Experts try to define what makes a ‘good’ charter school

By JACOB MYERS
TheNewsOutlet.org

Charter school ratings difficult to find on state website

By JACOB MYERS
TheNewsOutlet.org

Determining if a charter, or community, school is good or bad should be as easy as A-B-C – or even D-E-F.

At least Ohio thinks so. Since August, the state has used an A-F school report card system to help parents analyze school choices. The system is based on one developed in Florida and that is used in nine other states. The state also has a searchable database with the information on its main education site.

“The Ohio Department of Education is an excellent resource. They have their repository of all of the schools report cards,” said Aaron Churchill, a data analyst for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank that sponsors 11 charter schools in the state.

However, parents visiting the state’s website may not find it all that resourceful. The home page has links to school districts, school buildings, dropout recovery community schools and technical education providers. There is no direct link to a listing of all community schools.

To find those schools, one has to click on the “School Building” link. But, don’t bother to look for the school by name. Instead, click on “C.” You’ll find the link to “Community Schools” in between Columbus Grove Local and Conneaut Area City.

Other than this, there are few, if any, online resources for parents shopping for the best public charter school.

Parents in the “Big 8” urban school districts in Ohio, however, can use a study done by the Fordham Institute, “Parsing Performance: Analysis of Ohio’s New School Report Cards.”

The report, supported by graphics, analyzes all Ohio schools.

The document also provides a “quick and dirty primer on how schools are doing in our urban areas,” said Churchill, who worked on the report.

Apples-to-apples comparisons of urban school districts and charter schools can be complicated. Some charter schools perform better, but enroll fewer poor and minority students. Some charter schools report lower test scores than local school districts, which often contain individual buildings that vary in performance and may actual perform worse than the charter schools.

The report makes an attempt to cut through the confusion.

Tables list schools in Ohio’s eight major cities and include performance on state tests, each school’s ability to add growth to a student’s yearly scores.

Sources:
• Ohio DOE report card site: www.reportcard.education.ohio.gov
• Fordham Institute’s 2012-13 Ohio Report Card Analysis: http://www.edexcellence.net/parsing-performance-analysis-of-ohio’s-new-school-report-cards
• Parsing Performance full report download: http://edexcellence.net/sites/default/files/publication/pdfs/20130909-Parsing-Performance-Analysis-of-Ohios-New-School-Report-Cards.pdf_0.pdf

Determining what makes a good versus a bad charter school isn’t easy.

“There is no special formula or secret sauce that makes a school great. It’s kind of a confluence of a whole bunch of different factors that creates a culture where a kid can thrive,” said Aaron Churchill, a research and data analyst for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The institute is an educational think-tank that sponsors 11 charter schools in Ohio.

While most school-choice advocates agree with that, they did cite leadership, parental involvement and effective school board members as some necessary elements.

“You have to have a strong school leader … and then they have to recruit a staff that is actually qualified and confident, can educate their students that has the ability to motivate the child to help them achieve at higher levels and perform well in the classroom,” said Churchill.

A charter school should “instill belief in the kids that they are expected to achieve and they will achieve, and good parent engagement,” said Greg Harris, Ohio director of StudentsFirst, which lobbies for public school reform.

Ron Adler, president of the Ohio Coalition for Quality Education, which advocates for public charter schools, answered from a parent’s choice perspective.

“A lot of the parents are interested in academic performance or maybe a specific education mission like special ed.,” said Adler. “For other parents, charter schools are a very safe place because they tend to be smaller and they have a zero tolerance for any kind of violence.”

Ask what low-performing schools lack, and the responses are just as subjective.

“To pinpoint it on one specific cause would be very difficult to do,” said Churchill. “There’re some issues with curriculum and teachers and the turnover that happens. Some of that happens with low-performing schools of all types, regardless of whether it is a charter school or a district-run school.”

This haziness is one reason the Fordham Institute conducted a study analyzing Ohio’s new report card system. Church was the analyst for this study.

The system rates schools by letter grades, A-F, in several categories.

“Numbers and letter grades can never supply all that information. But they’re a crucial starting point,” the study concluded.

As Churchill looked at the information on the Ohio Department of Education website, he realized that of the nine measurements the state offered, two stood out.

We believe there are two key indicators for how a school is performing. There is the raw achievement, the performance index, which is a measure of how kids are doing on the standardized assessment,” said Churchill. “The second key measure is called ‘value added.’ That is the measure of the schools contribution to the students learning.”

The first is based purely on tests, while the second looks at how well the schools teach the students. Getting an A in the performance index rating is harder than getting one in the value-added category.

“There are a lot of schools that do well on one but not on the other. That oftentimes happens in the urban areas where you see low standardized test scores, but the school are contributing to the kids learning, which is something that we want to see,” said Churchill.

The study found only five charter schools (about 2 percent) earned an A in the performance index, while 73 (or 33 percent) got an A in value-added progress. Another finding: Charter schools do worse than traditional public schools in the performance index. Most charters (58 percent) got a D rating compared to traditional school districts, which earned a B.

“Zeroing in on achievement alone risks mislabeling a school as failing academically, when it may be doing a great job helping students make big gains after starting out far behind,” Churchill wrote in the study.

Likewise, if achievement is the only focus, then “it may conceal the fact that students, even those making solid gains, remain far below the academic standard necessary to enter college or to obtain gainful employment upon graduating from high school,” the study says.

The study doesn’t say which should be weighed more heavily. Instead it notes this depends on who is looking at the letter grades.

Parents with high-achieving children may want to transfer them to another school with high-achievers. They would then weigh performance index more heavily.

People who want to help disadvantaged students might look at the report card progress ratings more closely.

School district officials or charter school sponsors would look at both indicators over a period of time “to determine which schools to expand and which to intervene in or even close.”

The study found that the majority of Ohio students are enrolled in traditional public schools. However, charter school enrollment has increased in the past 10 years – to more than 115,000 students. Of those, about a third (38,000) are enrolled in online e-schools.

Also, reading proficiency rates are higher than math statewide in both traditional and charter schools.

The study concludes: “When achievement and progress ratings are joined to examine overall performance, there are more low-performing than high-performing charters.”

Youngstown is an exception.

The city’s school district is one of only two in the state in “academic distress. The other is Lorain. In Youngstown, enrollment has declined 43 percent, to 5,300 students. City schools earned a D in achievement and an F in value added, the study found.

Despite this, charter schools haven’t benefitted from this. Enrollment in the city charter schools has remained steady, about 2,500 students for nearly a decade.

The city’s charters, however, are gaining ground academically over its district counterparts. The city school districts performance index has increased from 70 in 2008-09 to 77 in 2012-13. Charter schools had routinely performed lower in performance index than the city school counterparts. That changed in 2010-11. Since then, the city’s charters have overtaken the city schools academically, scoring an 80 on the performance index in 2012-13.

While Adler was reluctant to name specific charter schools as the best, Churchill and Harris both said the Breakthrough Schools in Cleveland, KIPP schools in Columbus, and Columbus Collegiate Academy are among the best charter schools working with mainly poor minority students.

Harris also named Dayton Early College Academy (DECA), and Toledo School for the Arts as two more of the best charter schools. DECA students can earn up to two years college credit while attending high school, according to Harris.

The Breakthrough schools in Cleveland are: The Intergenerational School, Near West Intergeneration School, Lakeshore Intergenerational School, E Prep & Village Prep-Cliffs Campus, E Prep & Village Prep-Woodland Hills, Citizens Leadership Academy, Citizens Academy East Campus, and Citizens Academy Hampden Campus.

The KIPP schools in Columbus are: KIPP Columbus Elementary and KIPP Journey Academy.

The Fordham study also ranks traditional public and private schools for each of the Big 8 Ohio urban cities.

Sources:

• Ohio DOE report card site:www.reportcard.education.ohio.gov.

• Fordham Institute’s 2012-13 Ohio Report Card Analysis:http://www.edexcellence.net/parsing-performance-analysis-of-ohio’s-new-school-report-cards.

• Parsing Performance full report download: http://edexcellence.net/sites/default/files/publication/pdfs/20130909-Parsing-Performance-Analysis-of-Ohios-New-School-Report-Cards.pdf_0.pdf

TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, The University of Akron, Cuyahoga Community College and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).

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