Arnett: Better tests will yield better accountability in education



Editor’s note: This is the sixth and final post in our series on the future of parental choice and accountability.

The issue of standards and test-based accountability has been an important topic in education reform for more than a generation. With the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001, it became a central component of our education policy. In the intervening years since Congress signed NCLB into law, we have been able to observe both its benefits and its flaws.logo bigger

Test-based accountability has been extremely important for raising awareness of the achievement gaps between low-income and minority students and their more affluent peers, and it has led to notable gains in closing those gaps. But at the same time, critics have virulently attacked high-stakes testing for putting undue performance pressure on teachers and students, and for incentivizing schools and teachers to narrow their curriculum to the exclusion of non-tested subjects. Aside from these debates, there has been a simultaneous and separate strand of education reform centered around educational choice options – such as charter schools, voucher programs, tax credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and more recently, full-time virtual schools and online courses – that move beyond school choice to allow any student within any school to have nearly unlimited educational options. These moving pieces need to be at the forefront of our minds as we ask ourselves how accountability should evolve over the next decade.

As a helpful starting point, we should reframe the way we look at these challenges. Rather than viewing school choice as a reform issue separate from school accountability, we should recognize that choice is a powerful mechanism for providing bottom-up accountability. Kathleen Porter-Magee, a policy fellow at the Fordham Institute, expertly conveyed this point in a recent blog. She argues that we need to “broaden our conception of accountability to include parental choice” and that “parent choice provides a much-needed counterbalance to the potential excesses of standards-driven reform.” Parental choice gives us a way to hold schools accountable for the aspects of education that are hard to quantify, such as the quality of non-academic programs, school culture, and the relationships between teachers and students.

To make this kind of bottom-up accountability work, parents need good information about their choices. In this regard, standardized assessments are actually an important mechanism for informing parents. Continue Reading →

redefinED roundup: de Blasio to the rescue? Vouchers increase property values and more news

MondayRoundUp_magentaAlabama: Judge Gene Reese issues a stay on his own injunction against the Alabama Accountability Act school choice program (, Montgomery Advertiser, redefinED, American Federation for Children). The decision to lift the injunction takes uncertainty away from low-income families ( Jeff Reed, public relations director for the Friedman Foundation, says school choice thrives in the state even with the lawsuit (One News Now).

Arizona: Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, and Glenn Hamer, the association’s vice chairman, say charter schools provide some of the best education in the state and are still looking to improve (Arizona Republic).

Connecticut: Education leaders in Bridgeport drop the idea of suing the state over approving six charter schools in the area after the city attorney says the district has no basis for a lawsuit (Stamford Advocate).

Delaware: Lawmakers debate education savings accounts (, Choice Media, Education Week). The News Journal editorial board supports school choice if parents pick charter schools but not if parents want vouchers or education savings accounts to choose private schools.

Florida: The Florida PTA, state teachers union and Florida NAACP urge the governor to veto a school choice bill that includes expansion of tax credit scholarships (the scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog). (Tampa Bay Times, Orlando Sentinel).

Idaho: Terry Ryan, president of the Idaho Charter School Association, says over 19,000 children attend charter schools in the state, making support for it a winning proposition for elected Republicans (Idaho Education News). Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: School choice, digital learning, special needs and more

School choice. Florida’s major school choice legislation officially lands on the governor’s desk. Tampa Bay Times. Sentinel School Zone.

florida-roundup-logoDigital learning. Pasco Schools plan to expand a competency-based blended learning program after seeing promising results. Tampa Tribune.

Turnarounds. Struggling schools subject to state intervention see mixed results in their first year of turnaround efforts. Tampa Bay Times.

Testing. End-of-course results are expected later this morning. School Zone. Schools prepare for life after the FCAT in math and English. Tampa Tribune.  Marion County has a six-part plan to raise scores. Ocala Star-Banner.

Special needs. District officials complain about inadequate funding for students with disabilities. Palm Beach Post. The parents of a special needs student who was slapped by his bus driver speak out. Pensacola News-Journal.

Teacher quality. Duval schools struggle to keep some of their most highly rated teachers. Florida Times-Union.

Continue Reading →

Aldis: Better facilitating the school choice marketplace



Editor’s note: This is the fifth post in our series on the future of parental choice and accountability.

The last 20 years indicate that simply creating a school choice program does not guarantee widespread improvements in student achievement. Just come to my home state of Ohio. Despite a rapidly growing number of students exercising school choice (in its variety of forms), statewide achievement on NAEP has been largely flat for a decade, and 40 percent of the state’s college-bound high-school graduates require remedial coursework as freshmen.logo bigger

The next generation of accountability should focus on identifying and improving upon those areas where the education arena is not operating as a well-functioning marketplace. Here are some areas of focus to get us started.

Ensure there isn’t a monopoly

In order to utilize market forces to drive quality, it’s essential that there isn’t an all-powerful monopoly that dominates the market. The growth of school choice in many places has weakened the monopoly that traditional school districts have enjoyed for generations, but there are still too many places (especially suburbs and small towns) where the only publicly funded educational option is the assigned district school. For consumer choice to drive quality, it’s essential that public policy enable the number of school options to continue to grow and ensure that all students have a variety of choices. While private school choice options will undoubtedly be a part of this growth, the choice ecosystem must continue to expand and should include inter-district and intra-district open enrollment, virtual and hybrid schools, and charter schools whenever possible.

Level the playing field

While additional educational options are undeniably important, school choice policy must be done in a way that levels the playing field, particularly when it comes to funding. The battle for equitable funding is a given and must be fought for. Long-term, the education system should move toward a weighted student funding system where the money follows the child. The politics of passing school choice programs has given us a host of choice programs where the traditional public school district keeps a significant amount of the per-student funding for those who exercise a school choice. This lessens the market effect as it ameliorates the need for the district to change and improve as the true cost of the parent’s dissatisfaction isn’t felt by the district. If the money followed the student to the new school, the school of choice would be able to compete on more level terms and the traditional public school would have even more reason to improve its services to keep (or win back) students.

Make high-quality information widely available

An efficient market requires that consumers have high quality information to make purchasing decisions. One of the benefits of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been the increased amount of school performance data. Parents have never had more information available – ranging from proficiency and value-added data to overall school letter grades – in order to choose the right school for their child. That being said, the quality, content, and ease of use of the information available can still be improved. There isn’t a perfect delivery system (yet) of this information, and state departments of education historically have done a poor job of presenting user-friendly information to parents.

All is not lost though, as GreatSchools seems to be on the right path. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Special needs, career academies, testing and more


Special needs. Financial difficulties continue for a Polk County private school for  children with autism. Lakeland Ledger.

Career academies. A Palm Beach student attending a charter school’s medical academy travels to Sweden for a symposium on the human brain. Palm Beach Post.

Pushback.  An Orange County teacher gets national attention for deriding a “toxic culture” in public schools and casting “private education companies” as “the supervillain.” Orlando Sentinel.

Testing. Pinellas officials seek a review of FCAT scores. Gradebook.

Closures. The Orange school board faces parents irate over a potential school closure. Orlando Sentinel.

Student behavior. Palm Beach students engage in more risky behavior than their peers in other districts. Sun-Sentinel. Yet teen smoking is down there, and also in Broward. Sun-Sentinel.

Facilities. The Pinellas school district looks to sell or lease idle school buildings. Tampa Bay Times. Polk County prepares to revamp its high school cafeterias. Lakeland Ledger.

School choice. It’s apparently among the hot topics at public forums throughout the Lee County school district, though the Naples Daily News does not elaborate much on that point.

Continue Reading →

Patricia Levesque: The future of education is choice, customization, mastery



Editor’s note: This is the fourth post in our series on the future of parental choice and accountability.

Should public, charter, online, and private school choice programs be subject to the same accountability system? This issue came home to Florida this year, with some lawmakers questioning whether tax credit scholarship students should be required to take annual state tests. The rationale is not unreasonable: one system of accountability would allow all sectors of schools to be compared, which would make it easier to determine success and failure. But these arguments simply focus on how we hold different school systems accountable, not who schools should be accountable to: government officials or parents.logo bigger

So how should things look in 10, 20 and 30 years? If we truly want to create a student-centered system of education that holds all schools accountable to parents, the future will have three key components: choice, customization, and a focus on mastery. Public education needs to transform from a system that funds schools to one that funds the child, where parents take control of their child’s education and direct funding towards the schools, programs, and services that best fit their needs.

Ten years ago, school choice meant being educated in Building A or Building B. Today, a student can attend a traditional school in the morning, classes at community college after lunch, and take AP Calculus on a laptop after basketball practice. This student is taking a customized approach to education – but only within the confines of what the public school system allows. By giving parents control over their child’s education funding, this type of customization won’t be dependent on the permission of a forward-thinking school system; it will be based on the universe of available options and the prerogative of individual families.

At a very small scale, this shift is already happening in Arizona through the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs). Designed originally for students with disabilities, ESAs deposit 90 percent of a student’s public school funding into an account, which can be used for multiple educational costs, such as school tuition, online courses, tutoring, therapies, or college savings. This program allows parents to customize their child’s education and, for the first time, creates an incentive for parents to judge K-12 services not only on quality but also on cost effectiveness. Florida recently became the second state to pass an ESA program and many states are sure to follow.

As the definition of public education grows, so will the way we view accountability.

Regulations would be in place to ensure funds are spent in authorized ways. The government could establish guidelines for authorized uses of education dollars, much like it currently does to determine what institutions of higher education are authorized for state and federal financial aid, what can be purchased with food subsidies, and other areas of financial authorization. Arizona’s nascent ESA program is already beginning to tackle these issues, where the state’s departments of education and revenue oversee the distribution, approved expenditures, and oversight of participants.

Ultimately, parents would be the best judges of whether dollars were spent efficiently and effectively. As school choice pioneer Milton Friedman once said, “Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.”

Most disagreements about academic accountability today arise from differing views on how to define school quality. Literacy and numeracy continue to be the core functions of school – and thus, the focus of state accountability systems. Yet, many say it is unfair to limit labels of school quality to just a few subjects. The problem is: if you ask 10 people what should be included, you will likely get 10 different responses. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Special needs, career education, school boards and more

Special needs. A new option could soon replace a closing charter school for students with autism. Tampa Bay Times.

florida-roundup-logoCareer education. Hillsborough maritime studies programs position students for high-demand jobs. Tampa Bay Times.

Accreditation. Miami-Dade could soon become the largest accredited school district in the country. Miami Herald.

Dual enrollment. An award-winning graduate could start college as a junior. Palm Beach Post.

Digital learning. Junior Achievement goes digital. Tampa Bay Times.

School boards. The Naples Daily News looks at fundraising in local school board races. A Manatee school board challenger defends his residency to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Gov. Rick Scott’s appointee to the Sarasota school board proves controversial. Herald-Tribune.

Continue Reading →

Robin Lake: Market-based accountability won’t be enough



Editor’s note: This is the third post in our series on the future of parental choice and accountability.

Like it or not, many cities are moving toward nearly universal school choice. In cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, nearly all families have the opportunity to choose among district schools, charter, and private options, and few children attend an assigned neighborhood school. Parents are more empowered than ever to actively decide on a school and, hopefully, insist on better outcomes.logo bigger

But this explosion of choice brings serious challenges. It’s extremely important for schools to be held accountable to families, through the force of the market, but it’s not enough. In “high-choice” cities, parents with the least education and those whose children have special needs are struggling to understand and access their choices. Sometimes each school has different application timelines and processes. Schools aren’t always equipped for, or welcoming to, students with special needs. To make choosing even harder, each of the dozen or so agencies chartering schools in each city has different standards and accountability requirements.

Some neighborhoods have far too many schools, and parents are aggressively courted with cash and other rewards—but academic quality is rarely at the forefront. In other neighborhoods, no new schools want to locate so parents have no real choices.

When choice is unleashed in distressed, high-poverty communities, provider freedom to open schools and parent choice are not enough to accomplish the goals of free and excellent public education for all. Someone must be responsible to create new options for the most disadvantaged, and schools must be called to account when they don’t live up to their promises. That doesn’t happen often enough in places like Detroit and Cleveland, where the many charter authorizers have little incentive to close schools.

This challenge will grow when students are able to use public funding to purchase online courses, take courses in private schools, and spend part of their day in a community college. By 2025, more schools may serve as sites for a variety of online student learning programs rather than places where teachers deliver traditional lessons in classrooms.  Learning environments will, hopefully, allow students to move through material as quickly as they can master it, and assessments will keep pace with differentiated learning.

These are exciting possibilities, but it will be all the more difficult to make sure that disadvantaged students don’t get left behind. If we do nothing to rethink accountability, we will move even further away from being able to say exactly what provider is responsible for a student’s outcomes and the less aggressive and knowledgeable parents will be even more lost. I see three main challenges in making sure choice works for all children: Continue Reading →