The bipartisan education reform group, StudentsFirst, released its annual State Policy Report Card grading each state's education policies and demonstrating the need for more student-centered reforms.
How did Pennsylvania fare? Well, we got a D+.
However, other states didn't fare much better as “D+” was the national average. StudentsFirst assessed each state’s education policies on three criteria: elevating the teaching profession, empowering parents, and whether or not a state spends wisely and governs well. Pennsylvania did not score above a “C” in any of these categories.
Why did Pennsylvania score so low, and how can it improve?
Elevate the Teaching Profession (C-): Pennsylvania made progress in this pillar by instituting a new teacher evaluation system, called the Teacher Effectiveness System. The profile is designed to effectively identify teachers who are excelling, while providing support to those teachers who need improvement. To improve, StudentsFirst suggests ending the practice of making employment decisions based only on seniority, which harms both teachers and students.
Empower Parents (D-): Pennsylvania has not done enough to empower parents to make informed educational choices for their children. The state should implement an A-F grading system, building on the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile, to provide parents with an easy-to-understand way to assess each school, and hold schools more accountable. Supporting the growth of high-performing public charter schools would also go a long way in empowering parents.
If policymakers are looking for the most effective way to empower parents, they should consider expanding educational tax credits and scholarships, which would rescue children from violent and failing schools. Not only would an expansion empower parents, but it would save taxpayers money and improve educational outcomes.
Spend Wisely and Govern Well (C): While Pennsylvania spends more than $14,000 per student, we have not seen the kind of positive results expected from such a large investment. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), more than half of 4th and 8th grade students are not proficient in reading and math. In order to make more effective use of taxpayer resources, StudentsFirst suggests linking spending to student outcomes, creating a statewide recovery district for low-performing schools and providing teachers with a portable retirement plan.
Despite the nation's "D+" grade, progress is being made, as StudentFirst notes:
The second takeaway is that change is still happening much too slowly. Instead of passing a comprehensive set of education policies, far too many states are taking a piecemeal approach. Other states appear to employ an on-again, off-again approach to education, focusing heavily on education reform one year, then taking a pass on putting any complementary policies into place the next year.
Any progress is welcome, but states need to pick up the pace on reform. The longer reform is put off, the more children will suffer from sub-par education in failing schools. Their future depends on education reform.
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.
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.
In case you missed it, listen to our first conversation with Ashley DeMauro on Pennsylvania's new student performance profiles.
With a waiting list 30,000 students long, you'd think Philadelphia would be working to expand the reach of charter schools. Sadly, Philadelphia's School Reform Commission is seeking just the opposite, despite the city's dismal academic achievement scores.
As reported by Maura Pennington of the Pennsylvania Independent, the School Reform Comission recently issued an ultimatum to several area charter schools. A bevy of new rules and regulations, called SRC-1, were to be signed by December 15, but many charters have refused to comply.
These new rules would restrict charter growth via enrollment caps—even for high-performing charters—and enable the School District of Philadelphia to withhold their funding, according to Sarah Leitner at MediaTrackers PA.
What's behind this power grab by the education establishment and how can charters fight to maintain choice for urban students?
We talked to Maura Pennington and Sarah Leitner in our latest Google Hangout:
Stay up to date on social media:
More than 80 percent of 4th and 8th grade students in the School District of Philadelphia didn't reach proficiency in math and reading, according to the Nation's Report Card. When compared to other large cities, Philadelphia scores well below the average.
What does "proficiency" mean? Here's the definition: "This level represents solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter."
So, 80 percent of students in Philadelphia public schools (excluding charters) are not meeting these criteria, indicating an ongoing crisis in the Philadelphia school system.
Critics will claim that Governor Corbett’s phantom education cuts are to blame. But state payments for public schools are at the highest level in the history of the commonwealth.
While the school district did lose overall funding, it was mainly due to the expiration of federal stimulus dollars, which were only temporary, and should not have been used to plug holes in a budget plagued by a structural deficit. Philadelphia already receives approximately the state average in education funding per student and higher than the average relative to other states. Funding is not the problem.
Pennsylvania does need a fair funding formula to improve education, but families and students should be the beneficiaries of funding, not bureaucracies.
Calls for real education reform to save students from failing schools have been met with vigorous opposition from unions. Whether it's fighting to reduce teaching standards, continuing to defend outdated seniority rules or opposing school choice, government union leaders are front-and-center in the effort to block efforts to improve the educational system and perserve the status quo.
That has to change.
How will more than 35,000 cyber school students be affected by legislation pending in the state Senate this week? There’s both good and bad news on the horizon and your voice is critical.
The good: Senate Bill 1085 fixes the “pension double dip” for cyber schools in an equitable manner—an improvement on the bill passed by the House that cut funding more severely. SB 1085 would also institute necessary accountability and oversight measures, which would give cyber and charter schools more fiscal transparency. The bill would also allow universities to authorize new charter schools, lessening school districts' ability to squelch their own competition.
The bad: SB 1085 threatens an arbitrary 5 percent funding reduction for cyber schools. This “ready, fire, aim” approach cuts funding for cybers before a commissioned study on charter school funding has time to make a reasoned report.
What would school districts “save” from this arbitrary cut? Not much, a 5 percent cut to cybers would fund a mere 57 minutes of school district class time statewide. For cybers, though, it amounts to about one-third of teacher salaries, and could effectively shut the door on many families’ educational choices.
Why should cyber school students have to do with even less, especially when they already account for just one percent of state and local education spending? Cyber and charter schools already receive only about 80 percent of the per-student funding that traditional public schools get.
Tell the state Senate how you feel about keeping educational choice alive for tens of thousands of families across the state!
The Education Law Center has issued an attack on legislation to allow universities to approve new charter schools. In a single paragraph, a spokesman for the group makes makes three false claims in trying to demonize charter schools.
"School districts are, you know, they’re charged exactly with that under the law that their job is to ensure that all students receive a quality education," Lapp said. "When charters expand without any management, it concentrates those student groups more heavily in school districts and gives them less funding and less ability to adequately serve them."
Myth #1: The public school monopoly ensures that all students receive a quality education. According to the Nation's Report Card released last week, nearly 60 percent of Pennsylvania's 8th grade students did not make proficiency in reading or math.
The only real accountability in education occurs when parents can choose the best school for their children. Charter schools don't get a single dime in funding unless parents choose that particular school for their child.
Myth #2: Charter schools drain resources from school districts. Actually, charter schools only receive about 80 percent of the funding that school districts spend per student. Districts keep the remaining 20 percent for children they no longer have to educate—allowing them to spend more per student for those who remain.
Myth #3: Charter schools "cream" the best students. In fact, charters disproportionately serve low-income, minority students who were struggling in traditional schools.
Requiring charter schools to get permission from school districts to compete for students is like requiring Wendy's to get approval from McDonald's to open a new restaurant. Allowing alternative authorizers, like universities, for charter schools, eliminates the flawed mechanism that incentivizes school districts to fight against new educational options—keeping thousands of families on waiting lists for charter schools.
This is a reform nearly 70 percent of Pennsylvania voters support, and the time is ripe for lawmakers to make this positive change.
Cyber schools have been falsely maligned as impersonal and anti-social environments for learning, but the truth is far different. Case in point: Achievement House Cyber Charter School is bringing blended learning options to kids across the state—most recently in York.
Nikelle Snader at The York Dispatch highlighted a new Resource Center where local Achievement House students can drop in whenever they need a little extra help. The center is primarily designed to complement online classes and extend hands-on help and support to struggling students. But it will be used for even more.
The centers host parent meetings, medical screenings, face-to-face instruction, study sessions, and standardized testing. Special education and bilingual instructors also regularly visit to provide more specialized learning options for those who need it. Achievement House now offers 11 such centers across the state, including three in Philadelphia alone.
William Rodriquez, a senior at Achievement House, feels drawn to the familial environment of the Resource Center. “I don’t feel like something’s about to happen,” he said—a welcome change from his previous two schools.
Safety also motivated Stephen Frank to attend 21st Century Cyber School, where he flourished without the threat of physical bullying. This Saturday, as part of its “Kindness Matters” program, Agora Cyber Charter School is hosting an anti-bullying event in York, as well as similar events elsewhere in the state during the month of October.
Cyber schools have become a very real presence in the lives of more than 35,000 students and in their communities.
But Resource Centers require funds to operate, and major cuts recently passed by the House put Achievement House’s efforts in peril. Slashing funding for schools that already receive 20 percent less per student ignores the success stories of students like Jake Swink, who has spoken out against treating cyber school students as second-class citizens.
Click here to let the State Senate know that you oppose arbitrary cuts to cyber school funding.
A recent poll found that 87 percent of likely voters in Pennsylvania think parents should have the option to choose the type of public school that’s best for their children—do you?
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.
If you’re one of the most violent school districts in Pennsylvania, failing your students, and borrowing to make ends meet, would you spend money on a lavish retreat? If you’re the Wilkinsburg School District, the answer is yes. Here is an excerpt from the troubling story courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette:
The Wilkinsburg School District is in such difficult financial condition that this calendar year it went on the state's financial watch list, took out a $3 million loan, voted to eliminate some teaching and administrative positions this fall and charges the highest property tax rate in Allegheny County.
But it still was able to pay for a two-night professional development retreat for administrators, staying Aug. 13 and 14 at the luxurious Nemacolin Woodlands Resort where the resort tab was $15,665.50—which amounted to more than $1,000 per person.
The bill included 13 rooms at $229 plus $20.61 tax per night, meals running as high as $85.50 per person and $1,300 in gift cards, one for each of the 13 guests at $100 each to spend at the resort.
While it may be necessary for administrators to use a retreat as a chance to relax and build professional relationships, a school district that is in horrible financial shape should not be spending such an obscene amount of money on a retreat. Maybe the money used for the retreat could have been better spent on figuring out how to help students learn in failing Wilkinsburg Borough schools?
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time the Wilkinsburg School District has spent a large sum of money on retreats. The district spent more than $30,000 for two retreats in 2011 and 2012.
Instead of continuing to funnel taxpayer money to persistently failing school districts, lawmakers should consider expanding school choice options to throw students a lifeline and save taxpayers from the burden of paying higher taxes.
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