How many charters are just right?

ednext_XV_3_forum_img01How large a share of urban schools should be charters? asks an Education Next forum.

In dozens of U.S. cities, more than one in five students now attend charter schools. In New Orleans, nearly all public schools are charters.

D.C. Students Benefit from Mix of Charter and Traditional Schools, argue Scott Pearson and Skip McKoy, who serve on the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board.

Neerav Kingsland, former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, makes the New Orleans Case for All-Charter School Districts.

How to change teacher pay systems

William Taylor earns a hefty bonus for being a highly effective teacher in a high-poverty Washington, D.C. school.

William Taylor, 29, teaches math and coaches colleagues at a Washington, D.C. elementary school. Only 40 percent of his students start at grade level, but 90 percent end the year at or above grade level, reported Amanda Ripley in a 2010 Atlantic story on “what makes a great teacher.”

Before District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) revamped teacher compensation in 2009, Taylor was paid $42,000 a year.

In 2013, after seven straight years of extraordinary performance reviews Taylor received a base salary of $96,000, a $25,000 bonus for being a highly effective teacher in a high-poverty school, and a $10,000 award for outstanding teaching and dedication to his work.

Taylor no longer plans to leave the profession, according to Do More, Add More, Earn More. The report by Education Resource Strategies and the Center for American Progress looks at 10 school districts that have redesigned their teacher compensation systems to reward effectiveness and additional responsibilities.

The transition is challenging, writes Fawn Johnson on National Journal.

 The authors recommend, for example, that teachers be offered extra incentive pay for taking jobs in hard-to-staff schools or for taking on leadership roles such as department heads, curriculum writers, or principal interns. They suggest speeding up the salary growth for new, high-performing teachers such that they can reach the district maximum in 10 years or fewer. New hires will more likely be attracted to the job if they know they won’t be on subsistence wages well into middle age.

. . . Teachers on the old salary structure need to be transitioned into a new one that doesn’t automatically increase their pay for time on the job or for extraneous things like advanced degrees. The lowest-performing teachers need to stop getting raises. Period. These changes can be incredibly disruptive, especially in districts that need to cull a lot of “dead weight” teachers. (Yes, that happens.)

Teacher evaluation is the trickiest part.

Public schools for the rich

Fordham’s Metro D.C. School Spending Explorer looks at per-student spending at Washington D.C. public schools.

It also shows the relative wealth of each school’s attendance zone, writes Mike Petrilli, who lists the 25 richest elementary schools in the area.

Several years ago, Janie Scull and I identified several thousand of what we called “private public schools”—public schools that serve virtually no poor students. This is another way at looking at that phenomenon—public schools that are “public” only for families who can buy extremely expensive real estate.

Take Carderock Springs Elementary in Bethesda (Maryland). The average income of households in its attendance zone is almost $250,000 per year. Is this school really more “public” than an inner-city Catholic school serving poor minority children? The public spends $12,000 per child on the former and $0 per child on the latter. Tell me again why that’s fair?

In wealthy suburbs, affluent parents donate thousands of dollars to their children’s public schools, reports the New York Times.

In Coronado, Calif., a wealthy enclave off the coast of San Diego, for example, local education groups, which support about 3,200 students in five schools, raised more than $1,500 per student in 2010. These private funds helped pay for arts and music classes at all grade levels, sports medicine courses at the high school and a digital media academy at the middle school, where students are learning animation and designing buildings with 3-D printers.

By contrast, the combined fund-raising of groups affiliated with schools in the San Diego Unified School District — where the median household income is about two-thirds that of Coronado — amounted to $19.57 per student.

School-supporting nonprofits have increased, according to a new study.  Most states cap or redirect local property tax revenues to equalize public funding between affluent and poor districts, say researchers. Instead of raising property taxes, well-to-do parents donate money to their children’s schools.

Creating a school community

To write Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice, Sam Chaltain spent a year following two Washington D.C. schools, Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School and Bancroft Elementary School.

In both the charter and the district school, “he found caring teachers and administrators in vibrant schools who struggle to meet new standards with little guidance and at times little support,” reports the Washington Post.

Not everything can be measured, writes Chaltain. However, it’s “just as it is true that there are ways to measure aspects of teaching and learning that go a lot deeper than basic-skills test scores.”

My book about Downtown College Prep, a San Jose charter high school, also is titled Our School. Last week, I went to DCP’s 10th commencement ceremony, which honored both the class of 2014 and the pioneer class of 2004.

DCP, which has added two middle schools and a second high school campus, now has an alumni association and an alumni seat on the board. Graduates are raising scholarship money. When students visit California universities, they can talk to DCP graduates who are students there. Some DCP graduates have returned as teachers.

In low-income, Latino immigrant communities, DCP has made college-going the “new normal,” said Jennifer Andaluz, DCP’s co-founder and executive director.

Confused by Core tests

Kids have been field-testing new Common Core exams — and parents have been trying practice tests posted online. The verdict: The new tests are much harder — partly because of poorly worded questions.

Carol Lloyd, executive editor at GreatSchools, is a fan of the new standards, but worried about the test. She went online to try practice questions for both major common-core assessment consortia—Smarter Balanced and PARCC (the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers)—for her daughter’s grade.

Many of the questions were difficult but wonderful. Others were in need of a good editor.

A few, however, were flat-out wrong. One Smarter Balanced question asked students to finish an essay that began with a boy waking up and going down the hall to talk to his mother. Then, in the next paragraph, he’s suddenly jumping out of bed.

A PARCC reading-comprehension question asked students to pick a synonym for “constantly” out of five possible sentence options. I reread the sentences 10 times before I realized that no words or phrases in those sentences really meant “constantly,” but that the test-writer had confused “constantly” with “repeatedly.” Any student who really understood the language would be as confused as I was.

If these are the test questions they’re sharing with the public, “what are they doing in the privacy of my daughter’s test?” asks Lloyd.

Natalie Wexler, a writing tutor at a high-poverty D.C. high school, took the PARCC English Language Arts practice test for 10th-graders.  A number of questions were confusing, unrealistically difficult, or just plain wrong,” she writes.

Question 1 starts with a brief passage:

I was going to tell you that I thought I heard some cranes early this morning, before the sun came up. I tried to find them, but I wasn’t sure where their calls were coming from. They’re so loud and resonant, so it’s sometimes hard to tell.

Part A asked for the meaning of “resonant” as used in this passage:

A. intense B. distant C. familiar D. annoying

Looking at the context — it was hard to tell where the calls were coming from — Wexler chose “distant.”  The official correct answer was “intense.” Which is not what “resonant” means. 

Another passage described fireflies as “sketching their uncertain lines of light down close to the surface of the water.” What was implied by the phrase “uncertain lines of light.”

She chose: “The lines made by the fireflies are difficult to trace.” The correct answer? “The lines made by the fireflies are a trick played upon the eye.”

Wexler did better on a section where all the questions were based on excerpts from a majority and a dissenting opinion in a Supreme Court case about the First Amendment. “But then again, I have a law degree, and, having spent a year as a law clerk to a Supreme Court Justice, I have a lot of experience interpreting Supreme Court opinions,” she writes.

The average D.C. 10th grader won’t be able to demonstrate critical thinking skills, Wexler fears.

. . .  if a test-taker confronts a lot of unfamiliar concepts and vocabulary words, she’s unlikely to understand the text well enough to make any inferences. In just the first few paragraphs of the majority opinion, she’ll confront the words “nascent,” “undifferentiated,” and “apprehension.”

Most D.C. students “will either guess at the answers or just give up,” Wexler predicts.

Flash: Charters aren’t a silver bullet

Applying to Washington D.C. charter schools taught Conor Williams that school choice relies on chance. Lots of parents want to get their kids into the good charters. A lottery decides who makes it.

There are Hebrew, Chinese, and Spanish language schools. One promises Spanish immersion, discovery-based learning, and an emphasis on ecological sustainability. There are multiple Montessori charters in our area . . .

D.C. has some “great” district-run schools, but they’re open only to people who can afford million-dollar homes, Williams writes. So parents have turned to charter schools. “In 2012, there were more than 35,000 students on charter schools’ waitlists (though some were duplicates). There were only 77,000 students in the city that year.”

Charters’ lotteries are neutral, he writes. His “son, with his two highly educated, almost-middle-class, white parents” has no advantage “over his friend whose mother dropped out of high school and is raising her child alone.”

It’s not perfect. Savvy parents can “get around town” and apply to multiple lotteries, he complains. However, D.C. has unified its district and charter lotteries.  While “a handful of high-performing charters stayed outside the system,” parents can apply to most schools with one application.

The D.C. Council has considered letting charter schools give admissions preference to students who live nearby. As the city gentrifies, that could lock low-income families out of high-performing charters, Williams writes. What about weighted lotteries to give a preference to disadvantaged students?

He doesn’t mention helping good charters expand, so they can serve more students.

The headline says Williams “learned about inequality” but his conclusion is that charters are a “mild corrective to inequity” though not a “solution.” Not a silver bullet? Really! 

D.C. faces middle-school slump

As Washington D.C. gentrifies, more educated parents are sending their children to neighborhood elementary schools. But choosy parents aren’t choosing district-run middle schools, reports the Washington Post.

Ross Elementary in Dupont Circle has a long wait list for pre-k, but few fifth graders. Many D.C. charters start in fifth grade. Those who finish at Ross typically go to charters, private schools or the suburbs, reports the Post. “In the past three years, just one Ross fifth-grader out of 47 went on to attend the assigned public middle school, which many parents consider substandard.”

Among parents who send their children to a D.C. public school, 31 percent say they’d send a child to a DCPS middle school, 30 percent would seek a charter middle school and the rest say “they would look to private schools or leave the city.”

D.C. renovates schools, but kids don’t come

Washington, D.C. neighborhoods are gentrifying.  “Controlled choice” could integrate D.C. schools, write Sam Chaltain, Mike Petrilli and Rick Kahlenberg in a Washington Post op-ed. Should integration be a policy goal?

The school district is spending $127 million to renovate Theodore Roosevelt High’s 1932 Colonial Revival building, reports Washington City Paper. It will be a “palace.” But who will enroll? Most neighborhood students choose charter schools or a higher-performing district school not too far away. Unless the new building attracts more students, it will be more than half empty. 

Last year, more test-takers at Roosevelt scored “below basic” in math on the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System exam than at any other D.C. Public Schools neighborhood high school—45 percent, to fewer than 20 percent who scored “proficient.” In math and reading growth, which compare students’ progress to that of peers who started at the same achievement level, Roosevelt likewise comes in dead last. Fewer than half of entering Roosevelt 9th-graders graduate in four years.

Once poor and crime-ridden, the area around Roosevelt, Petworth, “is at the epicenter of D.C.’s gentrification wave,” reports Washington City Paper Educated middle-class professionals, often with young children, are moving in. Some poor families have been priced out.

The local elementary school improved dramatically and now has a wait list. But when children reach middle school age, savvy parents apply to charter schools or “follow convoluted feeder patterns to DCPS schools west of Rock Creek Park.”

When the two-year renovation is complete, Roosevelt High’s front entrance will be restored, flanked by  two more columned entrances to the arts and athletics wings. “The claustrophobic central courtyard will become a spacious, glass-topped atrium, and two new courtyards will be added to bring light into the building’s dark, 1970s-era additions.” A 1934 fresco is being restored. But who will go there?

D.C. charters outpace district schools

Washington D.C. schools are improving, but D.C. charters are improving even faster, writes Matthew Ladner on Jay P. Greene’s blog. National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) data compares general education (not in special ed) students who are eligible for a free or subsidized lunch and attend either charters or district schools.

Scores are up in both sectors, but D.C. charter students are more likely to score “basic” or above in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math. The spread is 19 percent for eighth-grade math.

DC charter 4

As urban charters grow, where’s the tip?

Urban students are choosing charters in growing numbers, according to a new report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Nationwide, one in 20 students now attend charter schools. In post-Katrina New Orleans, 79 percent of students attend charter schools. Detroit has hit 51 percent. Washington D.C. is at 43 percent. Flint, Mich., Kansas City, Mo. and Gary, Ind. each have 30 percent or more of students in a charter school. More than 10 percent of students are enrolled in charters in Philadelphia and New York City.

But charter competition hasn’t had the effect once expected, points out Andy Smarick, a former Bush administration official who now works at Bellwether Education Partners.

Ten years ago, he recalls, proponents of the nascent charter school movement came to a consensus: If charter schools could reach 10 percent of market share in big cities, the movement would reach a tipping point and create enough pressure to spur public schools to improve in order to compete for students.

“That tipping-point pressure never materialized the way I expected,” he said. “We have not seen districts drastically improve even when charter school market share gets to 25 percent.”

In the face of fierce opposition, charter schools”are proving to be the toughest, most enduring of all education reforms,” writes Paul Peterson on Ed Next.  “Charter schools are gaining in respect, numbers, and political adherents, mainly because they are digging deep roots in local communities.”