Vox populi

Comments of the week: what to count and what to let go

This week, commenters debated whether attendance should count in middle school admissions, students should spend school days in Albany, and new academic standards for student athletes will help or hurt students and schools.

A Remainders link to a parent and child psychologist’s article on why school attendance shouldn’t be used to screen students for selective middle and high schools sparked a conversation about what role attendance plays in academic performance and whose responsibility it is to get students to school.

A.S. Neill also wrote in favor of taking absences into account, arguing that they pose problems for individual students and for their schools:

Whatever the reasons for excessive absences in elementary school, by middle and high school, these students become problems for schools both because it lowers their rating scores, and they require extraordinary efforts to correct the deficiencies in their lagging education, often unsuccessful. As such, they pose difficulties for other students in the classroom as well, which is why parents know to try to get their kids in schools where the “good” students are. 

Guest argued that attendance provides valuable data, and not only for middle-school admissions:

Psychologists might say that, but any teacher with five days or more experience will tell you that attendance is the most important piece of data we have on a kid.  Can almost single handed predict failure.  Yet another piece of data not included in any value added or growth measure.

Kitchen Sink shifted the debate to the question of who’s responsible for getting kids to school:

Hello?  Does anyone out there think that SCHOOLS have a role in setting expectations for attendance?

This problem is the fault of the school system AND the families.

Whatever the poverty-related issues, the fact that our school system does nothing systematically to raise and address these concerns is a missing part of the tragedy.

The answer is to tackle the problem with the force multiplier of using every angle: schools holding families accountable, schools building institutional trust with families, social service agencies providing wraparound support, broad goal setting with specific outcomes and resources on the city and district/region/network level, creative thinking with new solutions like the celebrity marketing/wake up call ideas and vouchers for taxi rides in specific circumstances, expanded child care opportunities for families in need, and ACS taking educational neglect seriously.

A debate about academics versus other activites also took center stage stage in readers’ responses to a story about the announcement of stringent academic and attendance standards for the 40,000 students who play school sports citywide. (After Boys and Girls High School toughened its academic requirements for student-athletes in 2011, its championship mens basketball team benched seven players and exited the state tournament in its first round.)

Several readers asked whether the new standards would push athletes to excel in classes or walk out on school altogether.

Students Are Not Widgets wrote:

I’m all for closing the achievement gap and accountability but what about the student athletes that legitimately work hard and struggle in their classes and may need 5 years to graduate?  So now these students should be punished and not allowed to excel in athletics?  Maybe athletics is the one thing motivating the student to stay engaged in learning and removing it will lead to more drop outs.

Ellen raised the question of how the new standards will affect students with special needs.

The students who play and have IEPs may not be on track to graduate in 4 years, not because of failure but because of a course load that often includes resource rooms, OT and PT as well as therapy for students with hearing losses, etc.  In light of the new directive from OCR on access to team sports PSAL needs to make reasonable accommodations on the new standards.

Finally, JuggleandHope wondered if the new standards could improve academics beyond simply requiring athletes to exceed a certain cut-off.

Maybe there will be enough concern for academically-weak and athletically-strong students that we will see the development of effective education practices that could be scaled to other students.  Teachers could say, “Let’s do for her what we do for our star point guard.”

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised nearly $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent running in northeast Denver’s District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $300,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely based on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.