Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Writer Who Couldn't Answer Standardized Test Questions About Her Own Work (Again)!

We are in standardized test season, and all across the country, students are taking the Big Standardized Test by which they, their schools, and their teachers will be judged. How absurd are these tests? Meet Sara Holbrook, the writer who couldn't answer test questions about her own work.
Back in 2017, Holbrook wrote an essay for Huffington Post entitled, "I Can't Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions About My Own Poems." The writer had discovered that two of her poems were part of the Texas STAAR state assessment tests, and she was a bit startled to discover that she was unable to answer some of the questions.
She certainly looks smart enough
One reason was simple inaccuracy. One question asked why the poet had inserted a stanza break in a particular spot-- and then didn't insert a stanza break in the testing materials. But there was a second issue. Holbrook is a performance poet, and she had inserted the break at the point where, in live readings, she pauses. That choice was not one of the choices available on the test.
In fact, much of Holbrook's issue with the questions was a sort of existential dilemma. Several questions asked, directly or indirectly, for the test taker to judge the author's intentions. The author knew some of her intentions, sort of remembered others, and had others that were layered and complex. But the manufacturers of the test--who had never asked her about any of this--provided only four choices that did not allow her to choose the answer that she knew to be correct.
Now, it's possible that Holbrook is such an angsty, tortured soul of a poet that she simply does not know her own mind as well as the test manufacturers. But Holbrook does not fit the stereotypical faux image of a poet as a fuzzy-headed artiste. She has held writing jobs in the real world, such as Director of Communications for legal giant Jones Day and Public Information Officer for the public housing authority in Cleveland. She knows what it takes to succeed as a business writer, and she says, "the questions on these tests are not it." She works as an educator and consultant, bringing writing and performance skills into the classroom. Rather than conclude that she does not know her own work, we should instead conclude that the test designers write bad questions. Or as Holbrook herself puts it, "Anytime we ask questions about author intent, we have stepped off the pedagogical sidewalk and into muck."
I reached out to Holbrook recently because the same thing happened to her again. This time a poem of hers was included in a test prep package from Mentoring Minds, LP. The poem itself is called "Walking on the Boundaries of Change," from the book Walking on the Boundaries of Change, Boyds Mills Press, 1998. (Mentoring Minds LP is a Texas corporation, and the previous two poems included in the STAAR test are from the same book, so perhaps Holbrook has some Texas fans who are passing around one copy of her work.) The poem is printed here with the author's permission:
Walking on the Boundaries of Change
Day by day
a tightrope,
walking on the boundaries
of change.
One step --
firm, familiar,
the next step --
shaky, strange.
Some friends

will dare danger,
mock or push each step.
Some friends
knock your confidence.
Real friends
form a net.

It's a simple, sharp moment that captures an emotional picture in some simple images. It's hard to imagine dissecting this with test questions without beating some of the life out of it. Yet Mentoring Minds LD has come up with eight questions.
I cannot reproduce any of the eight questions accompanying the poem here, because the materials include a robust copyright notice that includes phrases such as "maximum extent of the law." But once again, the questions turn on the issue of word choice, central message, and which part of the poem does things "best," all of which hinge on the test taker's interpretation of the poet's intent. And all are multiple choice questions with four possible answers, the kind of test structure that, Holbrook says, causes "students to grow up believing the right interpretation of anything is out there on the internet, and to discredit their own thoughts."
Holbrook, as a poet and an educator, has several thoughts about remedies to these sorts of tests. "Parents, demand to see the test prep materials. Teachers, don't waste time on test prep: you can't teach nonsense. Administrators, take the money you are spending on test prep and spend it on classroom libraries instead. There are no quick fixes. Kids need to read and write voluminously." She advocates for transparency. "If a bike helmet fails to protect a child from injury, consumers can sue the manufacturer. These tests are injurious, but shrouded in secrecy and thereby beyond the reach of most teachers and all parents."
To approach any poem with the notion that each word has one and only one correct reading when language at its most rich involves shades and layers or meaning--what my old college writing professor called "the ambiguity that enriches"--is one way to stifle thinking in students. In many states, we are doing it in grades K through 12.
There are so many layers to Holbrook's situation. The test manufacturers could have contacted her and talked to her about her poem (though Common Core architect David Coleman would argue that doing so was both unnecessary and undesirable), but they didn't. So here we sit, in a bizarre universe where the test writer knows the "correct" answer for a question about a poem, but the person who wrote the poem does not. And at least Holbrook has the option of publicly saying, "Hey, wait a minute," which is more than the deceased authors used for testing can do. But she was only able to do so because somebody risked punishment by sharing test materials with her. Particularly ironic is Mentoring Minds' promise to build critical thinking skills in students, even as Holbrook, by taking reading, writing and speaking out to students in living, breathing, dynamic workshops, is doing far more to promote critical thinking than can be accomplished by challenging students to guess which one of four available answers an unseen test writer has deemed "correct."

Monday, May 20, 2019

19 Rules For Life (2019 edition)

I first posted this list when I turned 60, and have revisited it many times. Now that my birthday has reappeared. I thought I'd start the practice of annually revisiting and revising it. I will keep my original observation-- that this list does not represent any particular signs of wisdom on my part, because I discovered these rules much in the same way that a dim cow discovers an electric fence.

1. Don't be a dick.

There is no excuse for being mean on purpose. Life will provide ample occasions on which you will hurt other people, either through ignorance or just because sometimes life puts us on collision courses with others and people get hurt. There is enough hurt and trouble and disappointment and rejection  naturally occurring in the world; there is no reason to deliberately go out of your way to add more.

There's a lesson here, somewhere.
2. Do better.

You are not necessarily going to be great. But you can always be better. You can always do a better job today than you did yesterday. Make better choices. Do better. You can always do better.

3. Tell the truth.

Words matter. Do not use them as tools with which to attack the world or attempt to pry prizes out of your fellow humans (see Rule #1). Say what you understand to be true. Life is too short to put your name to a lie. This does not mean that every word out of your mouth is some sort of Pronouncement from God. Nor does it mean you must be unkind. But you simply can't speak words that you know to be untrue.

4. Seek to understand.

Do not seek comfort or confirmation. Do not simply look for ways to prove what you already believe. Seek to understand, and always be open to the possibility that what you knew to be true yesterday must be rewritten today in the light of new, better understanding. Ignoring evidence you don't like because you want to protect your cherished beliefs is not good.

5. Listen and pay attention.

Shut up, listen, watch, and pay attention. How else will you seek understanding? Watch carefully. Really see. Really hear. People in particular, even the ones who lie, will tell you who they are if you just pay attention. Your life is happening right now, and the idea of Special Moments just tricks us into ignoring a million other moments that are just as important. Also, love is not a thing you do at people-- to say that you care about someone even as you don't actually hear or see them is a lie.

6. Be grateful.

You are the recipient of all sorts of bounty that you didn't earn. Call it the grace of God or good fortune, but be grateful for the gifts you have been given. You did not make yourself. Nobody owes you anything, but you owe God/the Universe/fate everything. I have been hugely fortunate/blessed/privileged; I would have to be some sort of huge dope to grab all that life has given me and say, "This is mine. I made this. It's all because I'm so richly deserving." I've been given gifts, and the only rational response I can think of is to be grateful.

7. Mind the 5%

95% of life is silly foolishness that humans just made up and then pretended had some Great Significance. Only about 5% really matters, has real value. Don't spend energy, worry, fret, concern, time, stress on the other 95%.  The trick is that every person has a different idea of what constitutes the 5%, and sometimes the path to honoring and loving that other person is to indulge their 5%.

8. Take care of the people around you.

"What difference can one person make" is a dumb question. It is impossible for any individual human to avoid making a difference. Every day you make a difference either for good or bad. People cross your path. You either makes their lives a little better or you don't. Choose to make them better. The opportunity to make the world a better place is right in front of your face every day; it just happens to look like other people (including the annoying ones).

9. Commit.

If you're going to do it, do it. Commitment lives on in the days when love and passion are too tired to get off the couch. Also, commitment is like food. You don't eat on Monday and then say, "Well, that takes care of that. I don't need to think about eating for another week or so. " Commitment must be renewed regularly.

10. Shut up and do the work

While I recognize there are successful people who ignore this rule, this is my list, so these are my rules. And my rule is: Stop talking about how hard you're working or what a great job you're doing or what tremendous obstacles you're overcoming. In short, stop delivering variations on, "Hey, look at me do this work! Look at me!" Note, however, there is a difference between "Hey, lookit me do this work" and "Hey, look at this important work that needs to be done." Ask the ego check question-- if you could do the work under the condition that nobody would ever know that you did it, would you still sign up? If the answer isn't "yes," as yourself why not.

11.  Assume good intent.

Do not assume that everyone who disagrees with you is either evil or stupid. They may well be either, or both-- but make them prove it. People mostly see themselves as following a set of rules that makes sense to them. If you can understand their set of rules, you can understand why they do what they do. Doesn't mean you'll like it any better, but you may have a basis for trying to talk to them about it. And as a bare minimum, you will see yourself operating in a world where people are trying to do the right thing, rather than a hostile universe filled with senseless evil idiots. It's a happier, more hopeful way to see the world. But yeah-- there are still evil dopes in the world.

12. Don't waste time on people who are not serious.

Some people are just not serious people. They don't use words seriously. They don't have a serious understanding of other people or their actions or the consequences of those actions. They can be silly or careless or mean, but whatever batch of words they are tossing together, they are not serious about them. They are not guided by principle or empathy or anything substantial. Note: do not mistake grimness for seriousness and do not mistake joy and fun for the absence of seriousness.

13. Don't forget the point.

Whatever it is you're doing, don't lose sight of the point. Don't lose sight of the objective. It's basic Drivers Ed 101. If you look a foot in front of the car, you'll wander all over the road. If you stare right at the tree you want to miss, you will drive right into it. Where you look is where you go. Keep your eye on the goal. Remember your purpose. And don't try to shorthand it; don't imagine that you know the path that guarantees the outcome you want. Focus on the point (even if it's a goal that you may never reach) because otherwise you will miss Really Good Stuff because you  had too many fixed ideas about what the path to your destination is supposed to look like.

14. People are complicated (mostly)

People grow up. People learn things. People have a day on which their peculiar batch of quirks is just what the day needs. Awful people can have good moments, and good people can have awful moments-- it's a mistake to assume that someone is all one thing or another. Nobody can be safely written off and ignored completely. Corollary: nobody can be unquestioningly trusted and uncritically accepted all the time. People are a mixed mess of stuff. Trying to sort folks into good guys and bad guys is a fool's game.

15. Say "yes."

Doors will appear on your path. Open them even if they are not exactly what you were expecting or looking for. Don't simply fight or flee everything that surprises or challenges you (but don't be a dope about it, either). Most of what I've screwed up in life came from reacting in fear-- not sensible evaluation of potential problems, but just visceral fear. Most of what is good about my life has come from saying "yes." And most of that is not at all what I would have expected or planned for.

16. Make something.

Music, art, refurbished furniture, machinery. Something. 

17. Show up.

The first rule of all relationships is that you have to show up. And you have to fully show up. People cannot have a relationship with someone who isn't there, and that includes someone who looks kind of like they're there but who isn't really there. You have to show up.

18. Refine your core.

Know who you are. Strip the definition of yourself of references to situation and circumstance; don't make the definition about your car, your hair, your job, your house. The more compact your definition of self, the less it will be buffeted and beaten by changes in circumstance. Note: this is good work to do long before you, say, retire from a lifelong career.

19. How you treat people is about you, not about them.

It's useful to understand this because it frees you from the need to be a great agent of justice in the world, meting out rewards and punishments based on what you think about what people have done or said. It also gives you power back that you give up when your stance is that you have to wait to see what someone says or does before you react to it. Treat people well because that's how you should treat people, not because you have decided they deserve it. But don't be a dope; if someone shows you that they will always bite you in the hand, it's prudent to stop offering them your hand. 

Sunday, May 19, 2019

ICYMI: Birthday Eve Edition (5/19)

Might even eat some cake today just to warm up. You know the drill, folks. Read and share. Read and share. Only you can help amplify voices in the web-o-sphere.

A Letter To Journalists About Dark Money

A great little primer here from Massachusetts, where dark money tried to make charter schools happen.

Curriculum for Profit and Propaganda  

Alan Singer takes a look at the newfound interest in curriculum among the reformnoscenti.

Open and Accessible?

A Chalkbeat reporter tries to attend ten charter school  meetings in a month. It doesn't go well.

Gates Funded Commission To Put Value on College Education

Just in case you were worried that Bill Gates might be done messing with education.

I was a white teacher who couldn't talk about race.    

Sarah Fine with an open and honest look at her own journey. If you only read one piece this week...

About charter schools-- and Betsy DeVos

Larry Campbell will not make you guess what he really feels.

At Excel Academy, a confrontation that never should have happened

An ugly encounter between a racist and students. For your "I can't believe this kind of crap still happens" file.

Better To Be Born Rich 

A Georgetown study tracked kindergartners from 1989. Turns out that test scores don't change your future, but the economics of your family pretty well set it.

What Do Teachers Really Want From Professional Development? Respect.

Yes, somebody gets it.

Dear STAR Test, We Need To Talk, Again  

Another crappy standardized test. This time it's reading.

Jeanne Allen  

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider digs deep for the story of the crankiest reformster of them all.

The New But Not Necessarily Improved ASD

Tennessee's Achievement School District was a model for how the state could take over a bunch of schools and work miracles. Only it couldn't. But the ASD is still thrashing away down there.

Avenue to the Stars  

Have Your Heard looks at the intersection of school and the free market

Jeb Bush's A+ Disaster

A look at how Florida is still paying the price for Jeb! Bush and his edureformerific ideas.

Are School Playgrounds Still Empty?   

Nancy Bailey looks at the issue of littles with no chance to run and play.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Center for Education Reform Doesn't Love Bernie

If you have any doubts about the effect of Bernie Sander's education proposals, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform tossed off a somewhat apoplectic newsletter after Sanders went public. Here's some sample frothing:

Sanders’ comments - yelling about transparency (which of course exists) or regulation (which charters have plenty of!) and accountability (which is the very essence of charters) - are almost as bad as when Randi Weingarten, AFT Union’s leader, called charters the polite second cousin of segregation.

But transparency doesn't exist for charters, charters have far too little regulation, and consequently, many charters are completely unaccountable. For just one mild example, look at this recent piece about trying to attend charter board meetings in Detroit.

While they have a tough job, it is a fact that traditional public schools are failing to educate more than 60% of students well in math, reading, history, civics, you name it. We also know that a charter school in any neighborhood puts pressure on the standard public schools around it to do better.

It is not a fact. That 60% uneducated figure is 100% bullshit. Nor do we know any such thing about so-called charter "pressure."

It drives unions crazy that charters do so well and are allowed to operate outside of their control, so the teachers unions have launched an all-out war on charter schools. Now they are spreading disinformation that charter schools are hurting kids in regular public schools, or are dangerously siphoning off public funding, or are in other ways “failures” — when nothing could be further from the truth.

Allen hates unions more than she loves charters. Still making stuff up here. Check the NPE report on wasted dollars-- and that's just federal dollars.

When Sanders’ friends at the unions can’t shut down charters outright, they are trying to unionize them to control and redirect them from within. This is the major threat to charter schools in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C. – and more are on their way.

Yup, those unions are a major threat. Teachers at charters might start thinking they have rights, or ought to be paid, or have a say in how their work is done.

Allen wants charter fans to do three things

* Raise your voice on Facebook, on Twitter and in your own social networks. Say it out loud - we expect our leaders and politicians to help all students succeed and embrace all kinds of schools. Parents are a child’s first teacher - they should be able to determine what kind of education works best.
* Write letters to the editor in your local paper. Get the facts on charters to share - at edreform.com we have information and links to data from all education opportunity focused groups.
* Your Congressman and Senators have to hear from you! Tell them you expect them to support all forms of education, that you will not tolerate these comments from Bernie Sanders or anyone else, and that your vote depends on their recognizing that charter schools work and are a critical part of education today and in the future.

These are three good pieces of advice. I suggest that supporters of public education do the same. 

Bernie Sanders' Education Platform Doesn't Suck

The big headline on Friday was that Bernie Sanders was going to call for a ban on for-profit charters, and if the story had stopped there, I would be unimpressed. Hillary Clinton managed to condemn for-profits, and while that's a nice low-hanging fruit for politicians to grab, regular readers of this blog know that a non-profit charter is usually just a for-profit charter with a good money laundering system.

The good news, however, is that the story didn't end there. In fact, some of the other details in the coverage were far more encouraging than the headline. "Doesn't suck" is a low bar to clear, but think how few national candidates have cleared it, and Sanders actually clears it by quite a bit.

We can get the best look at Bernie's education platform by simply going to his website. I know!! A major political candidate with an actual education page in their site. It's called "A Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education," and while I suggest you take a look, let me hit the highlights for you.

The introduction isn't great. The world has changed so education must, too. The damned PISA test rankings. We should lead the world in college degrees. So far I'm unimpressed. But he also notes that K-12 has become re-segregated, and that has had bad effects for non-wealthy non-white students. Then there's free college. And making teaching attractive again.

Now we're down to the bullet items.

1. Combating racial discrimination and school segregation.

The USED Office of Civil Rights needs to be back in business. More non-white school teachers are needed. End the disparate discipline of Black students, and end the school-to-prison pipeline.

That means increasing funding for community-driven de-segregation strategies. Triple Title I funding. Fund expanded teacher training programs at HBCU. This means actually trying to do something about the issue, for a change.

2. End the Unaccountable Profit-Motive of Charter Schools

The language here is much stronger than that which was reported. Noting that charters had roots in teacher and parent activism...

But few charter schools have lived up to their promise. Instead, billionaires like DeVos and the Waltons, together with private equity and hedge fund executives, have bankrolled their expansion and poured tens of millions into school board and other local elections with the hope of privatizing public schools. Charter schools are led by unaccountable, private bodies, and their growth has drained funding from the public school system.

That's far broader than simply slamming for-profits. And though the ban is there in his proposals, he also calls for far more accountability for all charters. That's good, because my bet is that a simple for-profit ban simply causes more for-profits to create shells for masquerading as non-profits. And this:

We do not need two schools systems; we need to invest in our public schools system.

3. Equitable funding for public schools.

Rethink property tax based funding. Set a per-pupil spending floor. Look out for rural schools. Fund CTE. And this is where the Title I boost comes. My usual complaint here is that fixing school funding is hard to do from federal level.

4. Strengthen IDEA.

Over 40 years ago, the federal government made a promise to school districts around the country to fund 40 percent of the cost of special education. It is an understatement to point out that the federal government has not come close to keeping this promise.


5. Give teachers a much-deserved raise and empower them to teach.

As with the Kamala Harris proposal, I'm not sure how you do much about teacher pay from the federal level. But he gets some stuff right here, like protecting tenure and collective bargaining rights, triple deduction for educator expenses, and create a grant program for classroom materials. "Empower teachers to provide teacher-supported curriculum that gives students the best possible education," which is pretty vague wordage, were we not coming off twenty years of the feds doing the exact opposite. Honestly, my dream Democrat is one who says, "Here's a list of issues that we can't really fix from the federal level, so we're not even going to try."

6. Expand after school/ summer education programs

$5 billion for this.

7. Universal school meals.

Including incentives for local sourcing.

8. Community schools.

This is the school as a community center concept. Those of us in rural settings already know how this works, but as with most people who address it, Bernie completely misses the main problem. Being a community center type of school calls for easy and ready access to the school-- a place where lots of folks can come and go. The era of school security hardening has ended this in many places.

9. School infrastructure.

Crumbling schools need money.

10. Make schools a safe and inclusive place for all.

Lot of "ensure" here, plus some gun laws and Title IX enforcement.

Is it a perfect package? Does it cancel out the issues surrounding electing another old white guy? Is Bernie done being confused about education?

Who knows. For the moment, let's enjoy the fact that one major candidate has identified public education as a major issue and created one of the best education platforms we've seen in ages. This is where a lot of long, hard activism and advocacy and reaching out has finally paid off. And it's not just about Bernie-- I'm going to hope that some of the other 147 Democratic hopefuls grab a hint and a clue and decide to actually pay attention to public education, too. He has certainly touched a few charter supporter nerves.

We've got a long stretch before the primaries, an even longer stretch before the election. Here's hoping a few more people wake up to the dismantling and privatization of the public education system. If Bernie Sanders helps get that message heard, than I'm all for it. If he pushes Elizabeth Warren to add these kinds of policies to her promise to hire a teacher as Secretary of Education--well, wouldn't that be something.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Diane Ravitch's New Book: Scholarship, Activism and History

Diane Ravitch was the first major voice of the resistance to the modern corporate "reform" of education, in part because of her newsworthy turn from the reform ideas and peers she had previously embraced. An education historian, she has laid out the problems with the recent assaults on public education in several solid and well-built books (with another one on the way).

But Ravitch is a tireless voice beyond the books, with numerous appearances, interviews, and writings. Her social media presence has been unrelenting, and her writing output is prodigious-- Huffington Post, New York Review of Books, newspapers and periodicals around the country, and her own blog. Ravitch's blog is like the Rick's of public education advocacy. Ravitch has been a generous amplifier of other voices (mine included), but the blog is animated by her own sensibility-- sharp, knowledgeable, witty, and intensely focused on preserving what is valuable in US public education and exposing the workings of privatizers and profiteers who seek to dismantle it.

To read all of Ravitch's articles and blog posts would have been a challenge, up until the publishing by Garn Press of The Wisdom and Wit of Diane Ravitch, a volume that collects many of her best short pieces from a wide variety of sources.

Because it's a large collection of short pieces, the book lends itself being read any number of ways, including simply skipping around and looking for the topics that you're interested in. But its chronological organization also makes it effective as an on-the-spot history. The very first piece takes us back to March of 2010 and the Wall Street Journal; "Why I Changed My Mind About School Reform" puts at the beginning of Ravitch's journey from conservative ed reform player and foot soldier to her new role as a leading voice against those same reforms.

From there, it's interesting to watch some of the web of ed reform be spun out-- particularly because one aspect of modern ed reform is to constantly rewrite the past. Common Core? Never heard of it. Boy, all this testing is terrible, and I have no idea how it ever became such a big deal.

Remember when Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice led a task force that decided we'd better adopt Common Core Standards as a matter or national security? Remember when everyone actually believed that teachers wrote the standards, back before we'd unraveled and spread the truth? Remember the first time that Eva Moskowitz went head-to-head against Bill DeBlasio? Remember when some people still believed the Chinese schools were a model to follow? Remember when we learned that Cory Booker and Mark Zuckerberg had made a million dollar hash of things in New Jersey? Ravitch was paying attention to all of that, and it's here in the book.

This is perhaps Ravitch's greatest strength, beyond even her muscular intellect and her laser-sharp wit-- she has been paying attention, and she still is paying attention. It is the challenge of issue fatigue. Almost anyone who is invested in an issue of public policy has moments when they say, "Never mind-- I'm going to go hide in a tent for a week and catch my breath" or "No, this is the 143rd sub-issue that's come up, and I just can't keep tabs on that, too." But Ravitch never seems to lose the wind from her sails (despite periodic announcements that she's going to slow down, really, this time she means it), and all of us who care about these issues benefit from her attention.

For her other books, Ravitch is able to synthesize pictures of a whole bunch of trees into a comprehensible rendering of a large and complicated forest. Wisdom and Wit collects an album of tree images, sharp and clear and close up, with the full forest in the background. It's a great introduction to some of the issues over the last decade for people who have not been paying close attention, and it's a strong, sharp reminder of some of the specific battles even if you have been paying attention. All told in Ravitch's distinctive and clear voice; this is a much more personal conversation than you find in her other books (It would be great fun if Garn could convince her to do an audio book version.)

An excellent choice for an addition to your pile of summer books. In fact, the short pieces even make this a good beach read. Order your copy today.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Miracle School's Secret Sauce

Here's news of yet another miraculous charter school. Can we look closely and see what the secret of their success might be.

Southland College Prep School in Chicagoland had 100% of its mostly-Black graduating class accepted to college. It's the sixth straight year for this achievement, and it's been covered widely in the area. The school is the only charter high school in the state to earn an exemplary rating, and it seems devoid of the kind of nasty undertones of T.M. Landry Prep, another miracle school that turned out to be much less than a miracle.

So if Southland is one of the charters from which public schools can learn something, what can they learn.

Well, there's the usual attrition thing. The 116 graduating seniors started out as 163 freshmen. So between the self-selection process of application and the self-unselection process of leaving the school, Southland gets to have a culture of students and families who are committed to the educational goals.

There's the school day. Southland students are in school for nine hours.

There's the course requirement, which is higher than the course requirement for most schools in the region.

There's the school size, which is small enough for a personal touch. The school serves 530 students, smaller than the small town/rural high school where I taught. However, Southland has a teacher-student ratio of 12-1 or 13-1 or 15-1, depending on who's telling you. Both administration and staff have been pretty stable.

And Southland "depends on philanthropic support" to keep its programs and extracurriculars going. And it has a Parent-Teacher organization with a goal of 100% parental participation (and a $10 membership fee).

Does the PR puff things up a bit? Sure. According to the Niche website, while Southland touts its many high-level college attenders, a large percentage are heading to Illinois State or U of IL at Urbana. And hey-- college is college. If you care about test scores, the school has 42% reading proficiency and 22% math.  And they've been at this long enough for there to be numbers on how many Southland graduates finish the colleges they were accepted to. According to the Illinois Report Card, 75% of the class of 2016 needed remedial courses at community college-- but on closer examination, that amounts to 12 out of the 16 students who went on to community college.

And while 100% of the grads have been accepted to college, the report card shows that in 2016, shows that 85% actually enrolled. Which is still not too shabby. And roughly half of the student body is free or reduced lunch. I couldn't find any numbers on students with special needs.

I am not here to slam Southland. If every charter looked like this, we'd be having a different charter conversation in this country. Is 100% college acceptance the goal for all schools to shoot for? Certainly not. But for an explicitly college prep high school, it makes a certain amount of sense.

But back to my main point-- is there something here that public schools can learn from? Let's check the list:

Small school with small classes.

More hours in the school day.

Extra financial support.

Involved and supportive families.

High academic requirements.

Shaking loose any students who don't feel the school is for them.

Do you see anything there that folks working in public education don't already know? No, neither do I. There isn't a public school in the country that doesn't already know that it could thrive given these tools. To every politician and critic who points at a Southland and asks public schools, "Why can't you do that?" The answer is, "We could-- if you let us play by those rules. Of course, you'll have to think of something to do with all the students and families who decide that that level of intensity is not for them."

The secret formula for "miracle" schools (well, real ones and not the ones that are completely faking it) is the same as always-- committed students, committed families, extra time and money, lots of support and resources, high standards, and an open exit door for those who don't want to meet those standards. Basically, most of the things that public schools ask for when policy makers say, "Nah, we'd rather go open some charter schools instead."

This is one of the great sources of frustration and grievance when it comes to public schools versus charters. Public school advocates feel as if they're having a version of this conversation:

Public school: If you would let us have a good set of oil paints, we could create a great mural.

Policy guys: No, that's too expensive and messy and you just can't have them.

Public school: Fine. We'll try to make do with these old water colors. And-- hey, who took our brushes?!

Policy guys: Wow, that's an ugly painting. You should try to create something more beautiful like they did over at the Amazing Charter School. You could learn a thing or two from them.

Public school: Yeah, that's not bad. How'd they do that?

Policy guys: We got them a good set of oil paints. Also, we gave them your brushes.