Friday, December 19, 2014

"... shall assess the effectiveness and monitor the improvement of the public schools in each district, including charter schools."

According to Mass General Laws, Chapter 69, section 1A, the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education:
...shall assess the effectiveness and monitor the improvement of the public schools in each district, including charter schools.
We in district education know well of the assessing done by the Commissioner: of reams of data required to be submitted each year to the state; of the accountability system with levels; of the strict state oversight of Level 4 schools; of the state takeover (and handoff) of Level 5 schools. The state has gone so far as to now determine how it is that we evaluate our own top administrators, feeling that we were not doing so effectively.
It is enlightening, therefore, to see the Commissioner's reaction to his receiving his own outside assessment from State Auditor Suzanne Bump, regarding how DESE handles charter schools. The report (among much else) commented:
We do not question BESE and DESE’s combined authority to grant or renew charters; however, we do believe that they should be consistent when exercising this authority as it relates to the imposition of conditions. Although the DESE Commissioner and BESE elect to provide conditions in limited circumstances when a school’s overall performance justifies renewal, from comparing the schools detailed in our finding, it appears that DESE displayed inconsistency in the assignment of renewal conditions when responding to the same or very similar deficiencies (related to the schools’ meeting the “academic goals and objectives contained in [their] accountability plan[s].”). 
Consequently, we again recommend that DESE make efforts to apply its performance criteria consistently in the charter renewal process, including requiring schools to meet the measures of success shown in their Accountability Plans
DESE should develop policies and procedures for the verification of charter schools’ reported data. Such procedures could include a program of on-site data verification similar to the one it piloted, as well as a system to ensure that corrective action is taken when problems are identified
Further, our review of BESE meeting records did not identify any instances where adverse action related to inadequate innovation practices had been taken for any of the 48 charter school renewals processed during the four-year period covered by our audit. While we recognize that it is only one factor that DESE considers during the charter renewal process, it appears that this requirement is not given equal weight, since we did see conditions placed on charter school renewals for a variety of other reasons, including concerns related to academic progress, board governance, and enrollment exceeding prescribed limitations 
And I could go on.
Now, keep in mind that the Commissioner not only already had to have seen the findings; he was able to respond right within the pages of the report.
However, in marked contrast to the ways in which districts are urged, required, and otherwise pressed to respond to any such critique by the state, the Commissioner responded disputing the findings in the press, and  by sending the Board of Ed a four page memo, including this press release from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers*:
The audit released today by the Massachusetts State Auditor of the administration of the charter school program by the Board of and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE and DESE) misses the forest for the trees. 
No one questions the need for confidence in the state’s handling of school data, but administrative issues should not obscure successful outcomes.The Massachusetts charter office oversees one of the most vibrant and high-performing charter sectors in the nation. This is due in large part to its record of rigorous application processes, comprehensive oversight, and prudent decisions on renewal and revocation of charter school contracts. 
It’s troubling that the report raises concerns about charter renewal based on questionable priorities such as “sharing of innovative programs.” The law and DESE’s renewal frameworks properly put the emphasis on student achievement and the accomplishment of charter goals...
There are a large number of things wrong with this press release :

  • By its very definition, an audit is about the trees that make up the forest; the forest of issues with charter school authorization in Massachusetts are made up by the individual trees of issues with DESE oversight. 
  • The successful outcomes are, of course, not in any way universal; when they are there, it is often at the cost of the students the auditor's report points out aren't there. 
  • The audit of course points out that the application process is not "rigorous," the oversight not "comprehensive," and the decisions on renewal and application not "prudent" as is needed. 
  • Far from the law and frameworks putting the emphasis elsewhere, the sharing of innovative programs is written into the very law that creates charter schools.

And the Commissioner knows all this.
And he sent the memo anyway.

The Commissioner has been among the loudest voices calling for accountability in Massachusetts education.
It is time for the Commissioner himself to be held accountable.
All eyes are on you, Board of Ed.

*A group which is hardly impartial, having as part of its mission statement "a commitment to... increasing the number of high-quality charter schools across the nation," and having familar faces on its Board and Advisory Board and for its funders. 

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