Posts tagged ‘parents’

August 31, 2011

Who Says Education Reform Is the ‘Civil Rights Issue of Our Time’?

Little Rock, August 20, 1959. Rally at state capitol, protesting the integration of Central High School. (Image via Oxford African American Studies Center, courtesy of the Library of Congress)

“The civil rights issue of our time.” “The civil rights issue of this generation.” “The civil rights issue of this era.” You’d have to be living in a soundproof booth to avoid the echo of civil rights talk these days. Only it isn’t coming from civil rights leaders. (Just as the language of “choice” isn’t coming from liberal feminists anymore.) It’s coming from Juan Williams (watch) and Steve Brill (listen) around issues of education reform – particularly school choice and, per Slate, “breaking unions’ grip on public education.” 

John McCain made the very same claim about education during his presidential campaign. Here’s a little Q&A from the Saddleback Church Civil Forum on the Presidency hosted by evangelical pastor Rick Warren in August 2008, the first forum held with the candidates after they’d become their parties’ presumptive nominees:

WARREN: Let’s talk about education. America ranks 19th in high school graduations, but we’re first in incarcerations. Everybody says they want more accountability in schools.

MCCAIN: Um-hum.

WARREN: About 80 percent of America says they support merit pay for the best teachers. Now, I don’t want to hear your stump speech on education.

MCCAIN: Yes, yes, and find bad teachers another line of work. (APPLAUSE).

WARREN: You know, we’re going to end this, you’re answering so quickly. You want to play a game of poker?

MCCAIN: Can I — choice and competition, choice and competition, home schooling, charter schools, vouchers, all the choice and competition. I want — look, I want every American family to have the same choice that Cindy and I made and Senator Obama and Mrs. Obama made as well, and that was, we wanted to send our children to the school of our choice. And charter schools work, my friends. Home schooling works. Vouchers in our nation’s capital works. We’ve got thousands of people in Washington, D.C., that are applying for a voucher system. New York City is reforming.

I go back to New Orleans. They were — as we know, the tragedy devastated them. They have over 30 charter schools in the city of New Orleans, and guess what? It’s all coming up. It’s all coming up. It’s a simple principle, but it’s going to take dedicated men and women, particularly in the teaching profession, to make it happen.

And by the way, here — I won’t go any further, but the point is… it is the civil rights issue of the 21st century

McCain said it again during his speech at the Republican National Convention. (Read.) And he said it again during the third and final presidential debate against Barack Obama. (Click.) It was one of the few ways in which McCain didn’t try to distance himself from George W. Bush in Election ’08. After all, it was Bush who first said it, in January 2002.

Now, I think it’s kind of awesome to hear Republicans talk about education as a civil right. And yet I can’t help feeling there’s some hoodwinking going on when Steve Brill starts attributing the notion to Democrats (by which he means Democrats for Education Reform) and President Barack Obama.

This is from the transcript of Brill’s appearance on the Diane Rhem Show, during which he responds to a 62-year-old black grandmother in Cleveland who says, “I know Republicans want our children back into separate and unequal”:

BRILL

11:30:49
The only thing I will say is that it’s not the Republicans now who are leading the reform movement. Barack Obama’s not a Republican, Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, is not a Republican. There are dozens of examples….
So it’s a much more mixed situation, you know, than just a bunch of Republicans, you know, trying to go after unions. And there are many very sincere people in the Civil Rights community, Barack Obama being one of them, who consider this to be the Civil Rights issue of our time, fixing the schools. (emphasis mine)

To be sure, Obama’s turn from the education plan he laid out in 2007-08, with advice from Stanford University education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond, to the one being put forward today, under the leadership of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has soured many public school teachers and parents on his administration. (They thought they’d elected Obama on education. But they got something more like candidate McCain.) The bait-and-switch pissed enough people off that thousands gathered on the White House Ellipse on July 30, 2011 for the Save Our Schools Rally and March.

I was there. One of the most passionate speeches I heard was made by Jonathan Kozol, the author of Savage Inequalities and Illiterate America. His was a fiery, fist-pounding show that hinged on a damning accusation aimed straight at Arne Duncan:

Secretary Duncan, Arne Duncan [CROWD BOOS] has turned his back entirely on the precious legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. [APPLAUSE] Instead, he’s very, very busy trying to do Plessy v. Ferguson. Mr. Duncan, listen to me. Mr. Duncan, separate and unequal has never been successful. It didn’t work in the century just passed and it will not work in the century ahead. And anyone who tells himself otherwise is lying to himself and to the people of America.”

According to Kozol, Arne Duncan is restoring a system of segregation to America’s public schools. Steve Brill would like to have Democratic voters believe that, too. (Especially the ones who belong to the politically omnipotent teachers’ unions.)

But it’s a far more serious accusation coming from Jonathan Kozol. Because if Obama’s base starts to believe that the resegregation of public schools is the doing of the Obama administration, boy, the Democrats are in big trouble in 2012.

So let’s dig a little deeper, for the sake of all my new friends in the SOS March twitterverse. This resegregation problem didn’t start with Arne Duncan. We’d have it even if Obama had appointed Linda Darling-Hammond to the post of U.S. Secretary of Education. The problem is the Supreme Court.

Rewind to the 2007 NAACP Presidential Primary Forum, held July 12, 2007. The question is about the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down school integration plans put forth by school boards in Louisville, Ky. and Seattle, Wash. in June of that year. This Q&A is with then-candidate Barack Obama. The transcript is from OnTheIssues.org.

Q: In light of the recent anti-integration Supreme Court decision, please tell us what would you do to promote an equal opportunity and integration in American public schools and how would you ensure that the courts would hand down more balanced opinions

A: The Supreme Court was wrong. These were local school districts that had voluntarily made a determination that all children would be better off if they learned together. The notion that this Supreme Court would equate that with the segregation as tasked would make Thurgood Marshall turn in his grave. Which is why I’m glad I voted against Alito & voted against Roberts. But let’s remember that we also have a crisis in all our schools that have to be fixed, whether they’re integrated or not. We’ve got to have early childhood education. We’ve got to fix crumbling schools. We’ve got to have an excellent teacher in front of every classroom. We’ve got to make college affordable. The Supreme Court doesn’t have to order that. We can do that ourselves.

Did you get that? Obama said, “whether they’re integrated or not.” This is the kind of progressive pragmatism that defines Barack Obama’s leadership. He is not an idealist. He never was. Idealists, like Jonathan Kozol and Martin Luther King, Jr., set out a vision of greatness – a dream – and measure the world against it. The world never measures up. Progressive pragmatists, like Barack Obama, deal in the world as it is, and figure out practical ways “of making sure that the world we leave our children is just a little bit better than the one we inhabit today.”

(There’s the finer line dividing groups like Parents Across America (PAA) from Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). There are other, fatter ones, of course. But if you get past DFER’s Whitney Tilson “ripping” people like Gary Orfield of the UCLA Civil Rights Project and dismissing Jonathan Kozol’s concurrence on the civil rights slant against charters as “dimwitted,” you see someone who believes he’s doing the right thing.)

Back to Obama’s response to the NAACP. Beyond expressing his own pragmatism, he’s saying we need to take responsibility. We need to correct the problem with our schools. We do. We can do it without the Supreme Court. Because the Supreme Court that made integration the civil rights issue of Martin Luther King’s time, and Vernon Jordan’s time, and Thurgood Marshall’s time? That’s not today’s Supreme Court. So – and this is me talking now – if the NAACP wants to take the fight against the segregating effects of the market segmentation that results from “choice and competition” to the Supreme Court, public education is finished. Game over. We’re going to keep getting the same 5-4 result. Just take a look at the mug shots in the justice lineup at the bottom of this Oyez piece on Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education. (Read and scroll.)

Here’s another twist. During the current Baltimore City mayoral campaign, candidate Frank Conaway has said on numerous occasions that he came out of segregated schools, and he came out pretty well. He said so again at the League of Women Voters debate at the Enoch Pratt Library last night. Some blacks look back fondly on the education they got before Brown v. Board. It’s odd, isn’t it? Independent schools trip over themselves to introduce diversity into their classrooms while parents in public schools have to fight to hold on to integrated classrooms. Baltimore-son Thurgood Marshall probably is rolling over in his grave. (Did you feel that earthquake?)

To sum up: In 2002, Republicans appropriated the language of civil rights for the purposes of radically changing public education as we know it. They kept doing it in 2007-08. Now the Right is telling the media that it’s not only the Right that feels education reform is a civil rights issue, but the Left feels school choice is a civil rights issue, too. If the Left feels that way, and we start fighting these battles through the courts, we’ll lose. And anyway, there are black Democrats who actually don’t much care to guard against the disintegration of Brown v. Board.

Here’s what I think: The Milton Friedman-inspired ideology of market-based competition that’s behind school choice is anathema to the whole idea of civil rights – which implies a great deal of the kind of government protection that the libertarian freedom fighters Juan Williams has been hanging out with feel are obstacles, if not shackles, to the American way.

I mentioned market segmentation. It’s a different animal from segregation. In injecting competition and choice into the public school ecosystem, we’re going to Social Darwinist route. Only the strong survive. But more than that, those who survive are those who find a niche. Competition and choice imply a free market, where there is no regulation. That means no affirmative action policies, no quotas, no demands by government for private or semi-private entities to address inequity. I know this is going to get me into trouble, but it means niched schools where white gentry moms and aspirational middle class black and brown moms strive to send their kids. And generic public schools where the weak and the poor wind up.

If we feel this country is in the midst of creating an educational landscape far from our highest ideals – and I do – the answer won’t come from the courts. And it won’t come from the White House. And it won’t come from corporate philanthropists or Democrat hedge fund managers. It won’t come from union leaders, either.

The power is idling at the grass roots. It’s time we rip it up.

August 2, 2011

If the School Fits: Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Choice?

Watch out for this graphic from The Simpsons in Sheena Iyengar's TED talk.

The previous post in this series draws attention to the social, political, and investment capital behind the push for charter schools in Baltimore. It presents as a real possibility the overrunning of the Baltimore City Public School System with dozens upon dozens of options.

This line of thinking isn’t going where some readers might expect – to an argument that denies students and parents the agency to choose where to go or send their children to school. That caricature of reasoning is polarizing the debate between education reform advocates and their most vocal critics. Attentive readers will find more subtlety in these posts.

For the sake of appreciating the ideas presented in this one, forget whether you believe in public schools, or charter schools, or school choice. Forget if you’re agnostic as to the delivery mechanism of a great education. Forget all the metaphysical talk for a moment and put on your secular consumer cap. Then chew on this:

Does having 12 or 22 or 34 or 61 choices make your life any better, or happier, or more fulfilling than if you had, say, two? 

Psychologists, behavioral economists, and entrepreneurs have spent a good deal of intellectual energy on the problem of excessive choice. I spent a few minutes compiling links. Choose one:

I’m only half kidding. You will spend well over an hour on your computer if you watch and read all this content. If you’re interested in the issue of school choice – as a critic or a booster – I promise that engaging with this stuff is worth your while. A few minutes of skimming is all it takes to learn that some highly educated western minds are beginning to see holes in the conventional wisdom around the goodness of consumer choice.

Follow these links and you’ll find a few TED talks as well as references to books and peer reviewed journal articles by Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz, Stanford University psychology professor Hazel Rose Markus, assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University Nicole Stephens, Krishna Savani of Columbia University, Sheena Iyengar, Ph.D., a management professor at Columbia University Business School, Mark Lepper, Ph.D., another psychology professor at Stanford University, social psychologist Alexander Chernev, Ph.D., also of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon, Ph.D. (Click his name to learn where he went to elementary and high school.)

Explore. And stay tuned.

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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?

Related Posts
A Taste of Cherry Picking

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

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Baltimore City Charter Schools

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.

Related Posts:

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.)

June 21, 2011

Hey Baltimore, Do We Need Neighborhood Public Schools?

The mural on the wall of my neighborhood school, Hampden #55

Here’s Diane Ravitch’s answer:

“Do we need neighborhood public schools? I believe we do. The neighborhood school is a place where parents meet to share concerns about their children and the place where they learn the practice of democracy. They create a sense of community among strangers. As we lose neighborhood schools, we lose the one local institution where people congregate and mobilize to solve local problems, where individuals learn to speak up and debate and engage in democratic give-and-take with their neighbors. For more than a century, they have been an essential element of our democratic institutions. We abandon them at our peril.

Business leaders like the idea of turning the schools into a marketplace where the consumer is king. But the problem with the marketplace is that it dissolves communities and replaces them with consumers. Going to school is not the same as going shopping. Parents should not be burdened with locating a suitable school for their child. They should be able to take their child to the neighborhod public school as a matter of course and expect that it has well-educated teachers and a sound educational program.”

from The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education

What’s yours?

June 19, 2011

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

Otis Rolley talks at TEDx MidAtlantic 2010. Credit: Andy Babin/TedXMidAtlantic

When I wrote in May about why Hampden is ripe for a neighborhood school renaissance, I included in my praise for this place the bike shop, the baby shop, the chocolate-and-shoes shop. But I neglected to mention the other new hot spot on The Avenue – the campaign headquarters of mayoral contender Otis Rolley.

I want to like Otis Rolley. He seems like a really good guy. Watch his TEDx talk on new urban renewal and you’ll want to let him kiss your baby. But Rolley’s education plan, which started making waves last Sunday, has caused a few Baltimore parents to scratch their heads.

Here’s a quick rundown: “The Rolley Plan to Improve Baltimore’s Education System for the Future of Our Children and Our City” roots itself in the failing state of our schools. In 2010-11, six out of 10 schools didn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) – the measure set forth in No Child Left Behind that demands 100% proficiency in reading and math by 2014.

“This year,” the bad news continues, “the results are expected to be even worse. Just 39 percent of graduating seniors are prepared for college or the workforce” (emphasis added). And it’s true. While there are a few bright spots, on the whole the Baltimore City Public School System isn’t looking too hot.

But keep reading.

Rolley’s four “distinct, tangible solutions to help permanently fix Baltimore’s education system” are:

  1. Mayoral control of City Schools;
  2. Education vouchers for students in the worst performing middle schools;
  3. Fifty (50) new or renovated schools in 10 years through public-private partnerships; and
  4. State charter school law revisions to expand the options for parents.

The promise:

Together, these reforms along with expedited academic reforms currently underway, will allow Baltimore schools to increase the high school graduation rate to 85 percent and ensure that at least 90 percent of graduates are prepared for college or post secondary job training by the end of this decade. (emphasis added)

I wish I had time to do a thorough point-by-point analysis of the Rolley Plan. But I’m going to focus on #1 and #2, the points that the Rolley campaign calls “radical.”

#1. Baltimore City Bests All of New York State, or to paraphrase Rolley, “New York is nice, but it’s no Baltimore.”

You have only to look at New York City to see that mayoral control isn’t doing any good. On June 14, 2011, the New York Times reported on the level of college readiness among state graduates, with numbers for Mayor Bloomberg’s empire:

In New York City, 21 percent of the students who started high school in 2006 graduated last year with high enough scores on state math and English tests to be deemed ready for higher education or well-paying careers. (emphasis added)

Twenty-one percent for a city with a school system that has been under mayoral control since June 2002. The percentage for all of New York State – 37%. That should put the figure Rolley’s plan laments – 39% – into perspective. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a lousy number. But it’s almost double that of New York City, which is number one on the list of cities that Rolley cites as exemplars of mayoral control over the school system.

#2. Vouchers Don’t Improve Academic Performance, They Breed Discrimination, and They Can’t Be Targeted
Vouchers are a 21-year-old experiment currently coming of age in Wisconsin, where the nation’s first voucher program was instituted, in Milwaukee, in 1990. We have a model to look at, and here’s what it’s showing:

a) Students in voucher versus public schools in Milwaukee do about the same academically, according to research put out a couple of years ago by the University of Arkansas. (See “Study finds results of MPS and voucher school students are similar” by Alan J. Borsuk of the Journal Sentinel, March 26, 2009.) The National School Boards Association has taken up Milwaukee vouchers as a key advocacy issue, and maintains a running archive of articles on the topic. Here’s a link. This is just to say that there is no data from the oldest voucher program in the nation to support the notion that students will be better served by private or parochial schools than they would be by traditional public schools.

b) Voucher programs discriminate, according to the ACLU. Less than a week before Rolley unfurled his education plan, Milwaukee’s voucher program came under attack by the ACLU for alleged discrimination against students with disabilities. (See “School choice program shuts out disabled, federal complaint says” by Tom Held of the Journal Sentinel, June 7, 2011, and “Milwaukee’s Voucher Program Discriminates Based On Disabilities, ACLU Says,” Joy Resmovits for Huffington Post, June 7, 2011.) I wonder if i) Rolley was aware of the ACLU’s claim and went ahead with his platform anyway, or ii) he didn’t have a chance to rethink his position. I’m hoping it’s the latter, and that he rethinks it now.

c) Introducing vouchers for a few – or “targeted” vouchers, to quote Rolley – is a slippery slope. Rolley seems to think that he will be able to limit eligibility for vouchers to students in the worst performing schools. Recent events in Wisconsin – where Republican governor Scott Walker has been in the limelight these past months for anti-union and pro-privatization schemes – would indicate that this limit may be beyond a mayor’s ability to enforce. It’s certainly not above politics, especially when funding for the program would have to be approved by the state, as Rolley admits.

Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled state legislature recently voted to expand the voucher program to a county outside Milwaukee and raise the income limits for parents who want to send their children to “choice” schools. (See “Amid protests, panel votes to expand school choice, cut aid to local governments” by Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel.) Who’s to say that wouldn’t happen here? How much control can a mayor assert over the budget of a city school system that is funded largely – 80% – by the state? (See this.)

I could go on. On #3 – improving or building new school buildings – the ACLU is on that tip. So is the Baltimore Education Coalition. How public-private partnerships work and what a sale-lease back deal entails – those are concepts I hope a journalist in this town will explain. On #4 – if I were in a union I would look into this piece pretty closely.

As far as #1 and #2 go, the evidence is all bad news for Rolley’s plan, and for this hopeful voter. But I really, really want to give his campaign the benefit of the doubt. After all, the New York City college-readiness numbers came out after Rolley announced his education plan. And the news from Wisconsin about claims of discrimination against the voucher program, that was less than a week old. The timing gives Rolley good reason to sit down right now and revise the plan.

Just think: a politician who can pivot in the face of evidence that demands a new line on education reform – that would be radical. It might even earn him this city mom’s vote.

Related Posts

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

The Mis-Elevation of Otis Rolley

June 12, 2011

“Portfolio”: The Vocabulary of Education Reform in Baltimore City – Lesson One

When I first read the term “portfolio” in an official document put out by the Baltimore City Public School System, I pictured an artist’s portfolio. Then my brain did a little Rubik’s cube turn. The word wasn’t coming out of the art world. It was borrowed from the world of finance and investing.

The document bears the name of Andrés A. Alonso, Ed.D., Chief Executive Officer.

Pause there: Chief Executive Officer. Alonso is CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. Call a school superintendent a CEO and, just like that, you turn a government entity into a corporation. The highest aim isn’t to do whatever it is your office is responsible for doing – in this case, educating a city’s young people. It’s to turn a profit.

What’s in the BCPSS portfolio? Schools. Our CEO is keeping the ones that perform and dumping those that don’t. What constitutes “performance,” at least right now, isn’t measured in dollar gains and losses. It’s measured in test scores – the currency of the public school market. Its measured in the percentage of students who are passing state tests.

Critics of education reform – the most outspoken of whom has been education historian and policy analyst Diane Ravitch – say testing and choice are undermining the American public school system. Whether or not you’re a fan of test-based accountability or vouchers or the charter school movement (or even of Diane Ravitch), it’s difficult to argue that test scores say very much about what’s gone on in a particular classroom. What is clear is that performance on tests is being used to justify significant decisions about whether or not to close individual schools and give merit pay to individual teachers.

In Baltimore City, more than two dozen public schools have been closed since 2007 with more slated for closure. An even higher number of charter schools have been founded. And some of them have been closed.

My question isn’t whether those closures were needed. My question is whether we’re using the right metaphor. Are schools stocks? Is the system a portfolio?

In the world of investing, ads for mutual funds, stocks, and bonds are always accompanied by this caveat: Past performance is no guarantee of future results. It’s a warning to investors – especially beginner investors – to resist the impulse to chase high returns. (Click here for a primer on “performance chasing” by Joshua Kennon.)

It would be great if school system CEOs would repeat that to themselves like a mantra. As “stakeholders” in the education of our children and our nation’s public, we might want to repeat it to ourselves, too. Here’s how that might sound:

  • Think it’s a good idea to close a school because passing percentages are low? Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
  • Tempted to weight your portfolio toward charter schools because a few have raised test scores dramatically and seem to have narrowed the achievement gap? Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
  • Won’t look at your neighborhood public school because only 85% of students are proficient in reading? Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

If these analogies don’t work, it’s because the public school system is not a portfolio. Schools are not companies. Test scores are not currency. Though it has become serious business to think as if they are.

Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System gives an account of when American public school leaders started thinking this way. It’s an important book to read right now. Hers is an important voice. But it’s up to us – parents and guardians, students and teachers, principals, taxpayers, school system employees and advocates for reforms that work for all students – to evaluate whether treating our public schools like stocks is a good idea.

What do you think?

May 19, 2011

Notes from a Charter School Lottery

“Charter School Lottery: Why Am I Here?” is a public Facebook post by an education policy reporter in New York City named Abigail Kramer. She is the mother of a four-year-old son who found herself waiting for his name to be pulled from a bucket.

If I weren’t a parent, my feelings on this would be clear: All the energy and angst that I’m spending in this room would be so much better spent on my neighborhood school, where any kid in a 12-block radius should have the right to the attention and quality that I’m trying to get from a charter. There’s nothing in my values or politics that makes it okay to prioritize one kid over another, except that I am a parent and I have no idea how to do right by my own child while also doing right. So here I am, staring at a projector screen and hoping that my kid will beat out somebody else’s.

I recommend reading the original post. But this paragraph sums up the ethical bind that the charter school movement creates for well meaning parents. We want to do right by our own children while also doing right. And it won’t let us.

May 18, 2011

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

I fear fear. Sitting in a room with scared people scares me. It was that feeling – mainly – that made me think twice about starting a charter school. I was spending precious hours away from my baby in the living and dining rooms of women (and a couple of guys) I hardly knew, ready to sacrifice every weekend and holiday for the next two or three years, because I was scared. I’d found people to run with. And they were good people. But we were all running.

We needed an out because we were afraid. Why?

1) We might never have enough money to consider private school.
2) Odds are slim to nil of getting into a great charter school (e.g., The Green School, City Neighbors, The Montessori School).
3) We didn’t want to a) get a second mortgage or b) move to the County.

Then more worries rose to surface:

4) Our founding group isn’t diverse enough to please the school board.
5) Only 10% of founders’ children can attend a charter school at any one time. What if we have too many founders?

And so began the struggle – for a spot in a school that didn’t even exist – among parents who claimed to value, among other things, non-competitive learning environments.

When I realized how panicked I was beginning to feel I had to stop. I stepped back. I counted on two hands the number of parents in those rooms who lived in my neighborhood and I thought, hey, you know what would be really cool? If we all calmed down for a minute and put some energy into a school we can all get into. You know, the one down the street?

A big assumption we’d all brought with us into those meetings was that the neighborhood school was not an option. We’d all heard things. Not bad things, necessarily. But we hadn’t heard anything good. And we had a lot to be concerned about. I’ll start from most benign and work my way up:

  • administrative resistance to change and innovation
  • opposition of teachers and principals to input from “privileged” parents
  • lack of individual attention for students (squeaky wheels getting the grease, class sizes too large for differentiated instruction)
  • teachers stifled by years of institutionalization
  • “teaching to the test”
  • negative social influences (children who curse and act out)
  • disinterested and potentially abusive parents (parents who curse and act out)
  • class bias (theirs, not ours)
  • racial discrimination
  • discrimination against children of gay and lesbian parents
  • the bullying and exclusion that come with minority status
  • violence

The fact that charter schools might offer a different style or philosophy of education may well be part of their appeal to middle and upper-middle class families – families who might otherwise move to the County or send their children to private schools. But no amount of arts integration, project-based learning or Suzuki violin is going to get parents who are afraid of any of the above to consider sending their children to neighborhood public schools.

Charter schools are emerging as an option because they are perceived as flexible and safe. They are perceived as having malleable institutional cultures that leave lots of room for parent input and experimentation.

My question is, who says neighborhood public schools can’t be those things?

May 5, 2011

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

On May 2, Roots & Branches Public Charter School announced the end of a short lived effort to open in Hampden’s Florence Crittendon Building for the 2011-12 school year. The school’s intention to open in Hampden was brought before the Hampden Community Council on April 25. Had the plan worked out, the new charter school would have sat five blocks south of Hampden Elementary/Middle #055.

That’s my neighborhood public school. I want to make it a place where every zoned family, including mine, would love to send their children. My son’s not even two. I’ve got time. And I’ve got friends. And I’m making more. And if there’s space, people from other parts of the city can vie for spots. It’s gonna knock your socks off.

It’s in a great location – a pretty 10-minute walk from the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus and the Baltimore Museum of Art. It’s just around the corner from The Avenue, a street of locally owned shops and restaurants that attracts people from in and around Baltimore. You can gorge here on freshly made soups and sweet potato fries and banh mi. You can get Indian food at a pizza parlor and chocolate from a store that sells shoes. You can buy an original painting and attend a free reading of new fiction in the same place. From east to west you can get your baby-jogger wheels inflated, pick out a longboard, and give cloth diapers a whirl. On your way back you can get an organic haircut and the deftest waxing north (or south) of the equator. (Tell Shannon I sent you.)

This neighborhood isn’t in need of a K-5 charter school. It’s in need of some love for its PK-8 public school. (Head Start included.)

Hampden #055 is already a good school. It has consistently met AYP. The new principal, Dr. Judith Thomas, is doing a lot with a lot less than she ought to have. Walk in and you see orderly classrooms, a decent gym, student artwork on the walls, a mural painted by a parent-artist. You see teachers engaging students in their work. You see an environment where students can learn. Around 75% of students at Hampden #055 qualify for free and reduced meals (FARMS). They were born into poverty. But with all due respect to David Simon and Ed Burns, not all Baltimore City middle schools look like Season 4 of The Wire.

Like every other traditional public school in Baltimore City, Hampden #055 is suffering from budget cuts. It’s also suffering from the insidious notion that traditional city public schools aren’t places where parents who can afford not to would send their kid. The issue isn’t race. It’s class. It’s just that Hampden is the only neighborhood where people are race-blind enough to see it. Because Hampden isn’t just poor. It’s white.

I founded a group to help out with our neighborhood school revival not two months ago – during what President Obama called “Education Month at the White House.” So I was not an objective party when I heard the news about Roots & Branches’ proposal to the Hampden Community Council. I immediately emailed my principal who called me 120 seconds later. I wrote emails to our city councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and the executive director of the Office of Partnerships, Communications and Community Engagement, Michael Sarbanes. By 4:00 pm I was sitting in a child-sized chair at a child-sized lunch table in the #055 cafeteria ready to say my piece at a meeting of the Hampden Education Collaborative – a consortium of leaders from the many schools that currently operate here and of representatives of the Hampden Village Merchants’ Association, Hampden Family Center, and other neighborhood stakeholder groups. From BCPS, Tammie Knights of the Office of New Initiatives was in attendance, as was Julia Baez, a representative of the Office of Partnerships, Communications and Community Engagement. Mary Pat was there. So was a new friend who will send her son to Hampden next year, and a woman from the Village Parents who raised enough money to buy uniforms for every student at Margaret Brent Elementary – a school on the other side of Homewood Campus that’s got the same parent movement going for it that we have here.

I took the lead voicing concerns.

Why should a neighborhood with a critical mass of parental support for revitalizing a neighborhood school support a charter school, when the charter school has the potential to “cream” off the most engaged parents? What would happen to enrollment at Hampden – which is low – if a new charter school opened five blocks away? Charter schools and “traditional” public schools are funded per pupil. Fewer students means less money. What would happen to the budget? Why should homeowners support a local charter school when working to enhance the appeal of the neighborhood school has a greater shot at boosting home prices?

It’s not paranoid to think that charter schools are no friend to traditional public schools. The Maryland Charter Network Founders’ Manual – a 191 page handbook masquerading as a deterrent to initiating a charter school effort – advises founders to write annual appeal fundraising letters thusly:

Open with a story about a child who didn’t thrive in traditional public schools but has been (or could be) helped by your school or a similar school. Then describe the school and its education vision. Close with a specific request and action, such as “Please donate $25. Use the form provided or donate on our website, http://www.nameofcharterschool.org.” (emphasis added)

Why would a parent who supports her neighborhood school want that kind of solicitation going on in her school’s backyard?

Then there’s this cautionary word:

Be careful to describe the need [for funding] as the community’s need, rather than the school’s need. For example, if requesting funding for an after-school program be sure to discuss the community’s lack of appropriate safe places for children to go after school, as well as describing unique local threats such as gangs, drugs, crime, etc. that unsupervised children might face.

Deny that you have any interest in helping the students in your own school. Profess that you are helping the community, which desperately needs the services only you can provide. What the MCSN manual leaves out is the question of whether or not the community in which you ultimately locate really needs you there in the first place. (If this sounds to readers who remember The Closing of the American Mind like the moral relativist argument against colonialism, it should.)

The truth is, Roots & Branches wouldn’t have opened here. The location is tucked into a residential area with one lane, two way side streets. The person who wanted to lease them the property didn’t officially own it yet. And they came to the community two weeks prior to their deadline for securing a building. That’s not nearly enough time to get buy-in from their immediate neighbors and other stakeholders. It’s no wonder their motion was withdrawn before the HCC ever had a chance to vote.

But the whole fiasco begs the question of who charter schools actually serve. Is it the parent-founders who spend years on these efforts so their children can be guaranteed a spot? Is it the directors who are banking on salaries? Is it real estate developers who want to pay off mortgages or a school system that wants to relieve some of its financial burden?

It didn’t take long for me to realize that we could have leveraged the charter school’s circumstances for mutual benefit. But making a deal with a charter school can’t be the only route to improving a neighborhood public school. There’s gotta be another way. We just need a couple of years to work it out.

In the meantime, thank you, but no, to the opportunity to open a charter school in our backyard. Not until we get a chance to fix up the one out front.

Related Posts:

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Baltimore City Charter Schools

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

A Little Change from the Bottom Up

 

 

 

 

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