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Charters: Some Good, Mostly Bad

October 28, 2012 Comments off

Over the past several weeks I’ve collected scores of article on charter schools from Diane Ravitch’s blog, Naked Capitalism blog, and the ASCD blog… and they tend to focus on the bad side of the charter movement.

The bad side of the charter movement is the fact that it is too often linked with privatization and. therefore. too often succumbs to the excesses of corporate America. The Orlando Sentinel reported recently on a golden parachute that paid a failed principal $500,000— chump change compared to what the failed CEOs of banks received, but more than most Superintendents earn in 2-3 years. But State laws in Florida enable this kind of behavior:

The district was unaware of the principal’s pay because the school is not required to report it under Florida’s charter school law. Earlier audits by an outside firm hired by NorthStar had noted the school had contracts that would require payouts to several employees, but no dollar figure was calculated.

The law is very clear that school boards cannot put limits or control how a charter school spends their money, including payouts like this” or salaries, said Sublette. He called the payment “immoral and unethical” and noted that it could have paid the salary of five district principals for a year.

Because charter schools do not have to report their principals’ salaries in Florida, it is unclear how many might have contracts or salaries similar to Young’s.

So PRIVATE schools are under no regulation to report salaries paid using public funds any more than a bank or private enterprise on Main Street is required to disclose salaries. This kind of deregulation leads to findings like those reported in California where the lax oversight of charter school resulted in them being chastised by the USDOE. How much money was streaming through charter schools in three states? Oh, “...nearly $1 billion in federal money awarded to states for charter schools between 2007 and 2011″. Again, $1,000,000,000 is chump change for Jamie Dimon… but unlike the USDOE he didn’t divert federal dollars that could have been used to fully fund special education.

Some charters, though, hew to the ideal of creating viable alternatives. The Hechinger Report published by Columbia University reported on Carpe Diem, an Arizona charter school that uses a blended learning approach to educate students who are a demographic match for the general population but who do as well or better than public schools for a lower cost. The criticisms of the program are hard to refute: the students who remain in the program are described as self-motivated learners; and the school does well because it “teaches to the test”. But here’s the rub: the school IS playing by the rules and is delivering on a promise to lift all willing students to success using the measures the public finds acceptable. The article doesn’t suggest it screens students in advance of acceptance: students self-select and drop-out if they lack the self-discipline to continue in the self-paced environment. The school doesn’t question the validity of standardized tests administered to age-based cohorts; it takes those as a given and acknowledges that it needs to provide some kind of metric that gets at critical thinking skills. Based on the article, which may be engaging in some puffery, Carpe Diem appears to be committed to finding ways to increase the ability of holding on to students (i.e. increase the number of “willing” students) and to expanding the scope of its curriculum beyond the skills and content measured by standardized tests. As close readers of this blog realize, the Carpe Diem model is superior to the factory model… and from my perspective tinkering with the “Carpe Diem” approach is superior to tinkering with our current set up.

But here’s the real dilemma: profiteers have expropriated the term “charter” and linking it with “for-profit” instead of having it be synonymous with “experimental”… and so many progressive educators are rejecting all charters, even those that are trying out new models that might show promise.

 

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Hobson’s Choice in Boston

October 27, 2012 Comments off

The on-line headline article in today’s Boston Globe describes a plan to allow low-income students to have a priority when it comes to choosing schools, a plan that would “…give low-income students a priority to attend better-performing schools in other neighborhoods, a potentially divisive move that could address inequities but also take away seats from more affluent applicants who live nearby.”

This is a bad idea for several reasons. First, it reinforces the notion that schools are the primary agency for changing the opportunities for students to learn. Secondly, it prevents neighborhoods from unifying to improve their culture. Thirdly, it pits parents against parents which will ultimately result in even more urban flight by the middle class. Finally, it will require extensive administrative time and political capital dealing with social issues that are not  related to education.

The only way to address the effects of poverty on school children is to address poverty itself. Parents need jobs. They need coordinated financial and psychological support to find those jobs and in raising their children. They need funds to sustain them and their children until they find work that will pay them a decent wage and provide the health care their family needs. We can’t expect schools to educate children who are hungry, without shelter, and without the emotional nurturance that results from having those basic needs met.

The Election: Any Way You Look At It You Lose

October 27, 2012 Comments off

Decades ago the movie The Graduate featured Paul Simon’s  song “Mrs. Robinson” that included a verse on politics that concluded: “Laugh about it, shout about, any way you choose, any way you look at it you lose”… a phrase that is particularly apt when it comes to choosing a candidate this year based on their education record.

Mr. Romney’s ideas on K-12 education vary from Mr. Obama’s in one respect: he would be willing to allow taxpayers funds to be used as vouchers to enroll in sectarian schools. Here’s my take on how THAT might play out: it will cease as soon as a mosque wants to operate a school. Otherwise, Mr. Romney would likely continue what Mr. Obama has started.

And what has Mr. Obama started? Not too much. Mr. Obama, like his predecessor George W. Bush, uses standardized tests as the sole metric for measuring student performance, ignores the effects of poverty on schools, and welcomes the privatization of public schools. He is encouraging states to apply for waivers, but I’ve written earlier on this blog site, the waivers are no substantially no different from NCLB in terms of their reliance on standardized achievement tests as the basis for measuring school performance. Indeed, his Race to the Top initiative is even worse than NCLB since it uses standardized tests to measure teacher performance using value added measures (VAM), a voodoo science that seems to make sense intuitively but is full of statistical and logistical flaws, all of which are discussed in several blog posts.

As one who hoped that Mr. Obama’s election would bring a new perspective to the debate on public education, I am distressed to find myself unenthused about a second term. I hope that the public’s frustration with the escalating costs of public education (brought about by the effects of federal and state legislation that shifts costs to the local level) doesn’t result in our districts reaching a tipping point where privatization is the rule and not the exception.

Does Demography HAVE to be Destiny?

October 25, 2012 Comments off

One of Diane Ravitch’s blog posts yesterday reported on the findings of a recent study of NYC High Schools by researchers at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform that concluded that in spite of the NYCDOE’s efforts to level the playing field in terms of high school choice, “…demography is still-and quite relentlessly-destiny”. 

The report concludes with three recommendations:

  • A more equitable distribution of in-school guidance and counseling resources to help families successfully navigate the school choice maze
  • A significant increase in the number of educational-option seats, to ensure that students of all academic levels and all neighborhoods have a fair shot at seats in the high schools that are most likely to prepare them for college
  • Heavy investment in school improvement strategies, rather than just school creation and choice, to increase the capacity of existing schools to prepare students for college.

These recommendations are clearly actions schools can take, but there are two major omissions in this list: the need for schools to abandon their current grade-age cohort structure and the need for schools to form alliances with health and welfare agencies.

As advocated directly and indirectly in many blog posts, the practice of batching children based on their chronological age  instead of their development is an anachronism that comes from the era when schools were designed on a factory model to sort and select the best and brightest children from those who would do manual labor. This framework persists despite its inappropriateness in today’s era that requires all children to meet high standards and despite the fact that instruction can be tailored to meet each child’s unique needs. It persists because we administer tests based on the factory model everyone grew up with and everyone accepts unquestioningly.

We also cling to the belief that schools by themselves can help students overcome the effects of poverty… despite the fact that all evidence indicates schools cannot address the problems children in poverty face by themselves. Schools cannot address the problems that compound themselves during the years before children come under the umbrella of services they provide nor can school address problems that occur in the eighteen hours that students   are outside of classrooms. Schools and agencies serving children need to break through the silos that separate them as described in the published article on this blog, A Homeland Security Bill for Education. 

My recommendation to NYC and any district that is dealing with children raised in poverty is to do everything recommended by the Annenberg group PLUS replace age-based grade level cohorts with developmental cohorts and to break down the walls between schools and the agencies serving children. Demography does not have to be Destiny unless we continue to do what we’ve always done.

How Vouchers Worked in Milwaukee… and Charters Worked Nationally

October 22, 2012 Comments off

In 1990 the city of Milwaukee introduced vouchers for all students with great national fanfare. After years of theorizing about how children born in poverty could escape from the sub-par urban schools into any school of their choice— including religiously affiliated schools— a full fledged twenty plus year comparison of the voucher program is now possible and… guess what: voucher’s DON’T work.

In an article posted on Common Dreams website, Barbara Miner, a reporter and writer who lives in Milwaukee and who covered the voucher plan from the outset, concludes her analysis of the program with these paragraphs:

For more than twenty years, I have listened to the voucher movement’s seductive rhetoric of “choice” and “parent power.” If I didn’t know better, I might proclaim, “Sign me up today!”

Milwaukee, however, has more than two decades of reality-based vouchers. The lesson from this heartland city?

Vouchers are a vehicle to funnel tax dollars into private schools. Using the false promise of “choice,” they are an unabashed abandonment of public education and of our hopes for a vibrant democracy.

And how about charter schools? How have they done? One of the most insightful thinkers in education, Marc Tucker, recently wrote an article in Education Week laying out all of the evidence from the past twenty years regarding charter schools compared to public schools. His conclusion regarding the value of introducing markets into public education:

Any way you slice it, the market theory does not hold up in the light of either serious analysis of the premises on which it is based or the data on what happens when it is put into practice in education.  If you want choice systems because you think there ought to be as much choice as possible in a democracy, go for it.  But if you want choice and market-driven policies in education because you think they will raise student performance overall and lower the cost of provision, think again.

Unsurprisingly, the Fordham and Cato Institutes responded harshly to this…. but offered no facts or evidence that contradicted it except some cherry-picked studies. Marc Tucker, being interested in basing his arguments on ALL the evidence, was undaunted by the criticism:

The most casual reader of Education Week knows that there are research studies on charters and vouchers that purport to show that, at the locations and in the periods in which the studies were done, the charter or voucher schools produced superior results.  And they also know that that there is an equally voluminous series of studies that purport to show that, once the appropriate adjustments are made to make sure that similar students are being compared, there are no gains for charters or vouchers vis-a-vis regular public schools.

After a paragraph providing further evidence from Diane Ravitch’s excellent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, he writes:

When the choice and charters movement was launched, its advocates confidently proclaimed that choice and charters would inevitably lead to greatly improved student achievement and lowered costs.  After more than 20 years of charter schools and more than that of choice programs, what we actually have is Tom Loveless’ finding that any gains attributable at scale to charters and choice are very small.

Both Obama and Romney are unapologetic supporters of choice and competition. In the coming four years it is going to take a concerted effort by those of us who believe in not-for-profit public schools to beat back thirty-plus years of bi-partisan anti-public education sentiment. From Terrell Bell’s A Nation At Risk to Arne Duncan’s Race To The Top, every national political figure has decried “the sorry state of public education” while avoiding the truth: apart form schools serving children in the greatest need our public schools are unmatched.

Hugs, not Tests… and Questions We Aren’t Asking

October 21, 2012 Comments off

“Cuddle Your Kid”, Nick Kristoff”s article in today’s NYTimes is a welcome change from the drumbeat for more testing and the complete avoidance of the issue of how poverty affects schooling. In the column he references Paul Tough’s latest book, How Children Succeed, providing this background:

“There is no antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable,” Tough writes, than grit, resilience, perseverance and optimism.

Yet conservatives sometimes mistakenly see that as the end of the conversation.

“This science suggests a very different reality,” Tough writes. “It says that the character strengths that matter so much to young people’s success are not innate; they don’t appear in us magically, as a result of good luck or good genes. And they are not simply a choice. They are rooted in brain chemistry, and they are molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which kids grow up. That means the rest of us — society as a whole — can do an enormous amount to influence their development.

Kristof offers one example of an early intervention program that works and there are several others he could have listed… but here’s the problem: we are uninterested in spending money on early intervention because the  results are not immediately evident (it takes at least 15 years for a 3 year old to graduate from HS) and because the intervention needs to be funded by the government with (gasp) taxes. There are other difficult questions to answer before early intervention can work. For example:

  • Should all children be required to enroll in pre-school programs?
  • If yes, can some parents opt out if they want to keep their children at home?
  • If no, who decides which children should be required to attend?
  • If  the curricula is designed to teach “…grit, resilience, perseverance and optimism” who defines the curriculum content?
  • If teaching parenting is embedded in the program, isn’t the government deciding what the definition of “good parenting” is?

I was recently invited to give a presentation on early childhood education to an adult education program affiliated with Dartmouth College and one of the self-proclaimed conservatives in the class agreed that early intervention was a good idea and poor parenting was linked to poor student performance… but he was stumped when I posed questions like these. I can answer the questions, but pure conservatives and many libertarian liberals might disagree with them. My major concern as one who believes we should do everything possible to provide those children raised in poverty with a chance to advance is this: we aren’t even posing these questions.

 

Friedman Misses the Point on RTTT

October 21, 2012 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes column by Tom Friedman questions why President Obama has not emphasized either his education reforms or his new mileage standards for cars in his debates. While I completely agree with the Presidents actions regarding the mileage standards, I completely DISAGREE with his actions in public education… and offered this bit of feedback in the comments section:

The “reforms” Duncan and Obama advocate are not substantially different from the ones Romney and, say, Michelle Rhee would advocate…. and neither policy will “…elevate teaching into an attractive profession” because both are based on the premise that student, school, and teacher performance are linked to test scores. Teachers are expected to robotically teach to these tests, especially in low performing districts. Teaching to a test is changing teaching into a low-skill low-wage job that requires trained workers at a time when advances in cognitive sciences and technology make it possible for teaching to become a high-skilled high-pay job. Privatized charter schools are deemed “successful” when they elevate test scores but the elevation of test scores will not yield high school graduates who are ready to compete in the international workplace of the future.

The biggest problem with the RTTT model is that it reinforces the old factory model of education by increasing the emphasis on testing students in age-based cohorts. We have the tools available today to tailor schooling to meet the unique needs of each student and we are developing a greater understanding of neuroscience and cognitive development. Why are we calling the measurement of students using crude multiple choice tests “reform”?

I nearly ran out of space with that comment… or I would have added another observation: President Obama used an objective standard for the auto industry, mpg. He didn’t ask the Secretary of Transportation to dream up a set of standardized tests to measure the progress the automakers made toward that goal. He didn’t tell the auto industry he was going to close them down and replace them with “charter” industries if they failed to meet intermediate benchmarks defined by such a standardized test. And he didn’t threaten to replace their administrators and assembly line workers if they failed to make sufficient progress toward the mpg standards as measured by his new tests. Yet if schools fail to make sufficient progress as measured by standardized tests that are in no way linked to college readiness they could be closed down and their employees could be fired. If this is no way to run a private business why is it a good way to run schools?

The rejoinder, I’m sure, is that the consumer could decide the fate of the automakers because there is competition. My rebuttal is that the average consumer is not interested in mpg as much as they are interested in style. If mpg was the consumer’s desire they would be buying more compact cars and fewer trucks. Similarly, many taxpayers are not interested in whether their schools are preparing students for the future. If that was their aspiration they would be investing more in technology and offering compensation to teachers that attracted the best and brightest college graduates. Like the consumers buying cars, taxpayers need to focus on the bigger picture… and the bigger picture ISN’T getting higher scores on tests that do not guarantee placement in a community college or in the workforce.