October 23, 2014

An Idea for Kansas City Schools: Give Principals Power

Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) is seeking input from parents, school staff, and the community about how it might regain and sustain full accreditation and retain and attract students. To that end, it is forming a School Improvement Advisory Committee (SIAC) and has been seeking applicants to serve in that capacity. We have a few ideas we’d like to share about strengthening administration and staff, rewarding teachers, and empowering parents.

First, it is noteworthy that the stated purpose of the advisory committee is seemingly small ball. Their email soliciting participation asks only,

What’s it going to take for Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) to regain full accreditation? What’s it going to take for your school to regain/sustain full accreditation? How can we retain and attract students?

In other words, “What do we have to do to provide the minimal state-required level of service?” We’re also suspect that they are looking toward parents and the community for ideas when there is an entire industry of specialists who have researched, written, and talked about what to do to improve schools. We at the Show-Me Institute have our own suggestions, and they aim at rebuilding world-class education in Kansas City. All our ideas have a common theme: Move power away from centralized school districts and toward students and parents.

For his 2003 book Making Schools Work, UCLA Professor and Author William G. Ouchi studied more than 200 schools in six cities and found that a school’s educational success may be most directly affected by how it is managed. The way to increase successful management, he argues, is to give schools more control over their own budget.

While schools may boast large budgets, Ouchi’s research uncovered that very little of it is controlled by the principal or the school itself. In one anecdote, he relates that a Los Angeles principal said her school had a budget of $21 million but added, “It doesn’t really matter because I only control $32,000.” Ouchi’s further research indicated that in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago the local schools only controlled 6.1 percent, 6.7 percent, and 19.1 percent of the budget, respectively.

In school districts that have seen tremendous improvements in their urban school performances, such as Seattle, Houston, and Edmonton, Canada, the percentage of the budget controlled by the local schools was 91.7, 79.3, and 58.6, respectively. This should be no surprise. Administrators, teachers, and parents at the school are best able to identify and address the specific needs of their students.

Here in Kansas City, better school management means moving the power of the purse away from the top-down centralized control at 12th and McGee streets and out to the principals at Paseo, Lincoln Prep, and elsewhere. Ouchi offers this warning to parents:

Control goes with the money. If your superintendent smiles, invites your group into his office, and tells you that he agrees with you and that he’s going to roll out a new school-based decision-making program that includes parent involvement—smile sweetly and ask him who will control the school’s budget. Don’t let him off the hook. Don’t let him think that you can be so easily fooled.

Remember, the author was chief of staff to Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. He has academic credentials, but he has weathered political fights as well. And the Kansas City district appears to be doing exactly what he describes: They smile, invite people to discuss the district, but surrender none of the control that is necessary for success.

October 22, 2014

ESAs Empower Families in Arizona

All students have unique educational needs, which is why Salima’s parents chose to participate in Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) program. The ESA is an education savings account that allows parents to use a portion of their public school’s funding and deposit it into an account. The account can be used to pay for private school tuition, online education, private tutoring, or future expenses like college. This makes a world of difference to kids like Salima, who is one of 400,000 people living with Down syndrome in the United States.

This inspiring story is just one example of how school choice can transform lives. Because Salima’s parents were empowered through Arizona’s school choice program, their daughter’s needs finally are being met.

October 21, 2014

The Teachers’ Union Cycle

Last week, Time Magazine released an article titled “Teachers Unions Are Putting Themselves On November’s Ballot,” which reported that the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) will spend a combined $60 million to $80 million this election cycle. What does that mean for education stakeholders in Missouri?

The graphic below represents how teachers’ unions influence local school districts.

teachers union cycle

The first path of influence is through national and state political activity. At both levels, teachers’ unions make contributions to candidates that are likely to represent their platforms. The NEA, for example, takes strong positions on national education issues such as Common Core and school choice.

Unions also back issues at the state level—the Missouri NEA is reported to have donated $20,000 to campaign against Amendment 3, an initiative to end teacher tenure in Missouri, while it’s PAC, the Committee in Support of Public Educators, raised almost $90,000. Although there is money spent on the opposite side, monetary contributions are not the only way teachers’ unions influence policy.

Involvement in school board elections is the second route of influence. In Missouri, teachers’ unions have the right to collectively bargain with school administrations. These agreements include a range of items such as workplace rules, teachers’ compensation, and personnel decisions. According to union guru Myron Lieberman, collective bargaining was initially seen as a check on the power of school boards, who are democratically elected by residents within a school district.

However, a study by Stanford Political Scientist Terry Moe showed that within the 253 school districts examined unions supported school board candidates in 92 percent of the districts,”made phone calls in 97 percent, campaigned door-to-door in 68 percent, and provided mailings and publicity in 94 percent.”

If Moe’s study holds true in Missouri, then teachers’ unions have influenced school board elections, helping to elect candidates with similar views—nine Missouri school boards have passed resolutions against Amendment 3.

Through these two paths, the teachers’ union cycle perpetually strengthens itself. By limiting the power of parents, influencing the hand of local school district officials, and mobilizing state and national efforts to keep the status quo, the teachers’ union is able to protect the people the system was designed to serve—teachers.

Protecting the interests of teachers is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that within the teachers’ union cycle the interests of teachers often outweigh the needs of students.


October 17, 2014

Support Local Control? Oppose Teacher Tenure Mandates

In November, Missourians will vote on a constitutional amendment that would change the way school districts manage the teacher workforce. The amendment would strip away current teacher tenure protections for new teachers and limit contracts of these new teachers to a maximum of three years. Additionally, it would require school districts to use student performance data in teacher evaluations.

Now, there are good and compelling arguments on both sides of this issue. Ironically, however, one of the main arguments against Amendment 3 is that it constitutes a loss of local control.

There is some truth to that claim, but it is important to ask the question, “As compared to what?”

Under current state statutes, Missouri public school districts are forced to enter into an “indefinite contract” when teachers receive tenure and that it shall last for an “indefinite period.” Talk about top down!

What’s more, state statutes mandate a specific process for removing a tenured teacher. This is illustrated in the graphic below (from my paper, “The Power to Lead”).

It is perfectly fine for opponents of Amendment 3 to call it a “top-down mandate” that will strip away local control. I just hope that after November 4, these groups will continue to support local control and oppose top-down mandates for teacher tenure.

Mo Tenure process

October 13, 2014

That’s Why We Need More School Choice

Lorrine and Naomi Goodloe. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

Lorrine and Naomi Goodloe. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

As someone who studies the issue of education policy quite closely, I can tell you there are many compelling academic reasons for supporting school choice. Studies consistently show that school choice programs save taxpayers money. Moreover, students who utilize school choice programs tend to benefit academically. Although I have read tomes on the value and benefit of school choice, none have made the argument for school choice as clearly and succinctly as the recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch piece by Jessica Bock, “After Troubles at Normandy Middle, a Return to Francis Howell.”

Bock tells the story of Naomi Goodloe a seventh-grade student in the midst of the drama surrounding the interdistrict school choice program in the Normandy School District. Goodloe attended sixth grade in the Francis Howell School District. However, enabled by the State Board of Education, Francis Howell elected to not allow transfer students to return this year. Thus, Goodloe was relegated back to school in Normandy. As Bock writes:

Lorrine Goodloe believed it might be better in Normandy schools this year, and told her daughter so.

But barely two months into the school year, Naomi Goodloe has left Normandy again, bruised and now behind in her seventh-grade studies.

The path back to Francis Howell wasn’t easy. In fact, it only came as the result of a court order.

After weeks of asking to go back to Saeger [Middle School in Francis Howell], Lorrine Goodloe made phone calls and determined Naomi might still be able to get back to Francis Howell. Attorneys hired by the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, a school-choice organization financed by investment banker Rex Sinquefield, would go to court for Naomi’s right to return, as they have for others. The judge granted the orders based on his ruling in August that the state board had violated rules when they changed Normandy’s accreditation.

When Naomi returned to her Francis Howell school, she was greeted warmly by her friends. “Everybody gave me hugs, and they dragged me around the school, letting everyone know ‘Naomi’s back!’” she said. She is now receiving the education that she desires and the education that she deserves.

Families should not have to be passive consumers of whatever their local school is offering. Parents should be equipped to choose the school that is going to meet their needs. That is the beauty of school choice, and that is why we need to expand options for all of Missouri’s school children. If you haven’t already, read Bock’s entire piece.


October 8, 2014

Charter School Dropouts: Accountability Reform

beauty school

“To be successful with kids that come to you at 19 reading at a fifth-grade reading level, there are things you have to do differently,” said Ernie Silva to an audience at the Missouri Charter Public School Association (MCPSA) Conference on October 2.

Silva’s words reflect his experience with what he refers to as “reengaged students.” According to Silva, these students, who are between the ages of 16 and 22, require a school model that is structured differently from the system that currently exists. One component of that model is a change in accountability measures.

Students in public charter schools are currently held accountable for learning the same information as students in public schools. This includes charter schools that exclusively serve high school dropouts or at-risk students. Since schools are all judged by the same criteria, schools that actually benefit impoverished communities are forced to close because of academic underperformance.

DeLaSalle Charter School is the only remaining alternative high school in Missouri. In reality, there are a number of alternative high schools across the state, but students who attend these schools, in separate buildings, are often counted in the overall school district’s scores instead of judged separately. This is unfair, as alternative charter schools like DeLaSalle cannot so easily mask the performance of at-risk students because they only serve at-risk students.

In August, proponents of DeLaSalle were worried about the charter’s unsatisfactory state standardized test scores. But do End of Course (EOC) exams that measure one grade level’s worth of learning measure what a student at an alternative high school knows?

Not really. As Silva pointed out, a student at 19 who tests at a fifth-grade reading level requires something different. Such a student may go from a fifth-grade reading level to a ninth-grade reading level in one year, but a test that measures the student at an 11th-grade reading level would not capture this growth.

This is, yet again, another one-size-doesn’t-fit-all lesson for education. One accountability system does not fit all schools. For schools that serve dropouts and at-risk students, an accountability model that puts more of an emphasis on academic growth is a much better fit.


October 1, 2014

Missouri Charter School Law: A Soup Sandwich for Military Families?

army child

The Show-Me State forbids charter schools from opening in non-urban, accredited school districts, unless they are sponsored by the district itself. In effect, this means public school choice is limited to residents of unaccredited districts in Saint Louis and Kansas City. However, the need for school choice extends beyond those confines. This is especially apparent to Missouri’s military families.

Fort Leonard Wood, a U.S. military base located in the Ozarks, resides in Waynesville School District, which is home to 4,500 military impacted students. Educating these students can be difficult, since many have attended several school districts in several states within a span of just a few years.

These students come from a variety of backgrounds and have varying educational needs.

Waynesville School District is the only option for many students living on the base. Though the district performs relatively well compared to struggling urban districts, it is unfortunate that charter schools are not permitted in this area. Charters essentially are specialized public schools that serve the unique needs of students.

waynesville table image

In other communities, if parents are dissatisfied with the performance of their school district, they can move into another district. For military families, this is nearly impossible. This highlights just one problem of Missouri’s restrictive charter law—it disproportionately limits military families’ access to the school of their choice.

Some states have recognized how charter schools can meet the unique needs of military students. There are currently eight charter schools located on military bases across the United States. One such charter school is Sigsbee in Key West, Florida, which offers coursework in environmental science and marine life. Another is Belle Chasse Academy in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, specifically designed to address the diverse academic backgrounds of students whose parents are on active duty.

Military personnel already make sacrifices for their country; they should not have to sacrifice their children’s education as well. The expansion of charter schools is just one way Missourians can provide more access to better quality education for military families.

For more information about charter school reform, read James Shuls’ case study on the Louisiana Recovery School District.



September 30, 2014

New Friedman Foundation Report Explains Cost Savings from School Vouchers

In my paper, “Available Seats?: Survey Analysis of Missouri Private School Participation in Potential State Scholarship Programs,” I explained how Missouri could potentially save money from a private school choice program. The Friedman Foundation did me one better. Their new paper, “The School Voucher Audit,” examines how much money private school vouchers have actually saved taxpayers. Based on their estimates, “a cumulative total savings of at least $1.7 billion has been realized since 1990-91, the first year of the historic Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), through 2010-11 . . .”

That is some serious savings! I encourage you to check out the slide share above or the full paper here.

September 20, 2014

Name One Branch of the U.S. Government

naturalization picture

For an immigrant seeking U.S. citizenship, this might be just one of the 100 questions he or she would be required to answer correctly. Shockingly, one-third of Americans can’t pass the citizenship exam, and a majority of high school students would not be able to pass the test. In response, a group has launched an effort to make passing the citizenship test mandatory for Missouri students.

The effort is expected to receive bipartisan support, as research shows there is an increasing lack of civic responsibility in American citizens. Mandatory testing may sound like the answer to instilling values in Missouri students, but it’s not, and here’s why:

Storing information in long-term memory does not happen overnight. It’s not uncommon for students to engage in “binge studying,” as opposed to studying for shorter amounts of time over a longer period, which is more likely to lead to long-term memory storage. Thus, a 10-question multiple choice test in which students study for one hour prior to the test will not necessarily produce value-driven Americans.

This is not to say that civics education is not important, but there are other outlets to reform that may have more of an effect. In fact, research indicates that schools of choice increase civic values and responsibility. Students who attend private schools tend to be more politically tolerant and have increased political participation, knowledge, and voluntarism.

The United States implemented No Child Left Behind mandatory testing more than a dozen years ago. It is clear that simply testing students does not magically improve student learning. Why would we expect it to work for civics? Let’s consider alternatives like school choice programs before we implement more mandated tests.

If we want students to value liberty, why not start with liberty in education?


September 19, 2014

The Faux Moral High Ground


Bre Payton of Watchdog.org has a great piece today about the Normandy/Francis Howell transfer situation. She tells the story of Paul Davis, a Normandy parent whose autistic 16-year-old son benefited from transferring to the Francis Howell School District last year. Davis says, “The transfer program shouldn’t have ever been taken away. We were thinking our lives were going to get better, and then all of the sudden they pulled the rug out.”

Despite having the rug pulled out, Davis and other parents are pushing to make sure their kids receive a quality education. They are being fought at every step. The Francis Howell School District has told parents that they are only allowed to return if they get a court order that states the district must accept the student.

The Francis Howell School District justifies their actions by taking what I have called the “faux moral high ground.” The Watchdog elaborates:

Francis Howell officials have said they don’t want to drain Normandy’s coffers, since Normandy was required to cover tuition costs for students to attend schools in other districts.

“Sending some students to outside school districts depletes the resources for the larger student population who remain in the unaccredited school districts,” Jennifer Henry, communications manager for Francis Howell, said in an email to Watchdog.org.

As I explain in the article, “Because districts are allowed to set their own tuition rates, they could easily charge Normandy less if they were truly concerned about depleting Normandy’s funds.”

This situation reminds me a lot of what Howard Fuller, civil rights activist turned school choice supporter, said about Harriet Tubman. He asked, “Did Harriet Tubman want to end the system of slavery? Of course she did. But until that happened, she woke up every day to try to save every single slave that she could.”

Wanting to fix the schools in Normandy is a worthy goal. For now, we should provide students a quality education elsewhere.

I encourage you to check out the entire Watchdog piece here.

September 10, 2014

Common Core Doesn’t Put the CCSS in Success


In previous posts on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I’ve written about the consequences of federal overreach, which, in itself, is a strong argument against the nationally imposed standards. Unfortunately, this argument is unconvincing for teachers, who have been led to believe these standards will give them more instructional flexibility and ultimately will help students make academic gains.

The following two quotes about CCSS reflect these widely held beliefs.

They are not a curriculum; it’s up to school districts to choose curricula that comply with the standards.
—Kathleen Porter-Magee and Sol Stern

Not exactly. Though it’s true that Common Core is just a set of standards, curriculum is informed by assessment. If the assessment is Common Core, the curriculum is Common Core. School districts buy curriculum sets (textbooks, workbooks, reading materials, etc.) that reflect the standards and prepare students for assessments. This ultimately gives teachers less instructional flexibility.

The promise of these high standards for all students is extraordinary.
—Former NEA President Dennis Van Roekel

If only. As a teacher, I would have loved to set the same high bar for ALL of my students. But the truth is, not every student has the same readiness for learning. Last year, one of my 13-year-old students scored a 30 on the ACT. Would I set the same high bar for this student and a student who had just tested at a fourth-grade reading level? No, I would differentiate instruction, meaning I would assign a project with varying degrees of difficulty and interest-based learning.

The problem is not “setting the bar high enough,” it’s the challenge of scaffolding instruction to fill in the gaps where there is missed learning. Sure, setting a high bar for every child sounds great, but without instructional flexibility, how will teachers make decisions that best suit the needs of their students?

They won’t. Even if setting a high bar for all students did increase academic achievement, there is still some debate about whether the Common Core even does that. If Missouri really wants to see students make academic gains, we should trust teachers to do their job well, and reward the ones that do.


September 5, 2014

Charity Is Not Your Strong Suit, Francis Howell

 Annual Performance Report

On Wednesday, Elisa Crouch and Jessica Bock of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Francis Howell will allow transfer students from the Normandy School District to return. That is, if those students take legal action and force the school district to comply with the law.

The Francis Howell School District will continue to require court orders for students from Normandy who want to transfer, said Jennifer Henry, district spokeswoman. The district sent a letter today to parents to inform them that it was possible 350 students could be returning, but that it was unclear how many would take legal action. 

So far, 17 transfer students have returned to Francis Howell through court orders. 

Henry said district leaders continue to believe that the transfer situation depletes the resources for the larger student population who remain in the school district.

The district claims it is not accepting all of the students, as other school districts have done, because they are concerned about draining resources from the unaccredited Normandy School District. This is simply taking a faux moral high ground.

Francis Howell is a great district. They have great teachers, administrators, resources, and students. Because of the large size of the district, roughly 17,000 students, it easily can accommodate an influx of 350 to 400 students in need of better educational opportunities. And, as we just found out, student achievement in the district was not negatively impacted by the influx of Normandy students.

If Francis Howell really wanted to take the high ground, they would open their doors to students desperate for a quality education and they would lower their tuition rate. Even with a lower tuition rate, the district could still see a financial windfall. If they did that, they would be showing true compassion for the students who want to transfer and the students who do not.

Forcing students to sue in order to obtain their spot that they are promised by state law in order to save Normandy money is not charitable, it is poor form and simply bad policy.

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