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Accountability Debate Taking Place on Different Planets

By Charles Barone, Policy Director

Today, at an event hosted by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a group of advocates and academics including Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford and Gene Wilhoit, formerly of the Council of Chief State School Officers, announced a "new approach on accountability and testing" (aka 51st state) that would, among other things, scale back annual statewide summative tests and increase the use of local assessments for purposes of accountability.

Weirdly enough, over at the Center American Progress, a new study issued today finds that it is districts much more so than states that account for what many consider "over-testing" taking place now in America's public schools. Which seems to suggest that the 51st state proposal is singling out the wrong level of government if what it wants to do is decrease the amount of testing. 

We should encourage local innovations in how we assess students. If that's what Darling-Hammond, Wilhoit et al. are trying to do, I'm all for it. But attempts to substitute myriad local tests for valid and reliable statewide assessments for purposes of accountability are just as bad an idea on a policy level now as they have been every other time they've been proposed.

If we revert to a patchwork of standards and assessments that vary according to political pressure, or societal and community biases, or simply the lack of local capacity to create valid and reliable tests, we will longer be able to make apples to apples comparisons about school performance. In turn, the schools in which poor and minority students are enrolled are likely to look better than they actually are. Badly needed investments in teaching and learning and in formulating and implementing fundamental reforms in chronically failing schools will then be at even greater risk than they are now. 

You don't have to take my word on whether or not we can make valid comparisons across schools with a bunch of new local assessments.

Back about a decade or so, an esteemed panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences (an organization that, to put it mildly, has never been accused of overzealousness when it comes to student testing) was tasked with answering that very question:

“Can scores on one test be made interpretable in terms of scores on other tests? Can we have more uniform data about student performance from our healthy hodgepodge of state and local programs?

And the result was:

“After deliberation that lasted nine months, involving intensive review of the technical literature and consideration of every possible methodological nuance, the committee’s answer was a blunt ‘no.’”*

Absent some huge shift in the technical and methodological literature, one would have to conclude this is no less true now than it was a decade ago. End of debate? Don't bet on it. There's much more to come.


*Michael Feuer “Moderating the Debate,” Harvard Education Press, 2006. 

USDOE Guidance on Equity A Big Step. But Some Provisions Raise Concerns About Political Will

by Charles Barone, Policy Director

Democrats for Education Reform applauds the U.S. Department of Education for the guidance it issued today to help ensure equal educational opportunity for all students. Resource equity is a key area where we, along with many others, have asked the Obama Administration to place greater emphasis. We're thrilled to see today's action. But we also have concerns whether there is the requisite amount of political will to ensure the plan presented today will ultimately result in real change. 

Continue reading "USDOE Guidance on Equity A Big Step. But Some Provisions Raise Concerns About Political Will"....

Bill Clinton's Remarks on Charters And Accountability - Some Good Points That Don't Quite Add Up

By Charles Barone, Policy Director

Earlier this week, former President Bill Clinton made waves when he criticized charter schools for "not living up to their promise." We wholeheartedly agree. In too many states, the lax state oversight of public charter schools cited by Clinton - one of the nation's earliest advocates for charter schools from either party and the primary force behind the 1994 enactment of the federal charter school program - has resulted in a public charter sector that performs significantly below its traditional public school counterpart.

The situation Clinton highlighted is not just bad for kids, it's bad for the charter movement. Far too frequently, charter school advocates have resisted efforts to implement robust accountability for public charters or to improve or restructure low-performing schools. This, in turn, has provided legitimate political fodder for those who oppose charter school expansion no matter how good a job they are doing.

Clinton rightly cited New Orleans, the only district in the nation where 100% of public schools are charters, and Rhode Island, where charter students gain the equivalent of a whopping 86 days of learning per year in reading and 108 days of learning in math compared to their peers in traditional public schools, as places where charters have proved better for kids than the schools in which, without the ability to choose a high-performing charter, they would otherwise have been forced to enroll.

Clinton also could have cited more than a dozen other states where students in public charter schools are gaining two weeks or more in reading and/or math each school year compared to their peers in traditional public schools. Or applauded charter networks like Achievement First, Aspire, KIPP, Mastery, Noble, Success and Uncommon that are getting amazing results and, with the help of a charter funding stream created in 2009 by President Barack Obama, are expanding and replicating. All are meeting the high standards that Clinton rightly outlined in his speech. 

Clinton made a couple remarks, though, that were at odds with the themes he sounded on charters. The first was praising New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for "his work on regulating charter schools." In the same speech, Clinton's admonished the crowd (and, to be clear, we think this is right on the money) that "If you're going to get into education, I think it's really important that you invest in what works." Yet we have seen no evidence that de Blasio has made any differentiation between successful and unsuccessful charters in his policies. Far from it.

Second, Clinton's comments on testing were similarly puzzling. Clinton said he's "not opposed" to student testing, but he thinks it should be limited. "I think doing one [test] in elementary school, one in the end of middle school and one before the end of high school is quite enough if you do it right.'" Not really. The ability of states to do the type of charter oversight Clinton called for will be severely hampered if they have to wait 3-4 years to see whether individual students are making adequate progress.

The period between 3rd and 8th grades is especially critical. Missing a year or two of monitoring student progress could mean standing idly by while students attending a failing school (traditional or charter) fall increasingly, and more irretrievably, behind instead of intervening in a timely fashion to get students out of a bad school and into a good one.

We applaud President Clinton for trying to strike a balance in the charter debate by focusing everyone's attention this week on the issue of accountability and oversight. This should be a reminder to Democrats that charter schools have strong Democratic roots and that there are positions Democrats can take on charters that lie between the poles of the unbridled support we see from some on the far right and the relentless opposition from some on the far left.

But what should be a shared goal for charters - that public investment be withdrawn when students are being ill-served and expanded when there's an approach from which more kids should benefit - needs to be be one we share equally for all schools. To do that, states need strong accountability systems. Administering fewer tests - a laudable goal - isn't the same as waiting years to get any information at all. If public officials are to have any credible chance of succeeding in what Clinton and we agree is one of their most important responsibilities, they - as well as parents and the general public - need to keep getting no less than annual updates on the progress of every student, in every school.

To paraphrase Clinton, for schools, charters and otherwise, who are kicking ass on the tests, we ought to be asking what they are doing right and doing a hell of a lot more of it. And because no child should have to wait to get a great education, we should be doing that as widely and frequently as possible.

New York City Pre-K Implementation Child Negligence

By Charles Barone, Policy Director

While entirely predictable, the fact that politics continues to be the overriding force in the rollout of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pre-K initiative is nonetheless disheartening. We've repeatedly expressed concerns that de Blasio's rush to fill as many pre-K seats as possible this fall - a rush that, make no mistake, is driven in no small part by a goal of maximizing the number of new dues-paying UFT members as soon as possible without regard to the impact on kids - would compromise quality and endanger children. As it turns out, our fears were well founded.

If you were, like many, off the grid at the end of August, you may have missed that the city’s comptroller Scott M. Stringer went public about the de Blasio administration’s failure to properly oversee contracts with pre-K providers. Stringer revealed that the Education Department had neglected to submit more than 70% of contracts for review. This isn’t just boring i-dotting and t-crossing green eyeshade stuff:

  • One vendor, for example, was approved despite having a former employee facing charges for child pornography.
  • Another vendor repeatedly failed to have its workers screened through the state’s central register of child abuse reports.

The mayor quickly slapped Stringer back and enlisted high-profile Democratic allies to do the same. Very little acknowledgement was given by anyone that Stringer’s concerns were legit. Former public advocate Mark Green, whom de Blasio beat in a race for public advocate that Green hoped would be his political comeback third term, criticized de Blasio for overreacting. But that’s about as far as any elected official chose to tread.

That doesn’t mean that the problems with NYC pre-K implementation are going away any time soon. Nor does it mean that the comptroller will stand down from taking on the mayor regarding the health and safety of preschool children.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported the inspections required for pre-K facility approvals are a hot mess in part because the comptroller’s office appeared to be setting a higher bar for children’s health and safety than the mayor’s office: “Raquel Pottinger, executive director of Alpha Academy in Queens, said that on Friday a city inspector walked through her site and said outstanding issues were minor, but on Saturday an official from [Stringer’s] comptroller's office called to urge her to withdraw.”

Some have speculated that Stringer, a Democrat, is taking on de Blasio in preparation for a bid to run against him in 2017. Maybe. But he’s also doing his job at a time when few other Democrats, including public advocate Letitia James (who is also supposed to perform a key oversight role in situations like these), seem inclined to do so.

Keep in mind that we’re talking about very little kids here and that Stringer is pointing at no-brainer issues of potential child abuse, exploitation and exposure to physical danger in a program that’s popular because people think young children will be better off with it. For now, there’s no evidence that Stringer is anything other than on the side of the angels here. Let’s hope more Democrats muster up the courage to join him, because there’s a long, long road ahead before UPK lives up to the hype that hurtled it into the lives of NYC’s children.

Charles Barone has more than 25 years of experience in education service, research, policy, and advocacy. Prior to joining Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) full-time in January of 2009, Barone worked for five years as an independent consultant on education policy and advocacy. His clients, in addition to DFER, included the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, the Education Trust, The Education Sector, and the National Academy of Sciences. Read more here.

Dem Haters

By Charles Barone, Policy Director

Most of the commentary on Michelle Rhee’s announcement last week that she was stepping down as CEO of StudentsFirst focused on her style and personality. It’s important, however, to focus on the results of her work, specifically the longer-term impact of the policies she put in place as chancellor of DC Public Schools.

We’ve seen a lot of spin in the reporting of D.C. results, such as that recently by G.F. Brandenburg, which was dutifully regurgitated by Valerie Strauss and Diane Ravitch, among others. The disconnect between what they see as troubling results for D.C. students and their glee in reporting such kind of creeps me out.

The grand spinning prize, however, goes to the folks at Broader, Bolder who worked up a 15-page memo for reporters a month before D.C. released its 2014 test results (Hat tip to Bernie Horn. I don’t appear to be on BB’s mailing list).

While you’re poring over the statistical gymnastics Broader, Bolder performed to put Rhee’s policies in the worst possible light, keep in mind that Broader, Bolder launched itself as an organization that believes schools can only play a limited role in furthering student achievement and that test scores are a poor measure of student learning. No school could possibly produce dramatic changes in student achievement. And dagnabbit, they’re gonna use test scores to prove it.

Here’s how convoluted Broader, Bolder got when trying to downplay DC black student achievement gains:

“….[B]lack students made slightly larger gains than their white peers in most grades, but in many cases due to actual losses for white students.”

Broader, Bolder, you had me at “Black students made slightly larger gains than their white peers…”

I’m not going to say the results for D.C. aren’t mixed or imperfect. They are. That’s always the case when public policies are implemented on a massive scale. But here’s what’s irrefutable:

  • The NAEP results show positive changes for DC students between 2009 and 2013 across the board in fourth-grade reading for all subgroups.
  • This is true for the increase in NAEP scale scores and Proficiency rates, as well as reductions in the percentage of students performing Below Basic (the lowest possible category).
  • D.C. tied for the highest 2011-2013 NAEP gains (five points, roughly equivalent to half a grade level) in fourth-grade reading with Tennessee, Indiana, Minnesota and Washington State.
  • D.C.’s NAEP overall gains - in math and reading - between 2011 and 2013 were higher than any state.
  • Only six out of 21 urban districts, including D.C., scored significantly higher on NAEP in 2013 than in 2011 in mathematics in at least one grade level (the others - none of them among BB’s favorites - are Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Fresno and Los Angeles).
  • Only five of 21 urban districts, including D.C., scored higher in 2013 than in 2011 in reading in at least one grade level (the others - none of them BB favorites - are Baltimore, Dallas, Fresno and Los Angeles).

When Mayor Adrian Fenty was defeated and Chancellor Rhee stepped down, their adversaries danced around proclaiming that getting rid of Fenty and Rhee would mean an end to their policies. That did not happen. And there are signs that the policies they put forth, while in need of further reinforcement and refinement, are working. The sooner Broader, Bolder and others stop making this about personalities and develop the necessary discipline to prevent their hatred of someone from distorting their view of what is actually happening with real kids in real classrooms in real cities like D.C. (and Chicago, Los Angeles, etc.), the better.

Charles Barone has more than 25 years of experience in education service, research, policy, and advocacy. Prior to joining Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) full-time in January of 2009, Barone worked for five years as an independent consultant on education policy and advocacy. His clients, in addition to DFER, included the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, the Education Trust, The Education Sector, and the National Academy of Sciences. Read more here.

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