Charter Schools

Those Left Behind

Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Secretary of Education, has made charter schools a cornerstone of his plan to reform public education. I wish he would explain why.

I’d particularly like Duncan to comment on an emotional outburst that occurred several years ago during a course I co-taught for new teachers at Cal. State East Bay.

I’d invited a program graduate to return and speak who had, after only three years in the trenches of Oakland’s schools, already founded his own charter school.

I’ll call him Che, because, like the Latin American revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevarra, he’d evinced uncommon ability and passion, even as a student-teacher. “Urban schools are designed to fail their students,” he’d claimed. “They’re part of a conspiracy of the ruling white oligarchy to keep minorities down.”

It was no surprise when Che soon became fed up with the middle school where he first taught. It was remarkable, though, when he recruited five like-minded colleagues to help him start an alternative school just a few blocks away.

Che and his young faculty worked with a dedication that left me dumbfounded. They spent their summers educating neighborhood families about the charter school, inviting one and all to enroll, but making it clear that every parent and every child would have to adhere to a strict contract of responsibilities.

During the school year, Che and his zealous teachers labored more than twelve hours a day to ensure each child both faced rigorous challenges and received enough individualized support to meet them. Putting into practice Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, they endeavored not just to teach students academic knowledge and skill, but to transform their image of themselves and the world. 
Thus, Che created an almost unimaginable oasis of hope for some of Oakland’s apparently hopeless children.

I doubted, however, that Che’s vision would be sustainable, much less replicable. For instance, could he and his staff continue to make their school the center of their lives even as they grew older, perhaps fell in love and created families and children of their own? Could any but a few other Oakland schools ever hope to follow their model?

But, what an inspiring speaker Che would be for the new teachers in my class!

Or, so I’d thought. Once Che finished his presentation, one of those teachers raised a hand to respond, his voice tremulous with fury:

“I’m really happy to hear you and your school are doing so well. But I just started teaching at your former school. What the hell are my colleagues and I supposed to do now that you’ve lured away most of our best teachers, strongest students, and involved parents? The children you left behind, my students, are no less deserving than yours. What do you have to say to them who now languish in the school your charter devastated? What do you have to say to me? Should I, too, abandon them and my school?”

After a stunned silence, Che replied only that he’d given up on Oakland’s public schools and so had attempted to save at least a few kids from them.

I wonder: Is that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s answer as well?

Where’s the Beef?

President Obama has asserted, both as candidate and now as President, that his administration would base all policy on evidence, not ideology.

 With this in mind, I must reiterate the question I asked in my previous column, Why has U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made promoting more charter schools a cornerstone of the Obama Administration’s Educational policy? There is little evidence to support them.

First, some background: The Charter School Movement began in 1988. Its stated purpose was to free a few, select schools from the federal, state, and local bureaucracy hampering public education, and so enable them to pilot educational innovations that could one day spread to all schools everywhere.

Charters were obviously never intended to compete with other public schools since they enjoyed significant advantages: they tended to be smaller; they inevitably skimmed from neighboring schools the best teachers, students, and parents; they often received substantial additional outside funding; and, of course, they weren’t hobbled by federal/state/local micromanagement.

One would expect that, even if charters implemented no new strategy at all, they would still outperform public schools nearby; and that, similarly, those neighboring schools’ achievement would diminish, even though they’d done nothing differently, either.

You see, public education paid a high price for charters. For that reason, the onus was on charters, yes, to excel; but do so by testing some new educational approach that was both sustainable and replicable, one that would very soon benefit other schools. Charters were to be laboratories. They existed to serve other schools, not compete with them.

Now, more than twenty years later, there are many impressive charter schools. (I’ll feature at least one Bay Area charter in my next column.) But have charters justified their existence by transforming public education with their innovations?

The only justification for charters I’ve read has been that some of them have achieved higher than compatriot public schools. (Well, duh!)

The surprise, perhaps even the scandal is that research on overall charter school achievement has been mixed at best. In fact, the most recent, comprehensive and authoritative study by Stanford University’s Center Research of Educational Outcomes found that only 17% of charter schools outperformed their regular public school counterparts, while 37% actually lagged significantly behind. Black and Hispanic students generally faired worse in charter schools.

Not only have charter schools failed their mission, the vast majority haven’t even excelled despite all their advantages.

Nonetheless, at a moment when we ought to be rethinking the whole notion of charter schools—their purpose, their effect, their disappointing performance—Education Secretary Duncan insists that all states increase the number of them because…well, he hasn’t really explained why.

The Bush Administration made no pretext of basing its policies on evidence (No Child Left Behind being the prime example of its evidence-less education policy), following, instead, neo-conservative, often religious-right ideology.

The Obama Administration, however, has pledged to do otherwise. So, if Duncan wants more charters, we really ought to demand of him, “Where’s the beef?” Where’s the evidence?

"A School Where I Could Be Happy" 

“I wanted to build a school where I as a teacher would be happy,” explained Diane Tavenner, founder of Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City, which opened its doors in September, 2003.

Tavenner had worked for a decade in regular public schools. As Assistant Principal for Curriculum and Instruction at Mountain View High, she’d increased access to advanced placement and honors programs to more—and, significantly, more diverse—students. But still she saw too many who ought to have made it to college left behind. And so she remained unhappy.

Tavenner is happy now. 96% of Summit High’s graduating class last June were accepted to at least one 4-year university. Well over half of them were the first in their families to head off to college.

How can she and her charter succeed like this where so many other public schools cannot?

Of course, Tavenner had the advantage of the clean slate a charter provided, the ability to, as she recalls, “design the school from the ground up.

“I knew that the single most important factor in a child’s success is the quality of his or her teacher. My goal was to place a high-performing teacher in every single class, every period of every day. So, most of our resources went into our faculty.

“Summit’s vision is simple: attract, develop, and retain such high performing teachers. Then, enable them to make real relationships with their students. And, of course, hold everyone to high standards.”

First, Tavenner provided all her teachers 40 days of professional development outside the classroom every year. She gave those teaching the same subject a common prep-period, fostering daily collaboration.

Then, she set those teachers up for success by providing them a block schedule of longer classes fewer times a week, a class size of no more than 25 students, and no more than 100 student contacts a day.

By comparison, a typical teacher in my district’s Logan High, with a student population exceeding 4,000, faces at least 35 students per class and as many as 180 students daily.

At Summit, close relationships between teachers and students are the norm. The school is small, with only 100 students per grade. All of them have a Personalized Learning Plan they themselves craft together with their parents and their mentor—a teacher who oversees their progress for all their four years at Summit. No teacher mentors more than 18 students, ensuring none them fall though the cracks.

Teachers stay after school to tutor and to participate in school government—with all major decisions including the budget decided by consensus. Struggling students and anyone who misses even a single assignment are required to stay after as well.

“It’s a difficult adjustment for the freshman class,” Tavenner laughs. “But the students and their parents get with the program soon enough.”

Tavenner has succeeded in creating a school where she—and everyone—can be happy, as long as they are willing to work hard together.

It’s no wonder Summit Preparatory Charter High School can accept by lottery only a quarter of those applying. Or that, given this demand, Tavenner has opened another similar charter this fall, and has four more on the drawing board.

Giving Up

To charter or not to charter? That is the question.

Hamlet pondered whether to battle “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or to just give up. My fear is that, in pushing for more charter schools, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has given up.

Charters never really became laboratories for innovation. They simply adopted the “new ideas” all public schools would if only they had the freedom and the funds: longer school days and years, smaller schools and class sizes, careful selection of motivated, gifted teachers, strict accountability for both students and their parents, site-based management….

Charters have such freedom. However, their claims to operate with fewer state funds than most public schools are spurious. For one, charters usually receive substantial outside support. Even more significant since salaries account for more than 90% of most schools’ budgets, charters typically employ younger, far-less expensive faculty, and turn them over after only four years, thus keeping expenses artificially low.

In other words, charters attract our best new teachers but quickly burn them out.

This is reform?

True reform would address the real and enduring problems plaguing public education, such as the fact that the teaching profession generally attracts our least qualified college graduates; that the worst of them too often staff inner city schools; that schools stand more segregated by race and class than ever; that they follow the same factory model as a century ago….

Many (certainly not all) charters, such as Summit Preparatory High School which I featured in my last column, offer at least a few of our inner-city children a way out of an obviously broken and shamelessly unjust system of public schools.

Indeed, although one recent Stanford University study found that most charters, despite all their advantages, fail to outperform regular public schools, another documented how New York City charters narrow the achievement gap between urban and suburban schools by an astonishing 86%.

If a poor, single mother pleads, “I just want my kids to have a shot at a good life,” and if some charter schools offer them that shot, who am to say anything other than “Bravo”?

Let’s be honest, though: Charters embody the Harriet Tubman approach to reform: Duncan will send to our beleaguered inner-cities more charter “Moseses” to save a least a few more kids, even though those charters will increase the challenges and suffering of those left behind, as I explained in my first two columns in this series.

I would rather Duncan emulate Frederick Douglass who boldly assailed the entire immoral institution that made Tubman necessary.

However, I find none of Douglass’ outrage, courage, and vision in Duncan’s other strategy for education reform, his $4 billion “Race to the Top” stimulus (which, incidentally, is less than 1% of the Defense Department’s budget). It merely throws money at and seeks to tweak an educational system that is hopelessly flawed.

Perhaps Duncan knows this. His push for additional charters reveals a cynical, desperate, and ultimately despairing approach to school reform: Instead of “No child left behind,” he quietly whimpers, “Fewer children left behind.”

To reform or not to reform? I fear Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has given up before he’s even begun.

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