Monthly Archives: December 2012

Happy Holidays (and my end-of-year thoughts)

My Judaism hasn’t stopped me from embracing the ideals and emotions of the Christmas season–love of family, giving to those less fortunate, the time to reflect upon the year. And, as I think many other teachers would agree, the week off from school doesn’t hurt, either.

But this Christmas tastes sour. During a time of year when we ought to be celebrating the best of humanity, we have been left to question and comprehend the very worst. The events in Newtown left us dazed, grievously wounded yet looking forward, acutely aware of a horrifying truth: this could happen again.

Yet we will rebound. Each day since the attacks I’ve seen remarkable resolve: we recognize more than ever that there is so much work to be done. Though most of us will spend today celebrating the season with family and friends, parts of us are in Newtown, in Egypt, in Syria. How do we actually effect change in our stubborn political system, one might ask? When we allow our compassion and empathy to trump our self interest, just as we are seeing now. That, if nothing else, is good reason for optimism.

Our hearts are heavy, but they are full; our eyes are wet, but they are bright. I wish all of you a happy holiday season and a sweet new year. Be well.

Jacob

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What School Districts Should Learn from “One Million Lives”

As even a casual observer could tell you, contemporary education reform debates rarely feature admissions of fault or guilt. That is why I was pleasantly surprised to read about the lauded–and self-critical–campaign of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). Dubbed “One Million Lives,” the effort seeks to  engage charter school authorizers, along with a broad coalition of school operators, lawmakers, funders and others, to lead the way in closing failing charter schools and opening many more excellent ones.” In other words, NACSA is acknowledging a fact that we already know: there are many charter schools across the country that are not adequately serving kids. By actively working to shut down failing schools, NACSA is sending a powerful message that school effectiveness is more important than maintaining illusions of organizational perfection. School districts around the country would be well-served to follow suit by committing to closing or turning around unsuccessful schools.

As I’ve previously written, I think it is misguided–and unfortunately common–to view charter schools and traditional public schools as fundamentally different entities that are competing against one another. As I see it, a school is a school; what matters is whether it is serving kids. But the increasingly heated public battle between charters and traditional public schools has spawned a situation where both sides are trying to prove that they have the “right” model for school management–an argument that is obviously about adults, not kids. “One Million Lives” sacrifices the public image of charters for the sake of students that are attending bad schools, a demonstration of self-assessment and reflection that is all too rare in education reform. Why are school districts not making the same types of statements? There are at least “a million lives” attending  failing traditional public schools as well. If districts were willing to set aside concerns about their public perception and recognize the urgency of closing or turning around failing schools, kids would be much better off. It’s time for us stop concerning ourselves with labels and start prioritizing what really matters.

The Useless Competition Between Charters and Traditional Public Schools

Charter schools were in the headlines this past week with the release of a CREDO study which found that New Jersey students that attend charters outperform those who attend traditional public schools. On its face, the results are a boon to charter advocates and education reformers in general. As NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf put it, the study “reflects the work we have undertaken . . . to increase our accountability standards, strengthen the rigor of our authorizing process, and, when necessary, close schools that are underperforming.”

It is certainly exciting to see evidence of student achievement improving, particularly in struggling districts like Newark. But education reformers should resist the temptation to use this study as proof that charter schools are inherently “better” than other types; this only perpetuates a useless, damaging competition between charters and traditional public schools. Instead, we should emphasize that school effectiveness, not labels, is what matters in education.

We all know that some schools are better than others. This goes for traditional public schools, charters, parochial schools, or anything else. That is why it is so baffling to me that people point to average performance among a particular group of schools as evidence that one school label is inherently superior.  To put it bluntly, if a school is effective, who cares what we call it? All too often, discussion about charter schools devolves into a horse race: whether charter schools or traditional public schools are “winning” over the other becomes important. And what sometimes follows that is the despicable and disturbing reality that a failing school is a “victory” for the other side.

Conspicuously absent from that type of rhetoric, of course, is actual concern about student learning. Instead, we should be trying to figure out why some schools–whether charter or traditional public–do better than others so we can spread their best practices. Is the day structured differently? How are teachers trained and supported? What instructional strategies are they using? Let’s stop treating education like a competition and realize that when kids are successful, everyone wins.