neglected populations in American public education. Which leads, along with many other forms of wasted human capital and suppressed mobility, to the sorry findings reported by the Times.
As long as there are racial differences in income and wealth, family structure, and early childhood experiences, we’re not going to close this gap entirely. But schools aren’t doing enough to narrow it. Smart kids deserve an education that meets their needs and enhances their futures, just like children with other distinctions. They have their own legitimate claim on our conscience, our sense of fairness, our policy priorities and our education budgets. And if we cannot bring ourselves to start pushing more of these smart kids from every background as far as they can go, we’ll keep suppressing the supply of tomorrow’s inventors, entrepreneurs, artists, and scientists. And we’ll keep robbing tens of thousands of black and Hispanic students of opportunities for which they’d otherwise qualify.
“The Big Shortcut,” a striking eight-part series in Slate, reveals the broad scope of our public education system’s abuses of online credit recovery courses to boost graduation rates. Indeed, the series portrays an educational travesty of epic proportions, whose flagrant problems have rapidly proliferated as institutions at local, state, and federal levels have done little to address them.
One such group of institutions that should be doing a better job is accrediting agencies. Accreditation agencies have been around for decades, with a mission of ensuring quality control and academic integrity in our schools. That makes them perfect institutions to push back against the scourge of online credit recovery, whereby schools hand out dubious credits to students who click through watered down online courses. Yet some of these agencies appear to be not only missing in action, but complicit in this burgeoning scandal.
To illustrate this problem, herein are three accreditation standards used by AdvancED, one of the country’s largest accreditors, claiming as clients 34,000 schools worldwide that educate more than 20 million students—including the Georgia school district in which I live and where I have worked (and whose credit recovery abuses I have reported here). My district’s credit recovery program has violated these standards in multiple ways, and similar programs across the country likely have, too.
1. Equity: “The school’s curriculum provides equitable and challenging learning experiences that ensure all students have sufficient opportunities to develop learning, thinking, and life skills that lead to success at the next level.”
My district’s credit recovery program was not equitable in at least two ways. First, in the sense of having consistent quality for all students, its classes were less demanding than traditional courses and were poorly resourced due mainly to the fact that students did not have access to subject certified instructors. Second, in the sense of fairness with respect to race and economic conditions, the program disproportionately served poor and minority students on whom the school system had given up and whom it didn’t think were capable of actually learning enough to gain the credits needed to graduate.
2. Learning: “Teachers throughout the district engage students in their learning through instructional strategies that ensure achievement of learning expectations.”
My district’s credit recovery program was not set up to help students who needed remediation; it was set up to boost graduation rates. In addition to the absence of certified teachers, it didn’t employ researched-based instructional strategies. When students failed an assessment, they did not receive additional correction, but instead just guessed at the same multiple choice questions over and over again until they passed, learning very little in the process. Indeed, this practice was not unique to my district. It was a feature of the third-party software the program used, which was sold by Edgenuity, a private company that supplies online courses to thousands of schools nationwide, and which itself is accredited by AdvancED.
In 2015, the year my district’s graduation rates spiked by 13 percentage points, only about 11 percent of credit recovery students were proficient on state exams, even though everyone who completed the course got credit. This was not viewed as a problem. Instead, modifying the program to increase learning was seen as a threat to high graduation rates. In a district-wide credit recovery planning meeting, I raised the question of how we could boost the students test scores. The administrator running the meeting shut my query down saying, “Boosting test scores would be nice, but the most important thing is to maintain our high graduation rates.”
Worse, this is a Georgia-wide problem. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the statewide proficiency rate for credit recovery students was approximately 10 percent in 2015 and 2016, but roughly 90 percent of participants were getting credits.
3. Data-driven improvement: “Curriculum, instruction, and assessment throughout the system are monitored and adjusted systematically in response to data from multiple assessments of student learning and an examination of professional practice.”
In the aforementioned district meeting that made clear the priority placed on graduation rates, I asked a room full of credit recovery coordinators and assistant principals in charge of curriculum what the passing rates were on state exams. No one knew. At the time, I assumed they knew but were ashamed to say, but I later learned that they were being honest—and why they didn’t have that information: The data were hidden away in the district’s data management system under a folder labeled “Unknown.” Few had looked at it to assess learning, and even if they had, it was difficult to analyze because it contained no information about students’ schools or teachers—just names, subjects, and scores.
Put another way, I believe these data were “unknown” because no one wanted to know. The only data that mattered were graduation rates. And these were not used to improve learning, but to maintain and justify the con.
Despite the widespread adoption of credit recovery programs, there is a glaring lack of meaningful data on their efficacy. And the studies that have been done, limited as they are, actually shown them to be less effective than taking a traditional course again. That combined with the accreditation violations described herein should make agencies like AdvancED look closely at schools that use these programs when considering accreditation renewal. And I have seen no evidence that this is happening.
Indeed, I helped a fellow resident of my county file a formal complaint on our district’s credit recovery program. We did this a few weeks before an external review team from the agency visited the district to perform an accredidation assessment it does every five years. AdvancED has since published its official accreditation report, and the district received an extraordinarily high overall score—scoring significantly higher than average on the very standards listed above.
The Slate series mentioned in the opening paragraph is named after The Big Short, an Academy Award–winning film portraying the culpability of credit-ratings agencies in the 2008 financial crisis. A number of agencies awarded high ratings to low-quality mortgage bonds, creating the false impression that high-risk, unstable investments were far safer than they were. And a failure of oversight meant that the market pressured agencies into such practices: If you didn’t accredit the hazardous products, your competitor would.
If American education isn’t careful, it risks creating a situation in which school accreditors mimic the past behavior of the mortgage industry’s credit-rating agencies, giving underserved approval to low-quality credit recovery programs. And just as the housing market crashed, so could the futures of millions of American students.
Jeremy Noonan is a father of four school-age children and a certified science instructor in Georgia, who has taught for ten years in public school, private school, and home school cooperatives. He also runs Citizens for Excellence in Public Schools, a local education advocacy group.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
There is a healthy national debate about charter school accountability: What is the appropriate balance between performance-based measures and parental choice? There are good arguments for both viewpoints, and the charter movement will emerge stronger because of this discourse. But advocates on both sides should be troubled by a situation currently brewing in my home state of Nevada.
The Nevada State Public Charter School Authority (SPCSA) is on the verge of closing the Nevada Connections Academy (NCA), an online K–12 charter school serving 3,300 students, based on a single data point, the school’s four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR). In an August 23 hearing, the SPCSA decided that the school’s proposed plan to cure its low graduation rate was insufficient. A further hearing was scheduled for October, at which time the SPCSA will decide whether to close the school or reconstitute the school’s board.
The SPCSA justifies the action by citing a new provision in Nevada charter law that allows but does not require a charter school authorizer to close or reconstitute the board of a charter school if it has an ACGR of less than 60 percent.
At first glance, this may seem reasonable. After all, a 60 percent graduation seems like a pretty low bar. But should this single academic metric that applies only to high schools be a justification for closing an entire K–12 school of 3,300 students? That’s exactly what the SPCSA is attempting to do.
When you dig into the details, the SPCSA’s action looks heavy-handed. It is true that the school’s four-year grad rate has been well below 60 percent for several years. The school argues quite convincingly that it’s a by-product of the fact that fully half the students in its last two graduating cohorts were already credit deficient when they came to NCA.
Knowing this, it’s no surprise—nor is it a sign of school failure—that many of NCA’s high school students don’t graduate on time. And it certainly makes no sense to close an entire K–12 school based solely on this statistic. That would be akin to holding NCA accountable for the performance of the students’ prior schools.
NCA has argued that the ACGR is a flawed metric for any school that enrolls lots of credit-deficient kids, and that the SPCSA should consider the school’s full academic performance before it decides on any closure action. It is hard to disagree.
In fact, this is precisely what the Nevada legislature intended when it declined to make the grad rate threshold an automatic trigger for school closure. It recognized that a school could be under 60 percent ACGR and still be a high performing school.
That might sound like a counterintuitive statement, but consider a high school not unlike the Nevada Connections Academy in which half of its students enroll as seniors who are a full year behind in credits. Assuming the school has sufficiently rigorous graduation requirements, none of these pupils will be able to graduate with their four-year cohort. Is this a failing school?
Answering that question requires further analysis. How did those credit deficient seniors perform? Are they engaged and accumulating credits? Did they stay for a fifth year? How are the students in grades K–8 performing?
The SPCSA has refused to ask these questions about NCA and instead is treating the school’s sub-60 percent grad rate as if it is all it needs to know. It refused to consider the substantial evidence that shows the school is performing quite well: For students who enrolled as freshman and spent four years in the school, the grad rate is 86 percent; the latest available reading proficiency rates show the school is above state average in every tested grade, and in some grades by as much as 12 percentage points; and the school’s math proficiency rates were slightly lower than state average, but not significantly.
In short, NCA is a school that is performing well within the band of acceptability in almost every academic measure—and has a legitimate explanation for the one measure it falls short on, ACGR. Yet its sponsor is using that one performance measure as the sole justification for trying to shut the school down. It’s inexplicable.
We may never know exactly what is motivating the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority, but Nevada’s charter law arguably does give them the power to do this. And this raises a very serious policy issues: Is it ever acceptable for a charter school sponsor to close a school based on a single academic metric? The answer is “no.” A school closure action should always be based on a comprehensive analysis of a school’s performance over time. But Nevada’s charter law allows a sponsor to ignore this core principle of accountability.
Advocates on all sides of the current charter school accountability debate should be very concerned about the precedent this would set.
Dr. Richard Vineyard spent seventeen years at the Nevada Department of Education. In his role of Assessment Director of the Office of Assessment, Data, & Accountability Management, he supervised the development and implementation of all state level assessments in Nevada. He also testified as an expert in a hearing on the issue described in this article, but he has no other connection to the Nevada Connections Academy.
Editor's note: A different version of this essay was first published in The Nevada Independent.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
On this week's podcast, special guest Yamuna Menon, vice president of advocacy and policy at 50CAN, joins Alyssa Schwenk and Brandon Wright to discuss the ins and outs of state education policy and how national organizations can more constructively influence it. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines how being among the older children in a grade affects cognitive development.
Amber’s Research Minute
Elizabeth Dhuey et al.,“School Starting Age and Cognitive Development,” National Bureau of Economic Research (August 2017).
The impacts of school closures on student achievement have been studied in various locales, including Louisiana, Michigan, New York City, and our home state of Ohio. But a new report from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) is the most expansive analysis on this topic to date. Analysts examine 1,204 district and 318 charter school closures across twenty-six states occurring between 2006–07 and 2012–13. The study focuses on low-achieving schools—those whose students’ math and reading scores were in the bottom quintile in their respective states prior to closure. Most of the closures took place in urban areas—69 percent across both district and charter sectors.
CREDO offers a comprehensive view of closures in these states, including the patterns of closures and their academic impacts on students. Though not an experimental analysis, by matching students on observable characteristics and baseline achievement, CREDO does offer solid evidence on the impacts of closure. There were a few striking findings.
First, the schools that closed were on downward trajectories prior to shutting. The analysis found that average math and reading achievement were deteriorating across these schools, as was average student enrollment. The enrollment data suggest that market-oriented pressures—less demand for these schools—played a role in these closures. Districts and charter authorizers then took the step of permanently shuttering these schools.
Second, a majority of pupils displaced by closure landed in similar or better performing schools. CREDO found that 48 and 45 percent of students in closed charter and district schools, respectively, went on to higher-performing schools, while another one in three transferred to schools of similar quality. Although some media coverage focused only on students landing in higher-quality schools—perhaps portraying closures in a more negative light—just a small proportion of displaced students landed in a lower performing school (about 15 percent). To gauge whether closures induced transfers to higher or lower quality schools, CREDO compared schools’ percentile rankings on math and reading scores. That method departs somewhat from prior studies in Ohio and Louisiana, which examined the performance of students’ closed versus new schools based on value-added scores, a measure of student growth. In Ohio, we considered both changes in school-level achievement and growth, finding similar results across both methods.
Third, the quality of the school students attended after closure made a big difference in their academic growth. CREDO estimates that displaced students attending higher-performing schools enjoyed gains of about ten to forty days of learning, post-closure. However, students who transferred to inferior quality schools lost considerable ground—losses that ranged from twenty to eighty days of learning. While this group represented just a fraction of displaced pupils, they experienced a double-whammy: Their education was not only disrupted but they also attended even weaker schools. This is also what we found in Ohio—and aligns with common sense. School closures can work if displaced students land in better schools. But that’s a big “if.”
The analysts conclude that “The quality of the alternatives matters greatly for the students affected by school closures.” ‘Tis true—whether closing dysfunctional schools benefits students hinges on the quality and capacity of the existing school supply. The key is to grow more high-quality schools, especially in urban communities, so that students stuck in chronically poor-performing schools can move to better ones. That means focusing as much on school openings as school closures.
Chunping Han, et. al., Lights Off: Practice and Impact of Closing Low-Performing Schools, Center for Research on Education Outcomes (2017).
Charter opponents have long claimed that charter schools siphon resources away from the traditional public school system. The ideological motivation for this line of reasoning is clear when touted by teachers unions and their friends: i.e., calling charters parasitic unless they conform to traditional school practices, including mandatory unionization, makes that bias obvious.
But what impact do charter schools actually have on traditional public schools and the students who remain there? Are such loaded accusations deserved? Or might the presence of charters improve student outcomes through competition or as effective charter practices spill over into district schools?
Recent research from Temple University professor Sarah Cordes sheds needed light on this question. Cordes examined the impact of charter schools in close proximity to, or even co-located with, traditional public schools (TPS) in New York City over a fourteen-year time span. Her analysis departed from previous research examining charter effects at the district level or across a much-wider radius (up to 10 miles, versus Cordes’ one-mile radius), and was also the first peer-reviewed study of the academic impacts of co-location. Data came from 900,000 students in grades three through five. The study design (a difference-in-differences model) was similar to past research on charter effects, but Cordes added new statistical checks to avoid conflating possible student composition changes at the schools with performance gains. The study also examined school-level factors not previously well-studied that could explain charter effects on TPS performance.
So what did she find? Exposure to charter schools significantly increased student performance at nearby traditional public schools. The effects increased with proximity to the closest charter school; students at traditional publics schools co-located with charters experienced the greatest positive impacts. Small impacts were observed for schools close to charters but began dissipating when a half mile or more away. Students at traditional public schools also experienced reductions in grade retention when co-located with or close to a charter, as well as small positive effects on their attendance. As for the impact on student subgroups, the most positive impacts of charter exposure (for students in nearby traditional public schools) occurred for poor students and those eligible for special education services. There was no significant impact for public schools that co-located with another public school: In other words, it was the shared space with a charter that made the difference.
The study also examined possible school-level reasons for positive charter effects, using parent and teacher survey data. Several plausible explanations emerged. Traditional public schools co-located or nearest to charters experienced improved student and parent engagement, higher expectations for students, and improved perceptions of safety and school cleanliness—any or all of which could have translated to improved student performance. It’s also possible that those public schools’ increased per-pupil expenditures (PPE) of two to nine percent—resulting from student attrition (more dollars spread over fewer students)—helped have a positive impact.
More work remains on digging into the reasons why traditional public school students might experience positive effects from nearby charters so that others might emulate such improvements. Most importantly, the study confirms that charter schools can have a positive competitive effect on nearby public schools. This confirms previous research showing that not only charters, but other forms of choice like vouchers, can impact traditional public schools for the good. More districts—especially those with excess capacity in their school facilities—should consider co-location with charters for the mutual benefit of all students and families.
Sarah A. Cordes, “In Pursuit of the Common Good: The Spillover Effects of Charter Schools on Public School Students in New York City,” Education Finance and Policy (July 2017).