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What to make of big early education proposals?

Posted by Jim Stergios February 27, 2013 08:01 AM

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In 2008 President Obama talked about a “zero to five” education plan and a “continuum of child care for children from birth to age 5.” His proposal during the State of the Union address to expand early education for children of parents earning up to 200% of the federal poverty rate is part of making that a reality. (Truth be told, the president keeps mentioning universal early education on the stump and in the SOTU, but his written proposal is far more targeted.)

Governor Patrick also put forward in his State of the Commonwealth address a proposal to create a universal early education program here in Massachusetts. So, what are the pros and cons of these proposals?

You can hear a solid debate on th is topic on WBUR’s Radio Boston, but let me sum up the evidence here.

The evidence. The president and the governor’s arguments that “study after study” demonstrates that a dollar invested in federal and state early education programs will save seven dollars later in life due to lower dropout rates, better student performance and other good things is not true. The president’s reference to “seven dollars’ is drawn from a single study of Chicago programs. The country has a broader and longer experience with the Head Start program, which has been in place for 48 years and upon which we have spent $180 billion.

The results from Head Start, according to a study conducted by its parent federal agency (and buried by the administration, which released the results the Friday before Christmas 2012), are anything but reason for hope:

  • There was no long-term impact on the cognitive abilities of participating children
  • There were no improvements in access to health care
  • There were no improvements to behavior and emotional well-being
  • There were no improvements to the parenting practices of parents.

On a few measures, Head Start actually had negative impacts.

Let's be clear here: Not all early education programs are Head Start. But the fact is that there is vexingly little evidence that early education programs – as currently structured – have has a positive or even lasting impact on student achievement. Ditto on dropout rates, lessening teen pregnancy, and all the other things claimed by the president and the governor.

So, that's evidence from the largest early ed program in the country. Now, let's go to the state data. Several states, like Oklahoma and Georgia, have expansive early education programs; unfortunately, the data does not significantly differ from what we have found in the Head Start program.

Lots of pro-universal early ed advocates will quarrel with what I describe above by referencing boutique programs like the Perry PreSchool and the Carolina Abecedarian Projects conducted, respectively, 40 and 30 years ago. The problem with referencing these unique experience is that they don’t look like early ed programs as we know them. Early education, as proposed by the president and the governor, are one-year programs prior to kindergarten. Abecedarian was an intensive, multi-year program costing $90,000 per child that tracked kids throughout their maturation and adulthood. The Perry Preschool project clocked in at a more affordable $11,000 in today's dollars on an annual basis, but most of the kids participating attended two years of school, not one, and there are few additional studies that confirm its results.

The preponderance of evidence goes in the opposite direction..

Moreover, consider this: Even as the governor is proposing a huge expansion in the current program, the state of Massachusetts has not produced a longitudinal study of the impacts of current public programs. So the governor is asking us to fly blind – on the basis of emotion. That is unfortunately the MO of many of the recent state reforms such as so-called innovation schools and extended learning time. There is no empirical basis for the establishment or continuation, yet somehow that is what we are doing.

High-quality early education and the crowdout effect. Any benefits from early education are based upon having high-quality programs. Just what constitutes “high-quality” is, as you might imagine in education discussions, up for grabs. Central to the conversation is the debate over structure and content.

The advocacy world behind universal early education in Massachusetts is for the most part against using their programs to focus on literacy, numeracy and the inculcation of basic habits that will lead to strong academic performance in later years. They insist on lots of play and “the things all kids should do.” When former president and chancellor of Boston University John Silber talked about targeting early education to increase the chances of getting kids to gain reading proficiency, he was talking about inculcating the cultural and educational foundations that most of the children of the well-to-do benefit from were available to inner city kids.

And his view was that kids could at a much younger age engage in real school work, to the point that he thought that it made sense to make a "Grand Bargain" tradeoff, wherein we would extend education to Pre-K and get rid of the 12th grade. Very different mindset from those who have told me "yes on some basic literacy" but more importantly the focus would be on safety, play and socialization.

A content-driven focus is not likely to be the defining thrust of publicly funded programs in Massachusetts. If it were, we would already see a strong presence of that view in the current set of public Pre-K offerings.

The president’s early ed plan is based on creating some curricular frameworks for early education programs, but the standards the feds are looking to put into place are extensions (downward) from the K-12 Common Core national standards. Given that the Common Core has reduced the focus on literature in early grade reading, anything that preschool adds to reading ability will likely have no impact. One wonders if federal policymakers are looking to bring nonfiction offerings even into pre-K.

As is the case with the governor's plan, it is sure to come with standardizing the teacher and early care corps -- and likely unionizing it.

Currently in Massachusetts 70% of the pre-K-age population is in some pre-K program, with programs ranging from privately funded, mixed private-public programs, and fully public programs. With his proposal to put $350 million into making early education universal, there is the distinct possibility that the public funds will displace a significant portion of the private offerings. That is a problem for two reasons. Clearly, the private offerings are in some cases of a higher quality than the public offerings. Even when that is not the case, the public system always tends to render uniform important aspects of programs (often for reasons of “fairness” and “accountability”). The intrusion of public programs and funding into a space that is largely privately funded today will likely remove the nuances in programming.

That is, we are back to the conversations around structure versus lack of structure for kids. We all know kids that thrive with a highly structured program, and we also know others who need greater flexibility. All kids are different, and trying to squeeze them into a more homogenized system removes our ability as parents to make the right choices for our kids.

My takeaways from this debate are as follows:

  • Early education, if done well, can be helpful to kids.

  • All kids have different needs and a public system will not be able to take into consideration the vast variety of needs and situations of kids at a tender age.

  • The feds and state policymakers really do need to read their own reports. Head Start is a mess, and all the baloney about how it is working, which is restated in speech after speech around the country by Arne Duncan and the President, amounts to willful irresponsibility at the least.

  • There are lots of reasons to question the efficacy of even a well-planned early education expansion. A well-designed program, which would need to provide flexibility, curricular options and accountability, would present huge challenges to implement.

  • None of this pays for itself notwithstanding the “one dollar for seven” talking points bandied about are for one dollar in payments now that provide seven dollars of benefits (to the individual) over a lifetime. And those are from a single study in Chicago. As noted above, the preponderance of evidence from state and federal programs is actually not in line with those talking points.

  • Whatever we do, we must avoid displacing current high-quality programs. Rather, we should seek to build on their diversity and strengths.

  • The president’s targeted proposal is far preferable to the governor’s.

  • The best way to provide flexibility for the uniqueness of our kids and for the needs of parents is to expand tax credits for families to purchase their own early education services. For poor families, for whom tax credits are not an effective strategy, we will have to come up with a pot of money they can direct to a program of their choice, based on their own kids' needs. Families will best know what their kids’ specific needs are.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

An easy vote for the Board of Education

Posted by Jim Stergios February 25, 2013 09:55 AM

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Tomorrow’s Board of Education meeting expects a crowd. Applicants for five new charter schools and 11 expansions will be on hand, as will detractors. There will be those on hand who pursued and opposed new charters that were denied the commissioner’s recommendation and therefore will not be brought to a Board vote. Push into that mix the oddly timed, late Friday news release (to one news source) that the Renaissance charter school is likely to be placed on probation, and you have a pretty full agenda and set of possible items that could come up.

So plenty of opportunity for eruptions, interruptions, and controversy. On the underlying five new charter and 11 expansion applications that will be at the center of tomorrow’s agenda, there will be little to no controversy. That is especially so for the application submitted by the Phoenix Charter Academy, a Chelsea-based charter focused on serving at-risk students and dropouts and giving them a new lease on graduation and college preparation.

A while back, I shared in a series of blog posts some of the key elements of Phoenix, such as its hyper-focus on creating a culture of success among kids (and often college-age adults) who have lacked all structure and who were ill-served by the district school system, the clarity of its mission which has the benefit of clarifying roles and priorities within the school, its programmatic offerings to make college preparation a possibility for young mothers who want a better future for themselves and their kids, and their teacher recruitment and retention strategies, which are especially important given the difficulty of the school’s mission.

Since those posts a year and a half ago, students at Phoenix have continued to show terrific progress, even as the charter has increased its collaboration with the Chelsea district system. They also take on the gargantuan task of leading efforts within the Lawrence district schools to reclaim the educational futures of dropouts in the struggling mill city on the Merrimack. I’ve been critical of the overall plan for the turnaround of the district schools (here and here), because it does not reach enough of the city’s 13,000 kids; that said, some of the work of the school receiver Jeff Riley and the charters there is promising.

Phoenix is poised now to expand out to the Springfield area. And the Springfield school application continues to build on the Academy’s laser focus on at-risk students and dropouts.

Here’s the mission as described in the 123-page final application submitted to the Department of Education:

Phoenix Charter Academy Springfield’s (Phoenix Springfield) mission is to challenge teenagers in Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee with an academically rigorous and individually tailored curriculum. At Phoenix Springfield, talented students, some who have not succeeded in other schools, have the support, resources and training needed to succeed academically in high school and college, and become economically secure in their future.

The Academy

target[s] students who turn to alternative education when traditional school systems fail, often including students who have dropped out of school, have struggled with truancy and chronic absenteeism in the past, are involved with the Department of Youth Services or the Department of Children and Families, are pregnant or parenting children of their own, and/or are recent immigrants to the country.

In Lawrence, where again Phoenix has been invited to bring its expertise, almost one of two students does not complete high school. (The sheer extent of the problem is why I have been vocal in calling for Phoenix and the other charters currently working in district schools to be granted full charters. Bringing in Phoenix and some other charters to support the Lawrence receiver’s district turnaround plan is fine, but it is ultimately focused on the wrong thing – the district – as opposed to the kids.) Springfield faces similar challenges, and this application fills a real need in the City of Homes.

The problem statement in the Academy’s Springfield application is spot on:

Across America, students are dropping out of high school at an alarming rate. According to Education Week’s 2012 Diplomas Count, “Nearly 1.2 million students from 2008’s high school class (the most recent year for which data was available) failed to graduate with a diploma. That amounts to 6,400 students lost each day of the year, or one student every 27 seconds” (23). Among students of color, this problem is particularly prevalent: only 57% of Latino students and 57.6% of African American students from the class of 2008 successfully finished high school, compared to 78.4% of white students (Diplomas Count 2012, 23). Dropping out of high school has severe economic and social consequences. The unemployment rate of high school dropouts is four times that of college graduates, and high school dropouts are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, homeless, or recipients of government services (Kazis 2002, 4). On average, each dropout costs the United States nearly $300,000 in lost Earnings over the course of his/her lifetime (Rennie Center 2011, 1). Phoenix Charter Academy Springfield’s target communities face the reality of the dropout crisis on a daily basis. In the 2012-13 school year, Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke had five-year graduation rates of 56.1%, 71.2%, and 56.1%, respectively, all significantly lower than the statewide four-year rate of 84.7%. As in the nation at large, the costs of dropping out of high school reverberate through the Massachusetts economy: the average high school dropout in Massachusetts makes $10,000 less annually than a high school graduate and $34,000 less annually than a college graduate (The Boston Foundation, 2010).

Phoenix’s approach of blending high-accountability and a focus on at-risk students is certainly focused on academic rigor. Students

must demonstrate mastery of upper-level math, science, and humanities classes in order to graduate, and are required to receive a college acceptance letter prior to graduation. Our College Services Department, Phoenix Through College, works with every student to help him/her map his/her course through high school and college.

But it takes more than rigor and accountability. The goal of passing the MCAS, graduating from high school and preparing for success in college certainly requires rigor but also “comprehensive socio-emotional supports” and constant engagement from the staff and support services that include

a student support center that serves as a resource for students who need coaching to model the characteristics of a scholar, on-site social workers who connect students to collateral supports in the community, an on-site childcare center that offers services to teen parents, and outreach workers who tirelessly endeavor to keep students connected to and engaged in school.

The results speak for themselves.

In 2012, 86% of students scored advanced or proficient on the English Language Arts MCAS exam, as did 72% on the math exam, beating all but one of the school’s sending districts. Additionally, 77 students have now graduated from Phoenix, and 100% of those students have been accepted to college.

Embedded in Phoenix’s application is the following chart of student MCAS proficiency levels. It tells you all you need to know about why Phoenix’s application will sail through.

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Here is what Phoenix Springfield is seeking to accomplish in the words of Phoenix Academies founder, Beth Anderson.



Good luck to Beth and the team, and to the many Springfield students who will pass through its doors.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Two new charter schools for City on a Hill

Posted by Jim Stergios February 21, 2013 07:25 AM

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For the past decade and a half, February has served as the month during which the state’s Board of Education votes on proposed charter schools. The process is a long one, involving during the previous year the submission of concepts, detailed applications, revised applications, interviews with proponents and evaluations by the Charter School Office, which is today located within the state’s Department of Education.

This year, the state’s education commissioner Mitch Chester has recommended a handful of the original 22 charter applications move forward. At next Tuesday’s education board meeting, final votes will be taken on the 5 new charters and 11 charter expansions recommended by the department.

If all of the charters recommended by the department move forward, there will be 1,600 new charter seats in Boston, with the percentage of Boston public students in Boston public charters closing in on the 18 percent threshold established with the 2010 education reform law. New Bedford is different. In the Whaling City, there are currently few options for parents including two charter schools (Alma del Mar and Global Learning charter schools), a handful of Catholic schools (the All Saints, Holy Family-Holy Name, and St. James-St. John schools), and private options like Our Sisters School, an excellent all-girl middle school option.

Two of the applications that made it through the department’s review and are up for a board approval were submitted by City on a Hill Charter School, a charter provider that currently operates a 280-student high school in Roxbury. CoaH is seeking approval of a second school in Boston in 2013, and the creation of an additional affiliated school in New Bedford in 2014. Each of the new schools would serve 280 students.

The original City on a Hill charter was one of the first charter schools approved in Massachusetts and currently has 10 applicants for every available freshman seat.

Overall Commonwealth charter schools perform very well compared to their district and unionized (so-called Horace Mann) charter peers. Among Boston schools serving 6th graders, 8 of the top 11 performers on the MCAS were in Commonwealth charter schools; among 7th graders, 7 of the top 11 were in Commonwealth charters; among 8th graders, 6 of the top 11 were in Commonwealth charters. In all grades tested before high school (3-8), charter schools held the number one position on the MCAS. And among high school students, excluding the city’s two exam schools (Boston Latin and Boston Latin Academy), Commonwealth charters occupied 5 of the top 7 spots. Commonwealth charter students topped all other schools in each of these tests—again, with the exception of the 10th grade MCAS where the exam schools, which do not select students by lottery as do charters took first and second place, leaving charter schools to take third place.

With 900 applicants for the 90 open slots available each year, it is a no-brainer for the Board to allow CoaH to replicate in Boston. The justification for the New Bedford affiliate is even stronger.

The district schools in the City of New Bedford fare poorly on the MCAS, with 10th graders on English Language Arts languishing near rock bottom in the entire state and with the outrageously high cumulative high school dropout rate of 28.5 percent.

Compare that record to the results to be found at City on a Hill.

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Moreover, recognizing that the MCAS is a floor and not the goal line, CoaH is, like many other charter schools, tracking where their students go and whether they complete a college degree:

We know that with the right supports our students can get into college. It is our job to provide them with the academic, social, and financial literacy skills necessary to complete college. Approximately 24% of Hispanic and 28% of Black Boston Public School graduates graduate from a two- or four-year college within six years (Center for Labor Market Studies, Getting to the Finish Line. Boston: 2008). Of our last five graduating classes, 75% of students have either graduated or are still enrolled in college.

Erica Brown, executive director of City on a Hill charter school describes in her own words why the school is seeking two replications at the Tuesday Board of Education meeting.

The New Bedford Standard-Times has it right with a recent editorial giving full support to the proposed CoaH school. The Standard-Times notes that in opposing the CoaH school proposal, New Bedford mayor Jon Mitchell

asks Chester to consider the positive changes being made in the city's system, starting with an inventory of the "profound" and "dramatic" changes under way in New Bedford. He points out the superintendent search; a newly signed teachers contract that addresses seniority, evaluations and performance pay; the expansion of Advanced Placement and teacher home-visit programs; and steps taken to address the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's concerns regarding facilities, principals, attendance and more.

These reforms will over time, one hopes, lead to more than the modest improvements we have seen through other “in-district” efforts at reform. Twenty years into education reform, we have seen seemingly uncountable efforts to reform the district schools from within, including pilot, Horace Mann, Commonwealth pilot and innovation schools; significant new resources; significant hiring; new contracts; and other seemingly “dramatic” and “profound” changes. I don’t want to diminish in any way the hard work, the good will, and the political challenges each of these efforts required. But none of these efforts can hold a candle to the game-changing impacts of a flexible, autonomous Massachusetts charter school like City on a Hill.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Boston Kids Need Another Brooke Charter School

Posted by Jim Stergios February 13, 2013 04:47 PM

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s vote later this month on a new set of charter school proposals is an opportunity to give thousands of Massachusetts kids access to a great school. The list of proposed charters includes new proposals for Boston, such as City on a Hill Charter Public School, which is proposing to open a second 280-student high school in Boston to open in 2013. (City on a Hill has also applied for a separate, new high school in New Bedford to serve 280 students.)

In addition, a number of Boston charters have looked at expanding their existing enrollment caps, including Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School, a 5-12 charter that would like to serve 545 students rather than 500; Codman Academy Charter Public School, a charter high school which would like to serve 345 students rather than 145; among others.

As part of an effort to share a look at what the charter proponents are seeking to do, I am giving some basic background on the schools and including a video allowing the proponents to speak in their own words. Today we’re focusing on the application filed by the Edward W. Brooke Charter Schools, seeking a fourth 540-student K-8 school, to open in Boston in 2014. We will be talking with Kimberly Steadman, the Network Co-Director of Academics.

The original Brooke elementary school opened in 2002. For some time now the school’s K-8 student body has shown stellar academic performance, outperforming most every school in the Commonwealth notwithstanding predominance of disadvantaged students. Consider this graphic of the school’s performance in 2010 on the English/Reading MCAS exam:

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In addition to the Brooke Roslindale school, in 2011 Brooke gained a Mattapan affiliate and a year later an East Boston affiliate. Today, the three schools in the Brooke network serve about 1,500 Boston-area students—primarily poor minority students (78% of students are eligible for free/reduced lunch).

This year’s (2012) MCAS data puts an exclamation point on the progress seen in the original school, where Brooke administrators tout the following achievements

  • In all tested elementary grades (3-5), Brooke Roslindale students scored #1 in the state in Mathematics;
  • In 4th and 8th grade, Brooke Roslindale students scored #1 in the state in English;
  • On all English and Mathematics tests in all grades, Brooke Roslindale ranked either #1, #2 or #3 among all Boston schools

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Moreover, the Brooke Mattapan school “demonstrated the highest growth [in student performance] in the state in both English and Mathematics.”

Today, the Brooke network has 4,000 Boston Public School students on its waiting list. These are parents who want a choice and a chance for their kids. They are parents who, like the architects of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 do not want “the accident of place and station of birth.. to be the most dispositive factor in determining a child’s potential for educational success.”

In the video below, we hear from Kim, who prior to helping to joining Brooke taught in the Chelsea and Washington DC district schools. She’s been with Brooke for almost a decade, serving as a lead teacher, math teacher, professional development coordinator, and elementary principal before taking on her new position. Kim and Brooke’s work to support its teachers is phenomenal, with 35 administrative and peer observations per year, and 10 video self-analyses per year. In addition, there are daily co-planning sessions, 3 hours of weekly professional development, and data review meetings to support teachers’ work.

Edward Brooke Charter Schools have done an incredible job, leading the state in tested content areas and disproving the status quo mantra that poor minority kids cannot achieve great things. They deserve another 500-student school. And those 4,000 Boston kids on the Brooke waiting lists deserve a chance.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Give Brockton students a choice

Posted by Jim Stergios February 12, 2013 01:45 PM

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The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s vote later this month on a new set of charter school proposals is an opportunity to give thousands of Massachusetts kids access to a great school. The list of proposed charters includes the following schools in cities outside of Greater Boston:

  • Argosy Collegiate Charter School in Fall River
  • the replication of Boston's successful City on a Hill Charter Public School in New Bedford
  • the replication of Springfield and Holyoke's successful SABIS charter model in Brockton (the International Charter School of Brockton)
  • the replication of Chelsea's successful Phoenix Charter Academy in Springfield, and
  • YouthBuild Charter Academy in Lawrence

In the Greater Boston area, there are also two charter proposals, replications of the Pioneer Charter School of Science to serve Saugus-Peabody-Lynn-Danvers-Salem and to serve Woburn-Stoneham-Medford-Melrose-Wakefield.

Several other charters are also asking for increases in grade levels served. Most of these charter applications come as a result of the 2010 education reform law that increased the percentage of students within poorly performing districts that can attend charters from 9 to 18 percent.

Over the next few days, I'd like to share a few videos of the charter proponents explaining the reason they are seeking to create new schools. Today's video is of Jose Afonso of SABIS International explaining the genesis of the application to create a K-12 school in Brockton.

The International Charter School of Brockton is to be operated by SABIS, an educational management company that runs highly successful charters in Springfield and Holyoke. Its Springfield school has been rated by both Newsweek and US News & World Report as one of the nation’s top high schools.

Those arguing against the new Brockton school, such as the district administrators, say Brockton doesn’t need a charter school. The fact is, however, that Brockton's MCAS scores rank in the bottom 10 percent statewide. While the city’s high school has seen modest improvement, performance in its elementary and middle schools has actually worsened since 2009.

In addition to dramatically better MCAS scores, the SABIS International School of Springfield’s 2011 graduation rate was over 90 percent; Brockton’s was less than 70 percent. In the 12 years that SABIS Springfield has had a graduating class, every graduate has been accepted to college.

As in Brockton, low-income and minority students make up the majority of SABIS Springfield’s students. Graduation rates for SABIS’ low-income, special needs, and minority students also exceed Brockton’s.

In considering this application the new Secretary of Education Matt Malone and the Board of Education would do well to go back and read the Boston Globe editorial from 2008 which criticized the then Board of Ed for "jettisoning SABIS" and in the process

abandon[ing] minority families in more than a dozen communities. SABIS is one of the few educational systems in the state where minority students not only perform on par with white students, but outperform them, as well.

It went on to encourage SABIS "to come back" with another proposal, closing with the statement: "But the proposal should find a home in the Brockton area."

Last year, again, the Globe editorial pages chimed in support of SABIS' (successful) application to create a new charter school in Lowell.

The editorial page was absolutely right. And there is yet an additional reason to approve the SABIS application, besides the possibilities it opens up for Brockton students: It is an opportunity to rehabilitate the severely tarnished charter school approval process.

Massachusetts’ charter approval process, once considered a national model, has in recent years become politicized. A now-famous midnight e-mail from former Education Secretary Paul Reville cited political pressures in asking the state education commissioner to “see his way clear” to approve a Gloucester charter application, even though it didn’t meet the commonwealth’s rigorous criteria.

A Superior Court judge wrote that there was “considerable evidence” “the Board and the Commissioner blatantly ignored and violated state law” by approving the Gloucester charter for political reasons. The commonwealth’s Inspector General called the process by which the school was approved “defective.” Less than three years later, the state is closing the poorly performing school.

Mischief with the charter approval process has also prevented good schools from opening—and that is what the Board of Education can make right this year. In 2008, again because of political pressure, Mr. Reville persuaded the board to reject a proposed charter school in Brockton. It was the first time a charter proposal endorsed by the commissioner had ever been rejected by the board.

SABIS is back with an improved Brockton application, hoping the process will not be rigged this time.

Brockton officials are out in force, and this is a big test for the man who succeeded Secretary Reville last month, Matt Malone. Mr. Malone, until his move to become the new Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth, had been serving as the Brockton school superintendent. And, yes, he was very much involved, up until his departure, in whipping up anti-charter sentiment.

As always, district administrators will raise a hue and cry over money. Funding follows students from district to charter schools, but changes in the commonwealth’s charter funding formula reimburse districts are over a six-year period. Ultimately, districts receive more than double their money for every child selecting a charter school. Districts can no longer make the money argument with a straight face.

As the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education prepares to vote on a new group of charter schools, it should answer one simple question: Why should the options of children in one of the commonwealth’s worst-performing districts be limited to a modestly improving high school and elementary and middle schools whose already poor performance is only getting worse?

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Bureaucratic teacher evaluations bring no change

Posted by Jim Stergios February 9, 2013 01:15 PM

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Back in April 2011, the Globe editorial page touted "Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester’s proposed regulations linking teacher evaluations to student performance" as "a long-awaited step toward rewarding effective teachers and unmasking incompetent ones." Many have seen the new evaluation system as a huge step forward, but I've always been highly skeptical that it will do anything but create a lot more paper.

In this regard, as I noted at the time, I think the Worcester Telegram & Gazette was the media outlet with the most detailed and most accurate view of the new evaluations:

The state’s new regulations for the evaluation of educators… establish that MCAS test results will play some role in teacher evaluations; they state that student and teacher feedback are to be included in the evaluation process, eventually; and they allow for the inclusion of existing measures of progress at individual schools or in districts.

But those points don’t arrive until three-quarters of the way through a 20-page thicket of definitions, standards and indicators, most of which are painfully obvious, vaguely phrased, repetitive, or offer little specific guidance to educators. And the regulations never state exactly how much weight MCAS will have, exactly how teacher and student feedback will be factored into evaluations, and who is to decide whether a district or school’s existing evaluation process is good enough.

In fact, the regulations lay out 16 “indicators” for teacher standards in the areas of Curriculum and Planning, Teaching All Students, Family and Community Engagement, and Professional Culture. There are 20 such “indicators” for administrators, reaching into every conceivable area of day-to-day school management...

It isn’t clear to us how any of this will help districts rid themselves of bad teachers any more quickly, ensure such teachers aren’t passed around within or between systems, or, on the positive side, facilitate the recruitment, promotion and rewarding of excellent teachers.

We were hoping for a far more succinct, specific and clear set of expectations that would promote accountability and excellence. Instead, by virtue of their length, complexity and open-ended language, these new educator evaluation regulations strike us as an excellent way to create more work and worry for administrators and teachers, while ensuring plenty of new grist for the wheels of bureaucracy that revolve at the state Department of Education.

If it were up to us, we’d declare these new regulations “unsatisfactory,” take an eraser to the whole blackboard, and start over.

Of course, the proof will be in the what we see the education sector do. As would be the case in any sector (business or public), authentic evaluations of performance would translate into the identification of a number of individuals to reward, steward or remove.

Attempts at bureaucratic statements about teacher quality include the "highly qualified teacher" provision of the No Child Left Behind (the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education) Act. As goes with most of these things, the definition allows for most Massachusetts districts to tout that 98-100 percent of their teachers are highly qualified.

Thanks to Massachusetts' unique teacher certification test, which prioritizes content knowledge (aligned with the state academic standards), the Bay State's teacher corps is more qualified to teach required academic work than in other states that use the so-called PRAXIS test. But 98, 99 or 100 percent of our teachers highly qualified? C'mon.

And yet the federally-promoted teacher evaluations, which were driven through the Race to the Top inducements, are showing the very same pattern of overstating teacher effectiveness. Look, Massachusetts has a slightly different take on teacher evaluations than does Michigan, Florida, Tennessee and Georgia, but most of the elements of the programs are similar -- and similarly bureaucratic.

It's a little like all those states that have been using "A to F" school grading systems, where somehow the great majority of the schools fall into the A and B categories. Astounding. If that's the case, how is it so many of our kids fail to do well? (Massachusetts is far better served by providing the straight student performance -- the MCAS -- data.)

So while we wait to see what the numbers will look like coming out of the Massachusetts evaluation system, let's see how Michigan, Florida an other states have fared. EdWeek has a piece today which notes that

In Michigan, 98 percent of teachers were rated effective or better under new teacher-evaluation systems recently put in place. In Florida, 97 percent of teachers were deemed effective or better.

Principals in Tennessee judged 98 percent of teachers to be "at expectations" or better last school year, while evaluators in Georgia gave good reviews to 94 percent of teachers taking part in a pilot evaluation program.

Harumph. So predictable. File under: Another in that interminable list of process reforms driven by Race to the Top that supposedly will be game-changers and result in... more paper. Get the shredders ready.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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