Voluntary Vouchers?

Gary Houchens writes about an interesting approach to vouchers in Kentucky. I’m not sure this proposal will go very far, but here’s a summary of the proposal:

HB 384 would allow private citizens or corporations to make donations to tuition assistance programs that would provide subsidies for children who cannot afford private school tuition, and then receive a credit on their state tax bill for half the amount of their donation.  These tuition assistance programs would provide help to poor and middle class families with annual household incomes up to $60,000, with $10,000 added to that threshold for each additional school-aged child in the family.

Also, HB 384 would allow citizens and companies to make similar donations to the Commonwealth School Improvement Fund (CSIF), which was established by the state legislature several years ago to support struggling public schools in their improvement efforts.  These donations would also be subject to the 50% state tax credit.  In this way, HB 384 is a great mechanism for supporting both public and non-public schools.

Gary explains his reasons for supporting the legislation in his post.

Here are some thoughts I have on the pros and cons of this approach:

PROS

Donations to the fund are strictly voluntary. No tax dollars go directly to supporting schools accepting the tuition assistance (voucher).

Because the program is a tax credit, per pupil dollars are not directly taken from school systems in the way they are in traditional voucher programs.

The bill also encourages funding for a school improvement program designed to help struggling schools – I find the approach of offering more support/assistance to struggling schools preferable to punishing those schools.

CONS

The funding may vary from year to year, so it is not clear what happens if donations aren’t enough to cover commitments as the voucher program expands.

Ultimately, there would be an adjustment to funds public school systems receive as the SEEK formula is calculated in years following a student leaving via a voucher

The uncertainty of the funding may discourage some families from accepting the voucher, thus limiting any positive impact it may have

School improvement funding should not be contingent on voluntary funds

I think the idea of providing tax credits to individuals and corporations who support a school improvement fund is a novel approach to a particularly tricky problem. Likewise, because the donations are voluntary and the ultimate cost in terms of public dollars, even with tax credits, is likely minimal – this voucher scheme seems less onerous than others around the country.

It will be interesting to see how the program evolves if it receives sufficient support to become law.

For more on education policy and politics in Kentucky, follow @KYEdReport

 

PGES Skepticism

Gary Houchens expressed skepticism about the ability of Kentucky’s new teacher evaluation system (PGES) to effectively differentiate teacher performance back in 2013.  And he has noted since that he remains skeptical.

Houchens cites research that suggests that not much changes in terms of measurable teacher performance no matter the evaluation tool. More specifically, he notes that despite spending significant dollars on new systems, many states still weren’t seeing much differentiation among teachers on evaluations.

He writes:

Last Spring I wrote about a New York Times article exploring the results of new teacher evaluations in multiple states, including Florida, Michigan, Tennessee, Connecticut, and Washington, DC.  After investing millions of dollars and thousands of hours in new evaluation systems designed to better distinguish levels of teacher performance, these states found that principals were still rating more than 90 percent of all teachers as effective or highly effective. Only tiny percentages of teachers were identified as “ineffective” or “developing.”

It would seem these efforts were a monumental waste of time and money with only a handful of possible explanations for the results.

Houchens then goes on to note that leadership at the principal level is what makes an impact on teaching practice, regardless of the evaluation model used.

He notes:

Furthermore, Murphy and colleagues identify four larger categories of principal behaviors that make a difference in teaching quality:

…providing actionable feedback to teachers…developing communities of practice in which teachers share goals, work, and responsibility for student outcomes…offering abundant support for the work of teachers..and creating systems in which teachers have the opportunity to routinely develop and refine their skills.

None of these principal activities must rely on the teacher evaluation system for their effectiveness.  In fact, these activities are most likely high-leverage behaviors even under the old, clunky teacher evaluation system.  Perhaps we could save all this time and money we are currently investing in PGES and focus, instead, on leadership behaviors that really make a difference.

I want to zoom in on the actionable feedback piece of the research cited by Houchens. To me, that is the biggest shortcoming in most evaluation systems. That is, even if principals found areas for improvement for a specific teacher, directing them to ways to improve practice can at times prove difficult. Content-specific professional development may not be readily available, for example. Access to mentors and coaches is often limited, if it exists at all.

And, as Houchens notes, time constraints placed on principals may prevent them from providing the coaching/guidance teachers most need.

One of the biggest complainst I hear from teachers, regardless of the evaluation model used, is that professional development is not connected in any way to what’s written on the evaluation.

A teacher rated “meets expectations” (a 3 on Tennessee’s 1-5 teacher rating system), likely has earned 1s or 2s in some categories of the rubric. Yet the attendant professional development is simply not offered or available. That’s just one example of actionable feedback.  So, teacher X now knows he is struggling in a few areas, but doesn’t know quite what to do to improve.

It could be something as simple as release time to observe other teachers who are strong where that teacher is weak. So, while mentors and coaches are helpful, the solution doesn’t necessarily have to carry a high cost.

Moreover, what is the cost of NOT investing in teachers to help them improve practice? First, it’s disrespectful to teachers as professionals. Professional educators want to improve their practice. An evaluation system that identifies areas for improvement but fails to provide actionable feedback on how to improve is insulting and demoralizing. Second, it’s not fair to students. School leaders know that a certain teacher needs help in specific areas, but that help is not provided. So, students continue to miss out on the best possible instruction.

How we treat teachers says a lot about how much we truly value our students. Treating them like professionals may carry costs in terms of both time and money. But those costs are worth it if we truly want every child to have access to a great education.

And, as Houchens notes, maybe instead of spending on fancy new evaluation systems with tremendous potential, we should spend on leadership development and training as well as provision of the feedback mechanisms that will truly improve instructional practice.

 

For more on education politics and policy in Kentucky, follow @KYEdReport

Does Kentucky Need Charter Schools?

So Gary Houchens sent me this handy link about ACT scores in the midst of a Twitter discussion on charter schools in Kentucky.  Of course, there aren’t any charter schools in Kentucky right now.  But Gary wants to change that.

Which is fine. There are some very high quality, solid charter operators out there who may offer good options for some families.

BUT: The ACT numbers from the link simply don’t make the case that Kentucky MUST have charter schools to get results.

Houchens and Richard Innes from the Bluegrass Institute suggest that if Kentucky is to improve its results for African-American and Latino students, charter schools provide the answer.

Not so fast.  Let’s look at a comparison between Tennessee and Kentucky.  After all, Tennessee is most similar demographically and it’s right next door (or, below).

Tennessee has also gradually been expanding charter school offerings since 2002.  There are several high quality charter programs in both Memphis and Nashville.  So, if charters really do help urban students and students of color improve performance, that result would be evident in the numbers Innes cites.

Instead, African-American and Latino students in Kentucky perform better than their counterparts in Tennessee.  And in fact, the achievement gap between white and African-American students in Kentucky and Tennessee is identical.

Just having charter schools hasn’t made Tennessee any better at getting results for students of color.

Perhaps even more telling is how Kentucky and Tennessee students on free/reduced lunch perform. For this, we turn to NAEP results. Both states have around 55% of their students on free/reduced lunch.  Initially, Tennessee students on the program were the focus of charter schools, though that has expanded.  So, if the benefits of charters are clear, they’d be showing up here.

Kentucky’s kids score higher than Tennessee’s on 7 out of 8 indicators (4th/8th math, science, reading, writing).

Let’s take 4th grade reading as an example.  In 2009, Kentucky 4th graders on free/reduced lunch scored 10 points higher on NAEP reading than Tennessee’s.  By 2011, the difference was 12 points in Kentucky’s favor, with Tennessee’s number actually dropping a point.

What’s Kentucky doing differently? A focus on high standards and, until recently, investment in schools.  Can they do more? Sure! And charter schools could be a part of that equation.

Let me be clear: High quality, high performing charters should NOT be prevented from coming to Kentucky simply because a few superintendents don’t like the idea.  If quality can be controlled and accountability ensured, Kentucky might want to add charter schools to its arsenal.

But let’s also be clear about expectations.  Simply adding the choice of a high quality charter school will not dramatically change the Kentucky education landscape.  Kentucky shouldn’t be adding charter schools simply because choice is a nice idea.  Or because they are expecting some dramatic new result.  Expectations should be realistic and the focus, in general, should be on investing in the resources that support high quality, rigorous instruction for all students, regardless of what type of school they attend.

For more on education policy in Kentucky, follow us @KyEdReport