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Nina Rees

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A Real Threat to the Status Quo

(Originally published by U.S. News & World Report)

Campbell Brown, the journalist-turned-education-reformer, has been in the news a lot lately. Her Partnership for Educational Justice recently filed suit in New York, challenging the city’s teacher tenure laws. The organization is chaired by David Boies, who represented Al Gore in the contested presidential election of 2000 and recently argued against California’s ban on gay marriage. Brown and Boies have pledged to file several other suits around the country, focused on upending the status quo in education.

Opponents have already cried foul, questioning Brown’s credentials and the motives of her funders. But what Brown brings to the table is not only an ability to fight in the court of law but to win in the court of public opinion. That explains why her advocacy has attracted such vitriol by opponents – they see it as a real threat. For education reformers, the work is encouraging, since she has the potential to galvanize public support…. Read more here.

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A Snapshot of Public Charter Schools Waiting List Numbers by Region

Yesterday, we discussed waiting list trends across the country, including the findings from a national survey of public charter schools conducted we conducted in the spring of 2012 that estimates that there were 610,000 students on waiting lists to attend public charter schools before the beginning of the 2011-2012 academic year. While the national picture of demand for public charter schools remains strong, let’s look at the findings more closely. Many states and jurisdictions reported large numbers of students on waiting lists to attend public charter schools in the 2011-12 school year: The fact that New York City, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles have high waiting list numbers is no surprise. They are all “Top 10” Districts in terms of serving the highest numbers of public charter school students according to our annual market share report. But despite the high concentration of public charter schools and students in these urban centers, parent demand for charter schools continues to outpace supply.

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A Teacher’s Dream-Come-True

During National Charter Schools Week, we celebrate achievements in the school house and the state house. These achievements could not have been possible without the commitment of teachers, leaders, parents and advocates from all parts of the country. We asked some of these individuals to tell us why they are a part of the charter schools movement. My name is Joy Souza, and I’m a Kindergarten Teacher and the Kindergarten Chair at Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy (BVP) in Cumberland, Rhode Island.  I left my traditional public school teaching position three years ago to become a founding teacher of BVP.  With very little knowledge of what public charter schools were about, and no exposure to a high expectations model, I accepted a teaching position based solely on the fact that my mission as an educator, and the mission of Blackstone Valley Prep were the same: To put 100 percent of our scholars on a path to college. Over the past three years, I have watched BVP grow into an organization that now consists of three campuses, serving scholars in grades K-2 and 5-6, with the intent of becoming a K-12 organization within the next six years.  Our schools educate children from four Rhode Island communities that provide rich economic and cultural diversity.  This urban-suburban mix of scholars consists of 43 percent of who speak a language other than English at home and 65 percent who qualify for free or reduced lunch.  The same high expectations, however, apply to all. And 100 percent are now college bound. Our scholars’ levels of achievement have been nothing short of impressive.  Last year, Rhode Island’s Commissioner of Education, Deborah Gist, recognized BVP by stating the following: “All 152 of the kindergarten and first grade students at Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy who took the Developmental Reading Assessment this year scored proficient or better.  To our knowledge, this is the first time in Rhode Island that every student at a school scored proficient or better on this early-grade assessment!”  Equally as impressive is the fact that in just one year, BVP sixth graders required to take the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP), showed a 25 percent gain in reading and a 41 percent gain in math from the year before, ranking well above the state averages. Such successes as these do not come easy.  Blackstone Valley Prep scholars attend school for over eight hours a day, 190 days a year.  Teachers work tirelessly by planning and delivering the highest level of instruction.  Our commitment to our scholars and their families means that teachers are on call every night and do home visits that allow us to make valuable family connections.  Our systematic data collection is used informatively and strategically to drive our instruction and identify the individual needs of our scholars.  Our school’s high expectations for all our scholars, and unwillingness to fail at getting them to meet those expectations, are commonalities shared by teachers, staff, and parents at BVP.  Beginning with the first day of kindergarten, our scholars are introduced to our school’s core values of perseverance, respect, integrity, discipline and enthusiasm, PRIDE as we call it, which contributes to a positive school culture that is experienced by scholars, staff and families, alike. Although my high expectations and desire to see all my scholars go to college certainly keeps me at BVP, I choose to teach there for selfish reasons, too.  I participate and lead weekly professional development. I regularly visit successful schools to learn what others are doing. I am a part of a culture that includes teachers in decisions that are typically reserved only for administrators.  I collaborate daily with a staff of educators in which 100 percent of them share the same values and high expectations that I do, and are aligned to a common mission.  Does it sound like a teacher’s Dream-Come-True?  Well, it absolutely is.  Charter schools not only provide choice for parents wanting something different for their child than what their traditional public school system offers, it also gives choice to teachers, like me, who have unique and innovative ideas about education. NCSW BVP Blog               Author: Joy Souza, Kindergarten Teacher and Kindergarten Chair, Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy (BVP) in Cumberland, Rhode Island.
Pamela Davidson

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A Win for Graduates of Virtual Charter Schools

Enlisting in the U.S. Armed Forces is a tremendous opportunity for many young people to serve their country. However, for graduates of non-traditional high schools (virtual charter schools, online and blended learning schools, and home schools) this opportunity has been stymied due to a U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) policy that limited the ability of students who attended non-traditional high schools to enlist in the military. Recently, the National Alliance was successful in working with Congress to secure a provision in federal law to change DOD’s current policy and make clear that all students that receive a state-issued diploma must be treated equally for the purposes of military enlistment. For many years, based on outdated data, DOD has treated students attending non-traditional high schools differently than those who attend traditional “brick and mortar” schools. In 2011, the National Alliance worked with congressional supporters to change this unfair policy. A provision in the Fiscal Year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) required DOD to give all graduates with a state-issued high school diploma, including graduates of non-traditional high schools, the same opportunity to enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces. However, in June 2012, DOD announced a new policy requiring students who graduated from non-traditional high schools to score higher on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) than students who attended traditional high schools in order to be eligible for military service. Thus, creating a disadvantage for non-traditional high school graduates. In June 2013, U.S. Representatives John Kline (R-MN), Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Rob Andrews (D-NJ), and Jared Polis (D-CO) offered an amendment to the House FY2014 NDAA bill to prohibit DOD from requiring different levels of attainment on any assessment or screening tool for all graduates, and prohibiting DOD from creating different standards on any assessment or screening tool based on the type of high school a student attended. In November, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) offered the same amendment to the Senate NDAA bill. In the end, this provision was included in the final NDAA bill, which was signed into law by the president last month. This change to DOD recruitment and enlistment policy is a big victory for the charter schools community—particularly graduates of virtual charter schools—because it ensures equal treatment for graduates who wish to join the U.S. military and serve their country. The National Alliance appreciates the work of these members of Congress who championed this effort on our behalf to ensure all graduates who want to serve in the U.S. military have an equal opportunity to enlist. Pamela Davidson is the senior director of government relations for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools
Nora Kern

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Academic Performance in Charter Schools: A Year in Review

As 2013 comes to a close, here is a look at a few studies released this year on the academic performance in charter schools. From major multi-year reports to working papers, these are a few findings that are worth keeping on your radar:
  • Overall Academic Achievement. The 2013 national CREDO study looked at charter schools in 27 states through the 2010-2011 school year, covering 95 percent of students attending charter schools across the country. Overall, the study found that students in public charter schools are outperforming their traditional public school peers in reading, adding an average seven days of learning per year, and performing as well as students in traditional public schools in math. The results were particularly impressive for students from certain demographic backgrounds—such as English Language Learners and minority students.
  • Raising the Bar for All Schools. Yusuke Jinnai, a Ph.D candidate in Economics at the University of Rochester, examinedthe impact of opening public charter schools on achievement levels for students at neighboring district schools in North Carolina. He found that traditional public schools do in fact respond to the presence of public charter schools; further, the paper debunks the myth that the success of public charter schools comes at the detriment of neighboring traditional public schools. In North Carolina, public charter schools contribute to education reform by serving low-performing students and encouraging high standards of performance for nearby traditional public schools.
  • Measuring Results. A Mathematica study  found that KIPP middle schools have a strong and meaningful impact on student performance. For example, KIPP schools reduced the achievement gap in math between white and black students by 40 percent. The study also examined the characteristics of students attending KIPP middle schools and found little evidence that KIPP schools only succeed by taking high performing students out of district schools. And similar to results from the KIPP study on attrition, this study finds that attrition rates for KIPP schools are the same as traditional public schools.
  • Making Sure All Students Succeed. A working paper by Ron Zimmer and Cassandra Guarino provides additional evidence that public charter schools are not pushing out low-performing students. The study examined patterns of student transfers in an anonymous school district with more than 60 charter schools. The study found no evidence that public charter schools were more likely to push out low-performing students. Conversely, the study finds that below-average students were five percent more likely to leave traditional public schools than below-average students in charter schools.
  • Predicting Future Success. The CREDO two volume study, Charter School Growth and Expansion, tackled a range of research questions including a ranking of charter school networks based on student achievement in math and reading. It also introduced a paradigm shift in terms of thinking about charter school quality: namely, that early performance of charter schools almost entirely predicts future performance. In other words, if a charter school starts out low-performing, it has a very slim chance of making improvements. This is sobering but important information about what we can expect from charter school performance and for shaping how we think about ensuring all charters are high-quality schools.
This year proved, yet again, that charter schools continue to offer high-quality options to parents and families. For more information on other studies of charter school performance, check out our compilation of studies that have been conducted on public charter school student performance since 2010. Nora Kern is the senior manager for research and analysis at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Christy Wolfe

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Accountability Standards for Teacher Prep Programs Overdue

The National Alliance joined a coalition of 23 leaders in the education reform movement in issuing a letter calling for the Obama Administration to seek public comments on its draft Higher Education Act (HEA) rules which would shine a spotlight on teacher preparation program quality, programs that receive approximately $4 billion each year from the federal government. These draft regulations were released in early 2012 but haven’t moved forward since then. In order to address concerns with the quality of teacher preparation programs and to identify high quality, as well as low-performing programs, the U.S. Department of Education proposed rules that would require states to: 1. Meaningfully assess teacher preparation program performance; and 2. Hold programs accountable for results. The rule-making panel didn’t agree on all points, but did agree that the quality of a teacher preparation program should be directly linked to the student outcomes of their graduates. The next step in the process is for the U.S. Department to issue the proposed rules for public comment, but they are apparently stuck in the Administration’s clearance process. Whether a school is a traditional or public charter school, teacher quality matters.  Teacher preparation programs play a critical role in preparing teachers for success in the classroom. Effective teachers are the single most important school-based factor in student learning and are critical to successful schools. Particularly in high-poverty schools, teachers can mean the difference between students meeting grade level expectations or falling farther behind. The stakes are too high for students; teacher preparation programs should be held accountable for not preparing teachers well. Despite requirements that have been in current law for more than 10 years, for states to assess teacher preparation programs and identify the lowest performers, less than 3 percent of all colleges and universities with teacher training programs have been identified as low-performing, and most states have never identified a single low-performing program. Now is the time to move forward with meaningful reporting and accountability to ensure that low-performing teacher preparation programs are improved. Christine Wolfe is a senior policy advisor at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

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Achievement and Innovation as Mission Critical: Reflections from a Charter School Founder

During National Charter Schools Week, we celebrate achievements in the school house and the state house. These achievements could not have been possible without the commitment of teachers, leaders, parents and advocates from all parts of the country. We asked some of these individuals to tell us why they are a part of the charter schools movement. The future is uncertain.  Our world is rapidly changing.  What we do, what we know, and our general way of being is fantastically different today than it was ten years ago, and will be different ten years from now than it is today.  We, as a movement and profession, must operate innovatively to ensure our children can keep pace with our changing world.  With this message, I’ll depart Music City for our nation’s capital and meet with congressional leaders during National Charter Schools Week. Innovation has always been a key attribute of the charter school movement; however, now more than ever, we have the responsibility to progressively push education reform forward in ways that both advance the field but also, and more importantly, get results – significant results.  Innovation devoid of achievement is for naught. As a professional field, we know a great deal about what works in educating children.  For instance, we know direct, systematic, explicit instruction is the most effective practice in teaching basic skills and advancing the learning of struggling readers, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners.  We also know teachers who formatively measure performance are more effective in raising student achievement.  We know investing students in their education is critical.  At STEM Prep, we believe these and related practices are simply best practice.  We’ve implemented every scientifically researched-based practice that aligns to our mission and model.  However, we don’t believe these practices are innovative; we believe they’re responsible and simply what good schools do every day. While “innovation” can be defined and operationalized in numerous ways, we believe innovation is the development of more effective practices and processes that not only result in advancing student achievement, but also instill the habits of mindrequired for our children to access the college and career pathways of the 21st Century.  This is, in fact, our mission and the mindset undergirding the STEM Prep model. To this end, the principle questions since STEM Prep’s inception have been:  How do we educate children to keep pace with our rapidly changing environment?  What are the requisite habits of mind that must transcend time, discipline, and reform effort in ways that ensure our children can compete?  How do we move beyond mastery of very basic, rudimentary skills to more rigorous modes of thinking and problem solving? These are the discussions in which my charter school colleagues are engaged across the country.  As I prepare to meet with congressional leaders next week, I’m energized by the opportunity to dive deeply into these mission critical questions.  Achievement and innovation, after all, are the drivers of this movement and our country. Kristin McGraner, Ed.D., is the Founder & Executive Director of STEM Preparatory Academy in Nashville, TN. To learn more about STEM Prep Academy, please see their website and video. NCSW STEM Prep Blog
Todd Ziebarth

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Actual Autonomy

In advance of the release of our 2012 rankings of state charter school laws against our model law, we are going to chronicle some of the most critical aspects of the model law currently playing across the country.  The second installment focuses on charter school autonomy. To truly be an “independent” public charter school, there are three key components of autonomy measured in the NAPCS Model Public Charter Law:
  1. Charter schools must be fiscally and legally independent entities, with independent governing boards that have most powers granted to other traditional public school district boards.
  2. Charter schools must receive automatic exemptions from many state and district laws and regulations, except for those covering health, safety, civil rights, student accountability, employee criminal history checks, open meetings, freedom of information requirements, and generally accepted accounting principles.
  3. Charter schools must be exempted from any outside collective bargaining agreements, while not interfering with laws and other applicable rules protecting the rights of employees to organize and be free from discrimination.
When state law does not explicitly grant these autonomies to charter schools, it fails to set up public charter schools for success.  In fact, it is likely setting them up for hardship, if not failure. An example from Virginia brings this issue to head. As the Virginia law currently stands, charter school personnel are considered employees of the local school board granting the charter and are granted the same employment benefits in accordance with the district’s personnel policies.  In other words, a charter school has little control over one of the key factors that will determine whether it is successful or not:  its employees.  These provisions help make Virginia’s law among the weakest in the nation for creating public charter schools with a high level of autonomy to set their own policies. In a positive sign, the Richmond Public Schools (RPS) has joined the chorus of charter school advocates (including us) that are calling on the state legislature to change the law to allow people who work in a charter school to be employed by the school instead of the district.  RPS has taken this step because of confusion over who oversees the employees at the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, a charter school authorized by RPS.  Patrick Henry’s principal Pamela L. Boyd has taken three months of paid administrative leave as well as numerous personal days off amid questions about her leadership. Yet Patrick Henry is unable to take meaningful action to resolve the issue because Boyd is an employee of RPS, not the school. When a school is not afforded the autonomy to make its personnel decisions, accountability for its performance is also compromised.  Among several changes that need to be made to Virginia’s weak charter school law, NAPCS urges the state to amend its law in 2012 to strengthen charter school autonomy.  These changes will not only help existing schools like Patrick Henry succeed.  They will also lay a strong foundation for the growth of high-quality public charter schools in Virginia in the future.
Renita Thukral

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Advocacy Update: Protecting Charter School Teacher Retirement Funds

Over the past few months, we’ve been working diligently on the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issue, and want to share a few key highlights: First, in early May, attorneys at the IRS and U.S. Department of Treasury invited the National Alliance and several state-level charter support organizations to sit down and talk through our concerns.  We had an open, engaging discussion.  It felt incredibly productive, and afterwards the attorneys at the IRS and Treasury asked us to continue working with them to provide additional information about the charter sector.  We have already begun to do so – and will continue to collaborate with the IRS in the coming months. Second, we reviewed and indexed all the public comments filed by June 18th, 2012, the close of the public comment period.  In all, 2,312 comments were filed – more than 95% from the charter sector across the country (that totals nearly 2,200 individual comments from members of the public charter school community!).  Not only did we have the opportunity to spotlight this accomplishment when we testified at the public hearing (details below), but several reporters also noted this tremendous show of force (again, see below). Third, the IRS hosted a public hearing here in D.C. on July 9th.  I testified on behalf of the National Alliance and public charter school communities across the country.  Plus, I was lucky and thankful to be joined by David Dunn, Executive Director of the Texas Charter Schools Association, and Jill Gottfred, Policy Manager at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.  Our individual and collective testimony was very well received.  The IRS panelists engaged each of us in a robust question and answer period, inviting each of us to provide supplemental information going forward. Lastly, there was strong media coverage of the event, including a number of print articles.  Please see here and here for well-rounded summaries of the hearing and next steps. Perhaps the most important information, though, is not new information.  Rather, it’s a reminder – and one the IRS panelists made special effort to note during the July 9th public hearing – that the process of finalizing these draft proposed regulations is a long one.  The currently released regulations will be reviewed; input from the public comment process will be incorporated; and, a new document will be released as the official “Notice of Proposed Regulations.”  Upon the release of this document, a new public comment period will open, and the input and review process will begin again.  Once this process culminates, the IRS will revisit the regulations one more time before issuing the final regulations.  In all, it could be – and likely will be – a long process, one which will take many, many months (possibly years) to finalize.  All to say, we’ve come a long way and we will continue to work with the IRS over the months ahead to make sure public charter school employees, both current and future, are protected.  But, the regulations will not be finalized in the short-term; as such, the eligibility of charter school employees to enroll in their respective state plans also will not change in the short-term.

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Alliance’s “Charter Law Rankings Report” Gets Nod From NACSA

Yesterday in Scottsdale AZ, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers announced that How State Charter Laws Rank Against The New Model Public Charter School Law, by Todd Ziebarth and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, is the 2010 recipient of the NACSA Award for Excellence in Advancing Knowledge. NACSA drew particular attention to the rankings’ potential impact on the craft of authorizers, who were largely overlooked in the first generation of charter laws:  It is critical that state laws accelerate the movement of more authorizers toward the “best-in-class” practices exhibited by the nation’s best ones.  Aligning state laws with the model law’s “quality control” provisions will move us in that direction….These new rankings not only show which state laws are making the grade, but also show how they do it:  by paying attention to specific issues that are crucial to school and student success. We’re thrilled that the Alliance and Model Law pub (with its online database) have won this recognition. It has already helped move the national conversation toward fostering great charter schools, not just lots of them. But know something else: This is just the latest instance of Todd Ziebarth’s “Advancing Knowledge.”  He’s been doing that for a long time now, going back to his days envisioning the shape of all-charter districts for the Education Commission of the States; through all kinds of publications rooted solidly in fact;  and especially, doing what he does every day to advise movement leaders and policymakers around the country on how to ground decisions in real evidence about what works. Although aided by a blue-ribbon task force, supported by able consultants, and cheered on by Alliance staff, Todd was the driving force behind the 2009 model state charter law, and it was he who made the rankings themselves a wonderfully substantive tool for serious policy analysis. And he’s the best kind of colleague: He knows his stuff but lets you think you thought it up. The charter movement is awfully lucky to have him on our side. Comment Submitted by Macke Raymond on Fri, 10/22/2010 – 5:42pm. Congratulations, NAPCS and Todd! Recognition well-deserved!!