Is the Charter School “Experiment” Truly Over?

Last week, President Donald Trump declared “mission accomplished” when it comes to charter schools and school choice, noting that the experiment is now over and charters have clearly won the day.

While one might be able to make such a claim in New Orleans, New York City, Chicago, or DC, are we really ready to declare victory across the nation? I look at the school district that gave me my high school diploma — in Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia — and wonder what charters would mean in a community like that, if charters even existed in a community like that.

With so few communities experiencing charter schools — and with most of those that have being limited to our large, urban cities — can we really declare the experiment over? Is it done when we simply have too few test subjects to render a full and complete decision?

These are some of the questions I explore on the latest edition of #TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network. Give it a listen. You won’t be disappointed.

“Dream, Then Do” When It Comes to #STEM Teaching, Learning

For more than a decade, we have been talking about STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) education in the United States. For much of that time, though, our discussions haven’t evolved much. In too many corners of the conversation, we focus exclusively on how to teach math and science, mostly relying on the same methods and the same approaches we have used for generations.

It’s only been recently that we’ve acknowledged, for instance, the need to better address the T and the E in the conversation, particularly as we now look to add coding and computer science to the K-12 curriculum (and as we search for teachers prepared in leading such instructional pursuits). And we now embrace the idea of transforming STEM to STEAM, seeing how the arts (particularly music) can better connect the academics of STEM to the students of today. 
Eduflack has been fortunate to spend recent years looking specifically at how we can revolutionize teacher education to take full advantage of the opportunities available through STEM education. In states like Georgia, Indiana, and New Jersey, we have worked with dozens of universities to transform their existing STEM teacher preparation efforts, ensuring strong pipelines of effective educators for high-need schools that possess both the content knowledge and the pedagological skills to succeed. 

And through the work of the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning, we are now taking that even a step further, exploring how gaming, assisted reality, rich clinical experiences, project-based learning, and a time-independent program void of credit hours and Carnegie units can do a more effective job preparing prospective teachers for the rigors of STEM education in both the schools of today and the learning environments of tomorrow. 

Recently, I had the privilege to travel to Israel to see how a “start-up nation” focused on technological opportunities is addressing STEM education today. The ORT Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network is essentially a network of nearly 100 charter high schools focused on STEM instruction. Everything is taught in a dual-language environment (English and Hebrew), with many of the schools in the northern part of the nation adding the third language of Arabic to meet the needs of their Arab students. 

At every instance, the educators at ORT seek to use personalized learning to help connect STEM lessons to the STEM learner. They embrace the use of technology in the classroom, including the instructional applications of students using their own smartphones while in class. ORT actively recruits teachers who have developed meaningful content knowledge in the private sector, bringing their experiences as developers and designers for names such as Microsoft and Google into the K-12 classroom. 

Visiting schools across the country, I witnessed STEM seamlessly integrated with English language instruction and literature and even the Bible. One educator remarked that “this is a creative thinking place for teachers.” In multiple schools, I heard educators speak of changing “the exclamation points to question marks in learning,” meaning to them that instead of teachers offering the definitive word on everything taught, they saw their role as inspiring their students to ask questions and seek answers. 

“Kids don’t have to change. Let them be curious,” one technology teacher told me. “Teachers need to change.” 

And one engineer-turned-educator summed up his direction to his students as, “today you can dream, tomorrow you can do.” 

The students respond in kind, seeing project-based instruction as, “relevant to us.”  

As I was meeting with a group of students in Northern Israel, I inquired whether they preferred this new, project-based, STEAM-focused instructional model to the previous ways they were taught, the room exploded with a combination of rapid Hebrew, followed by laughter from some of the teachers. Clearly my meager mastery of the English language and my pathetic understanding of Spanish wasn’t going to help me, so I asked one of the teachers for a little assistance. 


His explanation made me understand I was in a STEM classroom much like the classes I visit here in the United States. Most of the kids in the class were not aspiring rocket scientists or brain surgeons. Many of them didn’t want to be in high school at all. But they were saying that if they were required to be in school, this was really the only way they would want to do it. For them, there was no other school choice. 

The visit to these ORT Schools helped me see there are some universal truths when it comes to the future of teaching and learning, truths that I see with every school visit or teacher discussion I have here in the states. Teachers want to be empowered. Educators see the enormous value in mastering content as well as being adept at classroom management. That their success is measured by far more than a test score. That they are eager for the instructional opportunities ahead, and charting new ground to meet the needs of tomorrow’s learners. 

And for those learners, personalized instruction is king. Project-based learning inspires. The real-life experiences of their teachers mean something. And what they can do with the content and knowledge obtained is far more important than how it can be measured. 

As a community, we need to do far more to spotlight what is happening in American classrooms today. To capture how PBL is affecting both teacher and student. To demonstrate the impact STEM has on all students, regardless of expected career path. To call out how teacher preparation programs are breaking the old models to meet the demands of the future. To talk about the dreams of today, so we can do tomorrow. 

Of School Vouchers and Civil Rights 

For more than a decade now, we have heard advocates position the fight for education reform as the great civil rights battle of our generation. And there is little question that discussions of equity and equal pathways to college and career success for all students – regardless of their race, family income, or zip code – is a worthy fight.

It is on this fight that so much of the current school choice frame is constructed. The expansion and adequate funding of public charter schools is all about civil rights. And the renewed attention to vouchers is no different. 

As part of his first address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, President Donald Trump again tied school choice to civil rights. But at a time when actual civil rights – from Title IX to LGBT to IDEA – are front and center of current school and education debates, is it fair to position private school vouchers in the same manner?

This is the topic we explore on the latest edition of #TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network.

Interestingly, immediate response to the segment began referencing the United Nations and Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No one should question that access to free, high-quality public education education is indeed a right all around the world should advocate for. And ensuring that parents have a say in the educational path that is best for their children should be rightly included in such discussions. In crafting Article 26, did the UN really intend for such language to be used to provide cover for those choosing not to send their kids to a community public school or a local public charter school, and instead send them to a possibly expensive private school with the financial support of taxpayers? Particularly if those vouchered tax dollars largely exceed what that same family was paying in taxes to support the local schools?

You be the judge. Give the program a listen. I realize Eduflack won’t necessarily make friends with the reform community by posing such questions, but it is an important discussion to have.

 

Reforming Education Reform

Earlier this week, the Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio wrote of “The Left’s drive to push conservatives out of education reform.” As Pondiscio notes:

Like the proverbial frog in a pot, education reformers on the political right find themselves coming to a slow boil in the cauldron of social justice activism. At meetings like New Schools Venture Fund and Pahara (a leadership development program run by the Aspen Institute), conservative reformers report feeling unwelcome, uncomfortable, and cowed into silence. There is an unmistakable and increasingly aggressive orthodoxy in mainstream education reform thought regarding issues of race, class, and gender. And it does not include conservative ideas.

The gauntlet has been thrown down. In response, Justin Cohen and a number of self-described white education reform leaders offered in an open letter:

We must admit the extraordinary flaws and shortsightedness in our own leadership for letting the field become so lopsidedly white through the early 2000s. In under-representing the communities that we hoped to serve, particularly people of color, in the leadership and decision-making processes of reform, we created a movement that lacked the ability to drive durable change.

As a recovering “white education reform leader,” I’ve actually spent a far amount of time thinking about these very issues over the past three or four years. On the specific issue, Pondiscio is correct in one important regard. Education reform is stronger when it has all political views and all ideological perspectives on the team. For every one of the anonymous conservatives he quotes in his piece, there also needs to be reformers coming from the Democrats for Education Reform side and the social justice community.

But the point Cohen makes, and it is a point that was first and strongly stoked by Leading Educators’ Jonas Chartock on his Facebook page soon after the Pondiscio piece was published, is that education reform needs to be about far more than the market-driven solutions Pondiscio writes about. It can’t be about conservatives and the wealthy funders supporting the “cause” feeling uncomfortable. It needs to be about the kids and communities that are yearning for such a solution.

During my reform days, I described this as the hearts versus minds phenomenon. Too many ed reformers are focused on the latter, believing that if one dazzles with facts and figures, and shows strong enough Excel spreadsheets of data to those resisting, that reform will happen. The data-driven, market-focused approach to reform leaves many focused on the operational and systemic sides of school improvement. We argue about school structure, and why a school should be chartered and how it should be stripped of the teachers’ unions. We call for stronger teacher evaluation tied to student test scores. We use the term equity mainly when tied to the concept of school funding, largely when it comes to comparing traditional public schools to charters. We try to position ourselves as the smartest people in the room, believing that if we use enough of that data, even the strongest of opponents will have to come to his or her senses and see our way is the only way.

But school improvement isn’t that simple, and it certainly isn’t that clean. Ultimately, the theory of change is about very real children, families, and communities, and not about columns and rows in a spreadsheet. It’s about taking financial resources from already under-resources public schools to give them to charters who had previously promised to deliver a better education for fewer dollars. It’s about attacking teachers unions, while trying to enlist parents who themselves are in labor unions and trying to convince good teachers to go to the very schools we’ve labeled as failing and hopeless. And its about believing stronger numbers and market-driven solutions can wipe away generations of institutional racism and inequities, even when we may use the term “urban” students because we are uncomfortable talking specifically about Black and brown kids.

In acknowledging their own shortcomings, Cohen et al (and I’d throw Eduflack on that list as well), admit that, as reformers, we have failed the families and communities we have purported to be fighting for. While reform has helped provide safer learning environments for many kids, and has provided greater educational opportunities for those involved, it at best mitigates some of the social obstacles so many face today. To believe that improved school opportunities for some addresses the problems of poverty and racism for far more is a line of thinking that none of us can actual subscribe to.

When I was leading a state-based education reform organization, I worked hard with the leaders of local churches to ensure their voices were heard in the legislative debate. One weekend, on the Saturday before Easter, I was in the basement of a particular church, talking to a group of pastors. As we were talking about next steps, the Bishop present turned to me and said, “You know what your problem is, you’re white.” And he was absolutely correct. No matter all that I knew, no matter how much data I came armed with,  no matter how convincing and eloquent I might be, it was far easier for me to talk it than it was to live it. I would never experience what the parents and kids I was advocating for experience on a daily basis.

After that gathering, the pastors asked what I wanted from them. I went in prepared to tell them I needed their help to advocate for my agenda. But after having spent that morning listening to their concerns, my response was quite different. I told them something like, “It would be presumptuous of me to tell you what is best for your congregants. So I’m not going to do that. I would just ask that you get involved. Have your voices heard. While I’d love for those voices to agree with me, it is far more important that you be a part of this process.”

And they were. In united voice, a voice last heard in the state during the fair housing debates a few decades prior, those pastors and their congregants made clear what was the best path for education in the state. And change happened as a result.

My proudest moment from that time was being witness to those pastors and the leadership they displayed.

Looking back on that time, I wish I had done more to demonstrate the equity and understanding I often preached. I wish I had been stronger, particularly about how we built our movement. I wish I had focused more on the people and the hearts of the community, and less on the data and trying to be the smartest in the room. And I wish I could pretend that racism and poverty were something that could be eliminated by a bill signing or an ad campaign.

Chartock, Cohen, and others have engaged in an important discussion, and one that needs to continue. Until the reform community is clear on WHY it is advocating reform, what it hopes to achieve, and who it serves, we can bring the true change we are seeking. I applaud them for publicly stating what many of us have been telling ourselves for years.

Now what can I do?

In Search of That School Choice Unicorn

As most realize, this week is National School Choice Week. By organizers’ count, there will be more than 16,000 events this week across the country, with more than 230 local or state officials recognizing the event and wearing the trademark yellow scarves all in the name of choice.

Dear ol’ Eduflack was over on KNX 1070 NewsRadio in Los Angeles to discuss what school choice really meant. There, producers wanted to dig a little deeper than the traditional talking points, and try to learn what school choice really means for California families.

Surprisingly, California already seems to be close to an ideal when it comes to choice. Nearly one in four school-aged children is already enjoying school choice, with 9 percent going to private schools, 8 percent attending public charters, 5 percent going to magnets, and almost three percent choosing the homeschool option. It’s a relative cornucopia of K-12 school pathways. It’s a quarter of students (and their families) opting out of the traditional public school pathways and choosing another route seen as best for them and their young learners.

But questions from the show’s hosts demonstrate how school choice has become a quest for that edu-unicorn. That parents are choosing charter schools because it guarantees a better education, a better chance at graduation, and a better chance of getting into a good college. That families are choosing private schools because the teachers are just plain better there. That homeschooling ensures the most successful path of them all.

I’ll admit, charter schools are not at the top of the list of edu-topics Eduflack likes to talk about. In the current rhetorical frame, we forget that charters were originally intended as incubators to help improve the traditional public schools (and thus education for all students, and not just the select number who get into charters). We forget that parents originally chose charters because they were the “safer” option, and keeping kids safe was the top priority. We overlook that for every terrific charter school – like those in Democracy Prep – we also have a number of lousy charters. And we can’t miss that many charters promised to build a better mousetrap under the available frames, only to come back and tell voters that the only way they get those results is through a major influx of new tax dollars (despite never saying they needed to match traditional publics dollar for dollar to deliver the promised results).

So I took my time on KNX to correct a few things:

  • The research is mixed on the academic differences between charter schools and traditional publics. There are some studies that show a real difference, some that don’t. The ultimate answer lies in the specific charter school and its specific successes, not in it simply being a charter school.
  • Yes, charters do a good job graduating kids and moving them on to college. This is particularly true when one compares inner-city charters with the public high schools we used to call “drop-out factories.”
  • Private schools are indeed an option. But few families can afford to send their kids to the top private schools, even when vouchers were in place (and they never were in Cali). Even with vouchers, choice usually resulted in attendance at Catholic schools, not the top-tier privates attended by the children of presidents, governors, and senators. And those Catholic schools can also be hit or miss.
  • Before choosing a private school, parents need to realize that they are already paying for the traditional public schools and the charter schools already in their communities. Without vouchers, they get none of those tax dollars back, and then have to pay for private schools out of pocket, meaning they are paying twice for the same K-12 education.
  • Homeschooling is indeed a viable choice, but families must be realistic about what it entails. Homeschoolers will still be competing with other students when it comes to college admission. They largely still have to take the same standardized tests to get there. So it falls to parents to both develop and administer a high-quality instructional program that moves students successfully down those paths.

I don’t offer these points to discourage anyone. Eduflack did so to make sure that we see the whole picture when discussing our kids’ education and the options available to them. A great education can be had from even the most struggling of traditional public schools. A great charter school doesn’t necessarily work for every child. And writing a check to a private school doesn’t guarantee a good education at all.

Parents need to be educated consumers when it comes to their children’s education. They need to understand data about enrollment and student retention and student performance. They need to understand what is expected from educators in the school and how they are supported. They need to know what tests are taken AND how assessment data is used as part of the teaching process. And they need to determine what is most important to them – the general safety of their child, increased odds of getting into college, a diverse curriculum filled with art and non-core subjects, a disciplinarian approach that emphasizes respect, or something completely different.

We can’t find all of these items in one school. As parents, all we can do is search for the best learning options for our own kids. And we must recognize that the edu-unicorn — that one school that offers everything we every dreamed of and more — likely isn’t out there. School choice is about prioritization. Of all the factors, which is most important to the family? If we can’t have everything, what is the non-negotiable?

School Choice Week is ultimately about learning. It is about understanding the options and really knowing what each of those options mean when it comes to our kids and to our families. It doesn’t mean we need to make a new choice or choose a new path. It means we need to be vigilant about knowing what is available to our kids and what is best for their behaviors, learning styles, and long-term goals.

 

 

Moldy Classrooms and Charter Hatred

Today, Eduflack is going back to the very roots of this blog, when we first wrote on the intersection of education and communications. Where we looked at how effective (or ineffective) we were in talking about and advocating for real school improvement.

In recent weeks, Eduflack has been absolutely sickened to see the articles about the facilities atrocities at the Detroit Public Schools. One can see a Detroit educator offer a guided tour of the problems here.  One can read more about it here in a great Medium piece.

No educator should have to teach in conditions like this. No students can be expected to learn in conditions like this. And in a city that has some of the highest per-pupil expenditures in the nation, it is just unconscionable that this is considered by some as an acceptable 21st century teaching and learning environment.

So it is understandable when we hear of massive teacher “sick outs” in Detroit, where schools are forced to close because not enough teachers come in and subs either can’t be found or can’t be paid. It is even more understandable when one learns that teaching in modern-day Detroit can mean missed paychecks and no job security (despite a collectively bargained contract). The only way many educators can ensure their voices are heard with regard to teaching conditions is by exercising their First Amendment rights – speaking out and then assembling anywhere but their place of employment.

But those well-meaning educators and the demands to fix some deplorable learning conditions are done a grave disservice when the protests are lumped into the white noise of the current education debates.

Yesterday, as 85 Detroit schools were closed by sick-out at a time when President Barack Obama was visiting the Motor City, a teacher and teacher activist was asked about the educator protests. Instead of talking about crumbling buildings or overstaffed classrooms, issues that any parent would immediately embrace, he had to make it political. Instead, of facilities, this was about taking on the Governor and trying to block charter schools.

Or more specifically, ““We have got to stop this whole business by [Governor] Snyder, which is an attempt just further the charters and further, really, the destruction of education in the city.”

And with that, it becomes just another day in edu-politics. Instead of maintaining the moral high ground, of protesting moldy classrooms, unsafe buildings, and killer drinking water, this becomes just another attempt to stick a thumb in the eye of charter schools and those families that have found a better path through school choice.

That’s a cryin’ shame. In 2012, we saw the Chicago public stand with Chicago teachers in what was an ugly city-wide strike. There, the teachers held the high ground and had public sympathy with them. And they received many of the concessions they were looking for.

For a moment, Detroit was on a similar path. What parent wants to send a child to a school where you can see more mold than drywall? Who wants their kids learning in a building where vermin race through the halls? Even parents frustrated with schools being closed at a late date and having to scramble for childcare could sympathize with those teachers because of those conditions.

Then some activist teachers had to get greedy. They had to play the charter schools card. And it a city where public school enrollment had dramatically shrunk over the past decade, and where charter enrollments have increased, that was the wrong card to play. As empathetic parents were horrified by school conditions, those same parents were then again told they were wrong for seeking a better path for their kids and hoping they get of the charter wait lists.

Another example of losing the rhetorical high ground in an attempt to score a cheap political hit that only muddied the debate you were already winning.

 

 

Following the CT Charter Money

Up in Connecticut, they are slogging it out over the future of charter schools. As part of education reforms signed into law in 2012, the most significant school reforms legislated in the state’s history, lawmakers pledged to both increase the number of charter schools and available charter seats. At the same time, they put in place a plan to increase the per-pupil payment to said charter schools, bringing financial commitments closer to the per-pupil costs of the traditional public schools in those cities.

The financial realities set in. In 2014 and again this year, Connecticut has experienced lighter state coffers than anticipated. Reductions in revenue have meant cuts to budgets. And charter schools have been on the block for such cuts.

It is important to note, though, that when the ed reform law was originally passed, there were only 17 charter schools in 10 cities across the state. Those schools educated less than 2 percent of the total K-12 public school population.

Anyone who has followed the education reform battles knows that charter school advocates do not go quietly when their programs are slated for cuts or even freezes. And Connecticut is no different. In today’s Hartford Courant, ed reporter extraordinaire Kathleen Megan, along with Matthew Kauffman, has a great piece that looks at where the charter school funding comes from. In a small state like Connecticut, when millions of dollars is spent to advocate for less than 2 percent of the public school population, following the dollars becomes an important and necessary exercise.

Full disclosure, Eduflack served as CEO of one of the groups that Megan and the Courant write about. In fact, I led the ed reform org when we helped pass those major gains for reforms and overall school improvement. And I led both a 501c3 and a 501c4 in the process.

Those who know Eduflack know I’m never one to shy away from a question. So while it seems the CT ed reform community doesn’t want to talk about the “follow the money” storyline, I was happy to oblige.

Patrick Riccards, a former chief executive officer for ConnCAN, said that when he was there — from 2011 through 2012 — most of the funding came in equal parts from board members, the hedge fund community, and local foundations.

He said that in general many of the same names turn up as contributors to several education reform groups.

For many of those givers with an entrepreneurial leaning, Riccards said, it is far more appealing to fund new schools — charters — than to try to fix failing schools when there is so little agreement about how best to do that.

Riccards, who is now chief communications and strategy officer for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, said he is convinced that ConnCAN’s donors were “true believers” who were donating funds because they believed they were improving education for children. “They don’t make any money off the schools,” Riccards said. “It’s one of those great urban legends. There’s no grand conspiracy.”

A fair assessment? Read the piece. Check it out. Let me know.
UPDATE: For more on the topic, also check out this piece from the Connecticut Mirror.