Academic Achievement

Union Leaders' Lobbying Hurts Teachers, Students

JUNE 16, 2014

Last week we highlighted a California judge who ruled that laws enforcing teacher seniority and tenure were unconstitutional and violated students’ rights to a quality education.

But here in Pennsylvania, public school union leaders still defend these laws. While legislation is moving through the state House—with bipartisan support—to implement the commonsense reform of considering teacher evaluations in furlough decisions, union lobbyists are pulling out all the stops.

The PSEA’s latest lobbying push features the scary headline “Your job security is at risk.” Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has its own lobbying effort, talking about how the bill is “anti-teacher.”

Current seniority and tenure rules hurt younger teachers, regardless of their performance, and undermine the quality of education. Yet union executives continue to cling to the status quo—despite the fact that at a recent hearing, the president of the PSEA admitted he didn’t know how teachers’ themselves felt about the issue.

Indeed, union leaders rarely ask for member input on issues, since they use taxpayer resources to collect their political money rather than collect it directly from members.

posted by NATHAN BENEFIELD | 10:48 AM | Comments

SAT Scores Slip While Spending Soars

APRIL 16, 2014

Pennsylvania education spending is at at all-time high and ranks near the top in dollars spent per student among the states. But all of that extra spending isn't helping kids succeed.

In fact, SAT scores have declined while spending has soared. According to a new Cato Institute analysis, Pennsylvania students perform worse, on average, on the SATs now compared to 1972, despite an almost 120 percent increase—adjusted for inflation—in spending per student. See the chart below.

SAT scor vs Spending

How are we spending so much more without improving education outcomes? The answer is simple: There is no correlation between spending and achievement. How the money is spent is more important than how much money there is to spend. The Cato analysis finds the correlation between state spending and academic achievement is not significant:

Correlations are measured on a scale from 0 to 1, where 0 represents absolutely no correlation
between two data series and 1 represents a perfect correlation. Anything below 0.3 or 0.4 is
considered a weak correlation. The 0.075 figure reported here suggests that there is essentially no link between state education spending (which has exploded) and the performance of students at the end of high school (which has generally stagnated or declined).

The answer to our education woes is not more spending, but smarter spending. Education reform should also mean protecting high performing teachers, embracing different education models (themed public charter schools or public cyber charter schools) to serve different learning styles, and reforming the archaic student funding formula.  

School choice and competition is the key to saving students, not never-ending spending increases. 

posted by ELIZABETH STELLE | 02:29 PM | Comments

Philly Experiment Shows Charter School Promise

JANUARY 17, 2014

School Choice 101

Philadelphia schools have long battled declining student achievement, sky-rocketing violence, and unsustainable spending levels. Yet, several turn-around schools have managed to overcome this bleak educational trajectory and should serve as a model for further reforms.

Pennsylvania Independent’s Maura Pennington examines the striking consequences of Philadelphia School District’s 2010 experiment in reforming its lowest performing schools. The district employed two models: district-managed Promise Academies and privately-operated Renaissance Charter Schools.

The outcome? In short, things worsened for district-run schools, but the Renaissance Charter alternatives are showing improvement.

The latest report shows that the district’s Promise Academies lacked proper oversight and clarity as they sought to hire new staff and enforce a uniform dress code. One major hurdle they could not overcome was seniority requirements, which led to major staffing problems. And the district’s fiscal mismanagement led to funding decreases that severed the cornerstone of the reform—greater student instruction time.

At this point, three district-run Promise Academy high schools have closed, and in those that remain, academic performance sits below the district average. 

Renaissance Charter Schools—free from seniority requirements and other bureaucratic restrictions—managed to surmount the same obstacles and forge a path to success. When implementing new policies and procedures, they were governed by specific missions and goals and, consequently, achieved, according to one Renaissance Charter parent, “more order, organization, safer learning environment and a mutually agreed upon commitment from the staff at all levels.”

The benefits are tangible:

  • Decreased violence. At Young Scholars Frederick Douglass Charter School, serious safety incidents plummeted from 23.86 per 100 students in 2008-09 to .61 in 2010.
  • Increased academic achievement: Grover Cleveland Mastery Charter School gained 10 percentage points in reading and math proficiency one year after the change.

With such stark results and parental support, Philadelphia should look to the charter model of reform to take its failing schools to the next level.   

posted by JESSICA BARNETT, JOHN BOUDER | 11:30 AM | Comments

PODCAST: StudentsFirst on Education Reform

JANUARY 8, 2014

Part two of our conversation with Ashley DeMauro, PA state director for StudentsFirst, features an in-depth discussion of seniority reform, teacher evaluations, school transparency, and charter school reform.  Here are some highlights:

How can we measure teacher effectiveness to ensure education quality?

Because of recent reforms pushed for by StudentsFirst and others, Pennsylvania now has a robust, 4-tier rating system for educator performance.

So, once they're identified, how do we reward and protect the best public school teachers in the state?

Doing away with the "last in, first out" seniority-based hiring and firing is an obvious step one.

How can we make school spending and contracting more transparent to protect taxpayers?

A proposed transparency website called SchoolWATCH promises to do just that.

What’s on the General Assembly’s plate regarding long-overdue charter school reform?

SB 1085, while unnecessarily punitive to cyber schools, promises to expand charter authorization while enhancing accountability measures.

Listen to the full podcast here.

Find out more about StudentsFirst in PA and follow them on Twitter @PAStudentsFirst.

In case you missed it, listen to our first conversation with Ashley DeMauro on Pennsylvania's new student performance profiles.

posted by JOHN BOUDER | 02:55 PM | Comments

PODCAST: StudentsFirst & Performance Profiles

DECEMBER 19, 2013

In our latest podcast, Ashley DeMauro, PA state director for StudentsFirst, discusses Pennsylvania’s recently implemented school performance profiles.

What do they measure? How can parents learn about their children's schools and how can schools use the profiles to learn from each other?

Listen here to find out in the first of two conversations on education reform in Pennsylvania.

Curious about your school’s performance or want to compare it with schools in the city you’re moving to?

The data is available to everyone at

posted by JOHN BOUDER | 03:12 PM | Comments

SAT Scores by State 2013

OCTOBER 10, 2013

We have compiled each state’s average SAT score into one, easy-access spreadsheet ranking states by their mean combined scores. The results show that Pennsylvania lags behind the national average.

With a composite score of 1480, Pennsylvania now ranks 37th in the nation.  You can view the full state profile here

A more accurate comparison of state achievement, however, factors in student participation. States with high participation rates have a larger percentage of the student population taking the test, including lower-achieving students, which often translates to lower average scores. Therefore, we have also created a table ranking states with participation rates similar to Pennsylvania (see "high participation states" in the table below).

According to the College Board's 2013 SAT Report on College & Career Readiness, only 43 percent of SAT takers from the class of 2013 are prepared for college course work, matching the rate from the past 5 years.

The College Board suggest these national trends signal a "call to action." Pennsylvania must heed this call and push for dramatic changes to our current approach to education, which throws more money at underachieving schools. Instead, we should give parents the power to choose which school best fits their child's unique needs. School choice has shown to improve student achievement at a lower costs to taxpayers. 

Note: According to The College Board, the percentage of high school graduates is based upon the recently revised projection of high school graduates in 2013 by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), and the number of students in the class of 2013 who took the SAT in each state. Therefore, participation rates from prior years are not fully comparable to those listed above.

posted by JESSICA BARNETT | 11:00 AM | Comments

How is Your Public School Performing?

OCTOBER 4, 2013

The Pennsylvania School Performance Profile launched today, but will it deliver the "accountability system" Acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq promised in a briefing earlier this month?

Created through a federal waiver from the mandates of No Child Left Behind, this web-based resource aims to measure proficiency and growth of Pennsylvania schools using self-reported data from each district and school. PDE hopes it will give parents and taxpayers a clearer picture of school performance than the current standard of Adequate Yearly Progress.

A school receives a score based upon raw student performance (as measured by all four PSSA tests and Keystone Exams), ability to close the achievement gap amongst demographic groups, academic growth of students from year to year, and other factors. Based on these scores schools can be designated "Title 1 schools," with "priority schools" (those scoring the lowest 15 percent) requiring department intervention.

Dumaresq stressed the new system's ability to drive specific improvements. The system is also supposed to be a tool for the public. But the question remains: will this information empower parents and enhance students' opportunities?

The failure of some schools—through test scores, graduation rates, and violence—has been obvious for years, and "intervention" in the form of increased funding has not improved matters.

The true goal of the School Performance Profile is not just to grade schools, but to provide information parents, educators and lawmakers can access and use to improve schools and choose the best education options for students.

You can view the School Performance Profile now—some schools do not yet have performance data available yet—and tell us what you think.

PA School Accountability Profile Screenshot

posted by JESSICA BARNETT | 04:22 PM | Comments

Five Facts on the Philadelphia Schools Crisis

AUGUST 22, 2013

Things have reached a fever pitch in Philadelphia as the city's school district—the eighth-largest in America—is scrambling to close its $300 million deficit and open schools on time. As protestors close in on City Hall and the clock runs down on the start of a new school year, it's worth looking at what's really behind the school funding crisis in Philadelphia.

1. Philadelphia's violent, failing schools are the real crisis, not funding. We've pointed out for years that the real problem in Philadelphia is how district schools are failing students and families. Philadelphia spends $14,000 per student, right at the state average. But despite that, students perform poorly. Whether you look at state tests or national benchmarks, only 20 to 30 percent of Philadelphia students can read or do math at grade level. What's tragically worse is the danger and violence students suffer on a daily basis: In 2011-12 alone, district schools saw 2,310 assaults on students and staff, 15 rapes, 166 indecent assaults, 86 robberies, 157 thefts and 566 weapons possessions.

2. Emergency funding won't fix the spending problem. In fact, the gap is going to get worse. Despite the focus on getting $50 million in emergency funding from the state, and the layoffs of 3,800 teachers and school workers (some of whom are being rehired), Philadelphia's pension costs alone are set to exceed this year's $300 million budget gap by 2020. Simply raising taxes and pouring money into Philadelphia schools won't fix this long-term crisis brought on by failed policies.

3. School union leaders are driving the crisis. Everyone agrees that good teachers deserve to be paid adequately, but the demands of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) have been unreasonable for years. In a district with struggling students and chronic money woes, the PFT's last contract was padded with unnecessary perks. The year 2010-11 alone saw $2.6 million for a legal services fund that covered employees' personal needs such as preparing a will or buying a home; $15.3 million in severance pay; and virtually free health care for employees (that cost the district $165 million—with an extra $66 million for vision, prescription and dental benefits).

Now PFT union leaders are refusing to make financial concessions—regardless of the impact on students—even as their contract is due to expire Aug. 31. They are also worsening the crisis by fighting the school district's suspension of seniority rules. But such rules simply protect longstanding teachers without regard for whether they're the best educators.

4. Charter schools are rescuing students. With the inflexible and expensive teachers' contract, the school district has been hard-pressed to focus its spending better on students, or even downsize as it should given falling enrollment.  Unsurprisingly, desperate families want out of Philadelphia's violent, failing schools and are flocking to charter schools. In the last five years alone, enrollment in district schools has dropped 17 percent, while charter enrollment has nearly doubled.

5. Families need more school choice. The explosion in charter schools shows that parents want out of persistently failing public schools. Expanding charter school options, as well as tax credit scholarships, throws an immediate lifeline to students while forcing the school district to spend more effectively and improve its standards—a trend that has improved schools in other major cities. That's the silver lining in the Philadelphia schools crisis: Kids may finally get the education they deserve.

posted by PRIYA ABRAHAM | 03:25 PM | Comments

The Truth on Cyber School Performance

JUNE 28, 2013

Here is a letter to the editor I submitted to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Pennsylvania cyber school performance:

Mary Niederberger reports on a new, largely positive charter school study by Stanford University by taking an odd swipe at Pennsylvania cyber schools, blaming them for the state's poor charter school performance.

Cyber charter schools have proven immensely popular with Pennsylvania families, who appreciate the flexibility and individualized learning these public schools offer. Some 35,000 students now attend the schools, which begs the question: If cyber schools perform so poorly, why are parents choosing them?

Cyber schools frequently function as "last-chance" institutions for students who have fallen behind or failed in traditional public schools. One-third of cyber school students are from school districts that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress, and half of all cyber students are economically disadvantaged.

Given a few years at cyber school, many of these students improve in reading and math, and students do even better if they start at cyber school. At the Midland-based Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, for example--the state's largest--long-time students scored 17 percent higher in math and 14 percent higher in reading compared to newly enrolled students.

Certainly, Pennsylvania’s poorly performing charter or cyber charter schools should be forced to improve or be closed. But the same fate should befall persistently failing school districts that continue to flounder despite ever-increasing funding.

A healthy public school system that genuinely serves Pennsylvania students will have choices to serve different needs, while closing failing schools so our kids get a second chance before it's too late. Let's not forget that many cyber and other charter schools serve as lifelines to desperate families.

For more on cyber school funding, performance and popularity, please see our latest Policy Memo.

posted by PRIYA ABRAHAM | 00:01 PM | Comments

SAT Scores by State 2012

JUNE 24, 2013

EDITORS NOTE: Click here for the 2013 SAT Scores by state

How did states compare on the SAT in 2012?

The College Board's 2012 annual report on college and career readiness includes average SAT scores by state.  Since this data can be difficult to find on the College Board's website, we've organized and compiled it below.

It's difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison between states simply by ranking them on mean SAT score. Some states have a high SAT participation rate, which means a larger percentage of the student population—and more lower-achieving students—take the test. Pennsylvania is one of these states and tends to have a lower mean SAT score because of it.

To account for this, we've also ranked Pennsylvania among states with similar participation rates in another tab on the spreadsheet below. This gives us a better idea of how we rate against comparable states.

Pennsylvania ranks 38th in mean SAT score, lagging behind most of its Mid-Atlantic and New England neighbors.  Notably, Pennsylvania was outscored by New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Virginia, all with comparable participation rates (see page 39).

The College Board's Pennsylvania state profile shows Pennsylvania's SAT scores have remained flat since the data was first compiled in 1972, despite a doubling of education spending since 1997.  In fact, last year Pennsylvania earned its lowest ever score in Critical Reading.

All of this suggests that pouring more money into failing schools will not bring results absent fundamental education reform

posted by NATE HEETER | 01:41 PM | Comments

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