Who’s minding whom?

Perhaps it is the nature of education itself, that we should always be looking for positive. Or maybe its a sort of privilege, that we constantly imagine something the same as we experience it. Take schools.

We assume that those actually granting charters to the charter schools — the authorizers — are doing so in good faith. Or at least with an eye to an overall educational good. Of course they’re doing the right thing. The recent report from The Education Trust – Midwest suggests that the performance is more varied.

Not all charter schools are created equal, particularly when it comes to educational success. Is it only the responsibility of the schools and their teachers? Or does the backer also have a responsibility? How and where do we ask for accountability in the system?

“I question how much the university boards are holding those charter offices accountable,” (Executive Director Amber) Arellano said. “They have no idea what is going on in the school.”

At the very least, that’s a place to start.

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Expanding the base

MLive reports on the plans by Grand Rapids Public Schools to establish a Museum school. At first blush this looks a tad precious, a frou-frou sort of program while the district faces intense challenges on the educational performance front. However, looking more closely, one may see the outline of a two pronged approach. What makes the educational needle so difficult to thread in Grand Rapids is the relative diversity of the community as a whole, coupled with the concentration of minority and poverty-impacted families within GRPS proper. The strategic challenge for the district is how to avoid being known only as a provider for the poor, a school of last (and worst) resort. So two broad directions need to be taken.

First, GRPS needs to address the performance impact of poverty on the students. The correlation between poverty and lagging achievement has been long recognized. While schools can compensate for this impact to some extent, tht path is not only costly, but still subject to the external factors. Success here can be achieved, but it is of a slow variety.  In the meantime, hopeful parents look to charters as an alternative.  GRPS therefore needs to address the issues arising from poverty: safety, some fundamental achievement, better retention (which is to say, better hope).

But that is one side of the coin. Grand Rapids is more than minorities and poverty. Much more. If the district is to thrive, it needs to find ways  to make room for more middle class families. And just to be clear, the Census has been recording a vanishing of families with teens for decades. Retention, too may be subject to significant external factors (e.g.  size in the City versus house size in  the new suburbs). What makes an Initiative such as the Museum school so hopeful is that it appears to recognize another truth in educational reform, that students from poverty background do better in a more economically diverse classroom. Thus if one is to meet the challenge of the concentration of poverty, one ought to be looking at ways of adding more middle  class families to the mix.

The innovation programs far from being something of a frou-frou, are strategically working to broaden the base, and so diminish the impact of concentrated poverty. Moreover, one needs more programs that are not test-in.  Further, such programs along with neighborhood schools also need more expenditure of social capital by those “outside.” 

In a complex educational environment that includes varieties of schools, programs, and opportunities, GRPS needs to think about what it has that can contribute to the health of the entire community. it is not at all clear that schools and parents will easily match up by neighborhood. Within the urban area we are far more likely to see a number of programs that parents choose from or participate in. More options within the district are an essential for GRPS if it is to remain competitive and not simply fall into the school of last (and failed) resort. That would be a tragedy for the region.

Quality Education?

Amber Arellano, director of Education-Trust Midwest is concerned about educational achievement in Michigan, especially among African Americans. For that reason she is understandably looking forward to the Governor’s State of the State address tonight, outlining ten “buzz worthy” education issues for the coming year. First up on her list,

1. Who defines “quality” education?
Back in 2011, some Lansing leaders were puzzled when we demanded quality standards for charter school operators wanting to expand in Michigan. Today, lots of folks talk about education “quality.”
Everyone wants to own the “quality” school badge, but few will attach sound research-based strategies to improve student achievement to the label.

What she is looking for, obviously, are the policy, the proven steps we can take. Quality, here, represents  the measurable. Nonetheless, the first question is central: who exactly does define quality education? Will it be measured by the standards of the educrat, be it from the left like Ms. Arellano, or the right like Mr. McLellan? Behind this are the questions of ownership: are the schools the property of the state house, the governor, a particular party? Or do they belong to their communities?

Quality is not simply a policy term but points us to the issue of ownership. As Left Back, Diane Ravitch’s own history of educational reform makes clear, often the agenda of the reformers and educrat exists in tension with that of the desires of the community itself. “Reform” is not a new problem.

When it comes to the African-American community, it is still pretty shocking that reformers do bring  minority communities to the discussion. Instead, the Lansing approach has been to take their schools from them, provide computer programs and implement other nostrums, all because we know what is good for the poor and minority child. Reform absent community input and engagement is simply not reform, but a form of patronizing. Here, the rise of charter schools continues to point to real interest in our urban communities for better answers.

And finally, we should note  two items  missing in Arellano’s essay. First, no mention of early childhood education, this, despite the fact the studies keep pointing to the early years as the key to long-term student success (this plays a large role in the Governor’s State of the State address). Second, if the question is about minority achievement, then a second source may be that of simply having more minorities in as teachers. We are not likely to build solid, stable educational communities if the teachers and the sending populations are widely different.