One of the biggest changes last year in DPS was the implementation of the SchoolChoice program, which matches candidates with schools by using an efficient algorithm so that there are no two students who would trade places. That this was not larger news is credit to DPS and several nonprofit organizations, who pulled off the program nearly seamlessly.
The crux of the matching theory which underlies SchoolChoice is something called the Stable Marriage Problem: how to marry 100 men and 100 women so that there are no two people who would rather be married to each other than to their current partner. This is a problem that fascinated economists and mathematicians for years (and well before match.com), eventually finding its practical use in school admissions and kidney swaps.
DPS Board Member Arturo Jimenez contributed an Op-Ed to Sunday’s Denver Post in which he explained his rationale for opposing the upcoming Bond. Mr. Jimenez stressed that the largest problem he sees in DPS is the chronic underachievement of Denver’s low-income students. Fair enough – few people would argue this point. But then in a contortion that Cirque de Soleil would find difficult to pull off, Jimenez cites as his primary opposition to the bond that it includes too much money for charter schools.
Now I find it odd to conflate issues of school performance to a debate over a bond for capital expenditures. At best, this is a tangential argument — one can believe that DPS is educating children well, or poorly, and still support spending for school construction, renovation, and equipment.
But let’s take Mr. Jimenez at his word. The core of his position is this:
In a district where 60 percent of the student population receives free and reduced lunches, the biggest deterrent in providing a stellar education to our children is poverty.
Jimenez stresses that he cannot support the bond in large part because it does not fix this and related problems. Instead, he claims, the bond includes too much money for charter schools. So these charter schools which Jimenez opposes must be doing a really poor job with low-income students, right? Well, no. Untangle his twisted position, and the truth is exactly the opposite: for charter schools in Denver are vastly outperforming their traditional peers for academic outcomes, particularly for low-income kids.
An insightful Donnell-Kay Hot Lunch on Friday focused on pensions [update: see this piece and linked podcast]. Now I think pensions are pretty important, but I understand why eyes glaze over when the topic arises. And even if you don’t get a little tingle in your cold financial heart when you hear about stacked hybrids or a cash balance approach, there a number of reasons why, if you care about public education, you should pay attention to the pension debate.
Let’s look at a few:
- Less money in classrooms: to fund the current pension shortfall, a larger and larger amount of education spending is going to need to be diverted to pay for growing pension obligations, and less and less will be available for classroom activities. Unless it is fixed, the pension burden is going to grow considerably over the next few generations, siphoning even more dollars from an educational system that is already stretched thin.
One of the traditional complaints about charter schools is that they have high teacher turnover. Particularly when hired through alternative channels (such as Teach for America), many critics believe – and several studies have borne out – that charter teachers leave the profession faster. But what is often not clear is why this is so.
The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) did an comprehensive study on the difference between the two models, looking at 956 charter and 19,695 traditional school teachers hired in Wisconsin between 1998 and 2006. The lessons from the study may not hold true everywhere, and much has changed since that time period, but they offer a good starting point to examine this issue in more depth.
First, as with other studies, CRPE found that there was indeed more attrition at charter schools. However, they also looked deeper. First, they controlled for individual characteristics (age, gender, academic degrees, etc). This initial difference shrunk. They then controlled for school characteristics (student demographics, location, etc) and the difference disappeared entirely. Once the researchers controlled for both individual and school characteristics, there was no longer a statistically significant difference between charter and traditional teachers.
Denver Public Schools has released its 2012 School Performance Framework (SPF) (although it’s not yet on the website). There is a lot of data, but I find there is a useful shorthand to compare progress. For when you look at the data from this year to last, also compare this year’s press release with last year’s press release. If the numbers to which an organization is drawing attention shift — and particularly if there was something highlighted last year that is suddenly absent this year, there is probably a certain amount of spin.
Part of my larger issue with the SPF is the focus on the number of schools instead of the number of students in those schools. It’s simply not good policy to say that a great school with 300 kids should carry the same weight as a bad school with 700 (or vice versa). So let’s start by looking at the total number of students at each rating level (as a quick note, since Beach Court’s scores were invalidated by CDE for last year, I have eliminated them for both years, except in the total as noted):
The number of students is about the same — an increase of 330 (and note these do not count AECs), and I have also included the percentage of total students in each category.
The deep sigh of relief to have resolution in the CTU teacher strike may be short-lived, as this article in the New York Times points out:
The Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund has about $10 billion in assets, but is paying out more than $1 billion in benefits a year — much more than it has been taking in.
That has forced it to sell investments, worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, to pay retired teachers. Experts say the fund could collapse within a few years unless something is done.
The CTU strike has renewed a conversation about teacher compensation, and the issue of performance pay (which did not survive the windy city negotiations). Unfortunately most of the discussion lumps all changes to the standard salary ladder of traditional districts together, and under this meme Denver’s ProComp is routinely mentioned as an innovative performance-based plan and a model for other cities.
But ProComp is interesting only in the way that a dog who could talk is interesting. It is not that the dog says anything worth listening too, it’s merely that any canine use of language is considered a revelation. Likewise, the only innovative part of ProComp is that the DCTA signed up for any compensation plan that was not the standard bark bark bark of a union salary schedule. ProComp itself is entirely unremarkable, and has little to do with performance.