Scores drop when students move to private, magnet schools

Students who leave neighborhood public schools for private or magnet schools tend to fall behind academically in the year after they transfer, according to a new study of school choice in Indianapolis.

Students who move to charter schools don’t fall behind, but neither do they move ahead. Their performance is about the same as if they had stayed in their neighborhood school, the study finds.

The authors of the study, Mark Berends at the University of Notre Dame and R. Joseph Waddington of the University of Kentucky, say the findings don’t discredit the potential benefits of school choice, but they raise questions about the conditions under which choice might be a strategy for improving academic achievement.

“It’s sort of a cautionary tale, that school choice is not a panacea,” said Berends, a professor of sociology and director of Notre Dame’s Center for Research on Educational Opportunity.

The study, “School Choice in Indianapolis:  Effects of Charter, Magnet, Private, and Traditional Public Schools,” has been accepted for publication and posted by the journal Education Finance and Policy.

Berends and Waddington analyzed several years of ISTEP test math and English/language arts scores for Indianapolis students in grades 3-8. The students attended neighborhood and magnet schools in public school districts as well as charter schools and private schools in the city. Magnet schools are public schools organized around themes, such as international engagement, foreign language immersion and Montessori education; students typically apply for admission to the schools.

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1961 decisions shaped Indy school districts

Nearly a decade before Indianapolis adopted Unigov, local officials put forward a proposal for a single school district incorporating all of Marion County. It didn’t go very far.

Public opposition from “suburban” residents strangled the plan in its cradle. Instead of a single school district, Indianapolis got what it has today: 11 separate districts that arguably compete for reputation and students – and often lose on both counts to exurban districts beyond the county line.

Indianapolis World War Memorial, where 3,000 people showed up to oppose a school merger plan in 1961.

Indianapolis World War Memorial, where 3,000 people showed up to oppose a school merger plan in 1961.

According to news accounts from 1961, the year of the countywide school district proposal, thousands of opponents packed two raucous public hearings and made their displeasure known.

“Two women spoke in favor of the one-unit plan,” the Indianapolis Star reported, “but were repeatedly interrupted by hecklers among the suburban opponents as the reorganization committee wound up six hours of public hearings.”

I had assumed that excluding the schools from Unigov, the 1970 merger of Indianapolis and Marion County civil governments, was the decision that fractured the county and fed the overwhelmingly negative perception of Indianapolis Public Schools, opening the door to charter schools and vouchers.

But it turns out a key decision came a bit earlier. By the time Unigov rolled around, it was no wonder local movers and shakers didn’t try to merge school systems. They’d been there, tried to do that.

Harmon Baldwin, a retired Indiana school administrator who was superintendent of schools in Bloomington in the 1980s, called my attention to this history. In 1962, Baldwin became the first superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township on Indianapolis’ west side after it shifted from a township trustee-run district to one governed by a school board.

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Busing in Indy: A brief history from an outsider

You have to wonder what the late federal judge S. Hugh Dillin would have thought about last week’s Indianapolis Star/Chalkbeat Indiana story that concluded Indianapolis Public Schools elementary schools are more racially segregated now than 35 years ago.

Chances are he wouldn’t have been surprised. Dillin lived until 2006, long enough to watch white, middle-class families fly the coop after he issued a series of school busing orders. In fact, he noted that white flight was already happening in the early 1970s, apparently spurred by the mere threat of desegregation.

S. Hugh Dillin (Maurer School of Law)

S. Hugh Dillin (Maurer School of Law)

But busing took some unusual twists in Indianapolis – or so it appears to an outsider like me. For one thing, it was one of just three U.S. cities where a busing order encompassed suburban as well as city schools. Also, busing was one-way: black students were bused from IPS to surrounding schools, but white students weren’t bused to IPS.

The Indiana legislature outlawed racial segregation of public schools in 1949, but Indianapolis Public Schools apparently didn’t get the memo. IPS’ Crispus Attucks High School remained all black until 1967. Elementary schools remained racially divided by neighborhood.

The feds sued in 1968 as a result; and three years later, Dillin ruled that IPS had practiced racial discrimination in assigning students and teachers to schools. Busing began, within the district.

All this was happening while Indianapolis was implementing Unigov, the merger of city and county governments. But schools were left out of the merger; Marion County kept its 11 school districts. One could argue this was the city’s original sin, from which its educational climate never recovered.

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CREDO report boosts Indy charter schools

Indianapolis charter schools got a vote of confidence from a recent report by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, better known as CREDO. The study concluded urban charter schools are outperforming neighboring public schools, and Indy charters are doing better than most.

“It confirms a lot of the results we’re seeing on the ground,” said Brandon Brown, director of charter schools for the Indianapolis mayor’s office. “If you look across the state, the performance of charter schools is mixed. But if you look specifically at Indianapolis charter schools, they tend to consistently outperform traditional public schools.”

CREDO has critics. Some say it exaggerates the difference in performance between charter schools and public schools*. Others question its methodology, which compares charter students to statistically constructed “virtual twins” in public schools. There’s also concern that CREDO’s approach distracts from what makes schools effective and contributes to the “charter wars” – a zero-sum battle for reputation and students.

But the studies carry a lot of cachet and typically get a lot of press coverage. The center and its director, Macke Raymond, have been churning out detailed reports on charter schools for years. They have a giant database of student records and use a methodology that’s complex and hard to second-guess.

In the latest study, CREDO looked at charter schools in 41 urban areas from 2006 to 2011 and concluded that, in many cities, charters are doing a better job of boosting test scores than nearby public schools serving similar students. The study says that, overall, urban charter schools are providing students with the equivalent of 40 days of additional learning in math and 28 days in reading.

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Indiana charter schools lag on serving ELL students

Do charter schools serve their fair share of English Language Learners? It’s not a new question, and across the country, answers have sometimes been hard to get.

In Indiana, data suggest the answer is: Not yet. At least that appears to be the case in urban areas, where most charters are located and where public school districts tend to enroll the most ELL students.

Using 2012-13 figures, the latest available on the Indiana Department of Education website, we get the following for ELL enrollment:

Indianapolis Public Schools attendance district:

  • IPS schools – 13.5 percent
  • Charter schools – 8.2 percent

Marion County, including IPS and the Indianapolis township schools:

  • District schools – 12 percent
  • Charter schools – 7.6 percent

Lake County(some of which isn’t urban):

  • District schools – 5.8 percent
  • Charter schools – 3.7 percent

ELL_bar_graphThese data don’t include Indy charter schools that opened last fall, two of which — Enlace Academy and Excel Center at Lafayette Square — have high ELL enrollment. With data from Brandon Brown, director of charter schools for the Indianapolis mayor’s office, here are more up-to-date figures: Continue reading

Election season news from here and there

What have things come to when national political organizations and are pouring time, attention and tens of thousands of dollars into local school board races?

That’s what’s happening in Denver, where Oregon-based Stand for Children and New York-based Democrats for Education Reform are backing “pro-reform” board candidates and an opponent is getting positive media coverage from progressive sites like The Nation, Slate and The Daily Kos.

Much of the attention has focused on the southeast Denver race between Anne Rowe and Emily Sirota. SFC and DFER are supporting Rowe. But Sirota, who is married to the progressive blogger, author and radio personality David Sirota, isn’t exactly lacking for influential friends.

Emily Sirota studied political science at Indiana University and then worked in Washington, D.C., for Sen. Evan Bayh and Rep. Baron Hill, a pair of moderate Hoosier Democrats, where she met her husband. She later worked for Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer before moving to Denver.

Colorado has been out in front of the current wave of education reform, with the state or some districts adopting merit pay, test-based teacher evaluations and vouchers ahead of the rest of the country. If Sirota, who’s being seriously outspent in the campaign, could pull off an upset, it would send an interesting message.

Wake County, N.C.

The Wake County school system in Raleigh, N.C., adopted a remarkable student-assignment plan in the 1990s that sought to avoid segregating rich and poor students in different schools. The goal was to have no more than 40 percent of students in any school qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches.

The system won national acclaim, but some people didn’t like busing students to achieve socio-economic balance. A couple of years ago, a Republican majority took over the school board, killed off the diversity plan, and replaced it with a plan that relies on neighborhood and magnet schools – prompting a federal civil-rights investigation and criticism by Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Now the pendulum has swung again. Democrats picked up four seats in school board elections this month. Control of the nine-member board will be decided in a run-off election on Nov. 8.

Indianapolis

While Indiana seems to have dropped the ball on early childhood education, Melina Kennedy, the Democratic candidate for mayor of Indianapolis, is trying to do something. She proposes using money from the sale of the city water system to develop and support pre-kindergarten programs.

Matthew Tully of the Indianapolis Star explained her proposal in a recent column.

Some might argue that the mayor of Indianapolis has no statutory role in education – except for authorizing charter schools – so Kennedy should keep out of it. But as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Jim Heckman keeps pointing out, there’s no more powerful investment that than supporting high-quality early education. On this issue, Kennedy is doing the right thing.

It doesn’t really seem like the education issue has caught on in the mayoral race, however. There’s a lot of awareness of the challenges facing Indianapolis Public Schools. But it’s one of only 11 school districts in the city. Indianapolis and Marion County adopted Unigov in 1970, but they kept their Balkanized public school systems. When residents of non-IPS districts go to the polls Nov. 8 to vote for mayor, most of them probably won’t be thinking much about education.

Half of School Improvement Grants go to charters

Indianapolis charter schools nabbed two of the four School Improvement Grants that the Indiana Department of Education awarded this week.

The DOE announced Monday that it was giving $2.2 million to Indianapolis Metropolitan High School and $1.6 million to Challenge Foundation Academy, an Indianapolis elementary school. Both were created within the past six years as part of the boom in urban charter schools in Indiana.

The other Indiana School Improvement Grants were for $5.8 million to Glenwood Middle School in Evansville and $5.9 million to Hammond High School. The funds are awarded for a three-year period.

The School Improvement Grants, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, are intended to help turn around the state’s persistently lowest achieving schools – basically the bottom 5 percent, in terms of test scores and graduation rates, of schools that get or qualify for federal Title I funding.

The fact that two of the four grants are going to charter schools reflects the faith being put in charters, both at the state and federal level, to lead the way in school reform. Continue reading