••• Education •••

Common Core and charter schools (with a nod to the national pastime)

Now that March Madness is behind us, both in basketball and legislative terms, a look back reveals two of the most important school issues were as conspicuously untouched as a Greg Holland fastball. I am speaking, of course, about the elimination of Common Core State Standards and creating a viable public charter school system.  So much attention and effort went into replacing the excessively complicated funding formula (which sorely needed to be scrapped since some say there is only one person in the state who truly understands all the factors), an approach which proved to be highly inelastic to the changing needs of our student population. Also, as I pointed out in a recent blog much time and energy has been needlessly expended on the spurious issue of teacher collective bargaining. All this, while so much is surfacing across the country that 1) questions Common Core and 2) demonstrates the strength and success of the public charter school movement. Yet Kansas only watches, content with education status quo.Common Core State Standards

This issue is a real head-scratcher, especially in light of what transpired recently in the House Education Committee.  Last month the committee debated HB 2292, a bill that would have eliminated Kansas’s version of Common Core – the College and Career Ready Standards (CCRS). The bill and its subsequent amendments failed, leaving the CCRS intact. What’s puzzling is it was clear a majority of the committee members wanted the CCRS repealed, but failed to do so because they couldn’t agree on how to eliminate and replace them.  This comes at a time when the questions surrounding Common Core are broadening.

In a just-published article in Education Week, the initial winner of the $1 million Global Teacher Prize (dubbed the Nobel Prize of teaching) is advising prospective teachers to stay away from teaching in public schools because of Common Core. Nancy Atwell, the award recipient and a language arts teacher at a private school in Maine says “[t]he new common core curriculum and the tests that accompany it are tending to treat teachers as mere technicians. [Teachers] open the box and they read the script, and that’s not what good teaching is about. It’s an intellectual enterprise, and that’s been stripped from it by the current climate.”

Some of the concern among those expressed by house committee members was what schools would do about curriculum if the CCRS rug was pulled out from under them. This discussion was being made concurrently with a published report about how poorly the most popular math curricula are aligned with Common Core. According to EdReports.org, 17 of the 20 most popular “math series reviewed were judged as failing to live up to claims that they are aligned to the common core.” Interestingly, the only series that is fully aligned was written after Common Core became part of the education landscape. So it appears if Common Core went down like a Kelvin Herrera strike-out victim, Kansas school districts wouldn’t be burdened with having to purchase a new math series because chances are overwhelming that the one they are using now doesn’t align with Common Core anyway.

The irony in both these examples is that Bill Gates, who was a principal driver of Common Core, both lauded the award given to Ms. Atwell and primarily funded the math curriculum study. Hmmm….

Charter Schools

Unlike Common Core, no one in Kansas seems particularly interested in improving our dismal public charter school climate.

How dismal is it?

Another reminder came recently from the Center for Education Reform’s Survey of America’s Charter Schools 2014. Kansas not only received an “F” but repeated the distinction of having the lowest score of the 43 states (including D.C.) that have a public charter school law. Note: the good news for public charter school supporters is that Alabama just passed their first charter school law. The bad news is that means Kansas will probably drop to 44thnext year.

Some lowlights from the Kansas charter school narrative “report card”:

  • No independent or multiple authorizers
  • No appeal process for denial of charter school application
  • No teacher freedom – teachers are considered employees of the district
  • Student funding – funding not included in charter law, leaving it entirely to the discretion of the school district “which ensures inequitable funding”
  • No additional funds for facilities
  • “Kansas has consistently had one of the weakest charter laws in the country and the law is often considered one in name only. Charters are not separate, independent public schools, but operate more like alternative district schools.”

The Kansas charter school law is so weak that in an analysis recently released by the National Alliance for Charter Schools, Kansas doesn’t have enough charter school students to appear in the rankings.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), a Stanford University-based group that regularly studies charter schools, just released a report on the performance of public charter schools in urban areas. Here are some of the positive findings:

  • Urban charter schools in the aggregate provide significantly higher levels of annual growth in both math and reading compared to their TPS [traditional public schools] peers.
  • Learning gains for charter school students are larger by significant amounts for Black, Hispanic, low-income, and special education students in both math and reading.
  • The 41 urban charter regions have improved results at both ends of the quality spectrum: they have larger shares of schools that are better than TPS alternatives and smaller shares of under-performing schools.

One of the arguments often put forth by the anti-charter school crowd is that Kansas has too many rural schools for public charter schools to exist as a viable alternative. Even if you buy that contention, and there is evidence to the contrary, what about our underperforming urban districts? Over one-third of all K-12 students are in the seven largest school districts, all in urban areas. As I’ve stated in this venue before, public charter schools could play a significant role in reducing the achievement gap among the low-income and minority students, a contention supported in the CREDO study.

But in Kansas, the public charter school movement garners about as much attention as the ninth inning of a blow-out.

Fortunately, there is still time to address these issues. As the “veto session” approaches – just like in April baseball – hope springs eternal. The legislature can still do what’s best by students and parents: find an acceptable way to release Kansas from the burden of CCRS and put public charter schools on a competitive footing with traditional public schools. As the Royals proved last year, just being competitive can go a long way toward success.