Archive for January, 2010

Another Day, Another Look at Charter Schools

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Now that California, one of many states, has raised the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to apply for licenses each year, it’s time to look again at the realities of the charter school controversy.

California elementary charter school

California elementary charter school

Why do some praise charter schools as the savior of education in the United States?

Why are others cautious, if not outright antagonistic?

The charter school movement came to life in 1988 in Minnesota with the idea to design schools with “renewable licenses to innovate, free of most school district rules.” (John Merrow, “When Roads Diverge…” In 1992 the first charter school opened in Minnesota, followed soon by California after passage of the Charter School Act of 1992 and which now is #2 in the list of schools chartered.

Still charter schools have not, so far, swept over the country.  Let’s look at more numbers.  There are 4000 charter schools in 40 states and DC with 1.3 million students.  Minnesota has the most schools and California in 2009 has 700 charter schools out of 10,000 public schools with 4% of the 6.3 million students.

Even so, Michelle Rhee, superintendent of Washington DC schools, Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of Los Angeles, and Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, all are doing their best to restructure their school districts by closing low-performing schools and reopening with smaller charter schools, often in the same building.

Why so?

Money.  State regulations for licensing charter schools have been revised in pursuit of federal Race to the Top funds geared mostly toward low-performing high schools, a desperate problem in large urban areas.  Limited data available does show that charter high schools outperform similar traditional high schools.  In addition, in California at least, charter high schools attract more disadvantaged Hispanic students, one of the groups the state must target for academic help.

Strong teachers and administrators who want to get away from the system of traditional public schools with union contracts that were needed for a long while, but now restrict change, love the idea of starting over with a new school.

In addition, high-performing charters are small schools (average 350 students) with longer school days and year, more time devoted to English language study, a clear academic mission, a moderate discipline policy.  Those schools do well on the assessments to ensure a license renewal.

Top charters really have tried to innovate.

K-5 Conservatory Lab Charter School in the Boston area led by Diana Lam, long time administrator, uses a curricular model called Learning Through Music to support students who must improve their academic achievement.  Teacher contract innovation also is a goal.  A management team is designing the pay formula based on 5 levels of teacher performance, each level geared to identify a teacher as s/he becomes more experienced.  In addition, the teachers collaborate, using the Cycle of Inquiry model to assess, analyze, and modify teaching strategies.

City Arts and Technology High School set in a working class San Francisco neighborhood is one of Envision Schools, a non-profit group of model charter high schools.  The curriculum is rigorous, students collaborate on learning projects, and support is available to ensure all 365 students do well on state exams.

What’s wrong?

Nothing, except those exceptional schools are having difficulty being replicated across the country and time is of the essence.  For instance, in California, elementary charter schools are less likely to serve minorities, English Language Learners, and low-income students.  The schools are small, not reaching enough children.  Studies of outcome data for many charter schools have not shown better results than traditional public schools.

Often said, the parent buyer must beware.  Disinformation has been generated about charter schools, emphasizing their good qualities, denigrating perfectly good public schools, and hiding the fact that 14% of charter schools lose their licenses, just like traditional public schools fall into the low-performance abyss.

Finally, a number of professionals associated with the education field see charter schools as a way to privatize education, paid for with public money.  Others who praise charter schools do so because they hope to drag down teachers’ unions that are accused of holding onto a fixed pay structure which offers no incentives to excel.

Looking again?

Teacher’s pay structure is being re-evaluated, but the public must support the thousands of public schools looking for a model to help students achieve, instead of antagonizing the very highly-qualified teachers needed to close the achievement gap.

Take on a New View

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Teachers spend a lot of time thinking about the children they teach, in fact, all the time that they are not actually imparting a lesson on igneous rocks, say, or quadratic equations or the history of civil rights in the 1960’s when Martin Luther King, Jr. held Lyndon Johnson to the promise of legislation.

Who, though, is thinking about the legislation just passed in California and many other states so that real in-school change in education practice takes place?

Let’s start with one issue that brings a frown to every teacher in the country: teacher evaluation.  The federal Department of Education, ready to revise the Elementary Secondary Education Act (ESEA), is thinking about this aspect of school reform.

Whether you like the bill or not, the 8 year old NCLB legislation calling for highly-qualified teachers has shown the disparities from state to state in teacher preparation, professional development, and evaluation procedures.  If you look carefully at the new priorities, evaluation is for everyone involved in the education of public school students, not only the teacher in the classroom.

Even California has passed legislation to conform with new priorities, in spite of the teacher’s union (CTA) long-standing argument about unintended consequences of using student testing scores to evaluate teachers.  AFT’s current president gave a recent speech advocating for basic professional teacher standards, defining what a highly-qualified teacher should know and be able to do; and for serious analysis of well-designed tests to determine yearly growth that shows where to improve the program.

The old view.

Albert Shanker, the long-time AFT president, once noted schools have been seen as factories with teachers on the assembly line popping students out after 13 years.  In fact, many school reform solutions have elaborated on business models that increase productivity, thus cutting personnel, revising pay, adjusting the day, and so on, all to save money.  Teacher evaluation?  To be blunt, it was “pay for play.”

Now, in the effort to “make teaching the revered profession it should be,” (Arne Duncan, “Elevating the Teaching Profession” neatoday), money must be provided, this blog’s often-used comment.  However, in a poor economy, budget deficits, and legislator’s recalcitrance, it is difficult to see any dollar signs at the end of the tunnel.

So what’s new?

If you had looked at an economic model devised in the 1960’s by William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen from New York University, you would find that some institution’s costs can only be refined down.  They will still rise, but not recklessly.  Teacher evaluation in a public school is one such institution.

Here are examples.

Highly-qualified teachers should have access to technology to save costs.  For instance, some schools use a computer-generated test to determine reading improvement.  Many students can use the same equipment, the computer spits out the score and the tested items, saving time, so teachers can analyze for the next teaching steps.  Still a teacher must boot up the program, supervise students, and keep the equipment, not cheap, in shape.  Outcomes are improved, a teacher evaluation goal, but independent of cost.

In addition, professional development is essential to support excellent teachers and there are good technologically sound training DVD’s, for example, that can be used on-site, over and over, with large groups or small, therefore an efficient and effective staff development tool.*  Still, teachers need to be paid, the computers must be maintained–all costs that remain the same, though the benefits rise.

Many schools, to insure student and program improvement, use a business model called “cycle of inquiry” to set goals, examine how the plan is working, make adjustments, decide on next steps, all an efficient, effective, analytical way to assess progress.  Of course, labor costs aren’t saved by using this procedure in the school, even though good teachers will use these decisions for the student’s benefit.

The point is that schools must find ways to improve the infrastructure, the pay schedule, the way time is spent in schools, teacher evaluation, but the costs won’t go down.  Over time, they will rise less rapidly, but there are a fairly consistent number of students and highly-qualified teachers needed to teach them in a safe facility which will need money.

Think about it.  When calculating costs and benefits of their teachers,  state legislatures would do well to look at this view of the education world.

(*Take Care! is an example, found on the website for this blog.)

What’s the Answer?

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010
a California high school

a California high school

Amazing in itself, two bills (SBX5 1 and SBX5 4) passed January 7, 2010, in the California legislature and were signed by Governor Schwarzenegger, aiming to get $700 million from the federal Race To The Top (RTTT) funds.

What will that money be used for?  Most of the California education world only expects it to shore up the fiscal crisis, allowing legislators to say “See, we didn’t take any more money from schools.”

Such manipulation does nothing to address the real crisis in California, the governor and his party’s refusal to consider taxes, the Democratic majority’s inability to pass legislation anyway because of the supermajority (2/3) needed by the legislature and/or from the voters in an election for any tax or finance legislation.

Meantime, the onslaught against teachers continues, pay cuts, furlough days, increases in student/teacher ratio, all of which really are to the detriment of students for whom RTTT funds are supposed to benefit.

Round and round we go, where we stop…

Actually, anyone who studies school reform knows where to stop.  At schools in deep failure, low-performing on exams; poor, poor, poor facilities; unsupported teachers; distracted parents consumed by pay and food for their children.  Whether tax haters like it or not, systemic failure needs money to reverse itself.  This blog has reported suggestions to reorganize without cost, but in the end, it’s dollar bills, used effectively and efficiently.

The legislation is geared to help the lowest-performing schools turn around, but two big issues dominate the legislation.

First, a bill component allows the linkage of school data to teacher evaluation, an ongoing concern with many competing ideas to put such a system in place. Randi Weingarten, AFT president, on Tuesday, January 12, 2010, offered a model in which teachers and other school personnel are part of the team designing the plan.  In the California legislation, collective bargaining is part of the process.

Second, the bill establishes a commission to update the state’s student content standards, not revised since the mid-1990’s.  No plan for teacher evaluation or changes to state testing would occur until the standards are revised.

Another aspect of the legislation has received strong support and strong condemnation. The provision allows parents to petition and state officials to force a school district to overhaul bad schools.

It’s true already that California State officials take over school districts, from community college to urban K-12.  Sometimes parents develop a charter school, so that’s already happening.  What will likely cause the uproar is allowing students to choose any school in the state to attend.

“Open enrollment” offers that possibility.  RTTT suggests that open enrollment policies to allow students to transfer out of schools that fail to raise state test scores high enough, quickly enough, will help.  Bruce Fuller, education and public policy professor UC Berkeley, says it’s just shifting chairs around on the sinking Titanic. (SFChronicle, January6, 2010)

Sounds good for the student, but what about the transportation costs, the cost to the receiving and sending school districts.  Who puts up the money to make it happen?

While teacher’s unions have been wading in to advocate for a number of these provisions, after making sure their objections have been heard, the California Teachers Association (CTA) is adamantly opposed to the “open enrollment” part of the legislation.

It’s not hard to imagine the unintended consequences of the proposal.  It will bring chaos to many school districts, like schools with high transient rates and low test performance, without offering any model for improvement.

Is that the answer to fix failing schools?

(Image by SHM)

Winter Push

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

Now is the time for the big push in a long month to move through the 4th grade curriculum.  Students are in class with few vacation days until mid-February.  How to keep things lively when the days are dark and dreary (and this is California, not wind-swept, snowy Minnesota) is the question.

Part of my gloom comes from the continuing bad news from the district office, preparing teachers for the sad, sad state of affairs in the district’s school budget for next year and probably for this year at “pink slip” days in March.  So far, the gap has widened by another $500,000 just since September.

A letter from our superintendent just before the holidays, illustrating the funding dilemma, suggested going to the Education Coalition website, supported by all the education organizations in the state, to see news from California’s 989 school districts, almost all concerning school finance.  What else to talk about?

I read an article in the Sunday paper that named “public schools, once the nation’s best, … now among the worst” as the first of many problems facing this state.  I think, like ours, most school districts are just trying to stay afloat, reducing the number of teachers, custodians, classified staff; cutting summer school and special programs like GATE; using the parcel tax funds agreed to by the local community to offset huge state budget cuts; then cutting counselors and library funds.

The article advocated a constitutional convention to reorganize the state government, the goal being to untangle the horrible budget fight in the legislature that takes up almost the entire session each year.  Trouble is we have to wait until the November 2010 election to vote just to agree to have a convention.  In the meantime, the fury over public schools keeps building.

(See “”Time for a constitutional convention?” by John Grubb, San Francisco Chronicle, January 3, 2010.)

I suppose the best thing is to remember the humorous picture book I read to my class by the well-known New Yorker cartoonist James Stevenson called “It Could Be Worse!”

With that aphorism in mind, my class is in the middle of studying California missions, certain to lift the gloom of January.  Almost every 4th grader takes a field trip to a mission and learns how California grew into the wealthy agriculture and cattle country of the west, even before gold was discovered.

It’s a wonder how wealthy California now finds itself in such an abysmal fix.

Before the holiday, we finished studying functions, pre-algebra preparation.  Now we’re in the middle of the practical mastery of 2 and 3 digit multiplication, learning to estimate to see if the answer is reasonable.

Should I tell my students that the school district budget is an estimate? Maybe a sudden unrestricted grant will be passed on to our district, resolving some of the bad decisions we must make.

Maybe a rich uncle will endow the district.

Maybe the state legislature will learn to cooperate, like 4th graders are asked to do every day.