NPR: Grading Charter Schools…Did NPR make the grade?

I love NPR, most days. When it comes to charter schools, however, I wonder where their objectivity is. On Innovation Hub this morning, Kara Miller’s guests were David Osborne and Chester Finn. Both have written books advocating for school reform. Miller did ask questions that reflected criticisms about charters, but accepted their responses with no follow up. Where were the knowledgeable experts on the negative impact of charters on communities? Where was the discussion about the profiteering? Where was the admission that few charters are innovative and most duplicate what already exists?

The end result of the interview was the usual propaganda that if only there were more and better charters, education would improve. At least there was a reluctant admission that school choice had no substantive impact on school achievement. I took a few notes on the other questions asked.

Political support for charters was one of the most interesting and perhaps revealing questions asked. Conservative Republicans support charters for other people, not themselves. Their suburban district schools are good, and charters help their children the least of all. Liberal Democrats, many of whom are from urban districts are no longer so supportive of charters, even though charters are supposedly helping those children the most.

The switch in allegiance by Democrats was attributed to the fact that the teacher unions realized that charter teachers were not joining the union, so the charter movement lost union support. The fact that charter teachers sign ‘at will’ contracts and can be fired for no reason was not mentioned as a reason those charter teachers did not join unions.

Could it be that parents and educators in areas where charters have proliferated are best equipped to recognize their shortcomings? Parents want the best for their children, but resegregation and the destruction of whole communities may be tempering enthusiasm. Parents may be recognizing that pulling out a few children for special treatment may turn out not to be so special. Their political representatives are listening.

Charters have made no significant academic improvement based on test scores was acknowledged. Some cities are purported to have been successful e.g. Boston. Their success was attributed to the small number of charters that met stringent authorization qualifications. In too many other places, such as Dayton, Ohio, anyone can open a charter and the quality can be abysmal.

Improvements in district-run public schools is the rational for providing competition from the charter sector. Osborne did slip in a comment about more district operated charters are likely in the future. This option is worth exploring. This could result in better authorization standards and oversight.

Charters pull money away from district schools was denied. I loved this response. If districts are under enrolled, the district should get creative and lease out the building to charters. If that is the best example of creativity, charters have a long way to go to make their case.

The ‘creaming of students’ charge was given short shrift. Beware of slipping into worst case scenarios arguments was the response. To be fair, they did state that a good school is not enough. The example of the trauma that children experienced from the aftermath of Katrina was cited as a need for more support.

The conclusion was that achievement is not getting better fast enough. David Osborne admitted that test scores are not the sole indicator of good schools. What should be used? Graduation rates, parental opinion, and qualitative assessments by independent evaluators…..sounds expensive. This argument, I believe, may be the weakest of all. The premise that evaluation will drive instruction is wrong headed. It is not working….school grades don’t improve schools; they destroy them.

Listen to the broadcast here.

Send comments here: wgbh.org Innovation Hub

Segregation: Is the federal government to blame?

Did the federal government end segregation of schools while at the same time promote segregation? How could this be?

In this Education Votes article, Sabrina Holcomb presents Rothstein’s arguments that federal housing policy created the current educational policy crisis. In ‘The Color of Law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America’, Richard Rothstein is provocative. It is worth a minute to read the Education Votes summary. It focuses our attention on what needs to change to reduce the inequities that our schools are supposed to overcome.

It is clear that attempts to overcome the housing segregation that occurred due to federal housing loan policies dominate our school systems. School choice is one of the most dramatic examples. Charters that siphon off and divide minority neighborhoods are a direct result of trying to find an inexpensive alternative for families to ‘escape’ the low income, educationally disadvantaged schools that federal policy created. They are also a way for some higher income parents in other neighborhoods to maintain their advantage. The emphasis on magnet programs to fill under enrolled schools is also related. Wholesale tracking of students into advanced and gifted programs is another unintended consequence. So, what can be done?

You can’t pick up and move homes. Moving children around is sometimes so time consuming and expensive that it creates as many problems as it solves. Some localities are experimenting with incentives to promote more economically diverse housing options. Others suggest that schools must solve the inequities that communities produce. Online education advocates promote packaged instruction that does not create the student engaged, project based interdisciplinary instruction that motivates students. We do need some sort of learning networks, however. What could these be like both within and across schools and community partners? How can entire communities pull together to support a positive learning environment for all kids? How can real estate developers, local governments, education and social service systems work toward common goals?

Isn’t this what we should be talking about? The first learning network that comes to my mind is one where those communities that are working toward a collaborative vision can learn from one another. Hmmmm, the Integrative Communities blog. Know of one? Surely some exist in the city planning world.

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

There was a big extravaganza on TV just before Irma hit Florida. Supported by Lorraine Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, Project XQ seeks to reinvent American high schools. This is not a ‘school choice’ solution to education reform. Rather, Project XQ explores ways to give students more control over their learning, and it builds on students’ talents and interests rather than sorting them by test scores into winners and losers. I am always excited when examples of what high quality, impactful teaching can be. It’s why I like the film ‘Passion to Teach’.

John Merrow reviewed XQ Super School Live. He is the former long time PBS education correspondent who views the reliance on high stakes testing as the path to increasing mediocre lessons ‘and worse’ for our children. In his book, Addicted to Reform, he argues that test based accountability stifles the creativity economists assert our schools need to promote.

Merrow concludes that Project XQ missed an opportunity to explain how the current reliance on testing and choice policies fail to address the real problems confronting students, teachers and schools. The show simply claimed schools were ‘out of date’.

There is a kernel of understanding that is emerging in the ‘testing or teaching’ debate. Reliance on test scores to drive instruction is not a new problem; it is just the modern day version of a drill and practice methodology that has a place in learning but should not be the most important one. Drill and test using technology do not replace effective teaching; they can, however, be helpful resources. It is time to examine, but not rely on, their appropriate roles.

Efforts like Project XQ are asking the right questions about effective teaching. It is also helpful to see films like ‘Passion to Teach’ that demonstrate teachers in action who develop students’ ability to control and engage in learning meaningful to them.

We are primed to enable our schools to emphasize what works. At least now we have experimented with the testing and grading reforms long enough to recognize they only make bad problems worse. Not only are we sorting kids in schools; we are sorting schools into winners and losers.

At first, we may have to focus on one school and one maverick teacher at a time, but every time we succeed, we should celebrate and replicate the experience. We do not have to accept what is, and we can make a difference by working toward what could be and should be.

Charter Advocates Attack Trump Education Budget

According to Ed Source, even with big increases for charter schools, leaders of the National Alliance for Charter Schools and major charter chains strongly opposed President Trumps’ education budget. The $168 million increase raises the federal charter support to about one-half billion dollars. Most of this money goes, however, to support new charter start ups.

The problem is that once started, most charters have to survive on existing funding. The proposed budget for all schools would increase Title I funding for low income student support, but it decreases federal education funding by over nine billion dollars. Starting charters that can’t be supported makes no sense.

To compound the problem, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos attacked charter schools at a National Alliance for Charter Schools conference. She was quoted as saying charters were ‘playing it safe’ and had become bureaucratic. They had lost some of the creativity and innovative spirit of its founders. She went on to say charters were blocking our choice alternatives to fund private schools. Ms. DeVos’ priorities are clear.

All of this goes to show that the pot of money to support our schools is limited. Some politicians argue that it should get smaller yet. As less money is divided among public, charter, and private schools, the greater the dissension. This is not a winning strategy for children.

Trump’s proposed cuts to education funding create friction in charter school community

Charter Media Hype Analysis: Inspire or Require?

This is an unusual study. It does not analyze charter schools but rather the hype in the media about charter schools. How are charters and their programs depicted in reputable newspapers like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times over a ten year period? Published in the Teachers College Record ‘Brilliant, Bored or Badly Behaved’ is illuminating.

The researchers found that media reports indicate that charter and traditional public schools serving middle income students are very similar in their pedagogical approaches. Yet, charters are depicted in a more positive way. The same media hype for charters serving low-income students exists but is more troubling. The charter hype is there, but the instruction is different and perhaps troubling.

The researchers report:

“This is not the first time that researchers have suggested that schools either treat their low- and middle-income students differently, or treat their white students and their students of color differently. As Anyon (1980, p. 90) and many others have explained, schools frequently “emphasize different cognitive and behavioral skills” and facilitate the “development in the children of certain potential relationships to . . . authority” based on students’ class and/or race. However, our study offers two new, and potentially troubling, insights about charter schools.”

  1. First, our findings suggest that charter and alternative schools’ approaches to educating low-income students and/or students of color are neither new nor progressive. Our study suggests that charter schools might very well be operating on outdated assumptions about low-income students and students of color, assumptions that were disproven long ago.

  2. Second, our study suggests that charter schools might be actively “reproduce[ing] racial categories” and class categories “while ostensibly repudiating them” (Winant, 1998, p. 762). This is especially troubling given advocates’ insistence that charter schools have the potential to close the educational achievement gap in the United States.

The study indicate that schools for middle income students emphasize abstract reasoning, critical thinking and writing skills necessary for success in college. In charters, it appears from media reports that rote learning and test prep is prevalent for low-income students. Moreover, these children are taught to defer to authority which promotes feelings of distance, distrust, and constraint.

The alternatives are teaching strategies directed toward intrinsic motivation. In other words, how do you structure activities that make children want to be involved rather than top down strategies that force compliance. The end result, the study posits could be very different.

The study is based on media reports by reliable newspapers. The conclusions raise questions, but cannot be generalized. They can, however, be examined. The issues are legitimate and important to pursue.

Indian River Schools Lawsuit Over Shared Local Funding With Charters

Sometimes political maneuvering can come to haunt you. Indian River’s school district decided back in 2012 to share a portion of the revenue from a local sales tax initiative with their charter schools. They did not have to, but charters were only 5% of the total enrollment, and most were locally owned and operated charters. Then the world changed.

For the past two years, the Indian River School District has been in court. Local charter schools claim that money for school operations, teachers etc., that the district voluntarily provided to them is no longer adequate. Why? The charter schools’ enrollment has increased from 5% to 12%. The amount of money involved is $2 million dollars out of a total of $9 million in revenue.

The legal questions are not straight forward. By law, districts are not required to share revenue that local communities vote to provide through a sales tax or local referendum. The district agreed to share with charters when there were fewer students. Now the money involved is large enough to hurt the district schools.

The charters went to court in 2015 and won in the circuit court this year. The district is considering an appeal. At issue is at what point are there too many schools to support in an area? Should communities be forced to accept more charters even if they bring nothing new or better? Is expansion of charters for the sake of expansion a good thing?

Take a look at the Indian River charters and who they serve:

  1. Indian River Charter High School: This is a 656 student school serving about 80% upper income white students and 4% black students. It was founded in 1998.
  2. Imagine Schools at South Vero: The enrollment is about 890 students serving about 80% white, upper income students since about 2008. It was opened by what was then a for-profit management firm.
  3. North County Charter: About 321 elementary school children attend this school. They represent the county’s distribution of race and ethnicity. It is a family managed school.
  4. Sebastian Charter had 287 junior high school students who are two-thirds white and one-third Hispanic. The proportion of students on FRL is slightly higher than the district’s. They took a new school construction loan in 2012.
  5. St. Peter’s Academy is a small elementary school with about 129 black and Hispanic, mostly lower income students. It opened in 1996.

What has happened in Indian River is common in other communities. Most charters are either mostly white, mostly black or mostly Hispanic. A few are more balanced. As these schools grow, they need more money. It has to come from the same pot of money the district has. Soon, funds get tight and relationships get tense.

At some point, the State of Florida has to decide whether to curb unregulated charter growth that does not result in improving education for everyone. It makes me think of the old adage of ‘Robbing Peter to pay Paul’.

N. Y. Times: Who Needs Charters When You Have Schools Like This!

Ask children, teachers, and parents about time.  They will likely say:  “There’s not enough time in a day to do what needs to be done”.    There are ways to do something about it.  We in Alachua County have been talking about how to reorganize the day to fit in pre school, hands on academic programs, school activities, and after school activities in a semi rational way.  We are asking if it is possible, without large influxes of money, to make an 8-5 school day.  Could all of these activities happen in one place without driving teachers to distraction??  Our local league will study examples of how this could be done.

Professor David Kirp, University of California, Berkeley, already has some successful examples.  In Tulsa, Oklahoma the  Union school district has implemented a community-based school program that has defied the demographic odds. School attendance has soared, achievement has risen, and suspensions have plummeted.  We need schools like that here.

We have one school, Howard Bishop, that has been identified as a community school.  It is just starting in that direction this year, and has not expanded to the full eight hour day.  The community social services support, however,  are centered not in various offices in town, but in the school.  They have a ways to go to catch up with the Union school district, but the Children’s Home Society is helping them.

We all need to help community schools make progress.  If nothing else, you can help financially.  It is not all about money, though.  Oklahoma has lower per student funding than Florida, and this district has found a way to expand the day and still make ends meet.  Let’s find out how.

With community support we can begin to dream of a world where the lack of time does not manage us; we manage time!  Let’s see if we can make our public schools the envy of the world of choice.

 

League Forum on Schools of the Future


The League of Women Voters invites you to join us in Gainesville on March 4th. We are celebrating the Schools of the Future with Peggy Brookins, CEO of the National Professional Teachers Certification organization.  She is on the President’s Commission on Education.  Peggy was a teacher and innovator in Florida for many years before joining the National Board.

Following her presentation will be a panel of educators who will respond to audience questions.  Panelists include the Deputy Superintendent, Teacher of the Year, elementary and secondary curriculum specialists and the head of the Alachua County Council of PTAs.

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Technology: Are children at risk?

by Carole Hentschel

baby-84626_1280In this post, Carole Hentschel expresses concern about rampant expansion of the use of educational technology for young children.  National Public Radio reported on the health risks for excessive screen time just this morning.  For some, online learning is a solution to looming teacher shortages.  For others, the real issue is one of educational quality.  The truth is that all of these factors deserve close scrutiny.   We cannot be alarmist; nor can we be complacent.  We must be alert.Continue reading