Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Common Schools vs. Diversity

Over at redefinED, a reliable source of reformy pro-school choice arguments, Patrick Gibbons (also a reliable source of pro-school choice arguments) has posted a pretty thoughtful response to the can of worms opened by the Washington state smackdown of charter schools.

In "Common schools and the feat of diversity," Gibbons takes a look back at the actual history of common schools in the US, in particular focusing on how many ways those schools have failed to live up to the promise of public education in this country.

Yet Mann’s common school concept remains a source of conflict today. The ethical and moral lessons of students in a one-size-fits all environment have created a battleground in the American culture wars, from book banning, to the fight against communism in the 1950s, to the fights over textbooks and the Common Core standards.

In this, and in shared criticism that common schools have to often (and still in some places today) reflect the racism and classism of their communities, Gibbons has a point. 

But in his suggestion that charters are the solution, he is indulging in a  fantasy far more reality-deficient that any "romantic vision of free, universal public education."

Gibbons repeatedly slides in the notion that public schools are one-size-fits-all. That's hugely arguable-- most public schools allow a wide variety of students with a wide variety of interests and skills to pursue a wide variety of goals. It is precisely because public schools are NOT one size fits all that the one size fits all reformster ideas one size fits all standards and one size measures all testing have been such fruitless failures.

But even if we were to stipulate to public schools being one size fits all, how can charters possibly be held up as an alternative? Charters are frequently constructed as one size fits some, and only those some are welcome to attend. Nor do they make educational options available to all-- not even close. Charter school systems have been constructed in such a way as to abandon many students to the schools that have, in the process, been stripped of resources. Meanwhile, charter students must select one and only one alternative with little or no room for diversity under their roofs.

A public school is like a department store where students can select a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Do you want to play sports, sing in a choir, prepare to become a doctor, and develop your love for literature while finding your way to teachers whose temperament and style matches your own? You can do that, or any other number of combinations, in a public school. But charter schools are often conceived as boutique shops that sell one product, and one product only, while serving only one narrow kind of customer. Part of the point of diversity in schools is to bring together students from many backgrounds. Some urban schools fail to move toward this goal, but charters are deliberately designed to move away from it.

Gibbons and charter advocates may argue that the sheer number and variety of charters provides the diversity, but in practice that's simply not true. Because it's hard to stay in business as a boutique, many charters don't offer anything other than the same general education as a public school-- just in a charter setting. But only for certain students.

Not all public schools have successfully embraced pluralism and diversity, but neither have charters, and while public schools have been steadily over the years changing and growing and working to embrace those qualities-- because that's what they're expected to and by law required to do-- there is no similar path forward for charters. Those fights that Gibbons references are the result of communities standing up to demand that their public schools reflect community values, while charters answer to nobody, not even the taxpayers who pay the bills.

Gibbons diagnosis of the problem is not entirely wrong, but his solution is no solution at all. Charters have accelerated segregation, drained resources from public schools serving the larger population, and tried to sort students into isolated, homogeneous silos. Common schools have not done a great job embracing diversity, but whatever value charters may add to a school system, it is certainly not their fostering of diversity.

GA: Smiles

This post is not a rant, and I've set aside the snark for the moment.

We don't have cable, so I miss some things until I stumble across them on line. This one in particular struck me somewhere around the left ventricle. I know these are often heavily massaged and we don't get the whole story, but this seems pretty straightforward to me.

It speaks to the resilience of children, who are often way tougher than we give them credit for. It also speaks to the wisdom that says you deal with your own troubles best by helping other people with theirs.

Here is a six year old who, without benefit of recess consultants or carefully scripted curriculum or professional behavior engineering, worked his way out of one of life's lowest spots.

FL: Another Charter Scam

This week news channel Local 10 in Florida has been reporting on the latest charter school to just take the money and run.

On Monday, the station reported on a mass firing at Paramount Charter School in Broward County. About a month into the school year, one by one, the teachers at the freshly launched charter were called into the office of administrator Maia Williams (sister of the school's owner, Kimika Williams Mason) and fired. Well, not all of them-- a few were offered the opportunity to keep their job is they took a pay cut (from $36K to $30K) along with a loss of all benefits.

The news channel has been relentless in noting that Paramount, like all charters, is paid for with taxpayer dollars, but privately owned. Tax dollars sucked up by Paramount so far? Over $740,000, with more to come.

The school has been through three principals, and the teachers complained of a lack of direction, policy, supplies, schedules, locks on the door-- this school is a mess. At the moment, the building is staffed with substitutes, and students complain of spending all day drawing pictures and learning nothing.

Local 10 dug a bit more, and on the second night of coverage rattled off more problems with the charter:

* on the application, Mason's only listed experience is six years with an unsecured home loan service (which is its own brand of scamster baloney). I looked-- Kimika Williams Mason is an online ghost, without so much as a the cheesy LinkdIn profile beloved by corporate reformsters.

* the listed vice-president of the company is a 22-year-old student who did not know she was listed as vp

* the corporate office is actually a virtual office, with just a phone line and e-mail address

There's more-- all bad. The school's honchos were given the chance to comment; Williams led off by grabbing the reporter's camera and demanding he leave. It didn't get much better from there, with a claim that the whole staff had to be fired because of bullying. Or maybe because they were too tight with the last principal to leave.

Paramount has a facebook page and a website, neither of which note the current turmoil (the facebook page hasn't been touched since August). The website does have a nice embedded video from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

As usual, parents have been blindsided and thrown for a loop. The main marketing tool for charters continues to be the use of the word "school" which still comes with all sorts of expectations-- permanence, competence, state oversight so that a parent has the reasonable assurance that nothing too terrible can happen, and if it does, they have a recourse.

But as Paramount demonstrates, charter schools are under no obligation to provide any of those things-- particularly in Florida, where oversight is nearly non-existent. Local 10 talked to Broward School Board member Laurie Levinson, who expressed her frustration over the whole mess. Even though the local board has theoretical oversight of Paramount, unless there is a long-established pattern of bad attendance or a clear and present health risk, they can't do squat.

"Everything is a free-for-all basically," said Levinson. "And the sad part is we're going to find this generation of kids, many of them, who are not educated properly in these schools."

Four charters have folded in the area in the last two years. Millions tax dollars have been wasted and thousands of students have had their educations disrupted (and not that cool, profitable kind of disruption, either). In the meantime, Paramount is one more scam that is perfectly okay under Floroda's Anyone Can Play School charter laws. 

Campbell Brown's charter-loving website just ran a piece calling for tougher policing of bad charters because they sully the name of charters. I'd argue that scams like Paramount sully the name of "schools," and that states like Florida ought to stop letting charter money-sucking scam acts call themselves 'schools" at all. 

Recess Consultants. Seriously.

Kids these days. They just can't be trusted to do anything on their own. We've done our best to structure the hell out of their day, making sure that every answer, every move, every activity is built around a specific uniform required response on their part. By controlling every classroom moment, right down to what books they're allowed to read and what they're supposed to say (stick to the script, kid), we've managed to suck all of that damaging fun out of school.

But what about recess? Granted, some schools have solved the problem by simply getting rid of recess, but what about schools where students just go out there are and run around and interact and play games like Tag or Jumprope or Climbing Dirt or How Fast Can I Run With My Tongue Hanging out. Is there some way that we could step in to make recess less fun and more in keeping with the goal of Making Kids Do What We Want Them To?

Turns out there is. Meet the recess consultants.

Playground consultation has hit the internet lately because of this story from Minnesota in the Star-Tribune. Two schools in Edina are trying out the program from Playworks that replaces all that sloppy, disorderly free play with structured activities and offerings like the "Game of the Week." Not everyone was exactly digging the new structured "adult-facilitated" activity time.

On a day last week, a kindergartner said he wanted to play basketball. A recess coach explained that wasn’t a choice at the time; he decided to play another game.

Playworks can be hired for varying levels of meddling with children's playtime, from a "coach" who "operates" recess to an occasional drop-in meddling coordinator down to training staff how to meddle with recess on their own.

The Star-Tribune piece was followed up by a response, direct from the PR Department of Shut Up You're Not Really Helping. Here are some of the things Shauna McDonald says in support of Playworks' program:

Playworks is the leading nonprofit in our community leveraging the power of play to transform children’s social and emotional health.

Playworks has found that the best way to get all kids in a game or in a variety of games is to create an environment where all participants share the same language, vocabulary, understanding and strategies that they can use to solve conflicts on their own.

It’s about helping schools create an environment where every child has a supported choice and is empowered to be a contributing member of their community.

And I actually find this one the creepiest:

If a child is happiest at recess while engaging in imaginative or free play, this play is encouraged. 

It just conjures up visions of the recess consultant asking a six year old to stop and consider, "Is this running circles really making you happy, Chris? Could you please rate your happiness on a scale from one to ten?"

Playworks wants you to know that their program has been studied by Stanford and Mathematica, and those studies have determined that students learn more, have fewer discipline problems, less bullying and "a greater perception of safety." And there are plenty of schools that say they are happy with how the recess consultants have brought order out of chaos and helped with bullying and inclusion issues.

Maybe I'm just naive. After all, I'm a high school teacher, not an elementary one (I'm not remotely tough enough). I know that bullying and getting left out can make recess suck. But am I supposed to believe that there are elementary staffs out there that don't know how to handle those issues without turning recess into one more adult-controlled part of a kid's day?

Sure, no kid should dread recess because he'll spend it all alone or be the target of bullying. And some of what the Playworks site describes sounds suspiciously like a plain old phys ed class. I'm just not sure this sort of exercise in Borgian assimilation into the adult-facilitated hive mind is a good answer. The Playworks website is loaded with this sort of language:

At Playworks, our goal is to create an environment where safe, healthy play is accessible to everyone. To achieve this, we train adults to create fun, safe, and inclusive playgrounds through games and positive group management techniques. At a Playworks recess, children enjoy fun and interesting games playing alongside engaging adult role models and often student leaders.

That's from a blog post in which Playworks insists that they aren't structuring some sort of robotic playground hell. Just a place where adults call the shots, design the activities, make sure the kids don't play on their own, and talk about "positive group management techniques" like that's a good thing. Where do these people come from? At which college does one get a degree in playground consultancy, and do they also offer degrees in walking in the hall supervision and note-writing oversight?

Maybe we just need helmet cams for every kid, so that monitors can watch the child's every move and make sure nothing goes wrong. "Alert! Alert! Chris is about to pet an unauthorized puppy!" "Call in the napkin consultants-- Pat just drank from the water fountain and left some water dribbling chinward"

At this point I almost looked up some links to research showing the free play is good, but no-- it just depresses me to imagine that we've reached the point where we have to make academic and research-based arguments to support the notion of letting children play, on their own, doing whatever-the-hell they want, free of any adult intervention except when they are veering toward Really Wrong Stuff. Granted, this is not just a school problem-- parents increasingly schedule their children into adult-directed sports and activities for a zillion hours every week. Is it any wonder that by the time they get to me and I ask them to do things like pick an essay topic, develop their own argument, and write about it in their own voices, that some of my students look at me like they've been asked to sing a few choruses in "Puttin on the Ritz" in Sanskirit?

And just in case you think this is some strange Minnesota thing, here's a map of where Playworks has already landed:

So there may be one near you. In the meantime, you may want to set your school up with a recess consultant, as well as a lunch-eating consultant, a nap consultant, and a shoe-tying consultant. If we want to grow the leaders and independent thinkers of tomorrow, we'd better start supervising their every waking moment today.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Stopping Bad Charters

Over at Campbell Brown's Reformsters R Us PR site, charter fan Richard Whitmire addresses the question of how to handle terrible awful no good very bad charter schools. It's an important question, and his five answers are worth discussing. But it's also worth discussing how his answers direct attention to some fundamental charter issues.

Whitmire starts out by acknowledging that the charter movement keeps getting shot in the foot by its own friends. He drops the ball by characterizing charter opponents as either unions or competition-hating superintendents, skipping right past other opposition from groups like "people who care about public education" or "people who don't want schools to be used primarily as money-making tools for investors" or even "people who think the whole charter-choice approach is grossly inefficient and over-expensive." But he does nail his central point-- when charter foes ask why anyone should approve more charters when "so many crappy charters remain in business," they have a point.

Whitmire offers five ways that charter fans can sweep away the junk that is making Charterville look kind of shady and run-down.

Advocates Need To Change Their Mindset

Whitmire argues for quality over popularity. Filled seats and a waiting list don't prove that a school is good. He notes that CREDO research indicates that struggling charter schools can rarely be turned around. Which I would expect-- a public school has external pressures to answer to, while the board of a charter often answers to nobody. And he says this:

"And never justify keeping lousy charters open just because equally bad district schools never get closed. This is not the same thing. “Charter schools are meant to be an improvement over (traditional) public schools,” said [Scott] Pearson. “If not, why are we bothering? If we’re not delivering quality, I don’t think we have a business being in this game.”

It's a good point. Too many charters base their marketing on "the pubic schools here suck" and not "we can do things well."

Charter Advocates Need To Name Names

Yup. It's understandable to want to avoid calling out your own people when you're already under attack. But Whitmire says only California's charter association has the nerve to put charters on a "should close" list. But California's charter association chief says not calling them out is a threat to growth and autonomy.

But this is a great idea. I look forward to when the 74, which promised to follow the stories wherever they lead, starts naming names of bad charter actors.

Identify the Low Bar and Enforce It

Whitmire says states should set a minimum and close charters that fall below it. Good and great can take many forms, Whitmire says, but the bare minimum should be an enforceable universal standard.

Start Advocating-- Loudly-- For Changes In Mushy Laws That Allow Bad Charters To Stay In Business

Whitmire cites two Philly groups for doing so, and really, it's a surprise that more don't do so, because the next phase of the charter market will inevitably be the big players getting rules passed that make it harder to survive the market as a small fish. Charters used political connections and leverage to get the market pried open in the first place, but the next step for any evolving market is for the winners to enlist government help in maintaining their dominance.

The trick is in how the laws are written. If states set a true low standard below which charters can't fall, that's one challenge (particularly if it's test-based-- congratulations Test Prep Academy). But if legislators turn to industry insiders for a little help, we could see standards such as "Good charter schools have a combination of the letter K and a number in their title."

But there's certainly room for better laws in places like Ohio, Charter Junkyard of the East, or North Carolina, where charters are now assumed to be worthy unless someone proves they deserve to be shut down.

Improve Charter Authorizing 

Whitmire correctly notes that in some places (e.g. Kansas City) the incentives are in place to encourage authorizers to open as many charters as possible (Hmmm... wonder how the law ended up being written that way). Whitmire cites Arizona as a state where the charter board was "an embarrassment," but eventually figured things out (he comes just short of calling Ohio an embarrassment today).

There’s a dangerous notion out there that little can be done about weak authorizers. But that’s just wrong. What’s needed is for state politicians to insist that the job gets done.

So there are Whitmire's five thoughts. And if we assume for the moment that I'm not going to get my druthers regarding charters or their mission, then these are not bad thoughts. But for me, it raises  issues.

Embracing Churn

Whitmire's model is at least honest in its assumption that a charter system will involve schools regularly being shut down. And if I'm an economist looking down on a free market sector from high up on a cloud somewhere, that is normal and natural and not at all troubling. But if I'm a family on the ground, where schools are opening and closing and churning and burning-- well, that's not so great. Uprooting children on a regular basis? Not so great.

This is one of the many ways in which a market approach is incompatible with public education-- the free market does not provide a great deal of stability on the individual level (well, at least not until some market leader emerges to turn it into a not-so-free market). Children and their families deserve a stable system, and they benefit from not having to shift and change and retool and re-adjust every fall (and especially not during the year).

When it comes to schools, having a bunch of schools closing every year is not a desirable feature. But with a free charter market, it's not only a feature, but as Whitmire righly suggests, it's a necessity.

Meet the New Boss

Whitmire's article is shot through with calls, some direct and some not-so, for state regulation of charters.

Now, I don't have a problem with that. I would absolutely love to see states regulate the hell out of charters. But it doesn't really make sense for charteristas to like the idea, because it underlines a flaw in their whole premise.

After all-- the whole point of charters is to operate outside the heavy hand of government regulation and interference. Except that outside the hand of government regulation, we find lots of crappy charters. So we bring in the hand of government regulation to keep tings in line. Which means now we have two alternatives-- public schools that are locally run but regulated by the state, or charter schools that are locally run but regulated by the state. And if the charter regulations are going to be different in ways that are supposedly good for education, then why not use those better regulations for public schools.

It's possible that the long game is, as with many industries, to capture the controls of the regulatory agencies so that the regulations are just what charter operators would like them to be. But for that to happen the charter biz would have to be far more unified than it is now.

If ultimately we've got to call in the state to make sure that charters are accountable and run right and aren't corrupt crappy cons-- well, what's the point of having charters in the first place?

So I don't disagree with what Whitmire has to say, but it leads me back to the same old conclusion that charter schools as currently practiced don't do anything new or different except channel public tax dollars to private corporate pockets while increasing the total cost of education to a community (and suck the blood out of public schools in the process). More carefully regulating charters will just make charters less different from public schools.

Charter Investment Seminar with Walton, Gates and DFER

Well, gosh. I don't know how I missed this one.

Last March 10, the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored a seminar in Manhattan about how to make money in the charter school game.

The program was a who's who of charter school profiteers. Whitney Tilson, top dog of D[sic]FER was the keynote speaker for "Bonds and Blackboards: Investing in Charter Schools" His kickoff was followed by such sexy fare as "State of Charter School Facilities Financing," "Authorizers and Lenders: What Can We Learn From Each Other," and "Assessing a Charter School: Investor Voices." A panel on future trends promised to cover this info:

Discussion about tools market participants can utilize to create a more efficient market, such as: pools, credit enhancement, more state involvement, etc. Discussion will include trends in borrower characteristics and continued disclosure needs.

The panels included lots of folks from the financial sector, including Bank of America, Prudential Financial, Wells Capital Management, and the Charter School Growth Fund. And look-- here's our old friend Rebecca Sibilia, now famous for suggesting that public school bankruptcy is a great opportunity. There are some folks from the ed biz itself there, like KIPP, Achievement First, and the New Orleans Parish School Board.

Oh, and the United States Department of Education sent Clifton Jones to sit on a panel (the one about future trends).

You'll be glad to know that the agenda indicates that at no point were these folks distracted by anything about actual students or actual education. This could as easily have been a conference about investing in pork belly futures or weasel farms. When you ask me why I'm so opposed to the idea of schools as an open investment market for hedge fundies and venture capitalists, this is why-- because in that environment, the actual business of schools is not even in the top five concerns. This is not unique to their interest in education-- when they invest in widget factories or goat farms or pharmaceutical companies, they are never interested in widgets or goats or medicine, but just the money to be made, and in this way, they have not particularly made America a better place. But when you extend this money-grubbing behavior to education, you get the erosion and destruction of a cornerstone of a democratic society.

There were, of course, no educators at this seminar. Why would there be? It had nothing to do with education. Besides, it was a Tuesday-- we were all in school actually doing the work of educating students.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Can Philly Super Do His Job?

Today the Daily News in Philly ran an editorial declaring, "Let Philly Schools Chief Hite Do His Job." The editorial writer is pretty much full of it; nevertheless, I agree that Hite should get to do his job. In fact, I wish somebody would make him do his job.

The issue at hand seems to be that Superintendent Hite is getting ready to privatize some more of the Philly school district. Some of the charter operators being brought in include Big Picture Foundation of Rhode Island and the ever-delightful Renaissance schools.

I could get into the issue of charters taking over public schools, or the track record of these particular operators, or the history of Hite and the Philly district. But I don't want to draw attention away from the most striking part of this story.

The superintendent of a major public school district is turning public schools over to charter operators.

The union says that the schools are failing because they've been starved for resources. The Daily News, saying that these schools stunk even in flush times in Philly, calls out other factors--

In fact, the thread that binds all of the schools on the list is that they are failing to educate the students who attend them. Their test scores are lower than low, some have experienced high turnover of principals and leadership staff, some have problems with school safety.

Well, if that's true and these schools have been mismanaged, led poorly, and not given the tools they need to succeed, then Hite should go right to the top, stomp into the office of the person who has the power and responsibility to-- oh. Wait a minute.I know that Philly schools are their own special kind of mess, but isn't Superintendent Hite the guy who is responsible for the failure or success of those public schools?

Help me understand. How is this NOT like the Senator Jerkovich from East Blattsfogel calling a press conference to say, "The senator from East Blattsfogel is doing a terrible job, and I think somebody should impeach him right now!" How is this NOT like the CEO of General Widgets declaring, "The management of our West Oshwoggle plant is terrible. They don't have enough support from the main office, so the only choice is to sell it to another company." How is this NOT like the head of a cafeteria announcing, "The food here is terrible, so we're going to bring in McDonald's to provide lunches."

How is this NOT like somebody whacking themselves in the head with a hammer and declaring, "This really hurts. I guess I'll have to have somebody cut my head off."

Is Hite impotent? Clueless? Because there are only a couple of possibilities here.

Possibility one: Hite has no idea how to fix the problems in those schools, no clue how to staff them, no inkling of how to get them the resources they need. So he's going to bring in charter operators to do what he doesn't know how to do himself. In which case the question really is, can Hite do his job?

Possibility two: Hite knows exactly what those schools need, and he has identified these charter operators as takeover candidates because he believes that they will provide what the schools need. In which case, if he knows what needs to be done, why can't he can do it himself?

It would seem that the Daily News' question is misplaced. It looks to me like it's not a matter of letting Hite do his job, but rather the challenge of getting him to do his. I don't know if he's clueless, powerless, or simply unwilling to do his job. But a superintendent's job is to safeguard, support, and strengthen the public school system in order to serve all the students in the district-- not to throw up his hands and abdicate his responsibilities by selling off the pieces of what should be a community resource so that somebody else can make a buck.