Archive | January, 2011

What school choice contributes to systemic improvements in education: A spotlight on Florida

I’ve spent the previous two days discussing accomplishments in Jeb Bush’s tenure as Florida’s governor while highlighting that, despite Bush’s forceful leadership and insistence that high-poverty, minority children would succeed, the state has failed to implement all the systemic improvements the governor envisioned.

But one significant change that did occur during Bush’s first term was the creation of three publicly funded private school choice programs.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) and the McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities both were established in 1999, while the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students passed in 2001. The Florida Supreme Court ruled the OSP’s private school option unconstitutional in 2006, but the McKay and tax credit programs today currently help a combined 53,000 students attend more than 1,300 qualified private schools.

The McKay and tax credit programs positively impacted the achievement of low-income students during Bush’s first term by creating more competition, which research suggests benefitted the students who remained in their public schools, and by reducing the concentration of low-income and disabled students in inner-city public schools.

The competition benefit generated by the tax credit program was documented recently by David Figlio and Cassandra M.D. Hart, two Northwestern University researchers. They reviewed seven years worth of Florida test data and found the competition created by the tax credit scholarships had a positive impact on public school students’ achievement. No matter what measure the researchers used – the proximity of private schools to public schools, for instance, or the density of private schools within five miles of a public school – the effect generally was the same. Continue Reading →

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Reject the failing schools model of choice. It does nothing but divide.

For several months, the political leadership of Pennsylvania has shown increasing bipartisan support for school choice, particularly for scholarships that provide private learning options for low-income students. That trend continued Tuesday when Democratic Senator Anthony Williams and Republican Jeffrey Piccola released the details of a plan that would give public or private school choices to low-income students from low-achieving public schools. The criticism from leaders such as outgoing Gov. Ed Rendell was largely predictable. But the opposition at least gives us the opportunity to ask the question: Is it more politically advantageous to design a voucher or tax credit scholarship plan tied to failing public schools or one that simply empowers disadvantaged families?

RedefinED host Doug Tuthill would argue for the latter, and he did just that in October before a Pennsylvania Senate committee hearing testimony on the future of school choice in the state. In three years, the Williams-Piccola proposal would open the scholarships to all-low-income students, but initially only those attending schools judged as persistently failing would be eligible.

Why do legislators believe it’s politically necessary to tie a voucher to school performance? Florida nearly stands alone in the substantial Democratic support backing tax credit scholarships for low-income children and vouchers for special-needs students, and neither program requires a public school to be labeled a “failure.”

“Limiting parental empowerment to failing schools is an imprecise way to identify low-income students who need a different learning option, and it encourages parental empowerment to be framed as a public versus private school issue,” Doug said in testimony to Pennsylvania senators. “The best schools in the world fail some students. These students need school choice, too.”

Here are Doug’s full comments to the senate committee: Continue Reading →

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Robinson: New education paradigms require a transformation of public education

The Cooperative Catalyst team this morning introduced the uniquely creative mind of Ken Robinson, whose animated presentation on new education paradigms made its way on YouTube in October and has since enjoyed more than 2.4 million hits. 

Calling for a radical rethinking of public education today, Robinson argues that we’re “educating people out of their creativity” in an education system “modeled on the interests of industrialization, and in the image of it.”

“Schools are still pretty much organized along factory lines — ringing bells, separate facilities, specialized into separate subjects,” Robinson says in his presentation. “We still educate children by batches, we put them through the system by age group. Why do we do that? Why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are.”

To paraphrase, we still falsely assume that children have identical needs, and we assume one school works for all students. A top-down, assembly line model. The critique is similar to one made by sociologist James S. Coleman 50 years ago in The Adolescent Society:

The same process which occurs among prisoners in a jail and among workers in a factory is found among students in a school. The institution is different, but the demands are there, and the students develop a collective response to these demands. This response takes a similar form to that of workers in industry …

Author Zoe Weil, in her post on Cooperative Catalyst, takes Robinson’s arguments one step further and proposes five solutions to develop new education paradigms. As Coleman did decades ago, Weil calls for a reassessment of the way schools are financed and structured so that education can flourish in an environment of choice:

Restructure how schools are paid for and create real school choice for every family; public funding for schooling based on zip code is inconsistent with our core values. Providing equal and adequate funding for every child that can travel with the child to any school will provide opportunities for creative school approaches to flourish and a variety of teaching and learning styles to meet the needs of each child.

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Systemic change calls for empowering educators

In a recent Washingtonpost.com guest column, Michael Martin, a research analyst at the Arizona School Boards Association, asked why large reading gains in Florida from 1998 to 2002, years corresponding with Gov. Jeb Bush’s first term, began to taper off after 2002.

My answer is that while Bush was able to convince school districts to make improving achievement for high-poverty and minority students a priority during his first term, he failed to make the systemic improvements necessary to sustain large yearly achievement gains for low-performing students.

Florida’s public education system is a highly regulated, command and control, assembly-line system that underutilizes its human capital. Educators, parents and students are the system’s greatest assets and yet their knowledge, skills and motivation are undervalued and underutilized. The solution is to move from a one-size-fits-all assembly line to a public education system organized around entrepreneurship, customization, and continual improvement. In this new system, educators will be empowered to create and manage schools, and parents will be empowered to match their children with the schooling options that best meet their needs.

Consider the story of Yvonne C. Reed, a former public school teacher in St. Petersburg, Fla., who retired from the county school system after 34 years and opened her own private school two days later. She reached out to an economically depressed, and predominately black, community in south St. Petersburg and built a reading curriculum designed to get young students coming from impoverished households reading at grade level – and staying there. While she kept tuition low, dozens of her students wouldn’t benefit from her lifetime of enterprise and skills if Florida leaders hadn’t allowed low-income students a publicly funded private alternative through a tax credit scholarship.

That gives us a glimpse into a new system that gives even poor families, to borrow a recent phrase from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “a menu of great options.” Instead of allowing the political needs of federal, state and local elected officials to drive education policy and practice, the needs of students will drive the system and parents will vote with their feet. If their children’s needs aren’t being met at a school, they’ll move to another school.

When Bush was first elected he had to use the tools at his disposal, so he used more government regulation– from ending social promotion to grading schools – to drive more learning gains for low-performing students.

But more government regulation will not drive higher student achievement over the long-term. A well-regulated, market-driven system is the key to sustained excellence in education.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss how school choice impacted the achievement of low-performing students during Bush’s two terms and how that impact continues today.

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Friends and foes of Jeb Bush overlook the real reason for Florida’s gains

Supporters and critics of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s education reforms have long missed the mark. In 1998, when he was first elected, Bush used the tools available to him, most notably the bully pulpit, to drive gains in student achievement, but he did not make the systemic changes necessary to sustain these large yearly gains. He’s advocating for those systemic improvements today and making progress, but we’re not there yet.

One of the former governor’s more sophisticated critics is Michael Martin, a research analyst at the Arizona School Boards Association, who recently analyzed Florida’s reading gains on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) from 1998 to 2009, and issued this challenge:

People who claim various programs were responsible for the improvement in NAEP test scores in Florida over the past decade must explain why their improved NAEP reading scores primarily occurred among the lowest scoring students while other student scores largely stagnated, and why those increases were most dramatic from 1998 to 2002, diminishing afterward.

Based on what I saw and heard in schools and school districts during this period, the primary reason for these initial reading gains was Bush’s leadership. Beginning with his election in 1998, he used his political power to pressure school districts to improve the basic literacy skills of low-income and minority students, and the districts responded. Educators are good people who care about children and want them all to succeed, but the message from the top has never identified the achievement of low-income and minority children as a top priority. That changed when Bush took office.

After he turned up the heat, talk about improving the literacy skills of low-performing students started dominating formal and informal meetings in school districts across the state. Even Bush’s harshest in-state critics admit no other leader in Florida history put as much focus on improving the achievement of low-income and minority students as he did.

Initiatives such as eliminating social promotion, grading schools and bringing more professional development into high-poverty schools reinforced Bush’s commitment to increasing the achievement of low-performing students, but it was the governor’s drive and forceful personality that convinced schools and school districts to reorder their priorities.

Martin asked why the impressive reading gains from Bush’s first term tapered off in his second. I’ll address that in a post tomorrow.

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Quality Counts and the new economic reality on agenda for roundtable talk

Edweek.org will be live-streaming an all-day roundtable discussion of education in a new economic reality, surrounding the publication’s release of its latest Quality Counts report.

The event will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and, according to Education Week, “will investigate the impact of the recession, federal stimulus, and broader economic conditions on the nation’s schools.”

The speaker lineup includes:

  • Noelle Ellerson, Assistant Director, Policy Analysis & Advocacy, American Association of School Administrators
  • Bethany Little, Chief Education Counsel, U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
  • Karen Hawley Miles, President, Education Resource Strategies
  • Thomas B. Parrish, Managing Research Scientist, American Institutes for Research
  • Gerard Robinson, Secretary of Education, Virginia
  • Andrew Rotherham, Founding Partner, Bellwether Education Partners
  • John Scanlan, Deputy Superintendent, Rochester City School District
  • Matthew Stanski, Chief Financial Officer, Prince George’s County Public Schools

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Rhee: Elevate teaching, empower parents, spend wisely

Parental empowerment and high-quality options will serve as the nexus of Michelle Rhee’s policy agenda for her new organization, StudentsFirst.

Rhee unveiled the proposal today, breaking down what StudentsFirst referred to as “a call to action and a roadmap for state and local lawmakers …” Anticipating the polarization her proposals are sure to bring, she prefaced that the agenda “has assembled policies that will improve public education without regard to their point of origin on the political spectrum.”

Sure to start some dialogue is her embrace of “real choices” for parents, even those that publicly fund private options:

There simply are not enough good options to meet demand, and there will not be until policy-makers take bold steps to expand access to high-quality schools. StudentsFirst will stand for parental choice, recognizing that we can only increase the scale of quality schools through a mix of strategies. Parents must be empowered to place their children in the learning environment that will work best for them, in a high-quality traditional public school, a district-run magnet, a charter school, a private school, or even a virtual school. StudentsFirst will be agnostic about school choice vehicles as long as the schools deliver results for students.

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The cameras focused on Rhee and Scott, but the school was really the star attraction

When Michelle Rhee visited a Miami charter school on Thursday to announce that Florida would be the first state to partner with her Students First initiative, it may have been easy for most observers to focus on the star power of the event and not the venue. But the reason that Rhee and newly elected Florida Gov. Rick Scott chose the Florida International Academy for their joint announcement is the same reason why the school’s waiting list for seats has more than 200 names.

The school reaches out to an impoverished community, where all students are children of color and nearly all qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and it delivers on results. In 2002, the state of Florida gave the school a failing grade, based on its dismal core performance in reading and writing. Today, that school has an A grade with a nearly identical demographic, and the majority of its students are now meeting high standards in those subjects.

How it got there exemplifies what Rhee and Scott and President Obama and Arne Duncan have been insisting on: Customizing a public education that best meets a child’s needs, and giving disadvantaged children more educational alternatives than they might otherwise have.

For Florida International, that means following the state’s curriculum standards but constantly redesigning the instruction based on its students’ needs, targeting teaching strategies to the individual student, if necessary, and revisiting those strategies every week, according to Principal Sonia Mitchell, who spoke with redefinED Friday. Continue Reading →

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