Category Archives: charters

Charters: The Center Won’t Hold

I’m pleased to see more articles agreeing with my assertion that ed reform as we know it may be over.

But as I mentioned in the previous piece, charters live! Choice is good! Even the Trumpster, who clearly doesn’t much care, offers up choice like puppy chow and–wisely–using it in his appeals to black voters, as a contrast to Hillary’s doubling down on teacher unions.

Why, in the face of so much rejection, do charters still have such great numbers?1

I offer this up as opinion/assertion, without a lot of evidence to back me: most parents know intuitively that bad teachers aren’t a huge problem. What they care about, from top to bottom of the income scale, is environment. Suburban white parents don’t want poor black and Hispanic kids around. Poor black and Hispanic parents don’t want bad kids around. (Yes, this means suburban parents see poor kids as mostly bad kids.) Asian parents don’t want white kids around to corrupt their little tigers, much less black or Hispanic. (White parents don’t really want too many Asians around, either, but that’s the opposite of the “bad kids” problem.)

Parents don’t care much about teacher quality. They care a lot about peer group quality.

They are right to worry. Before I became a teacher, I’d read other teachers talk about how just a few kids can really disrupt a classroom, moving management from a no-brainer to the primary focus of the day. Now I am one of those teachers. I’ve worked in several schools in which the overwhelming presence of low income students who didn’t care about their grades has utterly removed the “stigma of an F” from the entire population, causing panic in the upper middle income white parents who can’t quite afford private school yet live in a district that worries about lawsuits if they track by ability. Their kids, particularly the boy kids, start to adopt this opinion, and white failure rates start rising.

So charters become a way for parents to sculpt their school environments. White parents stuck in majority/minority districts start progressive charters that brag about their minority population but are really a way to keep the brown kids limited to the well-behaved ones. Low income black and Hispanic parents want safe schools. Many of them apply for charter school lotteries because they know charters can kick out the “bad kids” without fear of lawsuits. But they still blame the “bad kids”, not the teachers, which is why they might send their kids to charter schools while still ejecting Adrian Fenty for Michelle Rhee’s sins.

As I’ve mentioned before, education reformers are now pushing suburban charters with strong academic focus, which are nothing more than tracking for parents who can’t get their public schools to do it for them.

I really can’t stress this point enough: charters have succeeded because of their ability to control students, not teachers. 1

Most people disagree with me on the purpose of public education. The entire discourse of education reform begins with the conceit that public education is offered to parents instead of taxpayers. I think we need to do more to support parenting, particularly in two couple, employed families, but public education is what we do to try, at least, to ensure that the subsequent generation is functional, while minimizing the impact on taxpayers.

Ultimately, charters will be bad for taxpayers. Yes, yes. I know that right now, they’re cheaper than public schools, because they use a lot of philanthropist dollars and teach cheaper students. They also save money by using and discarding new teachers, so salaries stay low. Many charters use the same pay scale as the local district, despite all their talk of merit pay.

But bet on charter teachers unionizing, despite best efforts to stop the efforts. Along with LA, Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia and other cities, more charter schools are organizing. It’s going to be very difficult to stop charters from unionizing. What do charters offer? Maybe more pay if the principal likes you. But definitely longer hours. Moreover, if a charter school is short on teachers, it can just take away preps, add more classes to schedules without being the need for more pay. It’s no surprise that the charter union movement starts in urban environments. But it will spread, almost certainly.

And over time, charters will almost certainly be forced to provide more access, take more students who require mainstreaming, face legal action over expulsions. All the perks they now have will slowly siphon away, particularly in those areas that achieve their dream of total charter domination. Just ask the charter advocates in New Orleans, the first all-charter city. At first, charters were able to reject special ed students, or counsel them out. But a major lawsuit has set up some specialized schools and also required more of charters. Expulsions are down, too, once the process became centralized. More and more, New Orleans is facing questions about its “opportunity youth” (aka dropouts) and whether an entirely charter district makes it easier to lose track of students.

Charters simply can’t scale. Their success relies on traditional public schools picking up the slack. But their proponents are determined to kill those traditional public schools.

So urban public schools will continue to bleed the strongest students to charters, but will still face the higher costs associated with the most expensive students and the salaries that come along with teachers who stay put, rather than leave after a couple years. States will continue to foot the bill for both charters and district schools. So a state has X kids that used to be covered by A schools, B teachers, and C administrators. Now, the state will still have X kids, but M new schools, which means that B and C go up as well. Right now, some of those costs are covered by philanthropists, but that will change. Right now, some of those teachers are cheaper, but that will change. (The administrators get paid more than district schools.) Busing kids to their “choice” schools will cost more money if choice is required.

The lawsuits on special ed access and expulsions will continue. Data tracking on dropouts and “lost” kids will improve. Ultimately, the abuses will be curbed. And of course, despite carefully massaged talk about improved test scores, the public will realize that black and Hispanic kids are still doing poorly on college admissions tests.

All choice won’t offer any cost or quality improvements unless a) teachers are banned from unionizing, b) parents and advocacy organizations are barred from lawsuits, and c) schools are allowed to let unmotivated, low-skill kids drop out.

Yeah, good luck with that.

New Orleans is a decent indicator of the future “all-charter” paradise. Once all the schools are charters, the charters are forced to acknowledge that their secret was “better” students, not “better” teachers. Autonomy, decentralization, higher standards, parental contact, “firing bad teachers”–none of those close the achievement gap.

In fact, “bad schools” exist because black and Hispanic kids, on average, get lower scores than white and Asian kids for reasons that don’t involve superior teachers or even superior parents, for reasons that have thus far remained unrelentingly resistant to change. Kids with lower scores, regardless of race, are harder to teach and less interested in education, on average, and more likely to disrupt classes. Therefore, schools with disproportionately black or Hispanic kids are going to have lower scores and more disruptive classrooms.

While the low test score problem isn’t, as yet, fixable, the disruptive student problem is a different story. That’s the problem that charters actually address, while bragging about improving test scores, which they don’t (in any meaningful way).

The entire charter narrative is written by people who realized that public policy wants to ignore reality. The policy makers are pretending that schools can be improved. Charters allow them that pretense.

Meanwhile, the parents are intent on improving their childrens’ peer groups, and, if they can’t afford to use private schools or geography to achieve this aim, they’ll grab happily at charters, even though most are aware that the policy makers are hyping false promises.

One way or another, I don’t see the center holding. I think the end of ed reform will tilt the balance of power to public schools. But if it tilts the other way, if more cities follow New Orleans to all charters, then I expect things to get much more expensive, teacher scarcity to become even more of an issue, and a greater willingness to let kids fall through the cracks.

I’m really fine with being wrong, though.

1This chunk of text through the second subscript was originally written as part of my response on the CTU strike, almost four years ago. The post is prescient, I dare say, in that I was starting to see the failure of the reform movement. But the second half of the post has nothing to do with the strike and is one I refer back to often. But I can never remember where I put it. So since it’s a slow month, I’m giving it its own post with some extra thoughts at the beginning and end.

White Elephant Students and Charters: A Proposal

I was re-reading a barely started essay (you don’t want to know how many I have) on reform’s bait and switch, in which I quoted Jersey Jazzman on reformers finally admitting they cream the easy to educate. This reminded me of white elephants.

Our faculty holiday party had a white elephant gift exchange . Everyone brought an item of questionable value, nicely wrapped, and turned it in for a ticket number. The person who got ticket #1 opened a present of his choice. Oh, look, it’s a mug gift with some hot cocoa mix! Oooh, ahh. Then the person with ticket #2 could either “steal” the mug gift with hot cocoa mix, or select a new present, open it, and oh, look, it’s coal in the stocking! (a joke gift, it’s candy.) Then person with ticket #3 could “steal” one of the previous gifts, and so on.

Each person could steal a previous gift or take a new present. But once a gift has been stolen, it’s off limits.

I very much enjoyed this game because my proffered white elephant, a 9 year old digital photo frame that sat in my trunk for six years before I finally needed the room and stuck it in a closet through three moves until I happened to be cleaning out the closet 3 days before the party, was stolen! Someone wanted it! I felt very high status, I can tell you. Plus, I stole a gift when my turn came. All this and lumpia, too. A great party.

And so the white elephant metaphor stood fresh in my mind, ready to hand when I reviewed that draft essay. I’ve been trying to write about this topic forever, specifically about the restraints public schools face with disruptive students. (Charters aren’t public schools. They just use public money. ) But like many issues I feel strongly about, the essay began life as a cranky rant. I do better with humorous rants, so I abandoned delayed the effort.

But thanks to the faculty party, I’m ready to take this on.

Charter advocates’ constraint: caps. They want more schools.

Public school constraint: laws. They are bound by laws that charters can ignore or game, and bound by law to hand their district kids and associated monies over to charters, who aren’t bound by those law when they kick some students back, with no feds chasing after them for racially imbalanced rejects.

So publics can’t reduce their unmotivated misbehaving population; charters want more room to grow because, after all, they provide a superior education.

And it came to me: let public schools create white elephant students, by making a “gift” of a disruptive, unmotivated student, something the public school has and doesn’t really want.

Give public schools the right to involuntarily transfer up to 1-3% of their students to charter schools in their geography, with the limit set by the number of available charters. “Involuntary” to both the students and the charters, neither of whom are given any say in the matter.

In exchange, charter caps are significantly increased.

Involuntary transfer, not an expulsion. Students have rights in an expulsion hearing. White elephant students have no say in an involuntary transfer. Parents couldn’t appeal. They can accept the assigned school or try to convince another public school or charter to take their student, now identified as difficult.

But remember the other condition of white elephants gifts: they can’t be handed about indefinitely. Parents “gifted” the public schools, public schools “gift” charters. Game ends. The receiving charter has no involuntary transfer rights for that student. The transfer occurs without regard to the charter population limits or backfilling preferences.

Moreover, the transferred students maintain their public school protections. The charters can’t refuse admission in subsequent years. Unless the students can be expelled, the charters are stuck until the transfers age out or graduate. This restriction means that some kids at charter schools would have more rights than others. Welcome to public education, folks. Public schools have been dealing with this tension for decades.

So public schools would continue to have no choice on incoming students within their districts, but would win a (limited) choice to send students away. Charters would continue to have considerable selection benefits on incoming and outgoing students, but would lose those benefits with a few students.

Logistical issues would need ironing out. Transportation comes immediately to mind, as do actual numbers on transfer limits, but I’m sure others would show up.

Ironically, given the name, the white elephant students would be almost entirely black and Hispanic. Literally and figuratively, that’s where the money is. White and Asian districts aren’t facing heavy competition for their students. Billionaire philanthropists don’t give a damn about poor white kids, which is one big reason why West Virginia’s charter ban doesn’t attract a lot of interest. We could speculate why (perhaps they aren’t really interested in educating kids, just killing teacher unions), but never mind that.

Parents of white elephant kids would lose any real sense of school choice. Sorry about that. But at least the kids will be at a charter, with far fewer peers to help them get in trouble.

On the other hand, the white elephant kids would have a real incentive to behave better in public school. They’d see charters as a real threat. “Behave or I’ll send you to a school that makes you SLANT!

Public schools would see this purely as win-win. They’d still lose money on the transferred students. This incentive, coupled with the involuntary transfer cap, will limit their desire to cavalierly toss out kids for minor offenses. But even if publics did act capriciously, what would the feds say? “I’m sorry, but you are dooming these children by sending them to a charter school, trapped with well-behaved children in smaller classes!”

Never mind whether or not it could be enacted as policy; consider the white elephant proposal purely as a thought experiment, because everyone knows this is true: Charter operators, the highly regarded “lottery” schools, would reject this proposal out of hand.

Why? Because KIPP failed miserably the one time it tried to turn around an existing school. Because to get the results that reformers brag about, charter schools have to control their student population: selection bias at the start, sculpting as needed, uniform learning schedule.

But this proposal on the surface makes perfect sense, based solely on the reform and choice rhetoric over the past decades. Charters have absolutely no grounds for bitching. They want the caps lifted, they want to end charter bans. They’ve been bragging about their superior schools for twenty years. They swear they aren’t creaming, aren’t selecting, aren’t cherrypicking. Great. This policy gives charters everything they want, in exchange for educating students they claim they could educate in the first place. What do they have to lose?

As Jersey Jazzman and countless others have pointed out, this makes a lie out of their boasts. They aren’t getting better results than public schools; they just have better kids and fewer laws to follow.

Now, just for fun, pretend that charter operators took the deal: the occasional mandated student in exchange for additional growth.

Motivated students are desirable, but without the guarantee of high scores, they aren’t in and of themselves a competitive strategy. White elephant students, in contrast, are ideal for horsetrading.

Public schools can designate white elephants only to the extent that charters exist to receive them, and based on the number of public schools affected. So, imagine a district with three elementary schools: one high poverty, two low poverty. When a new elementary charter opens, the state declares that three white elephants per grade per school are allocated for dumping transferring to the charter. The charter primarily skims from the high poverty school. But the other two elementary schools don’t want charters popping up, and see an advantage in a hostile environment, so they “gift” their allocations to the high poverty school, which can now move nine white elephants per grade.

The “lottery” charters will naturally want to opt out of this involuntary transfer program. Sure! For a small fee, of course. How about shaving off 50% of per-student fees charters get for their willing transfers? In that case, the charter would be doing less damage to the public schools by creaming. Moreover, any charter that publicly opted out of the involuntary transfer program has revealed its Achilles heel. Choice advocates couldn’t maunder on endlessly about the superior education charters offered if all the best ones paid to cherrypick.

To recap:

  1. Public schools restricted from selecting their students can use an involuntary transfer mechanism to move troublesome students creating disruptive learning environments to charters.
  2. The maximum number of students subject to involuntary transfer depends on school and charter populations.
  3. Public schools can trade or gift their transfer vouchers to other district schools.
  4. Charter growth caps are significantly increased.
  5. Charters required to give full weight of education law to white elephant students.
  6. Charters can opt out of involuntary transfer program by accepting substantially reduced per-student fee for voluntary charter attendees.

How would this play out, given some time?

Long term, the white elephant program could ironically limit charter growth. The fewer the charters, the fewer involuntary transfers possible. One charter could probably handle 3-4 white elephants per grade without sacrificing too much control and wouldn’t take too many motivated students to damage the public schools in the area. Additional charters, each taking 5-6 troublemakers? Suddenly the charters are struggling with difficult students while the public schools have considerably improved environments, potentially enabling them to lure many prospective charter students back. The fewer charters, the less likely the public schools can dump all their white elephants.

But then, many charters aren’t choosy and don’t have lotteries. They need butts in seats, and could use the white elephant students as a growth strategy. Hire teachers who specialize in handling tough kids, advertise for desperate parents, take the public school white elephants and expulsions. Win win for everyone. Collaboration, not competition. In fact, districts would probably set up their own white elephant charter school, in absence of an outside enterprise for their own schools to use as an outlet. Alternative high schools, you ask?Best avoided.

In an environment where white elephant charters work synergistically (oooh! Big word) with district public schools, any other charters would have to compete with public schools on merits, without the added appeal of “no knuckleheads”. That, too, is going to limit growth.

And of course, it’s entirely possible that typical charters–no excuses, discipline oriented, progressive, whatever–accept white elephants and the disruptive kids thrive. In many cases, disruptive, unmotivated kids with no other options improve in a stricter environment, or perhaps one with a higher percentage of motivated students.

However, this outcome is only likely in a district not drowning with white elephants—that is, a suburban district. Suburban charters operate under entirely different premises, geared towards a progressive curriculum and a “diverse” student population. Suburban districts consider charters an annoyance and an aggravation, not a threat. So if they can dump some white elephants on the earnest do-gooders, it’s all good.

I could go on, but the New Year approaches and this piece is long enough. One final point, for any new reader who comes across this piece: I am kind of the go-to math teacher for low ability and/or poorly motivated kids. This isn’t personal; I don’t have a gift list of white elephants.

But I’ve said before now that I stick with the suburban poor, because when Ta Nahesi Coates casually describes the disruption he routinely inflicted on his high school classes, threatening substitutes, disrespecting teachers while getting violent at any hint of disrespect (and remember, none of his friends or family considered him a “thug”), I get slightly ill at the utter chaos that must have reigned in his school. So I work in Title I suburbs, where my daily tales shock my friends with the disrespect and disruption my students dole out daily, while I know full well it ain’t all that.

Meanwhile, all the signals are pointing in the opposite direction, what with federal discipline “guidelines” and that god awful spare me restorative justice nonsense.

So let’s try gifting. After all, it’s the thought that counts.

Ian Malcolm on Eva Moskowitz


Another good piece documenting the lack of “there” at the Success Academy schools, this one by Kate Taylor at the Times.

Pretend that Judge Patrice Lessner is interrupting me every four words for this next bit:

Success Academies’ “success” will eventually be revealed as a chimera. Certainly they are skimming on a massive scale, and their attrition rates over time are pretty telling. Despite Moskowitz’s constant denials,the kids spend a shocking amount of time in test prep—one witness even saw an early slam the exam class.

But skimming, test prep, and attrition don’t explain enough. If Carol Burris is providing correct information here, then 45% of whites were proficient in math, and 31% in ELA. According to Robert Pondiscio, the numbers for the overwhelmingly low income black and Hispanic Success Academies were over 90% and 68%, respectively. That suggests the schools are doing more than cherrypicking.

I don’t know how. Unlikely to be anything as obvious as fixing the tests later or telling the kids the answers, or we’d hear about it. Possibly they are engaging in the Chinese variety of test prep.

But if low income black and Hispanic proficiency rates are twice that of whites, then the dinosaurs have escaped.

Paul Bruno is more careful, less intuitive (in his writing) and far more data-driven than, say, me. So maybe everyone doesn’t read his explication of everything we don’t know about Success Academy as howlingly skeptical, but nor would anyone see the piece as a ringing endorsement. More surprisingly, Robert Pondiscio asks “what the hell is going on at Success Academy? in a way that doesn’t sound very flattering.

In no way are Bruno or Pondiscio going out on the ledge with me. Not for them the wise words of Ian Malcolm. I’m just saying that their articles signal considerable skepticism to me, a frequent reader of both.

I haven’t seen many respectable reformers touting Success Academy, either. Take that as you will.

Here’s a story idea for some enterprising reporter:

Contact Success Academy and ask to see score progressions for their early students. Presumably, all the students didn’t come in scoring at the top level (don’t laugh, skeptics!). So Eva and her minions should be able to provide initial scores for students–they are testing them constantly, yes?–and connect these scores to their actual state exam scores. By year. Then that enterprising reporter should track down Success Academy alumni and get their scores year by year since they’ve left. In a year, that could include SAT/ACT scores.

This would provide actual data to answer the following questions:

  1. Are the weakest students leaving the schools?
  2. Are specific students improving their demonstrated abilities during their tenure at the schools?
  3. Are alumni still doing well after they leave school?

Those questions would eliminate or at least reduce the charges of skimming, attrition, and prepping-to-the-extent-of-cheating.

I note that Kate Taylor or the Times is looking for students or parents to “share their stories”. Less stories. More data. Get test scores over time per student, stat!

If I’m wrong, nothing happens! No one gets fired. I’m just an amateur. It’s not like I’m claiming a frat party instigated a gang rape, or anything. And oh, yeah, the achievement gap that has plagued our education efforts for over fifty years has finally been beaten.

So if I’m wrong, someone should go look for Isla Nublar to see if the T-Rex has eaten all the velociraptors.

Education: No Iron Triangle

I came from the corporate world, which invented the project management triangle. (“Fast, Good, Cheap: Pick Two.”)

Education has no triangle.

Money, of course, doesn’t work. Just ask Kansas City. Or Roland Fryer, who learned that kids would read more books for money but couldn’t seem to produce higher test scores for cash. Increased teacher salaries, merit pay, reduced class size are all suggestions that either don’t have any impact or have a limited impact….sometimes. Maybe. But not in any linear, scalable pattern.

“Good”? Don’t make me laugh. We don’t have a consensus on what it means. Most education reformers use the word “quality” exclusively to mean higher test scores. Teachers do not. Nor do parents, as Rahm Emanuel, Cami Anderson, Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee have learned. Common Core supporters have had similar moments of revelation.

So until we agree on what “good” is, what a “high quality education” means, we can’t even pretend that quality is a vertex of education’s triangle, even if it existed. We could save a whole lot of wasted dollars if people could just grasp that fact.

Time is an odd one. We never use the word directly, but clearly, politicians, many parents, and education reformers of all stripes believe we can educate “faster”. Until sixty years ago, calculus was an upper level college course. Once the high school movement began, fewer than 3% of students nationwide took trigonometry, between 10-20% took geometry, and the high point for algebra was 57%–over one hundred years ago–then declining to 25%. (Cite.) One of the little noted achievements of the New Math movement was to alter the math curriculum and make high school calculus a possibility. At first, just kids with interest and ability took that path. Then someone noticed that success in algebra I predicted college readiness and everyone got all cargo cult about it. By the turn of the century, if not earlier, more of our kids were taking advanced math in high school than at any point in our history.

And that was before kids started taking algebra in seventh grade. Sophomores take now take honors pre-calculus so they can get a second year of AP calculus in before graduation. Common Core has gone further and pushed algebra 2 down into algebra I.

Yet 17 year old NAEP scores have been basically stagnant for the same amount of time our high school students have been first encouraged, then required, to take three or more years of advanced math.

Not only do we try to educate kids faster, we measure their gain or loss by time. Poor kids of uneducated parents lose two months learning over the summer. CREDO, source of all those charter studies, refers to additional days of learning. Everyone comparing our results to Singapore always mentions the calendar, how much earlier their kids start working with advanced math. These same people also point out that Singapore has a longer school year. Longer school years don’t appear to work reliably either.

Except maybe KIPP, whose success is mostly likely due to extended school hours. KIPP focuses on middle school and has not really been scrutinized at the high school level. Scrutiny would reveal that the program doesn’t turn out stellar candidates, and while more KIPP alumni complete college than the average low income black or Hispanic student, the numbers are reasonable but not extraordinary when compared against motivated students in the same category who attended traditional schools. Particularly given the additional support and instruction hours the KIPP kids get.

So KIPP’s “success” actually adds weight to the NAEP scores as evidence that time–like money and quality–doesn’t respond to the project management constraints.

Kids learn what they have the capacity to learn. Spending more instruction hours will–well, may–help kids learn more of what they are capable of learning in fewer school years. But the NAEP scores and all sorts of other evidence says that learning more early doesn’t lead to increased capacity later. And so, we’ve moved 1979 first grader readiness rules to preschool with considerable success, but that success hasn’t given us any traction in increasing college readiness at the other end of childhood. Quite the contrary.

I probably don’t have much of a point. I was actually thinking about the increasing graduation rates. It’ll be a while until part 2. I’m swamped at work, moving again, writing some longer pieces, and really would like to post some math curriculum rather than detangle my mullings.

But the triangle thing is important. Really.

Take note: under 1000 words. Hey, I have to do it every year or so.

Education Schools: Prescriptive Training and Academic Freedom

I’ve been mulling over my thoughts on ed school, when someone retweeted Peter Sipe’s op ed about his ed school training, which he went through at the same time his wife went through med school.

It’s a good piece that accurately captures, not caricatures, graduate ed school (the only type I’m discussing). My ed school did not make us throw around a medicine ball. I recall posters and drawings and gingerbread men.

But I part ways with the second half of Sipe’s article, and our difference characterizes an important philosophical conflict in teacher training.

The difference begins and ends here: “The thing is — and it’s the thing that still bugs me — I don’t recall learning how to do anything.”

Ed schools, the complaint goes, want their teachers to “reflect” on their philosophy and methods, but don’t teach the “hows” and the “what’s”. I find this charge to be somewhat misguided. While most ed schools don’t spend a lot of class time on these topics, they require apprenticeships in the form of student teaching where plenty of hows and whats are discussed. Leave aside the issue of the quality of student teaching experiences for the minute. Ed schools as currently designed explicitly allow for teachers to experiment with the hows and the whats. But yes, ed schools do not mandate a specific list.

A second charge against ed schools is their lack of academic freedom. Ed schools are disastrous and keep FIRE in business, say the critics, because the “teacher dispositions” criteria allows them to expel anyone who just, well, doesn’t have the personality or the right qualities to be a teacher, providing a convenient tool to reject or expel students lacking the correct ideology.

So ed schools are insufficiently prescriptive on technique and overly prescriptive on political ideology.

But wouldn’t prescriptive teacher training decrease academic freedom?

As Paul Bruno observes, both reformers and progressives argue that teachers should be more like lawyers and doctors. But law schools and med schools aren’t exactly bastions of academic inquiry and experimentation. Peter Sipe’s wife spent all her free time memorizing madly. Law and medicine have huge bodies of knowledge, and candidates don’t get to challenge the professors or argue about the necessity of given approaches and techniques.

In ed school, teachers are actually encouraged to examine approaches and try them out. Paradoxically, despite the legitimate complaints about ideological demands, ed schools grant teachers far more academic and intellectual freedom than law and medical schools do (at least in their early years), and are in that sense more like MBAs. Think of ed school as the equivalent to the last year of law or medical training, when students have demonstrated mastery of the basics and encouraged to explore options and specialize. (this is necessarily simplified, I know). In ed school, the content knowledge tests are “the basics” and we demonstrated that competency as an admissions requirement. From that point, all we have to do is explore options, find our identities as teachers, develop an education philosophy.

So why is ed school so open-ended? And here we come to the issue that has plagued education policy since its inception: teaching doesn’t have an extensive body of knowledge. It never has. The profession has no best practices. I started to expand on this, but really, it’s best to just read David Labaree. I may put some more thoughts down in a second post, whenever it arises. For now, even those who disagree with this assertion would not dispute the lack of agreement about best practices.

Given the lack of any accepted body of knowledge, any attempt to put a stake in the ground is necessarily ideological. .

As an example, consider an ed school that mandates one particular set of hows and whats: Relay Graduate School of Education. (Facts pulled from various places but mostly here)

Charter schools that can’t or won’t hire credentialed teachers hire college graduates who are then shuttled through an alternate certification program while they teach. Back in 2005, Norman Atkins of Northstar and David Levin of KIPP decided they could eliminate the middle man. Rather than using alternative credential programs, they built their own program. They began by running their program through a university (Teacher U), but it was pretty clearly their goal from the start to have their own ed school.

Relay’s teacher “trainees” are put through a largely scripted curriculum, the instructors often literally reading from a script. The program is “competency based” (critics would say bereft of theory or any intellectual exercise).

I put “trainees” in quotes because Relay students aren’t actually training. They’re teaching, usually at a charter school, often KIPP, ACHIEVE, or Uncommon Schools. Students must be full time elementary or middle school teachers—that is, students must have obtained a teaching job without a credential, which limits their hiring pool almost entirely to charters. They can only graduate when they have demonstrated that their students make a full year of academic progress—which again, limits their hiring pool to schools that will boot absentee kids, troublemakers, and unmotivated low achievers.

Is Relay using an accepted body of knowledge? No. They don’t claim to–and in some cases, they are using the same content that ed schools would use anyway. Does Relay have a research base to prove its effectiveness? No. Were Relay’s methods developed to enforce a strong ideological bias about education? Yes. Relay’s ideological canon includes notions like test scores are the only accurate measure of effective teaching (not a given at all) , that more time on task is equivalent to more learning, that rigid control is essential for effective teaching, that effective schools must have uniform education philosophies, and that teachers and schools can and should make behavior demands of low income children and parents as a condition of their education, to name just a few.

Could Relay’s techniques be used to educate all teachers? Oh hell no. Relay’s techniques are designed for mid-ability, low income black and Hispanic children in elementary and middle school whose parents are desperate to remove them from schools that aren’t allowed to expel troublemakers. In return for a guarantee of expelled troublemakers, the parents sign up for all sorts of commitments and expectations that parents with any other choice would laugh at. And Relay’s methods won’t work without that anvil hanging over the kids’ heads. Or, as I said in my last post, white kids don’t do KIPP.

Leaving aside the parents, a significant chunk of the potential teaching population would never sign up for Relay’s ideology. As just one example: Relay provides videos of what it considers exemplary teaching—most of them from Doug Lemov, whose taxonomy drives a lot of Relay’s methods. (at the link, look for Strong Voice, Transitions, or Supportive something or other, as examples. Or check out Doug Lemov’s videos).

Regular teachers often find these exemplaries…..unconvincing. My terms range from “flatly incompetent” to “pretty damn creepy”. Carol Burris goes further and while I don’t agree with everything she says here, my general vibe is way more “right on” than “don’t be ridiculous.” Paul Bruno feels this characterization is extremely unfair. You do not need to agree with me about the videos, but understand that many teachers vehemently disagree with the methods and ideology on display.

But remember, Relay doesn’t want typical teacher profiles. No Excuses charter schools are pulling in a fairly high-performing group for their two years and out teachers. The teacher “trainees” drawn to this approach are, as a rule, control freaks who have just (checks watch) two years to save the world before they go to law school or work for a hedge fund. They are the best of the best of the best, to quote Lieutenant Jake Jenson, and they want no truck with those slouchy teachers who didn’t even get straight As and don’t make baggy pants look nearly as cool as Will Smith does. It doesn’t matter that Doug Lemov isn’t a professor, what matters is the man has an MBA from Harvard. He’ll show the way, and they’ll get it done, just like they always do, unlike those idiot teachers who created this mess they’ll have to fix. They are usually privileged, usually white recent college graduates who just want to know the best way of drilling simple facts and good behavior into “disadvantaged” (read really, really poor) black and Hispanic elementary and middle schoolers using a required set of procedures.

As a university, Relay must guarantee its students academic freedom, but as the alert reader may have noticed, Relay’s students want methods and answers, not intellectual challenge. They don’t give a damn about academic freedom.

But good form demands we inquire whether Relay guarantees its students academic freedom. We are assured of its existence. I’m skeptical, but not because I doubt Relay’s commitment to the idea.

Say a teacher at an Uncommon Schools charter is required to use those creepy finger waves that you see in the video. He wants to try to manage his class without the finger waves. But if he doesn’t use the finger waves, he gets fired, and if he doesn’t have a job, he can’t complete his education at Relay.

If all charters that accept Relay mandate that behavior and Relay mandates employment in order to be in the program, and the only jobs for uncredentialed teachers are at charters, is Relay offering academic freedom?

If other charters allow their teachers the freedom to decide on their own methods and techniques, then maybe Relay will see a test of its values at some point. Would Relay tolerate a teacher in its program saying “the finger waving is some sick stuff and I won’t do it. And the countdown nonsense? I didn’t get into teaching to turn out robots. White parents wouldn’t put up with this crap.”

Suppose a teacher decides her students are better served by teaching them more slowly, giving them time to explore additional content. Her students don’t make a year of academic progress. She gets excellent results, has few discipline problems, accomplishes miracles with students who would otherwise be expelled and sent back to comprehensive schools, but Relay won’t give her a credential because her students didn’t make a year of progress. Where is her academic freedom, her ability to make pedagogical choices for her students?

These are all just hypotheticals, because most Relay students are Koolaid drinkers who bought into the ideology before they started.

But if you want to skip ed school and Relay’s your only choice, keep FIRE on speed dial.

I am being deliberately flip. My disdain for Relay is irrelevant as anything other than illustration of a basic truth: many, many people are repelled by the school’s techniques. If you want a considered assessment of the different approaches, read this excellent Stephen Sawchuk piece on intellectual vs. technical teacher preparation. And the charter demand for a prescriptive approach goes way beyond No Excuses schools; progressive charters are just as ideologically biased.

A prescriptive method for producing teachers simply won’t work as anything other than a specialized fringe method with a guaranteed market. It’s one thing to mandate a fixed procedure for subcuticular stitches, quite another to mandate weighting homework as 40% of the grade or requiring students to sit in groups or in rows, still another to make teachers force kids to perform transition steps in unison or use a 3-second “wait time” with “strategic narration”.

I believe an open-ended approach to teacher training is the only possible method of preparing teachers. Like legions of teachers, I felt entirely prepared to walk into my first classroom and can’t figure out what the hell Peter Sipe is complaining about. That doesn’t mean traditional ed schools couldn’t be improved. But it’s worth remembering that most of them do a lot of things pretty well, and that many teachers—good ones, even—don’t agree with the prevailing “received wisdom” of the chattering class. Which is what I’ll be writing about the next time I take the topic on.

Okay, I’ve been chewing on this long enough. Posting. Maybe I’ll edit later.

Well, no. (Short Takes and Snarks)

The items below would take me a good eight months to write about in full (I made that number up), and most of them would drop off the table for the dog to snatch up (I don’t have a dog). How can someone who writes as slowly as I do still write so much?

So briefly (yes, laugh), while working on memory and math and wondering if Corona del Mar has successfully buried its cheating incident, I read many sentences that made me go “Well, no.”

  1. “Even if that was necessary to success — and it’s not — surely she’ll have plenty of time later to agonize about putting a foot out of place.”–Megan McArdle, chastising America for forcing a tenth grade student to think she needs straight As.

    Well, no. For kids with no legacy, no sports, no ethnic desirability (that is, lacking URM status), and no real money, a GPA less than 4.0 puts them out of contention for a top 30 school, certainly, and probably a top 40 school as well. Now, I agree that success can be achieved from almost any starting point, but for any smart kid with strong ambition, a top-30 school should be a reasonable goal. But many kids are out of the game by freshman year, despite excellent brains, challenging transcripts, and sterling test scores, simply because they don’t obsess about grades the way that sophomore does. The problem isn’t the fear of failure, but the corrupt admissions process that has put GPA ahead of everything else. I’m a big fan of Megan McArdle, but when she shows empathy by offering up her devastation at having to settle for 7th-ranked Penn, she’s out of touch with reality—unless her column is meant as no more than a self-help guide for wealthy parents.

  2. “Google attracts so much talent it can afford to look beyond traditional metrics, like G.P.A.”–Thomas Friedman, on his key insight after a free trip to the Googleplex.

    Well, no. First, as far as I’m concerned, Google just flat-out lied to Friedman. Specifically, according to Bock himself, Google does require GPA and transcripts for recent college grads. In previous years, Google demanded them from all applicants, no matter how much work experience. Less specifically, Google implies that you should just be a good, creative, humble person and they’ll take a serious look at your resume with its BS in Cognitive Science from Chico State. Please don’t believe that. Quite the contrary: you could be a really good, smart, creative person with a recent degree from Chico State and Google will laugh at your hubris in thinking you could work with God’s Chosen Few. Daniel Willingham raises his eyebrows at Google’s “purported” (ooooh, delicate, that) practices and says “Everything Bock says is probably not true, and if it were true, it would not work well in organizations other than Google.” Indeed.

  3. “For context, KCPS is a system where 70 percent of students are below proficient and the average ACT score is a tick above 16.“–Ethan Gray, CEO of CEE, posting at Eduwonk.

    Well, no. That’s not context. You can’t have test score context without race.

    The Kansas City Public School district is 59% black, 26% Hispanic. The bulk of these students are also poor. The average black ACT score is 16.9, average Hispanic score is 18.8

    Considering that most blacks and most Hispanics aren’t poor, the simple truth is that Kansas City schools are probably neither better nor worse than any other urban, high poverty, black and Hispanic school district.

    But boy, it sounds sooooooo dramatic. Like, you know, the teachers are doing a bad job and if they’d just let the reformers come in, they’d have those high poverty kids at a 20 ACT score in no time.

  4. “While middle school and high school may have brought a few more male teachers into the mix, the truth is, the teaching profession was and really still is, dominated by women.”Amy Mayhew of the Tri-County Times.

    Well, no. As the article itself observes, ” male educators make up 2.3 percent of the overall pre-K and kindergarten teachers, while male elementary and middle school teachers constitute 18.3 percent of the teaching population. It evens out a little more at the high school level with men representing about 42 percent of the teachers overall.”

    Perspective: Law enforcement is roughly 20% female, federal and state combined, but the specifics vary both by agency and
    city. Meanwhile, 4% of firefighters are female, or at least were in 2008.

    So preschool and kindergarten teachers are predominantly female, just as firefighters are predominantly male. Elementary and middle school teachers are as male as cops are female, more so in many cases. And what, exactly, is the problem with the gender balance in high school? You all have got to stop treating it as one occupation.

    If you need to point and sputter at a female profession, try nursing.

  5. “As for the school board, what it should do is feel ashamed for once again putting students, families and educational achievement at the bottom of its priority list.”LA Times Editorial, on LAUSD’s refusal to renew two Aspire charters.

    Well, no. LAUSD rejected the charters because they refused to join the district’s special ed services group, or SELPA, opting instead to pay El Dorado County a small fee to basically funnel their state funds right back to them, with a much smaller haircut than LA takes. Which sounds reasonable, except California takes a $2 billion loss every year providing IDEA-mandated services that the feds don’t pay for (hi, unfunded mandate!), and much of that loss is passed on to local districts. Both San Diego and Los Angeles lose millions each year paying for mandated special education services, and they spread that cost among all the kids. But California gave charters in region the ability to pull out their kids, thus increasing the cost to all the other kids in the district who don’t go to charters. El Dorado, presumably, doesn’t take a bath on special education, so is able to do nothing except give charter funds a hair cut and send them right back. So not only do LA charters have fewer special education students, but they also aren’t required to pay for all the special ed students in the region, like all the other district schools are. (I suspect the charter schools that stay with the district do so because it’s more cost effective, and no, I don’t know why.) Special education is expensive and frustrating, and I understand why any school, any district, would get out from under its thumb. But it’s very, very weird that El Dorado gets to sit back and collect money from charters who just want to escape the costs that everyone else in their district shares. However, the shame here points directly at the LA Times. There’s all sorts of additional reporting to be done on this story, but they can’t be bothered to even really investigate how much money is funneled through El Dorado County, or why charter students are allowed to skate the burden of regional special education. Because the district kids are suffering under a bigger share of the costs, while the LA Times is bleating on behalf of the lucky lottery winners who, as the paper points out, won’t lose their schools despite all the sturm und drang.

  6. “In truth, the well-off kids went to far better “common” schools. The less well-off and minority students went to schools that didn’t give them an equal shot in life. “Andrew Rotherham and Richard Whitmire, on the reformer’s dream “common schools”.

    Well, no. It’s not the schools and teachers that didn’t give students an equal shot, but rather the students’ cognitive ability, their parents’ income, and their peers. The only one of those that schools can mitigate, somewhat, is the peer group. That, not higher quality teachers or a better curriculum, remains the appeal of charter schools, private schools, and districts with well-protected zipcodes. Tracking and a better understanding of the impact of low incentive kids would give public schools much better weapons to fight the problems caused by mixed ability and mixed incentives. Alas, the feds keep threatening public schools if their discipline records aren’t racially balanced. Meanwhile, highly sought after charter schools often expel undesirable students, often free from scrutiny, although taken in total, charters and publics have roughly the same suspension and expulsion rates. And no one wants to talk about tracking. Peer environment remains the huge unmentionable.

Social Justice and Winning the Word

Robert Pondiscio got cranky with me on Twitter. I don’t translate well to 140 characters. I barely translate to 1400 words.

In Who’s the Real Progressive?, Pomdiscio got all “in your FACE!” with Steve Nelson, head of Calhoun School (tuition $40K), who snippily dismissed Pomdiscio’s school as “not progressive”. Pomdiscio was outraged. How dare he say that a school dedicated to helping black and Hispanic kids succeed isn’t progressive?

I told him he was needlessly fussed. “Social justice” and “progressive” are two terms firmly ensconced in liberal ideology with specific meanings about means, not outcomes. He should know that. I was told off in no uncertain terms. Pondiscio pointed out that he didn’t ask me for advice. True enough, and if he didn’t want unsolicited responses, he might try email next time.

But since I’ve escaped the bonds of Twitter….

Twenty years ago, I used to say I agreed with the goals of feminism and then qualified that statement: I can’t stand NOW, I think feminism has gone far afield, blah blah blah. Now I say I’m opposed to feminism, because I believe that women should have equal rights and responsibilities.

But Ed, a feminist will say, feminism is about women having equal rights and responsibilities.

And I laugh. “Hahahahaha! Good one!”

Of course, at the heart of this exchange lies a cold hard truth: feminists won the word.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard teachers (usually English and history) talk about how they want their kids to “develop a positive value system” in the context of a recycling program or anti-bullying week. If they are trying to institute “social justice” values then it’s a panel on gay marriage, affirmative action, or the Dream Act.

Me, I don’t participate in the recycle program. When the kids ask me why, I tell them I want to hurt the environment. I was bullied into accepting a sticker during anti-bullying week, but I didn’t wear it, telling my students I’m anti-bullying, but also anti-anti-bullying. When students tell me they oppose gay marriage, gun rights, or the Dream Act, I simply warn them to watch their audience or have a lawyer on call. I would also mention whether I agreed or disagreed, just as I would with students with opposing views.

And if I’m asked whether I support social justice, I say no, because I support free speech and the right to individual opinion.

But Ed, says a liberal teacher, social justice is all about free speech and the right to individual opinion.

Hahahahaha! I say. Good one!

Again, a sad truth at the heart of it all: liberals won the words.

And that’s all I was trying to tell Robert Pondiscio. By all means, take on the absurd assumption that a progressive school must teach a curriculum drenched in liberal propaganda and enforce a rigid ideology about “social justice” that only acknowledges “white institutionalized racism” and “white male patriarchy” as wrongs imposed upon a minority populace bravely struggling against the jackboot on their necks. I’m all for it. While you’re at it, go take on ed schools not for their curriculum (it’s not that bad) but for their routine violations of academic freedom and the elite ed schools’ systematic exclusion of conservatives or Republicans from their student population, implying, but never daring to say directly, that the right’s political agenda is incompatible with worthwhile educational outcomes. I’m there.

But spewing outrage when a progressive tells you that your school isn’t progressive because you believe in good test scores for and enforce tough discipline against black and Hispanic kids? Of course it’s not progressive to insist on homogeneous cultural success and behavior markers. Progressives don’t care about ends, they care about means. Did the teachers spout liberal values and espouse progressive dogma? It’s progressive. Otherwise, not. They won the word. Cope.

Of course, the real irony is that reformers, whether choice, accountability, or curriculum, rarely question the liberal ideal of “social justice” and “progressive values” in at least one key respect. As I’ve written before, reformers of all stripes have completely embraced the progressive agenda for educational outcomes: affirmative action, the DREAM act, special education mainstreaming (for public schools, not for charters, of course), support for non-English speakers. They’re only arguing about means.

Note that the students in Robert Pondiscio’s essay with the happy stories about college acceptance to Brown and Vanderbilt, are all black and they almost certainly got in with lower test scores than if they’d had the same income but were white or Asian. A substantial number of Americans don’t see social justice in the notion of accepting far less qualified kids, often of higher income, simply because of their skin color. And yet Pondiscio offers his story as an unalloyed example of a progressive outcome, of social justice.

In fact, he wouldn’t even be writing happy stories about poor whites or Asians, just as you don’t see KIPP cutting admission deals for white and Asian students, because reformers aren’t starting charter schools to help poor whites or Asians.

Suburban upper-income whites, sure. Reformers are all about wealthy suburban whites for the same reason that Willie Sutton robs banks. Progressive charter schools for liberal whites trying to escape the overly brown and poor population of their local schools are on the rise. These schools aren’t reliant on philanthropists, but well-to-do parents willing to provide seed money to bootstrap the initial efforts. Poor or even middle class whites need not apply: they don’t bring the color the schools will need to prove the “diverse” population. They can apply for the lottery, eventually. (“Poor” Asians are a different story; it’s largely how the Chinese takeover of American Indian Public Charter went unnoticed. Chinese and Koreans bring all sorts of money from back home but have little money on paper, so often count as “low income”. Doesn’t stop them from buying up real estate, often, literally, with cash.)

You’ll go a long, long time looking for reformers’ advocacy of any issue that benefits poor whites, or even suburban whites not rich enough to write a check for seed money. In fact, I’d argue that increased choice is one aspect of reform that will hurt poor and middle-class whites, since no one’s interested in starting schools for them.

So Pondiscio’s brouhaha: Steve Nelson claims he’s progressive because he enforces liberal think on a bunch of rich white students and gives lip service to getting low income black and Hispanic kids get into college, probably with a couple–but not too many–Calhoun scholarships. Robert Pondiscio claims he’s more progressive because he works for a school that gets more black and Hispanic kids get into elite colleges, thanks to progressive universities’ belief in affirmative action and wealthy conservative organizations eager to fund selective charter schools instead of writing $40K scholarships, the better to prove that traditional schools and unionized teachers suck.

The cataclysmic nature of their disagreement on progressive values involves the degree to which culturally homogenous discipline should be enforced while pursuing the unquestioned good of allocating resources for a select group of black and Hispanic students. And, I guess, whether $40K tuition scholarships for low income black and Hispanic students are morally inferior to them winning a lottery to a nominally public school funded by billionaires directly, rather than through scholarships.

Okay. Well. Glad we got thatstraightened out.

Meanwhile, we’re a long way from a world in which we give all low income kids an equal shot, regardless of race. We’re not even at the point where each demographic has its own group of interested billionaires to fund selective schools for a lucky few.

Bah, Humbug.

Unstructured Musings on Choice

I had a brief twitter talk with Neal McCluskey about Jay Greene’s article arguing that charter schools shouldn’t have to take state tests.

Best line: “So, the state only pays for its own vision of a good education but you have to pay extra if you want to pursue something else. “. Um. Yeah. Similarly, the state only pays for its own vision of law enforcement, its own vision of unemployment funds if people don’t have jobs, and so on. Why should education be any different?

This sort of proposal seems, at first glance, to be breathtakingly full of horseshit chutzpah. Like, so let me get this straight. You base your whole argument for choice on the fact that public schools are cesspits of failure and incompetence. Give parents a choice! you say, don’t force them into terrible public schools. Don’t force black kids to go public just because of race, let them choose! Give them vouchers! Create charters! But then, when it comes to proving that choice actually results in increased learning, heavens, no! These schools are different. Parents chose them because they wanted something other than the state’s idea of education. Don’t make them take those pesky tests!

Huh? The entire impetus for choice, the entire rationale that won the day for vouchers, the reason the Supreme Court finally approved vouchers even for religious schools, was not “Hey, parents should get a choice for their children” but “parents without economic means need a way to escape failing public schools”. Choice advocates think the rationale is broader than that, of course, but time and again they lost that fight. In fact, even now, choice people are pushing “tax credits” over “vouchers” because, I think, they realize how untenable choice is without the spectre of poor kids with few options.

So the whole basis for choice is failing public schools! If you weren’t convinced they were incompetent cesspits, what the hell? What’s your basis for choice?

To which Neal McCluskey says hello? See who I work for? We never wanted state-run schools! Choice all the way down the line.

At which point I feel like Henry Clay arguing with western farmers about killing the bank. Wait. You’re for soft money. Jackson’s a hard money freak. Why the hell are you on his side?

Snicker. Hey, whatever works! sez Neal.

Kidding. Kind of.

So this used to puzzle me, but then I read an old review by James Q. Wilson of a Checker Finn book, in which he spelled out three different reform remedies. The first is to reform pedagogy/methods/curriculum—fix what and how the schools teach. The second remedy is choice, which will improve schools through competition. The final remedy involves the belief that schools are failing because the rules are flawed. Change the rules and measure the schools by those rules, and they’ll improve through accountability.

This was very enlightening because Wilson, an advocate for choice, delineates the difference between accountability and his own preference, which aligns fairly well with the distinction between Jay Greene and the folks at Fordham, to pick one at random, or the libertarians at Cato with Michelle Rhee. (The third pedagogy et. al is a much broader group, including constructivism and content knowledge, for example, and we’ll leave that alone for now.)

The Common Core argument you see among reformers is in part a split between these two groups. Accountability advocates want the Common Core—more federal control! Choice advocates see the federal control as intolerable. This doesn’t cover all of it—progressives and teachers mostly don’t like common core, and Tea Party folks like public schools, I believe, but want local control. Still, it explains the big split at the wonk level that is playing out as I write this.

No Child Left Behind was also accountability, not choice. But I think it caused less of a split because first, the law left testing up to the states, and second, the law allowed choice when schools failed to live up to the standards, and everyone knew that schools wouldn’t live up to standards. Many reformers thought NCLB was a failure because parents didn’t exercise choice.

I really shouldn’t be the person explaining this, hence the title of this essay. But it’s interesting to consider the differences. Half the accountability people and all the choice people hate the political power that teacher unions represent. The accountability Republicans seem to just want Republicans to be in power, or at least reasonably represented. The choice people don’t really want anyone to be in power educationally speaking, but also hate the political power of unions because they see them as, oh, I dunno, more committed to increased federal power. No, that can’t be right. But something along those lines. ( The other half of accountability folks, the Andrew Rotherhams, the Dems who want to reform schools with unions, them I don’t get, so leave them out for now.)

(Wait, Ed, you don’t understand. All that political stuff might be true, but you forget these people are working for good schools. Yes, yes, reform opponents want good schools, too, but these guys actually want results. Why are you laughing, Ed?)

So the accountability people just want more voices for charters to help destabilize public schools and unions. In return, accountability people give lip service to vouchers, but their hearts aren’t really in it.

It seems to me that choice people themselves understand that this might be the best they can get, which is why they’ve mostly hitched their wagon to the accountability star, getting more choice around the edges and corners. They can’t get it outright for the reasons I described early on. The public is not going to give parents money to send their kid wherever. Consequently, Jay Greene’s article makes no sense, strategically, because it completely undercuts their admittedly opportunistic basis for pushing choice. Hence my surprise.

Accountability advocates have a stronger position, but then, it’s a bit fuzzy what their position is. There’s a reason Michael Petrilli calls to mind the mutant dogs in Up. (“Squirrel!”)

Besides, public schools are held accountable in all sorts of ways that the officially designated accountability advocates ignore entirely. For example, public schools are held accountable if they suspend too many black or Hispanic students. They are held accountable if they group kids by ability and the racial demographics are unrepresentative of the school community. They are held accountable if girls can’t play football, or LBQT students are referred to by the wrong gender. They are held accountable if their students use social media to torment each other about events that occurred off-campus, on the weekend, with no school involvement.

This sort of accountability goes by another name: lawsuits. Lawsuits or the threat thereof are highly effective accountability measures, and are much scarier than Mike Petrilli and Andrew Rotherham. Or even Michelle Rhee. Unfortunately, giving in to these accountability measures does nothing to improve public education and often, in fact, does much to harm it. Not that this matters to lawsuits. Or schools fearing them.

So what, exactly, is accountability as Fordham and Bellwether envision it, separate from choice? Beyond the scope of this essay. Back to choice.

Going back to Neal’s “hey, don’t look at me! I don’t want accountability” wave-off, I just want to ask: do pure choice people really want an education system with no state control? An open marketplace? I realize that we’re supposed to pretend that all parents value school and be insulted at the implication that they wouldn’t want what’s best for their kids, but reality, alas, intervenes, which is why truancy officers are a major profit center for urban schools.

So suppose we just let the kids whose parents didn’t care go to terrible schools or just not go to school at all. Would we get nothing more than unhappy kids on street corners, or would we get something like the scenario portrayed in this comment, during the CTU strike? Any takers?

Teachers are cheaper than cops and prisons and by this I do not mean “uneducated kids will end up in prison” or whatever pious do-gooders might say about the value of education. I mean it literally: some substantial chunk of kids who are now forced to stay in school will get out onto the streets three to eight years earlier and crime will increase. That seems quite obvious.

Someone will undoubtedly say “Wow, Ed, you don’t see yourself as anything more than a glorified babysitter?”

It’s this sort of response that causes most teachers to realize how little the outside world gets it. Because hell yes. That’s what public schools are, sometimes. And have always been. Babysitters. Education will fail to reach a significant portion of the kids who are both low income and low ability. That’s a fact. We do it anyway, in part because, as I said, it’s cheaper than jails and cops. But in part because some number, and it’s not a small number, will be reached, will be persuaded to keep in the game, play by the rules, and eventually get something approximating a paying job in this new economy. That’s what we work for, to increase the number of the kids who do more than mark time until jail.

So don’t think you’re insulting me by calling me a glorified babysitter, and get back to the issue I raised: can you prove that all parents will react responsibly to unfettered educational choices for their kids? Remember, mind you, that a good number of those parents should still be in school themselves, and clearly demonstrated their utter contempt for the value of that institution by getting knocked up or doing the knocking. Many parents make dreadful choices and it’s unpopular to give them tax dollars to screw up any more than we already have to.

Another question: if you’re against public schools, why advocate for charters? As any Cato wonk knows, charters are killing private schools. Increasing charters increases public school spending. More charters will increase the number of kids under government oversight, give even more control to the states and ultimately the federal government. So why are choice people pro-charters? Charter schools purport to give choices but actually just drive up public education costs for the express benefit of a lucky few underrepresented minorities or suburban whites and Asians too cheap to send their kids to private school. As long as I’m ordering the world, choice folks, can’t you go back to pushing tax deductions for private schools? Then let Bill Gates pay tuition scholarships for URMs rather than fund meaningless and usually unsuccessful initiatives in his public school sandbox.

Finally, this: eventually, all three reform positions will realize that they can’t have what they want, that our schools aren’t failing, that their expectations are ludicrous. I just hope, when that happy day arrives, we will take a look at what we can do to convince more low ability kids to leave off marking time in order to work towards adulthood and responsibility. Higher standards, no. Better jobs, yes.

Instead, liberals are getting all excited about a brave new world in which super-rich employers are teaching their Wisconsin nannies about quinoa. Because it’s Wisconsin nannies who will cause all the trouble when we’ve got an entire generation of disaffected youth in a society that didn’t worry about jobs for people who read at a sixth grade level and pretended instead that more choice or tougher standards would give them the intellectual skills for college.

Boston Charter School Study: What “Improved Scores” Look Like

Slate article Do Charter Schools Work? is a good read; I recommend it. But what I wanted to do here is point out some interesting facts in the featured study: Charter Schools and the Road to College Readiness, which is incredibly important in that it’s one of the few studies that focus on high school outcomes.

Relevant quotes:

While the students who were randomly offered a seat at these high schools graduate at about the same rate as those not offered a seat, lottery estimates show that charter enrollment produces gains on Advanced Placement (AP) tests and the SAT. Charter attendance roughly doubles the likelihood that a student sits for an AP exam and increases the share of students who pass AP Calculus. Charter attendance does not increase the likelihood of taking the SAT, but it does boost scores, especially in math. Charter school attendance also increases the pass rate on the exam required for high school graduation in Massachusetts, with especially large effects on the likelihood of qualifying for a state-sponsored college scholarship.

Estimates of the effect of charter attendance on AP scores by subject… show a large increase in the likelihood that charter applicants take tests in science, calculus, and history, three of the most commonly taken AP exams. Paralleling charter schools’ large impact on MCAS math scores, the clearest AP score gains are for calculus. Charter attendance boosts the probability of taking the AP calculus test by 21 percentage points, and appears to boost the likelihood of earning a score of at least 2 by nearly 9 points. The corresponding impact on the likelihood of earning a 3 on AP calculus is 7 percentage points, though the estimated increases in the likelihood of scoring 2 or 3 are only marginally statistically significant. Charter attendance increases test-taking in science and US history, with no corresponding impact on scores in these subjects. Charter schools have little effect on English test-taking or scores.

Although charter attendance has little effect on the rate at which applicants take the SAT, charter attendance raises the SAT scores that applicants earn on the test. In particular, coding scores as zero for non-takers, charter attendances pushes the SAT composite score (the sum of math, verbal, and writing scores) above the bottom quartile of the state composite score distribution by 11 percentage points. Gains in math contribute most to the shift in composite scores; effects on verbal and writing scores are smaller (the estimated low-end shift in verbal scores is marginally significant). Charter attendance also raises the probability that applicants earn an SAT reasoning score (the sum of math and verbal) above the state median by 13 percentage points, with math again the largest contributor to this gain.

Although charter attendance has smaller effects on verbal and writing scores, the composite SAT score gain is estimated to be a little over 100 points, a large and statistically significant result. The gain here amounts to almost one-third of a standard deviation in the US composite score distribution. The corresponding effect on the SAT reasoning score is 74 points, also a large gain.

I’m torn as to the vantage point from which to consider the SAT score increase. The “average” increase provided by test prep is between 5-10 points. But everyone knows, or should know, that if “average” were “expected”, then test prep wouldn’t have kept Washington Post Company solvent for most of the last 20 years. Most parents would be unhappy with the results (while understanding the law of averages) if their average students only improved 100 points composite, which is an average of 30 points per section. Another way of looking at this increase is to argue that 30 points per section is three times the average achieved by test prep companies. Whoohoo! Except, of course, charters had three years. Test prep companies have about 15 hours.

Of course, there’s this annoying repetition of the test prep canard:

Designed to be challenging for all students, low SAT scores are a special concern for poor and minority students. Gaps in SAT scores by race and socioeconomic status that might be attributable to family background and school quality are further accentuated by the willingness of higher income families to invest heavily in SAT preparation. (see, e.g., Bowen and Bok, 2002)

How hard is it to stop repeating utter pap? Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to use test prep than whites, although East Asians trump everyone. And here’s a table to prove it (table courtesy of Inside Higher Ed, as mentioned in the linked essay):

And until someone can explain the socioeconomic reality of poor whites outscoring high income blacks on the SAT, best not go to that well, either.

Ahem. Back to the study.

Demographics of Boston Public Schools vs. charter students:

So if I’m reading this right, the charter population is way more female, way more black, way less Hispanic and a third as Asian as the lottery losers. The drop in Asians puts the math score increase in perspective, although the study makes clear that the charter group applicants had higher scores than average. (The study ignores any detailed discussion of race.)

And what did they do, these charter schools, to teach their kids? bostonchartermethods
Taught them for more hours a day, more days in the week, with younger (which in reformspeak means much, much better) teachers and smaller classes (the lower cost per pupil probably reflects fewer special ed and ELL students, but we’ll leave that to the side for now.) Your basic No Excuses model, all the happy tunes that eduformers love to sing.

Ah, here’s the graph I was looking for:


So before I break into my rant, let me say that I was so dumbfounded by these results that I hope I read them incorrectly. I will not be embarrassed if someone points out my error, but relieved. And now, the rant.

That huge increase of 100 points composite in average SAT score translates to an average section score under 500. The Boston Charter students, on average, couldn’t place out of remedial college classes, and wouldn’t even begin to qualify for a competitive university if they weren’t black or Hispanic.

While I often complain about assumptions and conclusions in studies, I have no knowledge of methodology, so I’m going to assume that their study is perfect, and just accept the results.

Ask yourself what those kids got for all those hours of extra time, all those lost Saturdays, all those “Advanced Placement” courses that clearly were nothing more than an exercise in fraud for many students. Improvement on AP outcomes and graduation rates: almost nil. They got a few points bump on the SAT that won’t get them out of remediation, much less exempt them from the “out” of affirmative action. In abilities, they are virtually indistinguishable from the population that tried to get into the charters and failed. What they have, however, are impressive looking transcripts, because charter schools, like majority minority urban schools, are heavily invested in creating the impression of rigor.

That’s how stark, how huge, the achievement gap is, the one that reformers say they can close with school choice. Except, as this study shows, they can’t.

It’s not that the charters did poorly. It’s that the public schools, with far less seat time, no control over their population, and a far smaller percentage of kids who actually want to be educated, did pretty damn well with motivated kids in comparison to the charter schools. They don’t have terribly impressive test scores for the same reason that the charters, with all their extra advantages, don’t have impressive test scores: because black and Hispanic students have low test scores for reasons that have little to do with curriculum, expectations, or teachers.

All you reformers out there, eagerly pumping your fists at the win: The majority of these kids couldn’t break 500 on any section of the SAT. This is what you were fighting for? Or are you going to hold to some measure of consistency in your approach and castigate these charter schools for wasting taxpayer dollars, pretending to hold kids to high standards while failing miserably, fraudulently shoveling kids into AP classes they haven’t a chance of passing, and worst of all, wasting students’ time while not making any meaningful progress in eradicating the achievement gap?

Or maybe, are you going to realize that “failing schools” just have a lot of kids with low test scores because of factors outside everyone’s control?

American Indian Public Charters: What Word Are You Forgetting, People?

Please, spare the world any more bleats about the dreadful injustice committed by revoking American Indian Public Charter High School’s charter.

Andrew Coulson:

In a 2011 study, I found that AIM is the highest-performing charter school network in the state, by a wide margin. That is after controlling for student characteristics and schoolwide peer effects.

Low-income black and Hispanic AIM students actually outperform the statewide averages for wealthier whites and Asians. AIM even outperforms Lowell, one of San Francisco’s most respected and academically selective high schools.

AIM’s overwhelmingly low-income and minority graduates regularly attend colleges such as UC Berkeley, Stanford and MIT. The college acceptance rate is 100 percent.

Adam Emerson, Gadfly:

The school’s success and continued promise ought to transcend the failings of its leadership. Therefore, the American Indian board ought to set aside its pettiness and hubris and appeal the revocation so that the Bay Area’s poorest and most underserved children can have a shot at a school that has stood for years at the top of California’s performance rankings.

John Stossel:

Chavis’ schools take kids from the poorest neighborhoods.

So what does the education Blob decide to do? Shut his schools down.

Jay Mathews:

The students enroll in Advanced Placement courses in the ninth grade and eventually take more of those college-level classes and exams per student than any high school in the Washington area. In their white shirts and dark slacks and skirts, the 243 students bustle around their little campus. Eighty-one percent of them are from low-income families, but their AP test-passing rate of 41 percent is higher than any D.C. school except Wilson and the School Without Walls, which have mostly middle-class students.

[buried several paragraphs below:]

Oakland should sue Chavis if it has a case, but it should also celebrate the American Indian schools and encourage their growth. They were named in honor of Native Americans but have few such students. The enrollment is mostly Asian, with significant numbers of Hispanics and blacks, all of them wanting better schools.

Well, at least Jay mentions the ethnicity issue. Everyone else wailing about the school–a school in Oakland—deliberately leaves off the fact that the school is upwards of 60% Asian, and has become increasingly Asian every year. (Cite)

But not just Asian, dear reader. Chinese!!

Of the 106 Asians tested at the high school in 2012, the school has one lonely Korean and Indian kid (each, not a hybrid), ten Vietnamese, and NINETY FIVE Chinese.

Say “Oakland” and most people think “black”. Now, that association is getting closer to wrong every year—Hispanics, white gentrifiers and Asians have been chipping away at the black majority population in the city for a decade or more. Still, African Americans are Oakland’s largest population by a whisker.

Any reasonable person who isn’t automatically skeptical of any education miracle would assume from the aggravated bleats that the AIPCS kids achieving these amazing test scores were predominantly black and Hispanic—and hey, maybe even one or two American Indians might be in the mix, too. Do NOT pretend otherwise, since that pretense is precisely what irritates me and I’m on a rant.

How many blacks are taught at AIPCS? 19. In most categories, not enough students test to get an actual score report (which is withheld for 10 students or less) . How many Hispanics? 39—in most categories, barely enough to hit the 10 student qualifier. (So much for Jay’s “significant numbers”.)

So this school doing God’s work raising poverty-stricken kids out of illiteracy in a plurality-black city isn’t teaching enough blacks to register on the radar. It’s an Asian school, dammit.

Do AIPCSH blacks and Hispanics do better than the average for California whites? Well, for the groups large enough to break the 10-student reporting basement, yes.

But Ed, you say, if they are doing good work helping blacks and Hispanics achieve, why are you so annoyed? Sure, the school’s advocates are, er, letting people make bogus assumptions about the school’s population. But no matter how few blacks and Hispanics actually go to a school famous for helping “poverty-stricken kids in Oakland”, the ones who do go are getting a great education that helps them achieve far more than they would otherwise.

Ah, sez I, that brings up another point. From the earliest days of the schools’ success, many have whispered or even alleged openly that the schools require test scores for admissions, in open violation of the law.

Of course the school is skimming. I’m stunned one of the school’s many detractors hasn’t pointed out that American Indian Public Charter High School doesn’t offer algebra.

So the school is just randomly accepting all the students who walk in the door and they all just happen to have passed algebra already?

In the entire state, economically disadvantaged or not, 68% more freshmen take algebra than take geometry. Black disadvantaged freshmen are over three times more likely to be taking algebra than geometry; Hispanic disadvantaged freshmen over twice as likely. And for all these years, AIPCHS has just gotten lucky that everyone they accepted, in an open door policy without a lottery, has taken algebra already?

Anyone who believes that is ignorant. Certainly, some charters openly brag that they start all freshmen in geometry, pretending that the weaker kids just need a little extra tutoring to catch up , but their test scores will clearly demonstrate reality (“Waiting for Superman”‘s Summit Preparatory Charter may tell the world all freshmen take geometry, but state tests show clearly that all but a few are taking algebra—when it tried to actually teach and test all kids in geometry, the results were dismal.)

Benjamin Chavis and his successors have not only been cherrypicking by ethnicity, but also in some way setting extremely high test score basements, which violates the law the charter is supposed to live by.

Hell, given the other egregious financial improprieties the management has committed on a routine basis, only a fool would bet against the possibility of yearly erasure parties held just to ice the cake of those scores.

Education reformers are very Malcolm X about charter school results. So I know that Coulson, Stossel and the rest of the bleaters , faced with the accusation that they have egregiously and probably willfully misrepresented AIPC’s achievement, will say something to the effect of “So what? Who cares if they skimming the cream? Who cares if their attrition rate is 60-70%? The bright kids of Oakland need to be saved from the hell of their local schools. Whatever works. Besides, what kind of racist are you to imply that a mostly Asian school would automatically have higher test scores?”

As to the first, we can argue all day as to whether it’s appropriate to use public dollars to allow a few lucky kids (bright or not) to escape the pandemonium created not by lousy administrators and incompetent teachers but the critical mass of low ability kids bored and frustrated by an education that has no meaning for them. In this case, however, the bleaters are not arguing openly for a haven to escape the legal requirements imposed by public school law, but rather for school they say offers educational excellence. But AIPCS achieved that excellence not by teaching low ability kids to succeed, but by skimming based on ability and ethnicity—and then, of course, bragged about their outstanding outcomes while slamming the local public schools.

Don’t lie about the school’s achievements. I find it very hard to believe that Andrew Coulson did not knowingly omit the fact, in both his op ed and his study, that the kids are mostly Asian in the hopes that everyone would think Chavis et al were achieving miracles with black and Hispanic kids. (Stossel, on the other hand, might just be that ignorant. He rarely cares about the finer details.)

As to the second, oh, please. Give it a rest.


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