Author: Alison Murawski

RFA Releases PACER Brief on School Performance

For more than two decades, states have been required to report publicly on the academic performance of schools and districts. These school rating systems have received increased public attention amid growing concerns about the prevalence and cost of standardized testing in schools. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 64 percent of the public overall, and 67 percent of public school parents, said there is too much emphasis on standardized testing in education.

These perceptions have been widely acknowledged by policymakers at both the state and federal levels. As deliberations on the future of Pennsylvania’s school rating system, the School Performance Profile, gather steam, RFA is pleased to provide background on the existing (though limited) research related to best practices in reporting on school performance.We also offer examples of reporting systems from neighboring and high-performing states.

To read RFA’s latest brief, click here.

RFA Releases Analysis of 2013-14 Data on Keystone Exams


Report Release: Pennsylvania’s Keystone Exams:
An Analysis of 2013-14 Publicly-Available Data 

Beginning with the class of 2017, Pennsylvania students’ performance on Keystone exams will play a major role in whether they receive high school diplomas.

This policy, and the state’s move toward test-based accountability, has been controversial. Many supporters believe that exit exams will ensure greater equity in academic expectations statewide, while opponents contend that exit exams will narrow curriculum, burden both teachers and students, and negatively impact graduation rates–especially for disadvantaged students.

Earlier this year, test results for the 2013-14 administration of the Keystones were released; the results provide an initial indication of how students are performing.

RFA’s analysis of these data found:

  • The percentage of students scoring proficient on their first attempts on the Keystone exams ranged from 52 (Algebra) to 62 percent (Literature). 
  • Traditionally-disadvantaged students experienced particular difficulty: first administration proficiency rates ranged from 43 percent (Literature) to 31 percent (Biology).
  • Statewide, more than a quarter-million re-tests resulted in another round of below-proficient scores. Twice-failed exams trigger a requirement for districts and charters to administer labor-intensive alternative, project-based assessments.
  • If graduation requirements were in full effect today, a broad range of districts across the state–urban, rural, and suburban–would need to administer a high volume of alternative assessments.

The rollout of the graduation requirements policy is complex, and some challenges in the first years of implementation are to be expected. Still, the assessment results bear careful watching. Read the brief for more.

RFA Featured in Education Week

This week’s edition of Education Week is focused on the opt-out movement, and features an interactive section called “Inside Opt-Out: The Pushback Against Testing.” An RFA commentary piece, authored by Jessica Beaver and Lucas Westmaas, is featured, as is a multimedia activity based on a simulation of opt-outs from our PACER brief. You can read the Ed Week feature here:

RFA Responds to Phila. School Advocacy Partners’ Position Paper

On December 5, the Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners, or PSAP (an arm of the Philadelphia School Partnership), released a position paper that called for an “aggressive expansion of schools that are achieving results for low-income and minority students.” The document describes what it terms “high-impact” schools and “underperforming” schools. However, RFA found a number of issues with the claims made by PSAP. Click here to read our brief response.

RFA Launches Phila. Education Research Consortium

An innovative partnership designed to 
provide research and analyses on some
of the city’s most pressing education issues has been forged among the School District of Philadelphia, the city’s charter school sector, and a Philadelphia-based, nationally-respected education research organization.

Research for Action (RFA) received a three-year grant from the William Penn Foundation to establish this partnership–designated the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium, or PERC.

PERC will draw on the rich research expertise in Philadelphia–both within RFA and from three of the city’s major research universities–to conduct research that meets the information needs identified by representatives of Philadelphia’s public schools.

Its creation is groundbreaking for a number of reasons. First, PERC’s research agenda is driven entirely by the city’s school district and charter schools, not the interests of researchers. This orientation will ensure that PERC will provide timely, actionable analysis aligned with the highest priorities of Philadelphia’s educators.

Second, PERC includes an unprecedented partnership with Temple University, Drexel University, and the University of Pennsylvania. The universities will sit on the Research Advisory Committee, and their researchers will participate in PERC projects as well.

“With the launch of PERC, Philadelphia is joining a cadre of other major cities, including Chicago, New York City, Baltimore, and Los Angeles, that have the benefit of an organization devoted exclusively to improving the capacity of its public schools to make evidence-based decisions,” said Kate Shaw, RFA’s executive director and the founding director of PERC. “Philadelphia’s school leaders need support to continue to improve public education even in the face of unprecedented challenges, and RFA is thrilled to lead the effort to provide it.

Directors of three similar research consortia–the Baltimore Education Research Consortium, the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, and the Chicago Consortium for School Research–will also provide strategic guidance.

RFA’s OST Journal Article Published

RFA’s work to examine out-of-school time (OST) programming and its impact on student outcomes continues to generate attention. A journal article, authored by RFA researchers Tracey Hartmann, Brittan Hallar and Jian Gao, was published today in the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal. Click here to read the article.

Additionally, this morning, Tracey Hartmann participated on a panel on OST innovations in Philadelphia. The panel, sponsored by PSIJ and in conjunction with the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department, Department of Human Services, and the Public Health Management Corporation, explored how Philadelphia’s OST sector can continue to innovate in order to meet the needs of students and adapt to local needs and culture.

RFA Hosts OST Learning Community Workshop

Last Tuesday, RFA hosted a Learning Community Workshop for out-of-school time (OST) providers who are recipients of the 21st Century Community Learning Center (21st CCLC) grants. The discussion followed the release of the RFA’s 21st CCLC aggregate report which looks at program implementation and student outcomes across 11 provider agencies and 50 sites in Philadelphia. Tuesday’s discussion focused on STEM programming and school partnerships in 21st CCLC programs, topics identified by the providers as areas they would like to discuss. Ten provider agencies, who were 21st CCLC evaluation clients of RFA, were in attendance, as well as representatives from the School District of Philadelphia including central office staff, one principal and one classroom teacher who work with 21st CCLC programs in their schools.



Providers and teachers shared successes, challenges and tangible strategies for effectively implementing STEM OST programs and developing partnerships with schools. Many of the program provider representatives reported finding comfort in knowing they are not alone in their struggles and through this experience, some were able to find solutions to existing problems. Others left with ideas for new programs and methods. However, many questions and concerns about how best to go forward with OST STEM programs and school partnerships remain. This workshop was a meaningful step toward creating a Learning Community of OST providers in which providers can reflect on program practices in the context of research findings and benefit from the shared experience of peer organizations.

PASA-PASBO Report Documents Impact of Cuts to Education

The Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) and Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) today released a report on the impact of education cuts on PA school district budgets. The report confirms what has already been widely reported: that declining investment in education has caused deep cuts to education programs and staff in every corner of the state.

Research for Action administered the survey of school administrators and business officials in all 500 school districts and served as a research partner on the report.

Click here to access the report and PASA/PASBO’s press release.


RFA Op-Ed in Public School Notebook

The Pennsylvania Governor’s race has been in the spotlight of late, especially with ambitious proposals and reforms to education included in the platforms of both Democrats and Republicans.

But two of RFA’s policy researchers make the case that the agency that will be charged with implementing these reforms–the Pennsylvania Department of Education–is woefully understaffed and under-resourced.

Read more in their commentary in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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

Executive Director Kate Shaw Wins National Award

“Meet me in St. Louis” may be a refrain from a classic musical show tune of the 1940s, but it’s also precisely what RFA’s executive director, Kate Shaw, heard when she learned that she had won a major national award from the Association of the Study of Higher Education (ASHE). Shaw was presented with the first-ever Excellence in Public Policy in Higher Education award on November 13 at ASHE’s national conference in St. Louis. The award recognizes an individual who “contributes excellent work at the nexus of academic scholarship and policy practice in the field of public policy and higher education.”

kate shaw ashe award


Click here to read Dr. David Tandberg’s introductory remarks honoring Shaw during the awards ceremony, and here to learn more about her career.