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John Thompson

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It Is Time for Charter and Neighborhood School Teachers to Unite

Posted: 09/22/11 11:43 AM ET

At my age, I can play basketball with high school kids but only if I do some cheating. So, I am sympathetic with the idea that charters are so young that they need to foul their opponents a little to outscore neighborhood schools. It is time, however, for charters to stop seeking an unfair advantage, and play their game without undercutting the competition in high-poverty regular schools.

We have to give credit to the young generation of education "reformers" for a political game as dirty as that of the cagiest old veteran hatchet men. "Reform" has been an unholy combination of competition with command and control. Accountability hawks revere choice and they demand the freedom for their charters to innovate. At the same time, these "reformers," who grant autonomy to charters, deny it to neighborhood schools. While selective schools are freed to experiment, neighborhood schools are subjected to top down micromanaging, curriculum pacing, and scripted instruction.

To get back to the basketball metaphor, advocates of market-driven competition are like a player who wants to push off to gain some space for his offense, but not be called for elbowing the opponent down. Charters get an extra boost by screening out or weeding out the most challenging students. They also get help from advocates of data-driven accountability who have imposed suicidal teaching methods on neighborhood schools.

When "reformers" are wearing their choice hat, they can adopt any imaginative form of instruction they want in order to provide holistic learning opportunities to their students. When wearing their accountability hat, they can impose a counter-productive policy of narrowed curriculum and nonstop test prep on regular schools. In Joel Klein's New York City, to give the most blatant example, "reformers" were able to devise their own game plan, while imposing a dysfunctional system on their opponents. Schools that were deemed to have "earned" their autonomy, received unlimited resources and freedom to provide engaging instruction. Klein called the policy "earned autonomy." A better description of this social engineering would be inherited dignity and unearned disrespect.

As charters and small schools were freed from their fair share of the most difficult-to-educate kids, the remaining schools not only faced a tougher challenge but they were also subjected to the fear and intimidation resulting from impossible growth targets being imposed from above. When principals with the most troubled student bodies were given the same type of score growth targets as selective schools, self-defeating methods of instruction became inevitable.

In a rational world, "reformers" would see that the two mainstays of their agenda are inherently contradictory. Demanding widespread choice, while also mandating top down accountability for the remaining schools is like telling a basketball team to run a zone and man-to-man coverage on every play. In a less polarized world, charter operators would not want to be done unto others what they would never want done unto them.

At this point, having given a friendly little jab to the ribs of charters, I would like to change gears. Take the latest report by Tom Kane et. al, which is already being spun as evidence that choice works, even though it did not document increases in student performance. Bill Gates' top social scientists have created an increasing convoluted model. If the lowest performing neighborhood schools could be magically replaced with average charters, that offer more college preparatory assistance, college completion would increase. These model-builders, again, could not control for peer effects. But, "reformers" buried the lede, which was the scholars' admission of that fact! Kane et. al did what I am asking and concluded, "It makes little sense to hold schools accountable for outcomes they can not control."

As the economists slowly adjust their models to fit educational realities, reformers who actually work in schools could become the most valuable allies of teachers in neighborhood schools. Two new studies of successful charters are noteworthy. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study concluded that "No Excuses" charters in Boston outperformed regular schools with similar demographics, while charters in the suburbs did not. Similarly, the CREDO study of the New Orleans Recovery School District found that their charters outperformed regulars. Neither sets of charters had the "same students," but, to my knowledge, neither have consciously "creamed" large numbers of the easier-to-educate kids. My understanding is that these few charters are getting better performance with somewhat similar students.

So, let's start the clock on a fairer competition. Several "No Excuses" charters have shown their stuff in a system where they are allowed to enforce their attendance, behavioral, and academic standards. They can do so because charters are supported by a huge alternative school system. It is called the neighborhood schools. So, please, reformers who are in actual schools, who are wrestling with many problems of regular schools, it is time for you to join us in demanding alternative services which will allow neighborhood schools to create respectful learning cultures.

Secondly, in contrast to the wonks who see schools from 30,000 feet, charter school leaders understand the role of peer pressure. So, please join us in resisting value-added models for teacher evaluations that cannot account for concentrations of more difficult-to-educate students.

Charter school leaders on the ground have learned of the power of socio-emotional factors. As opposed to the theorists, they now recognize the limits of instruction-driven "reforms." Experience has shown the need to teach the student, not just the subject. The best charters start by teaching students how to be students. The best charters understand the need to teach "grit," resilience, and self-control. The best charters are admitting that it is easier to use data-driven instruction to raise math scores, than it is to boost reading scores, especially with students from poverty who lack background knowledge. Reformers who have actually been in the classroom recently, understand that the key to increasing student performance is teaching reading for comprehension so that kids can "read to learn."

The "reform" strategy of providing choice for some and top down coercion for most, though irrational as an educational policy, was a smart political tactic. As selective charters grow, leaving behind more intense concentrations of generational poverty in neighborhood schools, "reformers" could continue with the silly claim that competition has worked as the "status quo" failed. However, the best charters operators understand that they cannot completely replace regular schools. Those who have proven themselves should now welcome a fair competition. They should tithe by continuing to take on more of the most difficult students, and maybe get to the point where they serve as many as we do in neighborhood schools. More importantly, real educators, whether they work in charters or regular schools, should join in opposing the social engineering of the accountability hawks. After all, its prime victims are the kids.

So, charter educators who are making progress, please accept my sincere congratulations. And please, help liberate us from the suicidal policies that your allies are dumping on the teachers, and the students, in neighborhood schools.

 

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