Stop These Schools!

In human terms, here’s why, courtesy of Bob Herbert, you should support charter schools and more dynamism more generally in the public education sector.  What’s happening today simply isn’t working, so why is the political bar so high for those who want to change it?  A.O. Hirschman points out that reactionaries resisting change always point to perverse consequences as a reason to oppose various reforms.  True.  But, in this context, and even accounting for the deeply conservative nature of public education, at what point do today’s outcomes become so manifestly perverse as to make that argument — at least politically — silly on its face?

6 Replies to “Stop These Schools!”

  1. We treat schools and students like factories and widgets. We treat the NAEP tests like our quality control reports, and yet we don’t even know if we are measuring anything truly meaningful. It’s like grading meat by visual inspection. Sure, there is some correlation between good tasting meat and that which is well-marbled, but there is no 1-1 correspondence. I could go on with the analogy, but you get the point.

    PLEASE allow LOTS of experimentation. People want to impose standards because they are trying to legislate away the most egregious cases of neglect or don’t know what else to do. Society has to want interested and interesting people who are creative, thoughtful and can communicate in order to get them.

    Instead, our standards and schools seem to say that we want people who know how many congressmen we have, how many degrees are in a set of supplementary angles, and can define “polemic.” People don’t need schooling for that — just have them carry around laptops connected to the Internet. Oh, I guess they already do that.

  2. I’ll happily jump on the charter school bandwagon as soon as some evidence emerges that they increase the capacity of our school system to offer the following:

    1. Better working conditions for teachers.
    2. Better instructional techniques.
    3. Better administrators.
    4. Better curriculum.
    5. Better models (other than standardized tests) of assessing student achievement.

    After all, these are things we’re wanting non-charter schools to do. And with all the freedom charters have, it should be a lot easier for them to achieve it. But, with the exception of KIPP, they have not. And for every KIPP school, I’m sure there’s an equivalently successful public school that doesn’t run on 10-hour days and an extended school year.

    The question I ask myself about charters is a simple one: Have charters made our nation’s education system better? And I don’t see a big YES in any of the research. My own personal experience with charters tells me that the vast majority are poorly conceived and poorly executed – just like the vast majority of their non-charter counterparts. So, in my mind, charter schools aren’t special schools, they’re just regular schools that live outside the system in some ways.

    What no one on the charter side has projected is a vision of charter success. For example, should all schools be charters? If not, then what percentage makes sense? If charters don’t perform any better than non-chartered schools, should we continue to expand their growth? What would a great charter school look like? Who should be allowed to run charter schools? Do we want to federalize charter school law or leave it up to the states as it is now?

    One thing no one talks about here is decentralization. If charters grew dramatically, we’d have a dramatically decentralized education system. Wouldn’t that make it harder to change things on a grand scale through policy and legislation?

    What I’d like to see are well-researched charter school models. That’s where the innovation should be, right? If I could see five good models of really successful charter schools, I’d be sold in an instant. So far, I’ve only seen one (KIPP) and I don’t think it’s highly replicable because of the strain it puts on people’s time.

    I know that if I were starting a charter school, I would have my models all set up and ready to go. I’d use the Integrated Literacy model my company has created for reading and writing. I’d probably base math on the work of Stanislas Dehaene and that fellow from Harvard who did the Math Circle stuff (and a little Marilyn Burns, too). And I’d try to reinvent science and social studies along real world models of experiential learning. Instead of learning the sciences, kids would be doing the sciences.

    And before I opened my school, I’d get a principal and some teachers who understood this stuff and were behind it all the way. And if I couldn’t put this team together, I wouldn’t open the school because what be the point of being just another average school with average teachers, average curriculum, and an average principal?

    Finally, I think all the noise about charter schools keeps us for hearing the real needs in ed reform: better teaching, better administrative leadership, better working conditions for teachers (i.e. the stuff teachers need to actually teach).

    The key to better learning is now, has always been, and will always be, better teaching. Charters have not given us better teachers or better teaching. Choice is only valuable if one has meaningful choices to make. Do charter schools represent a meaningful choice when we look at the quality of teaching they offer? The quality of administrative leadership they bring? The new models of teaching and learning they show us? Or the quality of student achievement they attain?

    Until those questions are answered in the affirmative, it will be hard to make the case for unbridled charter expansion. And well it should be, too.

  3. The thing that interests me most in ed reform is the intersection of policy and practice. How does policy shape what actually goes in schools and classrooms of all kinds around the country? In my travels over the last 15 years, I’ve run into schools of all kinds in settings of all kinds. Hardly any have been what I would call “well conceived and well run”.

    I have worked in many public schools, of course, elementary, middle, and high school. But I have also had the opportunity to work in private schools, religious schools, and charter schools as well. Urban, suburban, and rural schools have discernable patterns to them as well.

    What I haven’t had the pleasure of doing is working in many good schools.

    Whenever the debate about ed reform focuses on policies – like charter school legislation, or standards, or vouchers, or testing, etc. – I feel like we’re missing the point. Rather than trying to legislate “structures” that might make schools change how they do things, wouldn’t it make more sense to tackle the problem more directly?

    For example, it’s not hard to define what a great principal looks like; nor is it hard to define what great teaching is. We have many great schools in our country, why not take a shot at defining what that looks like, too?

    And then, if we still want to legislate, why not legislate about these things? Good teachers, good administrators, good schools. That’s what everyone wants, isn’t it?

    Instead, we have all this “indirect” legislation. For example, testing is supposed to make schools change the way they do things so they become better over time. But we know that mostly what happens is that teachers teach to the test and states change their scoring criteria to make it look like scores are going up when they’re not.

    Charter schools have a similar fate. As policy, they seem like they make a lot of sense. But in practice, when we’re actually in a charter school teaching kids, the idea doesn’t seem quite as savvy. Many mediocre schools are created. Many schools simply cease to exist when their founders get tired of the hard work involved.

    What we never seem to want to do with policy or politics is promote a result; instead we promote conditions that we hope will lead to a result. Charter school legislation doesn’t say anything about charter school quality. Legislation about testing doesn’t say anything about the type of tests or the individual degree of rigor a state must enforce. I’m sure that in George Bush’s mind (and Ted Kennedy’s, too), better testing equaled better schools. But that thesis was itself never tested. Same goes for standards. Everyone seems to love standards. But standards were not thoroughly tested prior to their implementation either.

    So what we’ve been up to for the last 20 years or so is just experimentation. No single policy or group of polices has yet emerged as being conclusively good for American education. So why do we continue to hash over the same things? Testing, standards, charters, vouchers. These four things dominate the dialog. I suppose merit pay will sneak in their soon, too. But, again, this will be just another indirectly-legislated ill-fated experiment.

    The research on teaching and learning is unequivocal about two things: teacher quality and administrator quality. This is the foundation of good schooling. So why don’t we have policy discussions about those two things? Why is the country captivated by policies and legislation that really haven’t worked out so well?

    Some might say, “Well, this is the best we can do politically.” But I don’t believe that. And if it’s true, we might as well give up right now. Then I suppose, some people will say we can’t change things because of unions. But this is just another sorry excuse. Unions have less and less power every year and have no effect whatsoever on the training of pre-service teachers.

    There’s an extraordinary amount of interest in education policy these days. And I suspect education will be policy-driven for a long time to come. What I hope is that some day the dialog shifts away from easy-to-legislate experiments and on to the things that we already know really make a difference in the quality of our schools.

  4. Steve,

    I think that what you suggest is that we haven’t found way to systematize good schools. You believe that taken as a whole, charters aren’t an improvement over the traditional public school system. Until we DO find things that we know work (as best as we can define that), I hope that we allow people to try different things. I worry that we often “try to change things on a grand scale” without really knowing what we hope for in terms of outcome or whether the changes will have the desired impact.

    Until we know what we want and know how to get there, the only way to proceed is to try things in hopes that we do find something that works for our community. It’s not about charter schools, its about providing flexibility, which pretty-much demands decentralization.

    Anyway, who is to say what “we” want in terms of education. Barack Obama? Arne Duncan? You? Me? Where I live, the most important things seem to be: sports, facilities, other extracurricular activities, the budget, NAEP scores and ACT scores, pretty-much in that order. I personally don’t like the priorities, but our school district does a pretty good job of addressing them, in that order. If the community really believes in the priorities that YOU have for student education, they make them happen one way or another.

    For example, if excellent teaching is priority number one, then teacher applicants won’t be given preference because they want to coach, or if they graduated from the district in question, or if they have family in town. Instead, the administration will look high and low for teachers who are smart, knowledgeable, motivating, hard-working and have high learning expectations for students. They’ll sacrifice new buildings or summer sports to provide enough money to attract these people. They will provide support for their teachers in terms of ongoing and personalized development and feedback. They’ll make sure that teachers aren’t isolated in a room with 25 or 30 students all day.

    This just isn’t happening where I live, but it can happen. There are schools that are a lot closer to what you and I would like to see. I bet that at these schools you find communities that want excellent teaching and that administrative/board priorities are in place to help make that happen.

    I think we need to talk to our communities about what we think is important in our schools and why, but that’s a lot harder than having the powers that be dictate some system and telling people “this is good for you.”

    Except in rare circumstances, schools aren’t community leaders, they are followers. If we have a society that values real learning, we have learning (and teaching to boot).

  5. I question the title of the blog post. It was a celebration. It was not an attack.

    I skimmed the 187 comments of Herbert’s story and it looked like five were anti-union, about five were anti-KIPP, an equal number were anti-Herbert or anti-anything and everything, including one who warned the graduates that they would be entering Jim Crow America and recited the words of Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” [there was also a cryptic comment from my state that “I don’t want MY kids dragged down by YOUR (violent/drug-addicted/promiscuous/insert whatever) kids”.]

    Nearly 90%, however, responded the way that I think is appropriate. They congratulated the students and enjoyed their success.

    I can’t see how KIPP or TFA can become much more than a niche, but I hope they become a big niche.

    Let’s dial down the negative spin.

  6. Andrew,

    You make some good points. But I think we do know what good schools are, what good teaching is, and what good principals do. In fact, there’s a pretty large base of professional literature on each of these topics. The problem, then, isn’t figure out what we need, it’s deciding to do it. And things like charters don’t help. They take our eye off the ball. They make running schools look it SHOULD be an experiment when in fact it is not. The same can be said of testing, standards, vouchers, merit pay, and just about any other so-called “reform” effort. But these are all red herrings in my experience. They just don’t get the job done — and they make us waste time, money, and energy that we don’t have.

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