January 17, 2012

Reform Is Good for Education

Justin Katz

The Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity has just released a study showing that education reforms involving "accountability, transparency, and parental choice" can catch minority and disadvantaged groups up to the average, while increasing the average overall. Most striking, in my view, is the comparison between a state that really wants to reform and one that wants to make make it look like it's reforming:

Florida grades all district and charter schools based on overall academic performance and student learning gains. Schools earn letter grades of A, B, C, D, or F, which parents can easily interpret.

The full study (PDF) provides more detail:

Florida determines schools' grades in equal measure between overall scores [on a standardized test] and gains over time. In addition, the state divides the “gain” portion of the formula equally between the gains for all students and the gains for the 25 percent of students with the lowest overall scores. Figure 14 below illustrates how the state determines these grades (50 percent on overall scores, 25 percent based on the gains of all students, and 25 percent based upon the gains of the lowest performing students).

In Rhode Island, as I've pointed out before, the performance of our schools is, first, masked by significant changes in testing mid-decade that boosted the impression of progress and, second, inflated by the fact that schools with too few children in a particular category automatically get credit for adequate progress in that category. Andrew put it well a few years ago, when he said that "the final classifications have more to do with some obscure bureaucratic criteria than with how well students are learning."

Much of the Center's study, which was initially developed by Bill Felkner for the Ocean State Policy Research Institute, compiles charts to illustrate that, yes indeed, Florida's students have advanced considerably, to the point of surpassing Rhode Island. The key takeaway, though, ought to be the description of the state's reforms:

• Public-school choice. Students in low-performing public schools may transfer to a higher-performing public school of their parents’ choice.
• Private-school choice. Families with special-needs children have access to the McKay Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to attend a private school of choice. Corporations in Florida can also receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for contributions to organizations that fund private scholarships for low-income students.
• Charter schools. Charter schools offer families another choice. During the 2008/2009 school year, more than 100,000 Florida students attended charter schools and more than 50 new charter schools began operation.
• Virtual education. Florida is a leader in online learning. More than 80,000 students in the state take courses online.
• Performance pay. Florida’s performance pay system rewards teachers who achieve student gains, not necessarily those who have the longest tenure. It also provides bonuses for teachers who increase the number of students who pass Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Since beginning performance rewards for AP completion, Florida has considerably increased the number of all students who take and pass AP exams.
• Alternative teacher certification. Non-traditional routes to teacher certification, such as permitting school districts to offer teacher certification programs, reciprocity with other state teaching certificates, and honoring certification offered through alternative teacher certification programs such as the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (“ABCTE”), play an important role in bringing qualified teachers into the classroom.
• A+ Accountability Plan. In 1999, Florida required that students be tested annually. While Florida has graded the performance of its public schools since 1995, the Sunshine State moved to a more straightforward grading system in 1999.7 The new grading system, coupled with the introduction of the annual Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), means that students and schools are held accountable for academic outcomes.
• Social Promotion Ban. Florida has also curtailed the “social promotion” of students. This reform plan requires students to pass the third-grade reading (Florida Common Assessment Test) FCAT before progressing to fourth grade

Once such reforms are implemented (and I don't encourage any breath holding on that count, in Rhode Island), the next step would be to expand them such that they apply not only to minorities and the disadvantaged. There's plenty of room for average and above average students to be assisted to real, world-class excellence.

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Yes, there are so many things that can be done. Teixeira de Sousa wants parents and kids to stay in public schools to help fix things, but so many things are "off-the-table". They can't have it both ways. One could argue that much of education is about individual student needs and that one educational model won't fit all. They make a huge issue of different learning styles, but then they force all kids to be part of a school model that sets low expectations. I was once asked what my son's learning style was. I said "fast". Don't make him build dioramas. In sixth grade he had to draw and color a hundred 3X5 cards showing science terms. He already had them memorized, but he got graded on the art work.

Schools don't allow kids to accelerate their learning. At most, they offer only silly enrichment. They talk about understanding and critical thinking, but then the kids can't do 6*7 quickly in their heads. Full inclusion and tracking by age are the norm, but somehow the increasing ability gap within each class is supposed to improve education. They talk of differentiatied instruction, but it turns out to be differentiated learning. The onus is on the child. I have heard educators claim that kids will learn when they are ready. This is a huge coverup for incompetence. So is talking in generalities about learning styles and understanding. It's so much nicer to talk about how the brain works at parties than how one ensures mastery of the times table.

Loot at the state test questions. They are simple. Even without homework, they should be simple. What goes on in schools all day? However, the really bad raw percent correct scores are then converted into not-so-bad looking proficiency index values. They set a really low cutoff for proficiency and then look at the percent that gets over that level. That make the number look so much better. My affluent town then says that our high proficiency index means that the school provides a quality education.

How can customers improve a product if they have no choice or real input? It's the school's turf. Their offer to have parents help fix the problem is disingenuous.

Posted by: SteveH at January 21, 2012 10:37 AM
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