Archive for August, 2010

Race to the Top, Education Reform and Public Opinion

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Several states that recently revised their charter school laws were among the 10 newest Race to the Top winners announced in the $4.35 billion grants competition, which favors charter school expansion among other reform initiatives. But despite the financial infusions offered to cash-starved states, the Obama Administration’s centerpiece education program earned less-than-overwhelming public approval in a new national poll just released by NCSC partners at Harvard. The poll also shows a sharp decline in popular support for school vouchers in recent years and continued support for charter schools, particularly among African Americans and Latinos.  

Race to the Top is designed to encourage an array of education strategies endorsed by the federal government. While friendlier charter school policies appear to have been a plus in the latest round, they did not guarantee success. At least four winning states – Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island – pushed through laws to allow more charter schools this year in sometimes bruising legislative sessions. And Kentucky did not make the final cut after failing to pass a bill this year that would have allowed charters for the first time. But Louisiana was not chosen in this round of winners despite the rapid expansion of charter schools in New Orleans. Other strategies rewarded by the program include adopting higher academic standards and improved testing, basing teacher and principal evaluations on student achievement growth, targeting failing schools for turnaround, upgrading and expanding the use of data systems to improve academics and gaining signoff on plans from many stakeholders, including teachers unions, which have resisted some measures endorsed by the administration. Other winners in the second round are the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Maryland and Ohio. The 10 winners will receive grants ranging from $75 million to $700 million. They join Delaware and Tennessee, the only two winners in the first round.

Race to the Top did garner more positive than negative reactions in the new opinion poll, conducted by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard and Education Next journal. Thirty-two percent of respondents said they considered the program “necessary to improve school quality” while 22 percent opposed it, saying it was an “unwarranted intrusion into state and local government.” However, almost half of respondents – 46 percent — expressed no opinion, despite the program’s fairly high exposure in the popular press. The poll was conducted in May and June.

 The poll asked about many education issues, including some high-profile reforms. The decline in support for vouchers was striking. Approval dropped from 45 percent in 2007 to 31 percent this year, while disapproval grew from 34 percent to 43 percent. Support for charter schools, in contrast, rose from 42 percent in 2008 to 44 percent this year, while disapproval increased from 16 percent to 19 percent. Among black respondents, however, approval for charters rose from 42 percent to 64 percent and among Hispanics it rose from 37 percent to 47 percent.

 One interesting detail about the poll, which covers a wide range of education issues, was that teachers disagreed with the general public on several issues. For example, teachers were less likely than the general public to support charter schools and their approval dropped from 47 to 39 percent since 2008. Similarly only 22 percent of teachers supported Race to the Top, while 46 percent opposed it. Teachers also disagreed with other respondents on merit pay. Support in the general public for “basing a teacher’s salary, in part, on his or her students’ academic progress on state tests” rose from 44 percent in 2007 to 49 percent in 2010 and opposition dropped from 32 to 25 percent. Among teachers, however, 63 percent opposed merit pay while only 24 percent supported it. 

Read stories about Race to the Top in The New York Times and Education Week.


Read about the PEPG/Education Next poll in previous years.

The Persuadable Public: The 2009 Education Next-PEPG Survey asks if information changes minds

The 2008 Education Next – PEPG Survey of Public Opinion

What Americans Think about Their Schools: The 2007 Education Next—PEPG Survey

Getting Inside Parents’ Heads: Why They Choose Charters

Friday, August 20th, 2010

Switching schools is not easy. Parents must research the options and children must deal with new classmates, new rules and unfamiliar surroundings. Understanding what drives families to switch taps into central questions of the school choice movement. What do they prefer about the chosen school? And what do their choices reveal about their understanding of the available education offerings?   A new NCSC research brief explains a study that looked at the extent to which a quest for academic quality motivated families to switch to charters from traditional public schools (TPS) in Indianapolis — or whether other considerations prompted the changes. The brief, which is written in layman’s language, is for the paper “Choosing Indianapolis Charter Schools: Espoused Versus Revealed Academic Preferences,” by  Marc Stein, Ellen Goldring and Xiu Cravens.

The researchers surveyed parents about why they chose a specific charter school and compared those explanations with characteristics of both the school they chose and the one they left. The findings were surprising. A majority of surveyed parents indicated that academics were a top priority in their decision, especially if they considered their child’s previous school average or below. But that preference wasn’t evident in many of the actual moves. About equal numbers of students moved to schools with worse academic records than the ones they left as moved to schools that were higher performing from ones with lower academic showings. Academic performance was measured by test scores and whether a school met federal AYP standards under No Child Left Behind.

So what explains the disparities between intentions and actions? One possibility is that parents gave a response that they thought would present them in a favorable light. Another is that “academic quality” could mean different things to parents and survey creators. Parents might have been thinking of a school’s overall reputation, which could cover a range of factors from its safety record to class sizes to test scores. The research brief has a helpful box “Common Errors of Survey Research” that explains some of the difficulties faced by researchers who conduct surveys and compare responses across several instruments. Two different surveys might use very different phrasing for questions seeking similar information making comparisons difficult.

For More Information

Read more about parent choice and charter schools as well as other types of schools.

Parent Preferences and Parent Choices: The Public-Private Decision about School Choice

Information and Exit: Do Accountability Ratings Help Families Choose Schools?

Gaining Access?: Decision Process and School Selection in Chicago

White Parents, Diversity and School Choice Policies: Where Good Intentions, Anxiety and Privilege Collide

Big Money and the Promise of Charter Schools

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

Some recent news stories about large private donations to charter schools caught our attention here at Matters of Choice.

On August 2, The Washington Post  wrote that a nonprofit called Venture Philanthropy Partners is giving $5.5 million to help KIPP’s D.C. operation expand from its current seven charter schools serving 1,500 students to 10 schools with 3,400 students by 2015. The money will be directed several ways: expanding KIPP’s financial and management structure to support more students, recruiting teachers and students, and improving schools’ ability to use data to track student learning – operations that are important to educational quality and expensive to provide. A KIPP official told The Post the expansion of innovations at KIPP schools will “set a high bar for what’s possible” for all D.C. schools.

In late June The New York Times wrote about $15 million that Green Dot Public Schools is budgeting to turn around Locke High School in Los Angeles, a former traditional public school (TPS) that was plagued by crime, gangs, and high dropout rates. Two years into the four-year turnaround project, students report less violence and better instruction and test scores are slowly improving. The $15 million, which The Times said was provided mostly by foundations, is in addition to about $30 million a year the 3,200-student school receives in public funding. Green Dot told The Times that the extra money is paying for hiring psychologists and social workers, increasing security and transportation, adding classrooms, and creating an academy to train students for careers in architecture. (Green Dot is one of five California charter management organizations sharing a multi-year, $60 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.) The Times quoted Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) applauding the school’s improvements but asking how replicable they are. How many single schools can expect foundations to chip in $15 million? The price tag, The Times notes, is more than double the $6 million maximum the federal government has said it will pay public school districts to turn around a single failing school?

Earlier in June Education Week reported that the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation plans to open its own charter school in Kansas City next year. A foundation official said the expected $10 million investment over the school’s first decade will allow it to concentrate on education from the start instead of having to worry about raising money.  The school, he said, will “provide rigorous college preparation and offer a longer-than-usual school day and school year.” Ed Week wrote that while other large, influential private funders such as Gates and the Walton Family Foundation have given millions to charter schools, Kauffman is believed to be the first large grant-making foundation to start its own school.

So what’s the big deal? Private support for charter schools is nothing new. Some say private money is necessary to level the playing field for charter schools, which often receive about the same taxpayer funding per pupil as traditional public schools but not money for overhead like buildings and central administrative functions. Also, say proponents of private funding for charters, extra money is necessary if charters are to carry out expensive reforms like small classes, specialized academic programs like Locke’s architecture academy, and longer school days and years. But others counter that the private money could be helping traditional public schools, which some studies have found are more likely to wind up enrolling students with special needs and which also are increasingly likely to be raising private money. Also, skeptics add, studies comparing achievement outcomes between charter schools and traditional public schools have produced mixed findings. (KIPP and Green Dot are generally considered successful charter operators). Finally, what happens when the initial infusion of private money runs out? Will schools that built budgets and expectations around the extra money be able to continue providing programs that make them stand out?

When Ed Week asked New York University professor Diane Ravitch to comment on Kauffman’s new charter school, she replied in an e-mail: “And what will they prove? That lots of resources make a difference and that every school should have someone with deep pockets to keep classes small and keep the school well-supplied with the best of everything.” Ravitch has written that charter schools have failed to satisfy early predictions that they would stimulate innovation and improve student outcomes.

On the other hand, Andrew Rotherham, a founder of Education Sector who is now with Bellwether Education Partners, told The Post that infusions of private money have helped make the rapid expansion of charter schools possible in D.C., creating a robust environment for reform. “The most celebrated schools” in D.C., he said, “have all had to use creative strategies,” including raising private money. The Post identifies Rotherham as a former trustee of a D.C. charter school.


Read these papers from the NCSC publications archive on a range of issues about charter schools, including a report on a large group of privately financed schools in Chicago and research into innovation and student achievement at charter schools in several locales.

Renaissance Schools Fund-Supported Schools: Early Outcomes, Challenges, and Opportunities

An Examination of the Legal Environment, Educational Innovation and Student Achievement

Innovation in Schools of Choice

How New York City’s Charter Schools Affect Achievement, August 2009 Report

Instructional Conditions in Charter Schools and Students’ Mathematics Achievement Gains

The NCSC is funded by a 5 year, $13.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences. Its lead institution is Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The center is housed on the campus of Peabody College, one of the nation's top graduate schools of education.