Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How to improve charter school performance

Charter schools performed about as well (or, more accurately, as poorly) on the whole as other public schools on last year's statewide student assessment (SAGE).
Of the 89 charter schools listed in SAGE testing data released Monday by the Utah Office of Education, 34 had proficiency rates higher than the state average in all three test subjects, 36 were below the state average in all subjects and 19 were both above and below the state average, depending on individual test subjects.
I suppose that's better news than if charters had under-performed, but it's nothing to cheer about.

There are two aspects of the charter school movement that, in theory, should help charters as a whole outperform other schools.  Those aspects are parental choice and taxpayer accountability.

In theory, letting parents choose their child's school should help better match the strengths of the school with the needs of individual students, which ought to lead to at least some improvement in overall academic performance (assuming that what parents want is for their children to score better).  One reason we don't see large choice-driven differences between charters and district schools is that Utah's district public school system also has a lot of parental choice built-in.  Parents can essentially choose any school in the state for their children, district or chartered, in or out of the district.  That choice is important and good to have in Utah system-wide.

What's missing in both public and charter schools is taxpayer accountability.  While parents can (and do) leave charter schools whose academic performance isn't up to snuff, charters, sadly, have been like their public school counterparts in avoiding real accountability by closing failing schools.

If the bottom ten percent of charter schools were closed, then academic performance statewide would increase.  If students in those schools went back to average district schools or charters (assuming that those schools get better results by providing better education), those students would be better off.  If failing charter schools were replaced by even average charter schools instead, the charter system would be vastly outperforming the public system.

But failing schools of all varieties stay with us, and that means mediocrity reigns.

Monday, October 27, 2014

If SAGE truly measures proficiency, then comparisons are irrelevant

The education world is sounding defensive now that SAGE test results have been released.  Last year's "proficiency" scores were much higher than this year's, but, cautions everyone, (including Interim State Superintendent Joel Coleman) "the results aren't comparable" to the prior year's results, because the test was so different and was measuring different things.

"Our new standard is ‘on track for college and careers;' it is no longer ‘has mastered course content,'" Coleman said in a press release.

That's all well and good, but 41 percent proficiency sucks.  This test says that schools aren't putting the vast majority students "on track for college and careers."  That's a real problem.  Defensiveness about comparisons to last year offer no defense at all to the fact that performance in absolute terms was so low.  I don't think anyone will look at these results and think, "Gee, education must be a lot worse than it was before, since the scores on a new test dropped so much."

The establishment is right on this--comparisons are futile.  But that doesn't excuse 41 percent proficiency in language and 38 percent in math.

Looking at this data, one might wonder if the assessment was really poor at measuring progress, but the fact that there's no defensiveness about that, indicates to me that public education isn't meeting its own goal of preparing students for life after school.  So, let's not distract the conversations with complaints about comprability and let's get down to the business of improving educational quality.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A la carte education

How customizable should public education be?  In some states, you can go to the public school you're assigned to, and that's it.  In others, you can choose a charter or another neighborhood school.  Utah really is a leader in allowing students to tailor their education. We have very open ruels regarding enrollment, even allowing students to choose between schools within districts, across districts, or charter schools.  The state has about 30 accredited online education options, including those in charters and districts.  The Statewide Online Education Program allows students to attend one school most of the time, but then take classes at other schools at a distance.

Now comes a proposal that would greatly expand the a la carte nature of public education, allowing students to order off the vast menu of public education options.  Rep. Brian Greene's bill would create a pilot program to provide a small number (1,000) of students an Education Savings Account that they could use to pick and choose which classes they want to take from which source to fully customize the educational options to their goals, pace, and interests.

I'm, of course, all for such customization. I'm completely unpersuaded by UEA President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh's claim that "We cannot afford" to provide educational choices to families because multiple "systems" cost too much money.  She and those system-firsters like her have a fundamental misunderstanding of public education.

They think that students are the product of public schools and that society is the customer. As long as that mentality leads the way, the needs of the families and children in public schools will be subservient to what politicians and lobbyists think are in The System's (that is, their own) best interests.  Families and children are the customer in public schools.  And they come first.

Monday, October 13, 2014

UAPCS is approved as Mentor

Today UAPCS announced that it had been selected as the recipient of the state's Charter School Mentoring program funding.  The Association will now be the official training and support arm of the  State Charter School Board.  This is a wonderful development.

Utah's charter schools will now start seeing some real funding and some real expertise put toward training and supporting the state's charter schools.

New Supe

Brad Smith, until about right now the Superintendent of Ogden School District, will lead Utah's public education system as its new super, after a contentious vote of the board that gave him the board's majority by a single vote.

Smith, also a former board member at Ogden, rankled education establishment-types when the district opted out of negotiating with the Ogden branch of the UEA and instead made individual teaching offers to teachers.  At that time, only a small handful of teachers declined the district's offer, though since that time, about half the teachers have left the district.

Is that cause for concern?  Not on its face.  The education establishment needs some real shaking up.  When it's shaken, people who want to maintain the status quo for their own sake will be upset, make noise, and may leave.  That's a good thing.  I've never met the man, however, so I suppose it's possible he's just a bad boss and no one likes working for him.

Here's hoping that the former is the case.  Let's shake things up at USOE and within Utah's school districts. Let's have those who are in it for themselves decide that now is a good time to retire.  Then let's help a remade Office and Board of education really focus on gathering relevant data and using it to prod all schools to focus on student achievement.

While Smith is reputed to be a charter school supporter, this process won't be an easy one for charters either.  Our movement as a whole is also not focused enough on the collection of relevant data and increasing student achievement.  Don't expect Smith to ignore charters in his quest to improve Utah's public education system. Charters need improving.  Let's take the market-based incentives that are part of charters, pair that with strong leadership and a focus on student achievement, and then help failing schools improve or have them taken over by more successful models.

Good luck, Superintendent Smith. You've got my high hopes and support.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Utah's student assessment system sucks

The State Charter School Board declined to adopt academic performance standards in large part because the state does not have a consistent and effective system of student assessment.  In the two months during which the proposed standards (sent out to all schools about two weeks ago) were drafted, the system of assessment changed again.

I supported school grading under the theory that being held accountable for student outcomes would entice the education establishment and politicians to develop a system that could actually measure student growth over time.  You know, measure things that schools are graded on.

Unfortunately, that hasn't happened as the establishment's response has been to say, "You can't hold us accountable," instead of, "We need to be held accountable to actual data."

Just what I was afraid of

The State Charter School Board engaged in a discussion today about how to handle things if a school falls below the standard of any part of the Board's financial performance standards.  Chair Tim Beagley said that schools should be placed on warning status by failing to meet even one of the standards. (The standards were initially drafted such that the vast majority of schools failed at least one standard--often the occupancy costs standard.  The state has not released how schools fell in the formally adopted standards.)  Beagley also said that if the standards are important enough to measure, they are important enough to hold accountable.

This trend is what I worried about. In drafting the standards, the message was always that the standards should serve as an "early warning" sign for charter schools whose performance are falling below the "best practices" that are encompassed in the standards.  But standards really are standards, not best practices.  And that's the problem.

When you turn best practices, like having occupancy costs at 28% of revenue or lower, into standards that you are put on warning status for not meeting, It is possible to spend more on your building and still have no financial problems.  It's a question of priorities.  In fact, it is the best practice to have facility costs below that standard.  But about 40 percent of schools don't.  Many of those are in great financial shape, falling below standard only in a year when there are large facility expenses.  Some, like Mountainville, just have expensive buildings, fall outside the facility standard, but make up for it by spending less in other areas or raising more local revenue.

It would be silly to put such a school on a warning status, when they are doing well financially in the standards (cash on hand, debt covenants, audit findings) that are more than just "best practices."