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Charter school expansion in Missouri coming soon?

February 23, 2012

Missouri lawmakers are considering a bill that would expand charter school authorization statewide while creating more stringent standards.  KMOX St. Louis reports that the bill has been revisited after many critics claimed that the original authorization bill would create more under-managed charter schools in a state where two charters in St. Louis closed unexpectedly last year.

The new schools would be overseen by the state board of education; currently schools can only be sponsored by an institution of higher learning or the Kansas City or St. Louis school districts.  No word yet on what Kansas City residents and educators think of the plan, after another bill that would dissolve their school district after losing its accreditation passed out of senate committee.

Some critics expressed concern that expanding charter schools would open the door for private management companies to run charter schools and funnel state funding to themselves.  It’s difficult to nail down the profit margin of private, for-profit management organizations; the Charter School Insights blog once estimated 10-14%, which is a tidy take for an average per-pupil expenditure of more than $10,000 nationwide.  Any law passed in Missouri will likely include some very specific requirements for financial transparency, as well as for evidence of student improvement and performance outcomes.

ESEA Waiver update: who is NOT applying?

February 22, 2012

While the majority of states have either applied for or intend to apply for the US Department of Education’s waiver from ESEA requirements, there are a few that are holding out.   While 11 states applied during the first round of requests, another 28 expressed their intent to apply during the latest round. As of February 21, 2012, 26 States and Washington D.C. have submitted their intent to request ESEA Flexibility through this waiver process. So, what about the other 11 states?

California, Pennsylvania, and Texas are among the 11 that have indicated that they will not apply for the waiver at this time, citing cost, local control, and politics as the rationale for not requesting flexibility around the ESEA requirements.  Nebraska stated that they are simply not prepared to apply for the waiver at this time.  After reading some of the state applications from the initial round, it is easy to see how Nebraska and others would find the requirements daunting.

In terms of cost, California estimates the total statewide cost of implementing the waiver to be between $2 and $3 billion.  Such “jaw-dropping” costs are related to adoption and transition to college- and career-ready and Common Core Standards and the associated assessments and professional development;  implementation of a differentiated accountability, reward/recognition, and support system; and development and implementation of teacher and principal evaluation systems.  However, the Department noted that some of the costs could be offset by eliminating  Choice with Transportation and Supplemental Educational Services and the requirement for Title I schools to set-aside 10 percent of their budget for professional development.   While California is still uncertain whether they will apply for the waiver, the State Superintendent has made it clear that, “…one top-down decade is enough.”

Texas is more concerned about the loss of state and local control that would accompany the waiver, specifically the adoption of the Common Core Standards and a possible national assessment and educator evaluation system.  While adoption of the Common Core Standards and participation in one of the common assessment consortiums is not a prerequisite for approval of a state’s waiver, demonstration that a state’s standards and assessments are rigorous enough to ensure “college- and career-readiness” is.  It will be interesting to watch the US Department of Education’s response to Puerto Rico, Minnesota, and Virginia, who will be applying for the waiver in the second round but do not intend to fully adopt the Common Core or participate in the consortium.

That leaves us with the political reality that all this work could be for naught if a new administration is elected in November or if ESEA is actually reauthorized.  Pennsylvania has decided instead to request a change to its Accountability Workbook to freeze its Adequately Yearly Progress targets for two years.  While Pennsylvania is also worried about losing state and local control, the concern about shifting gears once again, after investing time and money in meeting the requirements for the waiver, is very real.

So, are the waivers worth it?  There are certainly benefits, such as expanding Title I Schoolwide eligibility to more schools, freeing up funds by eliminating Choice with Transportation and Supplemental Educational Services, providing more flexibility in the allocation and transfer of funds,  ending the requirements for improvement plans for non-highly qualified teacher, and allowing 21st Century Community Learning Center funds to be used outside of non-school hours and when school is not in session.  However, as Michael Petrilli and Jim Stergios point out, flexibility in adopting a forward-thinking accountability system, which is at the heart of NCLB, seems to have been overlooked.  In fact, some argue that the waivers may even be a step back.

Alternative education programs – “shopping mall schools” and more

February 21, 2012

Much has been discussed in the past decade about alternative routes to certification for teachers; alternative routes to graduation for students, not so much.  Alternative education has long been considered the only way for students who have constantly failed at school, or who have been expelled, to receive a diploma.  In many cases, even those diplomas have been stigmatized by their classification by districts or states.  The GED is the most recognizable alternative graduation program, but districts have recently been much more interested in these programs as a way to increase graduation rates in districts.  Moreover, due to the emphasis on students graduating with their cohorts (read: on-time), students are transitioning to alternative education programs earlier in their educational careers.

On February 13th, NPR broadcast a story on “shopping mall schools”, alternative education programs housed in shopping malls and other retail centers intended to help students who have, for whatever reason, not been successful in the traditional school environment.  These programs often rely on e-learning curricula and flexible schedules to meet the life needs of students.  The story notes that many critics of these programs have more concerns about the location rather than the implementation and outcomes.

A 1999 report by Tobin and Sprauge of the Oregon School Study Council provides an overview of alternative education programs, including research-based strategies and suggestions for implementing new alternative programs.  In 2006, the Urban Institute published a similarly-focused report.  In a 2008 article in the Journal of Educational Research, Kim and Taylor used a critical theory approach to explore the effectiveness of a particular alternative program and found that, though it re-engaged previously underserved students, it did not provide an equivalent educational alternative to traditional schooling.

Key Questions:

  1. How does your school, district, and state identify and classify students who are at-risk of graduating late or not at all?  What interventions are available for those students?  At what point do they become candidates for alternative education programs?
  2. What alternative programs are available in your community?  On what conceptual framework are they based?  What curricula and pedagogy do they use?  Do they differ significantly from traditional education programs?
  3. How are the outcomes of alternative programs evaluated?  Are they equal in rigor and effect to traditional programs?  Are they significantly different from traditional programs?

Dropout age: what should it be, how much does it matter, and is there a better way?

February 17, 2012

Of the several big-ticket education issues taken on by President Obama’s late-January State of the Union address, the one that cried out loudest for ed policymakers’ careful thought and innovative answers was his proposed requirement to keep all students in school until age 18.  Though President Obama’s simple equation—     

                       [# of students considering dropping out at sub-18 bar] 

                                                      [option to drop out before age 18]

                      ______________________________________                      

                                    [higher # of post-secondary-ready graduates] 

—results in a difference all educators would like to see, America’s dropout problem requires a much more complex calculus.  Some reports, after all (like this one, from the Rennie Center), cast considerable doubt on the idea that legal dropout ages are even the most crucial factor in determining graduation rates. 

Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz, who published a 2010 report on the dropout problem, offered this nuanced view in The New York Times: “It’s symbolically and strategically important to raise the age to 18,” he said, “but it’s not the magical thing that in itself will keep kids in school.” 

Speaking in the same article, University of Toronto economics professor Philip Oreopoulos, agreed, urging schools to employ a “carrot and stick approach”: offsetting the stricter attendance rules by “providing wider curriculum options that might interest [the students forced by law to stay].” 

This, in other words, is where the ideal, clean equation gets complicated. 

In case it’s not enough that schools will bear the financial burden of enforcing such a requirement (and to fit President Obama’s proposal, fully 29 states would need to shift: only 21 states and the District of Columbia currently have age-18 compulsory attendance laws in place), they may also, to make their adjusted rolls work, have to entertain the possibility of expanding curricular options to accommodate reluctant students’ interests.

To some, this last idea is the part that makes the least sense.  After all, if uninterested students are forced by statute to stay in school and schools must prop up such students’ participation with content-thin/interest-high coursework, what good is the extra time in school anyway?  Though they can “wait out” their diplomas, will they actually be more prepared for post-secondary life than they would have been if they’d been allowed to drop out at 16 or 17?  At the Core Knowledge Blog, Robert Pondiscio: “What’s the value of a diploma that is conferred by coercion?  And where’s the win in forcing kids to stay in ‘dropout factory’ schools against their will and where they get seat time and nothing of use of relevance?” 

Later in his post, Pondiscio yields the floor to Michael Goldstein, founder of Boston’s MATCH charter school, who offers a completely fresh take on the dropout issue.  The best solution, Goldstein suggests, would be to actually allow disconnected students to drop out more freely, then spend our energies on creating the best plans to educate them when/if they’re genuinely motivated to learn.  [Reading the post in its entirety is highly recommended.  Click above Core Knowledge Blog link to access.] 

Though Goldstein’s is an idea few would wave around in public, I appreciate his fresh take and hope it inspires others to think creatively about their schools’/districts’/states’ dropout issues.  Simply, the answers we continue to lob at such issues, like raising legal dropout ages, structuring more engaging programming (often slowing down true academic momentum across all students), building intricate pyramids of support (only to have many students drop out anyway), etc., are most times financially unsustainable and educationally fruitless.

Fewer students had to pass exit exams to graduate last year

February 9, 2012

The Center on Educational Policy publishes an annual report on high school exit exams; the report for 2011 was released in mid-December.  The report focuses on the impact of the current emphasis on college and career readiness.  Some highlights:

  • 65% of all high school students were required to pass an exit exam to receive a diploma in the 2010-11 school year, down from the previous year, due to changes in state policies.
  • At least 16 states plan to replace their current exit exams with exams developed as part of one of the Common Core Standards state consortia.
  • Nine states offer or administer one or more ACT assessments; five use the PSAT; two states use state-developed assessments.
  • Within the Midwest, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio, and (beginning in 2012) Oklahoma require students to pass state-mandated exit exams; Missouri requires students to take the assessment, but may receive a diploma without passing it.
  • In the Midwest, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, and North Dakota require students to take a college readiness test, such as the ACT or SAT, while in high school.
  • Some states, including Indiana and Missouri, also require end-of-course exams. States using end-of-course exams typically test in more subjects than states using comprehensive exit exams.
  • Nationwide, students of color and students from low-income families are more likely to be impacted by exit exams.

Readers should note that exit exams are not necessarily the same as state assessments mandated by federal regulation; Texas administers a separate assessment to comply with No Child Left Behind.  This does not include those districts which have received special waivers from state and federal governments to administer their own assessments in place of state NCLB assessments; for example, the McPherson, KS school district uses the ACT in place of the Kansas State Assessment.

Key Questions:

  • What assessments are required by your state?  Must students pass one or more in order to graduate?  How are students prepared for those assessments?  How do those exit exams impact curriculum and school programs?
  • Does the state or district require students to take a college readiness test?  If not, are there funds available to furnish those assessments for students to any extent?
  • If there is no exit exam requirement in your district, either comprehensive or end-of-course, what measures are place to ensure that students have mastered course and graduation outcomes?

Autism spectrum disorders: how schools can respond to upcoming changes in definition and diagnosis

January 31, 2012

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) affect, on average, 1 in 110 children in the US according to the Centers for Disease Control.  Schools have struggled to accommodate the diverse needs of children diagnosed with ASD, partly due to the rapid increase in diagnoses, partly due to the wide range of characteristics, difficulties, and strengths represented in that group.

Writing for CNN Health, Dr. Charles Raison likens ASD to hypertension, another medical diagnosis that affects people along a range, but, which, unlike ASD, is described as a true continuum of severity.  Autism and related disorders, according to the DSM-IV, have a set of twelve “bright line” indicators, six of which must be met to qualify for a diagnosis under the guidelines.

The DSM-V, an in-process revision of the “bible” of psychiatry, includes an effort to revise these indicators in such a way as to reduce “false positives”.  However, in this effort, many are concerned that some children who struggle with ASD-like characteristics may not receive a diagnosis, thus denying them the assistance their advocates say they need to be successful.

For schools, it is easy to view this as a welcome change: fewer students for whom the law requires service.  This, however, is a short-sighted view of bare compliance and denies students with characteristics that “look like autism” but may not carry an official diagnosis.  With proper pedagogy, instructional and program design, and system-wide supports, students’ struggles can be turned into strengths that support their personal and academic achievement.

Key questions:

  1. How does your school serve students with autism spectrum disorders?  Are there provisions in place to ensure their placement based on their actual needs and characteristics, rather than firm criteria which is followed strictly?
  2. Are settings for students with autism designed to challenge students’ strengths while providing support for their struggles?  How many students with ASD but demonstrate high cognitive function are still in segregated settings?
  3. What ways are designed into your school’s interventions to provide support for students who struggle with autism-like characteristics, but who do not have a diagnosis, or have not previously qualified for special education?  Are 504 teams and student intervention teams trained to recognize those issues and what flexibility are they afforded to address those issues?

How schools approach poverty – what is true, what is supported by research, and what works

January 25, 2012

In recent years the work of Ruby Payne, found in A Framework for Understanding Poverty, a popular text among teachers has come under considerable criticism from scholars. Debunking Ruby Payne’s Framework of Poverty a blog created in May of 2011 is hosted by ten such scholars. Liana Heitin, writing in the January 5, 2012 edition of Education Week: Teacher, in her Teaching Now, editorial blog entitled “A Payne-ful Discussion,” wonders if it is possible to have a discussion about the issue of teaching kids in poverty in spite of the controversy surrounding Payne’s work. Comments on the blog include responses from Paul Gorski and P. L. Thomas, both critics of Payne’s.  The work of Gorski, Thomas and other scholars from the “Debunking” blog are compelling and convincing to this contributor.

There is a long-standing controversy regarding Payne’s work, particularly regarding whether the “Framework for Poverty” unjustly stereotypes students and fuels a “deficit perspective”.  Yet it is held in high regard by many educational practitioners. The result is day-to-day decisions of these practitioners become de facto policy based upon a body of work lacking in rigorous scholarship and evidence. Due to the overwhelming influence of Payne’s work, bringing educational practitioners’ views of poverty into line with current scholarship will require considerable unlearning and retraining in the United States. The work of Gorski, Thomas and other scholars from the “Debunking” blog is a hub for proponents of this current work into serving students in poverty.

Key questions:

1.   How does your school identify students in need, including those in poverty, and make plans to support them?

2.   Do school staff believe that all students, even those considered “at-risk”, are capable of high achievement?  How do staff and school leadership design their organization and curriculum to support all students’ academic achievement?

3.   What is the language employed: in conversations, both formal and informal; in school documents such as IEPs; and in professional development?  Does that language reflect a focus on student deficits or student strengths?