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Are we creating dual school systems with charters, vouchers?

Charter Schools

This was written by Bill McDiarmid, dean and alumni distinguished professor of the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

By Bill McDiarmid

Recently I participated in a panel discussion following a showing of the film “Waiting for Superman .” The film is deeply moving. Only a heart of granite would remain unmoved by the plight of the children and caretakers as they learn they would not get into their schools of choice.

In the discussion, Jim Johnson, a UNC-Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School professor and founder of the Union Independent School in Durham, made a crucial observation. He noted that the debate around public charter schools versus traditional public schools, or private versus public schools, deflected us from the underlying issue: the plight of children who have no adult advocates.

As Johnson pointed out, despite failing to win a place in their school of choice, the students featured in the film all had a least one adult in their lives who knowledgeably advocated for them and cared deeply about their learning opportunities.

Arguably, the success that some charter schools and other independent schools have achieved may be attributed in large part to a common stipulation: that students’ caretakers participate actively in their children’s education. Indeed, the fact that students in these alternative schools have caretakers who actively seek out the best educational opportunity for their charges contributes substantially to the positive outcomes of the schools.

A large body of research reinforces what common sense tells us: The more closely adults monitor students’ academic progress, the better the students do.

A key element in China’s success on international measures of student achievement has been the country’s “one child” policy in which couples generally are allowed to have only one child. As a result, Chinese students typically have at least six adults, in addition to their teachers, closely monitoring their school performance — two parents and four grandparents.

Research conducted at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education has found similar results.

A study by faculty member Judith Meece and graduate student Matt Irving showed that adult supervision of students taking online courses dramatically increases successful completion of the courses. A program designed by faculty member Steve Knotek in which he helps Latina mothers support their children as they enter first grade demonstrates the positive impact the work has on the children’s success in school.

One consequence of the current push to create more charter schools and provide vouchers to subsidize attendance at private schools is that students who enjoy high levels of informed adult support and advocacy will benefit most.

Their peers who lack such support, through no fault of their own, will be left behind.

The concentration of adult-supported students in charter schools and voucher-funded private schools will virtually ensure their success — and enable advocates of these alternative schools to tout their superiority.

On this path, we will, indeed, end up with two school systems.

As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954, separate schools are inherently unequal. In this case, the divide would not be explicitly by race but by social circumstances. Students whose caretakers have the time, knowledge, and initiative to navigate the system of charter schools and vouchers would clearly be advantaged. The demographic data — race, ethnicity, first-language, and so on — typically used to contend that charter school students resemble those of local public schools tell us little about the most critical descriptor: Level of adult advocacy and support.

For a variety of economic reasons, many poor families — who are typically as passionate about their children’s success as are middle- and upper-income families — may be unable to offer the same level of advocacy and support as higher income families.

What kind of citizens will dual school systems produce? Indeed, what kind of society?

The early advocates of public education in this country — Benjamin Rush, Thomas Jefferson, the Working Men’s Associations in Philadelphia, Boston and New York, as well as African-American and reformer-dominated legislatures in Southern states after the Civil War — all recognized that for democracy to work, students needed to be educated in environments with children from a range of socio-economic backgrounds.

If we’re going to encourage and fund private and semi-private schools, populated by children who have adults deeply involved in their lives, what happens to the other children?

Do we care enough about our children – and our democracy – to provide every child with the adult advocacy and support that it is our ethical and civic responsibility to provide?

The answer to that question is key to the future of our society.

The Washington Post, June 3, 2011


Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says he’s inspired by New Orleans schools

Charter Schools

On a visit to New Orleans on Friday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan repeatedly used superlatives to describe the strides the city’s schools have made since Hurricane Katrina, saying he draws inspiration from the dynamism of local school reformers.

Duncan called New Orleans the most improved school district in the country, terming its progress “remarkable” and “stunning.” While other cities have had trouble implementing major changes, Duncan said, New Orleans educators have shown “amazing courage and no complacency” in radically remaking the public schools.

“I continue to be in awe of the sense of urgency, the sense of commitment, the entire community getting behind the schools,” said Duncan, who led the Chicago public schools before being appointed education secretary by President Barack Obama.

After Katrina, most of the city’s schools were seized by the state-run Recovery School District, with fewer than 20 relatively high-performing schools remaining with the Orleans Parish School Board. The teachers union has become largely irrelevant, and nearly three-quarters of schools are now independently managed charters, giving rise to the first majority-charter city in the country. With neighborhood attendance zones abolished, students can theoretically attend almost any school in the city.

Test scores have risen rapidly, but some schools, particularly those directly run by the RSD, are still performing abysmally. The changes have been controversial, amid complaints that the most vulnerable students, including those with special needs, are being left behind. In December, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved a plan that will allow a few high-performing schools to decide whether to return to the local school board, with the rest remaining under state control.

It works for New Orleans

New Orleans is a positive example for the rest of the country, but the answer for other school districts is not necessarily to adopt the same charter-heavy structure, Duncan said.

“Good charter schools are part of the solution, and bad charters are part of the problem,” he said. “It’s about great teachers and great principals. You have a charter school here, a district school here. No second-grader knows whether I go to a charter school or a traditional school or a gifted school. Does my teacher care about me, are there high expectations, am I safe, is my principal pushing me?”

Duncan began the day at KIPP Believe College Prep, a charter elementary school on South Carrollton Avenue, where he discussed the $28 million Investing in Innovation grant awarded in August to the nonprofit New Schools for New Orleans to turn around up to 19 failing schools.

Under Duncan, the Department of Education has launched several high-profile competitions that award money to states or school districts based on how well they will implement a slate of reforms. Louisiana was considered a front-runner for a Race to the Top grant, since many of the post-Katrina changes in New Orleans parallel Duncan’s agenda. But the state lost, a result Duncan has publicly bemoaned. On Friday at KIPP, he reiterated his disappointment, saying Louisiana’s failure “broke his heart.”

On Friday, Louisiana received an $11.6 million School Improvement Grant, awarded to states based on their student populations. While the initial grant was not competitive, each state will allocate the funds to the school districts with the best plans for either closing low-performing schools or implementing major changes at those schools.

Change at the top

Duncan’s visit came at a time of transition for New Orleans’ schools. Earlier this week, Louisiana Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek announced that 35-year-old John White, a deputy chancellor in the New York City schools, will take over for Paul Vallas, who is leaving to work on school reform in Chile and Haiti.

After delivering the keynote address at the Education Writers Association conference at the Intercontinental Hotel, Duncan went back Uptown to Loyola University for a forum on how to get more young people, especially black males, to become teachers. He shared the stage with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Saints defensive back Leigh Torrence and several local educators.

Teaching is a rewarding but difficult profession, the panelists said. Landrieu’s daughter, Grace, is in her first year as a Teach for America fellow, teaching middle-schoolers at the all-boys charter school Miller-McCoy Academy in eastern New Orleans.

“Her job is really, really hard, and she’s struggling to learn how to do it,” Landrieu said.

For young teachers like his daughter to stay in the profession, rather than leaving in a few years, they need the resources — textbooks, paper, pencils — to do their jobs, as well as supportive relationships with school administrators, Landrieu said.

Nola.com, April 8, 2011


School choice, but few real options

Charter Schools, School Choice

Every summer, an increasingly common event occurs across the nation – parents open a letter telling them that their child’s school failed to meet benchmarks set by the federal No Child Left Behind law. As a result, the letter explains, they have the right to send their child to another public school if space is available.

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Charter schools have given New Orleans a fresh start in education

Charter Schools

When Hurricane Katrina struck five years ago, it displaced families and destroyed schools. And the storm unwittingly provided a chance to reinvent public education in a failing school district. Between classes at Sophie B. Wright Charter School, principal Sharon Clark talks to students about a dance. The Uptown New Orleans school became a charter before Hurricane Katrina and has made measurable progress.

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D.C. offers lesson in Charter Schools 101

Charter Schools

The next crop of would-be D.C. charter school operators gathered in a gray conference room on 14th Street one night last week, more than 30 hopeful men and women, each with his or her own pitch. “Hello,” began one woman. “I am a founder of Believe Charter School. We believe every child in D.C. has the right to a high-quality, first-class education.”

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Charter students double in a decade

Charter Schools

The number of children in Massachusetts charter schools has more than doubled over the past decade as parents, worried about the quality of their children’s education, have increasingly sought alternatives to traditional public schools. Charter school enrollment climbed to 27,484 this year, up from 12,518 in 2000, according to data from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The Globe examined enrollment trends in more than 380 school districts across the state.

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Lauded Harlem Schools Have Their Own Problems

Charter Schools, Quality

President Obama created a grant program to copy his block-by-block approach to ending poverty. The British government praised his charter schools as a model. And a new documentary opening across the country revolves around him: Geoffrey Canada, the magnetic Harlem Children’s Zone leader with strong ideas about how American education should be fixed.

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D.C. charter schools face unfunded mandates

Charter Schools

D.C. schools open their doors Monday morning for the start of a new year, and charter parents and advocates say a new problem is compounding an old one. This school year, the D.C. Healthy Schools Act mandating new feeding and physical-education policies takes effect. But charter schools are scrambling to meet some requirements of the new law, which says schools must feed students locally produced fruits and vegetables and offer students overall healthier meals. The act also raises the bar on physical fitness.

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Studies support charter schools’ performance

Charter Schools

Charter schools might not offer a magic pill that can cure all of Kentucky’s public education ailments. However, it’s tough to ignore the growing amount — and credibility — of evidence that charter schools offer opportunity for change that could transform the lives of many of Kentucky’s neediest students.

The charter concept has existed for only 20 years. So opponents for a long time often claimed charter schools lacked proven success.

But parental attitudes are changing. Parents of children in underperforming schools throughout the country are increasingly taking advantage of charter schools. More than 1.5 million students now attend 5,000 charter schools in the United States.

Critics have drawn on a charter-challenged public to convince reform-illiterate legislators and the media that charters represent “uppity” private schools that threaten public education. But residents and many legislators who represent them are “learning” the truth:

■ Charter schools are publicly funded schools managed in a way that gives many students falling through the cracks of traditional public schools a chance to avoid welfare rolls, street corners, prisons or worse.

■ These schools often do it for 33 percent to 50 percent of the cost of their public school counterparts, and in schools with Taj Mahal facilities that lack costly bells and whistles.

But you can’t always judge a school by its facilities. And you also can’t ascertain charter-school success by listening to fear mongering.

Mary Ann Blankenship, executive director of the Kentucky Education Association, recently wrote in her KEA News column: “Research by Stanford University shows that most students in charter schools perform about the same or worse than similar students in regular schools.”

Blankenship wasn’t the only one to jump on the study conducted in June 2009 by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcome. But she joined many embarrassed by data found deeper in the report: Students in charter schools for at least three years outperformed their peers in traditional schools. They closed gaping academic-achievement chasms between black and white students.

One of the problems with Stanford’s first study involved a flaw in its student sample: 60 percent of the national sample was first-year students. Like any remedy for a long-standing illness, charters take time, and the first Stanford study showed that.

Blankenship wrote that charters were “an unproven strategy.”

Ironically, Blankenship wrote that in January — about the same time a second Stanford report focused on the performance of charter schools in New York City.

The respected Education Week publication summarized the second report: “On a school-by-school basis, 51 percent of New York City charter schools are producing academic gains in math for students that are statistically larger than students would have achieved in regular public schools.”

Education Week also reported: “Black and Hispanic students (in New York City), as well as struggling learners, do better on average in charter schools than they would have in their regular public schools.”

Look at KIPP Academy Nashville: “The average fifth-grader begins two grades below the national averages,” stated a recent report on the charter school by Paducah’s WPSD-TV. But KIPP Academy Nashville doesn’t close the gap with magic.

Students attend school until 5 p.m. each weekday, on Saturdays and during the summer. Is it any wonder that more than 90 percent of these students scored “advanced” or “proficient” on the standardized Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests?

“Educrats” and union bosses might want you to ignore these results.

But I’m betting the thousands of Kentucky parents with children trapped in failing schools would render a favorable verdict about the need to bring charter schools to the commonwealth.

Lexington Herald Leader June 21 2010


School “choice” is a copout

Charter Schools, School Choice, School Vouchers

If I have two apples from the same tree — the same color, same ripeness, same size, same taste, and same nutrition — “choice” between them is meaningless. Public education, all growing out of the same government “tree” and mandated to be equal, is nonetheless being subjected to “choice.” Why? Because public schools are not equal and interchangeable like the apples, but directly reflect the socioeconomic inequalities of our larger society — and so are, themselves, unequal.

This unacceptable, undemocratic inequality in a public system results in part from a uniquely American phenomenon: the funding of public education through local property taxes. Such funding obviously results in the wealthier communities with the higher tax base getting better schools than the poorer communities with the lower tax base. Throughout the U.S., people strive to move into upper-end communities to give their kids the advantage of the “better” public schools — the kids of the less affluent be damned.

This distortion of a public system is clearly not working to the benefit of our greater society. In Europe, for example, where public education is centralized and funded directly by the government, students far outperform U.S. kids in basic skills such as reading, writing, math, science, history, etc. Recognizing our educational delinquency, we employ all sorts of gimmicks to catch up: “No Child Left Behind” legislation, charter schools,vouchers, and that wonderfully American paean to freedom, “choice”!

We needn’t document the disaster — to students, teachers, and the system itself — of the “No Child Left Behind” debacle. It was so bad that our new government is desperately trying to reform it — probably to no avail in the long run. As to charter schools — which have been espoused by our president — an in-depth Stanford University study of the nation’s 5,000 charter schools revealed that “fewer than one-fifth of charter schools nationally offered a better education than comparable local schools, almost half offered an equivalent education, and more than a third, 37 percent, were ‘significantly worse'” (The New York Times, 5/02/10). The people’s government, instead of addressing the underlying problems of the people’s educational system, abdicated its reponsibilites and turned the people’s money over to entrepreneurs to solve what only the government could. And of course, they didn’t — thereby wasting the people’s money yet again.

The voucher proposal is another avoidance. Instead of doing what should be done to bring underperforming schools up to standard, the government will pay parents to have their kids leave those schools. School “choice” is another ultimately ineffective variation on the same theme.

This is not to suggest that solving America’s public education problem is simple. The profound economic inequalities in our society manifest not only in the unequal funding of public education, but in the educability of the different social classes. The more affluent people are usually the more educated, the more cultivated, the more “successful,” and the better role models for education. This group, through example, imbues its children with higher expectations and aspirations, provides a more propitious environment for education, and, through its elevated position in society, opens more doors for them. The not-so-privileged majority do not fare as well in school and may need extra programs to bring them up to par.

Should we submit to these unfortunate realities and interminably cobble together a patchwork of ineffective “reforms” to make it look like we’re doing something? Many think so. For example, in a historic case in which the City of New York sued the State of New York for more educational dollars, the judges ruled against the city. Their rationale was astonishing in that they had the courage to publicly articulate it: the city had no further obligation than to provide its children with the rudiments of “reading, writing, & ‘rithmetic” needed to perform society’s most menial tasks! In other words, keep the poor majority dumb and doing the dirty work while the affluent minority continues to coopt the earth’s abundance.

These class divisions will not suddenly stop imposing themselves on our public education system. But because it is public education, we can neither bow to an inequitable status quo nor serve it. Our obligation is to create, as far as we can, equal apples from the same tree. Every public school must have the same facilities, the same highly trained and equally-paid teachers, the same basic curricula, the same athletic, cultural, and extracurricular programs, and the same tutorial programs. In other words, we must arrive at the highest possible educational standard and universalize it — a true reform that would render school “choice” meaningless.

It’s discouraging, within the context of these overall social realities, to hear a professional educator like Darren Houck, headmaster of the Mountain School at Winhall, lead the chorus for school “choice” that perpetuates the underlying inequities rather than addressing them (Manchester Journal, 4/30/10). It’s hard to see his position doing anything more than hawking the kind of boutique education he’s in charge of.

Andrew Torre, The Manchaster Journal, 20 May 2010

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