Another bite at charter school lessons for every school

In my last post I linked to a Harvard Center for Educational Innovation study that uses sophisticated data analysis to identify the practices that drive achievement in successful charter schools.

Note that the study makes it very clear that not all charters are successful, and indeed that average charter school performance is no more impressive than average public school performance – in other words, not very impressive at all.

The author focuses, instead, on charters that consistently, and dramatically, improve the performance and prospects of disadvantaged students.

I listed these practices in my last post, and I want to return to one of them today. But first, let me share this interesting description of the top-performing charters:

These [the report lists several successful schools] and other charter schools have used their freedom to develop an array of innovative practices. For instance, the Bronx Charter School for the Arts believes that participation
in the arts is a catalyst for academic and social success, and therefore integrates art into almost every aspect of the school experience and prompts students to use art as a language to express their thoughts and ideas. On the other end of the spectrum, YES Prep students in Houston log hundreds of volunteer hours through “service learning opportunities” that are integrated into the curriculum. There are also a number of so-called “No Excuses” schools—such as KIPP Infinity, the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academies, and the Democracy Prep Public Schools—that emphasize frequent student assessments, dramatically increased instructional
time, parental pledges of involvement, aggressive human
capital practices, a “broken-window” theory of discipline (where schools address even smaller behavioral infractions with the intent of preventing larger ones), and
a relentless focus on math and reading achievement (Carter 2000, Thernstrom and Thernstrom 2004, Whitman 2008).

Note that “innovation” encompasses a very wide variety of approaches – indeed, approaches that would seem to contradict one another. This should sound a warning note to those who seek to reform education by standardizing it.

But this list also begs the question, what does an arts school have in common with a “back to basics”, “no excuses” school?

One answer, according to the author, is that they both use “student data to drive instruction”:

Data can drive more-personalized and more-efficient learning, allowing both teachers and students to track progress and to make sure that each individual student is on an appropriate path. Assessments can be used to adjust everything from tutoring to student goals. To achieve this, schools should conduct regular assessments of students every four to six weeks. More in-depth assessments could be given several times a year, and teachers could meet with students individually to
discuss and set goals after each assessment.
Administrators will need to equip schools with the necessary technology, such as scanners and software, to quickly and easily input student test data into a central database. This database should be available to teachers and administrators, and provide information on student achievement along a variety of vectors.

Ah, that “D” word again. Before you barrage me with the usual “tests are killing education” comments, stop and think about how this model of data collection and assessment differs from a once a year standardized test. First, these schools insist on more testing, not less, but it’s testing with a clear instructional purpose. Feedback comes quickly enough, and frequently enough, to enable a teacher to change course, fine tune instructional strategies, or even just back up and revisit a lesson that hasn’t been adequately learned. Lots of people get access to this data – students, parents, teachers, administrators – but they’re expected to use this information to teach, learn, or coach more effectively, not to “grade” teachers or schools.

I’m still guessing that data-driven education isn’t going to be popular with many teachers, because there’s no getting around two uncomfortable realities: Constant data collection soaks up valuable classroom time, and widespread data sharing shines a spotlight on our effectiveness. Still, I think that many teachers would be much more open to gathering student performance data if we got that information soon enough to make a difference, and if administrators used this data as a tool and not as a club.

Any thoughts?





  1. Yak-Herder

    Here’s about all I know:

    I don’t have any real objection to testing and reporting scores. I have a problem with the instrument.

    Where I teach, the attitude towards the State’s Criterion Reference Test (CRT) could have once been described as massive indifference. The scores meant nothing. They didn’t determine whether or not a student “passed” a course. They didn’t figure into college admission. They didn’t affect funding. They just didn’t matter.

    The CRT is, at least for the subject I teach, a multiple choice test based on poorly written standards. Bloom would classify most of the CRT’s multiple choice questions as “Knowledge” and “Comprehension”, with maybe a few “Application” here and there; “Analysis”, “Synthesis”, and “Evaluation” just aren’t in the picture.

    We (the faculty) recognized the shortcomings (in the standards and testing) and designed a curriculum that went well beyond them, offering material to the students that we knew they would need. We choose to focus our attention on learning and ability, using tests that would better measure real progression on the part of each student.

    Once the CRT test results began to be reported and they becoming a reflection of the school’s “grade”, attitudes changed on a dime. Our Principal made it VERY clear to us that “our” scores were not adequate and that we were to fix that. There was no discussion regarding the relative merits of making CRT scores the ultimate objective of our classes or aspect of our evaluations.

    We responded. We now give regular practice tests using the questions from the State’s bank of sample test questions. CRT scores improved, dramatically. Our school’s public image is wonderful. Everyone is happy.

    Except me.

    I’m unhappy because I understand the cost. We’ve essentially doubled the amount of testing and doing so has significantly impacted time for instruction. Student performance looks better on paper, but what isn’t being acknowledged is the reduction in content. Better grades maybe, but less learning.

    But that’s what we seem to want. The really sad thing is how many of us are perfectly willing to trade a good education for a good grade (two different things). We hear all kinds of noise about “failing schools” and the need to improve education. Those who are engaged in the fight seem to be very sincere in their efforts, but what I am seeing more and more of are people who think only in terms of a “good grade”, not a good education. A desire to have students actually learn something, or to be able to really do something, should be the ultimate objective. Measuring anything else changes the objective.

    Again, I don’t have a problem with testing. I have a problem with the way we are doing it.

    Two related notes:
    1.After all this upheaval, it looks like the CRTs will be going away soon as the State moves towards Computer-Based Testing (CBT). That doesn’t mean taking the same test on a computer rather than using a paper and pencil; we made that shift a few years ago. From what I understand, the CBTs will be new tests that are adaptive. You know, those tests that adjust themselves, where the specific questions given are based on answers to the previous questions. I mostly favor that, but it’s still a multiple-guess test based on weak standards and comparing them to existing data (just watch, they will) will be meaningless.

    2. Because of the massive amount of change to the curriculum being absorbed by elementary teachers as a result of the introduction of common core standards for math and language (a legitimate problem), the State has placed a moratorium on additional changes. So, even though a finished version of the common core for science will soon be released, the option of adopting standards that are better than the existing ones does not exist. I don’t know why secondary education teachers can’t move ahead with better standards, but that’s really another topic.

    • Mary McConnell

      These are all excellent points, and although I don’t know this test I find your arguments persuasive. If we’re going to use data from tests, then these tests must be based on demanding, meaningful standards, and capture more than just surface knowledge. But I’ll repeat a point I’ve made before. If we really get better standards and better tests, we may very well NOT, especially at first, see better scores.

  2. Yak_Herder


    Wouldn’t be sad to actually get better standards and tests just to see them displaced by the next educational fad?

    • Mary McConnell

      Yes, and so likely, too.

      I think I’ve told this story on the blog before, but when I was hired on at Juan Diego, our principal mentioned that there was at least one advantage to Catholic schools’ perpetually cash-strapped condition. “By the time we scrape together enough money to try the newest educational idea, everybody else has figured out that it doesn’t work.”

      Of course I’m a paleo-teacher, but I think there’s a lot too that sentiment.

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