Tag Archives: charters

Schools Should Collaborate, Not Compete

In my time teaching, I’ve found that observing colleagues in their classrooms is one of the best ways to improve my own practice.  Teachers have different styles,  sure. But there are certain methods that simply work better than others. Implementing some of those best practices–how to best distribute materials and organize group work, for instance–has absolutely made me into a better teacher. To some extent, the subject, grade level, or curriculum is irrelevant. If it works, it’s worth trying out.

Yet for some reason we are reluctant to apply that logic to improving schools as a whole. Instead of trying to identify and replicate what makes schools great, we get bogged down in competition and useless, arbitrary labeling. Are charter schools better than traditional public schools? Are charter schools “public schools” or not? These questions are akin to me observing a number of great teachers and only taking away that, on average, classrooms that use Staples-brand pencils perform about the same as those that use OfficeMax. A classroom is a classroom, a school is a school. If it is effective, who cares what we call it?

Last week, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a report that supports that kind of sentiment. Entitled “Searching for Excellence,” the report examines the performance of charter schools in five U.S. cities—Albany, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, and Indianapolis. Though much of the report is devoted to comparing charters with regular district schools—an exercise that I consider to be useless—it also suggests a path to improving charters overall: closing or replacing low-performing schools and expanding or replicating high-performing ones. It’s an incredibly simple yet logical step, echoing the well-publicized NACSA “One Million Lives” campaign (which I have previously discussed).

But why can’t we push that idea even further? Traditional public schools, charters, and parochial schools undoubtedly have a lot to learn from each other. Especially in struggling districts, kids deserve a culture of collaboration, not competition, between all schools.  Our initial reaction to a successful school should be to celebrate it, not debunk it; educators should be excited to  pick up tips and strategies that have proven to be successful. If a real culture of collaboration existed, the recent finding that KIPP schools boost relative academic performance would have led to teachers and principals lining up out the door to see KIPP in action. Yet it seems to me that far more energy has been spent attempting to criticize KIPP’s practice and undermine the study’s findings. That competitive, negative attitude is nothing but a distraction.

Any teacher knows that there isn’t a single “right” way to teach; any principal knows that there isn’t a single “right” way to run a school. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from each other. With so many great educators in districts across the country, there is  a wealth of knowledge and experience that we could be sharing. It’s just a matter of swallowing our pride and doing it.

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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.

What the Washington and Georgia Charter Victories Mean for Ed Reform

Though President Obama’s resounding victory rightly dominated national attention on Tuesday, education reform movement won as well: referenda expanding the use of charter schools in both Washington and Georgia gained key victories. The bill in Washington is particularly significant: three previous initiatives had been rejected, leaving the state as one of only 10 in the nation with no charters. These victories, while minor at first glance, could be a boon for education reform in general. They are a signal of an impending national recognition of the need to expand school options, particularly in our cities.

For most voters, education is (understandably) a local issue. When discussion turns to schools, people inevitably think about schools in their communities, where their children go. And if those schools are satisfactory, statewide education reforms–including school choice–seems unnecessary. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that most states have huge disparities in educational quality: having great school districts in a state doesn’t preclude the presence of bad ones.  For advocates of statewide reform, the trick becomes communicating the necessity of reform to voters in good school districts that wouldn’t reap its benefits. Not an easy task.

That’s why the results in Washington and Georgia are so encouraging. It appears that the general public is starting to understand what so many people in struggling school districts already do: creating more high-quality school options is key to improving outcomes for the thousands of kids who aren’t receiving a quality education. Voters are developing a powerful collective mindset that our goal should be to ensure that all kids–not just our own–are attending great schools. If more people follow the lead of citizens in Washington and Georgia and turn their thoughts towards schools outside of their communities, we will make significant progress towards the goals to which we aspire. Education reformers should be emboldened by these results and push harder than ever.

Why Are People Opposed to Investment in Education?

Newark, New Jersey made headlines this past week when its teachers union agreed   to a new system of teacher compensation that would trade certain guaranteed salary increases for merit-based bonuses. The bold plan, backed by union President Joe Del Grosso as well as Governor Chris Christie, is funded by $50 million by the foundation started by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg.

This sort of private investment in education has yielded substantial opposition. According to Diane Ravitch, the education philanthropy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is “inflicting incalculable damage on our public schools and on the education profession.”  (N.B. The Foundation’s stated  goal on their website is to make “sure high school students graduate ready for success and prepared to earn postsecondary degrees.” Sounds pretty malicious.) Especially at a time when school districts nationwide are forced to scour couches for leftover pennies, this opposition is illogical and unjustified. Even if every idea funded doesn’t work perfectly, private investment in education provides a great opportunity to encourage innovation and help kids. 

Given budget constraints, it isn’t surprising that school districts are reluctant to diverge from the status quo. Most of the billions we spend on education in this country are already allocated to contracts and other mandatory costs, leaving precious little discretionary funding. To put it bluntly, the money just isn’t there.

Private investment changes the equation. Districts such as Newark have the opportunity to experiment and explore to make the changes that their schools sorely need. Who are Ravitch and others to say that under-resourced districts desperately trying to stay afloat shouldn’t take money that is offered to them? It is traditionalist ideology extended to the absurd.

To be honest, I find it puzzling–and somewhat comical–that many of the same people that lament poor education funding are trying to stop private investment into education. Corporate conspiracy theories aside, I have trouble understanding why more money in education is a bad thing. On the contrary, I think it is a great sign that philanthropists and business leaders are finally acknowledging the urgency of creating an educational system that serves all students. I hope that other districts follow Newark’s lead and welcome outside investment as an opportunity for innovation.

The Urgency of Fixing Schools

This week at school, I took a bit of my prep period to introduce myself and get to know one of my 5th graders who just transferred to the school. (Let’s call him Jim.) Born and raised in Philadelphia, he loves playing football, eating hot wings, and riding bikes with his brothers. I was immediately struck by his warmth and ease in conversation, despite being approached by a stranger. At that age, I tended to start counting the dots on floor tiles when adults tried to talk to me.

After a bit of small talk, I asked him about his old school. Exasperation exploded across his face, and he sighed. “That place was crazy. They was always fighting, and teachers never made us do nothing. We used to walk out of class and play in the hall.” His academic progress matched the school description: the baseline one-on-one reading test administered to him when he arrived at our school showed that he reads at a mid-1st grade level. In other words, after only 5 years of attending school he is 3.5 years behind, a chasm that statistics show is rarely closed.

I’ll put it bluntly: the fact that Jim had to attend his old school is a moral failing for which we are all culpable. Each day that ineffective, unsafe schools operate is a slap in the face to our society.

Opponents to school turnarounds cite the dangers about corporate involvement in education and spin romanticized, nostalgic tales about “traditional” public schools. While I’m not suggesting nefarious intent from those people, their concerns don’t help Jim and the thousands of other students attending schools that deny them their right to a quality education. For me, it is a simple question: Would you want your own child to attend that school? If not, something needs to be changed, and quickly.

My credentials as a “liberal” have been repeatedly questioned for my support of turnarounds, but what could be more liberal than wanting the same for all kids? As I’ve written previously, pointing to poverty as the root cause of educational equity doesn’t help kids attending terrible schools right now. We need to remember that Jim and his family aren’t interested in a sociological debate about whether poverty is the main cause of educational inequity; they just want good, safe, schools–an unquestionably reasonable request. And until it is fulfilled, we should cast unproductive debates and pie-in-the-sky policy goals aside.

What the U.S. Constitution Can Teach Us About For-Profit Charter Schools

I’m proud to be a liberal. My blood boils when I read about massive ExxonMobil profits, comically large bonuses for CEOs, and corporate corruption. It follows, then, that I have a strong visceral aversion to for-profit charter charter schools–to handing our tax dollars and the crucial task of education to corporations.

Yet I struggle to think of a real argument against it. Vague anti-corporate sentiment and concerns about potential corruption, though understandable, are not strong reasons for opposition. In fact, for-profit companies have led to incredible innovations in transportation, medicine, agriculture, and many other industries. Like it or not, the opportunity for financial gain is an effective motivator. Why not bring it to education?

The framers of the U.S. Constitution understood this. As it says in Article I, Section 8:

The Congress shall have power to. . . promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.

The purpose of this “exclusive right”–which we today call copyright or patent– is to guarantee financial gain for those who make useful innovations. Without this, the framers imply, the “progress of science and useful arts” would be slowed. Keep in mind that the U.S. Constitution granted very few powers to Congress, and in general the framers were skeptical of a large federal government. But promising financial reward for useful invention was considered crucial enough to be worthy for inclusion.

It is clear that our public education system, especially as funding continues to plummet, is desperate for this type of innovation. We should offer the opportunity for financial gain–an idea literally as old as the U.S. itself–to encourage this. Our country has countless brilliant minds working to improve countless industries; we need more of them in education. And what better way to bring them over than a chance for profit? Visceral discomfort with the idea isn’t a good enough reason to cast aside a potentially great opportunity for our nation’s kids. The framers of our Constitution would have given their blessing.