devos on divides

Another Indianapolis school gets Betsy DeVos’s seal of approval, this time for being diverse

School choice can produce school diversity, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Wednesday — citing an Indianapolis private school as evidence.

At a Brookings Institution event about choice in Washington, D.C., leading school integration advocate Richard Kahlenberg, asked DeVos for her take on initiatives that aim to increase racial and socioeconomic diversity.

“I’m wondering if you support or oppose policies that would structure choice in a way to promote socioeconomic and racial diversity,” he asked. “For example, I’ve worked with the Charlotte public schools recently. And they have a policy where, with their magnet schools, they want to try to get a nice healthy mix of students from different backgrounds.”

DeVos responded positively, though without specifics — and pivoted quickly to a place and topic closer to her experience: private schools in Indiana.

“I clearly think that having diversity, racial and socioeconomic measure of diversity, is a real benefit in schools,” she said. “I think about a school I visited in Indianapolis, The Oaks school. The mission is to really have a wide range of diversity school economically, racially. And it’s a successful school model.”

DeVos was referring to The Oaks Academy, a three-campus private school that is more diverse than most public schools in the surrounding district. Half of its students use vouchers from the state to pay their tuition, in an arrangement that DeVos lobbied to expand across the country before becoming education secretary.

Chalkbeat visited The Oaks last year and found unusual diversity in a city where schools remain quite segregated — and a motivation that could never fuel public school choice programs.

Not every school can precisely emulate The Oaks, since its leaders, and many parents, believe the school is defined by its Christian values. But its remarkable capacity to attract diverse families and create a community where students feel at ease and form friendships across often intractable social divides offers insight for schools across a still-divided city.

The school’s three campuses are set in low-income, heavily black, urban neighborhoods. But the aim of the school has always been to serve not only the children of those neighborhoods but also families that had migrated to the suburbs, said Andrew Hart, CEO of The Oaks schools.

“The origin of the idea of The Oaks was — ‘Let’s start a school that provides an education of such quality that families will pull their kids up from the finest, most elite private or suburban schools,’” said Hart, who started volunteering at the school in its early years. “But also let’s actively serve and reach out to neighborhood children.”

DeVos also said she thought studies have shown that choice increases school diversity. There isn’t much evidence for that, and some research to suggest that choice can magnify segregation.

What research, including Kahlenberg’s, is clear about is that poor children perform significantly better when they attend schools that are largely middle class — schools with advantages such as well-prepared peers, engaged parents and high expectations from teachers.

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”

Roll call!

What states told Chalkbeat about how they will monitor their chronic absenteeism data

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

Now that students’ rates of chronic absenteeism are being used to judge schools in most states, there will be new incentives to manipulate this data. So Chalkbeat asked the 10 state departments of education whose approved ESSA plans use chronic absenteeism how they plan to guard against that. Nine got back to us. Here’s what they said.

Arizona

As with all school attendance data our School Finance and accounting department have certain controls in place to make sure reporting is accurate – since state funding for schools is based in AZ on average daily attendance it is very important.

As for our newly approved ESSA plan, the Department is meeting with various stakeholders to determine ways to improve reporting of attendance and absenteeism. Our goal is of course to try to reach students that are frequently absent and hopefully help get them back in the classroom.

— Dan Godzich, Arizona Department of Education

Connecticut

Connecticut has been collecting and reporting chronic absenteeism data for many years. The data collection system has many in-built edits checks to ensure data quality.

Here are some examples:

  • Attendance must be submitted for all students who are enrolled in the district.
  • Every student with perfect attendance is flagged for district review.
  • Any school that has an increase or decrease of chronic absenteeism rates of more than five percent is flagged for district review and response to [Connecticut State Department of Education].

In addition to edit checks, districts are provided with numerous attendance reports to review their data prior to finalization. Ultimately, the superintendent is required to certify that their data are accurate. Staff also monitor the data during the collection process and reach out to districts when there are anomalies.

Our accountability system is not intended to be a “gotcha.” It’s much more a resource to inform improvement. From the state perspective, we are not looking to name/shame people but partner with them and bring the requisite support to collectively problem-solve with them, which would give districts much less of a reason to cheat or manipulate the data.

— Laura Stefon, Connecticut State Department of Education

Delaware

Delaware school districts and charter schools have been collecting and reporting data regarding attendance as well as absences for many years, so this is not necessarily a new data point in our system. The Department is reviewing current processes around absenteeism and chronic absenteeism, and will work with districts and schools to determine consistent rules for using this information in the accountability system.

— Susan Haberstroh, Delaware Department of Education

Illinois

Historically we have collected school level absence data in summary (e.g. this school had x total absences and x number of students who were chronically truant). Starting this year, 2017-18, we are collecting student-level absence data. As with most of the data we collect from districts, it’s self-reported. We will only know about the absences they report. There are audits and data quality procedures we utilize in order to make sure the data is as accurate possible, for example, a student can’t have more absences recorded than days enrolled in the school (how can you have 30 absences if you’ve only been enrolled for 20 days). In addition, several times a year staff from the Data Analysis division attend conferences and answer questions on a variety of [Illinois State Board of Education] data collection systems … Those dialogues produce suggestions directly from districts that influence changes we make to those systems to improve usability and data accuracy.

— Jackie Rodgers, Illinois State Board of Education

Maine

Maine is planning on using chronic absenteeism and looking at students who have absences of more than 10% of the school year. Student level attendance data must be submitted and “reviewed” quarterly by school districts. The “reviewed” means that they state that they have submitted attendance data to date. At the end of the school year, superintendents will be required to certify that the data is complete and accurate. In addition, one of the duties of the new ESSA Data Coordinator, a new position at the Maine DOE, will be to monitor this data. The exact procedure and policy around this is in process of being written.

— Rachel Paling, Maine Department of Education

Massachusetts

Our system collects attendance data directly from the district student information management systems on a daily basis and also receives any changes made to the student record on a daily basis. So any data manipulation would need to be done systematically and could not be done after the fact without raising flags as to why so many post-dated attendance changes were being made. That being said, it’s something we’ll monitor closely.

— Jacqueline Reis, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Oregon

Districts submit attendance data for individual students to [the Oregon Department of Education] four times a year. These data are submitted according to rules published in our data collection manuals; rules that conform to State Board adopted administrative rules and to state statute.

Once the data is loaded into ODE’s data system, ODE staff evaluate the data (such as comparing to historical trends) in order to identify unusual aggregated data, unusual shifts in aggregate trend data, and the plausibility of the individual student level data. (This is part of our usual data quality assurance process, which we use to help ensure data is as accurate as possible.) We know that accidental data submission errors do occur, so our process is designed to help find and correct these.

Once we see data with an unusual pattern we notify the affected districts and ask them to review their submitted data. In some cases districts confirm the data as accurate, in other cases they realize they’ve need to correct an (unintentional) data submission error.

We have not yet done any audits of local district data on attendance. However, the accountability office has conducted such audits on other accountability data. I would anticipate that we might do the same with assessment data submissions, should concerns arise regarding the validity of that data.

— Jon Wiens, Oregon Department of Education

New Jersey

New Jersey has collected chronic absenteeism data for many years. In the School Performance Reports, New Jersey has included chronic absenteeism data for elementary and middle schools for years, and beginning this last year, in the 2016 School Performance Reports, chronic absenteeism data was included for high schools. By publicly posting the chronic absenteeism data for each school on the [New Jersey Department of Education] website, the public is able to have conversations with schools about their data.

— David Saenz, New Jersey Department of Education

Tennessee

There are checks in place to ensure that our large-scale data collection processes are as accurate as possible. In addition to our auditing and compliance processes, which ensure districts are following proper procedures, the department also collects data separately through our assessment and evaluation process, and that provides another check. Teachers claim the students who have been present for the vast majority of instructional time for the purposes of their evaluation. If this data does not align with chronic absenteeism rates reported for the school, it would indicate something was off, and we could investigate further. Additionally, teachers and administrators have another incentive to mark attendance data correctly. If a student is marked as present but is really absent, there could be liability issues for the school. For example, if the school said a student was in class all day but got in an accident or committed a crime during that window, the school could be liable. Liability is a concern we hear from districts, so we know this is on the minds of many administrators.

— Sara Gast, Tennessee Department of Education