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The Public School Insights Blog

Charter school opponents often forget that charter schools are in fact public schools. Charters cannot charge tuition or create selective admissions policies. Ironically, we might have charter boosters to blame for the belief that charters aren't public.

The critics aren't the only ones who have odd notions about charter schools. Though Americans tend to like charter schools, most think they are private schools that charge tuition and admit students on the basis of ability. Why the confusion? For one, charters are being sold as the "anti-public school."

This isn't my idea. I got it from Nancy Flanagan, who recently wrote about a charter school meeting she attended in Michigan. She describes one of her main reactions to the meeting:

I think that positioning charter schools as the opposite of public schools, rather than a necessary supplement to public education, has poisoned the discourse. And—it goes both ways. It’s not just public schools and public school teachers being skeptical (or downright nasty) in their remarks about charter schools. Public school academies—charters—seem to be bent on repeating the worst ...

Yesterday I spent the morning at Viers Mill Elementary School In Maryland. You might know the school. President Obama paid it an unexpected visit a couple of weeks ago. If ever you want to renew your spirits in these dismal days, visit a school like Viers Mill. Those teachers and kids knocked my socks off.

We've published a lot of public school success stories on this website. But it's another thing altogether to see one of these schools in action. The school is certainly impressive on paper. Almost half the students are still learning English. Most are from low-income families. And almost all students score proficient or better on Maryland state assessments.

But come to Viers Mill, and you'll see enthusiastic children, a passionate staff, gleaming hallways festooned with student work. You'll see teachers collaborating with each other--and other school staff--to meet individual students' needs. You'll see a school that has made itself a national exemplar without firing its staff or ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Tables Turned

Consider, for a moment, the following three quotations, which I drew from various media sources:

  • "The candidate said he will build more public schools if the charter schools do not step up to the plate and improve."
  • "Traditional public schools can be a mixed bag, but the best of them are achieving results most charter schools can only dream of."
  • "The media likes to fixate on the few bad apples among public schools, giving the impression that all public schools are mediocre at best and fraudulent at worst. But there are many shining examples of public school excellence nationwide."

The first two quotations seem apocryphal. What political candidate these days would utter the first? And who these days would portray traditional public schools as models to which charter schools should aspire? The third quotation will likely prompt some eye-rolling. Why would anyone seek to minimize the very pressing need to improve our public schools?

In fact, all three quotations are apocryphal, or at least semi-apocryphal. I basically made the words "charter schools" trade places with the words "public schools." Why? Because I wanted to highlight the asymmetry of the current education debate. Almost no one writes about the best traditional public schools.

In their original form, all three quotations would hardly have raised eyebrows. It is becoming an article of faith in national newspapers that charter schools are the only bright spots in a generally dismal public education landscape. But the original versions of those quotations are no better than the doctored versions.

There are wonderful charter schools that can teach us important lessons about school reform. How do we bring them to scale? But there are also wonderful traditional public schools that are succeeding in the face of big challenges, but ...

Nurture Shock author Ashley Merryman came out in defense of public schools this morning. Her main argument: "US School Kids Are Doing Better Than Ever – But You Never Hear It!"

She takes the doomsayers to task:

Last week, I was at a conference, participating in a discussion on education reform. One of the panelists – the creator of several highly acclaimed [charter] schools – essentially argued that schools are such a mess that we need to throw out the American education system and start ...

A while back, I suggested that we pay pundits for their performance. Now is as good a time as any to start. First up for evaluation: Jonathan Alter.

He should brace himself for a pay cut.

Let's review his most recent performance in this week's Newsweek magazine. He relishes the tough choice facing states that want Race to the Top money:

[L]ift your caps on the number of innovative charter schools allowed and your prohibitions on holding teachers accountable for whether kids learn—or lose a chance for some of Obama's $5 billion "Race to the Top" money.

A pretty weak showing so far. For one, states have to lift caps on all charter schools, not just the "innovative" ones. Given that charter schools have had rather mixed results, can we blame states for worrying about the charter school land rush that might ensue? Here's what researcher Tom Toch writes in the most recent edition of Education Week: "Even with an infusion of federal funding, it would be difficult for C[harter] M[anagement] O[rganizations] to expand much more rapidly without compromising the quality of their schools."

Let's see if things get any better in Alter's next paragraph:

This issue cleaves the Democratic Party. On one side are Obama and the reformers, who point out that we now have a good idea of what works: KIPP and other "no excuses" charter models boast 80 percent graduation rates in America's roughest neighborhoods, nearly twice ...

Jack Grayson has been many things in his 86 years. A farmer, FBI agent, journalist, importer/exporter, professor, business school dean, and member of three presidential commissions. But he has made a lasting name for himself as one of the nation’s most outspoken champions of productivity and quality.

Grayson rose to national fame almost forty years ago as Chairman of the U.S. Price Commission, which helped avert hyperinflation in the early 1970s. His brush with economic turmoil convinced him that productivity was key to the nation’s well-being, so he founded The American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC), a non-profit that helps organizations boost performance by improving their processes. As APQC chairman, he is devoting all of his time to the organization’s work in education.

These days, many school reformers are fond of reciting lessons they have learned from business. Be innovative. Focus on outcomes. Get the incentives right. The rest, the theory goes, will follow.

But Grayson says such reformers are missing the biggest lesson of all: Focus on process! He admits that talk of process can be dry as dust, especially when all of DC is abuzz with talk of innovation. But it is process improvements that brought the best American businesses out of the industrial age, he insists.

Yes, innovation and outcomes are critical. But if reformers ignore the hard work of building schools’ capacity to produce the best outcomes, even the most innovative school systems may well go the way of GM.

Listen to Grayson's interview on the Public School Insights podcast (~23:15).

You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialise correctly.

A quick warning about our recording: It has a lot of background noise. If the side conversations and occasional pop music become too distracting, read the edited transcript below.

Public School Insights: A lot of people are talking about the promise of innovation in improving education. Do you think innovation itself holds the key to solving our problems in public education?

Grayson: No. Innovation will certainly help, and innovation in any area is the leader. It’s the new idea. But you do not want to leave the old idea behind because ...

Just when you thought New York City charter schools were the Best Things Ever, a new report calls their quality into question.

According to the city's education department, students in charters made less academic progress than students in traditional public schools did. What's more, the city's charters enroll fewer special education students and students who are not proficient in English. Just over four percent of charter school students aren't proficient in English. Compare that to almost 15 percent for the district as a whole.

This report doesn't come from some hothouse for anti-charter research. It comes from the city's own education department, which has been nothing if not supportive of charters. Charter schools are falling behind according to the city's own measures.

What does this mean just a short month after Carolyn Hoxby's study praising the city's charter schools? For one, it should prompt a review of Hoxby's findings. Did Hoxby forever silence arguments that charters cream the best students, as the ...

Russ Whitehurst:

[T]he creation of common standards will have little impact on our future in and of itself. Common core standards may be a precondition for other reforms. At the very least, we need a plan for next steps at the state and national level once the NGA/CCSSO Common Core State Standards Initiative is completed, and a theory of action by which those steps together will be sufficient to improve instruction and learning. Faith is not enough.

In this era of faith-based school reform, these are words for the ages. Don't ever pin your reformy hopes on any single strategy. You'd think that would go without saying, but....

Here at the Learning First Alliance, we strongly support the Common Core State Standards Initiative. But we know that there is much more to standards-based reform than standards:

To be successful, the initiative also needs to be supported by aligned curriculum and aligned assessments.... Educators will need the time ...

The received wisdom these days is that the United States will sink into permanent economic ruin because its youth are just awful, awful at STEM. (To the uninitiated: that's Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.) Yet new research punches some holes in that assumption. It even suggests that, golly, factors outside of schools will have an impact on our economic fate.

Who is responsible for this heresy? A couple of professors at Georgetown and Rutgers who had a look at the "STEM pipeline." They found that the supply of STEM students has held steady over the past four decades. Their more alarming finding was that the highest performers "have been dropping out of the STEM pipeline at a substantial rate." Yikes. So perhaps schools aren't the only leaky spots in the pipeline:

[T]his analysis does strongly suggest that students are not leaving STEM pathways because of lack of preparation or ability. Instead, it does suggest that we turn our attention to factors other than ...

Emily and Bryan Hassel have an idea: Don't get too hung up on plans to make teachers better. Instead, figure out how to help the best teachers reach far more students. After all, they argue, the top 20 percent of teachers are three times as effective as the bottom 20 percent.

Try as they might, though, they cannot escape the need to support teachers through good old fashioned staff development, curriculum and assessment. It's time the education economists paid much closer attention to these critical areas, which are just so déclassé these days.

Of course, the Hassels' argument raises all sorts of questions. How do you identify the top 20 percent of teachers? Do we trust test scores? Will teachers stay in the top 20 percent from year to year? Are the "top" teachers good in every kind of school? Are they effective with every kind of student?

But the Hassels face an even bigger challenge. Their plan will require nothing short of a massive investment in all those things their fellow educonomists find oh-so tedious: Teacher training. New curricula. Much, much better tests. If we pursue the Hassels' brave new reforms the way we pursue most reforms--on the cheap--then we're going to be in a whole heap of trouble.

The Hassels, like so many of their ideological brethren, seem to believe that great teachers are born, not made. Hence their relatively dim view of staff development. (I've always found it curious that so many reformers who insist that every child ...

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