Archive for July, 2011

July 30, 2011

If the School Fits: Who’s Pounding the Drum?

This is what rapid growth looks like, in the world of stock images.

Baltimore City is a case study in the push for school choice. In November 2004, with the benefit of pro bono services from global lawyering giant DLA Piper, the founders of City Neighbors Public Charter School succeeded in an effort to eliminate the cap on the number of new charter schools that could open here. By 2005-06, there were 12; by 2007-08, 22. Now there are 34 of about 200. Next year, there will be more. With only 15 schools making Adequate Yearly Progress in 2011, no one can claim that the reforms of the past few years are doing much good. But right now, the school choice story isn’t about quality. It’s about quantity.

Whether or not Baltimore City will turn into another New Orleans, where 61 of 88 public schools were charters as of August 2010, the campaign for the exponential growth of charter schools in the name of “parental choice” is overwhelming. On July 17, the New York Times printed a story on conflicts over a boutique charter school in an affluent New Jersey suburb. This week, Maryland’s Montgomery County approved its first charter school.

In terms of national policy, under the leadership of Arne Duncan, the U.S. Department of Education is “incentivizing” an increase in the number of charter schools by states as a condition of winning Race to the Top funds. Corporate philanthropies are also pushing hard and fast for choice. In February 2011, the Progressive Policy Institute published a report coaching charter school supporters on how to take advantage of acquisition opportunities and eliminate barriers to expansion titled “Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector’s Best.” The paper was written by three education policy consultants at Public Impact with support from the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Walmart. As of this week, the Walton Family Foundation is also the single largest private donor to Teach for America.

Back in Baltimore, another backer of Teach for America, the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), is making big ripples in the political pond. DFER is raising funds for local and state-level candidates who are on board with their board‘s agenda, which includes mayoral control of city school systems, opening more public charter schools, and closing failing schools the way an investor might dump poorly performing stocks. Bill Ferguson, a Teach for America alumnus who bested a 27-year incumbent for the 46th district’s seat in the Maryland state senate (and who has commented on this blog), recognized DFER as one of the earliest supporters of his campaign. DFER board member and hedge-fund manager Whitney Tilson used his education blog last month to rally donors to the aid of Baltimore City mayoral candidate Otis Rolley. (Rolley’s education platform would be right up DFER’s alley, if not for the voucher part.)

Despite a 2009 report by BCPSS stating that the only significant area of superiority in the performance of charters versus traditional public schools is school climate, the school board’s push for choice in the form of charters continues. Given the resounding drumbeat, the number of “schools of choice” in Baltimore could double in the next five years. It’s reasonable to expect that it could more than double.

What then?

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July 22, 2011

If the School Fits: The Hospital Analogy

Like schools, some hospitals have mascots. This adorable photo is from the University of Missouri Children's Hospital.

SteveK writes, “No school can be all things to all children.” There’s a truism. It’s kind of like saying no hospital can be all things to all patients. Here’s a brief meditation on this analogy.

How Is a Public School Like a Hospital?

The challenge of operating a public school and a hospital are similar in that both institutions have an obligation – call it ethical or professional, doesn’t matter – to improve the life of everyone who walks in the door. So they offer a range of programs and they employ a staff of generalists and specialists capable of customizing approaches to a broad range of cases.

Every so often, a hospital is presented with a case that another hospital would be better equipped to handle. The same goes for schools. The story of Matthew Sprowal – the boy who was counseled out of a New York City charter school and into one that turned out to be a great fit – is one example. But here’s where the hospital analogy begins to fray, and with it, this particular argument for school choice.

When a particularly difficult case presents itself, a hospital can arrange for more appropriate treatment at another hospital in our relatively loose health care system. That’s an excellent option to have. But despite the current push for school choice in Baltimore City, and the relatively rapid proliferation of charter schools here, less than a month ago, on June 28, 2011, the Baltimore City School Board approved a policy that strictly limits this ability. Per section I.5:

Once a student is admitted to a public charter school, a student or guardian may not be asked or counseled to leave for reasons related to academic performance, behavior, or attendance unless consistent with City Schools Discipline Policy and City Schools Code of Conduct.

(You can download the Word document of the policy from this page of the Supporting Public Schools of Choice website, thanks to Carol Beck.)

The way school choice works now, the act of choosing is limited to the application process. It’s a consumer model. You go to the market, stand in the aisle, and weigh your options. You may have preferences based on what you’ve heard from friends, or seen online, or read in brochures and ads. But this analogy breaks down, too. Because with schools – unlike with cereal or shoes or cars or any other consumer product – you’re limited to one. And you can’t really switch tomorrow if you don’t like it. (Then there’s the lottery issue to contend with.)

If the argument for choice is that every child is unique, then – barring the absurdity of a school for every child – the system has to provide the individualized attention that would get every student into the “best fit” school. Sometimes that won’t happen on the first try – especially when you’re talking about four- and five-year-olds whose strengths and weaknesses are only beginning to emerge. (This touches criticisms of the kind of testing that goes on in selective private school admissions.) If choice is to work to improve the life of the individual child, then educators – professionals, not just parents or guardians – need to take part in the work of getting every single child into the best school for them. That’s an extremely tall order.

If you want to argue that Matthew Sprowal’s story is a great argument for school choice, you have to concede that it wasn’t simply “choice” that made his life better. It was the involvement of his mother and school administrators in the act of choosing. When you take counseling out of the picture, all you’re left with is a consumerist system driven by competition and market trends. That’s hardly conducive to the kind of collaboration across schools that would be needed to find each student the best fit. Which can leave a thoughtful person wondering if individualizing public education is the true intention of the school choice movement at all.

What do you think?

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July 19, 2011

If the School Fits: Opening a Conversation About School Choice in Baltimore

On July 12, I posted some thoughts on a New York Times article by Michael Winerip about what happened when a charter school “counseled out” a five-year-old boy. Thanks to a fighter of a mom, the child was counseled into a neighborhood school that turned out to be a great fit.

Critics of status quo education reform policies pounced on the story because 1) it’s case in which public trumped charter and small class size trumped larger, 2) it’s a perfect example of how charter schools weed out students who don’t fit their mold, 3) it put a sympathetic face on an argument that’s too often lost in the numbers – numbers that show charter schools enroll fewer homeless students and students living in poverty, fewer students with special needs, and fewer English language learners than “traditional” public schools. The Winerip story adds the human dimension.

I opined that the story is a good argument for individual attention – by which I meant the kind of attention that got this student into the right school for him. It’s also a good argument for differentiated instruction – teaching to all levels and types of learner in the same classroom. But, I opined, the question of creating a public school system rife with choices is still subject to debate.

I got a response that set my brain working. Here it is:

Actually, this article is a solid argument for schools of choice. No school can be all things to all children. The schools involved and the family in this situation have discovered this and the child is where he can now get the best services. I see this as a win.

Those of us who have the luxury of using independent schools have known this for some time; we just have the resources and interest to choose the right schools for our children. With charter schools offering options, now everyone else has the same benefits.

That’s a lot to unpack. Over the next few days, I’ll be posting a series of reflections on school choice in hopes of opening up the conversation. In the meantime, post your reactions. And subscribe to stay tuned.

July 12, 2011

A Taste of Cherry Picking

Michael Winerip’s piece in the New York Times this Sunday, “Message From a Charter School: Thrive or Transfer,” tells the story of a mother whose bright but sometimes unruly son – age 5 – was counseled out of Harlem Success Academy 3. He was placed in Public School 75, where he is “thriving.”

Matthew’s story raises perhaps the most critical question in the debate about charter schools: do they cherry-pick students, if not by gaming the admissions process, then by counseling out children who might be more expensive or difficult to educate — and who could bring down their test scores, graduation rates and safety records?

This story plays right into the hands of the education reform backlash because it points to a very real difference between charter schools and public schools – the difference between schools that are exclusive and those that are inclusive. It’s exclusivity, if that’s the right word, that is part of charter schools’ appeal to parents who worry about the effects of sending their children to the default school – the one that’s open to everyone (or, rather, anyone) in a delineated area on a city map.

Of course charter schools filter. That’s why they’re perceived to have better climates than regular public schools. And it’s the climate – not test scores or teacher quality or track records – that leads to oversubscription, and the lotteries that make getting into a charter school seem like more of a treat than it might prove itself to be.

Exclusive versus inclusive is one way to frame the difference between charters and “traditional” publics. But it’s not the only lesson to be gleaned from this story.

Another is the lesson of the benefits of individual attention. While statistics might show that Harlem Success Academy – a chain of schools – raises performance levels on tests of reading and math, each child is unique. Some cherries are bigger than others. Some riper. Some slower to mature. Some easier to bruise and faster to spoil.

One size does not fit all. 

That’s an argument for differentiating instruction within a classroom. Whether or not it’s a winning argument for public school choice – the turning of public school systems into a marketplace of schools representing an array of educational philosophies – is a separate question.

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July 7, 2011

The Mis-Elevation of Otis Rolley

At the Otis Rolley forum at Huber Memorial Church in Govans last Wednesday, with about 45 people attending, there’s one topic up for discussion: education. And Otis Rolley, the youngest contender in the mayor’s race, seems to understand that he’s playing with fire. To ease into what promises to be a passionate conversation, the evening begins with an innocuous, looped video reel of the candidate against a calming blue backdrop explaining the basics of his education platform.

As the interview plays, we meet the candidate himself, in shirt, tie, and pleated pants. He shakes hands. Soon the video stops and Rolley begins to offer what he calls his four-point education plan:

  • Mayoral control of Baltimore City schools
  • Vouchers for students in the five worst performing middle schools
  • Fifty new or renovated schools in ten years through public/private partnerships
  • Improvements to the Maryland charter school laws

There isn’t much new here, and certainly nothing innovative. But there is a word that Rolley expects the audience will think is “dirty.” The word is “vouchers.”

Notably, the information packet on each seat whitewashes it with the term “opportunity scholarships.” As mayor, Rolley would set aside $25 million from the city school budget of over $1 billion to fund $10,000 scholarships (vouchers) toward tuition and other costs at private and parochial schools for students in Baltimore’s worst performing middle schools.

While “vouchers” may be a dirty word in some circles, it is a magic word for tapping into the fundraising potential of education reformers like Whitney Tilson, a self-described hedge-fund manager by day and education reformer by night. Tilson made a bundle ahead of the housing bubble by shorting real estate, according to CNBC’s Fast Money. Tilson, who earned a B.A. and M.B.A. from Harvard, attributes his interest in education reform to a personal connection to Teach for America founder and CEO Wendy Kopp, who befriended Wilson’s brother while in college at Princeton. Tilson is on the board of KIPP NYC, a charter school in a chain founded by Teach for America alumni. Otis Rolley was on the board of KIPP in Baltimore. Hence the connection. Whitney Tilson lives in Manhattan with his wife and three daughters. He is not a citizen of Baltimore. But since Rolley announced his education platform, Tilson has been urging his readers to “join” him in supporting Otis Rolley to the tune of up to $4,000, the maximum contribution.

Rolley, clearly, isn’t interested in turning either his voucher proposal or his education program into a subject of debate. With our failing public schools valiantly continuing to fail, Rolley is more interested in winning over those parents who are desperate for alternatives. His answers to the questions audience members submitted reflect that. Here are a few extracts from the Q & A.

Question one: As mayor, will you ensure that every public school offers recess?

“I will commit as mayor to push that agenda with my superintendent and school board,” says Rolley, who was surprised to learn that not every public school offers recess.

Question two: How is your education platform different from the current mayor’s?

“I have one,” says Rolley. He then offers a few other points of contrast, painting the incumbent as the candidate who wants to “stick with what works.”

Question three: How will you continue Dr. Alonso’s success?

Rolley reiterates the importance of mayoral control of the school system, accountability, and having a staff of people who are “committed, qualified, and courageous.”

Question four: Please explain public-private partnerships.

Rolley attempts to explain. He says something about the reciprocal benefit to corporations of investing in school buildings. The idea is that good schools will generate employees for the private entities that help finance them. He uses the word “pipeline” to describe the way a working school system will prepare graduates to join the workforce. (There is a case to be made that better learning environments make for better educational outcomes. But that’s not the case Rolley makes.)

Question five: Will you use the money generated from slots for schools?

“Yes,” Rolley says.

Question six: What three things would you like to see change in the life of city students?

  1. A mayor who cares.
  2. A commitment across the board to success.
  3. A belief that every student is worthy of greatness.

Rolley asks and answers many other questions. There are a few from BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development). There is a compelling suggestion from a man in the back about how Baltimore might build relationships with other jurisdictions in Maryland that are also underfunded because of their meager tax base.

In answer to another point Rolley says he is not for an elected school board, because elected officials might use their seats as stepping stones to higher office. He insists that accountability should be with the mayor – who would presumably be held accountable at the polls every four years. He says we need to make the charter school law more amenable to outside operators who have been deterred by the current law.

There are some other Tweetables:

“I want them [meaning students] to be in buildings that say they are worthwhile.”

“We need air conditioners. Amen.”

“We are more broken than we are broke.”

“There are 249 neighborhoods, not just Downtown.”

There are mentions of the three three “A”s, to describe the building blocks of a great education that are just as important as the three “R”s:

  • Academics
  • Arts
  • Athletics

And the three “C”s, to describe the people he’d be sure to have around him:

  • Courageous
  • Competent
  • Committed

There is a great question about how you convince the two-thirds of Baltimore residents who don’t think schools are a priority that they are. Otis Rolley doesn’t think that will be too hard, for a number of reasons. But after a point I stop taking notes. That point comes a few minutes after Rolley says,

“Much of what I’m recommending is an uphill battle.”

Judging from this meeting, getting Rolley to speak frankly about public education is going to be an uphill battle. Rolley has mastered the handshake, and he’s learned how to buzz-up his language with phrases like “agenda,” “accountability,” and “pipeline.” He’s even got a punny tagline for a man named Otis: “Elevate Baltimore.”

But as a pro-neighborhood school mom in a pro-charter school world, I want a hearing. And I’m hopeful I can get it from a young politician who – as the author of Baltimore City’s master plan – is probably better equipped than anyone to see the crucial role that a great zoned public school can play in building a neighborhood.

So why is he promoting an education platform that seems to ignore the specific needs of those 248 other neighborhoods he promises to elevate? I submit a similar question on a 2-by-3 inch notecard and toward the end he gets to it:

Given that the city-wide model of charter school enrollment undermines the potential for neighborhood schools to strengthen the surrounding community, why are you – a city planner and a parent of a student in a traditional public school – pushing to promote charter schools (which are proliferating at a rapid clip as it is)?

Rolley disagrees with the premise that charter schools are undermining neighborhood public schools. He gives the education reformers’ line on choice. He believes we should have strong charter schools and strong neighborhood schools – a line I’ve heard from people who represent Alonso’s BCPSS. And like those representatives, Otis Rolley seems to be blind to the fact that those two goals are irreconcilable.

But before I can speak, an African American woman stands up. She explains that Govans and Guilford, two neighborhood public schools nearby, are underenrolled and losing money because of the recent founding of a number of charter schools in the area. She explains that when a school loses a student, it loses funds, because the funds go with that child. If a school is underenrolled, it can’t operate the way it should. She explains that a two-tiered system is forming, and that students left behind in neighborhood schools are worse off as a result of the choice presented by charter schools.

Her point isn’t that charter schools are the “bogie man,” as Rolley keeps insisting they aren’t. Her point is that Rolley can’t claim that charters are having no effect on the viability of neighborhood schools. It’s an uncomfortable fact that politicians from Rolley to Obama tend to shy away from: charters tap students and sap resources from neighborhood schools that have roots in living, breathing communities.

The woman says there needs to be a cap on the number of charter schools that can be founded in Baltimore City. Rolley responds that he doesn’t believe there needs to be a cap. Not that it matters. There isn’t a cap. What’s most interesting about this exchange is that the woman who rose to speak sends her child to a charter school. Rolley says, see, you are benefitting from choice. But she isn’t buying it.

The free-marketeers who are pushing for choice will say that consumers get what consumers want. Bad schools go under, and people flock to good schools. That market-based outlook ignores the basic foundation of public education: It’s free. It takes all comers. No lottery. No staying up late to be first in line. No hedging bets against real estate bubbles. There is no front of the line and no back of the bus. American public education is the great equalizer. Or that’s how it ought to be.

After two hours of platitudes and baseless beliefs about what works, I get the sense that Rolley’s grasp on the issues is more tenuous than mine. I also don’t know where he stands. Is he a free-marketeer who feels that the market should determine which neighborhoods wind up keeping zoned public schools and which don’t? Or does he believe that zoned schools are worth lifting up in a city that is ultimately a mosaic of 249 neighborhoods?

Right now, he seems to think we can elevate Baltimore by mimicking failed policies from other U.S. cities. That’s a shame. Here’s a candidate who has the potential to turn Baltimore into an example that other cities can follow. If he gets his head on straight, he can change the tune on education reform in this country. But all we’re getting is so much elevator music.

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If the School Fits: Who’s Pounding the Drum?

Roll(ey) Call: Why the Frontrunner for Mayor Needs to Revise His Education Plan ASAP

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Baltimore City Charter Schools

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (Sort of) My Neighborhood Public School

Why I Don’t Want a Charter School in My Backyard (Not just yet. Not so fast.)

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