State Board, CDE at odds on charter

Unanimously voting to disregard the recommendation of Department of Education staff, the State Board of Education last week granted Rocketship Education a charter in San Francisco, Rocketship’s first school outside of Santa Clara County. The Board’s approval for its 33rd charter reflected a sharp disagreement not only over the Department’s conclusions on Rocketship but also how it went about  reaching them.

Rocketship appealed to the State Board after San Francisco Unified trustees voted 6-0 to deny charter approval for a K-5 school it would locate near low-performing elementary schools in the minority neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point. In a 31-page decision, the trustees ruled that Rocketship was offering “an unsound educational program” and that it would be unlikely to successfully implement what it was proposing (see Item 1 of the State Board’s Jan. 11 agenda for the San Francisco decision, the Rocketship application and the Department’s recommendations).

Department staff actually found no basis to justify San Francisco’s denial on academic grounds. Rocketship is a fast-expanding, innovative charter organization that operates five charter schools in San Jose with approval to open 25 more by 2017-18 in Santa Clara County. The three schools that have been open long enough to be tested had an average API score of 868, nearly 200 points above the average of the neighborhood schools it was targeting in San Francisco, according to its application.

Among their reasons, the trustees criticized Rocketship’s English immersion approach and said its hybrid model, which integrates the use of computers in a Learning Lab  to supplement the work of classroom teachers, sounded like a “drill and kill” approach. (No trustees actually visited the school or heard a presentation by Rocketship.) Department staff pointed to Rocketship’s track record and said that,  as a charter school, it can choose different approaches to learning and curricula from the district. (Isn’t that a reason for a charter school?)

Instead, the Department staff pointed to four flaws in Rocketship’s financial plan, a combination of lack of clarity or missing information, that led it to doubt the proposal’s viability. In a clear departure from past practice, CDE staff and a consultant hired to do the review took the position that they were legally restricted from asking Rocketship any follow-up questions for answers could have met their concerns.

That approach confused members of the State Board as well as the Advisory Commission on Charter Schools, which recommended that the State Board grant the charter after listening to the Department’s reasons and hearing directly from Rocketship’s chief financial officer and CEO (watch the hearing).

“I sense frustration among commissioners because of the conservative interpretation of the process,” Commission Chairman Brian Bauer, principal of the Granada Hills Charter High School, said during a hearing in November.

Having been chastened when a new charter school in West Sacramento went bankrupt last fall, losing at least several million dollars in state grants, Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Deb Sigman acknowledged that the Department has resolved to look at all charters’ financials in more detail. “We have directed staff to be very deliberate and thoughtful and look at denials by district and county, but there might be a more deliberate look at fiscal issues,” she told the Commission.

How much discretion on an appeal?

Advisory commissioners and State Board members didn’t dispute the need for more scrutiny. They’ve been burned by charters led by teachers and parents without much of a clue about California’s complex and precarious funding system. But they were puzzled by the Department’s efforts to make an example of Rocketship, a sophisticated operation with a level of reserve that far exceeds the average school district’s.

“I appreciate the oversight and attention to detail. It’s critical,” said Commissioner Vicky Barber, superintendent of El Dorado County. “In the past, the Commission has had fiscal matters discussion (with those) without basic understanding of school finance. But I don’t see the lack of understanding” with Rocketship.

Among the items the Department raised:

  • Each Rocketship school and Rocketship Education are separate nonprofits. Staff was concerned that the San Francisco school would be stuck with debts if it closed. But Bauer and Barber pointed to a passage in the 300-plus page charter petition that made clear the parent nonprofit would bear all debts of its schools and not require any fundraising.
  • The proposal didn’t spell out how the 15 percent management fee covering personnel for Rocketship Education would be spent. Rocketship acknowledged that it could have given more details in a footnote.
  • Repayment schedule of two loans of three on the school’s books was not given. Rocketship said that was because they did not expect they would be drawn down.

All sides agree that the Department, on reviewing an appeal, cannot consider or seek substantive changes to a charter proposal. But Commissioners and all Board members except for Patricia Rucker agreed that staff could seek clarifying information, as it has done in the past, and that the objections raised about Rocketship were minor.

The alternative would have been to reject the petition and force Rocketship to start all over with San Francisco Unified on the basis of issues that the school district had not raised.

“Rocketship,” said Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento and author of the financial disclosure regulations for charters, “risked being caught in the charter arms race where authorities keep upping the ante so that it broadens the target they can shoot at. Do you need to go into the financial minutiae of school closure?”

Rucker joined the other Board members in voting for the charter with the condition that parent Rocketship clearly state its responsibility  for any debts the new school may incur.

Statewide impact charters

Also last week, the Board approved  five-year extensions of the statewide benefit charters enabling  High Tech High and Aspire Public Schools to open charter schools throughout the state. The Board has granted only three of these (Magnolia Public Schools also has permission to open a limited number).  To receive a statewide benefit charter, a charter organization must have a track record of success and establish that it will provide a benefit that can’t be achieved through charters from individual school districts.

With 11 schools serving 4,600 students in K-12, much acclaimed High Tech High offers project-based learning targeted to areas with low-performing schools. It made the case that it needs a statewide charter to locate and better finance the construction of schools designed for of its approach. It also argued its High Tech High Graduate School of Education, offering Master’s in Education and a teacher credentialing program, helps the state meet its need for STEM teachers.

Aspire Public Schools has used the statewide benefit charter to open a half-dozen of its 34 schools. The benefit it provides, Aspire said, is increasing the number of minority, low-income students ready for college (all of its graduates last year were accepted to a four-year college); like High Tech High, it uses the statewide charter to reduce the cost of financing for school facilities and to  run a teacher residency program serving its schools. The California Schools Boards Assn., the California Teachers Assn. and the Assn. of California School Administrators sued the School Board over the statewide benefit charter for Aspire and won a victory in State Appeals Court in 2010. That decision forced the State Board to review its criteria for a statewide charter.

CTA lobbyist Ken Burt said last week the Board’s rationale “doesn’t meet the laugh test” and called on it to wait for a further ruling on the case, which is expected this spring. But Board members said that whatever decision is reached won’t end the litigation; postponing a renewal of the benefit charter would create uncertainly for Aspire parents who are now enrolling their children for next year.

Charters launch in-depth evals

With $60 million over seven years from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, four charter school organizations in California are carrying out a teacher evaluation system that bears watching.

Their collaboration is known as The College Ready Promise. The evaluation process they’ve created  after a year of piloting will combine detailed, intensive classroom observations with student test scores and questionnaires of parents, students, and other teachers. Teachers have been included in developing the observation rubric and the rules, and appear receptive, if not enthusiastic, even though important aspects are still being developed: how the evaluations will be used to determine pay and advancement, and how teachers whose students don’t take standardized tests will be measured.

The reason they’re open to it: the focus is on improvement as classroom teachers; the observation process will be rigorous and uniformly measured, and it will be coupled with opportunities for  training in specific skills and needs that were identified.

“It will give you ideas to push yourself,” said Candace Chang, a kindergarten teacher at the Aspire Alexander Twilight College Preparatory Academy in Sacramento, who served on the advisory committee that developed the observation regimen for Aspire Public Schools. “Our voices were heard; I never felt this was imposed on us.”

That’s what James Willcox, CEO of Aspire Public Schools, intended. “One of the accomplishments we’re most proud of as a partnership,” he told me in a video interview, “is that we think we’ve arrived at a really robust framework and a rubric that could be used in lots and lots of places, that can really start to put some language around what we mean when we say, “’You’re a great teacher, and this is great instruction.’” (Go here for the transcript of the Wilcox interview.)

Unionized teachers in the mix

Aspire is the largest charter management organization in the state, with 34 schools and 12,000 students. The others in the partnership are three Los Angeles-based charters: Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, Partnership to Uplift Communities, and Green Dot Public Schools. The latter’s inclusion is important, since it’s the only one with unionized teachers. If  The College Ready Promise is to have legs, as Gates hopes, and become a potential model for district schools, union teachers will have to see its value. Gates is also funding Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching in public districts in Pittsburgh, Memphis, and Hillsborough County, Fla. (Bill and Melinda Gates explain their overall Measures of Effective Teachers initiative in an opinion piece last Saturday in the Wall Street Journal.)

“We want to create something solid and accurate that teachers feel confident in,” said Arielle Zurzolo, Green Dot teachers union president and a teacher at Animo Venice Charter High School. “We are doing some really cool stuff.”

So far, Green Dot teachers have agreed only to pilot the evaluation rubric – they are a year behind Aspire in the process – and not to move ahead with basing advancement and pay on the results.

40 percent based on test scores

What unions and districts elsewhere may balk at is Gates’ condition in taking the money that growth in student achievement – standardized tests in those subjects and grades in which they’re given – count 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. The charters in The College Ready Promise have split that, with a teacher’s individual students’ test results counting 30 percentage points and the school’s collective result counting 10 percentage points. The big bridge ahead is what to do with non-test subjects and grades ­– use the school’s score or other measurements or assessments that teachers are already using.

Gates is confident that there is a correlation between growth in student test scores and the qualities of good teaching measured in teacher observations. That has yet to be proved. If there is some  relationship,  how and why should a standardized test be used as a weight in grading a teacher’s ability to build a classroom environment to support student learning or ability to prepare students for college – two of the core values behind the evaluation?

I sense some ambivalence among the charters about the 40 percent weight but agreement in the overriding benefit of funding the evaluation process, intensely training principals in observations, and getting all 85 schools in the consortium tuned in to effective teaching.

For more than a decade Aspire has included a school’s California standardized tests as a third of a teacher’s evaluation. Heather Kirkpatrick, Oakland-based Aspire’s vice president of education, said that teachers themselves, in a survey, indicated they wanted their student test scores as a sizable piece.

Two-thirds of Aspire’s schools have API scores above 800, the state target; Aspire schools’ combined API is 820, impressive for a largely low-income student body. Kirkpatrick said that the goal at Aspire is to get all students ready to succeed at a four-year college. So if teachers are not effectively teaching basic skills, as measured on CSTs, then there’s a problem.

Various forms of value-added analysis measuring student growth have come under withering criticism since the Los Angeles Times published teachers’ ratings using one method. The College Ready Promise has chosen a variation, called Student Growth Percentiles. To gauge teacher effectiveness, it compares changes in CST scores among students in the four charter organizations and Los Angeles Unified who had the same CST results the previous year. The system compares “academic peers”; ethnicity and family income, factored into other value-added analyses, are not relevant.

Principals trained to score alike

Instead of a single numerical rating, teachers will get scores, on a scale of 1 to 4, on five key areas or “domains” – the equivalent, Aspire’s handbook says, of getting your blood pressure, bone density and cholesterol checked when you get a physical. Each test measures something different. Aspire expects teachers will need “threes” to successfully prepare students for college, although what’s important, especially for new teachers, said Kirkpatrick, is improvement. The domains, based on The Framework for Teaching, by consultant Charlotte Danielson, include lesson planning, monitoring student learning, building a classroom culture, providing learning experiences preparing students for college,  and contributing to the school community and the teacher’s own growth.

The goal is two formal observations of each teacher by the principal or dean each year, plus a half-dozen or so walk-throughs. Administrators underwent a week-long training; to be certified, they must have agreed on scoring three-quarters of the time within a narrow range. This should address the biggest source of anxiety for teachers: a lack of confidence in the knowledge and objectivity of their principals.

The object of The College Ready Promise is to create pathways of advancement, whether as mentor teachers, subject specialists or administrators, with matching financial rewards. Aspire hasn’t gotten that far, but deep cuts in state funding are complicating the ability to deliver. The other Gates districts are facing similar dilemmas.

Asked about what happens after the Gates money runs out, Willcox said, “With the will to keep this going, and with the results that we believe are possible, we think that we can figure this out. That said, it’s going to be a really tough challenge to sustain this work.”