Following up on Free Schools & Transparency

dirty window

My Guardian column this week explained why the current lack of transparency around Free Schools is unjustifiable. Several of the best US states have thoroughly transparent systems where the applications and school-granting process is publicly available and publicly consulted upon.
Opponents to transparency argue that making the Free School process more open would mean it getting knocked off course, but groups using cash paid in taxes by working people to inculcate those same people’s children during their limited educational time should at minimum be expected to stand their ground in a public hearing. Winning the right to that money and time means taking the heat, and explaining over and over again why you are planning what you are planning.
Concerns about transparency rippled through my conversations this week with New York-based education reformers. People looked genuinely concerned when they heard England has academised 60% of secondary schools in three years – faster than any US state has done over twenty years. They are bemused that Free School applications are shrouded in secrecy. They are mortified when they hear we have no clear guidelines on academy closures or take-overs. And these are New Yorkers – they do not frighten easily.
So far, 13 Free Schools have been inspected: 1 outstanding, 7 good, 4 need improvement and 1 inadequate.  The second cohorts of schools were allegedly subject to a more rigorous assessment, and so the feeling is that these schools will do better. Wouldn’t it be better if that rigorous assessment was also public, so that we can see the process is rigorous, rather than having no information about the decision-making process and waiting two years after a school opens before knowing if the deciders were laying their bets wisely.

“The man who can keep a secret may be wise, be he is not half as wise as the man with no secrets to keep” –E. W. Howe

All You Will Hear About Charter Schools Until 2017

From the 2013 CREDO Study
From the 2013 CREDO Study

This is Figure 1 from the 2013 CREDO Study Executive Summary. Get used to seeing it. I suspect it will soon become a new classic reference in education debate.
By matching every student in a Charter School with a similar student in a nearby school, CREDO aims to see if there is a difference to reading and maths scores depending on the type of school a student attends.
If you read all the Parliamentary debates about Free Schools in the UK & New Zealand (as I did) you soon realise the enormous power of the Stanford CREDO studies. The 2009 CREDO was the most referenced study in the debates and not just by free school advocates – it is referenced by everyone.
The reason why both sides like CREDO is that it presents a mixed picture, manipulable to fit one’s long-held views. Back in 2009 CREDO showed that about a 1/3 of Charter schools were doing brilliantly, and about a 1/3 not so brilliantly. Advocates for the policy talked, constantly, about the first statistic; its opponents carped on about the latter.  (For a great read about such behaviour, I heartily recommend Henig’s “Spin Cycle” which forensically examines education stakeholder’s preference for point-scoring over proper debate).
From what I’ve read of the study so far, this 2013 study also presents a mixed picture. Students from groups who have traditionally received less good schooling and have been ‘underperformers’ look to be doing better in the new charters when compared to their “twin” in a traditional public school. This picture differs dependent on state, and dependent on the company running the school the student is in.
No doubt much commentary will start to pull these issues out. Until then, Figure 1 is likely to be the hit home message.

Why did West London Free School change their vision?

Back in November I collected the vision, aims and ethos webpages of all the 2011 Free School cohort to analyse as part of my PhD. Most of them are unbelievably monotonous but I always enjoyed West London Free School’s:
After all: Who doesn’t want their child to grow up to be a world-beater?
So imagine my sadness when today I was triangulating other information from the WLFS websites and I noticed this:
A “classical Liberal Education”? As opposed to being able to overthrow the world? I feel so shortchanged. Guess you just can’t get the superhero role-models these days…..
Related Posts:
Following Up on Free Schools & Transparency
When We Get Bored of Free Schools Will We Focus On The “Achievement Gap” Instead?

Timeline of New Zealand Partnership Schools

New Zealand are bringing in US-inspired “Charter” and UK-inspired “Free” schools. For a conference earlier in the year I had to create a timeline of the events leading up to its introduction. It was ridiculously quick.
August 2nd – First announcement of policy. Hekia Parata, the Education Minister, makes a speech announcing that groups will be able to apply to open new schools. They will not follow the same regulation as other schools, the % of teachers who will need to be qualified is negotiable, they will be run by “private entities” and are based on international “best practice”
In the ensuing months campaigners focus on four main concerns:

  • The schools might teach creationism (They won’t, says government)
  • What about students with disabilities? (They will still be treated same, govt)
  • Hurricane Katrina campaigner warns that the way New Orleans was ‘invaded’ by Charters has been divisive among the community
  • KIPP’s Mike Feinberg visits NZ and says he does not think charters are a silver bullet – they require more hard work than that!

October 4th – Teacher’s Conference, condemns move
October 15th – Education Amendment Bill first tabled
Nov 25th – So far no “for-profit” schools have registered interest
Dec 21st – Treasury releases official advice outlining concerns about the programme, but also a pathway for going forward
Feb 16th – Chief Ombudsman raises concern that the Education Amendment Bill will put the new schools (by now called “Partnership Schools”) beyond the Freedom of Information Act
Feb 28 – Government announces that the new school application and contracting process will be managed by The Independent Partnership School Authorization Board. There is a mini sigh of relief that they are independent. Then the ex-chief of the ACT Party, Catherine Isaacs, is installed as its chair.
April 13 – Select Committee reports back giving views on amendments
May 3 – Labour have tabled a series of amendments for the Bill’s next reading, due in the second week of May
Of everything in the process the thing that bothers me most is the Freedom of Information move. It is unprecedented, and on the basis of things that happened in the US when Charter Schools were first developing it is a really horrible idea. We’ll have to wait and see how it goes.

Wilson: Never Over-Promise on A New School

Wilson’s Learning on the Job is the best book for learning about academisation as it has been realised in the US. Once a CEO of an academy chain, Wilson’s book functions as a history of the Charter School movement in the US but also looks closely at the successes and failures of each provider.
One of my favourite sections is about the huge promises that all new school chains give, and how these are particularly audacious given the demographics the schools are often forced to serve. He notes:

At each school, the organizations’ executives promised parents clients, boards and regulators that students would outperform their peers in surroudning schools. What gave education entrepreneurs confidence that they could achieve a level of academic performance that eluded traditional public schools? In short, what would they do differently?

What Wilson reveals is that there isn’t a simple answer to that question though the eight most common things are:

  • certain types of grade/class/ability grouping
  • better use of time (e.g. longer days)
  • give more parental choice
  • have better school management
  • detailed and well thought-out curriculum and pedagogy
  • use new technology
  • give teachers lots of professional development
  • hold teachers accountable through rigorous and continuous data checking

It’s not a bad list. But it’s not particularly innovative either. Very many schools who aren’t academies in England were already (are already) doing this. And there are also – I would suggest – many not-so-good academies (and not) who purport to be doing these things yet are still failing horribly.
Still, it’s a start. And at least Wilson is clear about it. I love my (very much second hand) copy.

The "Political Spectacle" of England and New Zealand's Free and Partnership Schools

Last week I presented a poster at the Comparative & International Education Conference 2013 of some tentative findings from a discourse analysis of education policy implementation in England and New Zealand. The purpose of the analysis is to see what were the reasons given for the policy and whether their use was justified. Finding out how rhetoric is used by a government is important for advocates wishing to provide an opposing viewpoint (they can then address the rhetoric being pushed), and it is also useful to uncover ‘successful’ rhetorical pattern so that future policymakers will know paths through which they can promote additional policies.
The policy being looked at was the introduction in both countries of state-funded ‘independent’ schools that can be opened by applying to a government-led organisation. Based on US ‘charter schools’, in England the schools are called ‘free schools’ and in New Zealand they are ‘partnership schools’.
By analysing the newspaper articles, policy documents, ministerial speeches, parliamentary debates and press releases about the legislation in both England and New Zealand I sought to find out how evidence about the policy in other countries (particularly the US) was being used. The theory of ‘political spectacle’ argues that governments often employ two techniques – symbolic language and rational illusions – in order to pass legislation that if talked about more frankly might not be palatable to the electorate. The data showed that both governments used symbolic language, although in quite different ways (England more directive, New Zealand more concilliatory). The main ‘rational illusion’ however was the use of ‘achievement gaps’ as the reason for the policy. In England ‘free school meals’ pupils were continually referred to as the group who would most benefit from the change. In New Zealand, Maori and Pasifika students are labelled as those most in need.
The “evidence” used to show that the change to state-funded independent schools would close the gap tended to rely on international ‘example’ rather than anything more substantative. The US chain KIPP were regularly referred to in both countries. In the UK Harlem Children’s Zone was occasionally referenced as a school which had closed gaps, however across the documents very little evidence was considered. The Stanford CREDO study was commonly used by people opposing the policy, and in the UK an article by Caroline Hoxby was referenced to show the difference charters had made.
The poster presentation can be viewed (in very tiny writing!) below, or is available for download here:

What Might Stop Excellent Academy Chains From "Scaling Up"?

The Coalition’s education ministers seem convinced that academy-chains are  “the next big thing”. Money is available for academy sponsors to take over failing(ish) schools, and chains are an increasing player in upcoming ‘Free Schools’. Theoretically, ‘successful’ chains will deliver the economies of scale and quality assurance of LEAs, while also being free of unions, pesky “regulation”, or requirements to go and account for oneself among local government representatives. You can see why Conservatives like the idea.
The problem? Evidence from the States suggests that really successful academy chains tend not to ‘scale up’. KIPP, the most-discussed, incredibly successful US chain, operates 125 schools. In a country of 100,000+ schools. Not because it “needs time to grow” – the chain started in 1993. No, smallness is a conscious choice.
Why? Steven Wilson, former Harvard fellow and CEO of a charter school chain, argues that chains are constrained by finances and human capital. Education reformers too often believe money and talented people are sitting around waiting to be found and used in a new school venture. But sadly, it’s not so.
After interviewing 10 chain leaders, Wilson found 5 things that limit school chain size. They’re here, along with how they might influence the UK:
(1) Political risk – This is less of a problem in the UK as Labour seem unlikely to reverse academy policy. But aggression at local government level still exists in some areas, particularly towards academy chains, and it can be off-putting.
(2) Unrealistic business plans – This has hampered almost every US chain. Again, it’s down to that false optimism about money and people.
(3) Start-up skills requirement – Opening schools takes a lot of skill and not every chain can afford in. In a country where schools have regularly been locally planned it’s also unlikely there will be enough people with these skills to share around.
(4) Undisciplined client acquisition – Chains take on schools without really knowing what they are getting themselves in for. Then they bomb. And then they get frightened off from ever expanding again.
(5) – Uneven design implementation – The chain takes over a school without a clear plan for explaining how it will change the school so it reflects the chain’s image.
So far I’m not hearing conversations about these barriers. Instead I’m hearing more and more of the false optimism: “Of course academy chains will spring up”…”There’s definitely enough talented people”…”The government has plenty of capacity money”… But it’s not true. There’s no definitely, plenty or ‘of course’ about this. Like a rebellious elder sibling, the US made these mistakes already so we don’t have to. If England wants academy chains it must work to get them and the sooner we get past fantasy and into detail the better off we’ll be.

The Puzzle of the Free School Teachers (Re-direct)

*This post was originally at the LKMCo website and was published on 17th May 2011*
Recently I’ve noticed a puzzle I can’t solve.  As the writer of a booklet about Free Schools I’ve worked with several Free School applicants and I keep a close eye on who is planning to do what.  Hence I noticed a pattern forming in the rhetoric of most schools’ websites – can you spot it?
“(We will) attract and retain outstanding teachers” [West London Free School]
King’s…will boast an outstanding teaching and leadership team who have an excellent track record for raising attainment” [King’s Science Academy, Bradford]
Our small size will enable us to organise teaching in small groups of excellent staff” [Bedford & Kempston Free School]
These statements appear on the websites of the three schools mentioned. Similar statements appear on all other Free School websites I have ever visited.  The puzzle is this: how will you guarantee outstanding teaching?  Are your local schools so packed with surplus super-human teachers that they will flock to your gates?  Even if they do, will they honestly be instantly brilliant even though they have never worked with the management team or the students before?
Being fair, Bedford & Kempston claim that their ‘small size’ is advantageous.  Sadly for them, the opposite is true.  25% of teachers leave their jobs in Charter Schools each year compared to only 14% of public teachers (see here for report).  A main cause? The small size of the schools and the limits this puts on professional development and promotion (see Chicago University research for details).
Mind you, keeping teachers is not as difficult as finding them in the first place. With a nationwide teacher shortage in maths and MFL all schools are struggling to recruit although the inner-cities struggle most. Free Schools aren’t constrained by national pay scales but there is no guarantee that paying more means you will automatically get outstanding teachers applying; just those who need the money most.
The only way to be certain you will have excellent teachers is if you make them.  Recruit judiciously, sure, but also plan how you will make them brilliant because – as I describe in the book – even if you do get good teachers, there’s no guarantee they will stay that way.
Successful US Charters worked this out a long time ago.  For example, The Friends for Life Schoolschedules daily collaborative planning time among teachers.  MATCH Public School runs a teacher ‘residency’ model providing new trainees each year to run extra-curricular activities which frees planning and development times for its teachers.  MATCH also have a ‘teacher coaching’ service.
The puzzle of excellent teachers is therefore solvable.  No matter how good your vision, it won’t be enough.  So if you’re planning a Free School I urge you to say how you will find, develop and maintain your staff.  It will inspire the best to apply and it will avoid you walking into the predictable disaster of promising excellent teacher and finding, later, that all you have delivered is mediocrity.
“The 6 Predictable Failures of Free Schools and How to Avoid Them” is published by L.K.M Consulting and available here 
L.K.M Consulting is working with prospective Free School founders to help them ensure their schools are successful
L.K.M Consulting has significant expertise in school based teacher training and development and offers a mentoring and coaching program as well as a “4,3,2,1” program of observations and feedback to rapidly raise the standard of lessons.