By Michael J. Petrilli
What if we could scale up evidence-based practices, shift the reform conversation in a more positive direction, and boost student outcomes, all at the same time?
Might you be interested?
No, this is not the pitch of a carnival barker or snake oil salesman, but a crazy (or maybe crazy smart?) idea for a new non-profit initiative.
Presenting the National Award for Excellence in Elementary Education, the N-A-Triple-E. (I clearly haven’t paid for any branding help as yet.)
Though it would be a massive undertaking, the core idea is simple: Develop a national recognition program for excellent elementary schools (with middle and high schools to follow) in the district, charter, and private sectors. As with the federal Blue Ribbon Schools program, schools would be recognized for strong results in student achievement. But applicants would also go through an intensive process, not unlike a UK-style inspectorate, resulting in a comprehensive analysis and holistic review of their practices. Only schools that can demonstrate a commitment to striving for excellence in all aspects of their enterprises, from curriculum to talent development to parent engagement and on and on, would win the prestigious award.
First the why, then we’ll tackle the how.
All reform is local
As I argued a few weeks ago, federal and state policy are unlikely to drive major changes in education in coming years. That’s partly because of our dysfunctional politics in Washington and elsewhere. It’s also because of policy exhaustion arising from a quarter-century of non-stop reform initiatives. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but I don’t see a “big new thing” on the policy horizon.
Which is OK. A break from hyperactive policymaking gives schools the time and space to finish what we started—to actually implement the higher standards that most states adopted seven years ago; to get better at giving teachers helpful feedback about their instructional practices; to find curricula worth teaching; and to experiment with new approaches to personalization.
I do not doubt that there are schools doing exactly this in many parts of America. Or so we hope; with our massive, fragmented, continental education system, it’s impossible to know for sure.
But it’s probably also fair to assume that it’s not happening in as many places as we would like—the “it” being a constant drive for continuous improvement, a purposeful pursuit of excellence, for lots of reasons: Many schools exist in dysfunctional districts that prize compliance over performance; district and school leaders in every sector are inundated with information and sales pitches and struggle to separate the wheat from the chaff; parents and taxpayers are generally pleased with their local schools, which breeds complacency and a bias toward retaining the status quo.
What might help cut through the fog is a clear beacon. Perhaps a well-designed recognition program could provide the impetus, and a road map, for schools to engage in a good-to-great improvement process. It could induce school leaders to examine the ways they do everything in their schools, and to seek evidence (from researchers) and promising practices (from other schools) that might help them get to the next level. And it could highlight barriers that still remain, at the district or state levels, barriers that keep more schools from achieving excellence.
The goal is to excel, not not to fail
Why focus on “good to great”? For two big reasons.
First, mediocrity, not failure, is the greatest challenge facing American schools today. After decades of reform, we have thankfully seen real improvement among many of our lowest performing schools and districts. The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows nontrivial gains at the low end of the performance spectrum. Reducing the dropout rate by definition impacts the lowest-performing students. And hundreds of flawed schools have disappeared, thanks to accountability pressures, competition from other schools, and shifting demographic patterns.
That’s not to say that “dropout factories” are gone; far from it. But they are a small minority of American schools, although they still consume the lion’s share of our attention. It’s time to flip that equation—or at least to give equal time to the mediocrity challenge.
The second big reason to focus on “good to great” is that it’s a much more motivating message than “turning around low performing schools,” and is also more achievable. It acknowledges that most American schools are reasonably good. They just aren’t good enough—not for the changing economy, the challenging circumstances of many of their students, and the steep climb of upward mobility.
The nuts and bolts
So what might the National Award for Excellence in Elementary Education look like? There’s lots to flesh out, but here’s a skeleton:
- A national board would develop the criteria for the award. The first screen would focus on student outcomes—test scores, growth metrics, and other gauges that demonstrate that the school is in fact getting excellent results.
- All schools nationwide that pass the first screen would be invited to apply for the National Award. If that were restricted to ten percent of elementary schools, we’d be in the neighborhood of 6,000 schools.
- The application would ask the principal to provide evidence that the school has been striving toward excellence in a number of different domains. (The application would be developed with input from leading researchers in elementary education and related fields.) Areas might include:
- Core curriculum (Is it aligned to state standards? Content-rich? Evidence-based? Etc.)
- Talent (How are teachers recruited and selected, inducted, evaluated, etc.?)
- Personalization (How does the school “differentiate” instruction to serve all kids well, including low and high achievers?)
- Specials (The art, music, physical education, counseling programs, etc.)
- Parent engagement
- School climate
- Let’s assume that one-third of the eligible schools apply (2,000). A review committee would select the 1,000 strongest applications. All 2,000 schools would be given detailed feedback on their applications, pointing them to evidence-based and promising practices that they had overlooked and might want to consider.
- A group of reviewers (akin to inspectors) would visit the 1,000 schools for at least three days each. They would spend an additional two days doing a “desk review” of materials, like their curriculum and pacing guides, teacher evaluation rubrics, and other key documents.
- The review team would write up a detailed analysis of the school’s strengths and weakness, and present it to the school and to the larger review committee.
- That committee would select the 600 strongest schools to receive the National Award, or about 1 percent of the nation’s total.
- The other schools would be encouraged to address their weaknesses and apply again. In some cases, it would require policy changes at the state or local level, like revisions to their collective bargaining contract.
- The National Award schools would announce their recognition on signage and in school materials. It would also be advertised prominently on the school’s accountability report from the state, on GreatSchools.org, and in realtor listings. Principals would boast about it on their resumes and LinkedIn profiles.
- Award winners would be feted at national events and encouraged to share their hard-earned lessons with the field.
Yes, that would be a big undertaking, and cost a lot of money. And that’s without providing a cash award to winning schools, which might be worth considering as well. Despite the temptation, this should absolutely not be funded by the government—especially the federal government—as Uncle Sam’s involvement would make it politically radioactive.
So is this worth piloting? Would it get the attention of school leaders? Would they be willing to go through the process of putting an application together and hosting a review team? Would the feedback lead to real improvement in the schools? And would scholars be capable of turning the research literature into clear criteria for an award like this?
My gut says yes. Anyone with deep pockets want to give this a try?
A handful of law changes in Ohio have accomplished what decades of “self-policing” among authorizers could not: Authorizers have been forced to act more judiciously when determining who should be allowed to start a school and what it takes to keep a school open. But while we at Fordham are encouraged to see the state’s charter sector become more quality-focused, contraction of the sector alone won’t deliver great options for kids who desperately need them.
Indeed, Ohio will see a record-low number of new charter schools open this fall, a slow-down that persists for the third year in a row. Meanwhile, twenty-two schools shut down at the end of the 2016–17 school year, the fourth highest number in Ohio’s almost twenty-year charter history. (See Figure 1.) These numbers point to a worrisome lack of capacity in the state around launching new schools and replicating high-quality models—to say nothing of how hard it is to attract quality national operators. It’s a situation that warrants action in the state of Ohio—but also attention from the charter sector at large, where leaders are struggling to balance measures meant to ensure quality with policies that allow more schools to open for the students who need them most.
Let’s take a quick look at the data.
Twelve of the twenty-two Ohio charter schools that closed their doors this June were overseen by traditional public school districts. This provides further evidence that the traditional public school establishment has contributed at least in part to some of Ohio’s past charter quality issues, even though some would prefer to conceal this fact. (For example, an Innovation Ohio analysis of the failures of Ohio’s federal start-up grant winners overlooked the fact that over 40 percent of failed grant recipients were district-run charter schools.) All of the state’s poorly rated sponsors this past year were districts; all of those that have since closed or are going out of business are district authorizers. Maybe someone should tell Randi Weingarten and the NAACP, who have called for all charters to be overseen by districts, that district authorizers have their own quality-control issues.
Figure 1: Ohio charters closed each year
Source: Ohio Department of Education, Closed Community School Directory and updated 2017 closure list from ODE
Here are a few other facts about this year’s closures:
- One of the closures was a statewide e-school.
- Two schools were considered closed because of a “merger,” thus not really shuttered so much as absorbed into an existing school.
- Eight of the closures were dropout recovery schools.
- Nine were closed at least in part because of sponsor quality issues and/or because their authorizer planned to cease operations.
- Thankfully, none of the closures occurred mid-year.
New school openings
In the aggregate, Ohio authorizers are allowing far fewer schools to open. The state has good company in this respect; fewer charter schools are opening nationwide, in part because fewer groups are applying for charters. Yet Ohio’s steep decline is surely also attributable to authorizers becoming much choosier. That is by design. Blatant financial incentives to start schools regardless of quality—such as the ability to sell services to said schools—were removed under the recent reforms, and authorizers now face stringent evaluations that weight the academic performance of their schools as a third of their overall rating. Figure 2 shows that for the third year in a row, just eight new charter schools are slated to open this fall. The number for school year 2017–18 come from ODE’s recently released list of possible new schools. If past years are any indication, the actual final total will likely be smaller and represent an all-time low for Ohio.
Figure 2: Number of new charter schools opening each year (fiscal years)
Sources: Historical data come from ODE’s annual community schools report. The opening number for 2017 (fiscal year) was arrived at by examining ODE’s summer 2016 list of potential new charter schools, then checking Ohio’s community school payment reports to see which schools received funding in the fall of 2016. The number for 2018 comes from ODE’s current list of “possible” new charter schools for the 2017-18 school year.
With an evaluation system encouraging authorizers to act more cautiously, it’s safe to say Ohio has dramatically reduced the likelihood of a year like 2014, when a massive number of newly opened schools closed mid-year, displaced students, and helped crystallize just how bad Ohio’s quality problem had become. In that sense, Ohio’s slow-down could be viewed as a success. However, there are several more questions worth asking and finding answers to:
- What do we know about the quality of the schools that are opening? For 2017–18, at least two of the eight to open are replications of very high-performing existing networks—but what about the other six, which are being opened by the same authorizer responsible for eight of the high-profile blow-ups of 2013–14?
- Does the authorizer review system, which currently allows only five Ohio authorizers to approve new schools to open, measure, reward, and sanction what we want it to? Are we okay with the incentives it creates: that it requires a mountain of compliance paperwork each year, that it weights raw performance so much more heavily than student growth, or that the evaluation as structured makes it easier for authorizers overseeing dropout recovery schools to score well on the academic portion of the evaluation?
- Are charter schools opening in communities with the highest needs? Of those on the opening list for this year, three are located in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), two in Franklin County (Columbus), one in Montgomery County (Dayton), and one in Hamilton (Cincinnati). No charters are set to open in Youngstown or Lorain, Ohio districts overseen by academic distress commissions and prioritized through its federal Charter School Program (CSP) grant.
- Are we making it feasible for Ohio’s very best networks to replicate? What about high-profile, high-achieving, out-of-state networks?
The answer to the last question is almost certainly “no.” Ohio has done a fine job putting pressure on authorizers who historically had few consequences for poor decision-making. But creating a great charter landscape is about much more than how tightly the state can apply a vice grip to charter overseers.
Ohio’s slowed opening rate is useful for a handful of things: showing the feds we’ve gotten serious about the quality of new schools, responding to critics who use five-year-old Wild, Wild West references to demean Ohio’s charter sector, or reminding folks that the strength of a state’s charter law matters. But it’s not going to ensure that more children are given quality educational options that propel them into lives of opportunity. And that’s a serious problem.
Like all states with charter schools, Ohio has worked hard to restrict bad actors and diminish the likelihood of future messes, and lawmakers deserve credit for that. But the Buckeye State hasn’t done enough to support the expansion of great charter schools—and this, unfortunately, also applies to most states in the union. Obstacles like tight state budget do nothing to close the widespread charter funding gap. Nevertheless, if leaders across the country care about lifting outcomes for their neediest students, it’s going to require intentional investment, not just a giant hammer.
 Under the current formula, which is heavily weighted toward variables that correlated with poverty, the academic scores of nearly all charter schools in Ohio are low. (For that matter, overall grades for any urban or poor district will also be low if the state doesn’t change the formula by the time those grades are due out.) Thus, the academic portion those schools contribute to a sponsor’s grades is also poor. For dropout recovery charter schools, the formula is different: One needs to “meet expectations” through modest improvements in order to get a “C” grade.
Somewhere between the Right and the Left—between the un-nuanced mantras of personal responsibility and big government—lie most of the problems related to poverty, as well as most of the solutions. So said Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance in his opening remarks at an event in Columbus, Ohio, last week. He noted that putting both problems and possible solutions at the extreme end of either political ideology ignores reality and stymies understanding and effective action. Any successful effort to address poverty requires individuals to leave their extreme positions and to meet somewhere between. Fordham was proud to co-sponsor the event with the hope that Vance’s new and increasingly important take on the topic would find room at the table for education issues as well.
And education quickly became key to the personal stories shared during the panel portion of the event. Vance referenced the now-familiar story of his own difficult upbringing in Middletown, Ohio, as detailed in his bestselling memoir. Cynthia Dungey, Director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS), was co-panelist, and her personal story provided both counterpoint and amplification of Vance’s. As a woman of color who grew up in inner-city Columbus, Dungey had two working parents who—while not always secure in employment—were far more stable than Vance’s family. She knew neither the extent of her family’s poverty nor any other alternative beyond the neighborhood in which she grew up. The only pathway she saw was that of the working poor. That all changed when her family took the opportunity to send her to The Wellington School, a non-sectarian private school founded by central-Ohio entrepreneurs and located in a wealthy white suburb. “For the first time, I realized I was a minority,” she said. Not only was that revelation not a deterrent, that educational choice also made all the difference in her life. She was a member of the first graduating class of the then-new institution. New pathways were revealed to her, and perhaps most importantly so were the means to access them.
Knowledge of the pathways out of poverty was a key theme to the panel discussion, moderated by Statehouse News Bureau reporter Andy Chow. Not just the ends of those pathways—family-supporting jobs with benefits—but the beginnings as well. Good schools, supportive families and/or communities, elements of the Success Sequence, and common-sense government supports that are aligned with on-the-ground realities rather than political expediencies were all touted as key. “It’s terrible to be dealt a crappy hand,” said Vance, bringing both the political rhetoric and the scientific language of poverty into the personal realm. “But if you don’t even try to play it well,” that’s certain to lead to the worst possible outcome. It was the insistence that even a “crappy hand” doesn’t have to lead to individual, family, or community ruin that united Vance and Dungey. Their conviction on this subject—born of different personal struggles against the same enemy—was evident in their words.
“Social capital” encompasses a wide variety of resources, many of them intangible. Vance often tells the story of attending a networking event for Yale law students and being confused by many aspects of a formal dinner, from fork usage to wine choices and everything in between. Dungey characterized it in terms of access—to needed services, to role models, to a ride to work, etc.—and described the work of ODJFS as focused on improving the social capital of the citizens she serves across the state. The specific needs of poor citizens in rural Ohio are often different than those of inner-city residents, but the desired outcome is the same: stability, support, opportunity, and direction. Something as simple as an acknowledgement that “it’s okay to be smart; it’s okay to be successful” could go a long way in changing mindsets and disrupting generational dynamics. It is here where Vance and Dungey drew upon their disparate-yet-linked upbringings, noting that churches and other faith-based organizations were bedrock in their respective communities. Both expressed interest in re-engaging such organizations with the specific intent to go beyond provision of basic needs—like food and clothing—and to provide much-needed mentorship and pathway guidance. In the absence of stable families, positive role models, and ladders of support, the mantras of the Right and the Left—let alone political point-scoring that seems to occupy those on both sides—mean nothing and solve nothing.
While specifics of education policy were not topics of discussion at the event, the individual journeys of the panelists are heavily defined by education: Vance from a small town public school to The Ohio State University to the hallowed but bewildering halls of Yale; Dungey from a small non-sectarian private school that opened up eyes and minds to DePauw University to Ohio Northern. And perhaps it is here where the true “somewhere between” lies. Between the compelling public interest in educating its citizenry to the highest level possible and the personal responsibility of citizens to take best advantage of the educational opportunities afforded them lies education’s contribution to solving poverty. Vance says we must end the political blame game and stop the polarizing rhetoric that unnecessarily divides us. Dungey says we must remove obstacles and support citizens toward their pathway to success. We must see what success for poor children and families looks like—exemplified by Vance and Dungey—and do whatever is necessary to replicate all contributing factors for everyone.
To do that we must, as J.D. Vance tells us, “come to our senses.”
Full video for the sold-out Columbus Metropolitan Club event can be found here. With grateful appreciation to the CMC.
On this week's podcast, special guest Kathleen Porter-Magee, superintendent and chief academic officer of Partnership Schools, joins Brandon Wright and Checker Finn to discuss the state of Catholic schools and what role vouchers might play in their future. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines how charter schools affect the performance and spending of nearby district schools in New York City.
Amber’s Research Minute
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).
A new study examines the impact of requiring and paying for all students in high school to take the ACT college entrance exam. Eleven states have implemented free and mandatory college entrance exams for all high school juniors. Public policy scholar Joshua Hyman (University of Connecticut) looks at the impact of such a policy in Michigan, which began requiring juniors to take the ACT in 2007.
He analyzes outcomes for six recent eleventh-grade cohorts (2003–04 through 2008–09). Specifically, he compares the changes in college attendance between the pre- and post-policy periods in schools that did and did not have a testing center in the school building before the ACT policy. The idea is that schools without a testing center will experience slightly larger increases in ACT-taking because of the mandatory ACT policy than will schools with a pre-existing center. In this way, any differential changes in college enrollment after the policy between the two groups of students are likely due to the effects of the policy because other happenings that might occur simultaneously—like other statewide education reforms—are assumed to affect both types of schools equally. He also matches the test-center and non-test-center schools so that they are similar in demographics and other observed features.
His results provide reason to both cheer and jeer. First, before the policy, 56 percent of students took the ACT; afterwards, it was 91 percent. This is particularly evident among low-income students (those on free-and-reduced-price lunch) whose ACT-test-taking rates more than doubled from 35 to 85 percent. Second, he finds that, prior to the policy, large numbers of low-income students didn’t take the ACT even though they would have scored high on college readiness. Specifically, he shows that for every ten poor students taking the college entrance exam and scoring as college ready, there are an additional five poor students who do not take the test but who would score as college ready if they did (a 50 percent jump). Yet he also finds pretty small increases in enrollment at four-year institutions (roughly 2 percent), though those increases are nevertheless concentrated among boys and poor students. Finally, he estimates that at a cost of less than $50 per student, requiring the ACT (or a test like it) is far less expensive than other policies to boost college enrollment, such as inducing students to attend college via offering large sums of college assistance—though obviously these students may still need financial help. The policy is still too recent to see if there are increases in degree completion as a result.
The study’s conclusion is worth summarizing: Simply requiring and paying for all students to take a college entrance exam can substantially increase the share of poor students who score at the college-ready level. But we still need to do a lot more to get these qualified, disadvantaged kids through the college doors.
SOURCE: Joshua Hyman, “ACT for All: The Effect of Mandatory College Entrance Exams on Postsecondary Attainment and Choice,” Education Finance and Policy (Summer 2017).
Using data from Tennessee, North Carolina, and Washington State, a 2017 study published in the Statistics and Public Policy journal examines how teachers of various levels of effectiveness impact student achievement. Researchers analyze multiple years of educator data, using as many data points as were available for each teacher.
Not surprisingly, the authors find that the distribution of teacher effectiveness resembles a bell curve. As Figure 1 demonstrates, educators who are nearer to the middle of the curve have similar effects on student achievement, regardless of which percentile the teachers fall into. The impacts of those in the 45th and 55th percentiles are quite close, for example. This is not, however, true of those at the tail ends of the bell curve—teachers who are very bad or very good. Compared to more average educators, the impacts of those in the 2nd and 12th percentiles, for instance, are markedly different, with the bad-but-not-as-bad teachers producing much better student results. And the same goes for those at the high end. Students educated by teachers in the 98th percentile are much better off than their peers whose teachers fall into the 88th percentile.
Figure 1. Gains in student achievement associated with gains in teacher effectiveness
Source: Dan Goldhaber and Richard Startz, “On the Distribution of Worker Productivity: The Case of Teacher Effectiveness and Student Achievement.” Statistics and Public Policy (2017).
These findings have important implications for teacher policy, argue the study’s authors. From a student outcome standpoint, it might be much more cost effective to invest in efforts that concern teachers at the tail ends of the performance spectrum—the bottom and top 10 percent, perhaps—than implement policies meant to improve every teacher.
What this means for the real world is that districts might consider moving away from expensive teacher-workforce-wide strategies like professional development—which cost on average $18,000 for each educator per year yet does not lead to systemic improvement in teacher effectiveness—and moving toward policies that dismiss, reject, or improve the very worst educators, and retain the very best. States and districts are often complaining about their levels of funding and searching for more. Being smarter and more discerning in which policies they choose to implement is an important counterpart to that.
SOURCE: Dan Goldhaber and Richard Startz, “On the Distribution of Worker Productivity: The Case of Teacher Effectiveness and Student Achievement.” Statistics and Public Policy (2017).