In for the long haul

The problem is less choice, than the quality of that choice. What Michigan has is a highly lenient oversight system for the charter schools and their authorizers. So “choice” then betrays itself as a sort of excuse-making, a sweeping under the rug. It is far more important to think of charter schools as communities rather than as institutions: as communities they represent the desires of parents for something better for their children. This desire is the fundamental reason that charters are here for the long haul.

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.

The young teacher and choice

Over at MLive, Dave Murray highlights last night’s speech by Gov. Jeb Bush.

Appearing with a teacher and student, Bush said there is “a moral cost to our failing schools.”
“We say that every child in America has an equal opportunity. Tell that to a kid in whose classroom learning isn’t respected,” he said, according to a copy of the speech released by the party prior to its delivery.
“Tell that to a parent stuck in a school where there is no leadership. Tell that to a young, talented teacher who just got laid off because she didn’t have tenure. The sad truth is that equality of opportunity doesn’t exist in many of our schools. We give some kids a chance, but not all.
“That failure is the great moral and economic issue of our time. And it’s hurting all of America.”

the Governor is certainly right as to education’s significance, indeed he’s  better on education than most in the GOP. The real flaw in his speech was the disconnect between the real gains that were made in Florida and the cookie-cutter advocacy of choice. Choice did not raise up the scores for blacks, or for those children with disabilities. Yes, vouchers give a few a different alternative, but the reality — the real accomplishment — is that it improvement was widespread. No, the secret lies elsewhere, as quoted, in leadership and the ability to retain smart, well-qualified (young) teachers.

If anything, the idea of choice and the retention of young teachers work against each other. While choice in the form of charters does offer opportunity for the recent graduate, studies have found that these teachers are three times as likely to leave. This churn cuts the benefits of the young teacher who typically comes into full form somewhere around the fifth year of teaching. Meanwhile we have the shrinkage of classrooms in regular schools (and so of teachers), that itself makes it harder to retain the young teacher.

The methods that do seem to promise impact with disadvantaged populations are those of better teachers, stronger building leadership are methods that ask for more resources, not less. One of the unintended consequences of the turn to choice by the GOP is how other parts of the platform strip states and communities of these resources — as we’ve seen in Michigan. It becomes hard to anything other than maintain if you are also stripping out $400+ /pupil from the schools.

Charter School Edge

Dave Murray calls attention to an interesting comparison of charter schools and general schools. On MEAP scores African-American students in Grand Rapids charter schools performed roughly ten percent better than peers in GRPS. In other districts such as Saginaw and Detroit, the numbers were larger.In the spirit of seizing any advantage, Dan Quisenberry, president of MAPSA, offers the charter school interpretation:

“These findings are very significant, but not surprising. One of the primary missions of a charter school is to give parents a quality educational option in places where the local public schools are failing. This data shows that the mission is succeeding.”

Well, maybe.

Broadly, the results seem more likely to confirm a selection bias. That is, the performance does not seem to be so outstanding as to claim their is a programming difference. Are they teaching that much better? That 18% passing rate is nothing to sing about. That sounds like most of the problems remain more structural — tied to underlying community factors like poverty — than any sort of “special educational sauce.”

Thus, the best answer may be that we’re looking at a combination of parental engagement coupled with a school culture. What such an edge does do, is to confirm the parental decision to send the student to the charter and that likely provides a modest self-reinforcing element to the mix. Here, the scores of the Montessori program might be a better comparison, since it provides roughly the same dynamic of parental choice.

Hope for Urban Schools

Dave Murray writes about the Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia. An urban education program driven by high standards and backed by civic leaders. He concludes, asking

Sometimes I wonder of a solution to urban education’s woes came before us, would we reject it if we didn’t like where it came from? Or, are we so invested in the excuses for failure that we attack anyone who challenges them?

The questions about such an experiment abound. At the most practical, Murray notes this is a question of scalability. Grant the success, to what extent is it the property of the culture of the organization itself, and can it then multiply, scale-up? This is the recognized problem of charters: their accomplishments may be too site specific. What are the lessons that we are to learn from such institutions, such successes? Is it only a form of academic tough love? If other comparable programs are any indication, it is a question of resources, both the hard and the soft. Of course, given the success of a program like Mastery, there will be the temptation of civic leaders to adopt a comparable model as the silver bullet, another cookie cutter solution. There’s stuff to be learned here definitely, we should also know that one size is always a bad fit.

A second question lurking is for the charter school community. While we often contrast such successes with the public schools out of which the programs emerge, the other question to ask is about the  charters themselves. After all, with 50 percent of school-age children in Detroit already in a charter, why then don’t they show the same achievement? Their “no excuses” style may be the key, but I would bet we could find a host of other programs that try to emulate the same with not so stellar success. No one has ever denied that some charters will succeed very well (case in point: Black River), the question is why don’t other charters succeed, as well.

And lastly there is simply the issue of our own hopes. These stand out schools seem to validate our own ideals for education, that we can overcome the great barriers in our lives. That a few can do it then becomes a validation of our ideals and ironically spurs us on to do… nothing. The real lesson in Mastery and other such models is that we can do something, that these efforts take a great deal of resources, far outstripping those in the surrounding community and often in the political culture. It can be done. But that some do it turns to become the opposite, that those who succeed must obviously point to the moral failure of the others.

Mastery tells us that there is a legitimate hope for urban schools; we are not mistaken. However, we cannot learn the lesson without doing our own homework. And of course, making sure that the schools have the resources.