Brookings report: Big variations in school district performance deserve scrutiny

It shouldn’t be a secret that some Florida school districts perform better than others, despite more challenging demographics. Yet for years, it’s been a fact hidden in plain sight. Now, though, a leading think tank is giving the Legislature and the Florida Board of Education a compelling reason to take a closer look.

Brookings reportA new study from the Brookings Institution, released this morning, relays what FCAT data has been trying to tell us. Some Florida districts are chugging ahead despite a heavier load of high-poverty kids, while some with lighter loads lag. Some are making sustained gains relative to the pack, while others progress in fits and starts. The differences are puzzling, fascinating and, if you happen to live in an underperforming district, maddening. Yet they’ve been given scant attention by researchers, reporters, policy makers and advocacy groups.

Stepping into the vacuum, Brookings’ Brown Center on Education Policy analyzed a decade’s worth of test data for fourth- and fifth-graders in Florida and North Carolina. It controlled for race, income and other variables. And it came away with two findings: 1) School districts account for only a small percentage of the total variation in student achievement – 1 to 2 percent. (Teachers account for about 7 percent). But 2) the differences between districts are still so great that by the end of the school year, a kid in a higher-performing district can be nine weeks ahead – a quarter of a school year ahead – of a like student in a lower-performing district. Over time, the accumulated deficits would obviously be staggering.

“We suggest that a variable that can potentially increase productivity by 25% is important,” the researchers wrote. “These are differences that are large enough to warrant policy attention.”

It’s not just Florida and North Carolina that should be crunching more numbers. As the report notes, there are roughly 14,000 school districts nationwide. In this age of accountability and choice, parents routinely compare schools, and all kinds of think tanks compare states. But districts? Not so much.

The Brookings researchers pointed to districts that showed distinctive patterns relative to other districts – they were either consistently high performing, consistently low performing, dramatically rising or dramatically tanking. In Florida, the districts that fit that bill were Broward, Duval, Orange and Collier, respectively. These districts weren’t necessarily the ones that made the most pronounced pattern in each category. And the researchers offered a number of cautionary caveats, including, again, that they only looked at data for two grades, and that comparisons were made “relative to their demographic odds” – not to a set standard like FCAT pass rates.

But still, the trend lines punctuate the point: District performance deserves a spotlight. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: parent trigger, school security, Common Core & more

Parent trigger. Supporters of parent trigger, including Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, hold a press conference in an attempt to debunk myths. Sunshine State News, The Buzz, Gradebook, StateImpact Florida, Pensacola News Journal, Sarasota Herald Tribune.

Charter schools. Lawmakers appear lukewarm to Gov. Rick Scott’s call to let charter schools expand at will, reports the Palm Beach Post. Pinellas school board members oppose the parent trigger bill and legislation that could turn unused district buildings over to charters, reports the Tampa Tribune. Parents at a middle magnet in Lake Wales worry their kids might not be able to attend the city’s charter high school, reports the Winter Haven News Chief.

florida roundup logoSchool closings. The Brevard school board should accept help from the Canaveral Port Authority to rescue three schools slated for closing, writes Florida Today’s Matt Reed. Pasco Superintendent Kurt Browning backs off plans to shutter an aging school in the wake of opposition, but the building has serious problems, reports Gradebook.

School security. A consultant recommends armed officers at every Hillsborough elementary school. Tampa Bay Times. More from the Tampa Tribune. The Sarasota County sheriff tells district officials he’s going to remove deputies from Sarasota city schools, reports the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

School spending. New Manatee Superintendent Rick Mills is proposing to eliminate 188 positions. Bradenton Herald. Continue Reading →


School vouchers ruled constitutional by Indiana Supreme Court

From the Indianapolis Star:

Public tax dollars may be used to fund private school tuition under Indiana’s school voucher program, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled today.

“We hold that the Indiana school voucher program, the choice scholarship program, is within the legislature’s power under Article 8, Section 1, and that the enacted program does not violate either Section 4 or Section 6 of Article 1 of the Indiana Constitution,” the justices wrote in the 5-0 decision.

The ruling, on a teachers union-supported lawsuit from 2011, ends the legal challenge to the school voucher program at the state level. The case could be made again in federal court. But in 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a similar program in Ohio, making any further appeal a long shot.


Fordham: Florida group wrong to resist state testing for school voucher students



The Fordham Institute took Florida’s McKay Coalition to task Monday for a survey the institute says “stoked emotions” about state tests at private schools that serve disabled students on state vouchers. In a post by parental choice program director Adam Emerson, the Institute chided the coalition for resisting academic assessment for the McKay Scholarship, which this year serves more than 26,000 students with learning disabilities and physical limitations.

“Virtually no accountability measures … exist in most of the nation’s special-education voucher programs, including the largest such program in the United States, Florida’s McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities,” Emerson wrote. “And the coalition of schools that oversees the McKay program appears to want to keep it that way — and it’s wrong to do so.”

Fordham remains a strong national supporter of parental choice, including charter schools, school vouchers and tax credit scholarships. But the institute also has called on the learning options to be held to account for the achievement of their students.

In its recent report, “Red Tape or Red Herring,” Fordham looked at the participation rate of private schools in voucher and tax credit scholarship programs in 11 states and surveys from 241 private schools that do and don’t participate, and found that testing requirements are not a significant deterrent. Only a quarter of the schools ranked state-required testing as a “very” or “extremely” important factor. The response rate among participating schools was 73 percent.

McKay countered with its own yes-or-no survey of Florida private schools participating in the state scholarship for disabled students. Its response rate was 40 percent. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: charter schools, parent power, Will Weatherford & more

Charter schools. Tampa Bay Times: “Stop the giveaway to charter schools.” A charter school company is interesting in buying property at one of more of the three schools that the school board recently voted to shut down next year, reports Florida Today.

florida roundup logoWill Weatherford. StateImpact Florida talks to him about his education views – and his own nontraditional education background.

Parent power. Lawmakers are showing strong, bipartisan support for legislation that would give the parents of special needs students more say in their children’s education, but groups like Fund Education Now are opposed. Miami Herald.

Testing. Valerie Strauss’s Answer Sheet devotes space to a Florida case involving the FCAT and a student who is profoundly disabled.

Teacher pay. In a meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, Gov. Rick Scott stands by his across-the-board pay plan.

Teacher conduct. Florida Times Union: “An Atlantic Beach Elementary School teacher who used depictions of minstrel caricatures of African-Americans, blackface and a lynching for a second-grade coloring assignment last month said she has used the material for the past three years.” Continue Reading →


Course choice: putting school choice on steroids – Michael B. Horn, podcastED

horn2Perhaps the most far-reaching education legislation in Florida this year isn’t getting much attention, overshadowed by bills like the parent trigger. But buzz or no, the quietly cruising “course choice” proposal is on the leading edge of a revolution in online learning.

It takes school choice and “puts it on steroids,” said Michael Horn, a leading thinker on digital education, in the redefinED podcast below.podcastED logo

The course choice bills in Florida are sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. They would allow providers from virtually anywhere to create state-approved courses in K-12 and higher ed, and students from virtually anywhere in Florida to take them.

Together with other online learning advances, the bills will have repercussions on how, when and where students learn; how they’re tested and funded; and how school districts fare against growing competition from charter and private schools. Things like course choice and MOOCs, Horn said, “just blow up the geographic … scheme we’ve had for where someone goes to school.”

“So actually, wherever you are, you can get the best class for you. And there will always be that for you. Because you may love the MIT course. I may love the one that has a couple Sal Khan videos … But why shouldn’t we have that best experience for us?”

This doesn’t spell the end for school districts, Horn said. In fact, it could give them a boost. Continue Reading →


Florida roundup: charter schools, private schools, the Florida model & more

Charter schools. The Tampa Tribune suggests a compromise is in the works on bills dealing with charter schools funding, facilities and accountability. Senate education leaders want a broader discussion about a proposal to give charter schools dibs on unused school buildings, reports Gradebook. Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano lists support for “for profit charter schools” as another example of the Legislature not caring about popular opinion. A St. Lucie County School Board member raises the idea of converting a soon-to-be-shuttered school into a charter, reports

FL roundup logo snippedPrivate schools. The ones in Marion County are hurt by the recession, but the pain is mitigated by McKay and tax credit scholarships, reports the Ocala Star Banner. Unpaid volunteer teachers come to the rescue of a Brandon private school that experienced an enrollment dip. Tampa Bay Times.

Magnet schools. The Miami-Dade school district is looking to create a new MAST magnet school on one of the FIU campuses, but it hinges on funding from local communities. Miami Herald.

Parent trigger. The Panama City News Herald writes up Friday’s vote in the House Education Committee.

The Florida model. Education Commissioner Tony Bennett and Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, are among those participating in Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s education summit, reports the Kennebec Journal. More from WABI TV. Continue Reading →


redefinED roundup: Parent trigger in Georgia, vouchers in Tennessee, tax credit scholarships in Idaho & more

Texas: Sen. Dan Patrick’s school choice bill makes an ambitious attempt to expand charter schools, lifting the statewide cap on the number of charters and requiring school districts to sell or lease underutilized classrooms or other facilties to charter operators (The Texas Tribune). More on the bill,  including possible concessions by Patrick on the charter cap ( American-Statesman). Patrick cries in committee as he advocates expansion of school choice (Associated Press).

MondayRoundUp_magentaLouisiana: A $5 million federal training program offers $50,000 grants to teachers to help turn around failing schools. The program will serve either as a stop-gap while more charter schools ramp up to provide students with better learning options, or as an alternative approach to fix a failing system with the selected district schools operating similar to charters (Education News). A mother’s struggle to find a quality school for her sons points to a key failure in New Orleans’ lauded choice-based system: options abound, but they’re not always reputable ones (The Lens).

Arkansas: A Senate committee votes down a proposal for a tax credit scholarship program (Associated Press).

Florida: A parent trigger bill clears a third House committee and heads for a House floor vote (redefinED). Charter school lobbyists focus this legislative session on winning state money for maintenance and facilities, or, the right to use empty space in traditional public schools free of charge (Tampa Bay Times).

Tennessee: A voucher bill forwarded as a broader alternative to Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal is withdrawn (Associated Press). But the debate continues over how many children the program should serve (Memphis Commercial Appeal). Pressed with the need for charter operators in his district, one state lawmaker is considering a proposal to allow for-profit charters; Rep. John DeBerry says the idea is to help well-meaning operators with the business-side of running charter schools (The Tennessean). The Walton Family Foundation is investing $1 million to help create four new charter schools in Memphis (Memphis Business Journal).

Georgia: A parent trigger bill is pulled amidst concerns from Republican lawmakers (Atlanta Journal Constitution). Proposed legislation could force school districts to consider parent petitions to turn non-failing public schools into charters (Atlanta Journal-Constitution). A proposal to expand the state’s tax credit scholarship program clears a key House committee (Atlanta Journal Constitution). Continue Reading →