Does choice create quality?

Accountability doesn’t mean “government-imposed standards and testing” argues an education manifesto signed by leaders of the Cato Institute, the Friedman Foundation, the Heartland Institute, the Center for Education Reform and others. “True accountability” comes from “parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs. Parental choice, coupled with freedom for educators, creates the incentives and opportunities that spur quality.”

Despite his strong bias toward school choice and parental prerogative, Robert Pondiscio is “not quite ready to act upon the argument that choice, not standards, is the best guarantee of excellence, he writes on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences.

I taught in the lowest-performing school in New York City’s lowest-performing district. There was choice available to the families we served. The original South Bronx KIPP Academy was a few blocks away. There were other charter schools and good Catholic schools, too. In my school, meanwhile, our principal knew all the families by name, spoke fluent Spanish, and parents appreciated that we were respectful and nice to the kids. Our motto was written in big, bold letters on the playground wall: “Job Number One: Keep Everyone Safe!” Job Number Two, directly under it, read “Get a Good Education.”

Those were the de facto standards that arose at my school. One hundred percent of our students were safe. Sixteen percent could read on grade level.

Choice and standards need each other, writes Kathleen Porter-Magee. Not all parents want no-excuses, data-driven instruction.” In Washington, D.C., parents can choose Montessori charters, Catholic charters, Hebrew immersion, Reggio Emilia, No Excuses, and on. “All are held accountable to the same standards, but real innovation is not only possible — it is encouraged and thriving. In fact, that innovation is possible not in spite of the standards but because of them.”

“Having standards to which all publicly funded schools are held accountable doesn’t strike me as an undue burden,” writes Pondiscio.

On This Week in Education, Paul Bruno takes on the faulty logic of the “other people’s children” argument. Reform critics charge reformers push for ideas — such as the “no excuses” model — that they wouldn’t want for their own kids.

. . . it seems plausible that different kids have different educational needs and that the children of prominent reformers are likely to be systematically different than other children, particularly the least-privileged children who tend to be the focus of reform efforts.

That makes sense to me — if low-income parents have a choice of different school models, as in Washington D.C. 

LA charters raise math, reading scores

Los Angeles charter students gain 50 more days of learning in reading and 79 days in math than similar students in district schools, concludes a study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). Low-income Hispanic students did even better, gaining 58 additional days of learning in reading and 115 more days in math.

Citywide, 48 percent of charter schools have significantly larger learning gains in reading, while 44 percent do so in math, the 2014 CREDO study found. Thirteen percent of Los Angeles charter schools have results that are significantly worse than their district school peers in reading and 22 percent perform worse in math.

Urban charters serving low-income students show the strongest gains in recent research.

Gifted kids are left behind

Gifted children are left behind if they don’t have “education-minded, ambitious, pushy,” connected and confident parents, writes Checker Finn in Defining Ideas. High-ability students need someone to “work the system” or buy a place in suburban or private schools, he writes.

Smart poor kids seldom have sufficiently pushy parents. Their neighborhood schools are apt to concentrate on educating low achievers.

Poor parents may not know what their children are capable of and probably lack the resources to purchase supplemental courses, educational software, weekend and summer programs, and much else that similarly gifted youngsters from more prosperous circumstances are apt to have showered upon them.

Worry less about elitism and more about identifying and educating high-potential children — including those without pushy parents, Finn argues. Even then, “surprisingly little is known about what strategies, structures and programs work best in educating high-ability youngsters to the max.”

Should college aid be linked to readiness?

Pell Grants help low- and moderate-income students go to college, but graduation rates are low. Should Pell dollars be targeted at college-ready students? That would lower the college-going rate significantly.

A new private scholarship fund will help “dreamers” — undocumented immigrants brought here as children — attend low-cost colleges to pursue work-oriented degrees.

Charters grow, but so do wait lists

Charter schools are growing steadily — as are charter wait lists — reports the Center for Education Reform’s 2014 Survey of America’s Charter Schools.

Sixty-one percent of charter schools serve predominantly lower-income students. Charter students are much more likely to be black and somewhat more likely to be Latino than other public school students, according to the survey and National Center for Education Statistics data. Sixty-three percent of charter students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch compared to 48 percent of public students.

The populations of charter students and public school students appear to be comparable with respect to special education status, the proportion of English language learners, and gifted and talented students.

Educational approaches include: college prep (30 percent), STEM (8 percent), Core Knowledge (16 percent), Blended Learning (6 percent) and Virtual/Online learning (2 percent).

On average, charter schools receive 36 percent less revenue than traditional public schools, the survey finds. “Unlike other public schools, most do not receive facilities funds,” which means they must spend operating funds to rent space.

The percentage of charters offering an extended school day increased from 23 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2012.

More charters are paying teachers based on performance, the survey reports. 

Casey: 66% of 4th graders don’t read well

Sixty-six percent of fourth graders — 80 percent of those from low-income families — aren’t proficient readers, reports the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count data book.

Massachusetts has the most proficient readers, while New Mexico and Mississippi have the worst outcomes. 

Suit challenges teacher tenure

Teacher tenure and seniority rules deny students equal access to an adequate education argues a California lawsuit. Testimony started yesterday in Los Angeles on Vergara vs. CaliforniaStudents Matter, a nonprofit advocacy group, filed on behalf of nine students and their families.

The lawsuit aims to protect the rights of students, teachers and school districts against a “gross disparity” in educational opportunity, lawyers for the plaintiffs said.

. . . Teachers unions have vigorously defended tenure, seniority and dismissal rules, calling them crucial safeguards and essential to recruiting and retaining quality instructors. The lawsuit, they contend, is misguided and ignores the true causes of problems in education, such as drops in state funding.

Minority and low-income students are far more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers, the lawsuit argues.

Undereducated and assumed incapable

In Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, Jill Lepore tells the story of Ben Franklin’s little sister. “Benny and Jenny” exchanged letters for more than 60 years. Jane also kept a book recording the birth of her 12 children — and the eventual deaths of 11 of them. 

Despite her intelligence and ingenuity, Jane’s life was “as grinding as Ben’s was glorious,” writes Lisa Hansel on Core Knowledge blog. Jane had little opportunity to learn because of her sex, writes Hansel. Many believed in women’s “innate and inexorable lack of rational, scholarly, or political abilities.” 

Lepore excerpts a 1790 essay by Judith Sargent Murray, which observes that a two-year boy is not “more sage” than a two-year-old girl. 

But from that period what partiality! how is the one exalted, and the other depressed, by the contrary modes of education which are adopted! the one is taught to aspire, and the other is early confined and limitted. As their years increase, the sister must be wholly domesticated, while the brother is led by the hand through all the flowery paths of science. Grant that their minds are by nature equal, yet who shall wonder at the apparent superiority, if indeed custom becomes second nature; nay if it taketh the place of nature, and that it doth the experience of each day will evince. (Lepore quoting Murray, page 230)

Imagine the lives of a siblings born in 2014, one raised in a low-income family, the other by high-income parents, Hansel writes. “For century upon century, women were undereducated and assumed incapable. I wonder, how many of our least advantaged youth, like Tony, are suffering that same fate today?”

College isn’t just about social mobility

Poor kids are told college is the key to social mobility, writes Andrew Simmons in The Atlantic. What about learning?

One of his 12th-grade students, “Isabella,” wrote a college admissions essay about wanting to pursue a career in oceanography.

The essay’s core concerned the rhetoric that educators had used to motivate her and her peers—other minority students from low-income communities. . . . Since elementary school, teachers had rhapsodized about the opportunities that four years of higher education could unlock. Administrators had rattled off statistics about the gulf in earnings between college graduates and those with only high-school diplomas. She’d been told to think about her family, their hopes for her, what they hadn’t had and what she could have if she remained diligent. She’d been promised that good grades and a ticket to a good college would lead to a good job, one that would guarantee her financial independence and enable her to give back to those hard-working people who had placed their faith in her.

Thankfully, Isabella decried this characterization as shortsighted and simplistic.

Simmons teaches black and Latino students in Los Angeles. Educators repeatedly tell them “that intellectual curiosity plays second fiddle to financial security,” he writes.

His students care a great deal about money because their families have so little of it, he writes. They fantasize about well-paid careers, but don’t understand the work they’d do as a lawyer or doctor. “According to ACT’s College Choice Report from November 2013, 32 percent of students pick a college major that doesn’t really interest them,” lowering their odds of completing a degree.

College should be “sold” to all students as an opportunity to experience an intellectual awakening. . . . we need to proactively teach our most marginalized students that honing an intellectually curious frame of mind is as essential to leading an invigorating working life as ambition and work ethic.

How many  high school students have an intellectual passion (or interest) they want to pursue in college? Isabella will get scholarships to pursue her dream. (If she earns a PhD, the money’s good.) But the B and C students really do need to worry about qualifying for a decent job without going into debt.

Why I let my daughter get a “useless” college degree gives the upper-middle-class parent’s perspective. The daughter is majoring in American Studies “with a focus on the politics and culture of food at a small liberal arts school.”

My daughter majored in American Studies with a minor in Creative Writing, worked as a book publicist, earned a law degree and now works as a literary agent.

Obama: Expand college opportunity

“We want to restore the essential promise of opportunity and upward mobility that’s at the heart of America,” President Obama said at a White House summit on higher education. “If we as a nation can … reach out to [low-income] young people and help them not just go to college, but graduate from college or university, it could have a transformative effect.”

The administration asked colleges and universities to encourage low-income students to apply to challenging schools, start college preparation earlier, expand college advising and improve college remediation.