January 23, 2015

For Education, It’s More of the Same

Basic RGB

In Wednesday night’s State of the State address, Gov. Jay Nixon doubled down on the same education initiatives that have gotten us nowhere—increased funding, mandated standards, accountability tests, strong tenure laws, smaller class sizes, increased teacher salaries. This has been the strategy for the past 20 years, and it hasn’t worked.

Since 1992, per-pupil spending in Missouri has increased nearly 40 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars. Missouri has had state-imposed learning standards since 1993. We’ve participated in No Child Left Behind mandated testing for more than a decade. Teachers are given an indefinite contract after five years, making it difficult to remove even an ineffective teacher. In 2014, there were approximately 13 students to every one teacher. The average teacher’s salary is nearing $50,000, with a 14.5 percent match on retirement contributions and benefits that far surpass private-sector counterparts.

More of the same is not going to propel Missouri forward.

Allowing charter schools to enroll students across district boundaries, creating opportunity scholarships, reducing mandates—these are the types of policies that will create an ever-improving educational market. These are the types of changes we need.

If we truly believe that “education is the key to the economic future of our state,” as the governor suggested, then we need to re-think our policies and re-imagine what it means to have a quality public education system. Mandating, taxing, and spending will not get us to the schools that we need. We need policies that enable school leaders to be change agents who empower parents with educational options.

January 20, 2015

Kansas City Public Schools Embraces Charter Education

On Wednesday, the Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) Board of Education voted to submit an application to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to sponsor a charter school.

Kansas City currently has 25 charter schools, enrolling more than 40 percent of all public school students in the city. Last year, KCPS decided to partner with Academie Lafayette, the French immersion charter school, on a program at Southwest High School. However, none of the existing schools have been sponsored by the district itself. This is the first step in the district becoming a sponsor of charter schools. It will be the second school district in the state to do so—Saint Louis Public Schools sponsors Construction Careers Academy.

Since their inception, charters often have been met with suspicion by public school officials. In Kansas City, it seems that perception is changing as the district recognizes that charter schools may have something traditional public schools need—niche educational opportunities.

Charter schools are independently run and typically have more freedom. This gives them the flexibility to reach students whose needs aren’t being met in the traditional setting. For example, a Pennsylvania public school district sponsored the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School in 2001. The virtual school now enrolls 3,000 students across the state and grade levels.

The sponsorship of charter schools by traditional public schools is an opportunity public school districts throughout the state should not pass up. It is the competitive advantage to offer more options within one school district. Imagine if a rural or suburban school district sponsored a charter with a science and engineering focus. Perhaps a student who felt his needs weren’t being met in a private school would enroll at the local charter school instead.

Students in any type of district, whether urban or rural, low-income or high-income, need options. Educational partnerships and traditional public school sponsorships have the potential to provide those options.

January 15, 2015

Missouri Ranks 33rd on New Quality Counts Report

c-minus

As they do at the beginning of every year, Education Week released their “Quality Counts” state report cards. Once again, Missouri ranks in the middle of the pack, 33rd overall with a C- grade. For regular readers of the Show-Me Daily blog, this should come as no surprise. Missouri has been stuck in the middle for years.

Why is Missouri perpetually in the middle when it comes to academic rankings? After all, we are several years into an initiative launched by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to get Missouri into the top 10 by 2020. This initiative has spawned changes at nearly every stage of education, from pre-kindergarten to teacher preparation. One could argue that these changes just haven’t had time to take root, and once they do, Missouri students will be making academic gains like gangbusters. I doubt it.

Missouri is not likely to make significant improvements, because Missouri’s education policies are predicated on getting things right—if we get certification right, teachers will get better; if we get standards right, instruction will improve; if we get accountability tests right, achievement will rise. The list could go on and on. The problem is that we don’t know the “right” way to do these things for every child and every teacher in every school, and we never will. Until our education policies shift from a “getting things right” mentality to one that fosters continuous improvement, we should not expect marketable differences in outcomes.

How do we do this? Andy Smarick outlines a nice plan in his book, The Urban School System of the Future. He starts with a somewhat controversial but true premise, “The traditional urban public school system is broken, and it cannot be fixed. It must be replaced.” Smarick goes on to substantiate this claim and offer a solution, creating an educational market where new schools regularly open and bad schools regularly close. This is how improvement happens in every other sector.

Smarick’s proposal would require substantial legislative changes, but here are two easy places for Missouri to start moving in the right direction.

  1. Allow charter schools to enroll students across district boundaries.
  2. Expand options for students by establishing an Equal Opportunity Scholarship program.

These changes themselves will not get us anywhere near what The Urban School System of the Future outlined. They will, however, begin moving Missouri toward that system of continuous improvement.

January 14, 2015

School Visit Series: A Charter School With a Goal

The South Building of Ewing Marion Kauffman School in Kansas City looks much more like a new academic building than a charter school serving low-income middle-school students. Streams of natural light flood the high-ceilinged lobby. On the wall next to the entrance is a portrait of the school’s late benefactor paired with the former Kansas City Royals owner’s quote, “You, you, and every one of you can go to college if you choose.”

kauffman entrance

Kauffman’s goal to “create college graduates” pervades the three-building campus. University flags hang on the walls. Students are divided into groups named after the universities teaching faculty attended. Teachers connect with students by sharing personal photographs, fight songs, and university traditions from their own college years. “It continues to invest kids in this idea that the people around you want you to have the same opportunities as they had and we don’t want socioeconomic status or zip code to hold you back from that,” said Candace Potter, talent recruiter for the school.

flags

“Kids who grow up in low-income communities, about 10 percent graduate from college by the age of 24 … and we want to break that statistic,” she added. The school seems to be on its way.

Though 82.4 percent of students are eligible for free-reduced lunch, Kauffman earned 88.6 percent of possible points on the state’s Annual Progress Report. This means the charter is only 1.4 percentage points from being classified as Accredited with Distinction, which is stunning considering, according to Potter, most students begin below grade level.

One of those students is fifth-grader Aunecia Smith. She reports both her behavior and academics have improved since arriving at Kauffman, having previously attended George Melcher Elementary, a Kansas City public school. “It’s really not like this school. Their expectations weren’t as good,” she said.

Aside from rigorous academic expectations, the school invests in four PREP values, which serve as “current and future tools for success.” At frequent awards ceremonies, students are recognized with “PREP stars.” Aunecia, who wants to be a pediatrician when she grows up, has received two. “I have to change the channel on the TV when I see kids with cancer,” she said.

Quality charter schools like Ewing Marion Kauffman exemplify how school choice can set students on the course for success. Aunecia is just one student for which a charter school has made a difference, but if charters were able to expand regardless of district accreditation status or geographic location, many more students might be affected.

Before heading back to class, Aunecia said to me, “Every kid should go to a charter school.” I think what Aunecia really means is that every child should have access to the type of high-quality education she is receiving.

January 13, 2015

School Choice, Let Me Be Me

Where did you go to high school?

“The question” is as much a part of the Saint Louis identity as the Gateway Arch, Cardinals baseball, or Gooey Butter Cake. Last year, I decided that I’d take a stand against high school-based judgments by asking a question myself: What high school do you think I attended?

From there, it got interesting. “Ladue, Incarnate Word, Lafayette” are just a few school names that I heard. The variety and wide range of schools was interesting to hear, but no one came close to the school I actually attended. The truth is that I graduated from an often-underperforming, low-income public high school just below the Saint Louis City line. In 2013, only 20 percent of graduates had completed a four-year degree, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

For many students who attend a high school within their zip code, their school often is not a reflection of who they are. They must fit in, instead of choosing a school that fits. With school choice, a high school becomes less of a description about where the student lives and how much money the student’s family has, and more about what makes the student unique.

Join us in Saint Louis or Kansas City to learn more about how educational options allow students to be themselves. If you plan on attending, use the hashtag, #letmebeme, for all event-related tweets.

 

January 9, 2015

Should Missouri Use an A Through F System to Grade Public Schools?

restaurant-ratings-abc-1031

The practice of grading organizations using an A through F grading scale has been utilized by many types of industries. This legislative session, elected officials will decide if the system is right for Missouri’s public schools. Senate Bill 28 “requires the State Board of Education to develop a simplified annual school report card for each school attendance center using a letter grade of A to F.”

To understand Missouri’s current accountability system, the MSIP-5, a parent must first have access to the Internet. The Comprehensive Guide can be located using the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) website. Navigating the site is notoriously difficult, especially for a first-time user. Once the document is found, the parent must read through 104 pages of confusing tables and formulas just to, hopefully, understand the accreditation process on page 56.

The table below shows Missouri’s accreditation scheme. Although there are only four categories, words like “partially accredited” are not intuitively associated with the word “underperforming,” as the letters C and D are.

accreditation

To gain a different perspective, imagine if restaurants were evaluated using the MSIP-5—“How about dinner at Barcelona in Clayton? It got an APR of 73; oh, but its MPI was Floor.” Simply saying the restaurant has three and half stars on YELP indicates the restaurant is good, but perhaps some have had a not-so-good experience.

Our familiarity with letter grades, stars, and even “$$” provides us with simple indications of the type of service we should expect to receive. States such as Florida, Oklahoma, and Indiana have developed similar A through F school grading schemes. Some criticisms state that the systems are “oversimplified” or “have arbitrary cutoffs.” With any system, including the MSIP-5, there may be questionable cutoff points.

Ultimately, an A through F grading scale would allow parents a better understanding of what a school offers, turning them into more effective consumers of educational services.

 

 

January 8, 2015

Equal Opportunity Scholarships—Giving Students Options

boy-2

If you could expand educational opportunities for students in failing schools by leveraging greater private investment in education, would you do it? Of course you would! This is exactly the idea behind the Equal Opportunity Scholarship idea (otherwise known as a tax credit scholarship).

The way it works is pretty simple. Taxpayers donate money to a scholarship organization. In exchange for their donation, they get a credit toward their taxes. Let’s say the credit is 75 percent. That would mean a donation of $1,000 to a scholarship organization would net a credit toward tax liabilities of $750. While the total taxes collected drops by $750, the total amount contributed goes up. The end result is greater private investment in education.

With the funds, the scholarship organizations provide tuition assistance for students who wish to attend high-quality private schools. More than a dozen states have similar programs. They are a proven method of increasing options for students. And they have the added benefit of saving taxpayers money. The Show-Me Institute has highlighted successful examples in Arizona, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.

Over the next few months, Missouri lawmakers will bandy about ideas to “solve” the problem of unaccredited schools. Thus far, Equal Opportunity Scholarships are the only proactive idea that will expand options for Missouri students.

January 5, 2015

Missouri’s Teacher Equity Plan Draft Misses the Mark

teacher_wanted-150x174Is a teacher with a master’s degree in biology and several years of research experience unqualified to teach high school biology? According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE)—yes.

Missouri is submitting a new teacher equity plan to the Department of Education. As the Associated Press reports, the plan touches on the unequal distribution of experienced teachers within urban and rural school districts. States must submit updated plans to continue receiving waivers from No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Within a draft of Missouri’s Educator Equity Plan, DESE writes, “According to federal guidance, less effective teachers are those who are inexperienced, unqualified, or out of field.” Later in the plan, the department presents dozens of ideas about how to recruit effective teachers to rural, poor communities.

Though DESE highlights a few academic studies, it neglects research with alternate findings especially in relation to experience and education versus student achievement. This—combined with the listed stakeholders (National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, Missouri State Teachers Association, etc.) who played a role in giving the department recommendations—produced several unsurprising potential strategies.

  • Increased salary
  • Smaller class size
  • Entry-level screening tools
  • Content knowledge and pedagogical skills assessment

None of the listed strategies are “proven” to increase academic achievement. Still, the state continues to draw away from local policies in favor of controversial state and federal mandates.

This is not to say that recruiting teachers to rural communities isn’t a problem; one study found that 75 percent of teachers in urban areas stay in their hometown, while only 43 percent of rural teachers remain. There are, however, more creative solutions to ensure students in rural communities receive a quality education. Here are a few:

  • Expand educational opportunity through virtual learning (DESE lists this one, Bravo!).
  • Eliminate state mandates that encourage the use of salary schedules, which judge teachers based on experience and education. A competitive salary early on for science and math teachers may drive more qualified teachers to the profession.
  • Eliminate arduous certification requirements. The Bering Strait School District in Alaska has 15 schools covering more than 80,000 square miles, many of which must be reached by airplane. The Alaska State Department of Education has recently given waivers to school districts, allowing them to recruit teachers from out of field. “It’s really been handy. Just recently, we hired a language arts teacher with no background, but he’s a good teacher, he’s what we look for,” a Bering Strait personnel staff member told me.
  • Allow school districts to operate like businesses—let administrators make personnel decisions that make the most sense to the students within the school district.

 

December 23, 2014

Santa Choice

428px-Jonathan_G_Meath_portrays_Santa_ClausI’m wearing a red-and-green checkered velvet dress with a large white lace collar. My face is distorted, fear and excitement and starstruckenness all jumbled into one expression. It is the quintessential 1990s posing-on-Santa’s-lap picture. I’ve got at least six just like it, but this one stands out. It wasn’t snapped at the mall or at a children’s party, but at my public elementary school, where Santa visited once a year for Christmas breakfast.

As I grew older, Christmas parties became Holiday parties, Christmas Break became Holiday Break, and Santa no longer made an appearance at the Holiday Breakfast, not because I was too old for jolly St. Nick, but because my public school had de-Santa-ed.

In a recent incident in Massachusetts, Santa was removed from an elementary school’s annual Christmas concert. Though many have decried Santa removals as examples of the public school system’s rejection of religious freedom, to me, they are reminders of a need for more educational choice.

In a 2014 survey, 49 percent of Missourians reported that if they could choose any type of school for their child, they would choose private or home school. However, only 9 percent are actually enrolled in private school, while home school data is not available. Why do so many parents want to send their children to schools of choice?

survey question private schools

For at least some parents, the desire to send their children to a private school reflects a desire to send their children to a school that shares like-minded values. Unfortunately, school choice, in the absence of legislation and financial means, is impossible for many parents, as actual enrollments show.

In the New Year, I hope to see educational choice expanded for families across Missouri, for both Santa believers and non-believers alike.

 

 

December 22, 2014

If You Like Your Preschool, You’ll Be Able to Keep—Not Again!

Advocates of universal preschool are up in arms, as Missouri lost a bid for a federal grant that would have gone toward the expansion of public preschools. Missouri was one of nine states to apply for the competitive grant, which is part of a $1 billion Obama-led initiative to expand early childhood education programs.

For universal Pre-K supporters, this was a major loss, but for Missouri taxpayers, our “failure” to get the grant is actually a win. Federal grants have a history of costing states more over time—Race to the Top is a recent education-related example.

Missouri already has doubled its expenditures toward expanding early childhood education. The Department of Economic Development (DED) made $10 million available to promote the expansion of public Pre-K programs just last year.

Preschool education is where Missourians already have the most school choice. Expanding public options will only duplicate existing services, likely shifting some students from the private to the public sector, where there is no guarantee the services will be better.

Nationally, 74 percent of four-year-olds already are enrolled in Pre-K or home-based programs. Using listings from Great Schools, the table below highlights the number of private Pre-K options versus public ones in several of Missouri’s cities.

Frequency of Schools Offering Pre-K Programs: Private v. Public
City # of Private Schools # of Public Schools
St. Louis 163 34
Kansas City 81 21
Columbia 111 21
Jefferson City 47 15
Springfield 90 18
Kirksville 12 1

Research on the benefits of early childhood education has yielded mixed results. Even those studies showing significant benefits of preschool expansion touted by Gov. Jay Nixon as “proven” are subject to criticism. One comprehensive study on the effects of Head Start showed there was no long-term increase in cognitive abilities of children who participated in the early education program. Yet, Nixon gave the organization $7 million just last year.

Missouri taxpayers should not pay for services that already exist, especially if the research backing those services is shaky. There are better solutions to addressing the educational needs of children in poverty, ones that don’t include government mandates.

December 20, 2014

Angel’s Story: What the Transfer Program Is All About

If someone asked you what you thought about the controversial law, which allows students to transfer from unaccredited schools to accredited ones, what would you say? Would you talk about the rights of the local taxpayer in the receiving school district? Would you talk about the logistics of transporting students? Would you say that those students deserve to have good schools in their own communities?

We asked Shaunna Matthews that question and her answer was clear:

The opportunities that we are getting out of this program are awesome. We would be wrong to deny any kid this opportunity.

Last year, Shaunna’s daughter, Angel, transferred from the unaccredited Riverview Gardens School District, to the high performing Kirkwood School District.

Here is Angel’s Story.

December 18, 2014

Students Need Choice, Not-Pie-in-the-Sky Solutions

got school choice

When the chairman of the Black Leadership Roundtable announced his plan for ensuring Saint Louis-area students have access to a quality education—a city-county school district—he was presenting an idea that has been recycled for decades. In his 1985 book, A Semblance of Justice, Saint Louis University sociology professor Daniel Monti wrote, “A review of St. Louis County Board of Education’s deliberations between the 1950s and 1970s reveals three overriding concerns among professional educators and the lay leadership: the merger of all county districts with the city district, the equalization of school tax rates in the area, and the consolidation of districts within St. Louis County.” The idea may have some merit. Unfortunately, it is simply too pie in the sky to ever make a difference for students who need better educational options today.

It is highly unlikely that citizens in high-achieving, wealthy school districts such as Clayton would agree to a merger with the low-performing, poor school district of Riverview Gardens. Yet, even if all the area districts merged, it would not dissolve the pockets of concentrated poverty. Though it’s true that school district boundaries would be erased, the boundary lines around individual school buildings simply would become starker; essentially transferring the problem of housing decisions based on district performance to housing decisions based on school performance.

No, simply consolidating school districts will not solve St. Louis’ educational problems. The editorial board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch realizes as much. When they called for a city-county school district in April 2014, they wrote that their ideal school district would utilize “some form of open enrollment.” The editorial board implicitly recognized that school choice must be a part of any plan to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged students in the Saint Louis area.

Though the city-county school district will likely never happen, there are ways in which we can expand options for students. For starters, it should be easier for students in low-performing schools to take the dollars allotted for their education to the school of their choice. Missouri has had a successful, voluntary inter-district choice program between the St. Louis Public Schools and county school districts since 1981. With some modifications, the law that allowed Normandy and Riverview Gardens students to transfer to higher-performing schools could be just as sustainable. Moreover, the law could be expanded to allow all students the opportunity to seek the best education possible.

Along those lines, Missouri should allow students to enroll in charter schools across district boundaries. There are many well-regarded charter schools in Saint Louis that would welcome students from Normandy, Riverview Gardens, or other school districts. Moreover, there are many charter schools that would like to open in struggling school districts. They are inhibited from doing so, however, because they can only enroll students from within district boundaries.

Finally, Missouri should create a tax-credit scholarship program to enable students to attend a private school of their choice. Fourteen states now have a tax-credit scholarship program. These programs expand opportunities for students whose needs are not being met, especially students who are disadvantaged or have special needs. What is more, tax-credit scholarships save states money.

We do not need to hold out hope for large-scale changes to area school district boundaries when these solutions are at our fingertips. If Saint Louis truly wants to dissolve the poverty cycle in urban communities, then it should support realistic solutions like charter school expansion, voluntary open enrollment, and a tax-credit scholarship program.

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