Tuesday, September 22, 2020

DC: Lessons About Charter Schools

DC schools have a history of being messy. There's the entire checkered history of Michelle Rhee, followed by the entire checkered history of the people either trying to build on or clean up after Michelle Rhee. I'm reminding you of this as context for the revelations that are about to be unintentionally provided about the DC charter sector.

You can get a taste of the mess in the public schools from two pieces of testimonial from Richard Phelps, who came on as Director of Assessment just as Rhee was edging toward the door in 2010.Part One looks at how Phelps worked hard to poll over 500 staff members to come up with concrete improvements for the testing system, which boiled down to a ton of work that was summarily rejected by four central office staff, including Rhee. He was supposed to get the staff to buy in to the crappy existing system, not make it better. The Ed Reform Club. he concluded, was there to exploit DC for its own benefit. Part Two looks at the cheating scandals, most specifically the scandal that never became a story--DCPS's technique of using the test blueprint to teach to the test. In the end, he concludes, despite their rhetoric, school leaders Rhee, Henderson and McGoldrick had no interest in making their system more transparent or acountable.

So in a way, I guess it's not surprising that the charter sector that has blossomed in DC is also filled with the same Ed Reform Club problems. And this comes from looking at a piece, not by a DC charter critic, but by one of their big cheerleaders, who can't help saying some of the quiet parts out loud.

Scott Pearson became the executive director of the Public Charter School Board (DC's authorizer of charters) shortly after Richard Phelps hit town. Previously he'd been in the Obama Ed Department as Deputy of the Office of Innovation and Improvement. He was a charter high school co-founder (Leadership Public Schools in the SF bay area). And before that, of courser, he has zero education background. Acquisitions and strategic planning at AOL, and before that, consultant work at Bain and Company. He's occasionally been involved some regulatory debate, and he did get his picture taken with a student one time. Pearson recently stepped down from that position, and so has written one of those "what we learned" articles.

After the usual self-congratulatory lines about how competition and innovation have raised all boats and the charter sector has obvious benefits, Pearson offers five "key takeaways" from his years in the trench.

1. Remove valid reasons some people hate charter schools.

Pearson says he saw that "scandals, underperformance, and behavior inconsistent with being a public school" had been corrosive to public support. The "behavior inconsistent" thing is a puzzler, since that is supposed to be one of the Good Things about charters. But the important part to note here is that these issues are not education problems--they're PR and marketing problems. His concern is not that these charters have been shafting students and families, but that they've been eroding public support for his market sector.

The fixes he claims are to close one in three charters for underperformance. The worst charters in DC used to be terrible, but now they are "average." He says the NAEP shows the DC charter sector improving faster than any other state or district, which is not that hard if you start out in the basement. They cracked down on charter admissions so that charters actually took all comers, and they closed two schools that were "enriching their founders."

But they didn't go any further "out of a respect for school autonomy and our belief in the power of competition." So no requirement to backfill (which helps charters game their stats) and no ban on suspensions or expulsions (which means their crackdown on admissions didn't mean squat, because charters could still get rid of students they didn't want) and no ban on opening charters, say, right across the street from a public school.

It does not seem to occur to him that competition isn't all that powerful if they had to step in to close one out of three charters for underperforming. Nor does he reflect at any point on how these moves affected students. Instead, his summative question is "Did our efforts quiet all the naysayers?" This was about improving marketing, not providing better education for students.

2. Remove the existential angst.

Mostly this means he reassured folks that his goal was not killing the public system and replacing it with charters. He wrote an op-ed. Through various measures, "we kept our market share below 50%." Because the best way to discuss families and students is to call them market share. Besides, he notes, DCPS under Rhee and Henderson "was turning around, embracing core ed reform principles." Members of the Ed Reform Club don't get in the way of fellow members' market share.

Again, his measure of the effectiveness here is that while it may not have won everyone over, it placated the mayor and kept limiting charter growth off the political radar.

3. The ecosystem is important.

Charter schools have the advantages of "nimbleness, flexibility and freedom from bureaucracy" but have the disadvantage of small scale. In other words, charters are more flexible because they aren't doing all the things a public school is required to do. Pearson likes the DC ecosystem of philanthropists and lots of other services and expertise that a charter can tap into. If you aren't going to stock your own pantry, it's handy to live next door to a bunch of supermarkets and managers who are happy to let you mooch off of them.

4. Context matters.

He starts this section with a whopper-- "Charter schools--open to all--are, in many ways, more 'public' than a system that segregates kids, either through geographic boundaries or exam requirements." Nope-- not if the system doesn't require charters to backfill and lets them expel anyone they feel like expelling.

School segregation in DC is complicated and ever-present, just as it is in the city as a whole. And every large urban system has its own special contexts. What Pearson wants to point out is how chummy everyone is--public schools, charter schools, local government--and his explanation is unintentionally scary:

Perhaps one of the keys to the success of modern education reform in D.C. is that reformers aren’t just charter leaders. They start at the office of the mayor and extend to DCPS and charter leadership. I remember being in a room at one point with the deputy mayor for education, the state superintendent for education, and the chancellor of DCPS. All were Teach for America alumni except me. Many charter leaders used to be DCPS leaders, and many DCPS leaders used to be charter leaders. (Emphasis mine)
An ever-revolving door of education amateurs, all claiming to be education experts and all with no real experience or background. Damn TFA. We were so busy focusing on the baloney of training a teacher in five weeks when more of us should have been paying attention to the part where they created education experts based on two years in the classroom (two years spent by someone who had no intention of staying and so was counting down the days instead of counting up the lessons). So the Ed Reform Club has filled every position of power in DC, thereby encapsulating themselves in a perfect little reformistan bubble of agreement. Spoiler alert: At no point does Pearson conclude that a lesson of DC should be that dissenting voices should be allowed inside the bubble. Just Ed Reform Club members.

5. Crossing the chasm isn't enough.

Pearson shares a theory he's heard from a "prominent national charter school supporter." When charters start out, they're so small they don't attract bad attention, but they become vulnerable when they're too small "to have political clout" but big enough to "have awoken the ire of the education establishment that seeks to kill it." Charters have to get across this chasm so that they are too big to mess with, thanks to the "political bulwark" of "supportive families."

There's a lot to unpack here. First of all, if your exclusive club has captured all of the positions of power in your city, you don't get to talk about other people being the "education establishment." Second of all, if you got outside of your bubble once in a while, you might have a clue or two about why some folks are not fans of your work, and you might even spot some opportunities to improve some things (and not just for a PR boost). Finally, what an image of families-- not as partners, or the people you're there to serve, or even as customers, but as the bricks out of which you build a wall that is supposed to protect you by absorbing attacks against you. Holy shit, dude.

Pearson is wondering why DC charters' market share of 47% isn't better protecting them. Sure, nobody's trying to shut them down, and they're well funded. But "the rise of white progressive politics in the city" plus a re-energized union movement is handing them some fights that they are losing.

Now look at what counts as losing.

"We lost last year when the City Council regulated suspensions and expulsions." So, not being able to discard students at will is a "loss."

"We lost this year when the City Council mandated open charter-school governing -board meetings." It's a "loss" that they can't meet in secret away from any public scrutiny by either taxpayers or parents.

And there are more potential losses "waiting in the wings." Like "limits to growth, teacher representatives on charter boards, efforts to control our spending and our curricula."

Why can't we just hoover up those piles of taxpayer dollars without having to share any power or be accountable to anyone?

Pearson has a theory about why the 47% hasn't protected them. Mainly, it's that on issues that "chip away at our autonomies, our parent bodies aren't with us." They can get parents to protest school closing or funding cuts. But when it comes to things like "restricting suspensions, or mandating minutes of physical education, or specifying the organic content of school breakfast," not so much. Why, it's almost parents are more concerned with services rendered to their children than preserving the precious autonomy of charter school operators. Also, it's almost as if the charter operators make no effort to listen to what parents want.

In fact, Pearson says that the failure to build parent bodies and teaching staff into a political force is because of reasons such as leaders who "are wary of the unintended consequences of having an organized parent or student body." Why, those people might want to be heard. They might want a voice in how the school is run, might want some power and control! Gasp.Pearson does acknowledge that "more than a few have alienated their community" by taking a "my way or the highway" attitude. But somehow he just can't quite connect the dots between that thought and everything else he's said. Again, the problem isn't that such an attitude is a bad way to run a school--it's bad PR, bad marketing. And here he tosses in what I find a fascinating tidbit:

Indeed, it is notable that among our most active charter opponents are 20-somethings who graduated from a D.C. charter in the past decade.

Pearson says "our opponents are getting savvier," which again suggests that opponents of charters are acting out of clever strategies rather than reacting to actual real problems with charter schools. And here he tosses out really crazy idea--

D.C. charters have to get savvier too. That means finding ways to build parent support, even if it ultimately means ceding more voice, and even some control, to members of their community.

First, duh. Second, the fact that this seems like a radical "even if" idea shows you where your problem lies. Third, what the hell is wrong with you that this is something so far removed from what you're inclined to do anyway?

The answer, of course, is that this is the business approach to education, and not even a good business approach that recognizes a need to be responsive and open to the "customers" but instead views business as a marketing challenge and instead of customers, seeks to address a "market" or even, God help us, a "bulwark." This is not the thinking of people who are trying to educate young humans (notice that students and their education barely comes up at all in Pearson's piece), but the thinking of people who are trying to run a successful business. And this is the thinking of people who have Dunning-Kruegered themselves so far from the point of running a school that they don't even know they are saying ridiculous things. 

Add this to my file of evidence that the single biggest problem in education right now is far too many amateurs in charge, and not just amateurs, but amateurs who think their expertise in other areas makes them fit to run a school system. Lord, have mercy.

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