Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Importance of Being Honest (in ed reform conversations)

I have a few follow-ups to offer and a few loose ends to tie up. Fortunately, for the sake of coherent (well, maybe) blogging, they all tie together.

1) As a follow-up to my recent post on parent engagement, parent accountability, and charter schools, I wanted to add that I think one way to solve the problem of charter schools keeping students out because their parents won't fulfill requirements of the school would be if charter schools worked under the umbrella of the district where they were located. What if we took the concept of "competition" between schools out and replaced it with "collaboration" among schools? If the charters and the traditional schools worked together to find the place school placement for kids? Either working with families or in the case of parents-in-absentia, teachers, counselors, and principals could recommend certain students to certain charter schools or there could be "education placement" counselors assigned to students who don't have parent advocates.

Of course, this would pose a bit of a funding problem but not if there was more sharing of resources (though not co-locations--as has been demonstrated in New York City, those are a bad idea). We would also have to minimize top-down mandates and bureaucratic red tape for ALL schools. Accountability schemes that are degrading to traditional/neighborhood schools are going to be just as degrading to charter schools that are evaluated by the same standards.

Another potential problem is that (initially, at least) the very reason for charter schools in DC, for example, is that DCPS was so terribly run--educators, social service providers, and parents wanted to free themselves of the DCPS administration. I was a bit put off recently when I read one tweeter arguing to another that, "Schools and teachers don't make kids drop out." While I believe we have much more a problem of systems rather than of individuals, and it's not always the case, poor schools and teachers do in some cases drive kids and families out. Some kids do have bad experiences in some schools and with some certain teachers and in certain systems. There was a real need for change and reform in some of those systems, let's not kid ourselves. Now, DCPS continues to be terribly run (only now its employees have Ivy League degrees and wear J.Crew, so people assume otherwise) but it's also more top-down than ever and ideological, to boot. I can't see those charter school people who are dedicated to rich and appropriate education wanting anything to do with that, either.

2) Which leads me to this. The DC Public Charter School Board recently employed a new ratings system to rate their schools, the idea being that the lowest-performing schools would be closed based on those ratings. Okay, so accountability for charter schools via a sort-of jury of their peers is a good thing. The problem as I see it is what they're being rated on. From The Examiner article:
Schools are ranked based on factors such as performance on state exams, attendance, re-enrollment rates, and attention to critical grades. In the elementary and middle schools, a school's year-to-year improvement accounts for the lion's share of the rating at 40 percent.
There is no consideration of curriculum, pedagogy, or instruction, or of what is actually being taught or what is actually happening in classrooms. People tell me this rating system is better and more comprehensive than what DCPS uses, but if it doesn't evaluate schools on the quality of education being offered, I don't see how it's valuable. Our schools will be what we hold them accountable for.*

3) Which leads me to this. The city-by-city report of NAEP scores is out and guess what: DC has the largest achievement gap between black and white students than any other urban center in the report. Michael Casserly said this to explain the gap:

The District’s racial gap is really an income divide, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the largest urban school systems.“You’ve got relatively more well-to-do whites in Upper Northwest quadrants, particularly Ward 3, which score higher than white students nationally and you’re comparing it with poor, African American students largely in Wards 7 and 8,” Casserly said. “There are extreme income disparities.”

I have great sympathy for that and he's right on about the demographic differences between say Cleveland and DC. I appreciate this nuanced and informed explanation. How refreshing! But isn't this what some ed reform skeptics have been saying all along and haven't they oft been shouted down by cries of, "Poverty is not destiny!" "Poverty is not an excuse!" Casserly represents many school reformer superintendents (such as Chancellor Henderson of DCPS). Is this an admittance that income inequality and poverty can make not an insignificant impact on standardized test scores and academic achievement?

4) Which leads me to this. In response to DC parent Natalie Hopkinson's School Choice op-ed, Fordham Institute's Michael Petrilli chalks up the dearth of choice in DC to gentrification; there used to be a lot more spots for out-of-boundary students in high-performing schools west of the park but now those are being occupied by more affluent (and often white) kids who live in boundary. He is not wrong about this. But he leaves two important things out:
A) There was and is preferential treatment for Ward 3 schools. The facilities funding has been greater for Ward 3 schools as has been the responsiveness to Ward 3 communities. One of my sources tells me it's hard to get folks from DCPS central administration to even attend meetings in schools east of the Park.
B) It's very hard to replicate for all kids in DC what charter schools in DC do when: i) By law, charter schools must be city-wide and can not give preference to neighborhood kids and ii) Some charter schools don't serve kids, for example, with special needs or don't serve kids, for example, whose parents don't sign contracts or agreements of commitment. And private schools that accept vouchers can't be forced to accept (and retain) students for the same reasons. It's not reasonable to expect that expanding charters and vouchers will help neighborhood kids when those schools don't necessarily have to (or mean to) serve neighborhood kids.

Of course, many systems were in need of reform. Of course not every school can serve the needs of all kids. A conversation about the values of charter schools and choice is one worth having. What are the pros and cons of different policies? Of different systemic models? How have they worked in in the past? In other districts? In other countries? What will do the most kids the greatest good? What are the implications of such policies on our democracy?

But there can be no conversation about these things if the participants aren't being honest about all of the factors, including mistakes and shortcomings. I'm all for not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. But dishonesty, inaccuracy, and hypocrisy are the enemies of them both.

*UPDATE I: Reading tweets from @teacherken and @samchaltain of Pasi Sahlberg's talk at the Finnish Embassy in DC last night, I was reminded that "responsibility" is a much better term than "accountability" in this context as in, we should "Prioritize collective responsibility not individual accountability."


  1. "Isn't this what some ed reform skeptics have been saying all along and haven't they oft been shouted down by cries of, "Poverty is not destiny!" "Poverty is not an excuse!" "

    Yes, this has been the story over and over and over. The fake-reformers snarl "no excuses" at any talk about poverty and related ills, until they run up against the same challenges, suffer the same setbacks, and start talking about poverty and related ills too.

    But ethical people of goodwill would then retreat from their fake-reform posturing, admit that they were wrong, humbly apologize, and try to find positive ways to improve education. Oddly, that's not what we see the fake-reformers doing.

  2. To have a conversation about how to "fix" what is broken with the education system, we actually have to put ourselves in position to have real dialogue. That doesn't happen when it takes place online only.....I have a rather in-depth article I would like to share that covers the "achievement gap" issue and the solutions as seen through the eyes of the Father of the Modern Community Education Movement and the main architect of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, along with Ronald Edmonds of the original Effective Schools research and James Coleman....and the infamous Coleman Report. It's meant to be a conversation piece. Send me a message on Facebook, or find me as the author of Education's Missing Ingredient, I'll get you a copy of the paper.

  3. @Victoria - Thanks so much, again, for your comments. I agree with you regarding the limitations of having such dialogues only on-line, though in some cases that seems to be the only space left.

    I would love to read the article you mention. I'll try to find you on facebook.


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