Saturday, April 27, 2019

Charter Lessons From Democracy Prep

I was as unimpressed as anyone when education privatization fan Campbell Brown launched the 74 site as a platform for the same old "Charters schools rule, public schools drool" song and dance. But since that launch, and particularly since Brown stepped away from the site, the straight journalism side of the operation has done some commendable work (though the propaganda side is still frying up its same old baloney).

You can ignore the site, but then you're going to miss pieces of reporting like this piece about Democracy Prep. It is detailed, thorough, and pretty unflinching about some of the chartery problems that DP has created for itself.

DP, launched in NYC, is now spread across the country, and the story by Kevin Mahnken highlights how portions of that expansion have not gone so well. When DP took over "flagging" Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas, the transition was shocking to the students and parents, who had to weather a shift to an entirely new school culture.

The problem with DP culture clashing with community culture is a particularly striking in a school that centers its brand on civic involvement. DP requires its seniors to do a Change the World project in which they study and come up with a plan to address a real community issue. But the issues in Las Vegas all stem from DP simply coming in with a plan to run a school implemented and overseen by people far, far away, and with little apparent regard for what the school's previous culture had been like. Here's DPAC Executive Director (because principals are passe, I guess) Adam Johnson analyzing what went wrong:

Johnson said he was prepared to see faculty members leave; atop the annoyance of having to reapply, teachers were being asked to work a longer day and answer to a new, unfamiliar boss. But he said he “never expected” the flight of families from his newborn school in the middle of its first year.

The shift in culture, particularly around school discipline — Democracy Prep operates on a demerit system in which students can routinely be dinged for infractions like tardiness and uniform violations — likely alienated students, he said.

“One school year ago they were in the same building, in the same seats, maybe looking at the same teacher. And now that teacher’s enforcing a whole different set of rules. If you could imagine getting your mind wrapped around [that] as a child, you’d say, ‘You’re telling me I can’t do this? We literally just did this four months ago in your second-period class. Why can’t we do it now?’”

The "new" school also threw new requirements at students like a requirement to learn Korean. The swift turnover of staff left many students without familiar faces and mentors, and threw extra load on the teachers who remained.

Unsurprisingly, it was upperclasspersons who were most rattled by the change-- only seven of the thirty-one seniors who began the year actually graduated. Reading the account, I'm wondering if there really was nobody who thought this through. Almost anyone who's worked in education is familiar with the practice of phasing a new program, growing it up from the lower grades rather than traying to wrench the upper grades into all new practices with little time to adjust and little time to fix problems that might arise. But not only does nobody seem to have thought of any sort of transition plan, but the article observes that "setbacks like those seen at DPAC" are "not uncommon in the charter sector." Well, they should be. It's an amateur hour mistake, and one more example of a time when charters have nothing to teach public schools, but plenty to learn from them.

And DP are supposedly experienced takeover/turnaround operators. But then, it appears that most of their experience was in New York City. They scored some sweet federal grant money, and started to expand. It's that expansion that seems to have created trouble. Then CEO Katie Duffy warned the staff of "serious deficits across our network of schools" which seem to have been partly related to financial management, communication and not managing to fill-- and keep filled-- enough seats. It turns out that DP was not such a hot ticket outside NYC. Duffy is on an extended medical leave.

Mahnken notes that weaknesses revealed by expansion had already been there inside the big apple as well. DP is another "no excuses" charter, and those typically have high attrition. DP Harlem students left because of "higher-than-usual" academic standards, and it becomes hard to backfill seats close to graduation. Harlem's DP had 79 students in its first cohort of freshmen; four years later, only 46 seniors graduated.

In the expansion settings, there have been challenges-- different funding levels, different transportation systems, and the problems of austerity measures implemented.

But DP's most spectacular failure is in DC, where their Anacostia campus will close at the end of June. DP Congress Heights was another turnaround of a failing charter, but the turnaround is failing, and was looking for yet another charter operator to come in and take over-- but nobody wants that job. There's another lesson repeated from the charter sector-- for all the talk about doing it For The Kids, nobody is offering to take over this charter because the kids of this community need their school. Instead, they are looking after their own business interests. The school leaders who "inherited" the mess from DP petitioned the DC charter board for a renewed charter, and they were denied. Again, a lesson from the world of privatized education-- resources are not invested because the public has an interest in having a decent school in that community, but instead the expectation is that some private company must bring the resources to the table, and if no company is willing to do that, the community is SOL.

 The DC school was in trouble from the start. The Executive Director was Sean Reidy who graduated from Loyola with a BS in business administration, did two years with TFA, taught another two years at Harlem DP, went on to get his MBA from Georgetown, and then took over the DC school. (DP, like many charters, likes its TFA recruits, but Mahnken doesn't really address that, though I'd argue that the culture of edu-amateurs is part of the root of DP's problems.)

The leadership culture under Reidy was not good. The staff was not on board, and the rigid "no excuses" program was not a good fit. One teacher notes that holding a hard line on all-black shoes "betrayed both an ignorance of the deep poverty in Southeast Washington and an arbitrary observance of the rules." The current CEO of DP responded to the 74 by noting that the uniform code is "clearly communicated," as if that allows families to say, "Oh, well, we'd better plan to not be poor by the time the school year starts."

The head of DC's charter school board was unimpressed by what he saw on a site visit:

Certainly, if you’re taking on a takeover — stepping in and having to reinvent the school, and to do so with literally hundreds of students in the school — it requires strong leadership and excellent execution. And those things were missing. In particular, what I notice on my visits is the culture: Are teachers and staff feeling well taken care of, building strong relationships with students? That was not happening, and that’s what led, I imagine, to the results that we saw.

Reidy was fired and three executive directors passed through the main office in four years.

But on top of the instability, the problem once again came down to culture-- in this case, not getting the difference between NYC and DC. The spectacularly bad example cite by Mahnken was Black History Month. That month is a big deal in DC; at DP, the focus was on "Funbruary," a month of school spirit activities. Teachers had to insist on more content centered on the people and events African-American culture. You can hear the exasperation in teacher Ethiopia Berta's voice when she's quoted: "Frederick Douglass’s house is literally down the street from our school, and we’re celebrating Funbruary."

Has anyone at Democracy Prep learned anything? Well, the current CEO might have:

Trivers said that the lesson she takes from Democracy Prep’s failure in Washington is to adopt a more deliberative approach in opening new schools. She noted that the network was working to open regional offices to better serve its outlying campuses, but she added that it might be necessary to build in a year of observation, consensus building and leadership development before taking the leap.

But DP has scored $21.8 million in Department of Education grant money specifically to expand, so slowing growth could cost them money. The 2016 application promised a goal of four new schools over five years with an expansion of 11,000 students. So the charter chain faces a choice-- do what's best for the students, or do what's best for the business?

There's a lot more to the piece, and I recommend reading it. It hits Democracy Prep hard on the issue of culture clash, but it doesn't necessarily examine why that problem seems baked into the charter chain.

I can think of several lessons here.

Educational amateurism combined with Big Apple hubris leads to people who don't think they have to learn anything about the culture where they want to set up shop. This is not unique to DP, or even charters, or even education-- it's just extra-ironic because DP is supposed to be all about being informed effective citizens. Of course, public schools that are owned and operated by the people in the community (and not run from an office thousands of miles away), aren't so prone to this problem.

No excuses schools are a lousy idea. I know there are students here and there who thrive in them, but they're still a lousy idea. No wealthy white parents would put their kids in a No Excuses school.

One size does not fit all. Charter folks insist that charters are the solution to OSFA, but their insistence on having everything under one roof reflect be a tightly united philosophical whole has the opposite effect. Public schools have room for many cultures and many philosophies under one roof, which means that students can find a corner of the school that "fits" without having to start over at a whole new school. There's no reason that charters can't operate the same way.

Solve problems; don't walk away from them. This article just gives a peek at the world where charter after charter after charter is taken over, turned around, handed off to some other business. DP moves in, tries their one thing, waits, makes some tiny tweaks, and if it fails, they walk away. Public schools may not always live up to the promise of their commitment, but they don't just walk out the door saying, "Good luck, kid. Hope somebody happens by to help you out."

Education concerns and business concerns don't fit together. Again-- business concerns are not evil or wrong, but they don't match the considerations of education. Good business decisions are not good education decisions.

One of the selling points of charters has always been that they will figure out great new things that the rest of the education world can then pick up and run with. But most of what Democracy Prep needed to know they could have learned from a public school teacher.


  1. Unless, of course, you believe (as I do) that all of the above was and is intended. In which case, Democracy Prep is an outstanding success. Disruption rocks! Pretty soon we won't have to worry about that pesky "public" education thing at all.

  2. "... most anyone who's worked in education is familiar with the practice of phasing a new program, growing it up from the lower grades rather than trying to wrench the upper grades into all new practices with little time to adjust and little time to fix problems that might arise."

    Exactly the problem in our school district, which launched competency-based education for our high school freshman, instead of launching it in first grade and letting it percolate to the top.

    Only 25 percent of freshmen will have shown competency in algebra to move onto geometry.

    Utter failure