Sunday, December 7, 2014

Is it Time?

I was just reading NACSA's latest report, On the Road to Better Accountability, and one of the policy recommendations it to allow the state's Charter School Institute (CSI) to independently authorize charter schools without restrictions. Currently CSI can only authorize in districts that don't have exclusive chartering authority.

This state policy restriction was in the original CSI bill. In order to get the legislation approved, the sponsors carved out provisions for certain school districts. Then several years later, the General Assembly neutered the law even further by removing the requirement that districts needed to demonstrate their right to retain exclusive chartering authority every year. Consequently, only eight school districts do not have exclusive chartering authority. This is out of 178 districts in the state.

With more than 20 charter schools successfully operating and being overseen by CSI, I think it is time for legislators to loosen restrictions. CSI has proven that it can hold schools accountable and demand high expectations. Moreover, CSI has intentionally directed its efforts to meeting the legislative-mandated mission to serve at-risk students by having a greater percentage of Alternative Education Campuses (AECs) and schools serving at-risk students.

It IS time to give CSI authority to authorize charter schools without the restriction of only being able to authorize if the local district grants permission.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Charter School Enrollment

It's that time of year when my favorite study is published. The one about how many charter school students are enrolled in school districts across the country. The ninth annual edition of the National Alliance for Public Charter School's A Growing Movement: America's Largest Charter School Communities analyzes charter school growth and saturation rate.

Districts with more than 10% enrollment of charter school students in Colorado are:

22% Weld County 6 (Greeley)
21% Brighton 27J
17% Colorado Springs 11
16% Denver
15% Adams 12
14% Falcon
13% Academy 20
13% Douglas County
11% St Vrain
11% Aurora

Does it seem odd to you that one of the largest school districts in the state is missing from that list? Jefferson County R-1's rate is 9%, below the 10% threshold for the table included in the report. However, it's the same size as Denver, with 16% of the market share. Jeffco has 15 charter schools while DPS has more than 40 now.

Denver Public Schools has 13,653 students enrolled in public charter schools during the 2013-2014 school year, when the report was written. Jeffco had 7,595 in the same period.

It's interesting to see the changes to this list over the years. In 2009, Cheyenne Mountain Academy was at the top of the list, but then Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy's high school, Vanguard Classical moved to the state's Charter School Institute and so they're not even on the list for the Dec. 2014 report. This year Vanguard is back with their local district, which means that next year we'll see the data change.

Adams 12 (Thornton-Northglenn) continues to slip in the ranking. In 2010 it was the top district with the most charter school students enrolled. This was largely due to the largest virtual school in the state, Colorado Virtual Academy (COVA). In 2011 it slipped to third place and this year is in fifth place. It will continue to fall since COVA has lost a significant number of students in recent years when many students transferred to another K12 operated school, Colorado Preparatory Academy created by the Colorado Digital BOCES.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

What Should Parents Have to Go Through in Order to Get a Charter School?

Colorado isn't like most states in the nation where a charter school can get approved by showing there is a need in a particular community. Some districts in Colorado believe there needs to be a certain amount of parents at public hearings in order to approve a charter school. Why should hard-working families, possibly with a language barrier, be required to show up at a school board meeting in order to get a high quality education for their child?

Or is it a convenient excuse for districts to deny a charter school because they don't want the competition? School board meetings can start as early as 4 PM on a school night. For families where both parents work, many are still at work until 5 or 6 PM and then immediately go home and make dinner for their families. Then there's homework and hopefully a decent bedtime for young students. A schedule that's not conducive for young families to attend school board meetings.

Having been at dozens of school board meetings in my time, it's fairly typical for school board members to think their work is the most important thing going on in the community. Why wouldn't people think they need to show up at a school board meeting?

School board members welcome public comment. To clarify, a particular type of public comment from the citizens in its district. Positive comments. Many school board members view a proposed charter school as threatening. Threatening against the status quo the district offers. Threatening against the good things they believe they're doing. Most importantly, charter schools are viewed - by some school board members - as trying to "take their kids."

Parents believe they can make the best decision for their individual children. Parents know that each child is different and that a one-size-fits-all approach to education just doesn't work for their children. Parents want more. They want choice. Why should that be so difficult?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

What is Blended Learning?

Quite simply, it is a combination of technology and a personal connection with students, most often a physical environment. The use of technology allows students to work at their own pace and be pushed beyond where other students may be working. Students can progress through the curriculum at a faster pace.

Within just the past couple of years, most educational software has become "adaptive," meaning it adjusts based on how the student is responding to questions. If a child needs to back up and review a particular concept. the software does that without the student even realizing it. Moreover, the software is "gamified." Students think they're playing a game and in fact, they're learning.

Adaptive software has revolutionized how students learn. Significant gains (more than one year in one year's time) has been documented in several research publications for programs such as Reading Plus and ST Math. Even students who come from disadvantaged economic situations are making significant gains using technology.

For more information: The Learning Accelerator has a video explaining Blended Learning. And the Christensen Institute has developed the four different types of blended learning, which makes it easier to distinguish styles along the spectrum.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

New Education Opportunity Fund Created For Charter Schools

For most new charter schools, the greatest obstacle they face is finding a suitable facility and being able to afford it.

All that has changed now that the Education Opportunity Fund has been created. The fund is established with $100 million and will be a revolving loan fund. The schools will be party to a lease purchase agreement that allows them to purchase the asset, if they wish. Schools participating in the revolving loan fund will not exceed 15% of their per student revenue. The best practice amount for charter schools to spend on their facilities is 12-15% PPR.

Access to the fund is for both brand new charter schools and existing charter schools. For more information, contact Charter School Solutions.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What's Right About Common Core?

Robert Pondisco has a thoughtful article on Common Core here.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Free Horizon Montessori

I visited Free Horizon Montessori the other day. The school opened in 2002 in the Golden area of Jefferson County. The school adheres to the Maria Montessori method of education, which is where the school's name came from. Free Horizon serves 375 students in grades K-8.

The Montessori method espouses:

1. Movement and cognition are closely related and that this increases thinking and learning.
2. Learning and well‐being are improved when people have a sense of control over their lives.
3. People learn better when they are interested in what they are leaning.
4. Tying extrinsic rewards to an activity, like money for reading or high grades for tests, negatively impacts motivation to engage in that activity when the reward is withdrawn
5. Collaborative arrangements can be very conducive to learning.
6. Learning situated in meaningful contexts is often deeper and richer than learning in abstract contexts.
7. Particular forms of adult interaction are associated with more optimal child outcomes.
8. Order in the environment is beneficial to children.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

What's it Take to Start a Charter School?

The obvious response to that question is, "A whole lotta work!" To quantify that, it usually takes about 18 months with two or three people working almost full-time in order to submit a charter school application and see it through to approval.

There are different stages as noted here in a handy resource called Start a Colorado Charter. The really busy times are right before the application is submitted and then during the hearing process. Throughout the entire process it's important to build momentum by marketing the school in the targeted community.

Marketing will consist of getting the word out through fliers, information tables at local businesses or community events and door-to-door. The applicant should decide early in the process what characteristics the ideal student will possess. If the school will be targeting students whose first language is not English, the fliers about the proposed charter school should be translated.

The bulk of the preparation time should be spent learning, both by reading and speaking with people. A lot of what's important to know about opening a new charter school isn't available in written form. The knowledge is gained through exposure to information at workshops and personal conversations.

There are numerous resources online through the CO Dept of Education and the League of Charter Schools' websites.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Meat of the Matter: Common Core Implementation

Education Next writers Amber Northern and Mike Petrilli provide good information on the implementation of Common Core Standards. Here is an excerpt:

Here are three major challenges they are facing and what they are doing to overcome them:

1. In the absence of externally vetted, high-quality Common Core materials, districts are striving to devise their own—with mixed success.

Curriculum publishers were suspiciously quick to proclaim that what they are selling is aligned with the Common Core, and districts are rightly wary of such claims. It takes time to develop and vet high-quality textbook series and other curriculum. All four districts expressed caution about spending limited dollars on materials that were not truly aligned to the Common Core and are delaying at least some of their purchases until they see products that are.

For now, they have approached curriculum development in patchwork fashion. Even districts with the most extensively redesigned curricula have kept at least some of their previous instructional materials, with teachers pulling out isolated lessons, problem sets, assessment items, and so on, as they fit with the new standards. This is understandable; jettisoning all prior materials is expensive, time consuming, and can make teachers uneasy. (And did we mention that there’s a dearth of high-quality, expertly vetted, complete, Common Core–aligned curricula?!) Yet creation of homegrown materials carries the same uncertainty as vendor-developed materials: Are they truly aligned? Are they any good? Will they produce the desired results in students?

Here we must flash a warning light, as several districts in this study are using materials that appear to be at odds with the philosophical underpinnings and instructional shifts at the heart of the Common Core, such as “balanced literacy” and Everyday Math. Indeed, many of the math curricula that predate CCSS are “spiraling”: that is, mathematics concepts are introduced and revisited each year. By contrast, the Common Core requires a “major work” focus in each grade, with accompanying concepts to be introduced and taught to mastery in just a few grade levels. It’s hard to imagine how one could reconcile such fundamental differences.
Still, for all the risks and uncertainties, homegrown stuff fosters buy-in and ownership. In fact, teachers in these districts support a district-wide, common curriculum—precisely because they’ve had a hand in creating, judging, and/or improving it. Engaged in such activities, they welcome the materials as an asset, rather than resisting them as a ploy to undermine their autonomy or professionalism.

2. The scramble to deliver quality, CCSS-aligned professional development to all who need it is both as crucial and (so far) as patchy as the quest for suitable instructional materials.
It’s standard practice—almost boring—to sound the alarm for better professional development, but we’re obligated to say it yet again. Think of professional development as a car that needs not only major body work (updated delivery methods, repurposing of resources) but a new engine, too (novel content delivered to teachers and administrators).

But where do teachers go to glean new expertise relative to the Common Core? Our four districts rely on familiar delivery mechanisms—instructional coaches and master teachers—who are themselves trained via a variety of methods. As early implementers, these educators have gone both to the “source” of the standards and used other proxies for quality and alignment: They’ve worked directly with and learned from the standards’ authors themselves and/or used tools created by them (e.g., the Publishers’ Criteria developed by Student Achievement Partners and several other groups). They’ve checked their understanding against instruments developed by field experts and other states (e.g., the EQuIP rubric). And they’ve scrutinized their interpretations of the standards by consistently returning to them as the basis for professional-development content.

Districts have put considerable thought and energy into cultivating Common Core expertise. Still, major inconsistencies exist in the quality of instructional coaching across buildings. Teachers and principals report that the stronger specialists help them analyze lesson plans and student work in the context of the new standards, while the weaker ones add little value at best and misinformation at worst.

3. The lack of aligned assessments will make effective implementation of the Common Core difficult for another year.

Most states and districts are in the unenviable position of having to implement new standards without the summative assessments in place that will measure student mastery. But they’ve had to make do, to the chagrin of most educators, who—at least in these early-implementer districts—believe that their current state tests are poor measures of student understanding relative to the new standards and may even detract from proper implementation.

This void creates two problems. First, misaligned assessments undermine the critical link between what is reported in accountability systems (test-score and teacher-evaluation data) and what districts purport to value (Common Core–aligned instruction, student success with the new standards). Second, without Common Core–aligned summative data, districts don’t know whether their implementation strategies are effective on a school- and district-wide scale.

Right now, districts are in the near-impossible situation of operationalizing new standards before high-quality curriculum and tests aligned to them are finished. Until we have those in place, implementation will remain confused and patchy. Time is passing, and the new tests and truly aligned textbooks are coming. But districts ought not dawdle: they are just a year away from the big game.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

NEPC Study on Virtual Schools in the US

The National Education Policy Center out of the University of Colorado at Boulder has just released a study about virtual education that's broken out into three sections: key policy issues in virtual schools; the disconnect between policy and research; and characteristics of full-time virtual schools.

Generally across the U.S., the academic data from full-time virtual schools is not good. Some say this is due to the fact that virtual schools bring in students that have already been unsuccessful in other educational environments.

It takes a unique type of student to be successful in full-time virtual education. For younger children, a learning coach (parent/guardian), is needed to assist with the technology and reading required. Older students need the self-discipline to complete coursework on a regular basis.

Many virtual schools have found the need to have some face-to-face or synchronous time with students. This approach, called blended learning, increases the level of accountability for students and establishes the important relationship between the student and the teacher.

The report states that there are more than 338 full-time virtual schools in the U.S., enrolling more than 243,000 students. The need for additional research within the virtual education sector is needed to determine how to engage students effectively and ensure the curriculum is appropriate for students to demonstrate achievement.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Knowledge at the Core

The following is from Education Next:
Posted: 27 Jan 2014 06:32 AM PST
Our slim new book Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core has three large aims. First, it pays tribute to three decades of scholarship and service to American education by E. D. (Don) Hirsch, Jr., author of Cultural Literacy(and three other prescient books on education reform) and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Second, it restates the case for a sequential, content-rich curriculum for America’s elementary and middle schools. Third, it strives to chart a course for the future, a future in which many more schools embrace Hirsch’s Core Knowledge program—or something akin to it—en route to successful attainment of the Common Core State Standards for English language arts/literacy and mathematics.
Five of the essays included in the volume were first presented at a December 2013 conference in Washington, D.C., cohosted by the Fordham Institute and the Manhattan Institute. Video from that event, and a terrific documentary about Don and his contributions to American education, are available on our website at
That day left us hopeful—not a word that often comes to mind amidst the rancorous debates now swirling about education in general and the Common Core in particular. Yet Don himself is, by admission, an unwavering optimist; his enthusiasm is as contagious as his ideas are bracing. So in that spirit, let us make the hopeful case that many more of America’s schools are on the precipice of finally embracing those ideas—and thereby boosting their students’ chances of achieving the lofty goals that the Common Core standards prescribe.

Rethinking reading

Commence with this key Hirsch insight: Teaching knowledge is teaching reading—and reading will never be mastered beyond the “decoding” stage without a solid foundation of knowledge. Children cannot be truly literate without knowing about the world—about history, science, art, music, literature, civics, geography, and more. This is not a value statement about what students “should” study; rather, it reflects decades of cognitive science and reading research.
Once children learn to decode the words on a page, greater literacy is attained only through greater knowledge. Reading comprehension, and thus learning by reading, depends on knowing something about the content of the passage at hand. If a fifth grader knows a lot about baseball, for example, she will comprehend complex stories about baseball at a high level. But if she doesn’t know a lot about the ocean, she will struggle to comprehend anything beyond simple, introductory books about marine life. The only way to help children become strong readers, regardless of topic, is to equip them with a large store of general knowledge—to help them learn something about everything. And that means implementing a well-designed, sequential, content-rich curriculum, especially in the early grades.
Yet most American primary schools have been marching in the opposite direction: treating reading as a “skill” and pushing off history, science, art, and music “until later.” As Ruth Wattenberg, the former editor of the AFT’s American Educator magazine, explains in her essay, the elementary-school curriculum has been a content-free wasteland for decades, one that grew even more barren in the No Child Left Behind era. Is it any wonder that, even as national assessment data have shown decent gains in math achievement in recent years (at least in the early grades), reading outcomes remain dismal? Although some relatively small gains have been made (most likely due to Reading First’s spread of phonics-based decoding instruction), high-school scores have been flat for decades.
Bad news. But there’s some encouraging news, too. In his essay, based on focus groups that he conducted with teachers, Steve Farkas explains that elementary teachers welcome the notion of a knowledge-rich curriculum. Indeed, they take for granted that it’s valuable. They may have been taught otherwise in ed school, but they’re not philosophically opposed; most aren’t even aware of the ideological battles waged between “progressives” and “traditionalists” within the halls of academe. Building students’ knowledge is, to most teachers, simply common sense—and they’d like to do more of it. But first, the misguided progressive ideas shaping schools need to be more widely recognized, as Manhattan Institute scholar Sol Stern writes in his trenchant essay.
Another bit of good news: the single greatest force currently shaping American education—the new Common Core standards, now in place in forty-five states—explicitly endorses Hirsch’s ideas and calls for the kind of curriculum that he favors:
While the Standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not—indeed, cannot— enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.” —Common Core State Standards
Says Robert Pondiscio, executive director of the advocacy group CitizenshipFirst, those are “the most important fifty-seven words in education reform since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983.”
But they are, alas, just words on a page. They’re not hard to decode—but how many people grasp their content? How many states and school districts will heed their call?
Though fundamentally an optimist, Don Hirsch does not yet observe much heeding. In his keynote address to the December conference, included in our book as the essay “Sustaining the American Experiment,” he expresses his worry:
District preparations for the Common Core in language arts are looking like district preparations for No Child Left Behind, with lots of how-to processes, under new names, but with no emphasis on systematically imparting facts—which are still considered “mere.”
That’s precisely what Wattenberg found when she examined textbooks, basal readers, and state websites that are supposedly “Common Core aligned.” They do, indeed, pay attention to the skills demanded by the standards, even to the challenge to assign “appropriately complex texts.” But in almost every case, they ignore (or never even understand) the charge to put in place a content-rich curriculum so that students can actually read these more challenging texts with understanding.
And while most rank-and-file teachers have no ideological bone to pick with content knowledge, many of their supervisors and administrators still hold fast to the false dichotomies and faulty notions that Hirsch has debunked for years. Just weeks ago, Carmen Fariña, the new chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, displayed her own misunderstanding of the role that knowledge plays in education: “It’s always been something I’ve believed in—we learn facts maybe to take tests, but we learn thinking to get on in life.” (As if one can fruitfully think if one doesn’t know anything.) In his keynote, Don said, “The effectiveness of the Common Core standards will depend on the adequacy of the ideas held by those who try to put them into effect.” Indeed.

The way forward

For thirty years, Don Hirsch has tried to capture the attention of America’s policymakers, policy thinkers, educators, and philanthropists to persuade them to undertake perhaps the one reform we’ve never tried: the widespread adoption of a coherent, sequential, content-rich curriculum that intentionally and efficiently builds knowledge and skills. Yet beyond a band of acolytes, a handful of funders, about 1 percent of the nation’s schools, and some thousands of home schoolers, his arguments have mostly fallen on deaf or uncomprehending ears.
What might change the outcome over the next thirty years? Here’s a to-do list:

1. Continue to build the evidentiary base.

Don has long made a compelling, research-based, and scientifically sound argument for content knowledge in the early grades, and top-notch cognitive scientists agree with him. While a small pilot study was conducted in New York City to test and improve an early version of the program, Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) has not yet been subjected to a rigorous evaluation (it is just now being completed and made available to all). We need more evidence that schools that use CKLA—or other content-rich curricula—do better, particularly in reading.

2. Develop an open-source version of the Core Knowledge Language Arts program for preschool through grade 5.

(Preschool through third grade has already been developed—and made available for free—thanks to a variety of funders, including a Race to the Top grant from the New York Department of Education.) It’s one thing to promote the “idea” of content knowledge; teachers appear receptive. But to make it come alive, there needs to be an actual “program” or “curriculum” that schools can easily acquire and install, whether via purchase or for free. Core Knowledge Language Arts already exists, and it’s terrific, but it doesn’t have to be the only such curriculum. Schools would benefit from having quality choices in this realm.

3. Attract philanthropic support.

Many donors are looking for ways to make a significant impact at scale, and many are generously supporting Common Core implementation. To date, however, that has seldom included the development and dissemination of curricular materials that are not just “aligned” with the Common Core but that also embody the spirit of the standards’ call for building knowledge through a content-rich curriculum. There is enormous potential to achieve tremendous leverage via curriculum reform, as scholars such as Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution have argued. Making high-quality books and professional development available to schools—including but not limited to Core Knowledge Language Arts—could transform America’s elementary schools, and without the controversy that follows most of today’s reform efforts.

4. Forcefully advocate knowledge.

We like to think that Ms. Fariña is an anomaly and that most superintendents, principals, and teachers would be open to implementing a content-rich curriculum if presented with the cognitive science demonstrating the importance of broad knowledge—and with accessible, usable options. Someone might fund a campaign to “Rethink Reading” that would target these key educators via conferences, social networks, advertising, etc. Common Core funders would be smart to support such efforts, both to boost the odds that these standards can actually be met and to demonstrate—especially to conservative critics—that the Common Core is wholly compatible with, perhaps even dependent upon, Core Knowledge.
Are you game to help with any of those four objectives? If so, let’s talk.
-Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael Petrilli
This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.