Blog Entries

RFA Presents at L.E.A.R.N Conference

Research for Action was honored to participate in the third annual L.E.A.R.N Conference on March 1, 2014. L.E.A.R.N is an interdisciplinary organization that seeks to create an education forum for the broader Philadelphia community hosted by graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Education, Law School, and Fels Institute of Government. The conference was well attended by members of the Philadelphia education community including School District of Philadelphia and charter school employees, professors, researchers, education advocates, parents, and students.

The 2014 conference theme, “Achievement Gap or the Education Debt? Combating Racial Inequalities in our Public Schools”, engaged conversations surrounding the disparity of educational outcomes between white and minority students. Furthermore, topics discussed the reasons behind varying educational outcomes for students of different races and possible solutions to the problem. Obviously, it is an important conversation.

The challenges and responses to persistent education challenges are complex. There’s a cliché among education researchers that the best response to any question posed is, “It’s complicated.”  With our hour, my colleagues Jessica Beaver and John Sludden wanted to convey, as best we could, just a few of the pressures facing large urban school systems, with a focus on Philadelphia. We built our slides around three trends factoring into the local decision-making in major urban areas, but have been particularly relevant in our city in recent years:

  •  Accountability policy,
  • Budget cuts, and
  • Market-based reforms, namely school choice.

Our slides exploring these issues, along with the accompanying presentation notes, are attached.

Additionally, while Philadelphia is home to a number of extraordinarily qualified education experts, we believe there is no one better able to engage and analyze the challenges facing urban school systems better than Dr. James H. Lytle. We were thrilled to have him join our panel discussion to provide perspective on Philadelphia’s situation. Dr. Lytle provided an insight into the broader policy dynamics amongst various stakeholders within the city as well as his predictions on recent financial requests to the state by the district.

The conversation we were fortunate to take part in has never been more important. We thank L.E.A.R.N. for including our voice in the conversation, and we hope you will feel free to add yours as well.


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RFA Releases Policy Note on Gov’s Expanding Excellence Program

Earlier today, Governor Corbett outlined his 2014-15 budget priorities. According to a Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) press release, the Governor’s plan includes the Expanding Excellence Program. If enacted and funded, this initiative would “provide competitive funding to schools that have attained a 90 or higher on the School Performance Profile and are willing to analyze and share best practices that have proven to raise student achievement. Grant recipients will be responsible for supporting schools across the state that strive to replicate these strategies and techniques.”

What does this mean for the schools and students this program may affect? Click here to find out.

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RFA Releases Brief on Higher Eds as Charter Authorizers

Debates on charter school reform are annual occurrences in Harrisburg. This year, amid a number of proposed changes in charter school regulation and oversight, Senate Bill 1085 adds a new element with especially far-reaching implications: allowing higher education institutions to authorize new charter schools.

In its latest Policy Note, Research for Action examines how this provision of Senate Bill 1085 compares with policy and practice in other states. Currently, 12 states permit higher education authorizers, with the number of active authorizers ranging from one to 11 institutions. If Pennsylvania lawmakers adopt Senate Bill 1085 as currently drafted, the Commonwealth could have as many as 100 higher education authorizers. Research provides no evidence that this change will result in stronger student outcomes.

The attached brief provides a review of existing research, an overview of higher education charter authorizers nationwide and in neighboring states, and answers to frequently-asked-questions.

To read the full brief, click here. Research for Action was also featured on WHYY and KYW Newsradio for our analysis of this topic.

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RFA Releases PACER Brief on Teacher Effectiveness

In education policy discussions, there is little disagreement that teachers matter. When the conversation shifts to measuring teacher performance, however, consensus is harder to find.

Despite the lack of definitive research on how best to assess teachers, officials in states across the nation have relied on classroom observation data and complex statistical models designed to quantify a teacher’s impact on student achievement.

Pennsylvania’s approach to teacher evaluation is now defined and applicable to every school building in the state. It includes multiple measures of teacher effectiveness, including classroom observations, building-level student performance and attendance data, and data selected by schools from a list of possible measurement options.

The system also includes value-added measures (VAM), a particular point of contention in policy debates. When used to evaluate teachers, VAM leverages a student’s previous assessment scores to predict their performance on future assessments. Many have expressed concern about relying on high-stakes student testing to assess teacher effectiveness.

RFA’s latest issue brief details some of the factors leading to the development of teacher evaluation systems statewide and in Pittsburgh, along with research and policy considerations facing officials and stakeholders. It builds on an earlier brief on this issue released in September 2011 when the Pennsylvania Department of Education was piloting its system in one in five public schools across the state.

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RFA Releases Issue Brief on Cyber Charter Schools

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) is currently considering applications that could expand the number of cyber charter schools statewide by 40 percent. In the General Assembly, at least 12 proposals are pending on cyber charter authorization, funding or oversight.

To inform these discussions, RFA used the state’s recently-issued School Performance Profile (SPP) scores to examine the performance of 11 cyber charter schools for which complete data are available. We compared these scores to all public schools statewide (both traditional public schools and brick-and-mortar charters) and looked at student mobility rates using enrollment and demographic data from the five cyber charters with publicly-available data.

Our analysis found that the performance of the cyber charter sector lags behind both traditional public schools and brick-and-mortar charters in SPP scores. Additionally, mobility rates of cyber charter students are significantly higher than for brick-and-mortar charters in almost all cases.

While the small sample sizes for schools with complete data limit the reach of our analysis, this is an important step in understanding a fast-growing sector and the implications for education policy and practice in the Commonwealth.

Click here to read the full brief.

Media Coverage

  • An op-ed in the Sunday edition of the Harrisburg Patriot-News
  • An article in the Pocono Record
  • An editorial in the Philadelphia Daily News
  • An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer

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