First Person

Getting past CREDO

Vinny Badolato is vice president of public affairs at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

I’ve been anxious to address the performance of Colorado’s charter school sector since I took the dive into blogging on EdNews. Before I talk about Colorado performance, however, I have to address the 400-pound gorilla in the room: The Center for Research on Education Outcomes’ (CREDO) popular – and highly misunderstood – report Multiple Choice: Charter School Study in 16 States.

For those who don’t know, the CREDO report is a broad look at charter school performance in 15 states and DC that generally uses 2003-2008 state longitudinal student performance data to compare the academic performance of charter schools student to “virtual twins” in traditional public schools (TPS).  I won’t go further into the methodology of the report due to space constraints, other than to say that it is accepted as a fairly strong method.

So what did the author find?  Well, anyone who has so much as dipped into charter school policy knows that the overall finding was the following: In math, 17 percent of charter schools demonstrated growth that significantly exceeded TPS growth, 46 percent showed indistinguishable growth, and 37 percent showed growth below their TPS peers.  This 17-46-37 combo has been cited ad nauseam since the release of the report in 2009, primarily by charter school opponents, as an indictment of charter schools and the justification to claim failure and dismantle the system.

But – and this is unfortunate – the continual drumbeat of 17-46-37 obscures some of the other very important findings of the study along with the very significant limitations of this – or any – national study on charter schools.

First, some of the other findings:

  • Nationally, students in poverty and English language learner students at charter schools significantly outperform their TPS peers;
  • Students in charter schools do better than their TPS peers over time, which means there is a dip in performance in year one that reverses significantly to positive in years two and three;
  • States with caps on charter school numbers have significantly lower growth than states without caps (there is no cap in Colorado);
  • States with an appeals process in regard to adverse decisions on applications or renewals also demonstrate significant student growth (Colorado has an appeals process);
  • Finally, there is very large variance in the quality and performance of charter schools across states.

So, it is not as bad as detractors would like to have us all believe.  Yes, there are improvements to be made, but the 17-46-37 mantra is quite misleading.

This gets me to the crux of my post, which the serious limitations of national charter school studies.

Charter schools are first and foremost state-created entities whose flexibility, autonomy, accountability, funding and structure are by and large dependent on the strength and balance of the state law that permits them, as well as the thoughtfulness and oversight of the entities that authorize them.  Of course individual school effectiveness depends on the quality of the teachers, leaders and governing board of that school, but overall charter school performance – both individually and as a sector –is closely coupled to state law and authorizer practice.  Any study that presents charter school performance as a national aggregate totally misses this.

And the variance in the quality (chiefly, the balance between autonomy and accountability) of state charter school laws is immense.  The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has created a yardstick to measure this quality based on national best practices and industry standards.  The states that have built their charter sector using these best practices have generally seen better results for a longer period of time in the CREDO report and scores of other studies.

Just as important as the strength of the law is the quality of authorizer practice.  Luckily, we have a yardstick to measure this too: the National Association of Charter School Authorizer (NACSA) Principals and Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing. Also built on best practices and industry standards, this document demonstrates what it means to be a high quality authorizer.  And the quality of authorizing is even more varied than charter laws, both between and within states.

So how does Colorado stack up on all of this?  Colorado ranks fourth out of 40 states and DC with charter school laws on the model law and our State Board of Education is preparing to adopt the NACSA standards in rule.  We are national leader in creating a strong charter school environment.  And Colorado charter schools do very well in the CREDO study.  Of course we have more work to do, but we are in impressive shape and continually moving in the right direction.

So here’s my request: When talking about the quality of charter schools, let’s stick to the Colorado context and put 17-46-37 back on the shelf.  And when looking at national charter school studies, let’s use them for their intended purposes, which is to learn what works, what doesn’t, and what changes need to be made to improve the sector.

Because I have a secret for you: Charter schools aren’t going way, no matter how many times 17-46-37 is repeated.   So let’s come together to figure out ways to make them work even better rather than wasting energy debating their existence.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.