Thursday, November 12, 2015

Do Public Schools Take Everyone

Hillary Clinton said something bad about charters this week, and a whole lot of people lost their bananas.

What Clinton said was that charters neither take nor keep any or all students. This is pretty self-evident at this point, as we have all just emerged from a dust-up over the most recent time that Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy got caught pushing another charter student to the curb. This was followed by Mike Petrilli arguing, again, that charters should be in the mission of rescuing the deserving few from being trapped among the "disruptive" throng.

This has led us to the odd hybrid argument that throwing out problem students is a privilege of the rich. Depending on who's articulating this argument, the bottom line is either "charters that serve poor strivers should have the same privilege" or "neener neener neener."

Robert Pondiscio articulates the argument at the Fordham blog under the headline, "No, Hillary, public schools do not 'take everybody'."

He starts with the story of a student forced out of an affluent school district, and provides the budget line item of another well-to-do district that spends roughly $63K per student for various outplacement. Pondiscio and others present this as a smoking gun that public schools don't take all comers, and that is just as bad (on twitter, Pondiscio said it's actually worse).

Pondiscio is correct in suggesting that the treatment in his anecdote is inexcusable, but he's wrong in thinking that the budget figure proves his point. But he's correct in saying that public schools do not "take" every student. So let me nuance my assertion a bit--

Punlic schools must take responsibility for every student.

In my school district, we are responsible for matching every student in our district with an appropriate educational setting. For students with developmental or intellectual challenges, that means a classroom that meets their special needs. For students with emotional challenges, that means a classroom that gives special attention and support for their particular issues. For students who step too far over certain lines, threatening the safety of themselves or others, that may mean outplacement in one of several facilities that allow juveniles to continue their education while paying whatever price their infraction may have incurred.

The beauty of all these programs is that they are mostly under one roof, so that students facing particular challenges may transition seamlessly into a "regular" classroom environment.

No student change in placement occurs without due process, and the school district cannot wash their hands of any student. Whatever classroom that student is placed in, whatever educational program they are receiving, it is the school district's legal obligation to make sure that student's educational needs are being met.

And this still-- still-- different from a charter, where once the kid is out the door, charter operators can say, "Not our problem any more. Somebody else will have to worry about that kid." Somebody else is always the public system.

I think there are several other holes in Pondiscio's argument.

Perhaps there are public schools that “take everybody.” But one thing is certain: If you are the bright son or daughter of affluent parents, chronic classroom disruption is foreign to your school experience. If you encounter it all, you can be confident that it won't last long.

No "perhaps." The country is loaded with public schools that do just that. But to claim that bright students in affluent schools never experience chronic classroom discussions is an odd assertion, as if bright sons and daughters of affluent parents are never themselves the source of such disruption. But as with drug use, class and race have nothing to do with who transgresses-- only with how those transgressors are treated when caught.

This is one other difference between affluent and poor schools-- in affluent schools, the parents of students with special needs know their rights and they have a lawyer to call, but in poor schools, not so much. I have no way of knowing, but I will bet that some of that budgetary expense is not about outsourcing a difficult student, but about a parent demanding that their child be allowed to attend a specialized facility at district expense.

Further, Pondiscio makes the same mistake that Petrilli did in believing that disruptiveness is a static, stable, quality, and that we can somehow identify every child who possesses that quality and select them out, like setting up a school for only right-handed students. First, disruptiveness is in the eye of the beholder. Your idea of disruption might be my idea of the best high-energy-and-excitement day in my classroom ever. But a student's disruptiveness is a function of day, time, classroom, development, environment and the relative humidity on any given day. To imagine that we can simply identify and separate out the disruptive students-- well, that's a fantasy.

More importantly, a disruptive student is most commonly delivering a message that roughly translates as, "I need something."

To ignore that clear indicator of need is to fail as an educational establishment. It is as bad as looking at a failing grade on a test and thinking, "Well, this kid sucks." A failing grade on my test is a signal about what instructional needs that student still hasn't had met. It's not a problem. It's information.

What was most appalling to me in the most recent Moskowitz flap was the image of the six year old child, curled up under a desk, shaking and crying. How in the hell does anybody see that child and not think, "This is child is hurting and needs my help." How in the hell does anybody look at that and think, "This child has got to go."

It is an abdication of the most fundamental responsibilities of an educator or an educational establishment to turn your back on a child in need. For any school to look at a child and say, "This child needs too much. Send it away." is the most inexcusable stance a school can take. It appalls me in a public school, and much of my reaction to modern charters is because that is their stance by design-- "This child needs too much. We won't take responsibility for it." is not an admirable policy position for a school.

But I have wandered from the bottom line here, which is this-- don't students deserve a classroom that is safe  and stable and free of disruption? And the answer is yes, yes they do.

But keeping a classroom free of disruption is not best accomplished by sweeping up all the disruptive students and shipping them out. It comes from an administration that maintains a safe and stable school environment. It comes from a classroom teacher who maintains a safe and stable classroom environment. And it comes from a system that identifies student needs and meets them, whatever they might be. It's not about shipping out the "bad" students so that the "good" students can learn properly. It's about meeting the needs of all students.

Any school that instead simply throws away students whose needs it doesn't feel like meeting-- that's a failing school. When a public school does that, it is breaking the law.  When a charter school does it, they're just following policy.

This is one of the most tiresome claims of charters-- that they have somehow invented a new wheel. But a chimpanzee would be "successful" teaching a classroom of students carefully selected for their lack of challenging characteristics. This is not news. It's like a doctor who announces that he has discovered the secret to success-- turning away all sick people from his office. Yes, it makes your numbers look good-- but that's not the gig. The mission of public education is to educate all children. If you're not trying to educate all children, you may be running some sort of school, but you are not part of public education.

Here are two comments from our twitter conversation this morning:

These are fair concerns. Pondiscio and other charter fans seem to see low-SES schools as irreparable disaster areas which some students escape by the blind luck of having affluent parents, while poor students are stuck there. What is wrong, they ask, with rescuing at least some of those students from the chaos and mess of low-SES schools? Demanding that charters operate under the same crappy conditions as low-SES schools seems counterproductive to them, like demanding that dieters must fry their low-fat meals in lard.

Charter schools-- as currently implemented-- are not a solution. If ten children are sitting at a table with inadequate meals in front of them, taking half the plate of nine and giving it all to just one is not a solution. Charter fans propose to leave the majority of low-ses students behind and justify it by saying those are just the disruptive ones, the non-strivers, the undeserving. Equity is not equally sucky schools for all low-SES families, but it also not even suckier schools for low-SES families with shiny charter schools for the fortunate chosen few. Pondiscio is right to criticize public school advocates who attack charters but do not call for better conditions in low-SES schools. Public school advocates are right to criticize charter fans who suggest that as long as a few students can get into charters, we don't need to talk about better classroom conditions for low-SES students left behind. But "access" is not enough, because it is not a plan for everybody.

In fact, if we want to look for an area of agreement in the midst of this, it may be in the belief that low-SES schools need to be better-- better supported, better resourced, better led and better staffed. We disagree about what "better" means, about where things stand now, and about what actions and policies will improve the situation.

I don't know for sure how we move forward from there, and I don't have a snappy ending to this piece (pro curmudgucation reading tip: when I'm first starting to sort out an issue, it turns up in long rambly posts that mimic the wandering of my brain). The big irony is, of course, that while we're spinning arguments off her brief comment, Clinton's spokesperson has already walked things back so that charters will understand that Clinton loves them just fine.


  1. <<< Pondiscio and other charter fans

    Pondiscio is not a charter fan. Pondiscio is a fan of of schools that help low-SES kids get a good education--whether they are charter, traditional publics, parochial, or home schooling. The public's interest is served by an educated citizenry. How that is accomplished--under whose roof, under whose control or on who's dime--has never particularly concerned me much. Toward that end this...

    <<< Pondiscio is right to criticize public school advocates who attack charters but do not call for better conditions in low-SES schools. appreciated.


    1. How Pondiscio can rant about wealthy schools who get rid of disruptions and use that to justify charters doing the same is beyond me. Is it not better, more constructive, to attack problems at the source - those wealthy $63K/student schools - than it is to drain the coffers of lower-income public schools to support private charters who engage in educational and emotional abuse and malpractice? Pondiscio, as a former teacher, should know better.

      It should absolutely concern Pondiscio on *whose* dime education occurs; as a taxpayer, does he not want his taxes going to schools that have solid grounding in the science of and learning, of intellectual and emotional and social development, and which are willing to be transparent about where *his* dime is being spent? If it only fails to concern Pondiscio how *others'* dimes are spent, that would be nothing to write home about or admit publicly. I would say that the vast majority of the Twittersphere - at least those not already blocked by Pondiscio, anyway - DO can for better conditions in low-SES schools; if he is not aware of this, he's not trying very hard.

    2. Sorry, typos at the bottom (fat fingers, tiny window):
      "I would say that the vast majority of the Twittersphere who aren't charter fans - at least those not already blocked by Pondiscio, anyway - DO call for better conditions in low-SES schools; if he is not aware of this, he's not trying very hard, or is perhaps remaining purposefully ignorant."

    3. Well, as to Pondiscio's argument that things aren't "disruptive" at wealthier schools -- this is just false. And often it is the relatively well-off kids who are the disruptors. And the two things that would help lower SES schools -- being sufficiently resourced is one, and the other super-important thing is not having fake administrators.

  2. More importantly, a disruptive student is most commonly delivering a message that roughly translates as, "I need something."

    Put this in lights! And then note that two very obvious ways of cutting down on disruption in public school classes are ignored by these "safe space" charter advocates because they cost money: smaller class sizes, and enough funding for additional services, like genuine counseling (not counselors with student loads of 750), breakfast and lunch, paraprofessional support for students with special needs, other wrap-around services. Any teacher who has taught some classes of 18-20 kids and others of 35-40 kids knows from experience that there are fewer "disruptive" students when the classes are smaller and the teacher is able to give more individual attention to every student. And students who are hungry, students who don't sleep well because they don't have a safe place to sleep, students in "dysfunctional" families, students who are facing difficult life circumstances and need emotional support -- those students sometimes get "disruptive," too. I remember the "aha" moment when I realized that the symptoms of "attention deficit disorder" and the symptoms of "post traumatic stress syndrome" can be identical, and that many of my ELL students, who were refugees from war-torn countries, were exhibiting signs of post-traumatic stress. Where could they go for support?

    Private schools serving the wealthy have much smaller class sizes, and the students often have additional support from therapists, tutors, etc. paid for by their wealthy parents as well as the school. Charter schools supplement the money they get from the taxpayers with large donations, so they are taking in more money per student than public schools are (even as many of them refuse to serve the neediest kids -- or don't even have to refuse them because less "functional" parents don't even seek them out).

    Sidwell Friends advertises class sizes of 10-16 students, in addition to counseling and other types of support. It charges $37,750 a year per student, plus additional fees for extra programs. When public schools get that kind of financial support, might those lower SES kids experience less "disruption" and a "better education" than they do in public schools?

  3. "What is wrong, they ask, with rescuing at least some of those students from the chaos and mess of low-SES schools?"

    Nothing "wrong" with it; but like any "rescue" it has to be within the bounds of reality: and that reality draws closer when we focus on the "rescue" of children from inadequate or non-existent housing and health care, from poor nutrition or just lack of daily calories, and every other socio-economic ill that they've been unfairly saddled with.

    You can't "rescue" kids from bad schools unless you first rescue them from all of the social ills caused by our "Winner Takes All/Market Determines All" social and cultural pathology.

    One more thing: EVERY charter enthusiast I've ever heard has said, "I'm in favor of what works!" which, for many, is just a "soft" and subtle way of saying "I HATE public education and I LOVE charters---but mainly as a means of getting rid of the lazy, incompetent teachers who ONLY have their jobs due to those shitty unions!!!"

    I hope and trust that Mr. Pondiscio is not motivated by such "pro-market everything" delusions. Because almost every single charter backer---from Michelle Rhee, to Eva Moscowitz, to Kevin Johnson, to Whitney Tilson...IS!

  4. Due proce is the key difference. When public schools place a child out of district they pay for that placement, and the know they may have to justify themselves in court. When charters send a kid to another placement, (AKA, back to public school) there is no due process. They don't pay for that decision, and they do not have to justify it.