What Can Ed Schools Learn from Charters?

by Lisa Hansel
June 28th, 2013

This isn’t about governance structures or threatening paradigm shifts. It’s about Chumbawamba.

I’m a middle-of-the-pack mountain biker, and I often ride with the chorus from Chumbawamba’s “I Get Knocked Down” playing in my head:

I get knocked down

But I get up again

You’re never going to keep me down

That started playing in my head as I read CREDO’s new study of charter schools. In CREDO’s 2009 report, charters got knocked down. Now we see that they’ve gotten back up. And since there’s evidence that charter supporters are getting more and more serious about quality, it looks like they won’t be kept down:

Over the five growth periods in this study, we see slow and steady progress in the performance of the charter school sector. The numbers align with the evolving concern over the past five years about charter school quality and, we believe, reflect the serious attention paid to the subject. The dialogue among educators, policy makers, community members and a growing fraction of parents and students has raised awareness and commitment to the academic quality of charter schools. Several charter-related organizations, including operators, authorizers, funders, charter support organizations, and national groups, have taken on the challenge of assuring quality in the sector, in some cases against their own self-interest. The progress reported here is important not only to the charter school movement but as a more general example of school improvement efforts.

For the future charter sector to attain higher performance, more work is needed. Efforts to expand the role of parents as consumers and advocates for high quality education are essential; only when large numbers of families are fully vested and engaged will there be sufficient clout to realize the goal of high quality seats for all charter school students. In addition, charter school operators and their support organizations could emulate the proven practices in the higher performing charter schools….

While the actual degree of autonomy that charter schools enjoy differs from place to place, they typically have more freedom than local [traditional public schools] TPS to structure their operations and allocate resources to address the needs of their students. Even with this decentralized degree of control, we do not see dramatic improvement among existing charter schools over time. In other words, the charter sector is getting better on average, but not because existing schools are getting dramatically better; it is largely driven by the closure of bad schools….

“Flexibility,” ought to be treated as a privilege. Moreover, it is necessary to move beyond the assertion that it is hard to discern quality before a school opens and begin to build evidence about what plans, models, personnel attributes, and internal systems provide signals that lead to high-performing schools. A body of expertise in “picking winners” is vital to the long-run success of the sector….

There is no doubt that care is needed in how closures are handled (witness the District of Columbia and Georgia, both of which closed the same percentage of schools but which resulted in improved performance of the charter sector in DC but flat results in Georgia). But equally obvious is that allowing the closure option to rest unexercised will lead to atrophy of what we have come to view as a singular and unique feature of charter schools. Much like representative democracy, it is critical that when needed, people can “throw the rascals out.”

Contrast this with the new NCTQ study of colleges of education. The vast majority of traditional teacher preparation programs have been knocked down every time NCTQ reviews them. But instead of getting back up—and making research-based changes that would help them stay up—they seem to be digging in.

What if traditional teacher preparation programs took this moment to create a more serious quality agenda? Some may reply that many programs are earnestly crafting changes, but all the chatter sounds suspiciously like what we’ve been hearing for years. NCTQ has now released several such studies; where is the progress? How many universities have closed their teacher preparation programs due to indicators of low quality? How many colleges of education are building bodies of “evidence about what plans, models, personnel attributes, and internal systems provide signals that lead to high-performing” teachers?

 

(No, this isn’t me. Mountain biker who can’t be kept down from Shutterstock.)

 

If flexibility ought to be treated a privilege among charter, then perhaps academic freedom ought to be treated as a privilege among teacher preparation programs.

For those charters looking for more ways to improve student achievement—and for those ed schools that would like to stop digging and get up—please become well versed in the science of reading and follow that science to its logical conclusion: a coherent, content-rich, grade-by-grade curriculum. Harry Webb will get you started:

We don’t help children from deprived backgrounds or children of minorities by refusing to teach them what they need to know to be able to access the key sources of information in our societies. This is not in any way empowering. To refuse to teach factual knowledge about Churchill, for example, on the basis of a prejudice against dead, white men is not at all liberating. Rather, it simply prevents children from making sense of texts that require that knowledge.

Now, you may protest that you can always look it up in a dictionary or use reading comprehension strategies to comprehend the text. The former is a recipe for frustration and the latter provides only limited help. Reading a text slowly whilst asking yourself questions is a pretty useless strategy if you cannot answer these questions. It reminds me of the proverbial British tourist who cannot speak the local language and therefore decides to speak more loudly and more slowly.

If you don’t believe me, or if you’ve never heard of these ideas then this is a good place to start. This article explains the impact of the knowledge deficit on children from deprived backgrounds.

The best way to support effective reading is therefore to build the knowledge base of a child. This then forms part of a virtuous circle; as the knowledge base increases then the access to new knowledge available via reading also increases. This also explains why teaching that focuses on reading comprehension strategies rather than background knowledge perpetuates social divisions. The children of middle class parents gain this factual knowledge at home, in spite of their schooling whereas children from deprived background have only the school to rely on and yet the school is refusing to teach them things….

Recommended Reading

The Knowledge Deficit – E D Hirsch Jr

Why don’t students like school? – Daniel T Willingham

Seven myths about education – Daisy Christodoulou

 

Connecting the Dots on Equity

by Lisa Hansel
March 13th, 2013

As a young child, I loved those connect-the-dots coloring books. Searching for the next number was sometimes tough (but not too tough) and it was fun to watch the picture emerge from what was, just a few minutes before, a messy array dots.

I’ve been thinking of that a lot recently as I’ve read, and read the buzz about, “For Each and Every Child: A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence,” a.k.a. the equity commission report. The dots are there—but they aren’t connected. They aren’t even numbered. And there sure isn’t a full-color picture of equity and excellence.

The report does highlight serious problems. One in particular—the lack of common curriculum—caught my attention: “unlike in America, teachers in high-performing countries can draw on common instructional materials aligned with rigorous, national curriculum frameworks that all students are expected to master and that form the basis of teacher development and training” (p. 22). A crucial difference between these national curriculum frameworks and the Common Core State Standards is that the frameworks specify lots of academic content knowledge that students must acquire. This content adds depth to teacher training and enables more meaningful teacher collaboration (Japanese lesson study comes to mind).

The members of the equity commission are obviously sympathetic to the benefits of common core curriculum, yet our tradition of local control seems to make enacting such a thing, even on the state level, unthinkable.

Still, the report makes plenty of solid recommendations (i.e., gap-closing early childhood education, the steps necessary to mitigate the effects of poverty, and more). It just doesn’t help us figure out where to start or offer a picture of our destination.

But Jeffrey Litt does.

In an Education Trust webinar yesterday, Jeffrey Litt explained how he turned around P.S. 67, the Mohegan School, in the South Bronx, and then went on to help create and lead the highly successful Icahn Charter Schools, also in the Bronx.

When Litt took over P.S. 67 in 1988, it was as bad as a school in the U.S. could be. Litt had to spend a couple of years focused on rehabilitating the building, reopening the library-turned-storage room, and finding out which teachers would rise to the challenge and which had to be replaced. That made things better, but the education offered was still weak. As Litt explained in the webinar:

The surprising thing was that nobody knew what to teach. We had closets full of textbooks that were in sealed boxes. It seemed every year there was another series that was given to the schools by the district office….

I found that teachers who loved social studies would teach social studies every day and those who didn’t love social studies but loved science would teach social studies once a week. And I noticed that 5th grade teachers particularly were teaching completely unrelated units even though they were in the same grade. So right away I knew there was no curriculum in the school.

Instruction played a backseat to everything else. I was determined to fix that.

Soon thereafter, Litt attended a symposium in which E. D. Hirsch, Jr., was the featured speaker. At the time, the Core Knowledge Sequence was still being developed, and there was only one school in the nation using it. That suburban school in Fort Myers, FL, had, says Litt, “a magnificent building” and was “not even close to what I was facing in Mohegan.”

Could Core Knowledge, then a fledgling idea, actually work in the South Bronx? Litt knew that it would—that it had to:

The children had no knowledge of anything outside their immediate community. My kids could not understand the concept that they lived in a borough, which was part of a city, and part of a state, and part of a nation, on a continent. This was all foreign to them. They couldn’t name the five boroughs. I saw Core Knowledge … as the great equalizer. My kids did not have exposure to the arts. My kids did not have much in the way of travel. My kids didn’t go to museums or theaters, and they didn’t necessarily come from literature-rich homes…. I felt that Core Knowledge provided this background knowledge for them.

Instead of adopting Core Knowledge schoolwide, Litt started with just six classrooms. By February, more than a dozen more teachers wanted to use Core Knowledge. By June, the entire faculty voted to become a Core Knowledge school. Unlike today, few supports were available for implementing the Core Knowledge Sequence. But figuring out how to teach all the content specified in the Sequence was a productive undertaking. According to Litt, “We wrote our own curriculum guides, subject by subject, month by month, of what we were going to teach our children. That was the beginning of a complete renaissance of the entire school.”

Today, as superintendent of the six Icahn Charter Schools (the seventh is opening in September), Litt has that full-color picture of equity and excellence. He isn’t chasing each new fad; he remains focused on replicating and refining what works: knowledge-building curriculum, embedded professional development, and continuous tracking of achievement—not for tracking’s sake, but to inform curriculum, instruction, and professional development.

Litt ensures that “all Icahn charter schools follow the same Core Knowledge curriculum and the same procedures.” At first that may sound stifling, possibly even oppressive. But then Litt explains all the benefits. Principals meet every Wednesday to help each other solve problems. Teachers “are sharing their successes and they are going to their colleagues for help.” And, unlike what Litt found when he arrived at P.S. 67, the shared curriculum allows teachers to pursue their favorite subjects without students missing out on important content. Litt explains: “If you love science and math, and I love English language arts and social studies, and we’re both in third grade, [then]… I might teach your children English language arts and social studies. You might teach my kids science and math. Or at least we are going to share the lessons.” Teachers also collaborate across grades because the Sequence takes students deeper into academic domains as they progress.

And that stifling thing? It’s a myth. The Core Knowledge Sequence specifies content, not pedagogy. Icahn’s teachers, says Litt, “have a perfect opportunity to be innovative, creative, use their imaginations, share with their colleagues, use plays, use videos, and so on.” And, when taught with the type of refined, coherent curriculum Litt’s teachers have developed, the Sequence takes just 50% of the instructional time. So the Icahn schools really have developed their own shared curriculum. The Sequence ensures that all essential background knowledge is included, allowing educators to focus on adding content of local interest and importance.

Litt may call Core Knowledge the equalizer, but in fact it’s Core Knowledge in the hands of dedicated, collaborative educators that connects the dots on equity and excellence. Just in case your picture isn’t colored in yet, here’s one more lesson from Litt:

Many people say all children can learn. Well that’s true. But a parakeet can learn too. We look for people who believe that children can excel.

Hobson’s Choice

by Robert Pondiscio
August 28th, 2012

“Hobson’s choice” is one of those wonderful phrases you don’t hear much anymore.  The story is told about one Thomas Hobson, who ran a rental stable in England in the 17th century.  If you wanted to hire one of his horses, Mr. Hobson, who didn’t want his best mounts overused, offered you a choice: you could take the horse he offered or no horse at all.  “Hobson’s choice,” often mistakenly rendered as a “Hobbesian choice,” entered the language as a phrase meaning “no choice at all.”  Take it or leave it.

I thought of Hobson’s choice today when reading Nancy Flanagan’s Teacher in a Strange Land blog over at EdWeek.  “Choice isn’t the answer to building a vision of a high-quality, personally tailored, democratic education for every child in America,” she writes.  “Nor is it evil incarnate. It’s a distraction from the conversation we should be having about improving public education in America.”  The early aspirations of the charter movement notwithstanding, choice has failed to live up to its promise, Flanagan notes.

“While charter promoters talk a great game about families flocking to the innovative, high-quality programming at public school academies, what’s more likely is that the charter represents a more palatable option than the public school–perhaps over something as simple as a grumpy teacher, an inconvenient bus schedule, lack of opportunity for parental control.”

I’m not as troubled as Nancy by parental caprice in exercising choice.  It would be ironic to be in the business of education and have little faith in parents’ ability to make an informed choice—or to correct course if that choice proved untenable.  My personal bottom line, speaking only for myself, is that choice is an intrinsic good.  I like exercising school choice for my child and I want you to have the same options.  And let’s face it, education is fundamentally coercive: you have to educate your child.  Some latitude in how you go about it is to be encouraged.

Flanagan is on stronger ground when she observes that school choice has “not provided a range of options for children in poverty.”

“…and predictable aspects of entrepreneurial school start-ups have intensified: Cutting corners on staff. Relying on private schmoozing and charitable funding rather than community/tax-based support. Focusing on surface features–like uniforms and hall behavior–rather than strong academics. Using public monies for advertising rather than educational quality. Booting kids who don’t burnish the school’s reputation or scores. Inventing bogus politicized agendas like the parent “trigger” for personal and commercial gain.

The points Flanagan raises are debatable but here’s the problem with choice I think she overlooks:  Too often, the “choice” is either false or irrelevant.   To give the most obvious example, if a nearby charter school is wedded to the same content-poor curriculum as a neighborhood school, if writing is taught as pure process, and reading as a set of strategies to be learned and practiced, if test-prep dominates the school day and the curriculum narrowed for that purpose, then issues of staffing, management structures, union contracts and funding mechanisms don’t matter at all.

I’ve argued this before: education doesn’t have a process problem.  It has a product problem.  Having to choose between the same thin gruel, lowest common denominator education in Public School A or Charter School B is a choice.  Hobson’s choice.

Building a Better Edsel

by Robert Pondiscio
May 20th, 2011

Update:  Kitchen Table Math picks up the thread here and here.  Likewise Diana Senechal, guest blogging at Joanne Jacobs, here.

If you’ve spent any time at all on this blog, you’ve been treated—OK, subjected—to occasional rants about mainstream education reform’s blind spot on curriculum and instruction.  Teaching is a management issue; something to be measured by standardized tests.  And curriculum?  Hey, in the hands of a great teacher, every curriculum is great.  Or something like that.  With charters to build, tests to administer and performances to judge reformers remain largely agnostic, incurious or just plain indifferent about what happens inside the classroom.  This myopia informs policy:  Race to the Top enshrined 19 different fixes for American schools.  Curriculum didn’t make the cut.  If you were in charge of fixing America’s schools, could you find 19 things for your To Do list before you get around to curriculum? Seriously?  

A fascinating email found its way into my inbox last week describing a visit to a high profile, “no excuses” charter school.  The email was written by someone who is solidly pro-reform and strongly pro-charter.   She spent the morning visiting Big Name Charter and pronounced herself aghast.  “The school is fantastically well run, and the kids are on task —- and it is all fuzzery all the time. The reading curriculum is Fountas and Pinnell; the math curriculum is so bad it has sparked parent uprisings across the country,” she writes.

“Teachers aren’t allowed to use direct instruction for longer than a few  minutes; then the students must repair to their pods and discover knowledge. After they discover knowledge, which means solving ONE problem, they return to the rug and explain their “strategies” to each other.  Although the school prides itself on efficient use of time, the students I saw were spending a lot of time doing nothing at all while they waited for the other kids to finish so the whole group could migrate back to the rug.  

“Everything was ordered and timed and assessed, yet the curriculum is crap,” the observer concludes.  

How can this happen, she wanted to know, in a school that prides itself on data-driven decision-making?  What kind of data, she asked, did they use when it came time to choose a curriculum?  Tellingly, she notes it was the one moment where her host “suddenly sounded like a regular denizen of public education.”

“Tests can’t tell you that much about whether a curriculum is good because some of the kids taking the tests might have been tired that day; the only way you can decide on curriculum is to go into the classroom and ask a child a question and get his response. That’s how you “know.”  

“This is a data-driven school, and they don’t use data to choose curriculum,” she fumed.  I wish I could say I’m surprised.  When it comes to curriculum and instruction, a field that can’t reach consensus about anything suddenly treats what children should learn and how they should learn it as settled.  If your primary concern is measuring teacher perfomance, you are assuming–are you not?–that what is to be taught and learned has been established.  All that’s left to do is separate good practitioners from bad ones.

If you had a time machine and put a team of leading ed reformers in charge of the Edsel at Ford Motor Company 50 years ago, they would set to work energetically measuring the productivity of assembly workers (because we know—we know—that great assembly workers are the most important contributor to success in manufacturing). They would put a bonus plan in place to reward them when sales improved.  And when that failed, they would shut down plants turning out Edsels that sold poorly and build brand new plants.  

To make more Edsels.  

Meanwhile, across town, critics point to wages and working conditions and ask how assembly workers can build better Edsels when they can’t feed their families or afford better health care?  You can’t possibly fix the Edsel unless you fix that first.

Back to Big Name Charter School.  By all available data, the school described above is doing very, very well. That said, the oldest students are still young, and the big challenges lie ahead: Will they avoid the 8th grade slump?  Will they keep their low-income, minority students in the fold through high school?  What then?  

The long view may be slowly, quietly emerging–as it should and must–as the question in education reform.  To their great credit, KIPP recently released a remarkable report on the college completion rates of its students.  It shows “only 33 percent of students who completed a KIPP middle school 10 or more years ago have graduated from a four-year college.”  Surprised?  You shouldn’t be.  It’s slightly better that the 30% college completion rate of Americans at large, and four times better than the average for the low-income minority population KIPP serves. That’s no mean feat. But the feel-good narrative driven by boosters of these schools — high graduation rates, first kids in their families to go to college, etc. – has tended to obscure how bewilderingly difficult it is to fulfill the mission that schools like Big Name Charter have set for themselves—to get kids not through the next standardized test, but on to college and the royal road to upward mobility and productive adult lives.  

How hard is that?  Bear in mind that based on the 2010 ACT test results, fewer than one in four U.S. high school graduates (24%) are prepared to do C-level work or better in all four tested areas.  That’s ALL college-bound students—not the hard-to-serve students typically served by KIPP and other “no excuses” charters, including the one visited by my correspondent.  Seen through this prism, even closing the achievement gap starts to seem like small beer.   It means nothing less (and nothing more) than bringing under-represented students up to the very same level of mediocrity that has persisted across the board for decades.  

The bottom line: There are undoubtedly process problems in American education.  But the biggest problem is the product.  And rather than face up to this, many of our most dynamic and energetic education leaders remain committed to the best possible delivery of the worst possible product.  Billions of dollars and countless energy expended in search of ways to build the best possible Edsel.  
 
I remain deeply impressed by the purposefulness, energy, positive school tone, etc. of the best of the “no excuses” schools.  But to answer the question “Are these schools effective?” will take many more years.  My best guess is that absent a much more rigorous course of study, an end to our obsession with skills-focused education, and getting over our long-standing aversion to a content-rich curriculum, you will over time see a fadeout.  Many of the kids in these schools will do well, and certainly far better than they would have otherwise.   Many more will regress to the mean.  And then we will conclude that the issue is poor teaching, lack of accountability, incentives, unions, the inevitable effects of poverty, lack of parental support and blah, blah, blah.

And no one will think to mention the curriculum.

“An Inescapable Moral Challenge”

by Robert Pondiscio
April 25th, 2011

For every charter school recently opened in Harlem, two Catholic schools have had to close because of financial trouble, observes Sol Stern in City Journal.  It’s a pattern that is mirrored across New York City.  “Since inner-city Catholic schools have historically provided lifesaving educational choices for minorities and the poor,” he writes, ”the result has been a net loss of good schools for Gotham.”

Stern’s piece profiles Harlem’s St. Aloysius School, a pre-K through eighth-grade Catholic school, which has essentially “charterized” itself to survive.  The school’s board last year broke away from the New York archdiocese and reconstituted itself as an independent Catholic school.  “St. Aloysius is now something like a charter school within the city’s Catholic education sector,” Stern writes. 

St. Aloysius easily bests neighborhood schools on standardized tests despite a refusal to make testing and test prep a centerpiece of its classroom practice.  (“At St. Aloysius, there are no teacher bonuses tied to testing, students receive no special recognition for high scores, and very little test prep takes place,” Stern writes.)  It also more than matches the results posted by the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy, featured prominently in Waiting for Superman.   And St. Aloysius gets these results for about $9000 per pupil per year–less than half of the cost of New York’s neighborhood schools and the roughly $13,000 that charter schools get from the city.    Stern says several factors may explain the school’s success, including extended learning time and separating boys and girls beginning in the sixth grade.

“It doesn’t take long, though, for a visitor to discover St. Aloysius’s most powerful asset: the rich content of its classroom instruction. St. Aloysius exemplifies the old-fashioned notion that school is a place where children learn about our civilization’s shared knowledge and values and where teachers remain the undisputed authorities in the classroom, imparting that knowledge and those values through a coherent grade-by-grade curriculum. This traditional approach has stood the test of time and is still proving itself today in many inner-city Catholic schools, in the “no excuses” charter schools operated by the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), in schools that have adopted E. D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum, and, to some extent, even in run-of-the-mill Massachusetts public schools that adhere to that state’s back-to-basics curriculum reforms.”

 Such schools, Stern writes, represent “an inescapable moral challenge” to the education-philanthropy community. 

“It is painfully obvious that without a rescue effort, the number of Catholic schools in neighborhoods like Harlem will continue to shrink. The money certainly exists to mount such a rescue; for years, this glittering city has been awash in private philanthropic and foundation funds—hundreds of millions and perhaps billions of dollars—spent on an assortment of education-reform schemes, including charter schools, the creation of small public high schools, and bonuses for teachers and administrators.”

 When a school “that creates such effective classrooms for disadvantaged children, and that also builds character and personal responsibility in its students, still has to worry about where next year’s dollars will come from” he concludes “there remains a fundamental imbalance in these charitable efforts.”

Preach!

Ed Reform as the Compliance Police

by Robert Pondiscio
November 8th, 2010

Has the battle cry of ed reform evolved from “Just win, baby!” to “Just comply, baby?”

Time was when ed reform had a single focus:  accountability for results, observes Fordham’s Mike Petrilli.   But now, frustrated with the glacial pace of improvement and results, the impulse is to push for “change anywhere, anytime, anyhow—even if that means engaging in the same sort of regulating and rule-making and program-creating and money-spending  that we once abhorred.”

The most obvious example Petrilli cites is Race to the Top which, rather than reward results, “lavished money on those jurisdictions willing to pledge themselves to a set of prescriptive reforms.”   Then too, there are reformers pushing teacher quality who ”rightly point out that today’s evaluation systems are a total joke,” Petrilli writes. 

“But here’s their mistake: they are doing this pushing primarily at the state level, even though states don’t employ teachers—districts do. Of course, the reformers understand this, and thus have started to worry about how to “implement” statewide teacher evaluation systems. How do you make sure that districts, and principals, actually use the new evaluation instruments that the state develops? That they truly differentiate among teachers, and take action accordingly? There’s only one way to be sure: we’d better have a strategy to enforce compliance.”

The choice reformers face is between results-based reforms like charter schools or process-based reforms, like improved teacher evaluations,” Mike argues. 

“A smart person once said that the true test of one’s character isn’t how one handles adversity, but how one handles power. The school reform movement performed magnificently when facing adversity. But now that it has power, is it going to stick to its focus on results, or is it going to become the compliance police instead? Hold on to power (for benign purposes, of course!) or give it away?”

Tight on ends, loose on means do it my way.

Picking Fights With Friends

by Robert Pondiscio
October 14th, 2010

I have long lauded Sara Mead as one of the few voices in ed reform who truly get it on the importance of curriculum and instruction.  Last week she expressed frustration with the lack of attention in Waiting for Superman to what actually happens in the classroom.  It’s not just the movie, I noted in response.  Ed reform in general is indifferent to instruction and curriculum.  Sara’s latest post takes some issue with that and accuses me of painting with too broad a brush.   

I’ll concede the point for the most part.  Beyond the “specific and narrow set of voices that are trotted out as the counterpoint to teachers unions,” she writes, there is a broader group of reformers who are deeply engaged on instruction.  She cites the reaction to Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion as an example.  Citing Rick Hess’ work she observes that focusing on instruction and ignoring structural change “is unlikely to produce dramatic and sustained improvements.”

“But on the flip side, even if I had a magic fiat wand I could wave and fix all the structural issues today, that would still leave a lot of curricular and instruction problems that would prevent our schools from delivering the results we need for kids. Case in point: D.C., where a strong charter school law provides many of the structural conditions reformers are seeking, but we’ve got a lot of lousy charters–in many cases because of their failure to deliver solid instruction and curriculum. Ultimately, structural reforms deliver improved outcomes only by changing what children experience in their classrooms and schools. Reform narratives that assume structural reforms alone will generate better results without improvements in curriculum or instruction risk offering an underpants gnome theory of educational improvement.

This is precisely the issue.  Structural changes are a means to an end.  If their purpose is not to improve the end product, then what’s the point?  If the charter school across the street from a failing district school offers the same watered down curriculum, then it’s merely offering a second flavor of bad.  If it uses data  to diagnose reading problems and prescribes an extra dose of ineffective reading strategy instruction or additional test prep, forgive me if I don’t see that as revolutionary, interesting, or anything other than counterproductive.  If larding on more of what isn’t working leads the school to conclude that the teacher is the problem, then we’re truly chasing our tails. 

My lone complaint about Sara’s post is her conclusion that if those of us who are focused on teaching and learning “want to engage more reformers more productively around curriculum and instruction, they need to start thinking creatively about ways to overcome these factors–not just complain about them.”  I think Mead underestimates the tunnel vision of many ed reformers (I remember one who dismissed curriculum reform as “mom and apple pie”).   On the flip side, I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone who suggests curriculum alone is the road to improvement.  There are too many moving parts to credibly think pulling any one lever is the answer.  So I’ll be clear: Charter schools?  Love ‘em.  Teacher quality?  Hugely important.  Curriculum reform rests on effective implementation.  Data?  Yes, please.  More, more, more.  Accountabilty?  You betcha.  (But would it be OK if we agree what I’m supposed to teach and how you’re going to assess it before you make broad, sweeping conclusions about my effectiveness. Pretty please?). 

Let’s be frank: Ed reform needs to raise its game on curriculum and instruction.  Schools on the leading edge of ed reform, especially ”no excuses” charters, may be doing a bang-up job getting low-income minority kids into college.  But their college success rates are still nothing to brag about.  Academic preparedness is strictly a function of better curriculum and improved instruction.  I’ll take Mead’s advice and temper my “complaining” about ed reform.  And perhaps ed reform structuralists will take a longer view and acknowledge that there are a few holes in their theories of change that might be plugged by attending more closely to curriculum and delivery of instruction.

Rick Hess Is No Dan Brown

by Robert Pondiscio
July 15th, 2010

I Write Like” got it wrong.  Rick Hess isn’t Dan Brown.  He’s Thomas Paine.  Some common sense here.  And here.

“Black Parents vs. the Teachers’ Union”

by Robert Pondiscio
June 4th, 2010

Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff sees a ”sharply rising struggle between teachers’ unions and black parents” in the battles over charter schools in New York City.   A legendary and often controversial columnist at the aggressively left-leaning weekly, Hentoff notes he is a staunch union advocate, but is “plain disgusted at the low point that the union crusade against charter schools has reached.”

“In Harlem, where thousands of parents apply for charter schools on civil rights grounds, State Senator Bill Perkins—whose civil liberties record I’ve previously praised in this column—is in danger of losing his seat because of his fierce opposition to charter schools. The UFT contributes to his campaigns. His opponent, Basil Smikle—who has worked for Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Bill Clinton Foundation, and, unfortunately, Michael Bloomberg—says: “Education has galvanized the community.” Also galvanized is the two-million-member state AFL-CIO, which has declared that a vote in the state legislature to expand the number of charter schools is anti-union.”

It is important to acknowledge, Hentoff says ”that some charter school managements are engaged in old-fashioned self-dealing and arrant unethical behavior that require strict accounting.”  He also acknowledges “very justified criticisms” of charter schools that turn away special-ed students, ELLs and other hard-to-teach children. 

However, one in five Harlem parents now send their children to charter schools, while thousands more remain on waiting lists.   ”My question to leaders of organized labor (including the other big national union, the National Education Association): Are these black parents stupid or so gullible that, seeing so many other parents mobilizing for charter schools, they go with the crowd?” Hentoff asks.

Hentoff, who famously upset colleagues at the Voice when he came out against abortion several years ago, may have done it again.

The Beauty of “I Don’t Know”

by Robert Pondiscio
April 26th, 2010

What doomed Stanford’s charter school?  Ask anyone in the ed policy world and the chances are pretty good they’ll have a strong opinion.  Chances are equally good that opinion will reflect their views on ed policy in general.  Writing at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Dan Willingham looks at the chatter among edbloggers about the Stanford New Schools story and sees “confirmation bias”—the tendency to see seek out or interpret evidence in a way that confirms your preconceived notions.

“Education conservatives can point to the school’s abysmally low scores on California’s standardized tests, and point out (either with glee or with artificial dolor) that this outcome was all too predictable, given the school’s philosophy of child-centered learning.  Education liberals can point to the school’s excellent high school graduation and college matriculation rates and point out (either with self-righteousness or with anger) that the school’s closing is a predictable consequence of the current obsession standardized test scores. I’ve even seen the argument that the low test scores are badge of honor, because they show that the school would not stoop to drilling students, or to cheating on standardized tests.

Stanford and Linda Darling-Hammond are symbols, Willingham notes, and “icons of progressivism in education” and that colors our response to the story.  “Most of us already have strong beliefs on these topics, and so when new, ambiguous information is presented, it is hard not to interpret it in light of our beliefs,” he writes. 

So what really happened at Stanford?  Did the school deserve its fate?  Was it undermined by poor leadership?  Lousy teachers?  Lack of a curriculum? Was there a plan in place to fix what ailed the school.  “None of this was reported in the press, so it’s not really possible to analyze what’s going on at the school with any subtlety,” observes Willingham who says while it’s hard to argue that the school was succeeding, he doesn’t know why or whether or not it deserved to be shut down. 

The three most underused and unappreciated words in education policy may very well be “I don’t know.”  Having a “take” is more important than having the facts.  And the absence of the latter is rarely an impediment to the former.  Kudos to Willingham for calling it like he sees it.  And not calling it when he can’t.