Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child


Blog Entries

Recent debates about charter schools are shedding more heat than light. There's enough evidence out there now to keep both the critics and the boosters busy. But as most people know by now, arguments over whether charters are "good" or "bad" are a waste of time. The real question is whether we can create enough of the good ones to make a real dent in student achievement. And that's not at all clear.

Charter boosters got some more wind in their sails after Stanford's CREDO released a study of New York City charters. Their findings: students at charter schools make more academic progress than students at traditional public schools do. This study echoed earlier findings by another Stanford researcher, Carolyn Hoxby. The United Federation of Teachers countered that charters enroll fewer special education students and English language learners. (The City Education Department's data seem to bear this out.) Charter supporters responded in ...

Yesterday, we shared our interview with David Cicarella, the union president who helped broker an historic agreement between teachers and the New Haven, Connecticut school distict.

Today, we'll hear from two district officials who were instrumental in the deal. Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries and Chief Operating Officer William Clark describe the groundbreaking collaboration that made the agreement possible.

Public School Insights: There has been a lot of attention given to the new contract in New Haven—a lot of it praise. What you think are some of the most groundbreaking provisions of that agreement?

Clark: I think the first big groundbreaking piece was how we approached it. Historically, due to Connecticut’s Teacher Negotiations Act, you are really forced into a very tight timeline of negotiations that is specifically identified by statute. Certain pieces have to be done by certain dates; otherwise you hurtle towards arbitration. So with the leadership of [Superintendent] Dr. Mayo, [New Haven] Mayor DeStefano and Dave Cicarella from the [New Haven] teachers union, what we really did was try to chart a different way and a different approach.

What we set up was essentially parallel tracks. On one track you had reform discussions and on the other track you had the classic negotiations. The reform discussions were specifically separate so as to not fall prey to the trappings of negotiations. We began by sitting around the table with the best intentions in mind: What could we do—what are the possibilities that could exist—if we look at this as a collaborative approach? That really opened a lot of doors.

We started, under Garth’s leadership within that committee, by coming up with a belief statement that both parties signed on to. So then even when we had some fits and starts and ...

Teachers in New Haven, Connecticut recently ratified a contract that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised as an “important progressive labor agreement” for its provisions on teacher evaluation and school reform. David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, recently told us about the agreement.

(Stay tuned tomorrow for an interview with New Haven district officials Garth Harries and Will Clark.)

Public School Insights: There has been a lot of praise given to the new contract in New Haven. What do you think are the most groundbreaking provisions of this agreement?

Cicarella: There are three components that get the most attention. One, our willingness to discuss tenure. Two, our willingness to talk about including test scores as a part of teacher evaluation. And three, the contract’s provisions for the closing and chartering of schools.

Public School Insights: Let’s start with tenure. What do you think the big accomplishment has been on that part of the agreement?

Cicarella: Historically, unions have been completely unwilling to discuss tenure, because it’s the only protection that teachers have against unfair dismissal.

But we’ve got to tighten up the dismissal process. We can’t have folks—and this is a complaint that the public makes and is legitimate—going through two, three, four years of improvement plan after improvement plan, when everyone knows that ...

Dr. Jerry Weast has presided over a decade of strong and steady gains in Montgomery County, Maryland. How did his district do it? Not by using any of the cure-all strategies that have captivated the national media.

Weast recently told us the story of his school district's success. Several big themes stand out:

  • Stop the blame game and start collaborating. Big fights between administrators and teachers are catnip to reporters, but they don't do much for children.
  • Set common goals and figure out how to reach them. In Montgomery County, everyone could agree that students should leave high school ready for college.
  • Create a system that helps everyone be successful. It's not enough to let 1000 flowers bloom.
  • There's more to equity than equality. Weast describes a "red zone" where most of the county's low-income children live. It's not enough to treat those children and their wealthier "green zone" peers equally. The children in the "red zone" need much more systemic support.

There's much more to Dr. Weast's vision than I can sum up here. Here's the story as he told it to us in a phone conversation last week:

There are some structural issues in the way that we are thinking about American education. You see little Kindergartners come to school, and they believe that they can learn anything. Their parents do too. And so does everybody else who meets them. But a few years later, because of the sorting process and the type of structure that they are in, a lot of that belief is taken away and there are huge achievement gaps.

Then you see beginning teachers. They come in and they feel like they can take on the world and do anything. But within five years about half of them have left the profession.

There is something structurally wrong with a system where about a third of the children in America ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

The Baltimore Sun compares Baltimore's and Washington DC's school reforms, and it finds DC's wanting.

To be more precise: The Sun finds DC's Chancellor Rhee to be wanting. The paper sees little difference between the two districts' reform plans:

there's little doubt the personal leadership styles of the two CEOs have largely determined how reform efforts have been received. In public, at least, Mr. Alonso eschews drama. Ms. Rhee, by contrast, once appeared on the cover of a national news magazine wielding a broom to symbolize her intention of cleaning house.

Which city has a better shot at success down the road? The Sun votes for Baltimore:

We're betting on Baltimore getting there first, if for no other reason than that Mr. Alonso's style seems to mesh better with the players in a city that also seems to have fewer structural obstacles in the way of reform than comparable urban school systems. It's freer from ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Welcome to Our World

"Welcome to my world," said the traditional public school to the charter.

Reformers who get mugged by reality can sound an awful lot like the dreaded "establishment." Take, for example, the story of the Opportunity Charter School in Harlem. Started by ardent reformers, the school now faces closure if it can't raise students' scores by next year. The reformers are crying foul.

Their arguments sound familiar and reasonable. The school takes the city's lowest achievers, half of them with learning disabilities, so it has a tougher road to travel. The state's tests can't measure the kinds of progress the school has made with those students. And the one-year deadline is unreasonable.

The reformers are on shakier ground when they seek to distance themselves from traditional public schools. The charter's assistant principal claims that the state can't "expect the school to be accountable for a system that has failed ...

School reformers take heed: We ignore communities at our own risk.

This warning came through loud and clear in a Chicago Tribune story about the gang brawl that ended the life of Darrion Albert, a 16-year-old bystander. One passage jumped out at me:

The conflict escalated between the two neighborhoods after Chicago Public Schools (CPS) transformed Carver High School, located in the Altgeld community, into a military academy. That put many Altgeld kids at Fenger [High School] behind enemy lines, traversing unfamiliar streets in unfriendly territory.

This reads almost like the history of a small country roiled by ethnic strife years after colonial powers redraw its national boundaries.

No, CPS is not like a colonial power. And claims that school reformers somehow caused Albert's death by reconstituting Fenger High School are way over the top. Fenger was troubled by violence long before the district tried to turn it around.

But the Fenger story reminds us of how important it is to understand the social and political context of communities whose schools we want to transform. Even with the best of intentions, we can do harm.

The vicious circle of violence and reprisals that traps some of Chicago's poorest teens has a logic all its own. It's the stuff of Sophocles, a tragic cycle that ...

Syndicate content