By Jessica Poiner
The NAACP caused quite a stir recently when it released a report calling for a moratorium on new charter schools for the next ten years. While the proposed charter ban has drawn most of the headlines—and with good reason—the NAACP report also offered a number of recommendations to address what it claims are widespread problems and abuses of power in the charter sector. These recommendations, which haven’t generated as much scrutiny, were incorporated into a model law for use by interested states.
Hailing from Ohio, a state with a history of charter-quality challenges, we cannot deny the charter sector’s warts. Outcomes in some charter schools are indeed much too poor, and financial shenanigans have been much too common. That’s why those of us at Fordham-Ohio and our partners worked hard to pass historic reforms to the state’s charter laws in 2015.
So we decided to review NAACP’s recommendations with an open mind, hoping to see them embrace the sort of quality-control policies that we identified and helped to enact in Ohio.
Sadly, that’s not what we found. The NAACP model law is not about improving charter schools, but strangling them. Moreover, if a law like this was passed in Ohio, it would be a massive step backward in terms of responsible, quality policymaking. Let’s take a look at a few reasons why.
The cart before the horse
Much of the NAACP’s model law is devoted to listing topics that the “appropriate education policy committees” must investigate in “a thorough analysis of the impact that charter schools have on all neighborhood public schools.” The call for more data is welcome, and a growing number of studies (like this one) show that competition from charter schools lifts all boats.
But it’s problematic that the model law spends pages outlining a needed “thorough analysis,” only to turn around and call for a decade-long moratorium on all charter schools regardless of what the analysis finds.
Another problem is that the model lumps all charters together. Rigorous research has shown that there are considerable differences not just between types of charter schools, but also between charter networks. Ignoring the uniqueness of different types and networks isn’t the best way to ascertain strengths and weaknesses—but is the easiest way to dismiss the entire concept of charter schooling.
To be fair, some of the data points that the model calls to be investigated are solid suggestions. For instance, states should be conducting regular audits of charter schools to detect fraud, waste, and the abuse of public funds. It has certainly been an important tool in Ohio. It is also important to know whether charter schools are serving high-need pupils well. But the vast majority of the model law’s recommendations are rooted firmly in the presumption that the number-one priority is to defend traditional public schools from competition, even if that competition is helping the kids in charters and the kids in district schools.
Governance preference over performance
The most talked about provision of the model is its call for a ten-year moratorium on any charter school operated by or affiliated with a charter management organization, an education management organization, or a for-profit company. Once again, the blanket prohibition of all types of charters—regardless of their past performance or future potential—is problematic. In Ohio, a moratorium would mean that high-performing networks with mind-boggling student outcomes wouldn’t be able to serve more students, regardless of their stellar results or high demand from families. The impact nationally would be nothing short of tragic, as many of America’s top charter networks would be prohibited from expanding. Never mind the model law’s claim that its purpose is to “enhance the provision of high-quality education.” Under this proposed law, high quality education is only welcomed if it comes from schools that are governed in a specific way.
Stacking the sponsor deck
Restricting the creation of new schools isn’t the only motive of the NAACP’s model law; it also seeks to bring every charter currently in existence under the control of a traditional public district. If it were to actually become law, only local school districts could serve as charter authorizers. They alone would be permitted to approve or reject new schools.
This is asking a fox to guard the henhouse. After pages of demands for data that analyzes how charters might negatively impact neighborhood schools, it’s illogical to claim that districts could turn around and objectively monitor their own competition. Even more out-of-touch is the idea that districts should use their authorizing authority to “monitor the supply of schools across a local area.” Supply and demand are two very different things. Every student in the country has access to a seat in a traditional public school—but that does not mean that the school offers a quality education. Families would essentially be trapped under the umbrella of whatever district they happen to live in, and low-income families in particular would pay a steep price.
But the worst part about this recommendation is that it assumes that districts are high quality authorizers. In Ohio, that’s not the case; the academic performance of district-sponsored schools varies dramatically. In fact, most of the best-respected charter authorizers in the country are independent charter boards, state boards, or public universities. It’s a rare school district that can oversee charter schools well.
The illusion of democracy
The NAACP model law also requires that every charter school hold a public election in order to select board members. This recommendation aligns with a widely cited criticism of charter schools—that they are “undemocratic” because they have non-elected boards. If it were true that local school boards were the paragon of democracy, that argument might hold water. But as my colleague Aaron Churchill has argued previously, school boards offer nothing more than an illusion of democracy. This is especially true in states like Ohio where school board elections are off-cycle—they are held during non-congressional election years—and are thus subject to notoriously weak turnouts, some as low as 20 percent. According to research, low turnout numbers make it easy for special interest groups like labor unions (surely a coincidence) to get control of school boards and enact policies and labor agreements that are geared toward the interests of their members.
To be clear, it’s absolutely important that conflicts of interest be prevented. But many states—including Ohio—already do so without requiring charters to go through the process of electing a board.
It’s obvious that the NAACP model law isn’t about boosting charter quality, but curtailing charter quantity. States that actually care about improving their charter schools should follow in the footsteps of the Buckeye State and craft—when necessary—their own new and improved charter law based on the specific needs and environment of their state, rather than adopt a model policy that fails to take into account the good work that so many charters across the nation are doing on behalf of kids.
Baltimore, also known as Charm City for those who grew up there, is my hometown. When I was a kid, Mayor Kurt Schmoke used his inaugural address to declare that education was one of his top priorities: “It would make me the proudest if one day it could simply be said that this is a city that reads.”
Thirty years of strife and lackluster education have, instead—in my mind as well as the minds of many others—given Baltimore a very different name that’s impossible to shake: “The City That Burned.”
So it strikes me as surreal that at its national convention in Charm City, a place where the fight for black opportunity may burn hottest, the NAACP issued its latest set of cold edicts to kill America’s—and Baltimore’s—charter schools. It’s offered a set of black-and-white notions, which would end the concept of chartering as we know it, in a town now infamous for the name Gray. You’d have to look the other way to miss the irony.
I participated in a debate on the organization’s charter school moratorium hosted by the NYC Bar Association just a few weeks ago. The NAACP board member, a former Goldman Sachs executive, participating in the discussion on its behalf seemed a reasonable fellow. In the spirit of the exchange I allowed myself to believe that the NAACP might have gotten the message from all these black moms and dads and kids enrolled—or yearning to be enrolled—in charter schools across America…not to mention the black advocates and the black charter educators out there. Their message: Charters are about opportunity. And the NAACP, as an organization historically committed to advancing opportunity, is the one place where no one should stand in the way.
If the group’s top officials heard those voices, they certainly managed to forget them before assembling their polemical charter report masquerading as a manifesto. If there was anything worth discussing in the NAACP’s first statement on charter schools, there’s certainly nothing worth discussing now.
But that’s really not the point. Black folks in America are used to having excruciating discussions with those in power: those with wealth and influence and money…with connections and currency. The elites who make things go. We’re used to waiting and not getting what we want. Having our asks for equality slow-walked to the “appropriate” entity—and summarily denied.
We know too well the smiles of “maybe” and the frowns of “sorry, not now or ever” that greet us when trying to change how government views and interacts with us. Disappointment is as much a part of the black experience as the joy of surviving it is.
But the one thing you don’t expect is for the group doing the frowning and the slow-walking to be led by people who look like you.
And in this instance—where some of America’s best public schools educating some of America’s blackest and most disadvantaged kids are concerned—the NAACP’s duplicitous engagement of black folks on the issue of charter schools is the worst kind of betrayal.
In one of my favorite films, The Matrix, Morpheus offers that there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path. If this is the path the NAACP wants to take on charters, I don’t want to know it, and I, and many others, surely won’t be walking it with them.
In the city that once aspired to every black person reading, the NAACP just declared that its agenda—one for the adults and the union leaders that also puts charters on blast—is the one that, to them, matters most.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published by The 74.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) grants states more authority over their school accountability systems than did No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—meaning that states now have a greater opportunity to design improved school ratings. In Fordham’s new report, Rating the Ratings: Analyzing the First 17 ESSA Accountability Plans, we examine whether states are making the most of the moment.
In our view, three of the most important improvements that states can make are to ensure that their accountability systems:
- Assign annual ratings to schools that are clear and intuitive for parents, educators, and the public;
- Encourage schools to focus on all students, not just their low performers; and
- Fairly measure and judge all schools, including those with high rates of poverty.
Based on these three objectives, we rate states’ planned accountability systems using the most recent publicly available information. States can earn grades of strong, medium, or weak in each.
Table 1 shows the results for the seventeen plans that have been submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, sixteen of which have enough information for us to rate.
Table 1. Results for states that have submitted plans to the U.S. Department of Education
Although many national observers have been worried about their rigor and quality—and, to be clear, we see some plans in need of improvement—we find that, for the most part, states are moving in a positive direction under ESSA. In fact, in our view, seven states have proposed ratings systems that range from good to great: three states—Arizona, Colorado, and Illinois—earn strong ratings across the board; and four others—Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Tennessee, and Vermont—receive two strong marks and one medium.
Moreover, only one state, North Dakota, misses the mark entirely, earning three weak ratings.
As for the individual objectives, state systems are particularly strong when it comes to assigning clear and intuitive labels. Eleven earn a strong mark for using either A–F grades, five-star models, or user-friendly numerical systems.
Similarly, eight plans earn a strong rating for signaling that every child is important by looking beyond proficiency rates when gauging achievement and measuring the growth of all students. This is a huge improvement on NCLB-era systems, which encouraged a focus on "bubble kids," those just below or above states' proficiency cutoffs, to the detriment of other students.
Yet we see somewhat less progress when it comes to making accountability systems fair to high-poverty schools. Achievement measures—including proficiency rates, performance indexes, and scale scores—are strongly correlated with prior achievement, and given that low-income students tend to enter school far behind their peers, high-poverty school are likely to fare poorly. Growth measures should therefore constitute the majority of summative ratings, but only four states propose such a system and earn a strong here. Nine others do, however, assign growth measures sufficient weight to earn a medium rating, so the news is still good compared to systems in place under NCLB.
The seventeen jurisdictions that submitted their ESSA applications by the first deadline volunteered to be guinea pigs—or, if you like, sacrificial lambs. There is little doubt that the other thirty-four states are watching closely, both to see models they might emulate and to learn how the U.S. Department of Education reacts to what has been proposed.
Will the remaining states do even better? We see no reason that they cannot, and we’ll be back in the autumn to find out how they do.
On this week's podcast, special guest Paige Kowalski, executive vice president for the Data Quality Campaign, joins Mike Petrilli and Alyssa Schwenk to discuss how parents and teachers can get access to powerful student data. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines teacher mobility in Florida.
Amber’s Research Minute
Li Feng and Tim Sass, “Teacher Quality and Teacher Mobility,” Education Finance and Policy (Summer 2017).
The summer edition of the first-rate Education Finance and Policy Journal examines whether principals really think that all teachers are effective, especially since we know from prior studies that upwards of 98 percent receive positive evaluations. Supplementing 2012 administrative data from Miami-Dade, the fourth largest district in the U.S., Jason Grissom and Susanna Loeb ask roughly one hundred principals to rate a random handful of their teachers on different dimensions of practice. Importantly, they let the principals know that these are low-stakes ratings, in that only researchers would know the scores that they gave. The hypothesis was that without any stakes attached they might give more candid appraisals. These ratings were later compared to the high-stakes, summative personnel ratings (i.e., the Instructional Performance Evaluation and Growth System, or IPEGS) that principals gave those same teachers a few weeks later.
Analysts found that both sets of evaluations were quite positive, but the low-stakes evaluations tended to be more negative. Indeed, many teachers who were rated “ineffective” on the low stakes measures received “effective” or “highly effective” ratings on the high-stakes measures. Still, even though the official ratings skewed to the high side, teachers receiving the highest of the high scores (“highly effective” versus “effective”) were indeed more effective, according to student achievement growth. Finally, analysts also found that principals systematically gave better-than-predicted ratings (according to the interview data) to beginning teachers and worse-than-predicted ratings to both teachers who were absent more and, in some cases, to teachers of color—though they can’t say why.
In short, the study shows that principals can indeed distinguish between higher and lower performing teachers simply by differentiating at the high end of the scale. Principals also appear to face strong pressures to skew ratings in high-stakes settings. Making more use of the lower categories, analysts recommend, would facilitate more accurate feedback to teachers and potentially provide greater incentives for low performers to improve. We’ve certainly seen in Washington, D.C., for instance, how evaluations can also make it more likely that struggling teachers exit the system.
Still, just as prior research has shown, we’ve got to pay attention to the mechanics of evaluations. For instance, having a six-point scale on the low-stakes measure may have made principals more comfortable using lower ratings than the four-point scale on the high-stakes instrument. Moreover, in the end, we have to trust principals to do their jobs, while not being naïve about the logistical and relational aspects of all of this. Recognizing that low ratings trigger more paperwork and headache—and that you likely can’t terminate a low-performing teacher anyway—helps explain why a principal might say that one teacher is magnificent while another is just terrific.
SOURCE: Yujie Sude et al., “Supplying choice: An analysis of school participation in voucher programs in DC, Indiana, and Louisiana,” School Choice Demonstration Project, University of Arkansas, and Education Research Alliance New Orleans, Tulane University (June 2017).
A new analysis from David Figlio and Krzysztof Karbownik, part of the “Evidence Speaks” series from Brookings, indicates that variation in educational practices between individual schools explains a large amount of the socioeconomic achievement gap. In short, school quality varies, and it matters for every student.
Using a specially created data set from the Florida Departments of Education and Health, Figlio and Karbownik were able to match each child’s school record with his or her birth certificate data, which includes parental education, family structure, and poverty status. Based on a child’s socioeconomic status (SES) at birth, they grouped children into SES quartiles. Then, they examined academic gaps between low- and high-SES students at three points in time: kindergarten entry (using existing readiness data), the end of third grade (the point at which most students in Florida are first formally assessed), and the end of fifth grade. The study included 568 elementary schools across the state with a substantive distribution of students in all four socioeconomic quartiles, excluding schools that were practically all low- or high-SES (about one quarter of the elementary schools in the state).
In line with prior research, achievement gaps were observed between high- and low-SES pupils. Yet wide variations in the size of these gaps were observed from school to school. There were schools where the gaps were small and both groups enjoyed strong academic growth relative to state averages. There were schools where the gaps were small but growth was poor compared to the state average. Then, there were schools where high-SES students far outpaced their low-SES peers.
The general trend was that low-SES students appeared to perform somewhat better when in schools where their high-SES peers also do well. A rising tide lifts all boats.
The researchers dug deeper into the data to test variables that might explain their findings.
As befits the current vogue for preschool as a solution to poverty-related achievement gaps, the first variable examined was preschool preparation, measured by students’ kindergarten readiness scores. While the vast majority of students at all socioeconomic levels tested “ready,” it was not surprising to observe that high-SES students generally had higher kindergarten-readiness rates than their low-SES peers. But data from specific schools again varied widely, including eighteen schools whose low-SES kindergartners had slightly higher readiness rates than their high-SES peers. Additionally, while students with higher kindergarten readiness tended to perform better on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) in both third and fifth grades, wide variations in FCAT achievement between individual schools were observed which could not be explained by either individual socioeconomic status, a school’s overall SES level, or students’ kindergarten readiness.
Further digging into these and other variables led Figlio and Karbownik to conclude that while socioeconomic status plays a large role in achievement and test scores for students throughout elementary school, some individual schools were clearly making real and ongoing contributions to mitigating the influence of low SES on academic outcomes. The best schools helped both high and low-SES students to achieve.
However, identifying the “special sauce” that created these pockets of excellence for poor students is beyond the scope of this report and the authors surmise that a variety of efforts are at play. They recommend policymakers take a close look at practices and instructional policies at the school level, tracking the achievement and growth by subgroup to figure out which schools have greater success with low- and high-SES students. They also recommend that accountability systems focus at the school rather than district level, which can obscure variation in performance by school.
While only correlational rather than causal, the patterns documented here seem an important evidentiary underpinning to a fundamental truth: Some schools are better than others. While this tenet has always been a guide star for folks able to buy a house in a “good” school district, it has often been bound up with non-academic considerations, which can distort the definition of “good.” The same is true of the school choice movement, where mere access to choice has sometimes taken precedence over the quality of those choices. But we have turned that corner and research that points with specificity to schools and settings that are making a difference for low-SES kids is a timely reminder: Advocates of interdistrict open enrollment, private school vouchers, and charter schools must put academic quality—especially for the neediest students—at the forefront of our definition of a “good school”.
SOURCE: David Figlio and Krzysztof Karbownik, “Some schools much better than others at closing achievement gaps between their advantaged and disadvantaged students,” Economic Studies at Brookings (July 2017).